A locality on the
S side of the Malian Gulf, named partly for the presence
of a hot mineral spring. By more ancient usage it was
known simply as Pylai, the Gates, a name describing its
situation at the narrowest point of the mainland route
from the N into central and S Greece. At some time
in the post-Mycenaean period, it became the seat of the
Pylaian Amphictyony, a religious assembly of representatives of the Greek-speaking tribes around the Malian Gulf. This body later became famous under the less accurate title of Delphic Amphictyony, but even in the
3d and 2d c. B.C., when its membership consisted largely
of proxies for external powers situated far from the
original place of assembly, the more official name, and
the ostensible pattern of membership, continued to reflect the early tribal settlement of the region around the Malian Gulf.
The Pylaian Amphictyony was a natural focus for
the resistance to the Persian invasion of 480 B.C., and
the famous Spartan defense of the pass on the Kolonos
hill, at the narrowest point of the Gates, was probably
influenced by religious as well as tactical considerations.
The Gates were again the site of significant military actions against the Gauls in 279, and against the Romans in 191 B.C. They continued to be important in Byzantine and even in modern military planning.
The locality has three main foci of interest: the pass
itself, the Shrine of Demeter at Anthela, where the Amphictyonic council met, and the numerous fortifications
associated with the defense of the pass. The pass, through
which the road at this point ran W-E, lay between the
steep slopes of the mountain to the S and the shore of
the Malian Gulf to the N. The extensive silting of the
gulf has now made this an easy passage, but in antiquity
the sea came close to the mountains at three points, and
Herodotos called each one a gate. The site of the Spartan
defense is the farthest E; it is marked by a modern monument in a place that may well have been under water
in antiquity. The monument faces the semi-isolated Kolonos hill where the Spartans stood. Inland from here are the remains of a rough zigzag, identified as the wall built by the Phokians as a defense against the Thessalians
). A structure at the SW end of this wall,
which had been identified as a polyandrion, seems rather
to be a part of the defense work. Burials have been
found on and around the hill, also some evidence of
habitation, but the most significant discovery was a large
number of bronze arrowheads that could be identified
with Persian armament. Most of the finds are in the
museum at Lamia.
Traces of the Pylaian Sanctuary of Demeter at Anthela
) were discovered in the foothills S of the
road, ca. 2.5 km W of the Kolonos. The only identifiable
monuments are a stoa and a stadium, the latter of rough
construction built into a natural depression in the limestone. Of interest is the special construction at the W end of the stadium designed to keep the winter rains from washing out the floor. No traces of the Demeter
shrine itself have yet been found.
Stählin's article in RE
is still the best
overall source. Further details and new interpretations
appear in the articles by Pritchett and MacKay, where
some additions to Stählin's references may be found.
Nearly all the more important 19th and early 20th c.
travelers visited Thermopylai, and nearly all have something to contribute. The most significant accounts, by Leake and Grundy, are noted below, and a discussion of some of the others occurs in MacKay. Béquignon and
Marinatos provide the only significant evidence from excavation.
W. M. Leake, Travels in Northern Greece
; G. B. Grundy, The Great Persian War
; F. Stählin, “Thermopylen,” RE
2d ser. V, 2 (1934) 2398-2423M
; Y. Béquignon, “Recherches archéologiques dans la vallée du Spercheios,” RA
Sér. 6, 4
; id., La Vallée du Spercheios, Bibl. Ec.
. 144 (1937) 181-204 & passimMI
; W. K. Pritchett,
“New Light on Thermopylae,” AJA
62 (1958) 203-13I
; id., Studies in Ancient Greek Topography
I (1965) 71-82I
; P. A. MacKay, “Procopius' De Aedificiis
Topography of Thermopylae,” AJA
67 (1963) 241-55MI
(includes unexcavated peripheral fortifications).
P. A. MACKAY