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The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites

Samothrace

  A mountainous island in the NE Aegean famous in antiquity for its Sanctuary of the Great Gods. Sporadic finds indicate that it was inhabited in the Neolithic Age, and pottery dating from the Bronze Age has been found at Kariotes to the E of the later Greek city. The island was settled ca. 700 B.C. by Greek-speaking colonists whose Aeolic dialect suggests that they came from NW Anatolia or Lesbos. They mingled with the local population, whose Thracian tongue is documented as the ritual language of the cult as late as the Augustan age. The archaic city, as yet little explored, was protected by an impressive city wall. A naval power owning territory on the Thracian coast, it became part of the Attic empire in the 5th c. As its power waned, the fame of the sanctuary outside its walls grew, culminating in the Hellenistic and early Imperial ages. Under the patronage of the royal Macedonian house and the Diadochs, the venerable sanctuary was embellished with splendid buildings that remained in use until the cult ceased in the late 4th c. A.D. In the 6th c. it was destroyed by an earthquake. But small Christian churches dot the island and, like the 10th c. fortification built in the sanctuary of spoils from its destroyed buildings, attest its continuing habitation. The Great Gods of the Samothracian mysteries included a central divinity of pre-Greek origin, a Great Mother (called Axieros in the native tongue, Demeter in Greek), her spouse (Kadmilos, Hermes), and attendant demons (the Kabeiroi, Dioskouroi) as well as the Greek Hades and Persephone (locally known as Axiokersos and Axiokersa). Their nocturnal rites were available to men and women, freemen and slaves, unlike the related rites at Eleusis. Initiation took place in two degrees, the myesis and the epopteia, the latter not required but, if taken, preceded by an obligatory rite of confession. It was not restricted to the annual festival but obtainable at any time.
  The Great Gods were special patrons of those at sea. Through their mysteries the initiate gained protection, moral improvement, and probably the hope of immortality. Although the initiation halls were accessible only to initiates, the sanctuary was otherwise open to all visitors.
  It lies to the W of the ancient city, is framed by two streams at its E and W, and cut at its center by a third. The earliest monument, a rock altar to the Great Mother, antedates the Greek settlers. In the 7th c. it was incorporated in the N part of a double precinct beneath the later anaktoron, sacristy, and Rotunda of Arsinoe, the S section receiving a bothros for libations to the Greeks' underworld gods. Another rock altar outside the precinct and remnants of a small sanctuary below the later temenos date from this period. In the 6th c. a rock altar possibly dedicated to Hekate was added to this area and further to the S, within and near the later temenos, additional altars and escharai were built. In the debris from the sacrificial meals at one such place, quantities of fine wheel-made local pottery of the 7th c. were found along with handmade ware. Within the later Altar Court, a great rock altar arose and, adjacent to it, a rectangular lesche, a Hall of Votive Gifts to judge by its contents, was constructed of small limestone blocks and wooden ties. Its Doric colonnaded facade faced the central river. The first halls of initiation were probably built at this time. The present anaktoron, a rectangular building for the myesis, evidently succeeded a hall of similar size, traces of which are preserved to its W. Built of stuccoed polygonal masonry over the part of the earlier double precinct farther N, the anaktoron contains two rooms, the larger entered through doors on its long W side; the smaller and higher, at its rear, accessible only to initiates, who entered it through internal doors. Installations in the larger chamber (a bothros in the SE corner, a wooden circular platform, a grandstand along two walls) reflect the initiatory rites. Spanned by wooden beams resting on piers engaged to its long walls, the anaktoron is the earliest example of the Samothracian taste for clear spans of exceptional size (10.58 m). A small building to its S served as a sacristy. Traces of the first epopteion, an apsidal building for initiation into the higher degree of the mysteries, are visible in the apse of its Hellenistic successor, the Hieron, as are those of an intermediate early Classical epopteion.
  About 340, an area long occupied by altars and escharai was enclosed within a rectangular precinct preceded by a terrace. At its NE corner, where a road descending from the E hill led down into the sanctuary, a propylon was built. An Ionic porch with projecting wings preceded its door wall, its columns distinguished by an ornamental necking, its coffered ceiling carved with male and female heads shown in frontal, three-quarter, and profile views. Its entablature, the earliest example of the later standard combination of dentils with a sculptured frieze, also shows the first extensive use of the archaistic style for architectural sculpture: a figural frieze probably alluding to the venerable ceremonies performed within the precinct. The design of both the building and its sculptures may be attributed to Skopas.
  This first marble building in the sanctuary was followed by a series of splendid structures largely built of Thasian marble. The Altar Court, dedicated ca. 340-330 by Arrhidaios, half-brother and successor of Alexander the Great, succeeded the rock altar beside the Hall of Votive Gifts. The Doric colonnade of this unroofed enclosure also faced the river. Within it, steps now led to a marble altar. The Doric Hieron was built ca. 325 to replace the early Classical epopteion. Its rectangular cella lined with lateral benches ended in a raised abaton, a segmental apse covered by a tentlike wooden roof. The painted stucco walls of the cella imitated its outer drafted-margin masonry beneath a wooden coffered ceiling and trussed roof (clear span 10.72 m). Candidates for the epopteia entered the Hieron through its front door; epoptai, through lateral doors. A lustral drain near the entrance, an eschara, and the curtained abaton were centers of ritual action. The deep, hexastyle prostyle porch was not completed until 150-125 B.C. when it received a sculptured coffered ceiling (centaurs, grapes) and the building was adorned with pedimental sculptures and akroteria at both ends (front: the Nurturing of Aetion; rear: relief busts of the Samothracian Gods; central: floral akroteria; lateral: Nikai pouring libations). Damaged by an earthquake, the rear akroteria were replaced in the early Imperial age. Toward A.D. 200, the cella was remodeled when the Kriobolia and Taurobolia of the Great Mother were added to the cult, necessitating enlargement of the main door and the introduction of parapets before the benches. A pair of monumental torches stood at the corners of the porch. A third torch flanked by a pair of stepping stones outside the cella was the scene of the rite of confession preliminary to the epopteia.
  Between 323 and 316, another hexastyle prostyle Done building was erected over a Classical predecessor. Standing on the E hill, near the entrance to the sanctuary, it was a gift of Philip Arrhidaios and Alexander IV. A shallow Ionic porch abutting its rear wall overlooked the paved stepped ramp leading downhill toward the Temenos. Its coffered ceiling was carved with floral motifs. In front of the Doric facade stood an altar or monument. Below it lay a paved circular area ca. 9 m in diameter. Encircled by rows of concentric steps of Classical date, it may have had a central altar. Statues, monuments, and inscriptions framed this area.
  Between 289 and 281, the rotunda dedicated to the Great Gods by Arsinoe rose over the old double precinct. Built for sacrificial purposes, it is ca. 20 m in diameter. Its plain marble drum was surmounted by a gallery, Doric on the exterior, Corinthian on the interior, decorated with a parapet of sculptured bucrania and paterai. Its conical roof crowned by a hollow finial may have been screened on the interior by a wooden dome. Inside and at its periphery, there were altars and shafts for libation. Construction of the rotunda led to removal of the sacristy, which was now rebuilt against the anaktoron. Marble benches, lamps, and stelai recording initiations inserted into its stuccoed polygonal walls attest its use. Like other buildings in the sanctuary, it shows traces of Late Roman repair.
  The Propylon of Ptolemy II erected between 285 and 281 gave access to the sanctuary from the city. On both sides of its door wall there was a deep hexastyle porch, Ionic on the outer city side, Corinthian on the inner sanctuary side. This is the first documented use of the latter order as an exterior structural member in Greek architecture. Bucrania alternate with rosettes on its sculptured frieze. A marble forecourt preceded the Ionic porch; another may have lain before the ramp leading down to the circular area on the E hill. The river bounding the sanctuary on the E originally passed through the cut-stone barrel vault running diagonally through the propylon's foundation. In the wake of an earthquake, probably in the 2d c. A.D., it assumed its present course to the W of the building. A wooden bridge now led across the river from the propylon to the higher barren area above the buried Classical circular structure. Neither it nor the royal dedication on the hill was replaced.
  A stuccoed limestone Doric stoa built on the W hill overlooking the sanctuary in the 3d c. provided shelter for visitors. Two-aisled and ca. 106 m long, its inner order was Ionic. Its painted stuccoed walls were incised with lists of initiates. Probably its rear wall was pierced by doors giving access to a broad area where a two-roomed structure was built against the stoa in the 4th c. A.D. A line of monuments stood to the E of the columnar facade above the terraced hillside where structures, probably for ritual dining, were successively built from the 4th c. B.C. to Late Roman times. A Hellenistic niche of pseudo-Mycenaean style may have represented the tomb of a Samothracian hero. to the S, the outline of the theater built ca. 200 B.C. appears. The white limestone and red porphyry seats of the cavea faced the Altar Court which served as its skene. Above the theater stood the Victory of Samothrace, part of a ship-fountain of the same period framed by an enclosure of retaining walls. The rectangular precinct is divided into an upper basin in which the prow of the vessel stood and a lower reflecting basin from which natural boulders emerge and water was drawn.
  North of the stoa, the W hill is largely occupied by a 10th c. Byzantine fortification built of spoils from the sanctuary. Beneath it lie the foundations of a large unfinished building of the early Hellenistic age; to its W a row of three treasury-like late Hellenistic buildings once stood; to its E, a marble building with an Ionic porch that led into the central of three rooms. Dedicated by a Milesian lady in the 3d c., it, like other structures on the W hill, is still under investigation.
  Beyond the S limits of the sanctuary lies the S Necropolis, the most extensive of the several burial grounds hitherto explored. Its tombs range from the archaic period to the 2d c. A.D. and reveal the use of both cremation and inhumation. The rich finds from the necropolis including ceramics, terracottas, glass, jewelry, and other objects are exhibited in the Museum at the entrance to the site.
  Finds made since 1938 as well as the restored entablatures of several buildings may be seen in the five galleries and courtyard of this museum. Objects found by earlier expeditions, especially sculpture and architectural members, were taken to the Louvre, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Archaeological Museums of Istanbul and the Archaeological Seminar of the Charles University, Prague.

P. W. Lehmann, ed.
This text is from: The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University Press 1976. Cited Oct 2002 from Perseus Project URL below, which contains bibliography & interesting hyperlinks.


Perseus Project index

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities

Samothrace

   (Samothraike), Samothraca, and Samothracia (Samothraikia). A small island in the north of the Aegaean Sea, opposite the mouth of the Hebrus in Thrace. It was the chief seat of the mysterious worship of the Cabiri. The political history of Samothrace is of little importance. The Samothracians fought on the side of Xerxes at the battle of Salamis; and at this time they possessed on the Thracian mainland a few places, such as Sale, Serrhion, Mesambria, and Tempyra. In the time of the Macedonian kings, Samothrace appears to have been regarded as a kind of asylum, and Perseus accordingly fled thither after his defeat by the Romans at the battle of Pydna.

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


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