Piraeus in Pre-Historic Times – Facts & Legends

The Region & The Name

Piraeus is situated on the northern part of the west coastline of Attica peninsula, surrounded by the Saronic gulf. As its name itself suggests, in the distant past, the main harbor of Athens had been an island. When the famous Greek philosopher, geographer and historian Strabo first visited Piraeus in the 1st century AC, he researched, examined and finally came up with the following statement:

Piraeus was formerly an island and lay ‘over against’ the mainland, from which it got its name.Strabo, 1st century AC

Piraeus_Island‘Over against’ practically means ‘beyond’, ‘to the other side’ and it is translated as ‘peraia‘ in ancient Greek (‘antipera in modern Greek). Since the official Greek name for Piraeus is Peiraias, the allusion is quite clear here. Surprising however remains the fact that Strabo could, quite accurately, tell that Piraeus was once an island, since this was the case many millennia before the renowned ancient geographer visited this region.

In early Holocene time, the rocky hill of Piraeus was linked to the mainland of Attica. During the Neolithic Period (4850–3450 BC), Piraeus became an island in a shallow marine bay, due to the sea-level rise in the Holocene. Between 2850 and 1550 BC, in the Early and Middle Bronze Age, Piraeus was separated from the mainland by a wide lagoon. In the fifth century BC, Themistocles, Cimon, and Pericles permanently connected Athens to Piraeus with two “long walls” partly built on a residual coastal marsh called the Halipedon.

The Four-City Community of Hercules

The Four-City Community of Hercules – in Greek “Tetrakomon Heraklion” – consisted of four municipalities located in the wider area of Piraeus in pre-historic times. The four cities were a kind of a commonwealth state and among them there were religious bonds, as all four of them worshiped the Greek hero Hercules – reason that explains the name – in a common temple in Keratsini. Archeologists have identified the place of those four cities: Piraeus, Faliron, Korydallos and Kaminia. Even today, the Port of Keratsini is also called Port of Hercules.

Minyes: The First Inhabitants

Topographic Map of Ancient Piraeus (Papachatzis, 1974)

Topographic Map of Ancient Piraeus (Papachatzis, 1974)

As early as 1300 BC, Piraeus was inhabited by the tribe of Minyes. Seafarers and merchants, coming from Orchomenos, Minyes organized their communities on Koumoundouros island and in Munichia (Kastella). Minyes named the hill of Kastella Munichia after their hero Munichus who they worshiped as a god.

Minyes brought to Piraeus their gods and traditions. Luna and Diana of Munichia were worshiped on the hill of Munichia (Kastella).

Minyes specialized in underground constructions (tunnels, passages etc). Siranghio, Arethousa’s Cave and the Houses of Gods are the most characteristic pieces of their work.

Arethousa’s Cave

Close to Siranghion, on the hill of Munichia lies another mysterious cave, widely known as Arethousa’s Cave. Its construction is also linked with Minyes. The cave came to light during excavations in the late 19th century. Once again, the archaeologists came across innumerable tunnels, arches, corridors and halls.

But who was Arethousa? Arethousa was a nymph, follower of Goddess Diana. According to the myth, Arethousa was trying to get away from Euripus who was in love with her. Probably she found refuge in this cave.

According to another legend Arethousa was the daughter of a king. She was in love with a man her father didn’t approve of and she had this cave built so as to be able to leave the palace and meet her lover secretly.

However, where Arethousa’s Cave leads, remains a mystery.

The Houses of Gods

Curved on the north side of Piraeus Peninsula in the area called Stavros (Cross) as well as on the rocks of Munichia hill, these structures served as houses. It was probably their size and location that led people to call them “Houses of Gods”.

The “Murder Court” in Freattida

There is no man in Western societies that hasn’t known or, at the very least, vaguely heard of the ancient Greeks’ vast contribution to the formation of Democracy, as we know it today. It was the Greeks’ conviction, especially the Athenians’, that Law, statute and customary alike, was the cornerstone of democracy as well as its most important guaranty.

The administration of justice was entrusted to the courts, with the most significant among them being the Supreme Court of Heliaia, while homicide cases were tried by five homicide or “murder” courts, the most ancient and famous of which being Areopagos. The fifth murder court was Phreatto, named after the region Freattida, where it was established, on the shores of Zea in Piraeus.

Dating back to 1180 BC, Phreatto was the very first court founded in Piraeus. There, were tried those who had been banished from their homeland on the grounds of involuntary homicide, were not yet pardoned by the victim’s family and were accused anew of a voluntary homicide. If found guilty of the new accusation, the criminal was condemned to death; if acquitted, he had to return into exile because of his former crime.

However, these uncommon cases tried in this homicide court were hardly what made it unique. Its particularity derived from the “courtroom” itself: the criminal had to return to Piraeus and plead his case from a ship while the judges sat on shore! Of course, one should take into account that moral purity was of utmost importance to the ancient Athenians and all homicide courts tried their cases out in the open in order that the judges protect themselves from the criminal’s profanity (miasma). Still, none other than Phreatto tried cases both on land and at sea simultaneously.

The fifth murder court’s exact location is impossible to be determined although most scholars agree that it was located where the Hellenic Maritime Museum stands today: in front of the picturesque Zea marina, a few metres from the ancient port of Zea.

Piraeus in Pre-Historic Times – Facts & Legends
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