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The Archaic epoch

The Archaic epoch covers the 7th and 6th centuries BC. During this period a remarkable cultural development took place in the Greek region, i.e. on the Greek mainland, the islands of the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor, and the characteristic, well-known “Greek culture” with all its significant achievements developed. In spite of the fact that the same culture existed in the whole area, after the fall of the kingdoms of the previous geometric epoch, it was not one state that was formed, encompassing the whole territory, but the various cities organised themselves as individual, independent city states (póleis), of which Athens and Sparta were the most important. In the 7th century BC these were mostly ruled by the aristocracy; later also tyrannies and democracies emerged.

Techniques and crafts experienced a significant bloom in the Archaic epoch. The predominant style in pottery was of an eastern influence, and the most important school was that of Corinth, which developed the melanomorphic style with black figures painted on a reddish background. The decorations mainly showed motifs from the world of the gods and heroes. In the Archaic epoch the first important works of marble sculpture were created, especially the larger than life statues (koúroi and kóres). Large temples were built; on the Greek mainland the Doric style developed, on the islands and in Asia Minor the Ionic style.

Melanomorph cup by the famous vase painter Exekias depicting Dionysus kidnapped by pirates, from Wikipedia

Navigation flourished as well as trade, which was now in the whole Mediterranean region predominantly in Greek hands. The first coins were minted (this invention was adopted from the Lydians of Asia Minor, but the Ionian Greeks were the first to use them on a larger scale). Along the entire Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea coast, the Greek city states founded colonies, many of which developed into important cities themselves.

Compared to the previous Geometric epoch (the “Dark Age”) many more testimonies have been preserved from the Archaic epoch. Writing gained a far greater importance and numerous works by a whole series of important poets have survived until today. The first philosophers such as Thales, Pythagoras and Heraclitus laid the foundations of science and Hesiod wrote his significant didactic poems, which deal with mythology and the world of the gods, but also with the everyday life of the peasants.

Naxos in the Archaic epoch

During the archaic period, Naxos came to dominate the Cyclades; numerous traces bear witness to the island’s significant and rapid development. According to ancient sources, the island must have had a population of around 100,000 people, almost ten times more than today. During the Archaic period, the Naxiotes founded two colonies on the neighbouring island of Amorgos, an indication that there was a surplus population on Naxos.

Today the traveller can visit on Naxos two monumental Archaic statues, the ruins of three temples, and the remains of an aquaeduct from the Archaic epoch. Nevertheless, our knowledge of the Archaic Naxos is limited; even in ancient literature and historiography there are few accounts of the island during this period (a work by the historian and philosopher Aglaosthenes on Naxos is often quoted by other ancient writers, but has not survived). There are no significant excavations of settlements from the Archaic epoch on Naxos that could provide us with information about the daily life of the inhabitants. This is partly due to the fact that the island’s main settlement during the more than six millennia of Naxiotic history was mostly located in the same place as today, in the Chóra, which is still built over and therefore hardly accessible to archaeological investigation. The flourishing town was called Kallípolis in the Archaic period, meaning “good city”.

Significant monuments of the Archaic epoch on Naxos

  1. The temple of Dionysus in Iria
  2. Dionysus and the island of Naxos
  3. The Portara and the temple of Apollon in the Chora
  4. The temple of Demeter near Sangri
  5. The sanctuary at Flerio (Mélanes)
  6. The Kouroi of Flerio near Melanes
  7. The aqueduct from Melanes to Chora
  8. The Kouros of Apollonas
  9. The ancient quarry at Apollonas

The pottery

The Naxian pottery of the Archaic epoch shows a rather conservative style. There was a significant production on the island, but mainly for local use. Naxian pottery has been found in many parts of the Mediterranean Sea, from Syria to Sicily, but mostly only in a few pieces; only on Delos does Naxian pottery appear in large quantities, proving the significant activity of the Naxians on the island of Apollon.

Archaic pottery Museum Chora

Archaic pottery Museum Chora

Archaic pottery Museum Chora
pottery of the Archaic epoch in the Archaeological Museum in the Chóra

The trade

The marine importance of the island of Naxos becomes particularly clear in the flourishing export of marble and marble statues, which probably represented the main source of the island’s significant wealth in the Archaic epoch. The emery must have also played a role in the export, but unfortunately we know little about the importance of the emery in antiquity. The island of Naxos also seems to have exported various agricultural products, especially wine; furthermore the sweet almonds of the island and its good goat breeds were famous.

Already in the year 735 BC the Naxians founded the first Greek colony on Sicily together with the most important Greek trading power of the early Archaic epoch, the Polis Chalkida on the island of Euboea. This colony was named Naxos, but it was predominantly Euboean in character; Naxian artifacts were found to a much lesser degree. Nevertheless, this fact also testifies to the importance of the island of Naxos in seafare.

Towards the end of the 6th century BC the Naxians imported significant quantities of black-figured Attic pottery; this also indicates a society with considerable prosperity. In the years 515 to 505 BC, i.e. towards the end of the Archaic epoch, Naxos is said to have held the supremacy in Aegean shipping. It is also of interest that the island of Naxos minted silver coins as early as the 6th century BC. The Naxian coins were recognised as means of payment in a wide area; they are found mainly in the eastern Mediterranean region (Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Asia Minor).

This coin, which depicts the god of wine Dionysus and a satyr from his entourage, does not come from the island of Naxos but from the Sicilian colony of Naxos; however, the Naxiotic silver coins looked very similar. Illustration from Wikipedia

The Island of Dionysus

It is no coincidence that Naxos was considered the home of the god of fertility Dionysus: Still today, especially in comparison to the other Cyclades, the island still shows a flourishing vegetation and agriculture. Herodotus even described the fertile and water-rich Naxos as “happiest of the islands” and “small Sicily”. The entire history of Naxos is characterized by its fertility, which enabled a rich local production, so that the island was self-sufficient in agricultural products and could feed a significant population.

The fertility cult of Dionysus appears on Naxos astonishingly early, in the Mycenaean epoch, when the first sanctuary of the God was erected on the site where later the Temple of Dionysus was built. The Archaic temple of Dionysus at Iria was the largest temple building of the Cyclades, and the Dionysia festivals, the celebrations in honor of Dionysus, the most significant festival of the island. For a time the highest priest of Dionysus was also the political ruler of the island. Dionysus or one of his symbols is depicted on the oldest Naxian coins (see above).

The main other gods worshipped on Naxos apart from Dionysus are Demeter, also a goddess of fertility and agriculture, Apollon, the “counterpart” of Dionysos, and Zeus, the father of the gods. There are no proofs of any worship of Ares, Hephaestus or Aphrodite on the island.

The Naxian marble and its significance for the island

The most important products of Naxos were undoubtedly the unique emery (“náxia pétra”) and the marble, both used and exported since the Early Bronze Age. While hardly anything is known about the role of emery in the early development of the island, we are better informed about the marble sculpturing and architecture. And only when we consider this aspect can we gain a complete picture of Naxos in Archaic times.

Already during the Early Bronze Age, the Cyclades and especially Naxos developed the processing of this noble material with the production of the famous marble idols and the amazing marble vessels. During the Archaic epoch as well, the Naxians were especially advanced in the techniques of marble processing. The first Greek marble statues were created on the island, in particular the first and largest Kouroi, i.e. statues of life-size or larger-than-life dimensions. The first large sculpture in Greece and the whole of Europe was a statue of Artemis donated by the Naxian Nikandre in Delos in 660 BC.

Naxos played a special role also in the development of Greek temple architecture. On the island the first temples were erected, which were executed and designed as pure marble buildings. Of particular importance for the development of temple architecture in Greece are the large early Archaic temple of Dionysus in Iria at Iria near the Chóra, the largest temple building of the Cyclades, and the small but important temple of Demeter near the village of Sangrí, both in Ionic order of the islands.

Kouros of Apóllonas
the Kouros of Apóllonas

temple of Demeter at Sangrí
the temple of Demeter at Sangrí

Contacts with Egypt and other neighbours

The Archaic Naxian marble statues testify to a close connection of the island with Egypt: The statues are made in the same proportions and body posture as the Egyptian statues. Moreover, some sculptures donated and made by the Naxians as the Sphinx in Delphi and the lions of the famous Terrace of the Lions in Delos, are clearly made according to Egyptian models. They are in fact so similar to Egyptian statues that it seems that the Naxian sculptors must have personally seen the originals in Egypt, another hint that the ships of the Naxians did not only reach the closer surroundings, but travelled the entire eastern Mediterranean Sea. The contact to Egypt can hardly be explained other than by trade relations – does it perhaps testify to a trade with emery, which only occurs on Naxos? In any case, the fact that marble sculpturing in all of Greece, fertilized by Egypt, first developed on Naxos, is a clear proof of the wider influence of the island at that time, of its prosperity and at the same time of its cultural openness and its “momentum”.

Over the decades, marble and finished statues were exported from Naxos to the neighbouring islands and also to the mainland – statues from Naxos or statues in the Naxiotic style can be found in Rhodes, Samos, Athens, Delphi and Sicily – and also the technique of marble carving and the characteristic naxian temple architecture.

Of particular interest is the contribution of the island of Naxos to the sanctuary of Apollo and Artemis on the neighbouring island of Delos, which was under Naxian control during the Archaic period. In this period the first great temples were founded here, and the Naxians erected important buildings and monuments such as the Oikos and the Stoa of the Naxians, the Terrace of the Lions and the colossal statue of Apollo, the largest marble statue ever erected in Greece and probably the clearest evidence and demonstration of the power and prosperity of the Naxians. The Ionian order of the islands, the style of temple architecture developed first on Naxos, reached the mainland by means of the treasuries dedicated by the Cycladic islands in Delphi and was later imitated in the Erechtheion and the Nike Temple of the Athenian Acropolis.

the Oikos of the Naxians on Delos

Only little remains of the colossal statue of Apollon.

the Terrace of the Lions on Delos

Aristocracy and tyranny

The island of Naxos was ruled by the aristocracy in the early Archaic period, but in 537 BC the Naxian nobleman Lygdamis became the sole ruler of the island. Such a form of government based on the power of a single man was called tyranny, with the term initially having no negative connotations. Lygdamis had helped the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos back to power after he had been deposed by his opponents. In return, Peisistratos then helped the Naxian to oust and banish the island’s aristocrats. Lygdamis had gained the sympathy of the peasants inter alia by restoring their old traditional right to exercise the rites of the cult of Dionysus, which was so important for them and had been denied to them by the aristocracy.

Lygdamis led the island to a significant bloom; under his reign the construction of the large, representative temple of Apollo was begun near the capital with its gigantic entrance gate, the Portara, which consists of four six meter long marble blocks. The temple of Demeter near Sangrí was also built during his reign. The cult of Dionysus now reached its greatest importance.

Apollo temple Naxos
the temple of Apollo at the Chóra with its gigantic temple gate, the Portara

Lygdamis brought the quarries of the island into state ownership. Now, however, the gradual decline of the Naxian marble sculpturing began. With the higher technical development the Naxian marble was displaced in trade by the Parian (from the neighbouring island Paros) and the Attic (from Mount Pendélis near Athens): Although these were more difficult to quarry because they were mostly underground, they had a higher quality due to their finer grain.

The fact that the tyrant Lygdamis succeeded in bringing several neighbouring islands under his control, such as the islands of Paros and Andros, testifies to the importance of the island of Naxos in the Archaic epoch.

The End of the Archaic epoch

The reign of the tyrant Lygdamis over Naxos ended in 524 BC, when the island was invaded by Spartans who were on a campaign against Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos who was friends with Lygdamis. The Spartians relinquished the control of the island to the Naxian aristocrats. Despite these political changes, the island’s economy continued to flourish and, despite its small size, Naxos gave the Persian army its first defeat in the war against the Greeks only a short time later when the Persian fleet passed by the island and tried to conquer it. In the last decade of the 6th century BC, at the beginning of the Classical epoch, the Naxian aristocrats were finally deprived of their power by the people and a democracy was established.

continue: The Classical epoch

Articles about the Archaic epoch on Naxos:

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