Piraeus City or Pireas City in Ancient Times
Piraeus, a name which roughly means ‘the place over the passage’
Piraeus or Pireas is a city in the periphery of Attica, Greece and within the Athens urban area, located 12 km southwest of its center and upon the Saronic Gulf. According to the 2001 census, Piraeus has a population of 175,697 people within its administrative limits, making it the third largest municipality in Greece and the second within the Greek capital following the municipality of Athens. The Piraeus urban area extends beyond the administrative city limits to the suburban municipalities, with a total population of 466,065.
Piraeus has a long history, which dates back to ancient Greece. The effects of its natural space and geographical place have been critical factors for the configuration of the historical fate of Piraeus. The development of the harbour has been always combined with periods of proportional acme and progress of the city, while in the periods of the harbour’s decay the city languished. The city was largely developed in the early 5th century BC, when it was selected to serve as the port city of classical Athens and was transformed into a prototype harbour, concentrating all the import and transit trade of Athens. Consequently, it became the chief harbour of ancient Greece but declined gradually after the 4th century AD, and began to grow again in the 19th century, especially after the declaration of Athens as the capital of Greece. In modern era, Piraeus is a big city bustling with life and an integral part of Athens, having the biggest harbour in the country and all the typical characteristics of a huge marine and commercial-industrial center.
The port of Piraeus is the chief port in Greece, the largest passenger port in Europe and the third largest in the world, servicing about 20 million passengers annually. With a through-put of 1.4 million TEUs, Piraeus City is placed among the first ten ports in container traffic in Europe and the top container port in Eastern Mediterranean. The city hosted events in both the 1896 and 2004 Summer Olympics held in Athens.
Piraeus, a name which roughly means ‘the place over the passage‘, has been inhabited since the 26th century BC. In prehistoric times, Piraeus City was a rocky island consisted of the steep hill of Munichia, modern day Kastella, and was connected to the mainland by a low-lying stretch of land that was flooded with sea water most of the year and was used as a salt field whenever it dried up. Consequently it was called the Halipedon, meaning the ‘salt field’, and its muddy soil made it a tricky passage. Through the centuries, the area was increasingly silted and flooding ceased, thus by early classical times the land passage was made safe. In ancient Greece, Pireas City assumed its importance with its three deep water harbours, the main port of Cantharus and the two smaller of Zea and Munichia, and gradually replaced the older and shallow Phaleron harbour, which fell into disuse.
In the late 6th century BC, the area caught the attention due to its advantages. In 511 BC, the hill of Munichia was fortified by Hippias and four years later Pireas City became a deme of Attica by Cleisthenes. In 493 BC, Themistocles initiated the fortification works in Piraeus and later advised the Athenians to take advantage of its natural harbours’ strategical potential instead of using the sandy bay of Phaleron. In 483 BC, the mighty Athenian fleet was transferred to Piraeus and was built in its shipyards, distinguishing itself at the battle of Salamis against the Persians in 480 BC. Since then Pireas City was permanently used as the navy base for the developed and powerful fleet of Athens. After the second Persian invasion of Greece, Themistocles fortified the three harbours of Pireas City and created the neosoikoi (ship houses); the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BC, turning Pireas City into a great military and commercial harbour. The city’s fortification was farther reinforced later by the construction of the Long Walls under Cimon and Pericles, with which Pireas City was connected to Athens. Meanwhile, Pireas was rebuilt to the famous grid plan of architect Hippodamus of Miletus, called Hippodamian plan, thus the main agora of the city was named after him as an honour. As a result, Pireas City flourished and became a port of high security with a great commercial activity and a city throbbing with life.
During the Peloponnesian War, Piraeus suffered the first breakdown. In the second year of the war the first cases of the Athens plague were recorded in Pireas City. In 404 BC, the Spartan fleet under Lysander blockaded Piraeus and subsequently Athens surrenderred to the Spartans who put an end to the Delian League and the war itself. Pireas City would follow the fate of Athens and was to bear the brunt of the Spartan rage, as the city’s walls and the Long Walls were torn down, the Athenian fleet surrendered to the winners and some of the triremes were burnt, while the neosoikoi were also pulled down. As a result the unfortified and tattered port city was not able to compete with prosperous Rhodes, which controlled the commerce. In 403 BC, Munichia was seized by Thrasybulus and the exiles from Phyle in the battle of Munichia where the Phyleans defeated the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, but in the following battle of Pireas City the exiles were defeated by the Spartan forces.
After the reinstatement of democracy, Conon rebuilt the walls in 393 BC, founded the temple of Aphrodite Euploia and the sanctuary of Zeus Sotiros and Athena, and built the famous Skevothiki of Philon, the ruins of which have been discovered at Zea harbour. The reconstruction of Piraeus went on during the period of Alexander the Great, but this revival of the town was quashed by Roman Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who captured and totally destroyed Piraeus in 86 BC. The destruction was completed in 395 AD by the Goths under Alaric I. Pireas City was led to a long period of decline which lasted for fifteen centuries. During the Byzantine period the harbour of Pireas was occasionally used for the Byzantine fleet, but it was very far from the capital city of Constantinople. The city lost even its ancient and original name that was forgotten, named Porto Leone by the Venetians in 1317, meaning ‘Lion’s Port’ from the Pireas Lion standing at the harbour’s entrance, and Porto Draco by the Franks.
Pireas from Satelite