Ancient Melos

The entrance to the catacombs lay outside the eastern limit of the ancient city of Melos, which spread around the hill of Prophiis Eli­as, 400m to the west. The area and its remains can be explored by returning up the hill as far as the first sharp bend and taking the track to the left before the bend. Immediately on turning off the paved road you are confronted by an impressive circular bastion and a stretch of * ancient fortification wall, whose patterning of multicoloured volcanic blocks in pink, magenta, grey, dark blue and brown, adds dramatically to their effect. The original Archaic or early Classical fortifications, in irregular rough-hewn ‘ballooned’ blocks to the left, contrast with the precise isodomic masonry of the circular tower added nearly two centuries later in the Hellenistic period. The tower was added to strengthen the defence of the East Gate which would have stood across the path a little way ahead. In the valley to the left was the city’s stadium, marked by a long stretch of retaining wall in magnificent polygonal masonry on its south side (best seen from below or from the path to the catacombs) which may date from as early as the first part of the 5th century bc. A gymnasium stood above it—immediately below the path to the left. It was here that the Venus de Milo was un earthed in 1820 at the insistence of a young French military officer, Olivier Voutier: the exact spot, inside what would have been the gymnasium, is marked as if it were a sacred shrine.

The Venus de Milo

The Venus—or Aphrodite—of Milos was found accidentally in April 1820 by a local farmer, Giorgios Ketrotas: he was observed by chance by a 23 year-old ensign, Olivier Voutier, from a French warship which had made a stop at Milos and who had decided to spend the day with some comrades trying to dig up something of interest among the ruins of the ancient city. Voutier says that he encouraged and cajoled the farmer to continue digging until the whole statue had been unearthed in three principal pieces. It is possible that the sculpture had narrowly escaped be consigned to a furnace for making mortar in the early Byzantine period. Miraculously the piece still possessed—though partially fractured—its original head. Voutier brought the French Vice-Consul, Louis Brest, to see the statue, but was prevented from taking it away by the captain of his ship who would not load it. The French ambassador in Constantinople was eventually prevailed upon to purchase the piece for France, and in the following year (1821) it travelled to Toulon and then to Paris and was presented to the king. In the same year Voutier resigned from the French navy and joined Greek insurgents, under the command of Alexander Ypsilantis, in the nascent Greek War of Independence.
   A fragment of a statue-base found nearby, almost certainly belonging to the sculpture, carried the signature of the artist, a certain ‘[Alex]andros of Antioch on the Meander’: this base was later conveniently ‘lost’, perhaps in order to allow full-scope to those experts who wished to believe the Venus might be a work of the Golden Ages of Pheidias or of Praxiteles. Although consciously ‘Classical’ in style (especially in the face, the distant gaze, the hair-style and the proportions of the torso), both the method of carving and the complex spiral of the design which is made to seem effortlessly natural date the piece to the late 2nd century bc. Aphrodite may originally have stood in a niche, gathering her falling drapery with the right hand, and holding an apple in her left hand. Others have wished to see her admiring her own reflection in a polished shield. A larger than life size Poseidon holding a trident, now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens, in as good condition as the Aphrodite, and dating from exactly the same period, was found lower down the hill at Klima in 1877.

The best preserved relict of the area is the ancient theatre which is reached by continuing 100m further along the path. It is a later structure which dates from the period of Roman rule after the 2nd century bc, created in a deep natural cavity, shaped and faced with Parian marble and looking out due south across the bay. Only the retaining walls at either extremity of the cavea have need ed to be built up: they are constructed in a multicolour, isodomic masonry of andesite blocks—now substantially eroded—with carefully drafted angles. The corners of the entrance are beautifully faced in a contrasting white, Parian marble. The semicircular orchestra is set down well below the level of the first of the eight remaining rows of marble seats in the cavea, indicating its use also for the more elaborate entertainment spectacles typical of Roman taste. The structure of the skene is now in ruins: the complex drill-cut designs of the pieces of its trabeation, which lie in fragments in the orchestra but whose detail has survived well, show that it must have been an elaborate structure.
   Turning back from the theatre to the East Gate, shortly before the point where the Venus de Milo was found, and taking a clear track back to the left, you come up onto a small plateau above the theatre, marked by a couple of column stumps. In the centre of the area, recessed into the ground, is a small cruciform Early Christian baptismal pool, with some of its marble revetment still in place. Nothing remains of the Baptistery building which once enclosed it or the basilica which may have stood nearby. Since Early Christian baptisteries were often built over places of martyrdom, it is not impossible that this site is related to the story of the person of the central burial in the catacombs. It is generally believed that this open raised area was occupied in Antiquity by the city’s agora, and that it was in this vicinity that the famous ‘Melian dialogue’, movingly related by Thucydides (Peloponnesian War, V, 84–116) took place.

Athens could not tolerate the neutrality of Melos during its struggles with Sparta; and, after a failed attempt to capture the island in 426 bc, sent ambassadors to the island to coerce it into submission to Athenian will. The elders of the city, who received the embassy in 416 bc, boldly—perhaps foolishly—opposed themselves to the brazen threats of the messengers. In doing so they sealed the awful fate of their city and its people. An example was made of Melos by the Athenians pour encourager les autres. Thucydides sees this as setting a precedent for Athens’s increasingly truculent behaviour in the Aegean, and he presents the dialogue as a classic confrontation between honour and Realpolitik.

Continuing further round to the right (north), the land drops slightly into a dip, with the hill of Prophiis Eli­as to the left (west). In the centre of the dip the quantity of collapsed stone in the middle of the field, describes a large rectangle—the podium of a substantial temple: protruding from the rubble at points are walls constructed in regular, isodomic Hellenistic masonry. On the summit of the hill of Prophiis Eli­as the small church is built on an ancient base and incorporates ancient elements and fluted columns laid horizontally: all around the church lie antique fragments, some pagan, some Early Christian, suggesting that this hill has been a place of worship in all periods of history. Looking down the west and north sides of the hill, marble columns can occasionally be glimpsed lying in the undergrowth: the walls of the city swept right across this field of vision from west to east, while, directly below to the north, the site of Roman thermae has been located.

Milos Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.
Ancient Melos. The Venus de Milo.


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