Journey through Ancient Greece



Originally a harbour before it was silted up, Dion was the sacred city of Macedon, built at the foot of Mount Olymbos, the home of the gods, with sanctuaries dedicated to Zeus, Demeter, Artemis, Asklepios and the Egyptian goddess Isis. At the end of the 5th century BC King Arkelaos I, founder of Pella, built the sanctuary to Zeus (from whom Dion gets its name), and also a stadium and theatre, where the Olympic Games of Dion were held in honour of Olympian Zeus and the plays of Euripides performed, (the theatre on the site today is from a later period). It was to Dion that the Macedonian kings came to make sacrifice before going into battle and where they celebrated their victories; Philip II came after his victory at Olynthos and Alexander made sacrifice before setting off on his conquests. The magnificent bronze sculpture by Lyssipos commissioned by Alexander as a memorial to his 25 Companions who died at the Battle of Granikos was erected here but later taken to Rome. In around 43 BC Roman colonists arrived here and after the Battle of Actium (31 BC) Augustus organised a mass transportation of Italians. In the 2nd century AD there was a burst of building activity the results of which we see today. In the Byzantine period two Christian basilicas were built on the ruins of the ancient city. In its heyday 15,000 people lived here.

Sometime in the 5th century AD earthquakes forced the evacuation of the city which was then engulfed in mud.

Museum This museum is overdue for modernisation and there is a sad lack of labels in much of it, but there are some interesting things to see.

In the courtyard as you enter the museum are a number of Macedonian altars; made of marble and usually surmounted by a large pine cone, these were placed over tombs in the 2nd & 3rd centuries AD. In the portico are the leaves of the marble door of a Macedonian tomb.

On the ground floor are beautifully displayed the many statues and steles, found in the Baths and the sanctuaries of Isis and Demeter, and dating from the 4th century BC to the 2nd century AD. These were found beneath the mud which covered the site and are therefore mostly in good condition. They include a group of six 2nd century AD statues with inscriptions which identify them as the children of Asklepios. The stele of Erennianos, which was moved from the baths to the villa of Dionysos in ancient times, dates from the early 3rd century AD and is considered a masterpiece of ancient portraiture.

Note the footprints of a man and a woman; they are known as bemata (steps), and were dedications made by pilgrims who had come from far away to visit the sanctuary of Isis.

First floor: Don't miss: Here is an amazing musical instrument, an hydraulis pipe organ, the first keyboard musical instrument in history, invented by Ktesibios of Alexandria, a 3rd century BC engineer. It consists of 27 bronze pipes, 2cm. diameter and varying in length up to 1.20 metres, and 16 pipes of 1 cm. diameter, placed on a box. The organ was operated by air pumped under pressure through water and controlled by keys. This is the earliest example of the hydraulis organ which was the forerunner of church organs.

On this floor there are also more steles, bronze statuettes, and terracotta figurines. I particularly liked the dog and bird, and the man/woman wearing a hat, himation and boots.

Downstairs: This is a conservation and education room with some interesting notes on the conservation process, (it looks like an old school lab!). There are helpful models of the sanctuaries of Isis and Demeter, and the city of Dion . Examples of everyday life in ancient Dion include craftsmen's tools, medical instruments, carriage shock absorbers, and some miniature replicas of furniture.

A large map shows the route of Alexander's march across Asia and the cities he founded.

There is an exhibition of mosaic making and restoration including a Roman mosaic floor, and illustrations of the heating systems and water supply and drainage systems of the ancient Greeks.

The Site This is set in an enormous 'archaeological park' over looked by Mount Olymbos. The whole area is water logged and even when not raining will be damp underfoot much of the way, the archaeologists are constantly battling with the water levels, but it is quite different from anything else we see, with an almost ethereal atmosphere. We can see remains from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine phases of Dion's existence.

From the entrance we follow a path by a lake surrounded by clumps of bamboo and willows, with ducks, moorhens and geese. Last May we also saw a wheatear and heard a cuckoo.

If you turn right at the first junction after passing the lake you will see the Hellenistic theatre where Alexander held theatrical games and a huge party in 334 BC when he met his generals before setting off on his great campaign to conquer Asia. They had a tent here with over 100 dining couches! The theatre is in a poor state of preservation. The hill on which the auditorium or cavea is supported is partly natural and partly artificially built up. There was an underground passage with two entrances into the orchestra, a 'Charon's ladder' to allow the spirits to come up from Hades.

Alexander made sacrifice at the Sanctuary to Zeus 120 metres further on. David tried to get there but was beaten by mud! A new path was under construction which we hope this year will lead us there! Excavations which are still going on have revealed fragments of columns belonging top a large Doric building. Near here are the ruins of the Roman theatre (again we didn't find this). It was built in the 2nd century AD and had a cavea supported on eleven wedge shaped vaults similar to the Odeion in the Baths.

Going back to the crossroads and turning right brings you to the Sanctuary of Demeter. There is a lot of water here, (and last year lots of noisy frogs!). This is the oldest part of the site a Mycenaean ring was found here and evidence of buildings from the 6th century BC. There are some statues in situ, reproductions of ones found here and now in the museum.

Across the stream along an old path is the Sanctuary of Isis - It is very beautiful, although sometimes it is submerged by water. Excavation, which has been extremely difficult because of the water, has revealed remains of temples, altars, a stoa, priests' rooms and many statues. There is evidence that there was a sanctuary to Artemis here in the 5th century BC but it was completely rebuilt in the second century AD, and continued as a sanctuary until its destruction in the earthquake in the 4th century AD.

There are remains of four small temples; three of these stood in a row; in the centre are the great altar and the remains of the four Ionic columns of the temple to Isis Lochias, the 'listening' goddess who succeeded Artemis. Marble steps lead up to the pronaos and cella. (It was here that the footprints in the museum were found.) On either side of this were temples of Aphrodite and possibly Eros. The fourth temple, on the far left, is from a later period (it is built of brick), and has a semi circular apse where the cult statue of Isis Tyche (Fortune) was found; the one standing there now is a copy, the original is in the museum. In front of the statue is an oval pool.

I suggest you now go back to the 'cross roads ' of the paths and cross over the modern road onto the paved ancient main road of the Roman city. On your left now are the Roman Odeion and Thermae (public baths) built about AD 200, on the south side of the city away protected from the north winds. (No fewer than ten bath complexes have been discovered at Dion. but these are the most important). The public loos have survived in good condition (no, I'm not suggesting we use them!); the marble bench with round holes ran round the edge of the room and below it was a deep sewer which was flushed with running water from the bath-house. There was a mosaic floor with scenes of aquatic animals. In Roman times these lavatories were sometimes known as 'Vespasianae', a dig at the emperor Vespasian who had imposed a tax on them!

To the right of these there were shops and workshops opening on to the main road. Beneath the shops are walls of 4th century BC and Hellenistic buildings. There was probably a large stoa on this site.

In between these a staircase led to the spacious courtyard of the Baths. On the right of the courtyard is the Odeion, a small roofed theatre where musical concerts and recitations took place, and which was sometimes also used as a council-chamber or bouleuterion. We can still see the eleven wedge shaped vaults which supported the seating area, and originally had a semi circle of Ionic columns running behind the top row of seats.

From the courtyard a narrow doorway led to the Baths. These were extensive, with swimming baths, cold, tepid and hot pools, saunas and massage rooms. They were also very luxurious; the pools were paved in marble and the dry areas with mosaic, many statues decorated the area. The Baths played an important part in the social life of the Roman citizens who would while away hours here almost every day, not only bathing but also exercising, meeting friends and doing business. The statues of the children of Asklepios and fragments of a statue of the god himself were found here suggesting that the baths may have had therapeutic uses. Many of the brick pillars of the hypocaust are visible.
HYPOCAUST: An underground room, with a large number of brick pillars supporting the ceiling, through which hot air circulated to heat the floor above. Fire burned in furnaces in the exterior wall. Hot air was not confined to the floor but also rose in hollows deliberately left at the centre of the walls and heated them.
The ancient main road which runs alongside the baths is paved with marble and six metres wide in places. In the 4th & 5th centuries AD there was a defence wall along the west side. Along the left hand side is a 4th century BC monument, a row, originally 37 metres long, of marble shields and breastplates; it may have been part of the wall of a public building or possibly the base of an enormous Nike.
If you continue along the ancient main road you come to a path on your right leading to The House of Dionysos, so called after the superb mosaic found there . This was a substantial and imposing building with a courtyard surrounded by an Ionic stoa and a well in the centre, a bath-house, a library, an atrium with a water feature, and a large banqueting hall. The banqueting hall has a magnificent mosaic floor, which is sadly rather difficult to see behind a protective grill. It is about 100 square metres in size, remarkably intact and depicts Dionysos, thyrsus in one hand, wine goblet in the other, standing naked on a chariot pulled through the waves by 'sea panthers'. Couches for the diners were placed along three sides of the room. There are six columns standing.
A terrible fire, possibly caused by an earthquake, destroyed the building.

go back to Northern Greece tour

go back to home page