There are few historical phenomena that are quite as alluring to the modern imagination as that of the lost city, a relic of a bygone age that has disappeared from human knowledge along with all of its secrets. Think of all the movies and books you’ve seen and read on the search for places such as the legendary El Dorado.
Settlements disappear from history for a range of reasons. Some belong only to the realm of myth, some are abandoned and forgotten over time, others are destroyed by war and still others owe their doom to natural disaster. It is in the latter category that one ancient Greek city belongs, having fallen victim to one of the more spectacular catastrophes you’re likely to come across.
Helike was a city located in Achaea on the northern Peloponnese peninsula, along the southwest shore of the Gulf of Corinth. By the 4th Century BCE, Helike was already ancient. It was a Bronze Age settlement mentioned by the epic poet Homer as having participated in the Trojan War, suggesting it had existed at least as early as the turn of the 1st millennium BCE.
While perhaps not the most powerful city on the Peloponnese, by the 5th century BCE Helike was nonetheless a cultural and religious centre. The sanctuary of Helikonian Poseidon was Panhellenic (meaning it was of great religious importance to all Greeks, not just those in the surrounding area) and, according to some ancient sources, was second only to the famous sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. It was likely this regional importance that led to Helike being designated in the 5th century as the capital of the newly formed Achaean League, a loose confederation of twelve neighbouring cities.
On a winter’s night in 373 BCE, an earthquake struck the region around the Gulf of Corinth. This in and of itself was not especially noteworthy. Earthquakes are after all relatively common in that part of the world. What was more noteworthy, however, was the fact that this particular quake appears to have triggered the phenomenon known as soil liquefaction.
Soil liquefaction occurs when soil or sand that has been saturated with water is subjected to intense stress such as during an earthquake, causing the soil to almost instantly lose its shear strength and stiffness. This effectively converts the previously solid material into liquid. It is a relatively common occurrence during major earthquakes and is one of the primary threats to urban environments during seismic activity due to its capacity to undermine or otherwise compromise the structural integrity of buildings and infrastructure.
The effects of liquefaction can range in scale from a localised area as small as a few metres across to huge swathes of land, such as was the case in Christchurch following the 2011 earthquakes that led to parts of the city being abandoned.
In the case of Helike, it was liquefaction on the scale of the latter that would ultimately bring about its doom. Based on the accounts of ancient sources and recent archaeology, it is believed that the ground beneath the entire city was liquefied in response to the earthquake in 373 BCE.
The city, in its entirety, literally sank.
While the settlement dropped below sea level, research suggests that the earthquake also caused sections of the coastline, 12 stadia away (roughly 2km or 1.3 miles), to collapse into the sea, triggering a tsunami that engulfed the sunken city, sealing its fate. According to ancient sources, there were no survivors. In the space of perhaps as little as an hour or two, the city of Helike, capital of the Achaean League, was gone. The ancient historian Strabo recounts that the Achaeans organised 2,000 men to recover bodies but were unable to do so.
Strabo also records one story of the destruction of Helike that attributed the disaster to an act of vengeance on the part of Poseidon (the city’s patron god) for the Helikonians’ refusal to give their renowned statue of the sea god, or even a copy of it, to Ionian Greek colonists in Asia.
Though underwater, much of the city remained visible from the surface for centuries after. Many ancient scholars visited the submerged ruins, including Strabo and Eratosthenes, with the latter describing a magnificent bronze statue of Poseidon whose outstretched arm posed a hazard to fishing nets. Pausanias reported in the 2nd Century CE that the city walls were still visible, “but not so plainly as they once were, because they are corroded by the salt water.” Roman scholars and writers that visited the site included Ovid in the late 1st Century BCE and Aelian in the the 3rd Century CE.
Indeed, the Helike ruins were a popular tourist attraction among the Romans, who sailed over the submerged city and admired its temples and statues.
Even as late as the 9th Century CE, there are accounts of submerged ruins in the area of Helike. However, it appears that soon after, the remains of the city became completely obscured and the exact location of Helike was lost to history.
For many maritime archaeologists, Helike had long been on the list of the most prized targets. A city that was swallowed by the sea overnight was simply too enticing not to pursue. As Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinotos once declared, Helike was one of the great unsolved mysteries of Ancient Greece and only a Third World War would prevent its rediscovery.
Initial attempts to locate Helike focused on the Gulf of Corinth. After all, did the Gulf not submerge the city? Surely it must, therefore, be somewhere on the seabed. From the 1960s onwards, several archaeological projects searched for the lost city in the Gulf without success, though marine explorer Alexis Papadopolous discovered a previously unknown sunken town in 1979.
In 1988, the Helike Project was launched by Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou and Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History. The sole purpose of the organisation was to locate the lost remains of the city.
After extensive sonar surveys determined that the city was not submerged in the Gulf of Corinth, Helike Project researchers posited that the word poros, used by Eratosthenes to describe where the city was submerged, could be interpreted to mean an ‘inland lagoon’ rather than the Gulf as previously assumed. Such a lagoon would, they posited, have been gradually covered by river sediment over the centuries until it simply became solid ground. This would also be consistent with Pausanias’ account that by the time he visited in the 2nd Century BCE only parts of the city were still visible underwater.
The Project subsequently focused its efforts on the area around the Selinountas river delta. Surveys and excavations in and around the delta made a number of notable findings, including the remains of a substantial Roman building, an industrial dye factory from the Hellenistic period (late 4th Century – late 1st Century BCE) and a settlement dating to the early Bronze Age. Despite these discoveries, Helike continued to elude the researchers.
Until, that is, excavation trenches near the tiny village Rizomylos in 2001 uncovered the remains of ruined city walls and buildings dated to the Classical period (to which Helike belongs). Furthermore, the sediment under which these remains were buried was of the exact type one would find in a dried up lagoon. Further excavation revealed an earthquake destruction layer that included substantial amounts of pottery, cobblestones and roof tiles. Lastly, the site was roughly consistent, taking into account variations in the coastline over time, with the distance from the city to the Gulf shoreline as reported by ancient philosopher Herakleides of Pontos. All of this taken together lead archaeologists to conclude that it is highly likely that this was indeed the remains of the long lost city of Helike.
Helike as Atlantis?
There are few Ancient Greek stories that have had as substantial impact on post-antiquity literature as that of legendary Atlantis, the island that sank beneath the waves.
It would easy to assume that Atlantis is just another strand in the myriad tales of Ancient Greek mythology. In reality, however, there is only one original source for the story of Atlantis: Plato, undoubtedly one of the most famous philosophers of Ancient Greece.
It was in one of his ‘dialogues’ (so-named because they’re written as if recording a conversation or debate between characters), titled Critias, that Atlantis is discussed for the first time. The eponymous speaker Critias tells his companions of the great island nation that existed ‘beyond the Pillars of Herakles’ (generally accepted to be the Straits of Gibraltar, the gateway between the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean) 9,000 years ago. The Atlanteans were a powerful people who invaded and conquered almost the entire known world, with one notable exception: Athens. The Athenians alone resisted the Atlantean invasion and, over time, managed to push their would-be conquerors back from whence they came. By this point, the Atlanteans had become “full of avarice and unrighteous power” in their pursuit of empire and their island was subsequently destroyed and submerged by the wrath of the gods.
For a long time, the historic character of the story was a matter of debate. Even amongst the Greeks, there were some (such the philosopher Crantor) who believed it to be true while others (such as Aristotle, one of Plato’s own students), believed that Plato had invented the story to serve as an allegory on the dangers of hubris (excessive/extreme pride or dangerous overconfidence). It is now agreed among philologists and classicists that this story is indeed an allegory on hubris and that the ‘Ancient Athens’ in the story is likely a representation of Plato’s ideal nation-state, as outlined in his work The Republic. What is not agreed, however, is the inspiration for the story.
Over the centuries, numerous candidates have been proposed as the inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis. These hypotheses include locations ranging from within the Mediterranean to as far afield as Doggerland (the submerged land beneath the North Sea) and even the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps the most persistent, however, remains the Greek island of Santorini (known in Ancient Greek as Thera). The island is formed by the remains of a volcano caldera and was the site of an Ancient Minoan settlement (known today as Akrotiri). It is hypothesised that the massive Thera eruption (one of the largest in recorded history) in the mid-second Millennium BCE destroyed Akrotiri and caused a tsunami that in turn devastated the Minoan heartland on the island of Crete. It was tales of this cataclysm, some suggest, that were the inspiration for Atlantis.
However, the parallels between Atlantis and Helike are striking. Both were rapidly destroyed and submerged by the gods. Both were destroyed for the ‘crime’ of hubris; the Atlanteans for their greed and ruthless pursuit of power and the Helikonians for refusing to even offer a copy of their famed statue of their patron god Poseidon to the Ionians. In addition, the destruction of Helike occurred during Plato’s own lifetime. He would have been either 53 or 54 years old and in the prime of his philosophical writing career, having founded the Academy (his school of philosophy) roughly a decade earlier.
In the end, this is all merely conjecture. It will never be known for certain what truly inspired Plato’s Atlantis. Still, if you’re looking for similarities with real historical events, it is hard to go passed the Greek city that sank beneath the waves in true Atlantean fashion.
- Plato, Critias, translated by Benjamin Jowett at Project Gutenberg.
- Strabo, Geography, 8.7.2
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 7.24.13
- Homer, Iliad, 2.575
- Katsonopoulou, Dora; Soter, Steven, “Discoveries at Ancient Helike”. Helike Foundation, 2005
- Katsonopoulou, Dora, 2002. “Helike and her Territory in Historical Times”. Pallas. 58: 175–182.
- Castleden, Rodney. Atlantis Destroyed. London: Routledge, 2001.
- Marinatos, Spyridon, 1960. “Helike. A submerged town of classical Greece”. Archaeology. 13: 186–193.
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