Pausanias the Traveler Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.