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The Travel Writings of Pausanias

Travel blogs and tourist guides are common in the modern world, but did you know that the first detailed travel book was written nearly 2,000 years ago? Pausanias gave such good information about the Greek world that archaeologists still use him as a guide today!

The idea of someone writing a detailed description of the places they’ve traveled seems anything but novel today, but in the 2nd century AD this was an entirely new idea. While some specific cities or sites had been written about before, Pausanias was the first to write down an in-depth account of his explorations of an entire country.

In the Description of Greece, the Libyan writer notably ignored most of the new, Roman buildings he saw. Instead, he set the standard for modern travel bloggers by exploring the sites and cultures of places that were off the beaten path.

With ten books in total, the Description of Greece was not a pocket guide to the country. Instead, it was a detailed account of the important and interesting places that had a special role in the creation of a Greek cultural identity in the Roman Empire.

This innovative new type of writing was not particularly well-received in its own time. It would be centuries before similarly informative travel guides were published again and Pausanias’s work faded largely into obscurity.

That changed in the 20th century, however, when recent finds seemed to give new credence to the forgotten work. From being ignored and dismissed, Pausanias is now regarded as one of the best primary sources for archaeologists and historians to truly understand ancient Greece.

Pausanias and the Description of Greece

Pausanias was born in the year 110 AD to a Greek-speaking family in the Roman Empire. Based on his writings, scholars believe that he probably grew up somewhere in Lydia, modern Turkey.

Whichever Anatolian city he was from, Pausanias was certainly familiar with the western coast of the Mediterannean. He wrote about visits taken relatively early in his life to Antioch, Jerusalem, and Egypt.

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In Anatolia, he claimed to have seen the ruins of Troy. He visited the pyramids at Giza, traveled to a desert oasis to see a great temple to Ammon, and in Macedonia claimed to have seen the tomb of the poet Orpheus.

Later, Pausanias traveled to Italy and the capital city of Rome. But he is most well-known for his journey through Greece.

Pausanias chronicled his travels through Greece in a ten-volume collection of books known as the Description of Greece. Each book is dedicated to a different region of the country.

He began his trip in Attica, spending the majority of his time in and around Athens. The second book described Corinthia, the third Laconia, and the fourth told of his time in Messenia.

The fifth and sixth books were both dedicated to his description of Elis. Book seven told of Achaea, book eight involved Arcadia, book nine was about Boeotia, and he ended the trip with his tenth book in Phocis and Ozolian Locris.

In each of these regions, Pausanias traveled to different towns and ruins to view temples, landmarks, and cultural sites. While he was not a naturalist, he did sometimes give information about the landscape and animals found throughout Greece.

Pausanias’s primary interest, however, was in the cultural history of the Greek people and their status in his own time as subjects of Roman rule.

As he traveled, Pausanias did not only focus on the cities and landmarks that were popular to his fellow visitors. He also toured ruined temples, remote shrines, and the more secluded parts of the country.

In fact, he gave no description at all of many newer buildings and cities that are known to have thrived in his time. He was most interested in Greece’s past and the history and mythology that influenced its culture.

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Pausanias described in detail the religious sites and works of art that were already ancient in his time. He wrote extensive descriptions of sites such as the grove of the Muses on Mount Helicon, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the ruins of the once-great city of Mycenae.

He also often interrupted his descriptions to give information about local beliefs and practices. These included how the gods were worshiped in different temples, the names used in local myths, and even local folk wisdom such as how to predict an earthquake or interpret different omens from the gods.

Pausanias gave a detailed and thoughtful description of sites and beliefs that reflected pre-Roman Greek culture, but his work seemed to be unappreciated in his own time. It was not until the modern era that his true contribution would be understood.

His Modern Influence

Scholars have not been able to find any evidence to show that Pausanias and his books were highly-valued in the 2nd century.

No other historians or mythographers of his time mention him or repeat the stories he recounted. His style of using digressions to recount a myth or local ritual would not be widely-used in the same way for several hundred years.

There is, according to a modern editor of his work, no trace of anyone having read the Description of Greece until it was cited by a Byzantine geographer in the 6th century.

While the work survived and was recopied, Pausanias continued to be only rarely mentioned through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By the 16th century, there were only three known copies of the Description of Greece in the world. All were copied from the same earlier manuscript, which disappeared from the record after 1500, and were filled with typographical errors and omissions.

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These were studied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by influential German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. He concluded that the Description of Greece had no value to modern historians.

Pausanias, Wilamowitz, likely had not ever visited most of the places he described. Instead, the descriptions were based on unreliable second-hand accounts and likely augmented by the writer’s imagination.

Because Wilamowitz was regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on Greece antiquity, most scholars of the time followed his view. They ignored Pausanias in favor of other sources.

Some, however, thought that the Description of Greece might be more reliable than Wilamowitz supposed. They carefully read the text to find clues as to the locations of ancient cities that had long been lost.

Heinrich Schliemann was a German businessman and amateur archaeologist who was convinced, in defiance of the prevailing belief of the time, that the Homeric epics were rooted in historical events. Searching for the location of Troy in Turkey, he was pointed to a site owned by a British expatriate.

Between 1870 and 1873 he discovered nine cities that had been built on the site through successive eras. Just before his excavations were scheduled to end, he uncovered a hoard of gold and other valuables that he dubbed Priam’s Treasure.

Not only did the site of Troy align with what Pausanias had written, but some individual features also appeared in his work. Inspired by this, Schliemann followed the information in the Description of Greece to try to pinpoint the location of Mycenae.

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Schliemann found Mycenae, again with specific buildings and elements described by Pausanias. Among the riches he uncovered there was the golden funerary mask known as the Mask of Agamemnon.

As archaeology grew into a more precise and scholarly field in the 20th centuries, those in the field returned to the Description of Greece in part because the findings at Troy and Mycenae matched it so well. The famous lion gate at Mycenae, for example, was described by Pausanias in his description of the ruins.

Time and time again Wilamowitz was proven wrong as newly-excavated buildings and artwork matched the descriptions given nearly 2,000 years before by Pausanias.

Most archaeologists and historians now recognize the travel writer as one of their greatest sources of information about Greek culture at the time.

His writings have proven useful not only in finding and identifying specific sites or buildings within them, but also in painting a richer picture of the beliefs and rituals of the people who used them. Because his descriptions have proven to be accurate, his accounts of myths, customs, and folk beliefs are widely seen as accurate, as well.

At the Temple of Hera at Olympia, for example, archaeologists have only found traces of the once magnificent building. Pausanias’s detailed description, however, allows them to envision not only the artwork that was housed within it but also the otherwise unknown all-female athletic contests that were held there.

The once-ignored travel writer is now regarded as one of the best sources for information on Greek art, architecture, beliefs, and customs in the 2nd century. He is now recognized not only as the father of the travel guide, but also as an invaluable resource for our understanding of the ancient world.

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In Summary

In the 2nd century AD, Libyan-Greek writer Pausanias wrote the Description of Greece. This ten-volume travel book was the first of its kind to give a detailed and thoughtful first-hand account of the sites and culture of Greece.

Pausanias tended to ignore the Roman buildings and influences he found in Greek cities and instead focus on places of greater historical significance. He was particularly interested in religious sites and gave detailed descriptions of many temples and works of art that were ancient even in his time.

He also reported on the beliefs and customs of the people he encountered in various parts of Greece. At almost every site he visited, he mentioned myths, rituals, and folklore that were unique to the local population.

The writings of Pausanias had no impact on the literary world in his own time and were rarely cited afterward. While the Description of Greece was preserved, it was largely ignored.

In the 19th century, it was even dismissed as almost entirely unreliable. That changed, however, when archaeologists in the late 19th century began to find buildings and artwork that matched his descriptions.

In the 20th century, more places were uncovered that aligned with the descriptions of Pausanias. His work began to be seen as essential in the field.

Today, most historians credit Pausanias for broadening our understanding not only of Greek archaeology, but also of the beliefs and customs of the people who lived in the past. His detailed descriptions fill in missing information about how temples and other buildings were decorated, cared for, and used in his time.

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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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