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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites
An island at the NE corner of the Aegean Sea, at the entrance to the
Gulf of Adramyttion (Bdremit) in Asia Minor. Its shape is notable for two gulfs
with very narrow mouths. The Gulf of Kalloni (ca. 20 km long) was called in antiquity
Pyrrhaios Buripos. The Gulf of Geras was ancient Hiera (ca. 13 km long). Lesbos,
according to tradition, was named for son of Lapithos, the descendant of Deucalion
and Hellen, and grandson of Aiolos, founder of the Aiolian tribe.
The significant number of Mycenaean sherds found on the surface in
1970 at the extensive ruins of Kourtir, on the gulf of Kalloni, near the town
of Lisvori, and the numerous sherds from ruins of other periods, testify to continuous
occupation of the site from at least the Late Neolithic to the Geometric period.
The island reached its zenith in the archaic period, but even before
700 B.C. Mytilene controlled the Aiolian cities on the shore of Asia Minor opposite
the island and in the Troad up to the Hellespont. Because of this the Mytilenaians
came into collision with the growing sea power of the Athenians, who disputed
their possession of the Aiolian colony, Sigeion.
Lesbos paid tribute to the Persians under Cyrus. In 499 B.C. Lesbos
joined the Ionian revolt against the Persians, and in 494 took part in the battle
of Lade with 70 triremes. After the defeat at Lade, Lesbos was subject to the
Persians, but was freed after the Persian defeat at Mycale in 479 B.C. It then
joined the Athenian Alliance, from which the Mytilenaians revolted in 428 B.C.,
although the Methymnians remained loyal to Athens and found themselves opposed
to a confederation of the other large cities of the island. In 427, after a siege,
the Athenians gained control of Mytilene, and divided a large section of the island
among 2700 Athenians cleruchs, after harshly punishing the instigators of the
revolt. In 405 B.C. the Spartan admiral Lysander became master of the entire island
after his victory at Aigos Potamoi on the Hellespont. After the success of Konon,
Mytilene once more joined the Athenian Alliance in 392 B.C., and the Athenian
general Thrasyboulos restored the rest of the island to Athenian control. Lesbos
was made autonomous by the Peace of Antalkidas in 387, but in 385 came again under
Spartan domination. The island broke away in 369 and joined the second Athenian
Confederacy. In 357 B.C. it was obliged to recognize Persian domination and to
establish an oligarchical constitution. Lesbos finally broke away from the Persians
and the oligarchs when Alexander the Great invaded Asia in 332 B.C. After Alexander's
death it came into the hands of those of his successors who controlled the Aegean.
In 167 B.C. the Romans destroyed Antissa because it was allied to
Perseus, the king of Macedon. Lesbos joined the Greek revolt against Rome in the
Mithridatic war and in 88 B.C. the Romans destroyed Mytilene and extended Roman
domination over the whole island. Pompey later gave Mytilene autonomy, which the
Emperor Vespasian revoked in A.D. 70, but which the Emperor Hadrian later restored.
Life remained peaceful on Lesbos until the 8th c. A.D. when attacks of various
barbarian peoples against the island began.
The most notable cities of Lesbos were Mytilene, Methymna, Antissa,
Bresos and Pyrrha. The city of Arisba was independent before the time of Herodotos,
but was soon taken over by Methymna.
M. Paraskevaidis, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites,
Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Nov 2002 from
Perseus Project URL below, which contains bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.
Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities
(Lesbos). A large island in the Aegaean, off the coast of Mysia
in Asia Minor. It was colonized by Aeolians, who founded in it an Hexapolis, consisting
of the six cities Mitylene, Methymna, Eresus, Pyrrha, Antissa, and Arisbe, afterwards
reduced to five through the destruction of Arisbe by the Methymnaeans. The chief
facts in the history of Lesbos are connected with its principal city, Mitylene.
The island is most important in the early history of Greece as the native region
of the early school of lyric poetry. It was the birthplace of the poets Terpander,
Alcaeus, Sappho, and Arion , of the sage Pittacus, of the historian Hellanicus,
and of the philosophers Theophrastus and Phanias.
- Perseus: Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
Lesbos, Lesbian, Lesbians
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Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)
Lesbos (Lesbos: Eth. and Adj. Lesbios, Lesbikos, Lesbiakos, Lesbius,
Lesbicus, Lesbiacus: fem. Lesbis, Lesbias, Lesbis, Lesbias: in the middle ages
it was named Mitylene, from its principal city: Geog. Rav. v. 21; Suidas. s. v.;
Hierocl. p. 686; Eustath. ad Il. ix. 129, Od. iii. 170 : hence it is called by
the modern Greeks Mitylen or Metelino, and by the Turks Medilli or Medellu-Adassi.)
Like several other islands of the Aegean, Lesbos is said by Strabo, Pliny and
others to have had various other names, Issa, Himerte, Lasia, Pelasgia, Aegira,
Aethiope, and Macaria. (Strab. i. p. 160, v. p. 128; Plin. v. 31 (39); Diod. iii.
55, v. 81.)
Lesbos is situated off the coast of Mysia, exactly opposite the opening
of the gulf of Adramyttium. Its northern part is separated from the mainland near
Assos by a channel about 7 miles broad; and the distance between the south-eastern
extremity and the islands of Arginusae is about the same. Strabo reckons the breadth
of the former strait at 60 stadia, and Pliny at 7 miles: for the latter strait
see Strab. xiii. pp. 616, 617, and Xen. Hell. i. 6. 15 - 28. The island lies between
the parallels of 38° 58' and 39° 24'. Pliny states the circumference as 168 miles,
Strabo as 1100 stadia. According to Choiseul-Gouffier, the latter estimate is
rather too great. Scylax (p. 56) assigns to Lesbos the seventh rank in size among
the islands of the Mediterranean sea.
In shape Lesbos may be roughly described as a triangle, the sides of which
face respectively the NW., the NE., and the SW. The northern point is the promontory
of Argennum, the western is that of Sigrium (still called Cape Sigri), the south-eastern
is that of Malea (now called Zeitoun Bouroun or Cape St. Mary). But though this
description of the island as triangular is generally correct, it must be noticed
that it is penetrated far into the interior by two gulfs, or sea-lochs as they
may properly be called, on the south-western side. One of these is Port Hiero
or Port Olivier, one of the best harbours of the Archipelago, opening from the
sea about 4 miles to the westward of Cape Malea, and extending about 8 miles inland
among the mountains. It may be reasonably conjectured that its ancient name was
Portus Hieraeus; since Pliny mentions a Lesbian city called Hiera, which was extinct
before his time. The other arm of the sea, to which we have alluded, is about
half-way between the former and Cape Sigrium. It is the beautiful and extensive
basin, named Port Caloni, and anciently called Euripus Pyrrhaeus. From the extreme
narrowness of the entrance, it is less adapted for the purposes of a harbour.
Its ichthyology is repeatedly mentioned by Aristotle as remarkable. (Hist. Animal.
v. 10. § 2, v. 13. § 10, viii. 20. § 15, ix. 25. § 8.)
The surface of the island is mountainous. The principal mountains
were Ordymnus in the W., Olympus in the S., and Lepethymnus in the N. Their elevations,
as marked in the English Admiralty Charts, are respectively, 1780, 3080, and 2750
feet. The excellent climate and fine air of Lesbos are celebrated by Diodorus.
Siculus (v. 82), and it is still reputed to be the most healthy island in the
Archipelago. (Purdy's Sailing Directory, p. 154.) Tacitus (Ann. vi. 3) calls it
insula nobilis et amoena. Agates were found there (Plin. xxxvii. 54), and its
quarries produced variegated marble (xxxvi. 5). The wholesome Lesbian wines (
innocentis pocula Lesbii, Hor. Carm. i. 17, 21) were famous in the ancient world.
The trade of the island was active and considerable; but here again we must refer
to what is said concerning its chief city Mytilene. At the present day the figs
of Lesbos are celebrated; but its chief exports are oil and gall-nuts. The population
was estimated, in 1816, at 25,000 Greeks and 5000 Turks.
Tradition says that the first inhabitants of Lesbos were Pelasgians:
and Xanthus was their legendary leader. Next came Ionians and others, under Macareus,
who is said by Diodorus (v. 80) to have introduced written laws two generations
before the Trojan war. Last were the Aeolian settlers, under the leadership of
Lesbus, who appears in Strabo under the name Graus, and who is said to have married
Methymna, the daughter of Macareus. Mytilene was the elder daughter. This is certain,
that the early history of Lesbos is identical with that of the Aeolians. Strabo
regards it as their central seat (schedon metropolis, xiii. pp. 616, 622). In
mercantile enterprise, in resistance to the Persians, and in intellectual eminence,
the insular Aeolians seem to have been favourably contrasted with their brethren
on the continent. That which Horace calls Aeolium carmen and Aeoliae fides (Carm.
ii. 13. 24, iii. 30. 13) wass due to the genius of Lesbos: and Niebuhr's expression
regarding this island is, that it was the pearl of the Aeolian race. (Lectures
on Ancient Ethnology and Geography, vol. i. p. 218.)
Lesbos was not, like several other islands of the Archipelago, such
as Cos, Chios and Samos, the territory of one city. We read of six Aeolian cities
in Lesbos, each of which had originally separate possessions and an independent
government, and which were situated in the following geographical order. Methymna
(now Molivo) was on the north, almost immediately opposite Assos, from which it
was separated by one of the previously mentioned straits. Somewhere in its neighbourhood
was Arisba which, however, was incorporated in the Methymnaean territory before
the time of Herodotus (i. 151). Near the western extremity of the island were
Antissa and Eressus. The former was a little to the north of Cape Sigrium, and
was situated on a small island, which in Pliny's time (ii. 91) was connected with
Lesbos itself. The latter was on the south of the promontory, and is still known
under the name of Erissi, a modern village, near which ruins have been found.
At the head of Port Caloni was Pyrirha, which in Strabo's time had been swallowed
up by the sea, with the exception of a suburb. (Strab. xiii. p. 618; see Plin.
v. 31.) The name of Pera is still attached to this district according to Pococke.
On the eastern shore, facing the mainland, was Mytilene Besides these places,
we must mention the following: - Hiera doubtless at the head of Port Olivier,
said by Pliny to have been destroyed before his day; Agamede, a village in the
neighbourhood of Pyrrha; Nape, in the plain of Methymna; Aegirus, between Methymna
and Mytilene; and Polium, a site mentioned by Stephanus B. Most of these places
are noticed more particularly under their respective names. All of them decayed,
and became unimportant, in comparison with Methymna and Mytilene,. which were
situated on good harbours opposite the mainland, and convenient for the coasting-trade.
The annals of Lesbos are so entirely made up of events affecting those two cities,
especially the latter, that we must refer to them for what does not bear upon
the general history of the island.
From the manner in which Lesbos is mentioned both in the Iliad and
Odyssey (Il. xxiv. 544, Od. iv. 342), it is evident that its cities were populous
and flourishing at a very early period. They had also very large possessions on
the opposite coast. Lesbos was not included in the conquests of Croesus. (Herod.
i. 27.) The severe defeat of the Lesbians by the Samians under Polycrates (iii.
39) seems only to have been a temporary disaster. It is said by Herodotus (i.
151.) that at first they had nothing to fear, when Cyrus conquered the territories
of Croesus on the mainland: but afterwards, with other islanders, they seem to
have submitted voluntarily to Harpagus (i. 169). The situation of this island
on the very confines of the great struggle between the Persians and the Greeks
was so critical, that its fortunes were seriously affected in. every phase of
the long conflict, from this period down to the peace of Antalcidas and the campaigns
The Lesbians joined the revolt of Aristagoras (Herod. vi. 5, 8), and
one of the most memorable incidents in this part of its history is the consequent
hunting down of its inhabitants, as well as those of Chios and Tenedos, by the
Persians (Herod. vi. 31; Aesch. Pers. 881). After the battles of Salamis and Mycale
they boldly identified themselves with the Greek cause. At first they attached
themselves to the Lacedaemonian interest: but before long they came under the
overpowering influence of the naval supremacy of Athens. In the early part of
the Peloponnesian War, the position of Lesbos was more favourable than that of
the other islands: for, like Corcyra and Chios, it was not required to furnish
a money-tribute, but only a naval contingent (Thuc. ii. 9). But in the course
of the war, Mytilene was induced to intrigue with the Lacedaemonians, and to take
the lead in a great revolt from. Athens. The events which fill so large a portion
of the third book of Thucydides - the speech of Cleon, the change of mind on the
part of the Athenians, and the narrow escape of the Lesbians from entire massacre
by the sending of a second ship to overtake the first - are perhaps the most memorable
circumstances connected with the history of this island. The lands of Lesbos were
divided among Athenian citizens (klerouchoi), many of whom, however, according
to Boeckh, returned to Athens, the rest remaining as a garrison. Methymna had
taken no part in the revolt, and was exempted from the punishment After the Sicilian
expedition, the Lesbians again wavered in their allegiance to Athens; but the
result was unimportant (Thucyd. viii. 5, 22, 23, 32, 100). It was near the coast
of this island that the last great naval victory of the Athenians during the war
was won, that of Conon over Callicratidas at Arginusae. On the destruction of
the Athenian force by Lysander at Aegospotami, it fell under the power of Sparta;
but it was recovered for a time by Thrasybulus (Xen. Hell. iv. 8. 28 - 30). At
the peace of Antalcidas it was declared independent. From this time to the establishment
of the Macedonian empire it is extremely difficult to fix the fluctuations of
the history of Lesbos in the midst of the varying influences of Athens, Sparta,
After the battle of the Granicus, Alexander made a treaty with the
Lesbians. Memnon the Rhodian took Mytilene and fortified it, and died there. Afterwards
Hegelochus reduced the various cities of the island under the Macedonian power.
(For the history of these transactions see Arrian, Exped. Alex. iii. 2; Curt.
Hist. Alex. iv. 5.) In the war of the Romans with Perseus, Labeo destroyed Antissa
for aiding the Macedonians, and incorporated its inhabitants with those of Methymna
(Liv. xlv. 31. Hence perhaps the true explanation of Pliny's remark, l. c.). In
the course of the Mithridatic War, Mytilene incurred the displeasure of the Romans
by delivering up M‘. Aquillius (Vell. Pat. ii 18; Appian, Mithr. 21). It was also
the last city which held out after the close of the war, and was reduced by M.
Minucius Thermus, - an occasion on which Julius Caesar distinguished himself,
and earned a civic crown by saving the life of a soldier (Liv. Epit. 89; Suet.
Caes. 2; see Cic. contra Rull. ii. 1. 6). Pompey, however, was induced by Theophanes
to make Mytilene a free city (Vell. Pat. l. c.; Strab. xiii. p. 617), and he left
there his wife and son during the campaign which ended at Pharsalia. (Appian,
B.C. ii. 83; Plut. Pomp. 74, 75.) From this time we are to regard Lesbos as a
part of the Roman province of Asia, with Mytilene distinguished as its chief city,
and in the enjoyment of privileges more particularly described elsewhere. We may
mention here that a few imperial coins of Lesbos, as distinguished from those
of the cities, are extant, of the reigns of M. Aurelius and Commodus, and with
the legend KOINON LEXBION (Eckhel, vol.ii. p. 501; Mionnet, vol. iii. pp. 34,
In the new division of provinces under Constantine, Lesbos was placed
in the Provincia Insularum (Hierocl. p. 686, ed. Wesseling). A few detached, notices
of its fortunes during the middle ages are all that can be given here. On the
15th of August, A.D. 802, the empress Irene ended her extraordinary life here
in exile. (See Le Beau, Hist. du Bas Empire, vol. xii. p. 400.) In the thirteenth
century, contemporaneously with the first crusade, Lesbos began to be affected
by the Turkish conquests: Tzachas, Emir of Smyrna, succeeded in taking Mytilene,
but failed in his attempt on Methymna. (Anna Comn. Alex. lib. vii. p. 362, ed.
Bonn.) Alexis, however, sent an expedition to retake Mytilene, and was successful
(Ib. ix. p. 425). In the thirteenth century Lesbos was in the power of the Latin
emperors of Constantinople, but it was recovered to the Greeks by Joannes Ducas
Vatatzes, emperor of Nicaea. In the fourteenth century Joannes Palaeologus gave
his sister in marriage to Francisco Gateluzzio, and the island of Lesbos as a
dowry; and it continued in the possession of this family till its final absorption
in the Turkish empire (Ducas, Hist. Byzant. p. 46, ed. Bonn). It appears, however,
that these princes were tributary. to the Turks (Ib. p. 328). In 1457, Mahomet
II. made an unsuccessful assault on Methymna, in consequence of a suspicion that
the Lesbians had aided the Catalan buccaneers (Ib. p. 338; see also Vertot, Hist.
de l'Ordre de Malte, ii. 258). He did not actually take the island till 1462.
The history of the annalist Ducas himself is closely connected with Lesbos: he
resided there after the fall of Constantinople; he conveyed the tribute from the
reigning Gateluzzio to the sultan at Adrianople; and the last paragraph of his
history is an unfinished account of the final catastrophe of the island.
This notice of Lesbos would be very incomplete, unless something were
said of its intellectual eminence. In reference to poetry, and especially poetry
in connection with music, no island of the Greeks is so celebrated as Lesbos.
Whatever other explanation we may give of the legend concerning the head and lyre
of Orpheus being carried by the waves to its shores, we may take it as an expression
of the fact that here was the primitive seat of the music of the lyre. Lesches,
the cyclic minstrel, a native of Pyrrha, was the first of its series of poets.
Terpander, though his later life was chiefly connected with the Peloponnesus,
was almost certainly a native of Lesbos, and probably of Antissa: Arion, of Methymna,
appears to have belonged to his school; and no two men were so closely connected
with the early history of Greek music. The names of Alcaeus and Sappho are the
most imperishable elements in the renown of Mytilene. The latter was sometimes
called the tenth Muse (as in Plato's epigram, Sappho Lesbothen he dekate); and
a school of poetesses (Lesbiadum turba, Ovid, Her. xv.) seems to have been formed
by her. Here, without entering into the discussions, by Welcker and others, concerning
the character of Sappho herself, we must state that the women of Lesbos were as
famous for their profligacy as their beauty. Their beauty is celebrated by Homer
(Il. ix. 129, 271), and, as regards their profligacy, the proverbial expression
lesbiazein affixes a worse stain to their island than kretizein does to Crete.
Lesbos seems never to have produced any distinguished painter or sculptor,
but Hellanicus and Theophanes the friend of Pompey are worthy of being mentioned
among historians; and Pittacus, Theophrastus, and Cratippus are known in the annals
of philosophy and science. Pittacus was famous also as a legislator. These eminent
men were all natives of Mytilene, with the exception of Theophrastus, who was
born at Eresus.
This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited August 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD)