Issue P982 of 5 June 1998

Ancient Naxos (Cyclades, Greece)

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Archaic Temple of ApolloHalf-made Dionysus3rd mil. Dancers on stone
2nd mil. vasesNaxian statuette, 3rd milTemple of c. 530 B.C.E
Fotini Orphanos
B.A. (Hist.)

The most ancient archeological traces of the habitation of Naxos take us back to the last stage of the Neolithic Age, which coincides with the forth millennium BC. The archaeological excavations that have been conducted at various sites on the island have revealed that the Protocycladic civilization started developing at the Neolithic period. The evolution of this civilization is better seen at Naxos, the biggest and the most fertile island of the Cyclades. According to the information received from cemeteries and settlements, the development of the Protocycladic Naxian society can be classified as follows: a) Small communities, exclusively occupied with agriculture and cattle-breeding (Protocycladic I, 3200-2700 BC). b) Greater communities during the Protocycladic II (2700-2300 BC), based on the accumulation of people in the more advantageous coastal areas. c) These coastal settlements were further expanded during the Protocycladic III (2300-2000 BC). During this latter period, metallurgy and marble treatment were further developed thus giving momentum to evn greater expansion.

The information that we have concerning the Mycaenean period ((2000-1600 BC) is extremely limited. At this point in time, Chora (ancient Grotta) was a fortified city. As for the burial customs of the Naxians, they used to bury their deads in tombs that were curved in the slopes of the Naxian hills along with some of their personal belongings.

Nebertheless, Naxos had all the appropriate prerequisites for its development as a self-sustained economy and a great local political power, especially at a period when there was a lack of great powers in the Aegean Sea. A period of such great political and economic progress was the first half of the first millennium BC. Although the fall of the Mycenean civilization was followed by great upheavals in mainland Greece, in Naxos the picture was totally different. The main settlement on the coast (Grotta) was abandoned and growth was induced to the inner part of the island. What is remarkable is that the inhabitants of Grotta managed to maintain a continuation of their past memories and continued to practice past burial customs. However, they were now burying their dead at the ruins of houses that existed in Grotta, along with vases and heirlooms of the Mycenean era. Practically, these people are the same as before, but now they have a higher standard of civilization.

From the 9th and 8th century BC, Naxian society had already a solid structure and an extremely powerful aristocracy. Its self-confidence is evident from the rituals that were attributed to the dead leaders of the families (gheni). This is also obvious at the local ceramic geometric production. The archaic period (6th-7th) marks a peak for the island of Naxos. One reason for this was that the system of independent city-states was blooming at the time, so that Naxos was in a favorable juncture.

Naxian power is reflected on the civilization of the era, especially on Delos where the buildings that the Naxians built along with the votive offerings are of great architectural and artistic value. The economic presence of Naxos is also manifested by the fact that many Cycladic islands were for a long time under the domination of Naxian leaders. On the whole, Naxians contributed a lot to Greek art.

The exploitation of its marble combined with the ambitions of the Naxians, made the island a pioneer in the creation of Greek plastic art and architecture. What's more, the great temples of the island show an innovative spirit in the size of the buildings; they now become bigger, therefore giving now a monumental character to Greek architecture. Various temples either on Naxos or Delos built by the Naxians embody the use of fine material as well as the Ionian morphic system. The extensive detail imprinted on these monuments is exemplary of exalted refinement. Yet, the peak of the Naxian society is best experienced through 7th century vase paintings, which constituted an austere, colorful manifestation of advanced artistic skill.

During the Classical age, the distraction caused by the Persians, coupled by the island's submission to Athenean hegemony and the settlement of Athenians who owned lots (klerouhi), led to the decline of art, yet not to its disappearance. The blooming of the local artistic tradition was again resumed with independence. During a short spell of upsurge, the Agora was reorganized and expanded, the population increased and peaked, and new relations were formed with neighboring emerging power centers, such as Rhodes. Later however, the character of political life, particularly during the Hellenistic years, did not support the development of small areas. The cumulative effect of prolonged stagnation resulted into eventual decline, with Naxos becoming a place of exile for important persons in the Roman era.

A Map of Naxos (Cyclades, Greece)

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