Dion & Olympus in History & Today

Imbued with great sanctity, the peaks of Olympus were probably taboo throughout antiquity. We hear of no attempts to scale them As for Dion, as one of the most sacred sites in the kingdom of Macedonia, it rose to prominence under its ruler Archelaus I in the late fifth century bc. A century before, to compete at the Olympic Games, Alexander I of Macedon had been forced to prove his Greek credentials by claiming descent from Heracles and the kings of Argos. Now, Archelaus turned Dion into a sanctuary as fine as any in the Greek world. He erected a temple to Zeus, a stadium and a theatre, and established the ‘Olympia’, a festival of athletics and drama sacred to Zeus and the Muses. Here may have been performed the (lost) Archelaus by Euripides (who as an old man joined the king’s court). His Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis were perhaps intended for Dion’s theatre, too.

In the fourth century bc Philip II staged magnificent ceremonies at Dion in celebration of victory. His own relationship with the gods was complex. In 336 bc, during his marriage celebrations, he caused statues of the twelve Olympians to be paraded in the theatre at nearby Aegae – joined by a thirteenth: of himself. It was an act other Greeks would have regarded as hubris. So they would not have been surprised when moments later Philip was assassinated.

In 334 bc, before his invasion of Persia, Philip’s son Alexander held a lavish festival with games and sacrifices at Dion. Near the theatre he erected a magnificent tent housing a hundred banqueting couches, where he entertained his generals. Later that year after victory at Granicus he ordered a bronze statue group by Lysippus to be installed at Dion to commemorate the twenty-five cavalrymen who had fallen in battle. In 332/331 bc, Alexander claimed to have learned from the oracle at Siwah in Egypt that he was the son of Zeus – and thus the half-brother of Dionysus and Heracles. In subsequent campaigns he caused the Olympian gods to be worshipped as far away as India. On the banks of the Hyphasis he erected twelve tall altars – one for each god – but wisely none for himself.

In 220 bc, Aetolian Greeks allied to Rome ransacked Dion, but it was soon rebuilt by King Philip V It was from Dion that this Philip marched south to his defeat at the hands of the Romans at Cynoscephalae in 197 bc and that, in 168 bc, King Perseus marched north to be defeated by Rome’s Lucius Aemilius Paulus at Pydna. In Rome itself the Olympians quickly became identified and syncretized with Roman gods, preserving (if subtly altering) Greek religion and mythology, which then spread north and west as far as Britain.

Dion & Olympus in History & Today Photo Gallery

In 31 bc Dion became a Roman colony, growing into an important and thriving town. By ad 346 it was the seat of a bishop, but in ad 393 the Christian emperor Theodosius’ decree banning pagan religion dealt a heavy blow – followed three years later by Dion’s sack by Alaric the Goth. Earthquakes and floods did much further damage, and soon Dion was abandoned.

In 1806 the site was discovered by the Englishman William Leake, but only in 1928 was the first real investigation undertaken. One of the most significant discoveries (made in 1992) forges an exciting link with Dion’s association with the Muses. In the Roman ‘Villa of Dionysus’ the pipes from a first-century bc hydraulis (water organ) were found, part of the world’s oldest surviving keyboard instrument.

Dion lies just off the E75 motorway south of Katerini in northeast Greece. A pleasant road passes through vineyards in the lee of Mount Olympus, which towers to a height of 2,919 m (9,576 ft).

The beautifully laid out archaeological park lies close to the modern village. From the ticket office the path leads past the sacred lake (right) to crossroads. Ahead are ‘megaron-type’ sanctuaries of Demeter. The right fork leads first to the (heavily reconstructed) theatre, then across the meadow (where Alexander pitched his tent) towards (right) the Sanctuary of Olympian Zeus with remains of its 22-m (72-ft) long limestone altar, the site of ancient hecatombs (sacrifices of 100 oxen). Nearby are remains of a Roman odeon. Partially retracing one’s steps but continuing straight on, one comes first to the Sanctuary of Zeus Hypsistos (Zeus the Highest), with its altar and temple, originally approached through an avenue of columns topped with marble eagles. Nearby across the river is the partially submerged Sanctuary of Isis. From here the path leads across the modern road and through the city walls into the (partially excavated) city itself. Working clockwise, it leads past Public Baths and an Early Christian Basilica before crossing the impressive ‘Main Avenue’ (site of a fine Roman facade bearing carvings of shields and breastplates) to the remains of large villas, including the Villa of Dionysus.

In the village, the Archaeological Museum houses finds from the site, including pipes from the hydraulis, mosaics, a sundial, and remains of a statue of Isis and the statue of Zeus Hypsistos.

Sunium: Poseidon’s Cliff-Top Temple

With the great god Poseidon I start my song, who shakes both the earth and the barren sea, the sea-god, who rules Helicon and the broad expanse of Aegae. The gods have given you a double honour, great Earth-shaker: to tame horses and save ships. Greetings, Poseidon, dark-haired Earth-keeper! Come with kindness, Blessed One, and save our sailors!

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