Pausanias the Traveler Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek travel writer{$I[g]Greece;Pausanias the Traveler}{$I[g]Asia Minor;Pausanias the Traveler} Pausanias the Traveler spent many years traveling and wrote a travel guide to Greece, covering all cities and sanctuaries, with historical, artistic, and religious information on each.

Early Life

Nearly all the information about the life of Pausanias (paws-AYN-ee-ahs) comes from his only surviving work, the Periegesis Hellados (between 143 and 161 c.e.; Description of Greece, 1794). In fact, the author’s name is only known as Pausanias, thanks to a late Byzantine lexicographer called Stephanus. The ten-book travel guide to Greece that survives under Pausanias’s name is the only work of its kind to have survived from antiquity, and it has been translated into many languages. Pausanias appears to have traveled widely in the territories of the Roman Empire and probably spent ten to twenty years in Greece, gathering material for his guide.

Pausanias does not supply a preface or an epilogue and generally keeps a low profile in his writing. He hardly ever says anything about himself or the circumstances of his travels, but some details of his life can be pieced together from the few references he does make. He was born around 110 or 115 c.e., most probably in a town in Lydia, in the province of Asia Minor, now Turkey, called Magnesia. This was located near Mount Sipylus, not far from Pergamum, one of the major cities of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, renowned for its cultural activity. Pausanias mentions the area around Mount Sipylus so frequently in his work that it is widely believed that he came from there. Although not born in Greece proper, he would have identified himself as Greek in every sense of the word: socially, culturally, and even politically. He was the rough contemporary of such famous writers as the astronomer Ptolemy, the satirist Lucian, and the physician Galen, as well as of many Greek Sophists, who traded on their rhetorical, rather than their intellectual, skills.

In view of the education he received and his ability to travel so widely—which in his day involved considerable expense—one can assume that Pausanias came from a wealthy family. He would have received a traditional Greek education in rhetoric and literature. He quotes from a long list of classical writers, ranging from historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides to poets such as Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes and clearly possessed an excellent memory. His family were probably members of the provincial aristocracy and were most likely Greeks who held Roman citizenship. Some have suggested that Pausanias was a medical doctor, but the evidence for this is highly questionable. It is more likely that he was a wealthy, well-educated man who undertook extensive travels and decided to write a guide for others who wished to follow in his footsteps.

At what age he began these travels, it is impossible to say, but one may conjecture that he started while quite young: His journeys included tours of western and central Asia Minor, Ionia, Caria, Galatia, Syria, and Palestine. He says he never visited Babylon but did go to Egypt, where he saw, among other sites, the pyramids. He visited several islands in the Aegean, including Rhodes and Delos, and may also have gone to Sardinia and Sicily. In Italy, he traveled to Rome and through the Greek towns of the south, including Capua and Metapontum. In all these places, he undertook a careful survey of sites and objects of historical, artistic, and religious interest. While staying in the large metropolitan centers of Pergamum, Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, he would have encountered Imperial administrators, local dignitaries, famous scholars, writers, artists, and athletes. He mentions several senators in his book.

Pausanias appears to have written his Description of Greece between 143 and 161 c.e. This means that he wrote it when he had reached mature adulthood. While he may have produced other works before this, it is clear that the Description of Greece was his life’s work.

Life’s Work

The genre of travel literature in which Pausanias is to be placed began in the Hellenistic era, in the third century b.c.e., when the Greek world expanded dramatically beyond the boundaries of mainland Greece. The ultimate origin lies in the early books of Herodotus’s Historiai Herodotou (c. 424 b.c.e.; The History, 1709) with their descriptions of Persia, Egypt, and Scythia—all regions largely unfamiliar to Greeks—and in the tradition of the periploi (circumnavigations), descriptions of seas and coastlines written to guide sailors. Most of the travel-writers before Pausanias restricted themselves to describing a single city or a particular monument within a city. What makes Pausanias’s Description of Greece unique and uniquely impressive...

(The entire section is 2025 words.)