Methoni: Outpost of a Commercial Empire

If you have been tuning in this week, you will have realised that I have been exploring dimensions of trade in the mediaeval Mediterranean, and have focused particularly on two spectacular sites from mediaeval Greece: Monemvasia and Mystras. Today I want to finish off with a third site (also with an ‘M’ name…) Methoni, whose location, function, and history reveal another side of the region’s complex history.

Unlike either Mystras or Monemvasia, Methoni sits on a long, low peninsula in the southwestern Peloponnese, its walls descending straight into the shallow waters that surround it. Also unlike the other two sites, Methoni’s fortifications were built not to achieve local defence or land-based dominance, but mastery of the seas.

Methoni from Beach

Methoni in its decidedly un-warlike modern setting. From this angle, it is possible to see how the fortress walls descend to the shoreline.

These differences in form and function arose from the origin of Methoni’s citadel in the expansion of Venice as an imperial power in the 13th century. Prior to their arrival in the Peloponnese, Methoni had been an important Byzantine city with it’s own bishop that stood on an ancient habitation. While important as an urban centre, however, there are no indications that Methoni had a military function.

Layers of the ruined fortress, seen through a hole in the outer wall.

As Venetian merchants began to dominate trade in the eastern Mediterranean, however, its good harbour and defensible position made it a desirable addition to their overseas possessions. As Latin powers came to dominate the Byzantine territories after 1204, therefore, Venice cooperated with the Villehardoun family to gain possession of Methoni and another site, nearby Coroni.

Methoni gate

The landward side of the Methoni fortress. The arched bridge crosses a moat, now dry, that would have been filled with sea water.

The military ambitions of Venice are clearly expressed in the extensive fortifications they erected at Methoni. The ruins visible today, however, do not reflect 13th century military architecture, but rather later developments. These include the rounded towers and thick, low walls designed to defend against artillery, rather than siege machines and archers. From such a strong position, the Venetian fleet could trade and wage war (often in equal measure), knowing that their boats had a protected harbour to return to.

Even the Venetians, however, couldn’t build such a fortress from scratch. The structure incorporates many materials (known as spolia) from other buildings, including ancient marble and contemporary structures.

Winged lions, symbols of St Mark and the city of Venice, incorporated into Methoni’s walls.

The fortress’s turbulent history meant that such repairs were always ongoing, and even sacrificed some finer sensibilities. In the above photograph, two relief carvings of lions share wall space with what looks suspiciously like a stone cannon-ball (below the left lion.)

Unfortunately to the Venetians, Methoni’s valuable attributes also made it a significant threat to the Ottomans, who had transformed themselves from a tiny Anatolian principality into a regional power with imperial ambitions of their own. From 1500 onwards, the castle changed hands between Venetians and Ottomans, according to competitive advantage. Thus, the First Venetian Period (1209-1500) was followed by the First Turkish Period (1500-1686), followed by the Second Venetian Period (1686-1715) and finally by the Second Turkish Period (1715-1828).

The additions to the fortress made by the Ottomans emphasised its seaward orientation.

The Bourzi, a small castle built by the Ottomans to extend the fortifications of the harbour. The causeway connects it to Methoni castle proper.

These included the Bourzi, a small castle that projected the fortifications further into the water. Although not itself sufficient for the waging of gun-powder warfare, the Bourzi complemented the sea-facing bastion of the main castle.

The bastion of Methoni fortress, with the causeway to the Bourzi.

The continued importance of Methoni and its highly evolved military architecture thus express the greater changes which helped to transform the Mediterranean from mediaeval to modern. These included the expansion of gun-powder technology, the rise to dominance of the Ottomans, and the growing importance of sea-power in establishing  empires.

While its fate reveals the regional politics of the Peloponnese like Mystras and Monemvasia, therefore, it also speaks to the global dimensions of the mediaeval-to-modern transition, and the huge role played by technology in the formation of history.

Explore:

Below is the Google Maps aerial satellite view of Methoni castle. The trapezoidal structure  at the top of the frame is the castle proper, with the walls surrounding an enclosed space to the south. The Bourzi is the circular structure extending from the end of the peninsula.

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