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date: 26 November 2022



  • Robert Garland


  • Ancient Geography
  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Greek Material Culture

Piraeus (Πειραιεύς‎), the great harbour complex of Athens, is a rocky limestone peninsula some 7 km. (4–5 mi.) south-west of Athens which Themistocles began to fortify in 493/2 (Thuc. 1. 93. 3–7) as a strong base for Athens' rapidly expanding fleet in preference to the open roadstead of Phaleron. It has three harbours, Zea (modern Pasalimani) and Munichia (1) (Mikrolimani) on the east, used exclusively by naval shipping. Zea possessed 196 shipsheds and Philon (1)'s Arsenal. The biggest harbour, Kantharos (Goblet) or Megas Limen (Great Harbour), lies to the west and accommodated, in addition to warships, a thriving emporium on its northern and eastern shoreline comprising ‘five stoas round about the harbour’ (schol. to Ar.Pax145), of which some traces remain. Its urban development dates to c.450 bce when Hippodamus of Miletus ‘cut up (κατέτεμεν‎) Piraeus’ by laying it out according to an orthogonal plan (Arist.Pol. 2. 1267b23). The presence of a very large number of metics led to the establishment of many foreign cults here, including Bendis, Isis, Men, Mother of the Gods (see cybele), and Nergal. In 458/7 Piraeus was joined to Athens by Long Walls and in c.446 the building of the Middle Wall eliminated Phaleron from the fortified area. In 429 moles were constructed on either side of each harbour's mouth which could be closed by chains in time of war. The fortifications were destroyed by the Spartans in 404 but rebuilt by Conon (1) in 393. Though the port revived in the mid-4th cent. bce, it never became more than the ghost of its former Periclean self (see pericles(1)). During the Macedonian occupation (322–229 (see athens, History)) it rapidly lost its pre-eminence as the trading capital of the eastern Mediterranean and its population dwindled accordingly. To this period, however, dates the well-preserved theatre in Zea. Sulla's destruction of the town in 86 was so ruthless that little was visible to Pausanias (3) (1.1.2–5) when he visited it in the 2nd cent. ce. Several important bronze statues, including those of Apollo, Artemis, and Athena, which were deliberately buried at the time to escape destruction, came to light in 1959. As headquarters of the fleet, Piraeus constituted the heartland of Athenian democracy and was the focus of the resistance to the Thirty Tyrants, thereby justifying Aristotle's claim that its population was ‘more democratic’ (μᾶλλον δημοτικοί‎) than that of Athens' (Pol. 5. 1303b10–12). There are few traces of the city visible today, apart from extensive portions of the circuit walls, Zea theatre, and a few shipsheds.


  • J. Travlos, Bildlexikon zur Topographie des antiken Attika (1988), 340 ff.
  • R. Garland, The Piraeus, 2nd edn. (2001).