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history

of Gythio

  • Passava Castle

Passava Castle dominates the southern cliff where the road to Gythio passes through a narrow gorge. It is not easy to see from the ground, but a substantial part of the castle, especially the curtain walls, still survive- remnants of a very long history.

Passava has been identified as ancient Las, which according to the Iliad sent a contingent to Troy under the command of Menelaos and which was later a Free Lakonian City according to Pausanias. The hill on which the castle stands was known as Asia and this part of the city was already in ruins when Pausanias visited here, – “The present city is built over the land between three mountains, Ilion, Asia and Knakadion, though it used to stand on the crest of Asia and there are still ruins of the ancient city to this day, with a statue of Herakles in front of the walls and a battle trophy for a victory against Macedonia: the battle was with a detachment of Philip’s army when he invaded Lakonia, which had left the main army to devastate the coast. In the ruins is a Temple of Asian Athene.”

Philip V of Macedonia looted Lakonia in 218 BC and the description “Asian Athene” is because of the name of the hill. He goes on to say,

“At a place called Arainon is the grave of Las, with a statue standing on the tumulus. The people here say this Las was their founder and that he was killed by Achilles.”

Arainon may be the modern village of Ageranos on Cape Vathy. Pausanias went on to describe several temples and sanctuaries in the new city and the archaeologist E.S. Forster published a report for the British School at Athens in which he identified the plain south of Passava as the site of the city. This is now agricultural land but several statues were found here as well as Hellenic and Doric masonry. Strabo tells us that the Dioscouri once captured Las after a siege which is why they had the appellation ‘Lapersae’ – ‘Sackers of Las’. He also says that the Spartans “used Las as a naval station because of its good harbour.” Clearly Passava is nowhere near the sea but it is thought that the harbour of Las was at modern Ageranos.

The castle itself was built after 1220 by Jean of Nully who had been given the fiefdom of Passava by the French Marshal of Achaia. The name is though to derive from “pas avant” (no further) or “passe avant” (go ahead) and although the castle dominates the pass giving access to the Mani, the name suggests that the Mani itself was outside their control. After the Franks were defeated at Pelagonia in 1259, the Baroness of Passava was taken to Constantinople as a hostage to make sure William of Villehardouin kept the treaty he had signed with the emperor Michael Vlll Palaiologos. William broke the treaty and so the Baroness was held at Constantinople until 1275. She returned to Passava on her release but found her castle occupied by Maniats who continued to occupy it until 1481 when it was taken by the Turks. They rebuilt the castle and garrisoned it and it formed part of the defensive chain they established along with Kelefa and Zarnata castles to try and control the Mani. When the Venetians defeated the Turks in 1684, they were allies of the Maniats and had no need of this castle so they destroyed it but when the Turks in turn defeated the Venetians, they rebuilt the castle and held it from 1715 until 1780. They evacuated the castle during the Orlov uprising in 1770 but soon reoccupied it after this disastrous campaign. In 1780, the Maniats slaughtered the entire garrison and their families after the arrest and execution of Exarchos Grigorakis who was the head of the powerful clan, which was then based at Ageranos and Skoutari. Zanetos Grigorakis took over the leadership of the clan and expanded his power in the area and built a complex at Mavrovouni and a tower on the island of Kranai at Gythio. He was made Bey of the Mani in 1782 so the man behind the massacre of the Turkish Garrison became the Governor on behalf of Turkey a mere two years later.

To reach the castle, park up in an open area where there is a brown archaeological sign by the main road. A path (of sorts) snakes up the right side of the hill- you need to get to the entrance on the other side of the hill as you face it. The path soon runs out and you then have to find your own route to the summit. It is a harder climb than it looks from the ground and wear stout boots and trousers because the ‘going’ is rough and thorny in places. When you reach the summit, you will see the remains of massive walls and will have to find a gap to enter the grounds of the castle. The walls that remain are impressive. They stand about 12 meters high with a parapet running behind the battlements along which you can walk in various places. The grounds of the castle are heavily overgrown and there are mounds of rubble where buildings used to stand. The remains of a large building are in the centre of the area and this, possibly, used to be a mosque. On the wall which overlooks the gorge there are two towers and from the circular tower on the west side, giving a fantastic panoramic view which clearly shows why this site was chosen as a castle.

  • Marathonisi Island

This was the scene of the first recorded “visitors” to Gythio. It was here that Paris, prince of Troy, apparently spent his first night with Helen, having whisked her away from Sparta and her husband, Menelaos. Such was the impact of that night that ten years later, according to Homer, Paris was moved to remind Helen of its delights (Iliad, 3). The Grigorakis tower house on the island is now a museum whose sole aim is to catalogue the numerous visitors to the Mani over the centuries.

  • Gythio

We know from Pausanias that it boasted temples to Demeter and Athene and that statues of Hermes and Apollo, the mythical founders of the city, graced the square (like every self-respecting Greek city, Gytheion had a story behind it. Mythology claims that it was founded to mark the end of a quarrel between Heracles and Apollo over the sacred tripod at Delphi. Heracles had gone to Delphi, we are told, in the hope that the oracle would provide a cure for the fits of violent rage which possessed him from time to time. The oracle refused to reply. So Heracles, incensed, seized the tripod from the temple in order to found an oracle of his own. Apollo, patron god of Delphi, confronted Heracles and it needed intervention from Zeus himself to separate them by hurling a thunderbolt. Gytheion was apparently the visible proof that they were reconciled.) Pausanias also mentions a large bronze statue of Asclepios and one of Poseidon. Gythio had become Sparta’s naval dockyard and therefore was the chief target for Athenian attack in the Peloponnesian War (431- 404 B.C.). In the lead-up to war Thucydides tells us that the Athenian general, Tolmides ,bringing fifty warships and four thousand men, set fire to the dockyards at Gytheion. Spartan victory must have lead to Gythio enjoying some of the spoils.

Things only got better during the Roman conquest as the town was initially given the position of head of the Union of Free Laconians, officially recognised by Augustus in 21 B.C., causing a golden age in its fortunes not least fuelled by The Roman demand for the purple dye made from murex found in abundance in the seas between Gythio and Kithera.

Sadly little remains of its ancient history, most of it being swallowed by the sea. The small Roman theatre was not impressive enough for Pausanias to mention it. Its remains are most easily reached by following the main road through the town, ignoring left turns to Sparta. Once you reach a traffic island by a basketball court turn sharp left and then first right. The theatre is one block up, next to army barracks.

The Union of Free Laconia lasted well into the last years of the third century A.D. and was finally destroyed in the fourth century Alaric’s Visigoths.

The town fell into decline and was never to recover its status and grandeur from Roman times. In 1805 Leake commented that it consisted of “a hundred wretched houses in the midst of which stands a large church”. The best house he saw, he tells us, had floors of trodden earth. Its only recent significance is in being part of the area controlled by the Gregorakis clan- hence the tower on Marathonisi.

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