Whoosh! Issue 18 - March 1998

IAXS project #367
By Paul Dickson
Copyright © 1998 held by author
3294 words

Introduction (01-02)
The Big Picture (03-08)
Language (09-11)
Potidaea (12-23)
Amphipolis (24-35)
Conclusions (36-38)
End Notes

Historic Amphipolis and Potidaea


[1] Amphipolis and Potidaea [Note 01] are both real places in the northern part of Greece, and both were the sites of major conflicts during the Peloponnesian War. This article recounts what led up to the founding of the cities, and the subsequent conflicts that each city faced. It stops at the Roman period.

[2] I make no attempt to reconcile recorded history with events in XWP, but I do note parallels where found.

The Big Picture

'Look, Gabrielle, it's just a short trip south and to the east...'

Lands around the Aegean Sea

[3] Between 3000 and 1500 BCE, the dominant culture around the Aegean Sea was on the islands, and centered at Crete. This culture was originally believed to have been Minoan, but modern scholarship has begun to challenge this assumption. This so-called Minoan culture was contemporary with the building of the pyramids in Egypt. There was considerable trade with Egypt, and, like the Egyptians, the Minoans did not know how to make iron weapons. All weapons were of bronze, a relatively soft metal. Minoan cities did not have walls around them, so life apparently was peaceful, allowing their civilization to develop to a high level.

[4] Between 1500 and 1200 BCE, a similar Bronze Age culture flourished on the mainland, centered at Mycenae, near Athens. There is some speculation that the collapse of the Mycenean civilization was brought on by the explosion of the volcano at Santorini, an island in the Aegean, around 1200 BCE, though invasions from the north probably had just as much to do with it [Note 02].

[5] The northern parts of Greece had been isolated from the cultural advances being made to the south and on the islands. Around 1200 BCE, a warlike group of people from the north, later referred to as "Dorians", moved south into the territory of the Mycenean people. One of the major advantages the Dorians had was that they knew how to make weapons from iron. An iron sword can chop a bronze sword in half with one blow. Once this military innovation came about, *everybody* had iron weapons. In XWP, most weapons are iron.

[6] As the iron-equipped Dorians moved down from the north, the older Bronze Age cities did not have a chance; their advanced civilization was wiped out by the more "primitive" newcomers [Note 03]. The sort of "civilization" left in the wake of the Dorian invasion is much like what we see on XWP: small isolated towns, much warfare, and a general feeling of impermanence. People often moved around, trying to stay away from the warlords.

[7] Historians refer to the period from 1200 to 800 BCE as the "Dark Ages". This is not to be confused with the European Dark Ages that occurred 1000 years later. Both followed the collapse of an advanced civilization, Minoan/Mycenean in the first case, Roman in the second. There is little accurate recorded history about what went on during these periods, so legends were born about "ancient gods, warlords, and kings", not to mention your "mighty princesses forged in the heat of battle". From the European Dark Ages came the stories of Arthur and Camelot.

[8] It was not until the Archaic Period of Greek history, from 800 to 480 BCE, that we start getting detailed written records about what was going on from people who actually saw the events take place. The modern Greek alphabet was developed during this time, so they could write events down in such a way that we can read today.


[9] One of the tools used by historians to track the movement of groups of people who left behind no written journals is a branch of linguistics that analyzes similarities in spoken or written language in different areas. The assumption is that if two groups of people speak the same dialect of a language, those groups came from the same place or have some kind of shared history, even though they may have become widely separated over time.

[10] What we now know as the Greek alphabet was developed after 800 BCE. It was first used by the Phoenicians, who did not notate vowels. The Greeks added vowel letters to make the alphabet more versatile and fit their language more closely. The written languages used around the Aegean before the development of this alphabet were not well-suited to recording much more than inventories of trade goods.

And light brown was Xena's territory when she was a warlord.

Map of language dialects around the Aegean

[11] Analysis of written texts from after the adoption of the new writing system revealed that the people living around the Aegean were speaking distinct but, for the most part, mutually intelligible dialects. The Ionic dialect spoken in Athens and along the coast evolved into modern Greek. Amphipolis and Potidaea might have spoken the same Ionic dialect except for one thing: Potidaea was a settlement from Corinth, where the people, descendants of those fun-loving Dorians, spoke the Doric dialect. Same as Sparta. (Ominous music should begin now).


Anyone up for a game of Risk?

Map of northwestern Aegean

[12] Potidaea (poe-tih-DAY-uh) was located in Chalcidice (hahl-kee-dee-KEE) [Note 04], the land that looks like a three-fingered hand reaching into the Aegean from the northwest. The town was right at the middle of the isthmus joining the westernmost of the three "fingers" to the mainland. It was founded around 600 BCE by people from Corinth, 200 km south, as an aid to commerce with Macedonia.

[13] Greek historian Thucydides (too-kee-DEE-deese) reports that it was common in those days for cities to be located on isthmuses, for convenience to the sea as well as ease of defense. Any settlement near the ocean needed a wall around it, as pirates were everywhere. A picture of the site today shows how narrow the isthmus is, and how flat the land is. A wall would certainly be required for defense. (Photos are not reproduced here. Follow the links to see them.)

[14] In the early 5th century BCE, the Persian empire was all over this part of the world, and several major battles were fought around the Chalcidician peninsula as the Greeks struggled to push the Persians back east. The Persian general Artabazus laid siege to Potidaea in 480 BCE, but the citizens resisted successfully.

[15] In 478, after the Persian army was driven away, the Greek states formed an alliance called the Delian League [Note 05] to organize defense against Persia. Athens was not an equal member of the League and called all the shots, and over time, the league essentially evolved into an Athenian empire. By 449 BCE, Potidaea was an "ally" of Athens, in the "tribute-paying class". (They had doublespeak even back then).

[16] In 432, battles had broken out between Athens and Corinth. Athens was worried about the allegiance of the people of Potidaea and made new demands: Potidaea was to tear down its city wall on the south, send hostages to Athens, and throw out the Corinthian magistrates [Note 06]. Athens was afraid that if Potidaea revolted, other towns in Thrace would follow, and was afraid of the influence of Corinth and her allies in Potidaea.

[17] Among these allies of Corinth was one Perdiccas, king of Macedonia and son of Alexander [Note 07]. This Perdiccas was more colorful than Gabrielle's unfortunate husband with the similar name. Perdiccas was always looking out for his own interests and preferred to have friends on his borders. But just who he considered a friend varied with circumstance. Although he would sign treaties with Athens when he considered it useful, he generally ended up switching sides at the last moment. Surprisingly, it took Athens some time to catch on to this pattern, and he was not actually declared an enemy until 416 BCE!

[18] The leaders at Athens knew that Perdiccas was trying to stir up things in Potidaea against them, and were just about to send an army of 1,000 men on board 30 ships to enforce the order to destroy the fortifications. Potidaea wanted to negotiate, and sent representatives to Athens to urge calm. But representatives were also sent to Sparta with the Corinthians to ask for support, should that become necessary. Nothing came of the negotiations in Athens and the fleet was ordered to set sail. Sparta warned of counter attacks against Athenian interests if Potidaea were attacked.

[19] The people at Potidaea sensed that things had reached a crucial point and declared an outright revolt against Athens. The die was cast. Thucydides cited this dispute over Potidaea as one of the triggering events of the entire Peloponnesian War. Potidaea and the other towns of Chalcidice formed their own mutual defense organization, the Chalcidician League, centered at Olynthus, a city more inland, about 6 km north of Potidaea. (Note spelling: Olympus is a mountain with gods on it, Olynthus is a city.)

[20] So Athens sent its army and surrounded Potidaea. Sure enough, Perdiccas sent cavalry to help Potidaea, even though he had just signed a treaty with Athens. But Athens was able to cut the town off on all sides and the siege lasted for two years. The Athenian general Hagnon even brought up siege engines and could not prevail, though he was severely hampered by an outbreak of plague in the Athenian encampments. He lost a quarter of his men to plague on that campaign.

[21] Finally, the commanders were looking for any way out of the mess. They allowed the Potidaeans to move to Olynthus with a few personal belongings, and the people agreed to this. Things had gotten pretty grim inside the city walls, and there were reports of cannibalism. The politicians back in Athens were upset when they discovered how lightly the Potidaeans had been let off. Athens set up a "cleruchy", in which land taken in battle was distributed to poor Athenians. This lasted until 404 when Athens surrendered to Sparta, ending the Delian League.

[22] When Philip II of Macedon came in 348, he captured Potidaea and Olynthus and dissolved the Chalcidician League. Potidaea was destroyed and the people relocated. A later Macedonian king, Cassander, built a new city on the same spot in 316 BC, but he called it Cassandreia, after himself. The whole area remained under Macedonian rule until the Romans arrived in 168.

[23] In more recent times, the city of "Nea Potidaea" was built on the site of the previous Potidaea and Cassandreia.


[24] Amphipolis (ahm-FIP-oh-liss) is located near the mouth of the river Strymon where it flows into the Aegean Sea, about 50 km northeast of Potidaea. In DESTINY (36/212), Gabrielle asks Xena if Mount Nestos is located north or south of this river.

[25] Back in the 5th century BCE, the area of Amphipolis and eastward was considered part of Thrace, and the people who lived in that immediate area were the Edonians, a Thracian tribe. They did not call their town Amphipolis at all, but Ennea Odoi ("Nine Ways").

[26] The first attempt at an Athenian colony here was made around 498 BCE by Aristagoras of Miletus while he was fleeing from King Darius of Persia, but the Edonians drove him away. In 466, Athens sent 10,000 settlers to try again, but when this group attempted to go further inland, a combined Thracian force "cut them to pieces" (in Thucydides' words) near the town of Drabescus. In 437, Athens, led by Hagnon, made yet another attempt at colonization. This time they successfully drove out the Edonians.

[27] As was common at the time, the city was built on top of a high plateau overlooking the river, which loops around the western half of the city. Hagnon chose the name "Amphipolis", which literally means "surrounded city" [Note 08]. For security, he built a 7 km long wall across the fourth side. The word "polis" means "city state", and Amphipolis was indeed a significant city, of great strategic and economic importance. Nearby gold mines at Mt. Pangaion provided an important source of wealth for Athens, and a strategic location near the coast took advantage of sea commerce.

[28] A nice photograph from the plateau overlooking the river valley can be seen on the Last Days of Socrates web site run by Clarke College. A dramatic aerial view from the Perseus Project at Tufts shows the loop in the river, the 150m high cliffs, and the sea in the distance.

[29] Speaking of Socrates, he visited both Potidaea and Amphipolis while he was serving in the Athenian army, and is reported to have exhibited considerable bravery during the battles. This stint in the army, at age 45, is reportedly the only time Socrates set foot outside of Athens.

[30] In 424 BCE, only thirteen years after the city was founded by Hagnon, the war brought the Spartan general Brasidas to Amphipolis. He captured it in an unsuspected attack at night, in the middle of winter. This victory was aided by people inside the city, from the neighboring town of Argilus. They had designs on the place, and were not friendly toward Athens. Actual Athenians in the city made up only a small part of the population. By offering very moderate surrender terms, Brasidas was able to get the residents to receive him into the city quickly, before Athenian help could arrive.

[31] The defensive help Brasidas was worried about was a small fleet of ships based at Thasos under the command of Athenian general and later historian Thucydides. But the ships arrived too late, sailing into the port city of Eion, 5 km away, on the same day that Brasidas had already entered Amphipolis. When the other towns in the region heard how smoothly the change-over went, and the considerate surrender terms Brasidas offered, they jumped at the chance to throw off control from Athens, and actually begged him to march on them as well.

[32] The politicians of Athens were quite alarmed at this turn of events, and held Thucydides responsible for the loss. They exiled him for 20 years, during which time he traveled widely and did research for his book. He thus joined a select club. (Several centuries earlier, a certain Warrior Princess had been exiled as well, not by Athenians for losing Amphipolis, but by the Amphipolitans for the excessive loss of life in her successful defense of it.)

[33] The Athenians tried to take back Amphipolis three years later, in 421, but failed, and both the Athenian general and Brasidas were killed in the battle. The people of Amphipolis put on a major funeral celebration for Brasidas, honoring him with games and annual offerings. Henceforth, the people considered Brasidas the founder and protector of Amphipolis, and erased any memories of Hagnon the Athenian.

[34] The fall of Amphipolis, nine years after the start of the war, marked the beginning of the end for Athenian influence around the Aegean Sea. Athens and Sparta had an uneasy truce from 421 to 413, but it did not last. Fighting started again, but Athens was weakened from the years of war and finally surrendered to Sparta in 404.

[35] Amphipolis remained under Sparta until it fell to Philip II of Macedon in 358. When the Romans finally showed up in 168, they made it the capital of Macedonia.


[36] The events depicted in XWP take place well before the founding of either Amphipolis or Potidaea. There is no evidence of the organization and civic infrastructure that we would expect to see during the Greek classical period, and general appearance (but not guest stars) is consistent with some time in the "Dark Ages".

[37] But even in 1000 BCE, the dramatic site of Amphipolis would have been a desirable location for a settlement, so there is no reason to think there could not have been a village there in Xena's time. It just would not have been called Amphipolis. There is no way to know how far back the name "Ennea Odoi" goes. Let's blame it on a glitch in the Universal Translator.

[38] It is more difficult to argue for Potidaea. Due to its exposed location, it would have been easy prey to pirates without a big wall around it. Thucydides points out in his introduction that until groups of people had been able to accumulate sufficient capital that they could afford to put effort into such civic undertakings, walls could not be built and towns would not be sited in such dangerous locations. Additionally, until the big navies were developed by Athens and other members of the Delian League, piracy was rampant in the Aegean.

End Notes

Note 01:
Spelled Poteidaia on Xena: Warrior Princess.
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Note 02:
For more on volcanoes, see Whoosh! #11, "Volcanoes: The Foes of the Gods" by Virginia Carper.
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Note 03:
The iron sword is not the only thing that the Dorians contributed. Besides a new instrument for bloody warfare, they also created a new design for a bronze pin and originated a style of geometric designs on their pottery. Archaeologists have not been able to dig up much else they can attribute directly to the Dorians.
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Note 04:
Phonetics are given for some words so you can impress your friends with the genuine Greek pronunciations. In some cases, these are quite different from the way English speakers have been taught to pronounce Greek, but they have been verified by an actual Greek person. Modern Greek pronunciation is quite close to that of the Classical period, though probably not so close to pronunciation in 1000 BCE.
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Note 05:
It met on the island of Delos, hence the name.
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Note 06:
Even after all this time, the people of Potidaea still considered themselves related to Corinth.
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Note 07:
Not Alexander the Great, but an earlier one [obviously, a not-so-great one].
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Note 08:
Compare modern words like "amphitheater".
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Penguin Dictionary of Ancient History.
In addition to general background information, the map of Greek dialects came from this book, which in turn took it from Pausanias: Guide To Greece by P. Levi, Penguin, 1971.

History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, Penguin Classics edition.
The Athenian general and historian Thucydides is the primary written source for what happened in those years, and many of the details in this article came from his book on the war. (Still in print, 2,500 years later!) Anyone interested in a blow by blow account of the war and 5th century BCE politics should get this book. The translation in the Penguin edition is good and easy to read.

Bronze Age history web site at Dartmouth College.
Quite extensive.

Ancient World Web
Index to many other web sites.

Guidance on pronunciation from the Linguistics FAQ from the soc.culture.greek newsgroup.

Language and literary references from the wonderful facilities of the Perseus Project at Tufts University, Gregory R. Crane, editor.

The Tourist Guide of Greece.


Paul Dickson Paul Dickson
When not working for a large software company, Paul does volunteer web-work for an ocean conservation organization. He took exactly one linguistics course in college, but it happened to be in the area referred to in this article. Paul and his wife have five cats and one dog.
Favorite episode: THE BITTER SUITE (58/312)
Favorite line: Xena: "Gabrielle, you are a gift to me." SOLSTICE CAROL (33/208)
First episode seen: ULYSSES (43/219)
Least favorite episode: BEEN THERE DONE THAT (48/302)

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