Pausanias (geographer)

Dafato Team | May 31, 2022

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Pausanias (Greek: Παυσανίας), was a Greek traveler, geographer and historian of the 2nd century CE (c. 110-180), contemporary of the Roman emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

He is renowned for his extensive work Description of Greece (Ancient Greek: Ἑλλλάδος Περιήγησις, Hellados Periegesis), which describes ancient Greece from his own observations; and in which he provides crucial information for establishing links between classical literature and modern archaeology.

It is believed that he was a native of the region of Lydia, located in Asia Minor, probably of Magnesia del Sípilo, which he mentions several times in his work. He was born about 110 AD. He was certainly familiar with the western coast of Asia Minor, but his travels extended far beyond the limits of Ionia. Before visiting Greece, he had been to Antioch, Joppa and Jerusalem, and to the banks of the Jordan River. In Egypt, he had visited the pyramids. In Macedonia, he seems to have seen the tomb said to be that of Orpheus at Libethra (modern Leivithra). Crossing into Italy, he visited some of the cities of Campania, as well as Rome. He is one of the first to write about the ruins of Troy and Mycenae.

Among other merits, he is credited with having found the burial place of Plato in the Academy he founded, on the outskirts of Athens, which was already about 5 centuries old at the time of Pausanias.

Although his work has little literary value, it is now considered a valuable source of historical information on the topography, monuments and local cults of ancient Greece; it has come down to us intact and is considered the first known tourist guide. Thus, for example, it recounts his stay in Athens, describes the Olympic Games, the Doric temples and Greek mythology.

When in the 18th century European travelers, especially British and Germans, began to travel to Greece and to rediscover this civilization, they were guided by the work of Pausanias. It allowed the identification of the site at Olympia, at Delphi and, in general, at the great Greek archaeological sites.

It should be noted that he was the first to study the Dead Sea in the second century and give it a name.

Pausanias' Description of Greece is contained in ten books, each devoted to a part of Greece; as indicated in the following paragraph.

The work is not simply topographical; it is a cultural geography. Pausanias departs from the description of architectural and artistic objects to review the mythological and historical underpinnings of the society that produced them. As a Greek writer under the Roman Empire, he found himself in an uncomfortable cultural space, between the glories of the Greek past that he was so eager to describe, and the realities of a Greece ruled by Rome.

He is not a naturalist, although from time to time he comments on the physical realities of the Greek landscape. He notes the pine trees on the sandy coast of Elis, the deer and wild boars in the oak forests of Phelloe, and the ravens amid the giant oaks of Alalcomenae. It is mainly in the last section that Pausanias touches on the products of nature, such as the wild strawberries of Helicon, the date palms of Aulis and the olive oil of Tithorea, as well as the tortoises of Arcadia and the "white blackbirds" of Cyllene.

Pausanias is most comfortable describing the religious art and architecture of Olympia and Delphi. However, even in the most remote regions of Greece, he is fascinated by all kinds of representations of deities, sacred relics and many other sacred and mysterious objects. At Thebes he sees the shields of those who died in the battle of Leuctra, the ruins of the house of Pindar and the statues of Hesiod, Arion, Thamyris and Orpheus in the grove of the Muses at Helicon, as well as the portraits of Corinna at Tanagra and of Polybius in the cities of Arcadia.

Pausanias has the instincts of an antiquarian. As his modern editor, Christian Habicht, has said.

"In general, he prefers the old to the new, the sacred to the profane; there is much more about classical Greek art than contemporary, more about temples, altars and images of the gods, than about public buildings and statues of politicians. Some magnificent and dominating structures, such as the Stoa of Attalus in the Agora at Athens (reconstructed by Homer Thompson) or the Nymphaeum of Herodes Atticus at Olympia, are not even mentioned." ...

Andrew Stewart evaluates Pausanias as:

"A careful, pedestrian writer ... interested not only in the grand or the exquisite, but in unusual sights and obscure rituals. Occasionally he is careless or makes unwarranted inferences, and his guides or even his own notes sometimes mislead him, yet his honesty is unquestioned and his courage unparalleled." ...

Pausanias makes digressions on a point of ancient ritual or to tell an appropriate myth, in a genre that would not become popular again until the early nineteenth century. In the topographical part of his work, Pausanias likes to make them about the wonders of nature, the signs that announce the approach of an earthquake, the phenomena of the tides, the ice-covered seas of the north and the midday sun; which at the summer solstice, casts no shadow on Syene (Aswan). While he never doubts the existence of deities and heroes, he sometimes criticizes myths and legends related to them. His descriptions of art monuments are simple and unadorned. They have the impression of reality, and their accuracy is confirmed by the extant remains.

He is perfectly frank in his confessions of ignorance; and when he quotes a second-hand book, he takes pains to say so.

The work left few traces in the known Greek corpus; that is, the body of Greek works that have survived to the present day. Christian Habicht, says: "It was not read; there is not a single mention of the author, not a single quotation of him, (...) and only two or three references to him throughout the Middle Ages". The only known manuscripts of Pausanias are three 15th century copies, full of errors and lacunae, which seem to depend on a single manuscript that survived to be copied. Niccolò de' Niccoli had it in his possession, in Florence, around 1418. On Niccoli's death in 1437, Cosimo de' Medici bought it along with the rest of his manuscripts, and it passed into the library of the present National Museum of San Marco, in Florence; but it disappeared from there after 1500. ...

Pausanias was generally rejected by antiquarian scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They saw in him a purely literary bent, regarded him as little more than a purveyor of second-hand stories; and it was even suggested that he had not visited most of the sites he described. It was not until twentieth-century archaeologists tested his reliability at the sites they were excavating that opinion of Pausanias changed. Modern archaeological research has tended to vindicate him. ...

The Description of Greece is divided into ten books, devoted to the following regions:


  1. Pausanias (geographer)
  2. Pausanias (geógrafo)

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