BMCR 2024.05.26

MAINALIA. The forgotten history of an Arcadian tribe

, MAINALIA. The forgotten history of an Arcadian tribe (ΜΑΙΝΑΛΙΑ. Η ξεχασμένη ιστορία ενός αρκαδικού έθνους). Athens: Melissa, 2023. Pp. 136. ISBN 9789602044391.

This is a very attractive and informative bilingual book, written in both English and Modern Greek. The author, Björn Forsén, is a Finnish archaeologist who has many years of experience working in Arcadia and the area of Mainalia and is well qualified to write this book. Included are many color and black and white photographs, drawings and maps, including reproductions of historical maps and it covers an interesting subject about which relatively little is commonly known, the Arcadian tribe of the Mainalians. There is a good amount of detail included in the book which is very scholarly with a comprehensive bibliography and full notes.  This is a book for students of all ages. The publication is divided into 10 chapters after an introduction: Research history; Tribal topography; Towns and other settlements; Sanctuaries; Farmers, Herdsmen and Merchants; Craftsmen and artists; Athletes and games; Mercenaries; Fading away; and Conclusion.

Forsén writes in the Introduction that one of the political entities of the Arcadians from the late 6th or early 5th century until the middle of the 4th century BCE was the Mainalian tribe. A sub-ethnic federation consisting of several small poleis or communities that were located on and around Mt. Mainalos, it constituted an important element of the Arcadian landscape. Mainalian poleis included Pallantion, Helisson, Dipaia, Lykoa, Asea, Eutaia, Peraitheis, Hamoniai and Oresthasion. Mainalia was bordered to the east by Tegea, to the northeast by Mantineia and Orchomenos and to the west by Eutresia and Parrhasia. The mythology of the area is highlighted by the story of Arkas, the eponymous ancestor of the Arcadians who is said to have been buried on Mt. Mainalos. Arkas, the son of Zeus and Lykaon’s daughter Kallisto, was transformed along with Kallisto into the constellation of The Great Bear.

A considerable amount of archaeological research has been undertaken in this region for several centuries, and there are many aspects of the Mainalian story. Forsén in “Research History” discusses three early travelers, William Martin Leake, William Gell and François Pouqueville, who were the first Europeans to study the area in detail in the 19th century, following the routes described by Pausanias, although many of the ancient toponyms had been changed to Slavic, Albanian, or Greek names. Leake identified the remains of a Doric temple at Vigla and correctly identified it as the Temple of Athena Soteira and Poseidon located on Mt. Boreion between Asea and Pallantion. Le Puillon de Boblaye, working for the Expédition Scientifique de Morée documenting the geographic, natural and cultural aspects of the new Greek state, 1829–1835, identified Athenaion and the acropolis of Pallantion. William Loring, who took part in the early British excavations at Megalopolis in the late 19th century was the first scholar to locate the late Archaic temple on the summit of Agios Elias.

Leake, Gell, and Pouqueville identified ancient Mt. Mainalos with Apano Chrepa, which is the highest Arcadian peak at 1981 m located 4 km to the southwest of Levidi and 16 km to the northwest of Tripolis, but this identification posed problems as the site was too far distant from Megalopolis to accord with the measurements of Pausanias, and the ancient towns and sanctuaries described could not be found in the vicinity. (During the early 20th century Apano Chrepa was renamed Mt. Mainalos.)

Forsén continues on the excavations in the area undertaken by the Greek Ephor Konstantinos Rhomaios at the sanctuary at Vigla in 1910, 1918, and 1958; by the Swedish archaeologist Erik Holmberg at Paleokastro in 1936 and 1938; and at the late Archaic temple on the summit of Agios Elias in 1938 and 1939. Guido Libertini and Alfonso De Franciscis of the Scuola Archeologico Italiana di Atene excavated at Pallantion in 1939–1940.

During the 1990s important survey work was undertaken in the area by Yanis Pikoulas who worked on identifying the ancient roads of Arcadia and identifying several hitherto unknown poleis and sanctuaries. Later in the 1990s an intensive survey of the Asea valley directed by Jeannette Forsén and Björn Forsén was undertaken which provided important information relating to the diachronic development of the urban center of Asea, one of the larger Mainalian poleis. In the last 30 years important excavation work has been conducted by the Ephors Theodoros Spyropoulos and Anna Karapanagiotou. Spyropoulos discovered a Late Archaic sanctuary near the village of Mainalon and a late Archaic stone seated female next to the modern Tripolis-Megalopolis highway which is similar to another stone seated female found in the 19th century in the area, but without context, indicating what may have been an important cult center.

The correct identification of Mt. Mainalos has been a work in progress for many years and only recently with the excellent results of Forsén has the proper mountain been identified. Forsén describes in “Sanctuaries” his recent excavation of the sanctuary of Artemis Lykoatis, securely identified with the recovery of stamped roof tiles with the name Αρτέμιτος Λυκοάτιδος, which led to the secure identification of the Mainalian plain as the modern Arachamitai valley.[1] It is Pausanias (8.36.7–8) who gives the most information about the topography of the area. Forsén and the Finnish team have found cult activity at Artemis Lykoatis from at least the 10th–9th centuries BCE until the 3rd century CE. According to Pausanias, the city of Lykoa should be immediately in the vicinity as should be the site for the Mainalian Games.

The identification of ancient Mt. Mainalos is now secure, which then makes the identification of the ancient region more understandable since Mt. Mainalos is in the center of the tribal territory. It is now clear that the ancient Mt. Mainalos includes on its summit the Agios Elias chapel and the Late Archaic Temple of Athena first located by Loring. The mountain was also sacred to the god Pan and was famous as the place where the bones of Arkas, the eponymous ancestor of all the Arcadians, was buried.

At the peak of Agios Elias, the sanctuary of Athena has shown cult activity going back to the 10th century BCE with earlier Mycenaean and Protogeometric ceramics found unstratified. An ash altar is located to the east of the temple.[2] The Late Archaic Doric temple is a major building with a 6 x 14 peristyle and, at the time of its construction, was the largest stone temple in Arcadia. Its size was later surpassed by the 5th century BCE Temple of Apollo Epikourios and later the 4th century BCE Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea.

Forsén describes in “Athletes and Games” how Arcadians were known as formidable athletes, and were famous for their significant number of Olympic victories. During the 5th century BCE there were a total of 24 Olympic victors from Arcadia of which 21 were in boxing, wrestling, pankration, boys’ boxing and boys’ wrestling. Between 472 and 372 there were nine Mainalian Olympic victors, all in the combat events. The athletes were typically referred to by their ethnic ‘Mainalios’ without reference to a specific polis. Androsthenes, son of Lochaios, was perhaps the best well known of all the athletes from Mainalios, having won the pankration in two successive Olympic Games, 420 and 416. The Mainalians hosted their own athletic festival, known as the Mainalian games; Pausanias (8.36.8) mentions seeing both a stadium and a hippodrome where he says the Mainalian games were held and indicates that the location of the athletic facilities was close to the grave of Arkas. The only known victor from the Mainalian games is Prateas, a wrestler, whose victory is recorded from a statue base of the mid-4th century BCE found in Argos.[3]

The reviewer cannot help but compare the Mainalian games with another famous Arcadian athletic festival, the Lykaia, which was held on another Arcadian mountain, Mt. Lykaion, on the west side of the plain of Megalopolis. It, too, had a stadium and a hippodrome high on the slopes (1180 m) and in the earliest phase an earlier proto-stadium near the southern summit (1334 m).[4]The cult of Lykaian Zeus likely goes back to the 16th century BCE and the origin of the athletic festival is mentioned by Pliny to be older than the Olympic Games.[5] Forsén sees a parallel between the Parrhasian unification around the cult of Zeus Lykaios, on Mt. Lykaion and the Mainalians’ unification around the cult of Athena on Mt. Mainalos.

Related in some ways to the subject of athletics was the Arcadians’ long interest in mercenary service. The Arcadians were known as good soldiers, and they were often mentioned as serving as mercenaries for other states. Arcadian mercenaries served with Gelon of Syracuse in the early 5th century BCE and with Cyrus as a part of the Ten Thousand in the middle of the 4th century BCE. Lykomedes mentions that the Arcadians were the first choice among Greek people to serve as mercenaries.[6] Forsén summarizes in “Mercenaries” that there were probably several reasons why the Arcadians were supplying so many mercenaries; over-population probably being the most significant, followed by the geographical considerations that Arcadia had such limited agricultural land. The most famous of the Arcadian mercenaries was Phormis who according to Pausanias (5.27.1–4) had one or possibly two commemorative monuments in the altis at Olympia based on his accomplishments in the campaigns of Gelon and Hieron in the 480s. He also had a monument erected at Delphi and received citizenship in Syracuse.

Due to the large number of Late Archaic and Early Classical temples in Arcadia, stonemasons and construction workers were in demand, as were architects and sculptors. Some, but not all of these, would have been brought in from outside Arcadia, for instance Iktinos of Athens for the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai and Scopas of Paros for the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea. One of the best-known Arcadian sculptors was Nikodamos of Mainalia (late 5th to early 4th centuries BCE), who produced bronze statues in both Olympia and Delphi. Forsén cites several examples of bronze statues mentioned by Pausanias in the area of Arcadia, one of which was at the Sanctuary of Artemis Lykoatis in Lykoa, as well as a number of stone statues that have been found in the general area. Forsén mentions in “Craftsmen and Artists” that a bronze relief now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was found in the modern village of Kerasteri at the foot of Mt. Mainalos in the 1950s. It is a partially preserved, bronze repoussé strip, originally 50 cm long and 10 cm wide, illustrating two chariots moving right with two warriors facing each other. John Boardman has suggested that the two figures facing each other on the right should be restored as boxers, with a goose between them.[7] The Kerasteri bronze can be dated between 650–625 BCE, and the best parallels are from Olympia where similar examples are interpreted as from sphyrelaton kore statues consisting of bronze strips of different sizes fastened to each other with rows of rivets.

In the middle of the 4th century BCE, the Mainalian tribe ended its history as a political entity, although it did survive the creation of Megalopolis and the formation of the Arcadian Federal League in 368/367. Forsén in “Fading Away” sees the reduced influence of the tribe as a result of a large decrease in population in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Although the Arcadians were still sending out mercenaries, Crete, Macedonia and Thessaly had taken over as the leading centers of mercenary populations. The Sanctuary of Athena on Mt. Mainalos appears not to have seen cult activity in the Hellenistic period although the Sanctuary of Artemis Lykoatis appears to have flourished perhaps because of its connection to the myth of Arkas from the second half of the 6th century to the late 3rd century BCE.

Pausanias (8.46.1) tells us that the Mainalians together with most of the Arcadians, with the sole exception of Mantineia, fought in the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE on the side of Marc Antony and Kleopatra. Following the battle (8.46.5) Octavian took the cult statue from Athena Alea and the tusks from the Kalydonian Boar from Tegea and brought them to Rome where in the 2nd century CE the cult statue of Athena Alea was still on display in the Forum of Augustus and one of the tusks at a sanctuary of Dionysus in the imperial gardens. Forsén adds that all the buildings in the sanctuary of Artemis Lykoatis were destroyed about the year 30 BCE, based on considerable numismatic evidence implying that the destruction may have been the result of this conflict. Although the cult continued into the 3rd century CE the activity was on a more local scale.

This book will bring the Mainalians to life for many readers and will instill in them an appreciation of the importance of the study of a specific tribe in ancient Greece and its relationship to the greater Greek world. Bjorn Forsén has years of experience in this part of the Greek world and has put together a masterpiece combining literary, archaeological, epigraphical and historical evidence.



[1] B. Forsén, “Artemis Lykoatis and the Bones of Arkas,” Hellenistic Sanctuaries Between Greece and Rome, M. Melfi and O. Bobou, eds., Oxford 2016, 40–62.

[2] J. Forsén, B. Forsén and E. Østby, “The Sanctuary of Agios Elias — Its Significance, and its Relations to Surrounding Settlements and Sanctuaries,” in Defining Ancient Arcadia, T. H. Nielsen and J. Roy, eds., Copenhagen 1999, 177–182.

[3] SEG XVII 150.

[4] D. G. Romano and M. E. Voyatzis, “Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, Part 1, The Upper Sanctuary,” Hesperia, 2014, 569–652.

[5] Pliny HN 7.205

[6] Xen Hell. 7.1.23

[7] J. Boardman, “A Southern View of Situla Art,” in J. Boardman, M. A. Brown, and T. G. E. Powell, eds., The European Community in Later Prehistory: Studies in Honour of C. F. C. Hawkes, London 1971, 124–127.