Spring in Argos and the scent of orange blossom floats through the city’s streets on the gentle breezes blown across the Argolid plain from the just visible bright blue ribbon of the seas. The sun is shining, the birds are out and all day long you’re smiling.
It is easy to see why the inhabitants of this city have had a reputation for millennia as some of the happiest people on earth.
Herodotus knew this when he had Solon the great lawgiver answer a question from Croesus, the richest man in the world, about who he thought the happiest people in the world were.
Solon told him Kleobis and Biton from Argos.
When their mother needed to get to the big Hera Festival, they put her in the family wagon and carried her the five miles from the city to the Heraion.
Everyone was impressed, even their mother.
She prayed to Hera to reward them for their work and the goddess granted it. After feasting, they fell asleep in the Temple and never woke up.
Happiness is made of such moments.
The city is located to the south of two natural prominotories (the Larissa and the Aspis) in a triangular plain, lacking in regular rivers, but surrounded by mountains on two sides and the coast on the third. It is fertile land, known as ‘rich in corn’ and ‘nourisher of horses’ in antiquity.
The neighboring region of Nemea is still famous for its wine, a rich, heady brew.
The plain was home to important settlements from the Bronze Age including Mycenae and Tiryns thanks not just to the region’s agricultural base, but also its location by the coast. The shallow beaches on the Argolid Gulf were just the type of port favored by the ‘hollow-bottomed barks’ of the Homeric age. This period of Greek history is still called ‘Mycenaean’ thanks to the splendid discoveries from the region.
Moments in myth
The city has an important role in the mythic history of Greece.
In Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women, Danaus and his fifty daughters flee Egypt and seek shelter in Argos.
To what land kinder than Argos could we comeAeschylus, Supplicant Women, Philip Vellacott translation
They claim common descent from Io, the beautiful Argive princess and priestess of Hera, who caught the eye of Zeus and was turned into a cow by the wrathful Queen of the gods. In order to keep her husband from creeping around the cow, Hera also put her under the guard of ‘Argos’, an all-seeing being. He is sometimes depicted with 100 eyes. Hermes slew him on Zeus’ order.
Hera then sent a fly to bother Io and in fleeing it, she ended up in Egypt. She bore the son of Zeus, called Epaphus. In the Roman period, Io was associated with Isis and Epaphus with the Apis bull.
Io had two great-great-grandsons, Aegyptus and Danaus, who lived in Egypt.
Aegyptus had 50 sons and Danaus had 50 daughters. Aegyptus did the math and suggested the two sets of cousins intermarry. It was this that led Danaus and his daughters to flee to Argos, where they were followed by Aegyptus’ sons.
Being forced to marry their cousins, Danaus ordered his daughters to kill the sons of Aegyptus. All 50 obeyed except one: Hypermnestra. She saved her husband Lynceus and went on to found a dynasty of Argive kings. One of their descendents was Perseus, the Greek hero and ancestor to the Persians.
In the Iliad, the Argives sent 80 ships to Troy and the term Danaans is synonymous with the word ‘Greeks’.
Hercules also had an association with the area. He is famous for performing 12 labors for King Eurystheus, who was lord of Tiryns or Argos, depending on who told the myth. His first two labors were performed in the Argive plain, the lion at Nemea and the hydra at Lernaea. Clement of Alexander, a Christian Bishop, wrote that Hercules himself was King of Argos.
Moments in history
Much of Argos’ history can be explained by its strategic location in the Peloponnese halfway between Sparta and Athens. Sparta was also Argos’ major rival in the Peloponnese.
Many of our historical accounts of the city relate to wars between the city states. This reflects both the belligerent nature of ancient Greek politics, but also the types of history that were of interest to ancient readers.
In 494 BCE, King Cleomenes of Sparta invaded the Argolid.
According to Pausanius, Telesilla, a noted poetess, gathered the survivors including enslaved people, women, children and old people. She armed them and ordered them into strategically important places around the city. When the Spartans returned to attack, they saw the defenders and fled:
When the [Spartans] came on, the women were not dismayed at their battle-cry, but stood their ground and fought valiantly. Then the [Spartans], realizing that to destroy the women would be an invidious success while defeat would mean a shameful disaster, gave way before the women.Pausanius II 20. 8
Like the other cities on the Greek mainland, Argos was involved in the Persian Wars.
Herodotus reports that Xerxes claimed common descent from the Argives.
Men of Argos, this is the message to you from King Xerxes. Perses our forefather had, as we believe, Perseus son of Danae for his father, and Andromeda daughter of Cepheus for his mother; if that is so, then we are descended from your nation. In all right and reason we should therefore neither march against the land of our forefathers, nor should you become our enemies by aiding others or do anything but abide by yourselves in peace. If all goes as I desire, I will hold none in higher esteem than you.Herodotus – 7 – 150
The Argives listened to the Great King and shrewdly held back on a decision in order to help position themselves with Spara in the anti-Persian Greek coalition.
Long walls and coalitions
Sparta was nevertheless the predominant power in the Peloponnese following the Persian Wars.
During the Peloponnesean war, Argos attempted to build ‘long walls’ to the port of Naplia, similar to the walls between Athens and Piraeus. Everyone mucked in, including women and enslaved people. These would make the city almost unconquerable. The Spartans found out and attacked the city just before they were completed.
We don’t hear much more of Argos in the accounts of Thucydides and Xenophon, although when Athens was attacked by Sparta, Xenophon states Argos was not involved.
Several cities attempted to oust Sparta by forming a coalition. The forces were defeated in the Battle of Nemea in 394 BCE, but rather than disband they sought to continue. In order to bolster Corinthian support, the city became part of the Argive state. This had an important impact on the regional balance of power as Corinth was normally a Spartan ally.
In the years following Spartan decline and preceding Macedonian hegemony there was much toing and froing.
An interesting court case from Athens relates the tale of Lykon, who deposited money with an Athenian banker before setting off for Libya. His ship was captured by pirates in the Argolid Gulf and he and his goods were taken to Argos for sale. That pirates could use a major Greek city as a base for this kind of criminality suggests that the city was in a bad place.
Argos the great
During the years of Alexander’s wars, Argos was an important node in the network of city states using Greek myth as a vehicle for soft-power.
Argos recognised its kinship with the Pamphylian city of Aspendus and granted to the Aspendians the right to Argive citizenship among other privileges.Kostas Vlassapoulos, Greeks and Barbarians
Following the death of Alexander, Argos alongside other Greek cities led by Greece attempted to oust Macdonian power in the Lamian war. Allies slowly made peace with the Macedonian leader Antipater.
Betrayal in the council chamber
Following Antipater’s death another succession struggle broke out, this time between Antipater’s son Cassander and Polyperchon, a Macedonian general. Polyperchon promised to renew the ‘Freedom of Greece’ which Antipater ended four years earlier during the Lamian War. He ordered the cities of Greece to exile or murder city officials put in place by Cassander, resulting in much blood shed. Following military setbacks against Megalopolis, many cities changed allegiances to Cassander.
Argos remained loyal to Polyperchos until 316 BCE when Cassander invaded the Peloponnese and forced the city to pledge allegiance to him. However Polyperchos’ son was also in the region and the council of Argos made a deliberate pledge of allegiance to him. In response Cassander’s general ordered the city’s council chamber to be locked and set on fire with the pro-Polyperchos councilors inside.
Like a grim scene from a Norse Saga.
This period of history is particularly confusing with various warlords struggling for control of Greece. In 308 BCE, Ptolemy invaded the Peloponnese taking Corinth and Sikyon. In 303, Demetrius Poliorcetes intervened in the region, besieging and taking Argos, as well as Corinth and Sikyon. The city may have stayed under the control of Demetrius’s son until the 270s. Demeterius had married the sister of Pyrrhus, the ambitious king of Epirus. His son was also involved in Pyrrhus’ military adventures.
Following a reversal of fortunes and a failure to conquer Sparta, Pyrrhus turned on Argos.
Two forces lined up either side of the city: Antigonos to the north around Nemea or the Heraion and Pyrrhus to the south around Nauplia.
Aristeas, an Argive political leader, arranged for the Diamperes Gate to be left open. Pyrrhus’ soldiers entered the city and occupied the agora unnoticed. The trouble began when Pyrrhus attempted to get his fearsome war elephants into the city. The gates of Argos were too small and Pyrrhus soldiers had to remove the towers from the elephants’ backs. The noise and delay alerted the Argive forces who were able to assume defensive positions through the town. Reinforcements were sent for.
Fighting went on through the night and early morning. Pyrrhus entered the city from another gate, possibly at the head of a cavalry unit. Plutarch reports the event:
And now, in this night-battle, there was great uncertainty as to what commands were given and how the commands were carried out; men straggled and lost their way among the narrow streets, and generalship was of no avail owing to the darkness, confused shouting, and confined spaces.Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 32:3
He ordered a general retreat of his forces, but more troops were entering the city. It was impossible for anyone to hear his commands. The narrow streets made meanovuring difficult. At this moment the largest elephant was injured, falling across the gate way and crying in pain. Another elephant had lost his rider and in a torment of pain sought for him in the battle, unaware of other people. He found his rider and lifted him up with his trunk and in a state of acute emotional tormentconfusion, carried him out.
Seeing this confusion, Pyrrhus took off the crown from his helmet and charged into battle. He was struck by an ordinary foot soldier and turned to counter attack, when the youth’s mother who was watching from the rooftops threw a roof tile at the king. Pyrrhus was dazed and thrown from his horse. Some soldiers recognized him as he lay in a stupor on the ground. They carried him to a doorway, where he was killed.
And when Zopyrus drew an Illyrian short-sword with which to cut off his head, Pyrrhus gave him a terrible look, so that Zopyrus was frightened; his hands trembled.Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 34:3
To this day, elephants are rarely seen in the city.
Pyrrhus’s defeat ultimately led to the emergence of Roman power in Greece.
Much of the city’s archaeology dates from the Roman period including the Roman Agora, the bathhouse and the theater.
The theater was dramatically used during the Greek Revolution as the location for an early parliament.
Art and culture
Argos was a regional economic center with an important art market.
One Argive had an important and lasting impact on art history, even if his works do not survive him. Texts from later periods identify Ageladas as the tutor of Phidias (the sculptor of the Parthenon Marbles), Myron and Polykleitos. Myron and Polykleitos are both noted for a natural and less rigid sculpture. Myron’s most famous work is the Discobolus.
The dates don’t match up and he can’t have tutored all three, but it suggests the city’s symbolic importance to ancient Greek art (perhaps similar to Florence in Renaissance Italy).
The most important building in the Agora of Argos was the Temple to Apollo Lyceus, Apollo Wolf. It has not been excavated yet but much archaeological research remains to be done.
Danaus was said to have founded the cult of Apollo Lyceus after witnessing a wolf devouring a bull which was perceived as a symbol of Danaus’ rightful claim to the Argive throne. Pausanius reports that ‘the modern image’ was made by Attalus an Athenian sculptor (Pausanias 2:19:3). While Plutarch reports that Pyrrhus saw a bronze votive statue in the Agora (Plutarch, Pyrrhus, 32:5).
Coins were minted in 270 – 250 BCE which showed a wolf, likely the canine of the sun god.
The city is dominated by the Larissa, the great hill now topped by an Ottoman period fort.
According to Pausaniua in antiquity there was a temple to Athena Oxyderkes, which means clear sighted. Pausanias also said that votives left in the Temple included a wooden statue of Zeus with three eyes. (It is also worth considering the mythical ‘Argos’, the many sighted being sent by Hera to guard Io from Zeus’ advances). From the Larissa you can see right across the Argive plain.
On the city’s other hill, the Aspis, was located the Sanctuary of Apollo Deirodiotes and Athena Oxyderkes in front of the Larissa in Argos. Pausanias said that oracles were given here: a woman would drink lamb’s blood and become inspired.
The Heraion was located 5 miles away from the city on the lower slopes of Mount Euboa, close to the River Eleutherion (or Freedom). Dating from the 8th century, the sanctuary was extended by Argos over the centuries, perhaps to reflect the city’s growing political dominance over the region.
It was here that Kleobis and Biton died.
Pausanias reports that the main cult statue was made out of gold and ivory by Polycleitos and depicted the goddess sitting on a throne (Pausanias, 2:17:4). The sanctuary was full of expensive votive goods including a gold peacock studded with gleaming gems donated by Hadrian. These have since disappeared, but smaller and cheaper votives have been found showing a range of activities from domestic labor to war.
Hellanicus of Lesbos (490 – 405 BCE) wrote a history of the Priestesses of Heraion, beginning his account around 1000 BCE. The Priestess was clearly an important position in the town, possibly inherited within a specific family or set of families.
Little remains of the Heraion today, but the view across the Argive plain is superb.
The Zeus Sanctuary in Nemea was home to an important set of games. There were four sets of games in Greece: the Olympics (at Olympus), the Isthmian (at Corinth), the Pythian (at Delphi) and the Nemean. The Nemean Games are today best known for the Odes of Pindar celebrating victors.
The origin story was that the games started as funerary games for Opheltes, an infant, was killed by a serpent. The victory crown was made of a wreath made of parsley or celery.
The games were moved to Argos.
When Pausanias visited the site he reported that the roof had fallen in and there was no cult statue in the temple [Pausanias 2:15:2]
Visiting Argos today
The city is a welcoming working city with a wealth of sites to see both within and beyond its borders.
- The Kombologaki Tavern (Το Κομπολογάκι Μεζεδοπωλείο) – good quality Greek foods in plentiful portions and a friendly service
- Stavropoulos – an excellent gyros, served à la grecque with chips.
- Alongside all the locations mentioned in this guide, Nauplia and Corinth are both worth visiting.
- The city boasts a regular market on Wednesdays and Saturdays where vendors sell fresh local produce.
- The city museum is currently closed.
- A regular bus service runs between Athens and Argos via Corinth.
- Sanctuary of Hera, Argos (Warwick University webpage)
- Argos and the Argolid: from the end of the Bronze Age to the Roman occupation by R. A. Tomlinson.
- Argos : une ville grecque de 6000 ans by Marcel Piérart and Gilles Touchais.