UQ Ancient Greece Study Tour – Messene to Nikopolis

Tim Bennett, Ancient History Honours student at the University of Queensland, shares his insights of the 2020 Study Tour

The Ancient Greece Study Tour has, without doubt, been the highlight of my undergraduate studies. After three years learning about the history of Ancient Greece, the 2020 tour provided an unsurpassed opportunity to experience the sites and achievements of this ancient culture at first hand. This blog focuses on some of my favourite sites of the trip.

Leaving Sparta, seven days into our three-week study tour, we travelled westwards via the snow-capped Mt Taygetus to Kalamata, the southernmost stay of our trip. A day spent exploring the ruins of Ancient Messene was a definite highlight – the site was extensively excavated, well preserved and aspects of it were tastefully reconstructed. I was especially impressed with the authenticity of the reconstructed funerary monuments and heroon, which allow modern audiences to better appreciate and understand ancient Greek culture. Nearby was Mt Ithome, where in 469 BC the ancient Messenians held out against overwhelming Spartan forces. Back in Kalamata as the sun began to set, a group of us made the questionable decision to brave the chilly ocean on a mission to see who could endure the longest for the grand prize of €10 (anything to start paying off that HECS debt!).

Our tour continued to Olympia, major Panhellenic sanctuary and famed site of the ancient games. Beneath the shade of trees, we wandered around the remains of the impressive Temple of Zeus. In the Olympia Museum, I was awed by the sculptures from the east and west pediments, and the metopes depicting the legendary twelve labours of Heracles. After completing the warm-up half-stade race at Messene in preparation, we were ready to run the full distance. What a strange and spine-tingling experience it was to race down the track where Greek athletes had competed more than 2,000 years ago. The victors were duly crowned with olive wreaths by Dr Brown in the ancient tradition.

The Victors in the Stadium Race at Olympia. Photo: Emma Downes

Before catching the ferry across the Corinthian Gulf, we stopped at the Rio Fortress to gaze across the water towards Naupactus, an important Athenian naval station in the Peloponnesian War. Here I gave my second presentation on the naval battles of Naupactus (429 BC) and Lepanto (AD 1571). The views of the Gulf of Corinth and the Rio-Antirio bridge from the Venetian fortifications were stunning. Having seen the Lenormant relief in the Acropolis Museum a week earlier, I was better able to imagine the oarsmen in the trireme battle between the Athenians and the Peloponnesian League at Naupactus. Seeing the site where these historically significant battles took place brought them to life better than any text or map, and more than made up for the absence of sleep finishing off my presentation the night before.

Rio Fortress next to the Rio-Antirio bridge. Photo: Author

After leaving the Peloponnesus we travelled to the ancient city of Nikopolis, Augustus’ victory city founded in 31 BC to commemorate his triumph over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. This was also the site of the prestigious Actian games, which Augustus established to promote the status of the city. It really was amazing to be able to stand between the stadium and the theatre in the sacred precinct (Proasteion) at the foot of the sacred hill of Apollo to give my second presentation. From here, we trekked towards the unmissable Byzantine-era walls of Nikopolis, which still dominate the countryside even today. But it was only once I was inside the walls that I realised just how massive the city was, and the rest of the group waited for me to run around the entire site so I could see everything before jumping back on the bus.

Walls of ancient Nikopolis. Photo: Amelia Brown

Later the same day, our group explored the ruins of ancient Kassope, one of the cities that were dismantled by Augustus and their people forcibly relocated to populate Nikopolis. This lesser known site is in a spectacular and remote location, high above the surrounding area with views over the Ambracian Gulf and the Ionian Sea. This was one of my favourite sites as it had a raw, undeveloped feel, with a remarkable collection of ancient ruins including those of large public buildings, private houses and cemeteries.

I feel incredibly privileged to have seen and experienced amazing sites, monuments and museums, most of which I could not do justice to in the time allowed – leaving more to be enjoyed (hopefully) in future visits. Added to an incredible itinerary, I was fortunate to benefit from the knowledge and enthusiasm of UQ Senior Lecturer Dr Amelia Brown and Tutor Dr Annabel Florence, and the company of a great group of students. An excellent recommendation from Dr Brown was to learn some modern Greek beforehand. A crash course in modern Greek Language for Archaeologists and Scholars taught by Ms Anna Efstathiadou at UQ’s Institute for Modern Languages came in very handy for deciphering signposts, menus, and importantly ordering coffee. In the final blog, Dr Amelia Brown returns to wrap up with her highlights of the tour in the north of Greece.

Tim Bennett is a Bachelor of Advanced Humanities Honours student at the University of Queensland, majoring in Ancient History. He is passionate about demonstrating the relevance and importance of history in today’s world by making it accessible to a wider audience.

Read the other posts in the UQ Study Tour Series:


UQ Ancient World Study Tour of Greece
Dr Amelia Brown

An Artistic Experience of Antiquity
Riva Charles

The Theatre of Epidaurus
Ethan Clark-Kistowski

Contacts

Dr Stavros Paspalas – Acting Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au