In his day, he was one of the most powerful figures in the Mediterranean. But you’ve probably never heard of him. I’d only really come across him once, and it was years ago, when he amounted to nothing more than a passing reference. I’m talking about Polykrates of Samos.
He popped up when I was studying A-level Ancient History under Richard Gosling – one of those schoolteachers whose infectious enthusiasm can inspire a lifetime’s commitment in the occasional student. (Without Richard, I wouldn’t be here writing this now.)
Polykrates got mentioned because, like Peisistratos of Athens, he was one of a class of authoritarian rulers – the Greek word was ‘tyrant’ – who controlled many of the Greek city-states in the late 6th century BC.
Then, last month, quite unexpectedly, I ran into Polykrates head-on. I was lecturing on a Mediterranean cruise; we had changed our itinerary in an effort to avoid COVID-19 restrictions, and we ended up on Samos, a largish Greek island just off the west coast of Turkey.
I was completely unprepared for the scale of the Late Archaic archaeology. I stress Late Archaic (that is, mid to late 6th century BC). In most places, of course, the Late Archaic material is overbuilt by an abundance of Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman remains, so you are left with bits of lower walling here and there, sometimes a restored temple, collections of broken sculpture in the local museum, and not much more.
Samos, on the other hand, seems to be the place to experience 6th-century Greece, because this was its heyday, the brief moment when the rulers of the island controlled a miniature maritime empire, dominated the seaborne trade carried out round about, accumulated a great pile of wealth, and engaged in a programme of truly breathtaking monumental building.
After that, it was all downhill. The monopoly was broken, the wealth diverted, and Samos sank back into relative obscurity. So a visit to the archaeological sites of Samos is a close encounter with a 6th-century BC tyrant.
The footprint of the Temple of Hera, at 112m by 55m, is roughly the size of a football pitch. It had a double colonnade down each side, and triple colonnades front and back (155 columns in all).
The city walls run for several kilometres, were built of massive blocks, were reinforced with 35 towers, and in many places still stand 6m high.
Running through the mountain that dominated the ancient city and port was a kilometre-long tunnel, dug through solid rock to function as an aqueduct.
Of course, I ought to have known, because Herodotus, writing a little later, reports on the stupendous character of the monuments of Samos. ‘It has’, he tells us, ‘the three greatest works executed by any Greeks: a tunnel driven through a mountain… a harbour-mole in water some 120 feet deep, and over 600 feet long… and the greatest temple of any known to me.’
He omitted to mention the Kouros of Samos. It is three times the height of an adult. Are there others this size? I’ve never seen one. If you ever make it to Samos, don’t miss the museum and the kouros.
And here is the weird thing. Polykrates is the greatest figure in Samian history. The Late Archaic age is the only time when the island could be considered a great power. And the archaeological imprint is truly awesome. Yet our local minibus driver didn’t even know the way to the ancient walls! That’s a measure of how completely the local tourist industry seems to be missing the big sell.
Come on, guys! Let’s get Polykrates of Samos in the frame! He’s your USP.