The fatal tour of the Costoboci

The beauty of a project such as Pros-Eleusis is the countless stories waiting to be discovered. Archaeological sites, medieval churches, and contemporary buildings have a certain attraction as edifices and sources of historical information. Without a human element, though, they remain empty husks that appeal mostly to the specialist or the devoted aficionado. Each generation adds a layer of lived experience to the architectural fabric of Eleusis. On the other hand, time works ceaselessly to erase seminal events from the collective memory. In that sense, our project serves three purposes; preserve local stories, humanize the built environment, and reveal the unknown past. Allow us, therefore, to introduce the formidable Costoboci.

Domino effect

Very little is known about the Costoboci. They were probably a tribe of Thracians, who lived east of the Carpathian Mountains in present-day Romania (or perhaps Moldavia). The Roman province of Dacia extended to the south, offering a tempting target when they decided to get adventurous. The reasons for their invasion of Dacia, Macedonia, and southern Greece remain elusive. It may have been a simple raid, or a precursor of a permanent resettlement under pressure from other tribes, who were also pushed in a southern direction by the migration of the Goths towards the borders of the Roman world.

The tour begins

The invasion began in 170 CE. The Romans weakened their frontier defences along the lower Danube to strengthen their forces in central Europe, during a period of protracted was against German and Sarmatian tribes. The Costoboci were thus able to overrun all the provinces between their lands and the Aegean Sea, burning towns that lacked defensive walls (since there had been no need for them for a very long time). Local military forces were no match for the raiders; numerous funerary inscriptions commemorate soldiers who fell in combat against the Costoboci. Pausanias, the famous ancient Greek geographer, described them dismissively as an “army of bandits”. But this “army” caused panic everywhere, as it marched further south.

The merciless day

In late summer 170 CE the Costoboci arrived in Eleusis, where they killed some people and set part of the sanctuary on fire. The news of the destruction spread far and wide across the Mediterranean. In June 171, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides appeared before an audience in Smyrna (modern Izmir), and lamented the “common calamity” that befell the sanctuary of Demeter. The fact that the barbarian host had managed to reach Eleusis was an affront to the authority of Rome. Imperial forces were dispatched to assist the local military units, which finally managed to defeat the Costoboci. The survivors returned home, carrying their plunder with them. Soon, though, their homeland was invaded by the Vandals. They were encouraged by the Roman governor of Dacia, who saw an opportunity to punish the troublesome and audacious raiders.

Stories in stone

Back in Eleusis, the smouldering ruins of the sanctuary enabled the Roman emperors to demonstrate their piety and benevolence towards the gods. Marcus Aurelius provided the necessary funds to repair the damage caused by the Costoboci. The Telesterion and Philon’s porch were extensively rebuilt with great care, resulting in workmanship of very high quality. The Roman architects immortalized the emperor’s triumph against the Germans by carving a giant on the bust of his statue, which adorned the pediment of the Greater Propylaea. The citizens of Eleusis could relax; the empire was finally safe.

The Costoboci have pretty much vanished from the historical record. But their presence is indelibly carved on the landscape of Eleusis. Their catastrophic raid is hiding in plain sight, written on the stone foundations and broken statues that survive in the archaeological site. Their story survives solely as scattered references in the Roman and Greek literature, since most people remain unaware of the events of that hot summer day in 170 CE. And yet the sanctuary, as we know it today, is the direct result of the Costoboci raid. Pros-Eleusis can preserve the memory of this seminal event and make it widely known among residents and visitors alike. The foundations of the Telesterion are thus transformed into telling witnesses of a destructive conflagration, and the rebirth of hope for Eleusis.

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