THE "POCKET RUINS" OF PIRAEUS by Anthony Grant
Friday 28 February 2020
Beyond (and sometimes beneath) the bustle of modern Piraeus is an unseen checkerboard of ancient ruins. Though the pocket ruins that pepper Piraeus may sometimes lack Instagram appeal, all you need is some imagination and maybe a map to conjure the way things were a long time ago in chapters of Greek antiquity very far away. Traces of once mighty walls, broken columns and other remnants push through the Piraeus soil—at least, in those patches of the densely populated peninsula where the modern polykatoikia (apartment blocks) have been kept at bay. While some ancient ruinss have lost out to modern construction— the Dionysian theater that once stood at the base the Kastella, hill, for example—there are many smaller ones basking in an obscurity that only adds to their appeal.
There is also the secret city that lies below: “We have identified more than 700 cisterns, wells and tunnels, mostly from the fourth and third centuries [BC], and that were reused for houses in the Roman period,” says George Peppas, an archaeologist with the Ephorate of Antiquities of West Attica, Piraeus and the Islands. “Piraeus is like Athens and Thessaloniki,” he says. “In all three, there is a city beneath a city, going back 2,000 years and even longer.” While the current transportation construction works might have spurred greater scrutiny of the subterranean city, archaeologists have long known it was there. Some of the most noted finds, such as the bronze statues of Athena and Apollo statue that now hold court in the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, were unearthed by construction workers in 1959. And for that you can probably thank the certifiably diabolical ancient Roman dictator Sulla, responsible for razing much of Piraeus during his siege of Athens in 87-86 BC. What residents weren’t killed or enslaved during that orgy of violence tossed whatever they could find down wells or into cisterns so the Romans couldn’t get their hands on their belongings. Fragments of pottery, household objects and statues—some even made of unusual materials like bronze or wood—turn up stealthily in these parts.
With few exceptions, you encounter ruins in Piraeus much differently than you do in Athens proper. “The ancient sources are less accurate when it comes to Piraeus,” Peppas says. “When Iakovos Dragatsis, the first archaeologist who excavated in Piraeus (at the end of the 19th century), it wasn’t like with Athens where you can read Pausanias and Strabo who reference the various monuments and the it’s mostly very clear where things are. It is still complex in Athens, but it’s easier to connect the dots. Here in Piraeus we have less information and what we do have is less accurate. Like for the ancient agora and the Temple of Zeus Zoster, there are opposing views as to the exact locations and neither has been found: the temple especially is like the white rabbit of archaeologists in Piraeus—everyone’s looking for it.”
Ironically, though the archaeological canvas of Piraeus does look a lot more scattershot than, say, in Athens or Rome and iconic monuments are obviously lacking, there is lots more for the modern Indiana Jones to sink his teeth into than you might think. The reason for this goes back to the very inception of the city. The Athenians needed to build a fortified naval base that could contain the three ports on the peninsula: Kantharos, the main harbor where now the cruise ships and ferries call in, but also the two smaller ones, Zea and Mounichia (the latter now called Microlimano, and both used principally for yachts and pleasure craft today). The Long Walls already created a fortified road between Athens and the Piraeus peninsula. But long before that, Athens had grown from an ancient settlement in the Archaic period to a city, but only haphazardly. Piraeus was going to be something new, deliberate and above all, planned. And there had to be houses for the traders, facilities for the guys who manned the triremes and warehouses for the ships too (the neosokoi), traces of which you can still see today at the edge of Zea harbour.
Enter Hippodamus, an urban planner from Miletus, on the Aegean coast of what is today Turkey. Renowned as an architect and civic planner, he was a man in demand and so the Athenians called on him for his services—that was in the 440s BC, just a few decades after the epic Battle of Salamis in which the Athenians delivered an improbable but decisive blow to the Persian fleet of King Xerxes. After that Piraeus would become prime real estate, but a fortified harbor was just the start. “With Hippodamus, you didn’t have just one person designing everything like the starchitects of today,” says archaeologist Peppas. “He was part of a committee because you have to remember this was during the period of radical democracy in Athens—there is never just one person to decide. So they decided to plan this new city according to Hippodamus’ ideas. They designed the main road and connected it with the two main gates and according to the Hippodamian plan the roads formed a cross that connected at the city center. The public spaces and the agora, the residential neighborhoods, were decided next.”
Back then, they built things in stone and they were designed to last. The destruction by Sulla that would come notwithstanding, and despite the piling on of the centuries, the foundations of the ancient classical phase of Piraeus haven’t gone anywhere. “What we learned from the recent tram excavations are that we zeroed in more specifically on exact locations of roads and sites from the Hippodamian plan period. We have another archaeologist who is making a GIS map of all the plots excavated in Piraeus. We can draw them and feed that into the map in absolute coordinates, meaning that we clearly see the outlines of the classical city.”