Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Thessaly

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From volume XXIII of the work.
See also the Project Disclaimer.

See vol. xi - Plates I and II and vol xv. Pl. III.
THESSALY is the district of northern Greece which intervenes between Macedonia and the more purely Hellenic countries towards the south, and between the upland region of Epirus and the JEgean Sea. It forms an irregular square, extending for about sixty miles in each direction, and this area, which is for the most part level, is enclosed by well-marked boundaries by the Cambunian Mountains on the north, and by Othrys on the south, while on its western side runs the massive chain of Pindus, which is the backbone of this part of Greece, and towards the east Ossa and Pelion stand in a continuous line; at the north-eastern angle Olympus rises, and is the keystone of the whole mountain system. The elevation of some of the summits in these ranges is considerable, for three of the peaks of Pindus are over 5000 feet, and Olympus, Ossa, and Pelion reach respectively the height of 9754, 6407, and 5310 feet. The country that is contained within these limits is drained by a single river, the Peneius, which, together with the water of its numerous confluents, passes into the sea through the Vale of Tempe. This place, which the Greeks were accustomed to associate with rural delights, is a chasm, cloven in the rocks, as the fable tells us, by the trident of Poseidon, between Olympus and Ossa; but though it possesses every element of the sublime, yet its features are soft and beautiful, from the broad winding river, the luxuriant vegetation, and the glades that at intervals open out at the foot of the cliffs. It is about four miles and a half long, and towards the middle of the pass, where the rocks are highest, the pre cipices in the direction of Olympus fall so steeply as to bar the passage on that side; but those which descend from Ossa are the loftiest, for they rise in many places not less than 1500 feet from the valley. Owing to the length and narrowness of the ravine, it was a position easily defended, but still it offered a practicable entrance to an invading force, in consequence of which a number of castles were built at different times at the strongest points. On the north side of Thessaly there was an im portant pass from Petra in Pieria by the western side of Olympus, debouching on the plain northward of Larissa; it was by this that Xerxes entered, and we learn from Herodotus (vii. 173) that, when the Greeks discovered the existence of this passage, they gave up all thoughts of defending Tempe. On the side of Epirus the main line of communication passed over that part of Pindus which was called Mount Lacmon, and descended the upper valley of the Peneius to ^Eginium in the north-west angle of Thessaly, near which place now stand the extraordinary monasteries of Meteora. This was the route by which Julius Caesar arrived before the battle of Pharsalia. Another pass through the Pindus chain was that of Gomphi, farther south, by means of which there was com munication with the Ambracian Gulf. The great southern pass was that of Coela, which crosses Mount Othrys nearly opposite Thermopylae. These Thessalian passes were of the utmost importance to southern Greece, as commanding the approaches to that part of the country.

Though Thessaly is the most level district of Greece, it does not present a uniform unbroken surface, but is com posed of a number of sections which open out into one another, divided by ranges of hills. The principal of these were called Upper and Lower Thessaly, the former com prising the western and south-western part, which con tains the higher course of the Peneius and all those of its tributaries that flow from the south the Enipeus, the Apidanus, the Onochonus, and the Pamisus; while the latter, which reaches eastward to the foot of Ossa and Pelion, is inundated in parts at certain seasons of the year by the Peneius, the flood-water from which forms the lake Nessonis, and, when that is full, escapes again and pours itself into the Lake of Boebe. The chief city of the latter of these districts was Larissa; and the two were separated from one another by a long spur, which runs southwards from the Cambunian Mountains on the western side of that city. Again, when Thessaly is entered from the south by the pass of Coela, another plain, containing a small lake, which was formerly called Xynias, intervenes, and a line of low hills has to be crossed before the town of Thaumaci is reached, which from its commanding position overlooks the whole of the upper plain. The view from this point has been described by Livy in the following remarkable passage: " When the traveller, in passing through the rugged districts of Thessaly, where the roads are entangled in the windings of the valleys, arrives at this city, on a sudden an immense level expanse, resembling a vast sea, is outspread before him in such a manner that the eye cannot easily reach the limit of the plains extended beneath " (xxxii. 4). To the north-eastwards of this, where a portion of the great plain begins to run up into the mountains, the Plain of Pharsalia is formed, which is intersected by the river Enipeus; and still farther in the same direction is the scene of another great battle, Cynoscephake. Thessaly was further subdivided into four districts, of which Pelasgiotis embraced the lower plain of the Peneius, and Hestiaeotis and Thessaliotis respectively the northern and the southern portions of the upper plain; while the fourth, Phthiotis, which lies towards the south east, was geographically distinct from the rest of the country, being separated from it by a watershed. The determining feature of this is the Pagasseus Sinus (Gulf of Volo), a landlocked basin, extending from Pagasae at its head to Aphetae at its narrow outlet, where the chain of Pelion, turning at right angles to its axis at the end of Magnesia, throws out a projecting line of broken ridges, while on the opposite side rise the heights of Othrys. In the heroic age this district was of great importance. It was the birthplace of Greek navigation, for this seems to be implied in the story of the Argonauts, who started from this neighbourhood in quest of the golden fleece. From it the great Achilles came, and, according to Thucydides (i. 3), it was the early home of the Hellenic race. The site of lolcus, the centre of so many poetic legends, is at no great distance from the modern Volo. Near that town also, at a later period, the city of Demetrias was founded by Demetrius Poliorcetes, who called it one of the three fetters of Greece, Chalcis and Corinth being the other two.

The history of Thessaly is closely connected with its geography. The fertility of the land offered a temptation to invaders, and was thus the primary cause of the early migrations. It was this motive which first induced the Thessalians to leave their home in Epirus and descend into this district, and from this movement arose the expulsion of the Bceotians from Arne, and their settle ment in the country subsequently called Boeotia; while another wave of the same tide drove the Dorians also southward, whose migrations changed the face of the Peloponnese. Again, this rich soil was the natural home of a powerful aristocracy, such as the families of the Aleuadae of Larissa and the Scopadse of Cranuon; and the absence of elevated positions was unfavourable to the foundation of numerous cities, which might have fostered the spirit of freedom and democracy. The plains, also, were suited to the breeding of horses, and consequently the force in which the Thessalian nation was strong was cavalry, a kind of troops which has usually been associated with oligarchy. The wealth and the semi-Hellenic character of the people for in race, as in geograph ical position, the Thessalians held an intermediate place between the non-Hellenic Macedonians and the Greeks of pure blood caused them to be wanting in patriotism, so that at the time of the Persian wars we find the Aleuad^ making common cause with the enemies of Greece. "When they were united they were a formidable power, but, like other half-organized communities, they seldom combined for long together, and consequently they influenced but little the fortunes of the Greeks.

For several centuries during the Middle Ages Roumanian immi grants formed so large a part of the population of Thessaly that that district was called by the Byzantine writers Great Walachia (MeyoA.17 BAaxM: the Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, who passed through the country in the latter half of the 12th century, describes them as then occupying it. At the present day only a few colonies of that race remain, the principal of which are found on the western side of Olympus and in some of the gorges of Pindus. The Turkish inhabitants are settled in the larger towns, and here and there in the country districts, the most important colony being those called Koniarates, who were brought from Konieh in Asia Minor shortly before the taking of Constantinople, and planted under the south-west angle of Olympus. The Greeks, however, form the vast majority of the population, so much so that, even while the country belonged to the Ottomans, Greek was employed as the official language. In accordance with the pro visions of the Berlin treaty, Thessaly was ceded to the Greeks by the Porte in 1881, and since that period it has formed a portion of the Hellenic kingdom.(H. F. T.)