6 Most Famous Places in Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is unanimously described as the birthplace of western civilization. With its tentacles of influence reaching into the arts, philosophy, literature, architecture, democracy, governance, and religion, ancient Greece had one of the most spectacular places on earth as at the time. The golden age saw them organize themselves into thriving city-states. With this came the flourishing of refined socio-political structures that allowed for incredible advancements in the aforementioned areas.

Worldhistoryedu presents to you six most famous places in ancient Greece. These places were at the forefront of the cultural and social advancement of the era.

OLYMPIA

Ancient Greek cities and sites

Famous ancient Greek cities and sites : From top left to bottom right – the ruins of the Temple of Hera; the Ruins of the Philippeion; The workshop of Phidias; and the ruins of the Temple of Zeus

Olympia was a famous ancient Greek sanctuary site located on the western side of Greek Peloponnese (the “valley of the gods”). Found where two rivers – the Alpheus and the Kladeos – intersect, the city’s inhabitants primarily worshiped Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the Olympian gods respectively. Olympia was famous for its valleys which abounded with olive trees and pines.

Olympia gets the top spot on the list of famous places in ancient Greece because the site was well-known for the ancient Olympic Games – history’s most famous sporting event. Scholars opine that the first Olympic Game was held around 776 BCE.

The inhabitants of Olympia celebrated the Olympic Games to commemorate Zeus’ victory over his father Cronus [and his Titan army]. According to the myth, Zeus led his siblings and other Olympians to overthrow the old gods, the Titans, who were led by Cronus. The famous mythical battle came to be known as the Titanomachy.

Did you know that Olympia allowed girls to compete in their own category during the Olympics in order to gain the blessings of Hera?

For more than 700 years, the games went unimpeded until the Roman emperor Theodosius I abolished the games in the 4th century CE. Several prized architectural jewels and temples in Olympia were destroyed by Theodosius II in 426 CE.

Aside from Olympia being a bustling site during the Olympic Games, the place could also boast of a very vibrant economy and culture, including several architectural structures. Olympia was the home of several ancient Greek temples in honor of Zeus and his wife/sister Hera. The Temple of Zeus for example had a thirteen-meter gold and ivory statue of Zeus. There were also magnificent stadia, bath houses, gymnasium, wrestling and boxing centres (Palestra), arena, and theaters.

Read More: Statue of Zeus – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The largest of those stadia was believed to have the capacity to accommodate over 20,000 spectators. Most of the city’s spectacular sculptings were done by renowned artists such as Pheidias, who sculpted the chryselephantine statue of Zeus. The statue depicted Zeus with the winged goddess Nike in his right hand and a scepter in his left hand.

Did you know that the first stadium in Olympia was believed to have been constructed around 560 BCE?

As it was common back then, the city of Olympia had a Pryteneion – a town hall (located in the city’s center, agora) where city officials and administrators met to discuss issues while sitting around or near a public hearth. The public hearth and the fire that burned symbolized the Greek goddess Hestia, a sibling of Zeus.

Since 1989, the site has held the UNESCO World Heritage site.

ATHENS

Athens

Acropolis of Athens

The Greek city-state of Athens comes in second on our list of most famous sites in ancient Greece. Athens’ rise to prominence coincided with the end of the dark age in ancient Greece. Thus Athenians ushered in the gold age of Greek civilization.

Owing to the city’s never-before-seen democratic systems, the city was able to flourish in all spheres – literature, philosophy, poetry, architecture and a host of other areas. When given a choice between the Greek gods Poseidon and Athena, the inhabitants chose Athena as the city’s patron goddess. Guided by Athena – the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare – Athens prospered exponentially, becoming the famous Greek city of the time. The city’s spectacular landmark buildings, statues and socio-political systems attracted people from all over the ancient world. Athens hospitable and democratic systems allowed for the proliferation of ideas and advancements in science, music, and drama.

Of all the monuments in ancient Athens, the Acropolis of Athens certainly comes out tops. Purposely built on a high ground for strategic military purposes, the Acropolis housed several buildings that held a huge significance to ancient Athenians. An example of such structure was the Parthenon, a spectacular temple built in honor the goddess Athena.

Theatre of Dionysus

The Theatre of Dionysus

For the arts and drama, Athenians frequented the Theatre of Dionysus to be dazzled by the most renowned stage actors, poets and playwrights. As at the 4th century BCE, the Theatre of Dionysus, which is located on on the south slope of the Akropolis hill,  could boast of about 16,000 sitting capacity. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, pleasure, art, drama and other forms of entertainment.

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CRETE

Crete

Famous places in ancient Greece | Palace of Knossos

The ancient Greek city of Crete emerged in the 4th millennium BCE. The inhabitants of Crete were reasoned to be of Minoan civilization. Crete remained relevant in across the Mediterranean for well over three thousand years, spreading into mainland Greek cities and Egyptian cities.

Crete benefited enormously from being geographically positioned as an influential trading site in between Europe and Africa. As a result, Minoans on the islands of Crete prospered tremendously.

The arable nature of the land on the island allowed for the city’s inhabitants to plant corn and wheat. There were also a number olive and grape trees littered across Crete. Those crops were processed into oil and wine, products which further made Crete prosperous.

Due to Crete being an island, threats from neighboring cities could easily be handled. However, the city was susceptible to a number of deadly earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This was due to it being located in unstable regions of where the Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet.

Some scholars attribute Crete’s decline to the excessive natural disasters that struck the region at the time. Crete is famously home to magnificent ancient remains of the Palace of Knossos, Hagia Triada, and the palace of Phaestos. The ancient Romans selected the village of Gortys as the capital of Crete.

Labyrinth in Greek Mythology

Famous places in ancient Greece | A Roman mosaic picturing of the Athenian Theseus slaying the Minotaur in a Labyrinth

In Greek mythology, Crete is famous because it was the place ruled by king Minos whose wife fell in love with a bull. Minos, enraged by this as well as the offspring his wife bore with the bull, constructed a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. Ultimately, the Greek hero Theseus shows up in Crete and kills the Minotaur. In addition to the above Crete features in the following myths:

  • The demigod Heracles (Hercules) sailed to Crete to complete his seventh labor which involved the capturing of a Cretan bull.
  • The Greek goddess of the Hunt and Orion met each other on the island of Crete.
  • Crete was the place where Rhea delivered her youngest son Zeus. In a bid to prevent Cronus from gulping up the baby Zeus, Rhea is believed to have hid Zeus in a cave around Mount Dicte on Crete.

THEBES

Thebes

Remains of the Cadmea of ancient Thebes

According to many archaeologists, Thebes began long before the dark ages in ancient Greek history. The city was an extremely famous and powerful Greek city-state with a lot of amazing architecture and bustling social life.

Thebes was situated near the plains of Boeotia, making it an easily defensible city. Thebes got itself in periodic conflicts with Athenians and Spartans.

Towards the end of 5th century BCE, Thebes supported the Persians after the Spartans were vanquished by Persia at Thermopylae. Ultimately, when the Greeks defeated the Persians, Thebes was punished for its betrayal.

Thebes and Sparta came to dominate the region after the two cities banded together to defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian War.  Towards the end of the 4th century, Thebes briefly (for about a couple of decades) came under the control of Sparta.

The city of Thebes came to significant prominence during the reign of Pelpidas who led the city to revolt against Sparta. However, after the death of Pelopidas, Thebes started to decline, tasting massive losses at the Battle of Cynoscephalae.

In 335, Alexander the Great of Macedon brought Thebes to its knees. With the exclusion of the religious temples and a number of buildings, Alexander razed the entire city to the ground. Many of the city’s inhabitants were forced into slavery and sold to cities in the region.

Ancient Greeks believed that city of Thebes was established by Cadmus after an oracle in the region commanded him to do so. Prior to that, Cadmus had searched in vain for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. The city is also famed to be the birthplace of Heracles and Dionysus (the Greek god of wine).

ARGOS

The city of Argos is considered by many historians as one of the first cities in ancient Greece; the city perhaps stretches even beyond the Dark Ages of ancient Greece. For centuries, Argos benefited enormously from its fertile land, allowing for communities to develop rapidly in the city.

Located north of the Gulf of Argolis, Argos thrived due to the trading routes that passed through the city. Along with nearby cities such as Mycenae and Tiryns, Argos reached very high heights in terms of culture. At its zenith, the city was ruled by a very wise military tactician called Pheidon. Owing Pheidon’s military inventions, Argos was able to capture a number of cities, including Argolis.

At its peak, Argos was believed to rub shoulders with the mighty Spartans. During the Battle of Hysiae in 669 BCE, Argos handed the Spartans a convincing defeat.

The ancient Greeks believed that Argos was established by Argus, one of Zeus’ numerous sons. Legend has it that Hera and Poseidon once fought over the city with the queen of the gods coming out tops. Argos was also famous in ancient times because it was believed to be the birthplace of the Greek hero Perseus, another son of Zeus. The famous Greek writer, Homer, noted that Argos was the hometown of Diomedes, the famous Trojan War hero.

The Heraion of Argos (a temple dedicated to Hera), the Amphitheater, and the Larissa Castle are just some examples of the magnificent monuments that the ancient Greek City of Argos housed. The Amphitheater, a twenty thousand-sitting capacity theatre – is perhaps the most famous of Argos’ ancient monuments.

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SPARTA

Ancient Sparta

The theater of ancient Sparta

There is certainly a lot that can be inferred from a city whose inhabitants believed that they themselves were art of works and as such did not need too many monuments.

The Greek city-state of Sparta was the envy of many ancient Greek cities simply because of its military prowess. With a very militaristic culture and approach to dealing with its neighbors, the Spartan military might was feared across the Mediterranean.

Right from birth, a Spartan was trained to be fearless, mentally and physically. The goal was to transform every child into not just a brave warrior but also a strategic warrior for that matter. In addition to their military might, Sparta had some of the best philosophers, poets and orators. Ancient historians often claimed that the first love poems for women came from Sparta.

Sparta was also far from a brutish and uncivilized society; as a matter of fact, Spartan women had arguably the best rights anywhere at the time. They were allowed to own property and go to school. Women were also encouraged to be vocal – something a city as civilized as ancient Athens struggled to do.

Leonidas I

A Leonidas sculpture (5th century BCE), Leonidas I (c. 520–480 BCE) was the Spartan king, commander at the Battle of Thermopylae

Sparta perhaps can be equated to modern militarized socialist state, where the rights of the state trumped over the individual rights. Every action or social initiative in Sparta was taken to advance the interest of Sparta and it military pursuits.

In terms of monuments, the two most significant ones are the statue of Leoniades and the Temple of Artemis Orthia.

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