Several months ago in the frame of the exhibition on Alexander the Great at the Hermitage in Amsterdam, I attended a lecture about Macedonia where one of the subjects treated was the city of Olynthus.
To me, Olynthus was a city repeatedly besieged by King Philip, Alexander’s father, in his attempt to create a united Macedonia and in the end he razed it from the map, flattening the entire place in a final crush. So, it would be interesting to learn more about this part of history. As it turned out, this was not to be the main focus of the lecture, it were to be the houses of Olynthus and I was in for several surprises!
The town is located in southwestern Chalcidice, covering two flat-topped hills in the middle of a fertile plain, about ten kilometers north of Potideia. The origin of Olynthus goes back to its mythological founder, Olynthus, son of Heracles, but the oldest remains date from Neolithic times in the third millennium BC, which were destroyed by the Persians in 479 BC.
We owe it to King Perdiccas II of Macedonia to order local tribes and settlements to move to Olynthus. This increase in population led to the true organization of the city which soon covered the entire north hill. It is here that the new city was built according to a grid plan, better known as the Hippodamian plan. Hippodamus of Milete (498-403 BC), although an eccentric figure in his time, was the father of urban planning. He conceived the city layout with wide straight streets crossing each other at square angles, inevitably leading to an ample space in its very center where the Agora would emerge so the citizens could meet and greet in one central location. The first city to be build according to this principle was, of course, Miletus in Asia Minor, but the idea took on rather quickly, and Olynthus as well as Pella were to be built this way (eventually lavishly implemented by Alexander the Great when he founded his many cities in the east and generously copied by the practical Romans).
From 432 BC onward Olynthus’ power rose substantially to become the leader of the Chalcidian League, a confederation of 32 cities on the Chalcidice peninsula. Both Athens and Macedonia would love to have Olynthus as an ally rather than as their enemy, but an alliance with Olynthus never lasted long as they kept changing camp according to their own whims.
In 357 BC, King Philip II managed to conclude a peace treaty with Olynthus and its allies, i.e. against Athens (part of this text is being kept at the nearby Museum of Polygyros). But a couple of years later, Olynthus changed its mind again and sought alliance with Athens, who in return did nothing or close to nothing to help them. At first, Philip maneuvered in such a way as to isolate Olynthus by taking one neighboring city after the other, and thus seriously cutting down its power. In 348 BC he besieged Olynthus and razed it to the ground. Useless to point out that the speaker in Amsterdam had my undivided attention, and it was obvious I had to see Olynthus for myself on my next trip to Macedonia – which I did.
Because Olynthus has been (nearly) completely flattened, it is easy get a good overview of its layout. Although hardly 1/10th of the total area has been excavated, two large avenues, 7 meters wide, clearly stand out with smaller streets dividing the city in blocks (a familiar sight in major American cities today!). Each block counted ten houses, each with one upper floor and a paved yard. Amazingly, some of the earliest floor mosaics in Greek art have been discovered here!
It is surprising to learn that most of the houses have a similar ground plan which is commonly referred to as “pastas houses”, i.e. roughly squares of 17 x 17 meters, divided in two almost equal parts, while the northern half is again divided in two. This means that the walls and supporting columns are all placed according to a common rule which is required by the fact that one single roof covers all the northern halves in the entire row of houses. Life evolved around a central courtyard situated in the southern half which opened onto the long northern portico, i.e. the “pastas”. This portico was the focal point in each house, a convenient and comfortable working area. Nearly all the rooms opened directly to the court or to the pastas. It so turns out that the houses in Olynthus were non-hierarchical, meaning that there were no main or dominant rooms, nor was there any backroom. This is what differentiates them from the “prostas” type of houses which the Romans built in later years.
All Olynthian houses had a room dedicated as a kitchen area, sometimes with a built in hearth, and another small room assigned to bathing as several bathtubs have been found in situ with their pertaining drainage system. But what stroke me most during this lecture was the illustration of the rooms used as “andron”. Now the “andron” is a kind of formal dining room, only for men of course, which was mainly used for the Greek “symposiums”. These were dinner parties in which the host took care of entertaining his guests, deciding on the subject to be debated during the long eating and drinking séances, and making sure the appropriate amount of water was mixed with the wine. There were music players, but also young boys and hetaerae to be at the entire service of the guests. After a few hours, it is obvious that things ran out of hand and the mosaic floors were useful assets when it came to cleaning up the mess the guests made of food, wine and vomit. In Olynthus these “androns” usually were square rooms of approximately 5 x 5 meters, with plastered and painted walls around which a raised border of about one meter high indicates the place for the couches (klinè). Because of their setting against the walls, the “androns” in Olynthus could hold seven “klinè”, which meant that the room entrance was off center. The floor was drained by a pipe running through the walls straight into the street, an efficient way to clean up after a messy revelry.
Now there seem also to be considerable variations in these house plans, where some have larger “androns”, others larger kitchens or general rooms. A number of houses had special workrooms and shops, with an opening to the street. Beside that, the houses on one block could be very distinctive from those on another block, perhaps because of a different social status or people exercising a different trade.
Armed with all this background information, I’m off to see Olynthus for myself! The city is located within easy reach from Thessaloniki, driving south till the freeway turns into a local road and making sure to turn left in Nea Moudania instead of driving on to the peninsula of Kassandra. The antique city now referred to as Megale Toumba lies on the eastern side of the river Olynthios, as the modern town has relocated on the opposite side. The place is fenced and the access path equals a walk in the park, which in spring bursts with a wide range of flowers and blossoming bushes of all kinds where the busy bees are having a party.
Soon the road runs uphill and I am treated to the first overall view over the remains of this once so proud city. The walls are about knee-high and that is mainly thanks to the reconstruction works carried out by the archeologists. They have done an excellent job here, inserting a pinkish layer of cement where the original stones end and the newly restored ones have been added. It is a clear example of what is meant by “razed to the ground” as historians tell us, for that would have offered us very little to see. I stare immediately into one of the main streets running slightly uphill giving the impression of an aerial view. Modern excavators have named these avenues while the smaller cross roads are labeled as streets. At more or less regular intervals the excavators have placed boards with pertaining information about the streets and the houses, so that even the unprepared visitor will find the answers he is looking for.
I follow one of the side streets to its dead end against the city wall, where the sewage conduct that runs underneath this street nicely continues through the wall out of the city. I now remember how during the lecture I was told that the walls of the city and the houses might have had only stone basis whereas the top part was built in brick or mud. That would partially explain how Olynthus was destroyed to the ground, although it was located in a strategic and well defendable position. The Olynthians put up a fierce fight! It took Philip nearly two years to conquer the city with a short interruption for a campaign in Thessaly. At any rate, his army found the time to engrave their spearheads with a personal message “ΦΙΛΙΠΠO”, from Philip. The king and his army must have had quite a sense of humor! Some of these spearheads can be admired at the nearby Museum of Polygyros, exciting stuff!
In most of the houses, the wells have been located and nicely preserved – covered with a grid to keep the absent-minded visitor from falling into the pit. I come across one well with the restored wooden frame around it, very interesting. And then there are the floor mosaics that were left in their original location. As I mentioned above, these are till now the oldest examples found and show very well preserved geometrical motives framed within typical Greek bands. They are definitely comparable to the better known mosaics at Pella, although not as “royal” maybe. I recognize the Macedonian sun in one of them while the corners are filled with volutes supporting the wave pattern around the sun. Another one shows a hunter on horseback, wearing the typical Macedonian hat as he rides in full gallop like in the images we have seen of Alexander the Great. One entrance exposes a deer being attacked by two griffons, delicately worked out in small pebbles. Breathtaking to watch!
The Bouleterion that has been discovered is in rather poor state with no seats left, only the socles of the columns that once supported the roof. And in the corner next to it are the remains of a fountain or Nympheon, also partially reconstructed above the ever-present pinkish cement line.
Now, one of the reasons why Philip so thoroughly flattened Olynthus may have been the fact that the city had given asylum to two of his half-brothers, possible pretenders to the throne of Macedonia. This, however, we may never know for sure, but the brothers were killed – problem solved.
At the foot of this hill is a small museum, offering an exhibition of pictures taken before, during and after the restoration of the site but it also includes some aerial views that can be very helpful for those who want some extra orientation.
To conclude, I would like to mention that Callisthenes (ca. 370-327 BC), the biographer of Alexander the Great who accompanied him on all his campaigns, was born here in Olynthus. All this proves that Olynthus was not just any city, but a city with lots of history to tell.
[Click here to see all the pictures of Olynthos}
[Click here to see all the pictures of Olynthos}