in the central Peloponnese a major crossroads of the Peloponnese, from which
most travellers either head northwest towards Olympia, or south to Sparti and
Mystra, or Kalamata. Alternatives include more direct routes to the coast
west to Kiparissia, or east to Nafplio or Αstros/Leonidio and the
Peloponnese railway, which continues its meandering course from Korinthos and
Αrgos to Kiparissia and Kalamata.
Megalopolis: The great western plain of Arcadia stretches 30 km from north
to south and 16 km from east to west. Unlike most Greek
cities, Megalopolis therefore had no easily defensible
heights, a situation similar to Mantinea's. Although
Mantinea was totally flat, Megalopolis did have some irregular
hills that were incorporated into the defensive walls
constructed with the city. The area was crossed by cool
rivers draining from the mountains of Arcadia which surround
it and the farmland was better than most in the region.
The city itself was laid out on both sides of the Helisson
History: Before 370 B.C., the cities of Arkadia had been divided into a
number of independent communities. Sparta had favored
this arrangement and was able to keep the cities under its
control by means of this division. After the Spartans
were defeated in the Battle of Leuktra around 370 B.C., the
Theban Epaminondas convinced (or in some cases
"compelled") the townships to form a new capital on
the northwest border of Laconia. It is clear that some
of these cities wished to remain separate from the synoecism
(notably Tegea, Orchomenus, and Heraea), but it is likely that
the other cities were the driving force behind the formation
of Megalopolis (i.e., the 'Great City'). Epaminondas
only aided their cause and spurred them on by providing a
Theban army to defend them during the construction of the city
and its walls. Messene was also formed at this time and
Mantinea and Argos were being supported by the Thebans in an
effort to keep Sparta from gaining too much power. At
the city's foundation, the walls were laid out with a five and
a half mile circuit. This was such a broad area that the
population would not long be able to defend itself properly.
soon broke with the alliance and Megalopolis in 364 B.C. after
the league had tampered with the sacred treasuries at Olympia.
In 362 B.C., half of the league fought against the Thebans,
who prevented many of the citizens of Megalopolis from
returning to their former homes. In 353 B.C. the
Spartans attacked the new city, but with Theban help they were
thrown back. Soon after the Thebans' power declined, the
Spartans attacked Megalopolis again in 331 B.C., but with the
help of the Macedonians, also an enemy of Sparta, they were
able to defeat the Lacedaimonians again. Its city walls,
which have been excavated at many places, kept the defenders
safe. Yet over time the population declined as colonists
returned to their original cities and jealousy between the
townships kept Megalopolis from reaching its true potential as
head of the Arcadians. In 318 B.C. the city was
besieged by Polysperchon in his contest with Cassander, but
they were saved by an officer named Damis who repelled a group
that had broken through the walls.
For a while
the city was ruled by tyrants. Aristodemus was the first and
he was held in high regard. He successfully defended
Megalopolis from a Spartan attack in which the Spartan king
Acrotatus was killed. Later, Lydiades became tyrant only
to voluntarily resign, at which time the city joined the
Achaen League and was once again attacked by the Spartans in
234 B.C. This time the defenders benefited from a
hurricane which blew down the Spartan siege equipment.
Finally in 223 B.C. the city was sacked by the Spartan king
Cleomenes III. Many escaped the city to Messenia and
then returned two years later after another Spartan defeat,
but the city had been laid to waste by the Spartans and many
buildings were not rebuilt.
At this time
a great dispute arose over the size of the city walls. Some
wanted the walls to be rebuilt in their original courses while
others wanted a smaller circuit, easier to defend. The
former party won and the walls were rebuilt. They were
enough to withstand a siege by the tyrant Nabis but they soon
fell into decay and we know that by 175 B.C. outsiders were
promising to build new walls. Strabo remarked that
"the Great City was a great desert," and Pausanias
reflected upon the fallen state of many great cities after
Government: The Federal Constitution of the new Pan Arcadian union was
democratic in nature; Megalopolis was just another city in the
League in some respects. There was an Assembly whose
official title was the Ten Thousand (Myrioi) that every
citizen of the League was a member of. The Ten Thousand
made war and peace, concluded alliances, and sat in judgment
on offenders against the League. A Council (the
Damiorgoi) was also formed from fifty members from the various
cities. It had the usual executive and deliberative
functions of Greek city councils.
The river Helisson divides
site of Megalopolis into two nearly equal sections.
The city itself was on the south side with a marketplace and a
Bouleterion where the Council of the Megalopolitan state met.
On the north side of the river the federal buildings were
built in the area known as the Oresteia. Here was the
Thersilion (Federal Hall of Assembly) and the theater which
served as an open-air hall for federal meetings. It is
also thought that the dwellings of the permanent armed force,
5,000 men, were maintained by the Federation. This is
also the area where the lodgings for the Ten Thousand were
when they met in the city.
Thersilion was the federal building where the meetings of the
Arcadian League were held. The building was 215 ft.
(66.5 m.) long and 170 ft. (52.5 m.) broad. The
foundations have been uncovered and display the ingenious
arrangement of the internal supports, converging towards the
center so that few people would have had their views
obstructed. The internal columns were arranged in five
concentric rows, set parallel to the outside walls.
Their bases remain in situ and show us that there was also a
slight slope towards the tribune, where the speaker would have
given addresses, something like a theater. On the south
side of the building stretched a long Doric portico (14
columns) that served as the skene of the theater. The
building was dubbed the Thersilion after the man who dedicated
it. The Thersilion was destroyed in 222 B.C. and not
Theater itself, no scenery existed except for temporary pieces
that were attached to fastenings in the floor. The
theater was dubbed the largest in Greece by Pausanias (though
he said he preferred the one at Epidauros) and its orchestra
is nearly twice as large as those at Athens and Epidauros.
It seated between 17,000 to 21,000, but there may have been
additional rows that are no longer visible at the top of the
theater. The original construction of the theater dates back
to the same period that the city was founded, but shortly
after the construction of the Thersilion. The Cavea of
the theater is divided by 10 stairways and two diazomata.
There were major improvements in the Roman era, namely the
stone stage. The orchestra was lowered in later years (by
about 3 ft.) and additional steps were added. Pausanias
also mentions a perpetual spring that flowed in the theater.
This was discovered in the middle of the orchestra and still
supplied water as late as 1963 (maybe even now). In the
nineteenth century, some archaeologists complained that the
entire orchestra was under water, though whether this was due
to flood from the river or excessive water from the spring, I
possibility that a "Rollskene" (a wheeled, wooden
skene) was used at Megalopolis is very intriguing. Since
the portico on the south side of the Thersilion served as the
only background for productions in the theater, it has been
assumed that movable scenery was used. Beside the stage
sits a long building, known as the "skanotheka"
(i.e., the scenery storage shed) from its roof tiles, which
lines up exactly along the front of the portico and has a
large opening on the side facing towards the stage.
Since the length and width of the building are so similar to
the remnants of the stage, this must have been the place where
the temporary scenery was moved. One of the early
excavators of the theater believed that an entire wheeled
skene was rolled onto the stage out of the skanotheka and many
other scholars have since followed him, but recently this
matter has been questioned. A sill that runs the length of the
skanotheka is problematic since it may have protruded into the
skene, but it may have only stood a few feet high and merely
served as a rest for the stage to be wedged upon to take
pressure off the wheels. The existence of cuttings in
the stone floor of the stage and in the skanotheka at Sparta and the chance that such a building was used there is very
similar to the situation at Megalopolis, but the cuttings
might have just been drainage channels or slots for the
On the other
side of the river, and right on its northern bank, the
Sanctuary of Zeus Soter (Savior) and the Stoa of Philip (named
for Philip, not donated by him) demarcated the Agora, which is
hardly visible now. Inside the market there was a
Sanctuary of Lykian Zeus and a Temple of the Mother. Next to
the stoa stood a Temple of Akakesian Hermes and another
portico which held state offices. There was also a statue of
Polybius, who was born in Megalopolis in ca. 204 B.C., beside
the Council House for the city. Unfortunately the southern
part of the area was overrun by the river's course and is now
gone, a circumstance which most affected the Sanctuary of Zeus
Soter. To the west of the Agora stood a sacred
enclosure of the Great Goddesses (Demeter and the Maid).
Inside this enclosure stood a Shrine of Zeus of Friendship and
a Sanctuary of Aphrodite. North of the sanctuary stood a
Sanctuary of the Maid, as well as a Sanctuary of Athene and a
Temple of Perfect Hera, which stood on nearby hills.
The Modern Town:
With about 4,700 people, the modern town lies
less than a mile south of the ancient city.
Unfortunately, the site is well within the view of a large
power station, whose cooling tower distracts from the otherwise serene landscape. The plant,
maintained by the Public Power Corporation, which runs on
lignite, which is found in great quantities in the area.
Many of the
items recovered from excavations at Megalopolis are now housed
Archaeological Museum, located in Tripolis, which also is
home to the center of archaeological services in the region.
Online, you can see a
helmet that was found in Megalopolis which is associated
with the expedition of Alexander the Great. Other nearby
sites worth mentioning are the
Museum of Archaeology and the
of Despoina at Lycosoura.