By: Zachary and Christian
Although small and overlooked, Pylos has a long history involving several key moments in Greek history. Thucydides called it a deserted headland in 425 BCE when Athens defeated its rivals Sparta in a land and naval battle there during the Peloponnesian War. According to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, in the 5th century BCE the area was “together with most of the country round, unpopulated” (1). It was also mentioned by Homer in Book 17 of the Odyssey:
We left for Pylos, Nestor too
the shepherd of the peoples,
And He, receiving me the king,
within his halls so lofty,
Embraced me with all
eagerness as father does
His son back from long time abroad.
Pylos is located on the southern headland of the Órmos bay, a deepwater shipping channel on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese. The nearby island of Sphakteria protects and almost blocks Pylos from the sea. It is the main harbor on the Bay of Navarino and has evidence of continuous human presence dating back to the Neolithic Age (2).
An elaborate Mycenaean palace that was occupied from about 1700 BCE to 1200 was discovered and unearthed in 1939. This impressive palace, together with evidence from plundered tombs, appears to closely match the position and grandeur of the royal kingship as described by Homer. In addition, the discovery of hundreds of inscribed Linear B clay tablets baked hard by the fire that destroyed the palace provided valuable insight to the locations significance.
The Mycenaean state of Pylos (1600–1100 BC) covered an area of 2,000 square km and had a minimum population of 50,000 according to Linear B tablets, or perhaps as large as 80,000–120,000 (3). It was a significant kingdom in Mycenaean Greece, with remains of the so-called “Palace of Nestor” excavated nearby.
The remains consist of a fort which was built covering the face of a hill sloping to the south, with a steep and abrupt terrain to the north and east. The town was built on the southern slope and was surrounded by a wall which followed the natural irregularities of the soil and created a triangle. The site had a large structure at the summit—a site observable in many of the ancient cities of Greece. Unfortunately, this site was abandoned sometime after the 8th century BC and burned to the ground.
In 425 BC the Athenian politician Cleon sent an expedition to Pylos where the Athenians built up and fortified the rocky high point now known as Koryphasion. This occurred at the northern edge of the bay, after a conflict with Spartan ships in the Battle of Pylos seized and occupied the bay. A little later the Athenians captured a number of Spartan troops besieged on the adjacent island of Sphacteria. The Spartan anxiety over the return of their prisoners, who were taken to Athens as hostages, was a factor to their acceptance of the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC.
The red soil about Pylos yields large amounts of squills, which are used in medicine. The rocks, which appear everywhere through a scattered but rich soil, are limestone and present a general appearance of an unrefined or unpopulated area (4). Numerous amounts of sage, brooms, cistus, and other shrubs grow from the cavities of the limestone, as trees are rare there. Pylos was excavated by Carl Blegen between 1939 and 1952.