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LESBOS (Λέσβος: Eth. and Adj. Λέσβιος, Λέσβικός, Λεσβιακός, Lesbius, Lesbicus, Lesbiacus: fem. Λεσβίς, Λεσβιἀς, Lesbis, Lesbias: in the middle ages it was named Mitylene, from its principal city: Geog. Rav. 5.21; Suidas. s. v.; Hierocl. p. 686; Eustath. ad Il. 9.129, Od. 3.170 : hence it is called by the modern Greeks Mitylen or Metelino, and by the Turks Medilli or Medellu-Adassi.) Like several other islands of the Aegean, Lesbos is said by Strabo, Pliny and others to have had various other names, Issa, Himerte, Lasia, Pelasgia, Aegira, Aethiope, and Macaria. (Strab. i. p.160, v. p. 128; Plin. Nat. 5.31 (39); Diod. 3.55, 5.81.)

Lesbos is situated off the coast of Mysia, exactly opposite the opening of the gulf of Adramyttium. Its northern part is separated from the mainland near 0Assos [ASSOS] by a channel about 7 miles broad; and the distance between the south-eastern extremity and the islands of Arginusae [ARGINUSAE] is about the same. Strabo reckons the breadth of the former strait at 60 stadia, and Pliny at 7 miles: for the latter strait see Strab. xiii. pp. 616, 617, and Xen. Hell. 1.6. 15-28. The island lies between the parallels of 38° 58′ and 39° 24′. Pliny states the circumference as 168 miles, Strabo as 1100 stadia. According to Choiseul-Gouffier, the latter estimate is rather too great. Scylax (p. 56) assigns to Lesbos the seventh rank in size among the islands of the Mediterranean sea.

In shape Lesbos may be roughly described as a triangle, the sides of which face respectively the NW., the NE., and the SW. The northern point is the promontory of Argennum, the western is that of Sigrium (still called Cape Sigri), the south-eastern is that of Malea (now called Zeitoun Bouroun or Cape St. Mary). But though this description of the island as triangular is generally correct, it must be noticed that it is penetrated far into the interior by two gulfs, or sea-lochs as they may properly be called, on the south-western side. One of these is Port Hiero or Port Olivier, “one of the best harbours of the Archipelago,” opening from the sea about 4 miles to the westward of Cape Malea, and extending about 8 miles inland among the mountains. It may be reasonably conjectured that its ancient name was Portus Hieraeus; since Pliny mentions a Lesbian city called Hiera, which was extinct before his time. The other arm of the sea, to which we have alluded, is about half-way between the former and Cape Sigrium. It is the “beautiful and extensive basin, named Port Caloni,” and anciently called Euripus Pyrrhaeus. From the extreme narrowness of the entrance, it is less adapted for the [p. 2.165]purposes of a harbour. Its ichthyology is repeatedly mentioned by Aristotle as remarkable. (Hist. Animal. 5.10.2, 5.13.10, 8.20.15, 9.25.8.)

The surface of the island is mountainous. The principal mountains were Ordymnus in the W., Olympus in the S., and Lepethymnus in the N. Their elevations, as marked in the English Admiralty Charts, are respectively, 1780, 3080, and 2750 feet. The excellent climate and fine air of Lesbos are celebrated by Diodorus. Siculus (5.82), and it is still reputed to be the most healthy island in the Archipelago. (Purdy's Sailing Directory, p. 154.) Tacitus (Ann. 6.3) calls it “insula nobilis et amoena.” Agates were found there (Plin. Nat. 37.54), and its quarries produced variegated marble (36.5). The wholesome Lesbian wines ( “innocentis pocula Lesbii,” Hor. Carm. 1.17, 21) were famous in the ancient world; but of this a more particular account is given under METHYMNA The trade of the island was active and considerable; but here again we must refer to what is said concerning its chief city MYTILENE At the present day the figs of Lesbos are celebrated; but its chief exports are oil and gall-nuts. The population was estimated, in 1816, at 25,000 Greeks and 5000 Turks.

Tradition says that the first inhabitants of Lesbos were Pelasgians: and Xanthus was their legendary leader. Next came Ionians and others, under Macareus, who is said by Diodorus (5.80) to have introduced written laws two generations before the Trojan war. Last were the Aeolian settlers, under the leadership of Lesbus, who appears in Strabo under the name Graus, and who is said to have married Methymna, the daughter of Macareus. Mytilene was the elder daughter. This is certain, that the early history of Lesbos is identical with that of the Aeolians. Strabo regards it as their central seat (σχέδον μητρόπολις, xiii. pp. 616, 622). In mercantile enterprise, in resistance to the Persians, and in intellectual eminence, the insular Aeolians seem to have been favourably contrasted with their brethren on the continent. That which Horace calls “Aeolium carmen” and “Aeoliae fides” (Carm. 2.13. 24, 3.30. 13) wass due to the genius of Lesbos: and Niebuhr's expression regarding this island is, that it was “the pearl of the Aeolian race.” (Lectures on Ancient Ethnology and Geography, vol. i. p. 218.)

Lesbos was not, like several other islands of the Archipelago, such as Cos, Chios and Samos, the territory of one city. We read of six Aeolian cities in Lesbos, each of which had originally separate possessions and an independent government, and which were situated in the following geographical order. METHYMNA (now Molivo) was on the north, almost immediately opposite Assos, from which it was separated by one of the previously mentioned straits. Somewhere in its neighbourhood was ARISBA which, however, was incorporated in the Methymnaean territory before the time of Herodotus (1.151). Near the western extremity of the island were ANTISSA and ERESSUS. The former was a little to the north of Cape Sigrium, and was situated on a small island, which in Pliny's time (2.91) was connected with Lesbos itself. The latter was on the south of the promontory, and is still known under the name of Erissi, a modern village, near which ruins have been found. At the head of Port Caloni was PYRIRHA, which in Strabo's time had been swallowed up by the sea, with the exception of a suburb. (Strab. xiii. p.618; see Plin. Nat. 5.31.) The name of Pera is still attached to this district according to Pococke. On the eastern shore, facing the mainland, was MYTILENE Besides these places, we must mention the following:--HIERA doubtless at the head of Port Olivier, said by Pliny to have been destroyed before his day; AGAMEDE, a village in the neighbourhood of Pyrrha; NAPE, in the plain of Methymna; AEGIRUS, between Methymna and Mytilene; and POLIUM, a site mentioned by Stephanus B. Most of these places are noticed more particularly under their respective names. All of them decayed, and became unimportant, in comparison with Methymna and Mytilene,. which were situated on good harbours opposite the mainland, and convenient for the coasting-trade. The annals of Lesbos are so entirely made up of events affecting those two cities, especially the latter, that we must refer to them for what does not bear upon the general history of the island.

From the manner in which Lesbos is mentioned both in the Iliad and Odyssey (Il. 24.544, Od. 4.342), it is evident that its cities were populous and flourishing at a very early period. They had also very large possessions on the opposite coast. Lesbos was not included in the conquests of Croesus. (Hdt. 1.27.) The severe defeat of the Lesbians by the Samians under Polycrates (3.39) seems only to have been a temporary disaster. It is said by Herodotus (1.151.) that at first they had nothing to fear, when Cyrus conquered the territories of Croesus on the mainland: but afterwards, with other islanders, they seem to have submitted voluntarily to Harpagus (1.169). The situation of this island on the very confines of the great struggle between the Persians and the Greeks was so critical, that its fortunes were seriously affected in. every phase of the long conflict, from this period down to the peace of Antalcidas and the campaigns of Alexander.

The Lesbians joined the revolt of Aristagoras (Hdt. 6.5, 8), and one of the most memorable incidents in this part of its history is the consequent hunting down of its inhabitants, as well as those of Chios and Tenedos, by the Persians (Hdt. 6.31; Aesch. Pers. 881). After the battles of Salamis and Mycale they boldly identified themselves with the Greek cause. At first they attached themselves to the Lacedaemonian interest: but before long they came under the overpowering influence of the naval supremacy of Athens. In the early part of the Peloponnesian War, the position of Lesbos was more favourable than that of the other islands: for, like Corcyra and Chios, it was not required to furnish a money-tribute, but only a naval contingent (Thuc. 2.9). But in the course of the war, Mytilene was induced to intrigue with the Lacedaemonians, and to take the lead in a great revolt from. Athens. The events which fill so large a portion of the third book of Thucydides--the speech of Cleon, the change of mind on the part of the Athenians, and the narrow escape of the Lesbians from entire massacre by the sending of a second ship to overtake the first--are perhaps the most memorable circumstances connected with the history of this island. The lands of Lesbos were divided among Athenian citizens (κληροῦχοι), many of whom, however, according to Boeckh, returned to Athens, the rest remaining as a garrison. Methymna had taken no part in the revolt, and was exempted from the punishment After the Sicilian expedition, the Lesbians again wavered in their allegiance to Athens; but the result was unimportant [p. 2.166]Thuc. 8.5, 22, 23, 32, 100). It was near the coast of this island that the last great naval victory of the Athenians during the war was won, that of Conon over Callicratidas at Arginusae. On the destruction of the Athenian force by Lysander at Aegospotami, it fell under the power of Sparta; but it was recovered for a time by Thrasybulus (Xen. Hell. 4.8. 28-30). At the peace of Antalcidas it was declared independent. From this time to the establishment of the Macedonian empire it is extremely difficult to fix the fluctuations of the history of Lesbos in the midst of the varying influences of Athens, Sparta, and Persia.

After the battle of the Granicus, Alexander made a treaty with the Lesbians. Memnon the Rhodian took Mytilene and fortified it, and died there. Afterwards Hegelochus reduced the various cities of the island under the Macedonian power. (For the history of these transactions see Arrian, Exped. Alex. 3.2; Curt. Hist. Alex. 4.5.) In the war of the Romans with Perseus, Labeo destroyed Antissa for aiding the Macedonians, and incorporated its inhabitants with those of Methymna (Liv. 45.31. Hence perhaps the true explanation of Pliny's remark, l.c.). In the course of the Mithridatic War, Mytilene incurred the displeasure of the Romans by delivering up M‘. Aquillius (Vell. Pat. ii 18; Appian, App. Mith. 21). It was also the last city which held out after the close of the war, and was reduced by M. Minucius Thermus,--an occasion on which Julius Caesar distinguished himself, and earned a civic crown by saving the life of a soldier (Liv. Epit. 89; Suet. Jul. 2; see Cic. contra Rull. 2.1. 6). Pompey, however, was induced by Theophanes to make Mytilene a free city (Vell. Pat. l.c.; Strab. xiii. p.617), and he left there his wife and son during the campaign which ended at Pharsalia. (Appian, App. BC 2.83; Plut. Pomp. 74, 75.) From this time we are to regard Lesbos as a part of the Roman province of Asia, with Mytilene distinguished as its chief city, and in the enjoyment of privileges more particularly described elsewhere. We may mention here that a few imperial coins of Lesbos, as distinguished from those of the cities, are extant, of the reigns of M. Aurelius and Commodus, and with the legend ΚΟΙΝΟΝ ΛΕΞΒΙΩΝ (Eckhel, vol.ii. p. 501; Mionnet, vol. iii. pp. 34, 35).

In the new division of provinces under Constantine, Lesbos was placed in the Provincia Insularum (Hierocl. p. 686, ed. Wesseling). A few detached, notices of its fortunes during the middle ages are all that can be given here. On the 15th of August, A.D. 802, the empress Irene ended her extraordinary life here in exile. (See Le Beau, Hist. du Bas Empire, vol. xii. p. 400.) In the thirteenth century, contemporaneously with the first crusade, Lesbos began to be affected by the Turkish conquests: Tzachas, Emir of Smyrna, succeeded in taking Mytilene, but failed in his attempt on Methymna. (Anna Comn. Alex. lib. vii. p. 362, ed. Bonn.) Alexis, however, sent an expedition to retake Mytilene, and was successful (Ib. ix. p. 425). In the thirteenth century Lesbos was in the power of the Latin emperors of Constantinople, but it was recovered to the Greeks by Joannes Ducas Vatatzes, emperor of Nicaea (see his life in the Dict. of Biography). In the fourteenth century Joannes Palaeologus gave his sister in marriage to Francisco Gateluzzio, and the island of Lesbos as a dowry; and it continued in the possession of this family till its final absorption in the Turkish empire (Ducas, Hist. Byzant. p. 46, ed. Bonn). It appears, however, that these princes were tributary. to the Turks (Ib. p. 328). In 1457, Mahomet II. made an unsuccessful assault on Methymna, in consequence of a suspicion that the Lesbians had aided the Catalan buccaneers (Ib. p. 338; see also Vertot, Hist. de l'Ordre de Malte, 2.258). He did not actually take the island till 1462. The history of the annalist Ducas himself is closely connected with Lesbos: he resided there after the fall of Constantinople; he conveyed the tribute from the reigning Gateluzzio to the sultan at Adrianople; and the last paragraph of his history is an unfinished account of the final catastrophe of the island.

This notice of Lesbos would be very incomplete, unless something were said of its intellectual eminence. In reference to poetry, and especially poetry in connection with music, no island of the Greeks is so celebrated as Lesbos. Whatever other explanation we may give of the legend concerning the head and lyre of Orpheus being carried by the waves to its shores, we may take it as an expression of the fact that here was the primitive seat of the music of the lyre. Lesches, the cyclic minstrel, a native of Pyrrha, was the first of its series of poets. Terpander, though his later life was chiefly connected with the Peloponnesus, was almost certainly a native of Lesbos, and probably of Antissa: Arion, of Methymna, appears to have belonged to his school; and no two men were so closely connected with the early history of Greek music. The names of Alcaeus and Sappho are the most imperishable elements in the renown of Mytilene. The latter was sometimes called the tenth Muse (as in Plato's epigram, Σαπφὼ Λεσβόθεν δεκάτη); and a school of poetesses (Lesbiadum turba, Ovid, Her. xv.) seems to have been formed by her. Here, without entering into the discussions, by Welcker and others, concerning the character of Sappho herself, we must state that the women of Lesbos were as famous for their profligacy as their beauty. Their beauty is celebrated by Homer (Hom. Il. 9.129, 271), and, as regards their profligacy, the proverbial expression λεσβιάζειν affixes a worse stain to their island than κρητίζειν does to Crete.

Lesbos seems never to have produced any distinguished painter or sculptor, but Hellanicus and Theophanes the friend of Pompey are worthy of being mentioned among historians; and Pittacus, Theophrastus, and Cratippus are known in the annals of philosophy and science. Pittacus was famous also as a legislator. These eminent men were all natives of Mytilene, with the exception of Theophrastus, who was born at Eresus.

The fullest account of Lesbos is the treatise of S. L. Plehn, Lesbiacorum Liber, Berlin, 1826. In this work is a map of the island; but the English Admiralty charts should be consulted, especially Nos. 1654 and 1665. Forbiger refers to reviews of Plehn's work by Meier in the Hall. Allg. Lit. Zeit. for 1827, and by O. Miller in the Goett. Gel. Anz. for 1828; also to Lander's Beiträdge zur Kunde der Insel Lesbos, Hamb. 1827. Information regarding the modern condition of the island will be obtained from Pococke, Tournefort, Richter, and Prokesch.


hide References (33 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (33):
    • Aeschylus, Persians, 881
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.151
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.31
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.27
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.5
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.8
    • Homer, Iliad, 24.544
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.129
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.271
    • Homer, Odyssey, 3.170
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.342
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.5
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.100
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 4.8.28
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.6.15
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.6.28
    • Xenophon, Hellenica, 4.8.30
    • Appian, Mithridatic Wars, 3.21
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 2.12.83
    • Thucydides, Histories, 2.9
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.23
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.32
    • Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.1.6
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 2
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 37.54
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 5.31
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 45, 31
    • Thucydides, Histories, 8.22
    • Plutarch, Pompey, 74
    • Plutarch, Pompey, 75
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 3.55
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.80
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 5.81
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