The Quarries of Karystos

At the southern end of the Greek island of Evia, a one hour ferry ride from the mainland, lies the small town of Karystos. Originally known as Carystus, or Κάρυστος in Greek, its history goes back to the time of Homer, who mentioned it in the Iliad as part of the Catalogue of Ships list that described the Achaean army when it sailed to Troy around 3,000 years ago (the actual date and even the veracity of the story of the seige of Troy remains in dispute).

Karystos is not a heavily visited tourist destination like Santorini or Mykonos, which makes it a quieter, more relaxing location as a base for hiking the surrounding mountains with the British tour group we joined after our week in Athens. Those mountains feature a number of interesting sights, though the trails are very rough and our routes included long stretches of monotonous dirt roads. A profuse springtime wildflower bloom, and the occasional tortoise, livened up some arduous hiking!

In Roman Imperial times, Carystus was well known for its many quarries where green cipollino marble was cut and exported for use as building material, even as far away as the Augustan era Forum in Rome. Our hike route led us uphill to a remarkable sight; massive marble columns, completely separated from the rocky hillside they were cut out of, but abandoned before they would have been moved many kilometers down to the ocean to the ships waiting to transport them away. Regardless, many such columns were probably quarried from here prior to these few that remained.

It’s easy to marvel at the mass of these stone pieces and forget that the Romans primarily used slave labor to create them just for the purpose of building temples or public edifices designed to impress people with the power of the Roman state. Slaves could spend their entire adult lives in forced labor and no doubt lived in pitiful conditions up to their death.

When I viewed the quarry site from below I could envisage the line of the road across the hillside that would have been used to slowly move the huge columns down to the sea. How that was done is not known with certainty; perhaps it involved winches, pulleys, and logs placed at right angles to the direction of travel.

Something I’m still puzzling over is why those Roman stone columns were cut as single pieces (they appeared to have a base and a capital, the fluting and fine carving would have been done later) instead of in sections like the Greek columns at the Acropolis in Athens. As single pieces they were much more difficult to transport and erect. I suppose the Romans thought one-piece columns looked better, and if you have a lot of slaves at your disposal, what do you care about making things easier?

I asked ChatGPT 4.0 this question: “Compare Roman column construction to Greek columns. Were Roman columns one piece or were they stacked sections?”

The answer provided was not exactly on point. It was full of general information about Roman and Greek column style, but did note that both civilizations built monolithic columns and columns in sections, which are called “drums”. I show the answer below.

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Chat GPT 4.0 answer:

Greek and Roman columns are both iconic elements of classical architecture, but there are distinct differences in their construction, style, and usage.

Greek Columns:
Greek columns are divided into three main orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Each order has its own specific proportions and detailing.

  1. Doric: The Doric order is the simplest, with a capital (top) consisting of a circle topped by a square. The columns have no base and are fluted (grooved).
  2. Ionic: The Ionic order is more complex than the Doric, with a capital decorated with a scroll-like design (a volute). Ionic columns stand on a base and the shaft is also fluted.
  3. Corinthian: The Corinthian order is the most ornate, with a capital decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. Like the Ionic, Corinthian columns also stand on a base.

Greek columns were typically carved from a single piece of stone. However, larger columns were sometimes constructed from stacked drums or sections due to practical reasons, such as transportation and maneuvering of the materials.

Roman Columns:
Roman columns were derived from the Greek styles but they introduced a new order, the Composite, which combined elements of the Ionic and Corinthian orders. They also developed the Tuscan order, a simplified version of the Doric.

Roman architecture often used a technique known as “arcuated” (arch-based) construction, something not seen in Greek architecture. This allowed them to span greater distances and build more elaborate structures, such as the famous Colosseum.

In terms of construction, Roman columns were often made from multiple stacked drums, similar to some larger Greek columns. This method made the construction process easier and allowed for the use of different materials, such as marble, granite, or even concrete. The Romans also used the “engaged” column, a column embedded in a wall and used more as a decorative element than a structural one.

In conclusion, both Greek and Roman columns have had a profound influence on architectural design throughout history. The Greeks established the initial orders and styles, and the Romans adapted these while also introducing new elements and construction methods.

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