By: Sissi Alevromageira, 25/7/2022
Piraeus appears to have been inhabited since the Neolithic period and reached its zenith of wealth during the classical era, when it was first declared a municipality, precisely one of the municipalities of the Asteos of ancient Athens and was chosen as the port of the Athenian city.
Piraeus is surrounded by sea, which influences the pace of its life. It was an island in ancient times when travelers sailed from the shore. In the middle of the fifth century, the architect Hippodamus oversaw the city’s urban growth. Hippodamus’ plans were also used as guidelines for the city’s reconstruction in 1834.
Themistocles was the first to recognize its significance for the city of Athens and reduced it to its principal port, replacing the Gulf of Faliros, which the Athenians used until the 5th century. From 493 to 479 BC, the Piraeus wall was built to provide a defended harbor for the city of Athens. Later, Pericles finished the fortification by constructing the Long Walls, which covered both sides of the road from Piraeus to Athens. Piraeus was known as Porto Leone in the Middle Ages because of a massive stone lion guarding the port’s entrance. Today, it is Athens’ principal port, the largest in Greece and one of the most important in the Mediterranean, as well as a significant shipping, industrial, and transportation hub in the country. The city’s life revolves around its three ports: the main port, Marina Zeas, and Mikrolimano.
Zeus’s new builders
The port of Zeas, also known as Pasalimani to all of us, is Piraeus’ second largest port. It was the largest of the three ports of Athens (Zeas, Munichia, and Kantharos) and of Greece in general in antiquity, because it had more new ports than the other two (196 are mentioned).
It is not well recognized that Athens’ first port was not Piraeus, but Paleo Faliro. The classical Piraeus is essentially the work of Themistocles, who used his foresight and determination to overcome the Athenians’ rural conservatism and transform Athens into a maritime superpower. Piraeus, with its ports and defenses, became a vital element of the Athenian Republic as a result of the fleet’s involvement and achievements against the Medes. And because they were the oldest public structures, the neosikoi were in a prime position.
The neosikoi of Zeus, the best preserved ruins, were long houses built on sloping terrain, parallel and dense all down the shore, with tiled roofs and internal colonnades. Inside was a wooden grating covered with grease, generally oil, to help the trireme flow and reach the waterhole, where it ‘overflowed.’
The Zeus Theatre
The huge Dionysus Theatre beneath Athens’ Acropolis served as inspiration for its design. The old Zeus Theatre is in direct touch with the building of the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus and is surrounded by modern structures. The monument is organized in the manner of a Hellenistic theatre, with a hollow, an orchestra, and a stage structure. The theatre dates from the 2nd century BC, according to an inscribed stele discovered below Piraeus’ customs office.
The Hetaea Gate, which covers over 20 acres, is the greatest archaeological site on the Pirate coast. The mythical hero Hetaeon, who is said to have been the first to inhabit the cape that isolated the trade port of ancient Piraeus from the west, gave the cape its name. The site preserves significant remnants of an old fortress designed to protect the port from land attacks.
The Hetaea Gate is the Pirate Coast’s largest archaeological site, comprising around 20 acres. It is significant for two reasons: first, it was the port’s bastion and one of the two entrances to walled Piraeus, and second, it maintains essential information about fortification construction as it developed and evolved during the classical period. The walls and towers preserve the remnants of many chronological periods, ranging from the early 5th century building phase, which dates back to Themistocles, to the end of the 3rd century BC. This is when the circular towers of the Hetaea Gate were built. Inside them are the earliest rectangular towers built during Conon’s reign (394 BC). A rampart and a massive excavated trench 100 m long protected the front of the gate, where a wooden movable bridge supported on constructed piles.