Uncovering The Lost City of Helike

Excavations at the site of Helike. In this case, a Hellenistic-era building; possibly used as a dye-works

29 DECEMBER, 2014 – 12:24 DHWTY

The story of the destruction of Atlantis is one of the most famous stories from ancient Greece. Yet, there is a similar story of destruction told about the city of Helike. Unlike Atlantis, however, there are more written accounts about this site. Moreover, these writings contain clues that helped archaeologists search for the true location of the city. Using these clues, archaeologists have finally been able to track down the lost city.

Helike was situated in Achaea, on the northwestern part of the Peloponnesian peninsula. During its heyday, Helike was the leader of the first Achaean League, a confederation that consisted of 12 cities in the surrounding area. Due to this position, Helike was an important economic, cultural and religious centre. The might of Helike can also be seen in the colonies it founded, such as Sybaris in southern Italy and Priene in Asia Minor.

A coin from Helike. Obverse: Head of Poseidon; Reverse: A trident.

A coin from Helike. Obverse: Head of Poseidon; Reverse: A trident. Photo source: ww2.smb.museum.

The patron god of Helike was Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. This is unsurprising, given Helike’s position in one of the most active earthquake zones in Europe. The cult of Poseidon can be seen in the temple and sanctuary of the Helikonian Poseidon, a bronze statue of Poseidon, and coins that bear the head of the god of the obverse and a trident on the reverse.

The Marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite

The patron god of Helike was Poseidon (right). ‘The Marriage of Poseidon and Amphitrite’ by Felice Giani (Wikimedia Commons)

One night during the winter of 373 B.C., the city of Helike was obliterated. Some signs of the city’s impending doom were recorded, including the appearance of ‘immense columns of flames’ and the mass migration of small animals from the coast to the mountains several days prior to the disaster. A major earthquake, followed by a large tsunami from the Gulf of Corinth, wiped the city of Helike from the face of the earth. The rescue party that came in the following morning found no survivors.

The destruction of Helike was attributed to Poseidon. According to the stories, the god of the sea was enraged with the inhabitants of Helike due to their refusal to give their statue of Poseidon, or even a model of it, to the Ionian colonists from Asia. Some accounts even stated that the Ionian representatives were murdered. As a result, Poseidon punished the inhabitants of Helike by causing the sea to swallow to city, very much like that which happened to Atlantis.

According to legend, Poseidon created a huge wave to swallow the city of Helike

According to legend, Poseidon created a huge wave to swallow the city of Helike (Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike Atlantis, however, Helike was not completely lost, as it was visited by travellers in the following centuries. The philosopher Eratosthenes, who visited the site 150 years after its destruction, wrote that there was a standing bronze statue of Poseidon submerged in a ‘poros’, and was a hazard to fishermen’s nets. The Greek traveller Pausanias also visited the site, and wrote that the walls of the ancient city were still visible under water, though they were by then much corroded by the salt water. The ancient Romans were also fond of sailing over the site, as they could admire the city’s statuary. The location of Helike, however, was lost over time.

Bronze statue of Poseidon, which may be similar to the one reportedly seen at Helike

Bronze statue of Poseidon, which may be similar to the one reportedly seen at Helike. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although speculations about the actual site of Helike already began in the early 19th century, it was only in the late 20th century that Helike was re-discovered. As Helike was a submerged city, its location was one of the big mysteries of underwater archaeology. Yet, it was this conviction that the city was hidden somewhere in the Gulf of Corinth that made its discovery impossible. In 1988, a Greek archaeologist, Dora Katsonopoulou, raised the possibility that the ‘poros’ mentioned in the ancient texts might not refer to the sea, but an inland lagoon. If so, it would be plausible that Helike is not located in the Gulf of Corinth, but inland, as the lagoon would have been silted up over the millennia by river sediment. Although the team found a Roman city, as well as an Early Bronze Age settlement, it was in 2001 that the team found Helike in Achaea, Greece. In 2012, the destruction layer was uncovered, which confirmed that the site is indeed Helike.

Whilst the city of Helike has been re-discovered, excavations are still being carried out in the area. This is significant, as the area has been settled by different groups of people, and it is through the uncovering of settlements from various periods of history that a more complete picture of the region, from the prehistoric era to the modern period, can be produced. After all, although the story of Helike may be fantastic, it is but one point in a long series of events that span over the millennia.

Featured image: Excavations at the site of Helike. In this case, a Hellenistic-era building; possibly used as a dye-works (Wikimedia Commons)


Clark, J., 2014. Was There a Real Atlantis?. [Online]
Available at: http://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/real-atlantis1.htm

Gidwitz, T., 2004. City of Poseidon. [Online]
Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/0401/abstracts/helike.html

Wikipedia, 2014. Helike. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helike

www.bbc.co.uk, 2002. Helike – The Real Atlantis. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2001/helike.shtml

www.helikeproject.gr, 2014. The Helike Project. [Online]
Available at: http://www.helikeproject.gr/

By Ḏḥwty

Helike (/ˈhɛlɨk/GreekἙλίκη, pronounced [heˈlikɛː], modern Greek pronunciation: [eˈliki]) was an ancient Greek city that was submerged by a tsunami in the winter of 373 BC. It was located in Achaea, northern Peloponnesos, two kilometres (12 stadia) from the Corinthian Gulf and near the city of Boura, which, like Helike, was a member of the Achaean League. Modern research attributes the catastrophe to an earthquake and accompanying tsunami which destroyed and submerged the city. In an effort to protect the site from destruction, the World Monuments Fund included Helike in its 2004 and 2006 List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.[1]

A coin from Helike

Helike was founded in the Bronze Age, becoming the principal city of Achaea. The poet Homer states that the city of Eliki participated in the Trojan War with one ship. Later, following its fall to the Achaeans, Eliki led the Achaean League, an association that joined twelve neighboring cities in an area including today’s town of Aigion. Eliki, also known as Dodekapolis (from the Greek words dodeka meaning twelve and polis meaning city), became a cultural and religious center with its own coinage. Finds from ancient Eliki are limited to two 5th-century copper coins, now housed in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin. The obverse shows the head of Poseidon, the city’s patron, and the reverse his trident. There was a temple dedicated to the Helikonian Poseidon.

Helike founded colonies including Priene in Asia Minor and Sybaris in South Italy. Its panhellenic temple and sanctuary of Helikonian Poseidon were known throughout the Classical world, and second only in religious importance to Delphi.[2]

The city was destroyed in 373 BC, two years before the Battle of Leuctra, during a winter night. Several events were construed in retrospect as having warned of the disaster: some “immense columns of flame” appeared, and five days previously, all animals and vermin fled the city, going toward Keryneia. The city and a space of 12 stadia below it sank into the earth and were covered over by the sea. All the inhabitants perished without a trace, and the city was obscured from view except for a few building fragments projecting from the sea. Ten Spartan ships anchored in the harbour were dragged down with it. An attempt involving 2000 men to recover bodies was unsuccessful.[3] Aegium took possession of its territory.

The catastrophe was attributed to the vengeance of Poseidon, whose wrath was incited because the inhabitants of Helike had refused to give their statue of Poseidon to the Ionian colonists in Asia, or even to supply them with a model. According to some authorities, the inhabitants of Helike and Bura had even murdered the Ionian deputies.

About 150 years after the disaster, the philosopher Eratosthenes visited the site and reported that a standing bronze statue of Poseidon was submerged in a “poros”, “holding in one hand a hippocamp“, where it posed a hazard to those who fished with nets.

Around AD 174 the traveler Pausanias visited a coastal site still called Helike, located 7 km southeast of Aigion, and reported that the walls of the ancient city were still visible under water, “but not so plainly now as they were once, because they are corroded by the salt water”.

For centuries after, its submerged ruins could still be seen. Roman tourists frequently sailed over the site, admiring the city’s statuary. Later the site silted over and the location was lost to memory.

Adalberto Giovannini[de] argued that the submergence of Helike might have inspired Plato to write his story about Atlantis.[4] Ancient scholars and writers who visited the ruins include the Greeks Strabo,[5] Pausanias and Diodoros of Sicily, and the Romans Aelian and Ovid.

Subsequent events

On 23 August 1817, a similar disaster, an earthquake followed by a tsunami, occurred on the same spot. The earthquake was preceded by a sudden explosion, like that produced by a battery of cannon. The aftershock was said to have lasted a minute and a half, during which the sea rose at the mouth of the Selinous River and extended to cover all the ground immediately below Vostitza (the ancient Aegium). After its retreat, not a trace was left of some artillery depots which had stood on the shore, and the beach was carried away completely. In Vostitza, 65 people lost their lives and two thirds of its buildings were entirely ruined, as were five villages in the plain.

Research efforts

The submerged town was long one of the biggest targets for underwater archaeology. Scientists were divided in their opinions about the exact location of Helike. Numerous archaeologists, historians, professors and explorers wrote, studied and actively searched, trying to discover any trace of the ancient town, with little success. But their work, essays, observations and studies contributed to an important and growing body of knowledge. Among them are the following:

In 1826, François Pouqueville, French diplomat and archaeologist, who wrote the Voyage en Grèce; in 1851 Ernst Curtius the German archaeologist and historian who speculated about its location; in 1879 J. F. Julius Schmidt, the director of Athens Observatory, issuing a study comparing the Aegeion earthquake which occurred 26 December 1861 with an earthquake which might have destroyed Helike; in 1883 Spiros Panagiotopoulos, the mayor of Aegeion city, wrote about the ancient city; in 1912 the Greek writer P. K. Ksinopoulos wrote The City of Aegeion Through the Centuries[6] and in 1939 Stanley Casson, an English art scholar and army officer who studied classical archaeology and served in Greece as liaison officer, addressed the problem.

Other investigators include in 1948 the German archaeologist Georg Karo (de); in 1950 Robert Demangel, who was from 1933 to 1948 the director of the French School of Archaeology in Athens; in 1950 Alfred Philippson, German geologist and geographer; in 1952 Spiros Dontas, Greek writer and member of the Academy of Athens; in 1954 Aristos Stauropoulos, a Greek writer who published the History of the city of Aegeion;[7] in 1956 the Greek Professor N. Κ. Moutsopoulos; in 1967 Spyros Marinatos, a Greek archaeologist who wrote the Research about Helike[8] and in 1968 Helike-Thira-Thieves;[9] in 1962 George K. Georgalas, the Greek writer; and in 1967 Nikos Papahatzis, a Greek archaeologist who published Pausanias’ Description of Greece.[10]

Spyridon Marinatos, emphasizing the importance of the discovery of Helike, said that only the declaration of a third world war would obscure the discovery of Helike. He pointed out Helike as an unresolved problem of Greek archaeology in 1960.[11] In 1967, Harold Eugene Edgerton worked with the American researcher Peter Throckmorton. They were convinced that Helike was to be found on the seabed of the Gulf of Corinth. Edgerton perfected special sonar equipment for this research but permission to search was not granted by the Greek authorities. In 1967 and in 1976, Jacques Cousteau made some efforts with no result. In 1979 in the Corinthian Gulf, the Greek undersea explorer Alexis Papadopoulos discovered a sunken town and recorded his findings in a documentary film which shows walls, fallen roofs, roof tiles, streets, etc. at a depth of between 25 and 45 m.[12] “Whether or not this town can be identified with Helike is a question to be answered by extensive underwater research. In any case, the discovery of this town can be regarded as an extremely interesting find”, according to the Greek scientific journal Archaeology.[13]


In 1988, the Greek archaeologist Dora Katsonopoulou, president of the Helike Society, and Steven Soter of the American Museum of Natural History launched the Helike Project to locate the site of the lost city.[14] Ancient texts, telling the story of Helike, said that the city had sunk into a poros, which everyone interpreted as the Corinthian Gulf. However, Katsonopoulou and Soter raised the possibility that poros could have meant an inland lagoon. If earthquake caused soil liquefaction on a large scale, the city would have been taken downward below the sea level. Also, if earthquake caused the sections of coastline to fall into the sea, this would have created tsunami, which in turn would have flooded the inland lagoon with the city in it. Later, over time, the river sediment coming down from the mountains would have filled in the lagoon hiding the city remains beneath the solid ground.[15]

Before Helike was rediscovered, a few false starts came along the way. In 1994, in collaboration with the University of Patras, a magnetometer survey carried out in the midplain of the delta revealed the outlines of a buried building. This target (now known as the Klonis site) was excavated and a large Roman building with standing walls was found.[14] Also a well-preserved settlement of an early bronze age was uncovered. Finally, in 2001, the city of Helike was rediscovered buried in an ancient lagoon near the village of Rizomylos.[16] To further confirm that the discovered site belongs to Helike, the earthquake destruction layer consisting of cobblestones, clay roof tiles, and pottery was uncovered in 2012. This destruction layer is in good agreement with ancient texts on the location of Helike and earthquake effects to the city.[17]

Excavations are being carried out in the Helike delta each summer and have brought to light significant archeological finds dating from prehistoric times when Helike was founded up until its revival in Hellenistic and Roman times.[16][18][19][20]


  1. “Helike Archaeological Site”World Monuments Fund. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  2. Katsonopoulou, Dora (2002). “Helike and her Territory in Historical Times”. Pallas 58: 175–182. ISSN 0031-0387.
  3. Lafond, Yves (1998). “Die Katastrophe von 373 v. Chr. und das Versinken der Stadt Helike in Achaia”. In Olshausen, E.; Sonnabend, H. Naturkatastrophen in der antiken Welt. Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur historischen Geographie des Altertums (in German) 6. Stuttgart: Steiner. pp. 118–123. ISBN 3-515-07252-7.
  4. Giovannini, A. (1985). “Peut-on démythifier l’Atlantide?”. Museum Helveticum (in French) 42: 151–156. ISSN 0027-4054.
  5. Strabo. H.L. Jones (1927), ed. The Geography of Strabo. Vol. IV, Books 8-9. Loeb Classical Library. ISBN 0674992164.
  6. Ξινόπουλος, Π. Κ. (1912). “Το Αίγιο διά μέσου των αιώνων”.
  7. Σταυρόπουλος, Αρίστος (1954). “Ιστορία πόλεως Αιγίου”.
  8. Μαρινάτος, Σπύρος (1967). “Έρευνα περί την Ελίκην Π.Α.Α. τ 41”.
  9. Μαρινάτος, Σπύρος (1968). “Ελίκη-Θήρα-Θήβαι Α.Α.Α. τ 1”.
  10. Παπαχατζής, Νίκος (1967). “Παυσανίου Ελλάδος Περιήγησις Αχαϊκά-Αρκαδικά”.
  11. Marinatos, Spyridon N. (1960). “Helike. A submerged town of classical Greece”. Archaeology 13: 186–193. ISSN 0003-8113.
  12. The 1979 film of sunken town discovery
  13. Παπαδόπουλος, Αλέξης (1983). “Ανακαλύπτοντας μια βυθισμένη πόλη” (PDF). Aρχαιολογία 9: 80–82.
  14. a b Katsonopoulou, Dora; Soter, Steven (January 2005). “Discoveries at Ancient Helike”. Helike Foundation. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  15. “Helike – The Real Atlantis”BBC Horizon. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  16. a b Katsonopoulou, Dora (2002). “Helike and her territory in the light of new discoveries”. In Greco, E. Gli Achei e l’identità etnica degli Achei d’Occidente. Tekmeria 3. Paestum: Pandemos. pp. 205–216. ISBN 88-87744-03-3.
  17. “Discoveries at Ancient Helike”. The Helike Project. Retrieved August 4, 2013.
  18. Soter, Steven; Katsonopoulou, Dora (1999). “Occupation horizons found in the search for the ancient Greek city of Helike”Geoarchaeology 14 (6): 531–563. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1520-6548(199908)14:6<531::AID-GEA4>3.0.CO;2-X.
  19. Alvarez-Zarikian, Carlos A.; Soter, Steven; Katsonopoulou, Dora (2008). “Recurrent Submergence and Uplift in the Area of Ancient Helike, Gulf of Corinth, Greece: Microfaunal and Archaeological Evidence”. Journal of Coastal Research 24 (1): 110–125. doi:10.2112/05-0454.1.
  20. Soter, S.; Katsonopoulou, D. (2011). “Submergence and uplift of settlements in the area of Helike, Greece, from the Early Bronze Age to late antiquity”. Geoarchaeology 26(4): 584. doi:10.1002/gea.20366.

This article is partly based on the entry in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, by William Smith, LLD, 1854.

External links


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