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Physical Description

The Sporades are three groups of "scattered" islands in the northern Aegean between Greece and Turkey. The northern Sporades lie off the Magnesian peninsula and run southeast from Skiathos to Skyros and include Chios, Lesbos, Samothrace and Samos; the southern Sporades include Delos and the surrounding islands (see Cyclades); and the eastern Sporades include the Dodecanese (see Dodecanese). The northern Sporades are limestone and volcanic outcrops in the Aegean, and, although they possess little fertile land, they are known more for seafaring and trade than agriculture.

Samothrace has granite peaks and a shear coast, but is thickly forested and exports timber. The richest of the northern Sporades are Lesbos and Chios: Lesbos which exports olives and oil, and Chios, which is famous for wine. Samos has also always been renowned for its sweet red wine.


Skopelos, called Peparethos until Ptolemaic times, is situated just off of the Thessalian coast between Skiathos and Skiros. Like its neighbors, Skopelos is a small (96 sq km) well-watered island which produces grape-vines, olives, almonds, pears, and other fruits. Traditionally the inhabitants of Skopelos have placed more emphasis on agriculture than on seafaring.

Samothrace is the most northerly island in the Greek archipelago, lying 40 km off the Thracian coast. It is a small island with an area of 178 sq. km. Samothrace consists of eroded granite mountains, with a narrow coastal plain in the north and a region of rolling hills in the southwest. Building stone, timber for shipbuilding, and some mining were the bases of the ancient economy.

The island is known for its mystery cult at the sanctuary of the Great Gods, and for the Nike which is now housed in the Louvre. Its name, Samothrace, "Thracian Samos," implies that the island was originally populated by Thracians from Samos, who founded the sanctuary of the Great Gods. In c. 700 B. C. the first Greeks arrived on the island, and the sanctuary thrived and grew under their care, but the sacred language of the cult remained Thracian until the first century B.C. In the fourth century B.C. Philip II of Macedon was initiated into the mysteries, and in the third century B.C. many new buildings were erected by Ptolemy II and his sister Arsinoe. The cult spread widely through the Hellenistic world and came to an end in about 400 A.D. with the spread of Christianity.

Lesbos, the third largest of the Greek islands after Crete and Euboea with an area of 1630 sq km, lies near the Anatolian coast, only 10 km away on the north. Its proximity to Asia Minor has played a major part in the history of the island.

The earliest inhabitants of the island were a pre-Greek people whose settlement dates to before 3000 B.C. After c. 1000 B.C. Aeolian Greeks from Thessaly arrived on the island and founded the towns of Mytilene and Methymna. From about 546 to 479 B.C. Lesbos was ruled by the Persians, but later it became a member of the Attic Maritime League. Throughout the Classical period and down to the Hellenistic and Roman times, Lesbos maintained its independence. Lesbos was the home and birthplace of many famous poets: Terpander, a seventh century B.C. poet who was credited with the invention of the seven-stringed lyre; and Sappho, c. 600 BC, the most famous ancient poet apart from Homer. Theophrastus (322-287 B.C.) became head of Aristotle's Lyceum in Athens.

Chios lies 58 km south of Lesbos, and 8 km from Asia Minor. It had an area of 842 sq km. A mountain range traverses the island from north to south.

The name Chios, according to some authorities, is of Phoenician origin and means mastic. Chios is the main source of mastic, a resin of the lentisk tree used as a varnish and a liqueur flavoring. The island has been occupied since the beginning of the Bronze Age. After 1000 B.C. Ionian settlers established themselves on Chios, and in historical times, this island became a member of the Ionic Confederacy. The common sanctuary was the Panionion in Asia Minor. An important school of sculptors sprung up in Chios in the sixth century B.C. From 512 to 479 B.C. Chios was under Persian rule. Thereafter Chios became a member of the Attic Maritime League.

Of all the Greek islands, Samos lies the closest to the coast of Asia Minor. A strait of only 3 km separates the two. With an area of 476 sq. km, Samos has always been very fertile and thickly wooded with many natural springs. A range of mountains runs through the island from east to west.

Traces of human habitation on Samos date back to the third millennium B.C. Like many of its neighbors, Samos was occupied by settlers from Ionia early in the historical period. From c. 538 to 522 B.C. Samos was ruled by the tyrant Polykrates. During this time the great Temple of Hera was erected at the center of a sanctuary. This Hera temple is one of the oldest stone temples of Greece, and of great importance for the history of Greek architecture. The famous Philosopher Pythagoras was born in Samos. In 477 B.C. Samos became a member of the Attic Maritime League, but was later conquered by Perikles after a revolt, in 439 B.C.

Curtis Runnels

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