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The Pylos Project

Site of the University of Minnesota.

The Regional Archaeological Project of Pylos

Site of the University of Michigan.

The Pylos Regional Archaeological Project

University of Cincinnati

Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)


  Pulos: Eth. Pulios. A town in Messenia, situated upon the promontory Coryphasium, which forms the northern termination of the bay of Navarino. According to Thucydides it was distant 400 stadia from Sparta (Thuc. iv. 3), and according to Pausanias (v. 36. § 1) 100 stadia from Methone. It was one of the last places which held out against the Spartans in the Second Messenian War, upon the conclusion of which the inhabitants emigrated to Cyllene, and from thence, with the other Messenians, to Sicily. (Paus. iv. 18. § 1, iv. 23. § 1.) From that time its name never occurs in history till the seventh year of the Peloponnesian War, B.C. 424, when Demosthenes, the Athenian commander, erected a fort upon the promontory, which was then uninhabited and called by the Spartans Coryphasium (Koruphasion), though it was known by the Athenians to be the site of the ancient Pylus. (Thuc. iv. 3.) The erection of this fort led to one of the most memorable events in the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides has given a minute account of the topography of the district, which, though clear and consistent with itself, does not coincide, in all points, with the existing locality, Thucydides describes the harbour, of which the promontory Coryphasium formed the northern termination, as fronted and protected by the island Sphacteria, which stretched along the coast, leaving only two narrow entrances to the harbour, - the one at the northern end, opposite to Coryphasium, being only wide enough to admit two triremes abreast, and the other at the southern end wide enough for eight or nine triremes. The island was about 15 stadia in width, covered with wood, uninhabited and untrodden, (Thuc. iv. 8.) Pausanias also says that the island Sphacteria lies before the harbour of Pylus like Rheneia before the anchorage of Delos (v. 36. § 6), It is almost certain that the fortress erected by the Athenians stood on the site of the ruins of a fortress of the middle ages, called Paleo-Avarino, which has been changed into Navarino by the habit of using the accusative case, eis ton Abarinon, and by attaching the final v of the article to the substantive. The distances of 400 stadia from Sparta and 100 stadia from Methone, given respectively by Thucydides and Pausanias, are the correct distances of Old Navarino from those two ancient sites. (Leake, Peloponnesiaca, p. 191.) Sphacteria (Sphakteria is now called Sphagia, a name which it also bore in antiquity. (Sphagia, Strab. viii. p. 359; Plat. Menex. p. 242; hai Sphagiai, Xen. Hell. vi. 2. 31; tres Sphagiae, Plin. iv. 12. s. 25.)
  The chief discrepancy between the account of Thucydides and the existing state of the coast is found in the width of the two entrances into the bay of Navarino, the northern entrance being about 150 yards wide, and the southern not less than between 1300 and 1400 yards; whereas Thucydides states the former admitted only two triremes abreast, and the latter only eight or nine. Therefore not only is the actual width of the two entrances very much greater than is stated by Thucydides, but this width is not in the proportion of the number of triremes; they are not as 8 or 9 to 2, but as 17 to 2. To explain this difficulty Col. Leake supposes that Thucydides was misinformed respecting the breadth of the entrances to the harbour. But to this a satisfactory reply is given by Dr. Arnold, that not only could no common false estimate of distances have mistaken a passage of nearly 1400 yards in width for one so narrow as to admit only eight or nine ships abreast, but still less could it have been supposed possible to choke up such a passage by a continuous line of ships, lying broadside to broadside, which Thucydides tells us the Lacedaemonian commanders intended to do. Moreover the northern entrance has now a shoal or bar of sand lying across it, on which there are not more than 18 inches of water; whereas the narrative of Thucydides implies that there was sufficient depth of water for triremes to sail in unobstructed. The length of 17 stadia, which Thucydides ascribes to Sphacteria, does not agree with the actual length of Sphagia, which is 25 stadia. Lastly Thucydides, speaking of the bay of Pylus, calls it a harbour of considerable magnitude (limeni onti ou smikroi); an expression which seems strange to be applied to the spacious Bay of Navarino, which was not only the largest harbour in Greece, but perfectly unlike the ordinary harbours of the Greeks, which were always closed artificially at the mouth by projecting moles when they were not sufficiently land-locked by nature.
  In consequence of these difficulties Dr. Arnold raised the doubt whether the island now called Sphagia be really the same as the ancient Sphacteria, and whether the Bay of Navarino be the real harbour of Pylus. He started the hypothesis that the peninsula, on which the ruins of Old Navarino stand, is the ancient island of Sphacteria converted into a peninsula by an accumulation of sand at either side; and that the lagoon of Osmyn-Aga on its eastern side was the real harbour of Pylus, into which there was an opening on the north, at the port of Voidho--Kilia, capable of admitting two triremes abreast, and another at the south, where there is still a narrow opening, by which eight or nine triremes may have entered the lagoon from the great harbour of Navarino. Upon this hypothesis Col. Leake observes, that in itself it is perfectly admissible, inasmuch as there is scarcely a situation in Greece on the low coasts, near the mouths of rivers, where, by the operation of waters salt or fresh, or both united, some change has not taken place since the times of ancient history; and that in the present instance, therefore, there is no great difficulty in imagining that the lagoon may be an ancient harbour converted into a lagoon by an accumulation of sand which has separated it from the sea. But, among the many difficulties which beset this hypothesis, there are two which seem quite fatal to it; one of which has been stated by Mr. Grote and the other by Col. Leake. The former writer remarks that, if the peninsula of Old Navarino was the real ancient Sphacteria, it must have been a second island situated to the northward of Sphagia; and that, consequently, there must have been two islands close together and near the scene. This, as Mr. Grote observes, is quite inconsistent with the narrative of Thucydides, which presupposes that there was only one island--Sphacteria, without any other near or adjoining to it. Thus the Athenian fleet under Eurymedon, on first arriving, was obliged to go back some distance to the island of Prote, because the island of Sphacteria was full of Lacedaemonian hoplites (Thuc. iv. 13); whereas, if the hypothesis of Dr. Arnold were admitted, there would have been nothing to prevent them from landing on Sphagia itself. It is true that Xenophon (Hell. vi. 2. § 3) speaks of Sphagiai in the plural, and that Pliny (iv. 12. s. 25) mentions tres Sphagiae; but two of them appear to have been mere rocks. The objection of Col. Leake is still more fatal to Dr. Arnold's hypothesis. He calls attention to the fact that the French Commission observed that the walls of the castle of Old Navarino stand in many parts on Hellenic foundations, and that in some places three courses of the ancient work remain, consisting of a kind of masonry which seems greatly to resemble that of Messene. Besides these remains of middle Hellenic antiquity, some foundations are traced of a more ancient inclosure at the northern end of the peninsula, with a descent to the little harbour of Voidho - Kilia by means of steps cut in the rock. Remains of walls of early date are to be seen likewise towards the southern extremity of the hill, among which is a tumulus; - all tending to prove that the entire peninsula of Navarino was occupied at a remote period of history by an ancient city. This peninsula could not, therefore, have been the ancient Sphacteria, which never contained any ancient town. The only way of reconciling the account of Thucydides with the present state of the coast is to suppose, with Mr. Grote and Curtius, that a great change has taken place in the two passages which separate Sphagia from the mainland since the time of Thucydides. The mainland to the south of Navarino must have been much nearer than it is now to the southern portion of Sphagia, while the northern passage also must have been both narrower and clearer.
  It is unnecessary to relate here the events which followed the erection of the Athenian fort at Pylus, and which terminated with the capture of the Spartans in the island of Sphacteria, as they are given in every Grecian history. The following extract from Col. Leake illustrates the description of Thucydides in the most satisfactory manner: The level and source of water in the middle where the Lacedaemonians encamped, - the summit at the northern end to which they retired, - the landing-places on the western side, to which the Helots brought provisions,- are all perfectly recognisable. Of the fort, of loose and rude construction on the summit, it is not to be expected that any remains should now exist; but there are some ruins of a signal-tower of a later age on the same site. The summit is a pile of rough rocks ending in a peak; it slopes gradually to the shore on every side, except to the harbour, where the cliffs are perpendicular, though here just above the water there is a small slope capable of admitting the passage of a body of men active in climbing among rocks and difficult places. By this pass it is probable the Messenians came upon the rear of the Lacedaemonians on the summit; for just at the southern termination of the pass there is a passage through the cliffs which border the greater part of the eastern shore of the island, so that by this opening, and along the pass under the rocks to the northward of it, the Messenians had the means of passing unseen from the centre of the island to the rear of the Lacedaemonians on the summit. Though this hill slopes gradually from its rocky peak to the shore on every side except towards the harbour, it does not admit of a landing at its foot, except in the calmest weather; nor is it easily assailed on any side by land, on account of the ruggedness of the summit, except by the means to which the Messenians resorted; so that the words of Thucydides respecting it are perfectly accurate (ek thalasses apokremnon kai e, tes ges hekista epimachon). The southern extremity of the island is rocky, steep, and difficult of access, and forms a separate hill; in every other part the ground slopes from the cliffs on the side of the harbour to the western shore, which, though rocky, is low; so that when the weather is calm it is more easy in face of an opponent to land, and to make way into the island on that side than on the eastern shore, where the cliffs admit of an easy access only in two places, one towards the northern end, the other in the middle of the island, where an opening in the cliffs leads immediately into the most level part of it; exactly in the opening stands a small church of the Panaghia. There are also two small creeks adjacent to each other, near the southern end of the eastern side of the island, opposite to Neokastro: near these creeks there is a well. The principal source of water is towards the middle of the island, at an excavation in the rock 20 feet deep, which seems to be more natural than artificial; for below a shallow surface of soil, in which there is a circular peristomium of modern masonry, the excavation in the rock is irregular and slanting. In one or two places there are groves of high bushes, and there are low shrubs in every part of it. It often happens, as it did in the seventh summer of the Peloponnesian war, that a fire, occurring accidentally or of intention, clears the face of the island during the droughts of that season: the northern hill exhibits at this moment recent marks of a similar conflagration. (Morea, vol. i. 408, seq.)
  The peninsula of Coryphasium is a precipice on the eastern side or towards the lagoon; while on the western side or towards the open sea it slopes gradually, particularly on the SW., where Demosthenes succeeded in preventing the landing of Brasidas and the Lacedaemonians. The promontory is higher at the northern end. Below the ruined fortress at the northern end there is a fine cavern, called Voidho-Kilia (Boido-koilia), the ox's belly, which gives name to the small circular port immediately below it, which has been already spoken of. This cavern is 60 feet long, 40 wide, and 40 high, having a roof like a Gothic arch. The entrance is triangular, 30 feet long and 12 high; at the top of the cavern there is an opening in the surface of the hill above. This cave was, according to the Peloponnesian tradition, the one into which the infant Hermes drove the cattle he had stolen from Apollo. It is mentioned in the Homeric hymn to Hermes as situated upon the sea-side (v. 341); but in Antoninus Liberalis (c. 23) it is expressly said to have been at Coryphasium. In Ovid (Met. ii. 684) Mercury is represented as beholding from Mt. Cyllene the unguarded cattle proceeding into the fields of Pylus. The bay of Voidho-Kilia is separated by a low semicircular ridge of sand from the large shallow lagoon of Osmyn-Aga. As neither Thucydides nor Pausanias says a word about this lagoon, which now forms so striking a feature in the topography of this district, we may confidently conclude, with Leake, that it is of recent formation. The peninsula must, in that case, have been surrounded with a sandy plain, as Pausanias describes it; and accordingly, if we suppose this to have been the site of the Homeric Pylus, the epithet emathoeis, which the poet constantly gives to it, would be perfectly applicable.
  The Athenians did not surrender their fortress at Pylus to the Lacedaemonians in accordance with the treaty made in B.C. 421 (Thuc. v. 35), but retained possession of it for fifteen years, and only lost it towards the close of the Peloponnesian War. (Diod. xiii. 64.) On the restoration of the Messenians to their country by Epaminondas, Pylus again appears in history. The remains of the walls already described belong to this period. On more than one occasion there was a dispute between the Messenians and Achaeans respecting the possession of this place. (Liv. xxvii. 30; Polyb. xviii. 25.) It was visited by Pausanias, who saw there a temple of Athena Coryphasia, the so-named house of Nestor, containing a picture of him, his tomb, and a cavern said to have been the stable of the oxen of Neleus and Nestor. He describes the latter as within the city; which must therefore have extended nearly to the northern end of the promontory, as this cave is evidently the one described above. (Paus. v. 36.) There are imperial coins of this city bearing the epigraph Pulion, belonging to the time of Severus. (Eckhel, vol. ii. p. 277.) It would appear from Leake that the restored city was also called Coryphasium, since he says that at the time of the Achaean League there was a town of Coryphasium, as we learn from a coin, which shows that Coryphasium was a member of that confederacy. (Peloponnesiaca, p. 191.)
  The modern name Avarino, corrupted, as already said, into Navarino, is probably due to the Avars, who settled there in the sixth century of the Christian era. The mediaeval castle was built by the widow of the Frankish chieftain William de la Roche. Her descendants sought a more convenient place for their residence, and erected on the southern side of the harbour the Neokastro or modern Navarino. It commanded the southern end of the harbour, which became more and more important as the northern entrance became choked up. Containing, as it does, the best harbour in the Peloponnesus, Navarino constantly appears in modern history. It was taken by the Turks in 1500. In 1685 it was wrested from them by the Venetian commander Morosini, and remained in the hands of the Venetians till 1715. In more recent times it is memorable by the great battle fought in its bay, on the 20th of October, 1827, between the Turkish fleet and the combined fleets of England, France, and Russia. (Curtius, Peloponnesos, vol. ii. p. 181.)
  It remains to speak of the site of the Homeric Pylos. According to a generally received tradition, Neleus, the son of Poseidon, migrated from Iolcos in Thessaly, and founded on the west coast of Peloponnesus a kingdom extending westward as far as that of the Atridae, and northward as far as the Alpheius, or even beyond this river. Neleus incurred the indignation of Hercules for refusing to purify him after the murder of his son Iphitus. The hero took Pylus and killed Neleus, together with eleven of his twelve sons. But his surviving son Nestor upheld the fame of his house, and, after distinguishing himself by his exploits in youth and manhood, accompanied in his old age the Grecian chiefs in their expedition against Troy. Upon the invasion of Peloponnesus by the Dorians, three generations after Nestor, the Neleids quitted Pylus and removed to Athens, where they obtained the kingly power. The situation of this Pylus - the Pulos Neleios, as it was called - was a subject of much dispute among the Grecian geographers and grammarians. Strabo (viii. p. 339) quotes a proverbial verse, in which three towns of this name were mentioned - esti Pulos pro Piloio Pulos ge men esti kai allos,- of which the former half - Esti Pulos pro Puloio - was at least as old as the time of Aristophanes, when Pylus became famous by the capture of the Spartans at Sphacteria. (Aristoph. Equit. 1059.) The claims of the Eleian Pylus to be the city of Nestor may be safely set on one side; and the choice lies between the towns in Triphylia and Messenia. The ancients usually decided in favour of the Messenian Pylos. This is the opinion of Pausanias (iv. 36), who unhesitatingly places the city of Nestor on the promontory of Coryphasium, although, as we have already seen, he agrees with the people of Elis that Homer, in describing the Alpheius as flowing through the land of the Pylians (Il. v. 545), had a view to the Eleian city. (Paus. vi. 22. § 6.) It is however, much more probable that the land of the Pylians was used by the poet to signify the whole kingdom of the Neleian Pylus, since he describes both Thryoessa on the Alpheius and the cities on the Messenian gulf as the extreme or frontier places of Pylus. (Thruoessa polis . . . neate Pulou emathoentos, Il. xi. 712; neatai Pulou emathoentos, Il. ix. 153.) In this sense these expressions were understood by Strabo (viii. pp. 337, 350). It is curious that Pausanias, who paid so much attention to Homeric antiquities, does not even allude to the existence of the Triphylian Pylus. Pindar calls Nestor the Messenian old man. (Pyth. vi. 35.) Isocrates mentions Messenia as his birthplace (Panath. § 72); and Pherecydes (ap. Schol. ad> Hom. Od. xi. 289) and Eustathius (ad Od. iii p: 1454) describes the Messenian Pylus as the city founded by Peleus. This was also the opinion of Diodorus (xv. 66), and of many others. In opposition to their views, Strabo, following the opinion of the Homerikoteroi, argues at great length that the Triphylian Elis was the city of Nestor. (Strab. viii. pp. 339, seq., 348, seq.) He maintains that the description of the Alpheius flowing through the land of the Pylians (Il. v. 545), which, as we have already seen, was the only argument which the Eleians could adduce for their claim, is applicable to the Triphylian Pylus; whereas the poet's mention of Nestor's exploits against the Epeians (II. xi. 670, seq.) is fatal to the supposition of the Messenian city being his residence. Nestor is described as making an incursion into the country of the Epeians, and returning thence with a large quantity of cattle, which he safely lodges by night in the Neleian city. The third day the Epeians, having collected their forces on the Alpheius, Nestor marched forth from Pylus, and at the end of the first day halted at the Minyeius (subsequently called the Anigrus), where he passed the night; starting from thence on the following morning, he arrived at the Alpheius at noon. Strabo argues that neither of these events could have taken place if Nestor had marched from so distant a city as the one at Coryphasium, while they might easily have happened if the Neleian city had been situated at the Triphylian Pylus. Again he argues from the Odyssey that the Neleid Pylus could not have been on the sea-coast, since Telemachus, after he had disembarked at the temple of Poseidon and had proceeded to Pylus, sent a courier to his ship to fetch his companions (Od. iii. 423); and on his return from Sparta to Pylos, he desired Pisistratus to turn off to the sea-side, that he might immediately embark, as he wished not to be detained in the city by Nestor. (Od. xv. 199, seq.) These arguments, as well as others, adduced by Strabo, have convinced K. O. Muller (Orchomenos, p. 357, seq.), Thirlwall (Hist. of Greece, vol. i. p. 96), and several modern scholars; but Leake, Curtius, and others have adhered, with much greater probability, to the more common view of antiquity, that the Neleian Pylus was situated at Coryphasium. It has been shown that Pylus was frequently used by Homer to signify the Neleid kingdom, and not simply the city, as indeed Strabo himself had admitted when arguing against the claims of the Eleian Pylus. Moreover, even if it should be admitted that the account of Nestor's exploits against the Epeians agrees better with the claim of the Triphylian Pylus, yet the narrative of the journeys of Telemachus is entirely opposed to this claim. Telemachus in going from Pylus to Sparta drove his horses thither, without changing them, in two days, stopping the first night at Pherae (Od. iii. 485); and he returned from Sparta to Pylus in the same manner. (Od. xv. 182, seq.) Now the Messenian Pylus, Pherae, and Sparta, lie in a direct line, the distance from Pylus to Pherae being about 35 miles by the road, and from Pherae to Sparta about 28 miles. On the other hand, the road from the Triphylian Pylus to Sparta would have been by the valley of the Alpheius into that of the Eurotas; whereas Pherae would have been out of the way, and the distance to it would have been much more than a day's journey. Besides which, the position of the Messenian Pylus, the most striking upon the whole western coast of Peloponnesus, was far more likely to have attracted the Thessalian wanderers from Iolcos, the worshippers of the god Poseidon, than a site which was neither strong by nature nor near the coast.
  But although we may conclude that the Messenian Pylus was the city of Nestor, it may admit of doubt whether the city itself existed on the promontory Coryphasium from the earliest times. The Greeks rarely built a city in the earliest period immediately upon the coast, and still more rarely chose a site so badly supplied with water as Coryphasium, of which the Athenians experienced the inconvenience when they defended it in the Peloponnesian War. There seems much probability in the account of Strabo (viii. p. 359) that the ancient Messenian Pylus was situated at the foot of Mt. Aegaleos, and that upon its destruction some of its inhabitants settled at Coryphasium. If then we suppose the city of Nestor to have stood a little way inland, and Coryphasium to have been its port-town, the narrative of Telemachus' return becomes perfectly clear. Not wishing to lose time at the royal residence, he drives straight to the port and goes quietly on board. Hence, one of Strabo's most serious objections to the Messenian Pylus disappears. Strabo was justified in seeking for a separate site for the city and the port, but he seems to have forgotten the existence of the Old Pylus inland, which he had himself mentioned. (Leake, Morea, vol. i. p. 416, seq.; Curtius, Peloponnesos, vol. ii. p. 174, seq.)

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited June 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites


  The Classical town occupied Mt. Koryphasion, a rocky promontory at the N end of the Bay of Navarino. It is chiefly known as the camp fortified by the Athenians in 425 B.C. prior to the battle with the Spartans on the island of Sphakteria. There are traces of Greek walls of various types of masonry both earlier and later than those assigned to the Athenians; some served as foundations for the 13th c. Frankish castle. Also ancient are cisterns and rock-cut steps and the remains of a breakwater at the S tip of the cape. Pausanias (4.36.1-5) mentions a Sanctuary of Athena Koryphasion, unknown today, and within the city a house, tomb, and cave, all supposedly of Nestor. This last has been found to contain sherds dating from Mycenaean to Roman times, but the Mycenaean palace of Nestor has been excavated at Epano Englianos, 10 km to the N.

M. H. McAllister, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Sep 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains 26 image(s), bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.

Perseus Project index

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


   In the southwest of Messenia, was situated at the foot of Mount Aegaleos on a promontory at the northern entrance of the basin, now called the Bay of Navarino, the largest and safest harbour in all Greece. This harbour was fronted and protected by the small island of Sphacteria (Sphagia), which stretched along the coast about 1 3/4 miles, leaving only two narrow entrances at each end. Pylos became memorable in the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians under Demosthenes built a fort on the promontory Coryphasium a little south of the ancient city, and just within the northern entrance to the harbour (B.C. 425). The attempts of the Spartans to dislodge the Athenians proved unavailing; and the capture by Cleon of the Spartans who had landed on the island of Sphacteria was one of the most important events in the whole war.

This text is cited Sep 2002 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks



  City of Messenia, along the southwestern coast of Peloponnese, east of Sparta.
  Pylos was founded by Neleus, the son of Tyro and Poseidon who was raised in Iolcos at the court of Tyro's husband Chreteus with his twin brother Pelias. He had to move to Messenia when Pelias took the throne of Iolcos from Aeson, Jason's father. There, he married Chloris, the only surviving daughter of Amphion and Niobe, from whom he had a daughter, Pero, and twelve sons. Pero was very beautiful, and Neleus was reluctant to marry her, even to his nephew Bias, the son of his brother Amythaon. He put as a condition for the marriage that Bias bring him back the herds of Phylacus, the father of Aeson's wife Alcimede, that were kept by a very fierce dog. Bias succeeded with the help of his brother Melampous and married Pero with whom he had, among other, a son named Talaus, who was the father of Adrastus, the king of Argos who led the expedition of the Seven against Thebes at the request of Polynices, Oedipus' son.
  With his sons, Neleus had to sustain a war against Heracles, either because Neleus had refused tu purify him after the murder of Iphitus, or becase Neleus has sided with adversaries of Heracles in an earlier campaign waged by the hero. Anyway, in that war, all of Neleus' sons, except the youngest, Nestor, were killed, and maybe even Neleus himself (some traditions say that he survived and later died in Corinth). Nestor was endowed by Apollo, guilty of having massacred the brothers and sisters of his mother Chloris, with a very long life. He succeeded his father on the throne of Pylos, and is shown old in the Iliad playing a leading role as the wise advisor of the Greeks.

Bernard Suzanne (page last updated 1998), ed.
This extract is cited July 2003 from the Plato and his dialogues URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks.

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