Pausanias the Traveler Essay - Critical Essays

Pausanias Second Century


Pausanias Second century

Greek author.

Pausanias is the author of Description of Greece, a ten-volume set describing a tour of Greece, its buildings, monuments, sanctuaries, and traditions. Besides being invaluable to modern archaeological efforts, the Periegesis (as it is also called) is notable for ethnographic reasons: Pausanias was writing as a Greek after Rome had conquered his people. What he writes about is what he considered "worth seeing," or "really notable," and what he deemed worthwhile emphasized the glory that was Greece, particularly the Greece of pre-150 B.C. His stated purpose in writing was to describe the whole of Greece, or all things Greek, but he usually ignores what is current, stressing antiquities—particularly if they are of a religious nature—and gives short shrift to descriptions of scenery. But Pausanias provides exacting detail in describing diverse local customs and myths, as well as in recording many religious customs, superstitions, and rituals, all of which are of great importance to historians. Description of Greece has proved to be, on the whole, remarkably accurate. J. G. Frazer calls it "one of the most curious and valuable records bequeathed to us by antiquity."

Biographical Information

Most of what little is known of Pausanias's life has been gleaned from his writing. Scholars have worked diligently on dating the creation of his various volumes and determining the author's age from references he makes, but their conclusions are frequently in disagreement. There is good evidence that Pausanias was not a Greek native but was born in Lydia, near Mount Sipylus in southwestern Asia Minor, well before the year 130. His last references can be dated to approximately 180, and thus the date of his death would have been sometime thereafter. The name Pausanias was relatively common and the fact that there were several writers by that name has made it somewhat difficult to distinguish contemporary references. It is certain that Pausanias was very well traveled beyond Greece: he describes Syria, Jerusalem, and Egypt among many other locales.

Major Works

The Description of Greece is the only known work by Pausanias. While most scholars believe the work survives in its entirety, some argue that part of the original text is indeed missing, or at least that more was planned but not written. The first volume circulated a considerable amount of time before the following volumes; earlier scholars believed it to have been written circa 160, but more recently this date has been pushed back three decades. Some of the other volumes can be dated relatively accurately to the 170s. From comments Pausanias makes in the later volumes, it is clear that he has read critical comments concerning the first and he alternately defies and acquiesces to his critics' wishes. Stylistically the first volume is not so well organized as later books; Pausanias utilized a more logical method in volume two and adhered to it until the end of the series: he generally first offers a history of the city he is about to describe, then proceeds to the capital and writes of anything notable along the way. Next he describes the capital and its important monuments, then surrounding areas and their features. He follows one road away from the capital to its conclusion, then returns along it to the capital, where he takes another road and describes what he sees along it—repeating this pattern until he exhausts all roads. After traveling the last route, he proceeds to the next capital or territory. The ten volumes that comprise Description of Greece are believed to have been written in the order in which they are currently arranged.

Critical Reception

From references in some of Pausanias's volumes it is clear that Description of Greece received its share of negative contemporary criticism, particularly for its lack of organization and its digressions. Pausanias improved his method of presentation after the first book but, ironically, it is the digressions that were criticized in ancient days that are among the most interesting passages to modern historians. Pausanias and his work have generated extensive critical debate and scholarly interest. Among the many areas explored by modern scholars are Pausanias's biases; his reliability; his influences and source material; and his literary merit. Pausanias's tastes are evident, and students of ethnography find Description of Greece to be an excellent text for examining an identity subjected to the clash of two cultures.

Although scholars have found occasional mistakes in his texts, they have also realized that many of the errors stem from Pausanias's reliance on accounts of places he did not personally explore. Earlier scholars overemphasized Pausanias's indebtedness to contemporary writers; he has been vindicated of copying or relying too heavily on other works, and it is now clear that he used inscriptions on monuments and his own observations whenever possible. Critics debate the success of Pausanias's literary ambitions. Some see him attempting, with varying degrees of success, to enliven his narrative. Others find his style too dry and unimaginative. These characteristics make his statements all the more trustworthy, as he clearly does not exaggerate for the sake of the story; scholars rate him very highly for painstaking accuracy. Description of Greece has been viewed by some critics as a guidebook for tourists of ancient days. Others vociferously deny this and contend, indicating its diversity and literary quality, that Pausanias obviously wrote it to be read at one's home. The structure of Description of Greece makes it suitable for both audiences: its specificity is useful to travelers and its literary allusions and accounts of myths allow it to stand on its own merits as entertaining literature.

Principal English Translations

Description of Greece (translated by W. H. S. Jones) 1918

Pausanias's Description of Greece (translated by J. G. Frazer) 1898

Pausanias: Guide to Greece (translated by Peter Levi) 1971


J. G. Frazer (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "Pausanias and His Description of Greece" in Pausanias and Other Greek Sketches, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1900, pp. 1-159.

[In the following essay, Frazer provides an overview of Pausanias and his Description of Greece, including Pausanias s background and peers, aim and method, beliefs and tastes, and accounts of his travels and digressions.]

It may be reckoned a peculiar piece of good fortune that among the wreckage of classical literature the Description of Greece by Pausanias should have come down to us entire. In this work we possess a plain, unvarnished account by an eye-witness of the state of Greece in the second century of our...

(The entire section is 37297 words.)

Mitchell Carroll (essay date 1907)

SOURCE: "Pausanias the Periegete" in The Attica of Pausanias, edited by Mitchell Carroll. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1907, pp. 1-11.

[In the following essay, Carroll explores the dates for composition of the Periegesis, the aim and method used by Pausanias, and his debt to previous writers.]

1. Scope and character of Pausanias's work.

—Aldus Manutius begins his preface to the editio princeps of Pausanias's Description of Greece, which appeared in 1516, by characterizing it as an "opus antiquae raraeque eruditionis thesauros continens." And invaluable it is because of its subject-matter, since it...

(The entire section is 3603 words.)

Herman Louis Ebeling (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: "Pausanias as an Historian," The Classical Weekly, Vol. VII, No. 18, March 7, 1914, pp. 138-41; Vol. VII, No. 19, March 14, 1914, pp. 146-50.

[In the following excerpt, Ebeling describes Pausanias's use of digressions and his debt to Polybius in his scheme of relating history.]

The periegesis of Pausanias is regarded in two lights: first, as a description of the monuments of Greece, of inestimable value to the archaeologist; secondly, as a repository of myths, legends, love stories, tales of notable natural phenomena, and numerous facts of history, given either in the form of brief notes, or in extensive introductions and excursuses.… The problem has been to...

(The entire section is 6324 words.)

W. H. S. Jones (essay date 1918)

SOURCE: Introduction to Pausanias: Description of Greece, translated by W. H. S. Jones, London: William Heinemann, 1918, pp. ix-xxv.

[In the following essay, Jones provides a brief overview of Pausanias's life, style, the scope of his work, and background on Greek religion and the names of Greek gods.]

Life of Pausanias

About Pausanias we know nothing except what we can gather from a few scattered hints in his own Tour of Greece. In book v. xiii. sect. 7 he mentions "the dwelling among us of Pelops and Tantalus," and "the throne of Pelops on Mount Sipylus." It is a fair inference that Pausanias was a native of Lydia. His date we...

(The entire section is 3733 words.)

R. E. Wycherley (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Pausanias in the Agora of Athens," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, January, 1959, pp. 21-44.

[In the following excerpt, Wycherley traces Pausanias's account of the Athenian agora and, with knowledge gained from modern excavations, attempts to resolve problems arising from his occasional lack of clarity.]

Pausanias' route in the agora was worked out fully and satisfactorily by E. Vanderpool in Hesperia, Vol. 18, pp. 128ff. The probable identification of Pausanias' Enneakrounos as the south-eastern rather than the southwestern fountain house subsequently produced a modification which made for greater simplicity and clarity. I accept in...

(The entire section is 7551 words.)

R. E. Wycherley (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Pausanias at Athens, II: A Commentary on Book I, Chapters 18-19," Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer, 1963, pp. 157-75.

[In the following excerpt, Wycherley examines Pausanias's account of the southeastern quarter of Athens and its monuments.]

Several years ago I discussed Pausanias' account of the Athenian Agora in this journal, in the light of the detailed archaeological knowledge of the site provided by the American excavations.1 The next phase of his description of the city, intermediate between the Agora and the Acropolis with its nearer approaches, is concerned almost entirely with the southeastern quarter, dominated...

(The entire section is 7387 words.)

Christian Jacob (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Greek Traveler's Areas of Knowledge: Myths and Other Discourses in Pausanias' Description of Greece," translated by Anne Mullen-Hohl, Yale French Studies, No. 59, 1980, pp. 65-85.

[In the following essay, Jacob delves into the ethnographic context of Pausanias's work to try to find its coherence.]

We need topographers who would give us exact descriptions of the places where they have been.
Montaigne, On Cannibals, I, 31.

Pausanias' Travels and Greek Tradition

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many...

(The entire section is 7741 words.)

Christian Habicht (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Pausanias and the Evidence of Inscriptions," Classical Antiquity, Vol. 3, No. 1, April, 1984, pp. 40-56.

[In the following essay, Habicht explains the role of mythology in Pausanias's Description of Greece, the importance of Pausanias's work in identifying archaeological discoveries, and the weight Pausanias gave to inscriptions.]

Among the Sather Lectures on Pausanias' "Description of Greece," which I had the honor of delivering at Berkeley in the fall of 1982, the third one, under the title of this article,1 aimed at demonstrating that an epigraphical commentary on Pausanias seems highly desirable, since Pausanias has...

(The entire section is 7567 words.)

K. W. Arafat (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Pausanius' Attitude to Antiquities," The Annual of the British School at Athens, No. 87, 1992, pp. 387-409.

[In the following essay, Arafat explores the unstated criteria used by Pausanias in determining what to present in his works, including his religious beliefs and preference for ancient works over modern.]

The very fact that the second-century AD traveller Pausanias wrote at such length about the sites and monuments of Greece is itself indicative of his most important attitude towards antiquities.1 That is, he thought them of sufficient value to be worth recording and thought it worth travelling extensively in mainland Greece over a period of...

(The entire section is 14898 words.)

K. W. Arafat (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Pausanias and the Temple of Hera at Olympia," The Annual of the British School at Athens, No. 90, 1995, pp. 461-73.

[In the following essay, Arafat utilizes Pausanias's work in analyzing the Heraion's contents and purpose.]

In the temple of Hera there is an image of Zeus. The image of Hera is seated on a throne, and he is standing beside her wearing a beard and with a helmet on his head. The workmanship of these images is rude. Next to them are the Seasons seated on thrones, a work of Smilis of Aigina. Beside them stands an image of Themis, as mother of the Seasons: it is a work of Dorykleidas, a Lakedaimonian by birth, but a pupil of...

(The entire section is 9041 words.)

Further Reading

Alcock, Susan E. "Landscapes of Memory and the Authority of Pausanias." In Pausanias Historien, pp. 241-67, edited by Jean Bingen. Genève: Vandœuvres, 1994.

Treats Pausanias as an ethnographic writer and considers his biases, methodology, and underlying agenda.

Arafat, K. W. "Pausanias on the Past." In his Pausanias' Greece: Ancient Artists and Roman Rulers, pp. 43-79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Studies Pausanias's "attitude to antiquities"—particularly the criteria he used in selecting what was and was not worthy of describing—and examines the terminology he employed.

Bowie, Ewen L. "Past and Present in...

(The entire section is 454 words.)