Must See Ancient Ruins in Greece
January 20, 2019
by Marissa Sarver
Ancient historical sites are scattered all throughout Greece from the mainland to its many islands. Monumental temples, ancient athletic stadiums, impressive theaters, ancient seaside towns—every traveler and history lover should experience these amazing sites built by the ancient Greeks! As a Classicist I am excited to share a few of my favorite ancient ruins all around Greece, from the well-known Acropolis to the lesser known preserved city of Rhamnous.
Thousands of people each year travel to Athens and make the steep climb up the Acropolis. But what is the Acropolis exactly? For modern visitors this site is a hilltop of magnificent monuments. For the ancients this was the center of Greek religion. The Acropolis, which translates from Ancient Greek to mean “highest point of the city,” at one time housed dozens of small and large temples/shrines. The remaining temples were built in the mid-5th century B.C.E by a man named Pericles. After the devastation of the Persian Wars the Athenians wanted to show their perseverance through a massive building program.
This is a stunning temple due to the Caryatids, the larger than life sculpted females whose own heads support the roof above them. This temple marks the sacred place where according to mythology Athena and Poseidon fought for the right to be patron of the city. Poseidon threw down his trident and in the spot where it landed he left a salt water well, offering a spring to the Athenians. Athena on the other hand offered them the olive tree, which was much more useful. A hole was left in one of the porches of this temple, which represents the place where Poseidon’s trident fell. An olive tree also stands beside the temple—even though it is a modern tree I like to think it was the one left by Athena!
Pictures simply don’t do this monument justice. It’s huge! One of the reasons why the ancient Greeks revered this temple was because of the unique size—temples were not normally built to be that large and it is amazing that it still stands for us to awe at today. The Parthenon was also famous for the statue dedicated to Athena Parthenos, “Athena the Virgin.” This statue stood at 37 ft 9 in on a pedestal 4 by 8 meters and was made of gold and ivory. Unfortunately, the statue no longer survives—but you are in luck (if you can make it to Nashville, TN)! Nashville was once the grounds for the World’s Fair and built a replica of the Parthenon with the statue inside. We have descriptions of the statue which allows us to believe this replica is accurate and to stare in disbelief as the ancients once did. You should also take time to visit the Acropolis museum right beside the Acropolis, which houses various statues and the artistic friezes which once decorated the Parthenon.
Temple of Poseidon at Sounion
Let’s step away from the hustle and bustle of Athens for a moment. This next site is one of my personal favorites because of the temple’s position overlooking the sea. Just like the Parthenon the Temple of Poseidon was constructed during the mid-5th c. B.C.E. In mythology this was one of the sites where Menelaus, the husband of Helen of Troy (or Sparta depending on whose side you’re on I suppose), visited after the Trojan War had ended. Another interesting thing about this temple are the inscriptions—and I don’t mean ancient ones! Before it was typical to rope off ancient ruins tourists could walk willy-nilly in and around temples such as this one. The columns of this particular temple are covered with inscriptions left by its visitors. If you are able to get close enough you can even find the signature of the famous Lord Byron, who first visited Greece in 1810.
Two words—Greek Pompeii! Although this is a much smaller scale than Pompeii and was not preserved by the ash of a volcano, this site is so well preserved that it reminds me of walking through the ancient city in Italy. Sometimes it’s jarring to see monumental ruins surrounded by their modern cities and overtaken by crowds of people. My favorite thing as a Classicist is the feeling of stepping back in time. Rhamnous is a small seaside town far away from modern cities. You can walk down the streets, see the outlined walls of houses, and even see objects still in situ like a board game and a herm (a tall/narrow statue base with the head of Hermes). This place was also home to the Sanctuary of Nemesis, which sit on top of the hill before you descend upon the town. From the temple it is a bit of an uneven hike down to the town so be warned—wear sturdy shoes! I promise you the view is worth the climb.
Temple of Aphaia, Aegina
If you are looking for a stunning representation of well-preserved temples you HAVE to come here. You’ll first have to ferry over to the beautiful island of Aegina to see this temple (what a shame, right?). This temple was built in 500 B.C.E and dedicated to the goddess Aphaia. As a Classics major I had never heard of this site until I studied in Greece. And let me tell you—this site is extremely underrated. With its double columns and view from a hilltop, this temple easily stands out as one my favorites in Greece. Most of the outer columns survive, which truly allows the visitor to appreciate the scale and engineering of the ancient Greek temple.
Athletic Games at Olympia and Nemea
The Ancient Greeks are well known for inspiring the most famous world-wide athletic events competition—the Olympics. The ancient Olympics traditionally date back to the year 776 B.C.E and were originally dedicated to the god Zeus. This is a huge site where you can see (you guessed it) temples, the palaestra (ancient training and exercise arena), and of course the original stadium where you can still race today!
If you are interested in visiting ancient athletic sites besides Olympia, the site of Nemea is not far and is worth seeing. The games at Nemea were also dedicated to Zeus and a large temple in his name was built there. What is more unique about Nemea is the preserved vaulted tunnel entrance that leads to the stadium. This entrance would have been used by athletes just as we see football players entering the field today. You can walk inside the tunnels and even see graffiti carved on the walls by athletes more than 2,000 years ago (if you can’t read Ancient Greek inscriptions then don’t fret—you can find a translation in the Nemean museum).
Ancient Theater at Epidaurus
Epidaurus was the most famous healing center of the god Asclepius in the ancient world. This sanctuary had guest bedrooms called incubators where the sick and dying could stay to get cured! However, for now I am going to focus more on theater at Epidaurus. The Greeks were also famous for their contributions to drama and stage performance. This site has one of the best surviving ancient theaters in the world. But you don’t have to go back in time to appreciate live performances—plays are still performed in this theater! This theater is also well known for its spectacular acoustics. All the way at the top of the seats and anywhere in the crowd you can hear someone whispering from center stage. The Ancient Greeks of course didn’t have microphones, but they certainly knew what they were doing with their architecture!
I hope you have found this helpful! One of the greatest things about traveling to Greece is the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere important. More than 2,000 years ago the Ancient Greeks contributed to drama, philosophy, science, architecture, and so much more. Today their monuments live on, so we can walk back in time—even if just for a moment.
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January 25, 2019
Love your pictures and descriptions of all the ruins!