The Argolid is in the northeast Peloponnese. The region is a large peninsula projecting into the Saronic Gulf, more or less parallel with Attica. The Argolid may be divided into two parts. The northern part is centered upon the Argive plain and the series of valleys that lead to the east to Epidauros on the Saronic Gulf. The other half of the peninsula stretches south from Epidauros to Porto Kheli, and in Classical times settlement was concentrated at the tip near the mouth of the Argolic Gulf.
In the north at the head of the Argolic Gulf is the great Argive plain, a fertile triangle of alluvial soil (250 sq km) watered by two rivers, the Inachos and the Erasinos. Because of its fertility, it has been the focus of civilization since the Neolithic period (ca. 7000-3000 B.C.). The Argive plain is surrounded by serried ranges of a limestone massif whose gentle rounded appearance belies its arid, rocky nature. These mountains serve to separate the Argolid from the Corinthia in the north. A number of small valleys with patches of fertile soil are found among the mountains, and these valleys have their settlements, although none of them have been of historical significance. The great sites of the Bronze Age and Classical Antiquity, Argos, Epidauros, Lerna, Midea, Mycenae, Nauplion, Tiryns, and Troizen, are found on the edges of the plain and directly to the east, on the shores of the Saronic Gulf opposite of Aegina and Attica.
The southern half of the Argolid is dominated by the Adheres mountains in the interior, of which the highest is Mount Didymo (1113 m). To the south of the Adheres Mountains is rolling hill country composed mostly of soft conglomerates and other rocks. This district (c. 250 sq km) has good soils and many springs to counteract the general aridity of the climate. The principal prehistoric and Classical sites of Franchthi Cave, Mases, Halieis, and Hermione are found on three good harbors that are the most conspicuous feature of the region. The volcanic cone of Methana rises out of the Saronic Gulf near the eastern coast of the southern Argolid and is joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. The last eruption was in the Hellenistic period, and the fertile volcanic soil allows the inhabitants to be largely self-sufficient. As a consequence, the Classical polis of Methana on the southeast coast facing the mainland was always independent and somewhat isolated.
The two parts of the Argolid have somewhat different histories. Early Neolithic settlers founded villages at Lerna on the Argive plain and at Franchthi Cave in the southern Argolid. The latter site also has a record of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic occupation spanning the period from ca. 37,000 to 9,000 years before present. The Neolithic settlers occupied sites close to the coast near good springs that could be depended upon to water nearby fields of wheat and barley. The appearance of large towns, fortified citadels, and a general growth in the number of sites of all kinds took place in the Bronze Age (ca. 3000-1000 B.C.). Sites such as Lerna and Tiryns supported sizable settlements with monumental architecture, some of it in stone, and evidence of considerable trade with the Cyclades, Crete, and Anatolia. The Late Bronze Age (ca. 1650-1000 B.C.) was the period of Mycenaean greatness when Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, and Midea were residences of kings who ruled in the Argolid and who were immortalized as heroes in the great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
After several centuries of civilization, the Mycenaean centers were destroyed and the Argolid was largely abandoned. Beginning sometime after 750 B.C., the polis of Argos became the most important city in the Argolid during Classical Antiquity. The Argives were Dorians and they were often the allies of the Spartans and the Corinthians. A series of small wars between Argos and its neighbors, principally the small communities centered upon the old Bronze Age towns of Mycenae and Tiryns, are known exclusively from scanty references in the ancient historians. These wars eventually gave complete control of the northern Argolid to Argos and ensured several centuries of power and prestige for the city.
Epidauros and Troizen on the east coast were independent of Argos, as were the three small poleis, Hermione, Halieis, and Mases in southern Argolid. According to tradition, Halieis was settled by Tirynthians after their defeat by the Argives, and none of the cities in the north or south ever lived in anything more than an uneasy truce with one another. The territory of Troizen was used as a refuge by the Greeks in the months leading up to the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., which succeeded in stopping the Persian invasion. During the Peloponnesian War, Argos brought the north into the alliance with Sparta against the Athenians, but both Sparta and Athens tried without lasting success to control the southern Argolid and its ports because of its strategic situation at the mouth of the Argolic Gulf. There was no lasting peace after the war, and as a consequence Halieis and other sites were abandoned early in the Hellenistic period. Only Argos had any importance during the Roman period, a time when most of the Argolid was merely an agricultural hinterland of the greater Roman Empire.
The Argolid was important again during the later Medieval period. The Byzantines, the Franks, the Venetians, and the Turks all made Nauplion on the coast of the Argive plain a capital or a base of military government. Nauplion was briefly the capital of free Greece between 1828-1834 until Otho, king of the Hellenes, moved the capital to Athens.
Argos-The Bronze Age and Classical towns lie beneath the modern city. Excavations by members of the French School of Archaeology in Athens and the Greek archaeological service have been carried out as circumstances have permitted since the World War II. A Mycenaean fortress lies beneath the foundations of a Frankish castle on the peak of the Larissa hill that stands above the city on the south side. Classical structures can also be traced among the ruins. In the lower town, the Hellenistic Agora has been revealed by French excavations, and nearby are the well preserved remains of a Greek theater and a Roman bath.
Epidauros-The Asklepeion with its famous fourth century B.C. theater has been excavated by the Archaeological Society of Greece in Athens for a century. Famous as a center of cult for Asklepeios, and a place of healing, the site was adorned with many temples and treasuries. The foundations of these can be seen on the site, and many fine art works are in the museum. The theater is famous for its perfect acoustics, and it is still in use for theatrical productions, seating some 10,000 persons.
Franchthi Cave-The site is a large limestone cavern in the southern Argolid. Excavated by American archaeologists since 1967 it has revealed a deeply stratified sequence of deposits first laid down in the Upper Palaeolithic, ca. 37,000 years ago, and continuing to the end of the Neolithic period ca. 5000 B.C. The succession of human habitation at this site over such a long period, which spans the transition from Palaeolithic foragers to Neolithic farmers, makes the site one of the most significant excavations in southeast Europe.
Halieis-A Classical and early Hellenistic polis at the southern tip of the Argolid. The town was laid out in the 5th century B.C. on an orthogonal street plan, perhaps the earliest use of this system in Greece, and was occupied until 300-280 B.C. when the town was abandoned. American archaeologists excavating since 1962 have revealed religious buildings on the acropolis and blocks of houses on the slopes below the acropolis. Early use of underwater excavation techniques were used here to explore an early stone temple of Apollo with a stoa and stadium and nearby house blocks that had been submerged by rising sea level in the last 2000 years. The underwater remains may be viewed from a boat or by snorkeling, and many typical houses are still visible in the trenches on the east side of the Porto Kheli bay.
Hermion-The Classical polis is underneath the modern town, which is becoming the cultural and population center of the southern Argolid. Only chance excavations by Greek archaeologists have taken place here. A temple of Poseidon and good Classical walls are visible on the pine-covered peninsula, and Classical walls and a cemetery can be seen here and there in the streets of the town as the foundations of modern buildings. An important early Christian basilica is visible near the eastern harbor.
Lerna-This small site south of Argos was excavated in the 1950's by American archaeologists. Occupation levels from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age were identified, but the most important remains consist of the great House of the Tiles (so called because baked clay and stone tiles were used as roofing material) and a fortification wall that belong to the Early Helladic II village that was destroyed by violent fire around 2350 B.C.
Mases-This town is in the southern Argolid near the Franchthi Cave. It is mentioned in Homer as a contributor of ships to the Greek expedition against Troy. An American team discovered the probable site of Mases in 1979, but there has been no excavation. On the rocky headland between the site of Mases and Franchthi Cave the retaining wall of an early stone temple, sacred probably to Hera, are still to be seen.
Methana-The remains of ancient Methana are found on a small coastal plain on the southeast coast of the peninsula. They have not been excavated, but large stretches of well-preserved Classical and Hellenistic fortifications are a notable feature. There is an early Christian chapel here also.
Midea-A Mycenaean citadel with remarkably thick and strong walls sits atop a prominent peak at the northern apex of the Argive plain. The citadel is currently being excavated by Greek, Swedish, and American archaeologists. Nearby, at Dendra, are well preserved Mycenaean rock-cut chamber tombs and tholoi excavated by the Swedish School in the 1930's and 1950's. In one of the tholos tombs was found the magnificent suit of bronze armor that is the pride of the Nauplion archaeological museum.
Mycenae-This citadel, with its many houses, cisterns, walls, bridges, roads, and stupendous tholos tombs, is the most important and famous site in the Argolid. It was first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 and it has been excavated almost continuously since that time by a succession of Greek and British archaeologists. The Mycenaean palace, Grave Circle A, and the House with the Idols, and many other interesting features are to be seen inside the impressive fortification walls. One enters by the famous Lion Gate. Outside the walls are nine tholos tombs, of which the Treasury of Atreus is the biggest and best. Another grave circle, Grave Circle B, is to be seen by the car park. Along the road one sees the foundations of large houses that were destroyed at the end of the 13th century B.C., and one can catch glimpses too of the Mycenaean bridge on the road from Mycenae to Argos.
Nauplion-This harbor town at the eastern edge of the Argive plain is dominated by the early modern town with its picturesque houses, mosques, churches, and public buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Above the cities are truly remarkable fortresses built in successive stages by the Frankish, Venetian, and Turkish rulers of the Morea (Peloponnese). Mycenaean chamber tombs have been found at the edge of the city, but the most interesting Classical remains can be viewed from anywhere in the town: they consist of fine masonry fortifications that serve as foundations of the walls of the Medieval fortress of Ich Kale.
Tiryns-This site was also first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann. The visible remains are almost entirely from the Mycenaean period. The site has two parts: an upper town and a lower town. The upper town has the foundations of the palace, the storerooms, and courtyards. It sits upon a single large limestone block. The lower town to the west is perched on a prehistoric Neolithic and Early Bronze Age tell that has been surrounded in Mycenaean times by a wall of huge, roughly-worked stones. Two underground springs are reached through the walls via rock-cut tunnels. In a nearby hill there are two tholos tombs, and 4 km to the north of the town is a huge stone dam built at the end of the Mycenaean period to divert a river that was flooding the site.
Troizen-Troizen is located on the eastern coast of the Argolid, looking across the Saronic Gulf to Aegina. It is best known as the home of the legendary Attic hero Theseus. The extensive ruins of the site, which date to the Classical Greek and Roman periods, have not been explored in detail. Early Christian churches, a late Medieval tower, and scattered ancient walls and foundations are to be seen on the site.