Akanthos (Ancient Greek: Ἄκανθος; Latin: Acanthus) was an ancient Greek city on the Athos peninsula. It was located near the modern town of Ierissos on the north-east side of Akti, on the most eastern peninsula of Chalcidice. Strabo and Ptolemy erroneously place Acanthus on the Singitic Gulf, but there can be no doubt that the town was on theStrymonian Gulf, as is stated by Herodotus and other authorities: the error may have perhaps arisen from the territory of Acanthus having stretched as far as the Singitic Gulf. The name of the ancient city (derived from the acanthus bush) is due to the thorny nature of the area or to the thorny nature of the town’s foundation.
It was founded by 7th century BC (the archaeology suggests 655 BC) by colonists from Andros, according to Thucydides. Plutarch, on the other hand, referred to it as a mixed colony of Andrians and local Chalcidians, which was founded on the “Coast of Drakontos”, in place of a preexisting civilization. He writes that settlers from Andros and Chalcisarrived on the shore at the same time. The natives of Acanthus, seeing the crowd of settlers, became frightened and left the city. The settlers sent an explorer each to see what had happened and, as they approached the city and realized it was empty, ran to be the first to take over the land for their fellow countrymen. The Chalcidian was the fastest but the Andrian, seeing he was losing, stopped and threw his spear on the wall’s gate, before his opponent arrived. A court case followed, which was won by the Andrians, because as they protested, they had just about taken over the city first.
Its growth during the Archaic period is reflected by the wide circulation of its currency, first minted around 530 BCE with the distinctive emblem of a lion killing a bull – perhaps linked to Herodotus’s account (vii. 125) that on the march of Xerxes from Acanthus to Therma, lions seized the camels which carried the provisions – at least 92 different types of coins have been found. Its economic resources emanated from the mining and wood from the nearby forests, but also through agricultural and vegetable goods that were transported through the sizable harbor.
The first historical reference, in Thuycidides, from mid-5th century BC, connects the city with the Persian Wars, during which the townsfolk officially welcomed the Persians and willingly helped with the digging of the canal for Xerxes, 480 BC, for which Xerxes richly rewarded them. They declared one of his relatives who died in the area, named Artahei, a hero, and willingly took part in the expedition against Greece. After the Persian wars Acanthus became a member of the Athenian Alliance, paying tribute of three talents. In 424 BCE, after a short siege and oratory by Brasidas, the city was convinced to ally itself with the Spartans, although Thucydides remarks the greater likelihood that it was the threat to destroy their profitable vineyards, rather than Brasidas’s rhetoric, that truly moved the Acanthians.
4th to 2nd centuries BCE
In the initial phase of the establishment of the Chalcidice League, it was mainly smaller towns and cities in Macedonia that were enrolled. Only when it was firmly established was an offer made to Acanthus. When this was refuse a second offer was made but with the threat that force would be used should Acanthus refuse to join the federation. The townsfolk refused to join it, in part due to the old quarrel with the Chalcidians. Under threat from the Chalcidians, Acanthus called in Sparta’s help, which came in 382 BC when the Spartans and Acanthians captured and destroyed Olynthos and the alliance, at least temporarily. Acanthus’s staying-out of the alliance meant that in 350 BC, when it was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, it was not destroyed. Later it was incorporated to the region of Ouranoupolis, a new city that was founded by Alexarchos (Cassander’s brother), in the isthmus, between the Strymoinan and the Singitic gulfs.
According to Livy, Acanthus was attacked by a Roman-Pergamene fleet in 199 BC during the Second Macedonian War and then besieged, captured and sacked by Rome in 168 BC.
The Romans later exploited all the natural sources of wealth and its harbor, and the town continued through the Roman and Byzantine period. In Roman times is attested epigraphically the existence of a Roman community attracted mainly by the rich mines of this region Around the start of the 1st century, Acanthus’s renaming began, with its name translated into the Latin Ericius, from which was derived its Byzantine and modern name of Ierissos or Erissos.
The ancient city extended along a sheer hillside, about 0.6 km (2,000 ft) south-east of modern Ierissos. Remains of walls, an impressive citadel, and Hellenistic buildings survive, along with a deserted Byzantine church and two post Byzantine churches.
The city itself has not been excavated, but the necropolis (graveyard) has, starting in 1973, since when more than 600 graves have been discovered. Particularly extensive is the sight of the cemetery along the seaside of Ierissos.
The graveyard seems to have been used for a long period, starting from the Archaic period (or perhaps even the 17th century BCE) right up to Roman times and later, perhaps with certain intervals in between each period of time. The graves occur in at least two or three layers, either shallow in the earth, or deeper in the sand, usually parallel with the line of the seashore. The orientation of the dead (that is, skulls of the dead – and the tops of jugs) is, in most cases, southeast.
In Acanthus both adults and children were buried in the same area according to ancient burial customs. Various grave types have been discovered – some are simple dirt holes, others coated with clay or undecorated or painted clay urns, yet others are shaped like boxes, covered in clay or jug-shaped (jug-shaped most probably constituted the majority of infant or child burials). The grave goods, usually placed in the graves next to or above the dead, are varied and sometimes in earthen containers. Often they were personal or related to their occupation (such as jewels, pins, buckles, mirrors, weapons – though these are rare -, needles, hooks, bill-hooks, knives or – very often in female and child graves – clay figurines representing various animals, foodstuffs, or human forms, such as actors). Some of the goods are locally made whilst some are from other commercial centres and workshops of the ancient world. Burial customs, and similar types of graves which have been discovered, resemble many other cemeteries in other ancient cities of Macedonia and Thrace, revealing the connection through trade to so much of the Greek-speaking East as well as to other well-known centres of the Peloponnessus (especially Euboea, Athens, Corinth and Boeotia).