The harbour of ancient Gytheion

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Ancient Gytheion is located on the southern corner of the Peloponnese and the northwestern coast of the Laconian Gulf.


Historical Development

The first evidence of trade in the area date to the Bronze Age, when Lapis Lacaedemonius, which was quarried locally at the nearby cities Krokeai and Psephi, was exported at Crete and Mycenae. Later the natural harbour of Gytheion became the center of the Phoenician trade in purple dye.

During the second half of the 8th century BC, the area around Sparta including Kythera, eastern Peloponnese and the land west of Cape Malea, were ruled by Argos. Sparta that needed a southern outlet to the sea conquered Helos, at the mouth of Eurotas River, and Las. In the beginning of the 6th century BC, the flourishing trade in Laconian pottery, and its increasing needs, suggest an active harbour at Gytheion.

Xenophon reports that the Spartan fleet was based at Gytheion. There is archaeological and historical evidence to support that Gytheion was active during the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenistic and Roman times. There is evidence for the existence of the commercial and military harbour until 374-5AD, when an earthquake destroys it, and a considerable part of the city is covered by the sea.


Selected Written Sources

Xenophon (Hellenica VI 5.30) mentions that around 369BC, when the Thebans were walking towards Helos, burned the unfortified cities and for three days laid siege to Gytheion, which was the Spartan port. Pausanias (III 21, 4-5) mentions the quarrying of Lapis Lacaedemonius, thus supporting historically the archaeological evidence of its trade. The city and its harbour are also mentioned by Thucydides, and other ancient writers such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus and Pliny.

Selected Written Sources


The Greek archaeologist A. Skias was the first one to locate and publish part of the submerged walls of ancient Gytheion in 1891-2. In 1969, N.C. Flemming of the British National Institute of Oceanography examined the changes at the sea level during the last 2000 years in Greece. In his study he used archaeological evidence to reconstruct the ancient coastline of the Peloponnese. The preliminary research and the first systematic attempt to map the area of Gytheion using sonar and divers took place in 1971 (Skoufopoulos & Edgerton 1972). The next year the survey was continued in an attempt to examine the ancient harbour (Skoufopoulos & McΚernan 1975).



During sonar surveying a target of possible archaeological interest was located. The researchers (Skoufopoulos 1985) believe that the target may be a structure of the ancient harbour of Gytheion or a Pleistocene rock, or a quay, while they are not able to determine its precise nature without further excavation. The area is located southwest of the modern stadium and almost parallel to the coast. It is located 5m beneath the sea sub-bottom and it is around 220m long and 70m wide.



According to the ancient sources, the Spartans probably fortified Gytheion, as in 370BC, when the Spartan Epameinondas laid siege to the city was not able to destroy the Spartan ship-sheds. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support the existence of harbour fortifications.



Parallel walls with direction towards the coast, were located east of the surveyed area F (Skoufopoulos & McKenna 1975: 111) in the gulf ‘tis Mantilou’. The walls probably belong to the foundations of Roman shipsheds.



According to the ancient sources ancient Gytheion was used both as a commercial (Strabo, Geography, 8.5.2) and military harbour (Xenophon, Hellenica VI 5.30)

Function commercial


There is disagreement between archaeological and historical evidence, concerning the harbour at Gytheion. Although ancient writers consider it a Spartan military harbour, no positive archaeological evidence has been found as yet. This disagreement is probably caused by the partial survey of the area and the lack of excavation.



Θεοδουλου, Θ. / Theodoulou. Th.



Edgerton H. & Skoufopoulos N., 1972

"Sonar Search at Gythion Harbour", Αρχαιολογικά Ανάλεκτα Αθηνών 5, 202-6

Forster E. S., 1906-7

"Gythium and the North-west Coast of the Laconian Gulf", Annals of the British School at Athens 13, 219-237

Frost H., 1963

Under the Mediterranean, London

Scoufopoulos-Stavrolakes N. 1985

"Ancient Gythion, the port of Sparta: History and Survey of the Submerged Remnants", in Raban A, (ed.), Harbour Archaeology: Proceedings of the first International workshop of ancient Mediterranean Harbours, Ceasaria Maritima, BAR 257

Scoufopoulos N. & McKernan G., 1975

"Underwater Survey of Ancient Gythion", International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 4.1, 103-116


History of the Peloponnesian War, Ι 108.5 translation R. Warner, Penguin Classics, Harmondsworth

Διόδωρος Σικελιώτης

’ιβλιοθήκη Ιστορική (XI 84.6), μετάφραση Φιλολογική Ομάδα Κάκτου, Κάκτος, Ο. Χατζόπουλος, Αθήνα


Ελληνικά VI 5.32, μετάφραση Ρ. Ρούφος, Ωκεανίδα, Αθήνα


Ελλάδος Περιήγησις ΙΙΙ 21.4, μετάφραση Ν. Παπαχατζή, Εκδοτική Αθηνών, Αθήνα

Jones W.H.S. 1962

Pliny, Natural History, XXXVI-XXXVIII, v. X, Loeb, W. Heinemann, London


Γεωγραφία VIII 5.2, μετάφραση Π. Θεοχαρίδης, Κάκτος, Ο. Χατζόπουλος

Σκιάς Α., 1891

«Τοπογραφικά Γυθείου», Πρακτικά Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας, 27-34 (Topography of Gytheion)

Σκιάς Α., 1892

«Τοπογραφικά Γυθείου», Αρχαιολογική Εφημερίς, 55-66 (Topography of Gytheion)



Αργύρη Ξανθή / Argyri Xanthi


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