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Rhamnous

Of all the ancient towns of Attica, perhaps saved from dismantling due to its distance from the sprawling conurbation that is now Greater Athens, the site of Rhamnous (Rhamnus) remains in the best condition – truly one of Attica’s hidden gems! Rhamnous lies on the north-east coast of Attica, just a few kilometres north of the site of the great Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians thwarted the Persian army’s attempts to invade their land in 490 B.C. Although less of a household name than Marathon even amongst modern day Greeks, Rhamnous was no less significant historically, for here was a major town with its own fortified acropolis looking out over its two harbours, strategically positioned across the strait from the island of Euboea to receive supply ships carrying grain and other resources for the city state of Athens. This was of utmost importance when the Athenians and their allies were at war with the Peloponnesian states.

Just over half a kilometre inland, we will see the further attraction of the site of the Sanctuary of Nemesis, the goddess of justice and divine vengeance. Dating back as early as the 6th century BC, this was the goddess’s most popular sanctuary in ancient times; hence, Nemesis was given the surname Rhamnous.

Mythology

Rhamnous’s main mythological link is to Nemesis, to whom the sanctuary and temples were dedicated here. From the writings of poets, philosophers and travellers, including Hesiod, Herodotus, Pindar and Pausanias, Nemesis’s dubious parentage was attributed to various gods; she was said to be the daughter of either Night, Erebus or – the favourite – Oceanus. Nemesis was regarded as a divinity who kept the balance in every sense, representing the qualities of conscience and shame, which keep human behaviour in check to prevent destructive excesses.

Nemesis is even linked to the events which led to the Trojan wars. As one story goes, it was here at Rhamnous that, as a result of an affair with Zeus, she gave birth to the egg which contained both the fair Helen and the Dioskouroi (Castor and Polydeuces). She then left the egg to be found by Leda, the Spartan queen, who raised them as her own children. Of course, another account popular in Sparta has Queen Leda as the mother of two eggs, each containing twins of whom one child was mortal and one immortal. In any case, there is some archaeological evidence of a connection between these two potential mothers; on the base of the famous statue of Nemesis found at the site, which dates back to around 420 B.C., there is a depiction of Leda presenting her daughter Helen to Nemesis.

In the words of Pausanias:
[1.33.7] “Neither this nor any other ancient statue of Nemesis has wings, for not even the holiest wooden images of the Smyrnaeans have them, but later artists, convinced that the goddess manifests herself most as a consequence of love, give wings to Nemesis as they do to Love. I will now go onto describe what is figured on the pedestal of the statue, having made this preface for the sake of clearness. The Greeks say that Nemesis was the mother of Helen, while Leda suckled and nursed her. The father of Helen the Greeks like everybody else hold to be not Tyndareus but Zeus.”

[1.33.2] “About sixty stades from Marathon as you go along the road by the sea to Oropus stands Rhamnus. The dwelling houses are on the coast, but a little way inland is a sanctuary of Nemesis, the most implacable deity to men of violence. It is thought that the wrath of this goddess fell also upon the foreigners who landed at Marathon. For thinking in their pride that nothing stood in the way of their taking Athens, they were bringing a piece of Parian marble to make a trophy, convinced that their task was already finished.”
[1.33.3] “Of this marble Pheidias made a statue of Nemesis, and on the head of the goddess is a crown with deer and small images of Victory. In her left hand she holds an apple branch, in her right hand a cup on which are wrought Aethiopians. As to the Aethiopians, I could hazard no guess myself, nor could I accept the statement of those who are convinced that the Aethiopians have been carved upon the cup be cause of the river Ocean. For the Aethiopians, they say, dwell near it, and Ocean is the father of Nemesis.”

The cult of Nemesis flourished at Rhamnous for around eight centuries. It was only brought to a halt after 382 A.D., when the concept of polytheism was contested with the spread of the Byzantine order and Emperor Arcadius decreed that such temples should be destroyed.

History

As with many other ancient Greek sites, there are signs of human activity around Rhamnous from Neolithic times, centuries before the Fortress and Sanctuary were built.

Initial excavations at Rhamnous did not begin until the end of the 19th century, though plans of the temples of Nemesis and Themis by the Society of Dilettanti date back to 1817. It seems that D. Philias carried out a dig in 1880 before going on to excavate Eleusis. Then a decade later, V. Stais spent two years or so here. Although archaeological interest was sporadic at first, the Archaeological Society have been investigating Rhamnous from the latter half of the 20th Century to the present day, continually bringing more facts to light.

From the finds at the site, what we do know so far is that, before the terrace was built where the Sanctuary of Nemesis and Themis stands, there was a place of worship from at least the 6th century B.C. Some Laconian roof tiles and Poros stone have been found from an early temple which may have been destroyed by Persian invaders ca. 480 B.C.

During the 5th century B.C., the Sanctuary grew to provide a haven, not only of worship, but of spiritual and physical healing. What an idyllic, yet accessible location they chose for this, with such direct access between the plains of Marathon and the nearby harbours.

The smaller of the two new temples was built in the early 5th century B.C. Built in a polygonal style characteristic of Lesbos, it measured 10 by 6 metres. The statue of the goddess Themis found here can now be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Athens, along with many other finds from the site. Numerous statues were discovered here, arousing speculation that this temple had eventually become used as a kind of store.

In the latter part of the same century, the larger temple was built to almost double the size in Doric peripteral style. This was no isolated incident, of course, as it was during Pericles’ heyday, at the time when the Parthenon was being built in Athens. There is some speculation as to whether the architect of this Temple of Nemesis was Callicrates (Kallikrates), who was responsible for the Temples of Poseidon at Sounion, Hephaestus in Athens, and Ares at Acharnai. But the Temple of Nemesis lacked the decorated finish of its contemporaries. Its pediments and metopes were unadorned, and parts of the temple seem incomplete. Perhaps its construction was interrupted by the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. Within its columns stood the cult statue of Nemesis, said to have been carved from the very piece of Parian marble brought by the Persians, whose intention was to fashion it as a monument to their expected victory. Currently, the statue stands in the British Museum. Despite damage due to various enemy raids over the centuries, the temple was respected and preserved by both Greeks and Romans alike. The latter restored it as a place of worship to their deified Empress Livia and to Claudius among others.

The Fortress of Rhamnous lies on the hilltop at the end of the ancient road from the Sanctuary. Like the Fortress of Sounion further south in Attica, it appears to have been built during the end of the 5th century B.C. during the Peloponnesian War. Within its double set of fortified walls, the settlement’s comprehensive infrastructure included its own temple, a gymnasium and a theatre for social gatherings.

The Site today

Approaching Rhamnous from Marathon, we first reach the Sanctuary of Nemesis. Here we shall see the imposing ruins of the columns and pediments of both temples. Close to the larger temple, in the temenos (sacred enclosure) we find the foundations of the massive altar of Nemesis. The ancient stoa alongside this leads to a small fountain.

As we move on towards the fortress, we pass the remains of ancient grave monuments by the roadside, many of which have been restored.

At the Fortress of Rhamnous, the fortified towers and outer walls still stand. Inside the walls, enough remains of the ancient garrison town to give us a clear impression of its meticulous layout, a testament to the importance it once held.

We can but marvel at the skills, both local and imported, involved in theses constructions, bearing in mind that the bulk of the labour would have been carried out by slaves from all corners of the ancient world.

Whilst a visit to Rhamnous is a pleasure in itself, given the location in north-east Attica, it can be easily combined with a tour of neighbouring sites, such as Marathon and Amphiarieon. There is also the option of just chilling according to the season, enjoying either a coastal stroll or a refreshing dip in the sea. As always, there are plenty of roadside and seaside tavernas nearby to cater for all appetites after the tour.

 

Map

Gallery

Credits

Pausanias 1.33.7, quotation from www.theio.com
Image credits:
Ramnus_mapEN
By Karta24 – Own work own work, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons
Peripteros
By Peripteros.png: Roland Bergmann Dipl. Ing. (FH) Architekt (de:Benutzer:Ronaldo), self-madederivative work: Nevetsjc (talk) – Peripteros.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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