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Biographies (3)



GARGITOS (Ancient demos) GERAKAS
   Epicurus (Epikouros). A celebrated philosopher, born in the year B.C. 341, in the island of Samos, whither his father had gone from Athens, in the year B.C. 352, among 2000 colonists then sent out by the Athenians. Yet he was an Athenian by right, belonging to the deme Gargettus and to the tribe Aegeis. His father Neocles is said to have been a school-master, and his mother Chaeristrata to have practised arts of magic, in which it was afterwards made a charge against Epicurus that, when he was young, he assisted her. Having passed his early years in Samos and Teos, he went to Athens at the age of eighteen. He had begun to study philosophy when only fourteen, from a desire, which the teachers to whom he had applied had failed to satisfy, of understanding Hesiod's description of chaos. In Samos he is said to have received lessons from Pamphilus, a follower of Plato. On the occasion of this his first visit to Athens, Epicurus stayed there for a very short time. He left it in consequence of the measures taken by Perdiccas after the death of Alexander the Great, and went to Colophon to join his father. In B.C. 310, he went to Mitylene, where he set up a school. Staying only one year at this latter place, he next proceeded to Lampsacus, where he taught for four years. He returned to Athens in the year B.C. 306, and now founded the school which ever after was named from him the Epicurean. He purchased a garden (Kepoi Epikourou) for eighty minae (about $1450), wherein he might live with his disciples and deliver his lectures, and henceforth remained in Athens, with the exception only of two or three visits to his friends in Asia Minor, until his death, from stone in the bladder, B.C. 270. He was in his seventy-second year when he died, and he had then been settled in Athens as a teacher for thirty-six years.
    Epicurus is said by Diogenes Laertius to have had so many pupils that even whole cities could not contain them. Hearers came to him from distant places; and while men often deserted other schools to join that of Epicurus, there were only two instances, at most, of Epicurus being deserted for any other teacher. Epicurus and his pupils lived together in the garden of which we have spoken, in a state of friendship, which, as it is usually represented, could not be surpassed--abstaining from putting their property together and enjoying it in common for the quaint yet significant reason that such a plan implied mutual distrust. The friendship subsisting between Epicurus and his pupils is commemorated by Cicero. In this garden, too, they lived in the most frugal and decorous manner, though it was the delight of the enemies of Epicurus to represent it differently, and though Timocrates, who had once been his pupil and had abandoned him, spread such gossip as that Epicurus used to vomit twice a day after a surfeit and that harlots were inmates of the garden. An inscription over the gate of the garden told him who might be disposed to enter that barleycakes and water would be the fare provided for him; and such was the chastity of Epicurus that one of his principal opponents, Chrysippus, endeavoured to account for it, so as to deny him any merit, by saying that he was without passions. Epicurus remained unmarried, in order that he might be able to prosecute philosophy without interruption. His most attached friends and pupils were Hermachus of Mitylene, whom he appointed by will to succeed him as master of the school; Metrodorus, who wrote several books in defence of his system; and Polyaenus. Epicurus's three brothers, Neocles, Chaeredemus, and Aristobulus, also followed his philosophy, as also one of his servants, Mys, whom at his death he made free. Besides the garden in Athens, from which the followers of Epicurus, in succeeding time, came to be named "the philosophers of the garden", Epicurus possessed a house in Melite, a village near Athens, to which he used often to retire with his friends. On his death he left this house, together with the garden, to Hermachus, as head of the school, to be left by him again to whosoever might be his successor.
    In physics Epicurus trod pretty closely in the footsteps of Democritus; so much so, indeed, that he was accused of taking his atomic cosmology from that philosopher without acknowledgment. He made very few, and these unimportant, alterations. According to Epicurus, as also to Democritus and Leucippus before him, the universe consists of two parts, matter (soma) and space, or vacuum (to kenon), in which matter exists and moves; and all matter, of every kind and form, is reducible to certain indivisible particles or atoms (atomoi), which are eternal. These atoms, moving, according to a natural tendency, straight downward, and also obliquely, have thereby come to form the different bodies which are found in the world, and which differ in kind and shape, according as the atoms are differently placed in respect to one another. It is clear that, in this system, a creator is dispensed with; and indeed Epicurus, here again following Democritus, set about to prove, in an a priori way, that this creator could not exist, inasmuch as nothing could arise out of nothing, any more than it could utterly perish and becoming nothing. The atoms have existed always, and always will exist; and all the various physical phenomena are brought about, from time to time, by their various motions. The soul itself is made of a finer and more subtle kind of atoms, which, when the body dies and decays, separate and are dissipated. The various processes of sense are explained on the principles of materialism. From the surfaces of all objects continually flow thin, filmy images of things (eidola), which, by impact on the organism, cause the phenomena of vision, hearing, etc.
    It remains to speak of the Epicurean system of ethics. Setting out with the two facts that man is susceptible of pleasure and pain and that he seeks the one and avoids the other, Epicurus declared that it is a man's duty to endeavour to increase to the utmost his pleasures and diminish to the utmost his pains--choosing that which tends to pleasure rather than that which tends to pain, and that which tends to a greater pleasure or to a lesser pain rather than that which tends respectively to a lesser pleasure or a greater pain. He used the terms pleasure and pain in the most comprehensive way, as including pleasure and pain of both mind and body; and esteemed the pleasures and pains of the mind as incomparably greater than those of the body. The highest pleasure, then, is peace of mind (ataraxia, aponia), and this comes from phronesis or the ability to decide what line of conduct will best secure true happiness. Death, he says, is not to be feared, for "where we are, death is not; and where death is, we are not."
    The period at which Epicurus opened his school was peculiarly favourable. In place of the simplicity of the Socratic doctrine, nothing now remained but the subtlety and affectation of Stoicism, the unnatural severity of the Cynics, or the debasing doctrine of indulgence taught and practised by the followers of Aristippus. The luxurious refinement which now prevailed in Athens, while it rendered every rigid scheme of philosophy, as well as all grossness of manners, unpopular, inclined the younger citizens to listen to a preceptor who smoothed the stern and wrinkled brow of philosophy, and, under the notion of conducting his followers to enjoyment in the bower of tranquillity, led them unawares into the path of moderation and virtue. Hence the popularity of his school. It cannot be denied, however, that from the time when this philosopher appeared to the present day, an uninterrupted course of censure has fallen upon his memory; so that the name of his sect has almost become a proverbial expression for everything corrupt in principle and infamous in character. The charges brought against Epicurus are that he superseded all religious principles by dismissing the gods from the care of the world; (Atheism) that if he acknowledged their existence, it was only in conformity to popular prejudice, since, according to his system, nothing exists in nature but material atoms; that he showed great insolence and vanity in the disrespect with which he treated the memory of former philosophers and the characters and persons of his contemporaries; and that both he and his disciples were addicted to the grossest sensuality.
    With respect to the first charge, it certainly admits of no refutation. The doctrine of Epicurus concerning nature militated directly against the agency of a Supreme Being in the formation and government of the world, and his misconceptions with respect to mechanical motion and the nature of divine happiness led him to divest the Deity of some of his primary attributes. It is not true, however, that he entirely denied the existence of superior powers. Cicero charges him with inconsistency in having written books concerning piety and the reverence due to the gods, and in maintaining that the gods ought to be worshipped, while he asserted that they had no concern in human affairs. That there was an inconsistency in this is obvious. But Epicurus professed that the universal prevalence of the ideas of gods was sufficient to prove that they existed; and, thinking it necessary to derive these ideas, like all other ideas, from sensations, he imagined that the gods were beings of human form and made known to men by the customary emanations. He believed that these gods were eternal and supremely happy, living in the intermundane spaces (metakosmia) in a state of quiet, and meddling not with the affairs of the world. He contended that they were to be worshipped on account of the excellence of their nature, and not because they could do men either good or harm.
    The Epicurean school was carried on, after Hermachus, by Polystratus and many others, concerning whom nothing is known; and the doctrines which Epicurus had taught underwent few modifications. When introduced among the Romans, these doctrines, though very much opposed at first, were yet adopted by many distinguished men, as Lucretius, Atticus, and Horace. Under the emperors, Pliny the Younger and Lucian of Samosata were noted Epicureans.

This text is from: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities. Cited Nov 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

Epicurus (Epikouros), a celebrated Greek philosopher and the founder of a philosophical school called after him the Epicurean. lie was a son of Neocles and Charestrata, and belonged to the Attic demos of Gargettus, whence he is sometimes simply called the Gargettian (Cic. ad Fam. xv. 16). He was born, however, in the island of Samos, in B. C. 342, for his father was one of tile Athenian cleruichi, who went to Samos and received lands there. Epicurus spent the first eighteen years of his life at Samos, and then repaired to Athens, in B. C. 323, where Xenocrates was then at the head of the academy, by whom Epicurus is said to have been instructed, though Epicurus himself denied it (Diog. Laert. x. 13; Cic. de Nat. Deor. i. 26). He did not, however, stay at Athens long, for after the outbreak of the Lamian war lie went to Colophon, where his father was then residing, and engaged in teaching. Epicurus followed the example of his father: he collected pupils and is said to have instructed them in grammar, until gradually his attention was drawn towards philosophy. Epicurus himself asserted that lie had entered upon his philosophical studies at the early age of fourteen, while according to others it was not till five or six years later. Some said that he was led to the study of philosophy by his contempt of the rhetoricians and grammarians who were unable to explain to him the passage in Hesiod about Chaos; and others said that the first impulse was given to him by the works of Democritus, which fell into his hands by accident. It is at any rate undeniable that the atomistic doctrines of Democritus exercised a very great influence upon Epicurus, though he asserted that he was perfectly independent of all the philosophical schools of the time, and endeavoured to solve the great problems of life by independent thought and investigation. From Colophon Epicurus went to Mytilene and Lampsacus, in which places he was engaged for five years in teaching philosophy. In B. C. 306, when he had attained the age of 35, he again went to Athens. He there purchased for eighty minae a garden--the famous Kepoi Epikourou--which apparently was situated in the heart of the city, and in which he established his philosophical school. Surrounded by numerous friends and pupils and by his three brothers, Neocles, Charidemus, and Aristobulus, who likewise devoted themselves to the study of philosophy, Epicurus spent the remainder of his life in his garden at Athens. His mode of living was simple, temperate, and cheerful, and the aspersions of comic poets and of later philosophers who were opposed to his philosophy and describe him as a person devoted to sensual pleasures, do not seem entitled to the least credit, although they have succeeded in rendering his name proverbial with posterity for a sensualist or debauchee. The accounts of his connexion with Leontium, Marmarium, and other well known hetaerae of the time, perhaps belong to the same kind of slander and calumny in which his enemies indulged. The life in Diogenes Laertius affords abundant proof that Epicurus was a man of simple, pure, and temperate habits, a kind-hearted friend, and even a patriotic citizen. He kept aloof from the political parties of the time, and took no part in public affairs. His maxim was lathe Biosas, which was partly the result of his peculiar philosophy, and partly of the political condition of Athens, which drove men to seek in themselves happiness and consolation for the loss of political freedom. During the latter period of his life Epicurus was afflicted with severe sufferings, and for many years he was unable to walk. In the end his sufferings were increased by the formation of a stone in his bladder, which terminated fatally after a severe illness of a fortnight. He bore his sufferings with a truly philosophical patience, cheerfulness, and courage, and died at the age of 72, in Olymp. 127. 2, or B. C. 270. His will, which is preserved in Diogenes Laertius (x. 16, &c.), shews the same mildness of character and the same kind disposition and attachment to his friends, which he had manifested throughout life. Among his many pupils Epicurus himself gave the preference to Metrodorus of Lampsacus, whom he used to call the philosopher, and whom he would have appointed to succeed him (Diog. Laert. x. 22); but Metrodorus died seven years before his master, and in his will Epicurus appointed Hermarchus of Mytilene his successor in the management of his school at Athens. Apollodorus, the Epicurean, wrote a life of Epicurus, of which Diogenes made great use in his account of Epicurus, but this is now lost, and our principal source of information respecting Epicurus is the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius, who however, as usual, only puts together what he finds in others; but at the same time he furnishes us some very important documents, such as his will, four letters and the kuriai doxai, of which we shall speak below. With the account of Diogenes we have to compare the philosophical poem of Lucretius, and the remarks and criticisms which are scattered in the works of later Greek and Roman writers, nearly all of whom, however, wrote in a hostile spirit about Epicurus and his philosophy and must therefore be used with great caution. Among them we must mention Cicero in his philosophical treatises, especially the De Finibus, and the De Natura Deorum ; Seneca in his letter to Lucilius, and some treatises of Plutarch in his so-called Moralia.
  Epicurus appears to have been one of the most prolific of all the ancient Greek writers. Diogenes Laertius (x. 26), who calls him polugraphotatos, states that he wrote about 300 volumes (kulindroi). His works, however, are said to have been full of repetitions and quotations of authorities. A list of the best of his works is given by Diogenes (x. 27), and among them we may mention the Peri phuseos in 37 books, Peri atomon kai kenou, Epitome ton pros phusikous, Pros tous Megarikous diaporiai, Kuriai doxai, Peri telous, Peri kriteriou e kanon, Chairedemos e peri Deon, Peri bion in three books, Peri tes en te atomo gonias, Peri heimarmenes, Peri eidolon, Peri dikaiosunes kai ton allon areton, and Epistolai. Of his epistles four are preserved in Diogenes (x. 22, 35, 84, 122). The first'is very brief and was addressed by Epicurus just before his death to Idomeneus. The three others are of far greater importance: the first of them is addressed to one Herodotus, and contains an outline of the Canon and the Physica; the second,addressed to Pythocles,contains his theory about meteors, and the third, which is addressed to Menoeceus, gives a concise view of his ethics, so that these three Epistles, the genuineness of which can scarcely be doubted, furnish us an outline of his whole philosophical system. An abridgement of them is preserved in Eudocia. They were edited separately by Nurnberger in his edition of the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius, Nurnberg. The letters, to Herodotus and Pythocles were edited separately by J. G. Schneider under the title of Epicuri Physica et Metcorologica duabus Epistolis comprehensa, Leipzig, 1813. These letters, together with the above mentioned Kuriai doxai, that is, forty-four propositions containing the substance of the ethical philosophy of Epicurus, which are likewise preserved in Diogenes, must be our principal guides in examining and judging of the Epicurean philosophy. All the other works of Epicurus have perished, with the exception of a considerable number of fragments. Some parts of the above-mentioned work, Peri phuseos, especially of the second and eleventh books, which treat of the eidola, have been found among the rolls at Herculaneum, and are published in C. Corsini's Volumin. Herculan. vol. ii. Naples, 1809, from which they were reprinted separately by J. C. Orelli, Leipzig, 1818. Some fragments of the tenth book of the same work have been edited by J. Th. Kreissig in his Comment. de Sallust. Histor. Fragm.. If we may judge of the style of Epicurus from these few remains, it must be owned that it is clear and animated, though it is not distinguished for any other peculiar merits.
  With regard to the philosophical system of Epicurus, there is scarcely a philosopher in all antiquity who boasted so much as Epicurus of being independent of all his predecessors, and those who were believed to have been his teachers were treated by him with scorn and bitter hostility. He prided himself upon being an autodidaktos, but even a superficial glance at his philosophy shews that he was not a little indebted to the Cyrenaics on the one hand and to Democritus on the other. As far as the ethical part of his philosophy is concerned thus much may be admitted, that, like other systems of the time, it arose from the peculiar circumstances in which the Greek states were placed. Thinking men were led to seek within them that which they could not find without. Political freedom had to a great extent disappeared, and philosophers endeavoured to establish an internal freedom based upon ethical principles, and to maintain it in spite of outward oppression, no less than to secure it against man's own passions and evil propensities. Perfect independence, self reliance, and contentment, therefore, were regarded as the highest good and as the qualities which alone could make men happy, and as human happiness was with Epicurus the ultimate end of all philosophy, it was necessary for him to make ethics the most essential part, and as it were the centre of his whole philosophy. He had little esteem for logic and dialectics, but as he could not altogether do without them, he prefixed to his ethics a canon, or an introduction to ascertain the criterium which was to guide him in his search after truth and in distinguishing good from evil. His criteria themselves were derived from sensuous perception combined with thought and reflection. We obtain our knowledge and form our conceptions of things, according to him, through eidola, i. e. images of things which are reflected from them, and pass through our senses into our minds. Such a theory is destructive of all absolute truth, and a mere momentary impression upon our senses or feelings is substituted for it. His ethical theory was based upon the dogma of the Cyrenaics, that pleasure constitutes the highest happiness, and must consequently be the end of all human exertions. Epicurus, however, developed and ennobled this theory in a manner which constitutes the peculiarity and real merit of his philosophy, and which gained for him so many friends and admirers both in antiquity and in modern times. Pleasure with him was not a mere momentary and transitory sensation, but he conceived it as something lasting and imperishable, consisting in pure and noble mental enjoyments, that is, in ataraxia and aponia, or the freedom from pain and from all influences which disturb the peace of our mind, and thereby our happiness, which is the result of it. The summum bonum, according to him, consisted in this peace of mind; and the great problem of his ethics, therefore, was to shew how it was to be attained, and ethics was not only the principal branch of philosophy, but philosophy itself, and the value and importance of all other kinds of knowledge were estimated by the proportion in which they contributed towards that great object of human life, or in which they were connected with ethics. His peace of mind was based upon Phronesis, which he described as the beginning of everything good, as the origin of all virtues, and which he himself therefore occasionally treated as the highest good itself.
  In the physical part of his philosophy, he followed the atomistic doctrines of Democritus and Diagoras. His views are well known from Lucretius's poem De Rerum Natura. It would, however, appear that sometimes he misunderstood the views of his predecessors, and distorted them by introducing things which were quite foreign to them; sometimes he appears even in contradiction with himself. Tile deficiencies are most striking in his views concerning the gods, which drew upon him the charge of atheism. His gods, like everything else, consisted of atoms, and our notions of them are based upon the eidola which are reflected from them and pass into our minds. They were and always had been in the enjoyment of perfect happiness, which had not been disturbed by the laborious business of creating the world; and as the government of the world would interfere with their happiness, he conceived the gods as exercising no influence whatever upon the world or man.
  The number of pupils of Epicurus who propagated his doctrines, was extremely great; but his philosophy received no further development at their hands, except perhaps that in subsequent times his lofty notion of pleasure and happiness was reduced to that of material and sensual pleasure. His immediate disciples adopted and followed his doctrines with the most scrupulous conscientiousness: they were attached and devoted to their nester in a manner which has rarely been equalled either in ancient or modern times: their esteem, love, and veneration for him almost bordered upon worship; they are said to have committed his works to memory; they had his portrait engraved upon rings and drinking vessels, and celebrated his birthday every year. Athens honoured him with bronze statues. But notwithstanding the extraordinary devotion of his pupils and friends, whose number, says Diogenes, exceeded that of the population of whole towns, there is no philosopher in antiquity who has been so violently attacked, and whose ethical doctrines have been so much mistaken and misunderstood, as Epicurus. The cause of this singular phaenomenon was partly a superficial knowledge of his philosophy, of which Cicero, for example, is guilty to a very great extent, and partly also the conduct of men who called themselves Epicureans, and, taking advantage of the facility with which his ethical theory was made the handmaid of a sensual and debauched life, gave themselves up to the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. At Rome, and during the time of Roman ascendancy in the ancient world, the philosophy of Epicurus never took any firm root; and it is then and there that, owing to the paramount influence of the Stoic philosophy, we meet with the bitterest antagonists of Epicurus. The disputes for and against his philosophy, llowever, are not confined to antiquity; they were renewed at the time of the revival of letters, and are continued to the present day.
  The number of works that have been written upon Epicurus and his philosophy is prodigious (Fabric. Bibl. Graec.); we pass over the many histories of Greek philosophy, and mention only the most important works of which Epicurus is the special subject. Peter Gassendi, de Vita et Moribus Epicuri comentarius libris octo constans, Lugdun. 1647, and Hag. Comit. 1656, 4to.; Gassendi, Syntagma Philosophiae Epicuri, Hag. Comit. 1659, 4to., London, 1668, 12mo., Amsterdam, 1684; J. Rondel, La Vie d'Epicure, Paris, 1679, 12mo., La Haye, 1686, 12mno.; a Latin translation of this work appeared at Amsterdam, 1693, 12mo., and an English one by Digby, London, 1712, 8vo.; Batteux, La Morale d'Epicure, Paris, 1758, 8vo.; Bremer, Versuch einer Apoloyie des Epicur, Berlin, 1776, 8vo.; Warnekros, Apologie und Leben Epicurs, Greifswald, 1795, 8vo.; and especially Steinhart in Ersch u. Gruber, Allgem. Encyclop. vol. xxxv. p. 459, &c.

This text is from: A dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, 1873 (ed. William Smith). Cited June 2005 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks


  This term has two distinct, though cognate, meanings. In its popular sense, the word stands for a refined and calculating selfishness, seeking not power or fame, but the pleasures of sense, particularly of the palate, and those in company rather than solitude. An epicure is one who is extremely choice and delicate in his viands. In the other sense, Epicureanism signifies a philosophical system, which includes a theory of conduct, of nature, and of mind.
Epicurus, from whom this system takes its name, was a Greek, born at Samos 341 B.C., who, in 307 B.C., founded a school at Athens, and died 270 B.C. The Epicurean School was rather a practical discipline than a habit of speculation. The master laid down his principles dogmatically, as if they must be evident as soon as stated, to any one not foolish. His disciples were made to learn his maxims by heart; and they acquired a spirit of unity more akin to that of a political party, or of a sect, than to the mere intellectual agreement of a school of philosophers.
Philosophy was described by Epicurus as “the art of making life happy”, and he says that “prudence is the noblest part of philosophy”. His natural philosophy and epistemology seem to have been adopted for the sake of his theory of life. It is, therefore, proper that his ethics should first be explained. The purpose of life, according to Epicurus, is personal happiness; and by happiness he means not that state of well-being and perfection of which the consciousness is accompanied by pleasure, but pleasure itself. Moreover, this pleasure is sensuous, for it is such only as is attainable in this life. This pleasure is the immediate purpose of every action. The pleasure of Epicurus is a state, equably diffused, “the absence of [bodily] pain and [mental] anxiety”. That which begets the pleasurable life is not [sensual indulgence] but a sober reason which searches for the grounds of choosing and rejecting, and which banishes those doctrines through which mental trouble, for the most part, arises. The wise man will accordingly desire “not the longest life, but the most pleasurable”.
  It is for the sake of this condition of permanent pleasure, or tranquillity, that the virtues are desirable. “We cannot live pleasurably without living prudently, gracefully, and justly; and we cannot live prudently gracefully, and justly, without living pleasurably” in consequence; for “the virtues are by nature united with a pleasurable life; and a pleasurable life cannot be separated from these.” The virtues, in short, are to be practiced not for their own sake, but solely as a means of pleasure.
  ”The wise man will not take any part in public affairs”; moreover, “the wise man will not marry and have children”. But “the wise man will be humane to his slaves”. “He will not think all sinners to be equally bad, nor all philosophers to be equally good.” That is, apparently, he will not have any very exacting standard, and will neither believe very much in human virtue, nor be very much surprised at the discovery of human frailty. In this system, “prudence is the source of all pleasure and of all virtue”.
  Epicurus seems to have held that there was one supreme being; but this god was not the creator, scarcely the orderer, of the universe, the gods being only a part of the All. Nor is there a Providence, for an interest in human affairs would be inconsistent with perfect happiness. In short, the gods are magnified Epicurean philosophers.
In this Epicurus simply followed the view of Empedocles, that, first, all sorts of living things and animals, well or ill organized, were evolved from the earth and that those survived which were suited to preserve themselves and reproduce their kind.
  The Epicurean logic is criterional. The test of truth practically is the pleasant and the painful belief. Theoretically, their criterion is sensation. Sensation never is deceptive; the error lies in our judgment. Besides sensation the human mind has also notions, or anticipations (prolepseis). These notions are the results left by previous sensations. The understanding, then, does not differ essentially from the internal senses.
The human soul is material and mortal, being composed of a finer kind of atoms, resembling those of air or fire, but even more subtle. It is the bodily organism that holds together the atoms composing the soul. Yet the human will is free. Fatlism was to those of an Epicurean temper simply a source of unpleasantness and helplessness. The freedom asserted by the Epicureans is not rational freedom in the true sense of the word. It does not consist in the power of choosing the right and the noble in preference to the pleasant. It is little better than physical contingency.

M.J. Ryan, ed.
Transcribed by: Rick McCarty
This extract is cited June 2003 from The Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent online edition URL below.

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