Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Pericles’ Voyage -Pt 3

To retrace Pericles voyage today would be like doing an archaeological tour of the Mediterranean. From the previous post in this series, we can assume that Shakespeare kept the historical pretext for the play accurate, despite changing the name of the main protagonist. There was a historic Tyre, Tharsus, Pentapolis, Ephesus and Mytilene. Although he makes contemporary references e.g., the Spanish naval commander, Pedro de Valdes, who was imprisoned in London from 1588-1593; the Antiochan, Thaliard, having a pistol; and the existance of a Transylvanian in the market town of Mytilene, the world of the play is firmly set in the Graeco-Roman world in the time of the Seleucid Empire. Looking at how probable the journey he embarked on was, we can judge whether Shakespeare indeed meant the Aegean island, Thasos, when Tharsus was printed

I must apologize in advance for the crudeness of my map. Making it was an excursion into my school days, before computer graphics and scanners. Something, necessity forced me into, and a little curiosity as to whether it was do-able. Probably unwise, but I couldn’t find the necessary map in cyber-space. I hope it gives the idea of the journey in its jalopy way.

hippodrome from distance 1

The Hippodrome, Tyre (Sour), Lebanon

When Pericles flees from Antioch he is persued by Thaliard, an Antiochean lord entrusted with poison to kill him. Immediately, he returns home to Tyre. He loads his vessels with ample provisions and leaves quickly. Thaliard, not finding his wake, returns to Antioch.

Map of the journey of Pericles after fleeing Antioch

Pericles’ Journey, with apologies for the naivete of the map

Reason 1 – Why Tharsus was Thasos and not Tarsus – Distance

Looking at my crudely drawn map above, Tyre and Antioch are situated on the banks of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus is situated, north-west of Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. Tarsus is built about 20km inland from the Mediterranean Sea along the Berdan River. In trying to escape Thaliard, Pericles’ fleet would more likely have sailed in a direction away from Antioch and the local coast. He was particularly concerned not to embroil his people in a military conflagration with imperial Antioch. Sailing deep into the Mediterranean and up into the Aegean he had many islands to hide on. From Thasos, in the North Aegean, he could head up the Dardenelles (ancient Hellespont), through the Marmara Sea and into the Black Sea.

Reason 2 – Proximity to Troy

When Pericles arrives on Tharsus, he offers the provisions of his ships to the Governor of Tharsus. News of their famine had reached faraway Tyre, so Pericles had come prepared. He allays their suspicion over his intent by saying,

“And these our ships, you happily may think

Are like the Trojan Horse, was stuff’d within

With bloody veins, expecting overthrow,

Are stor’d with corn to make your needy bread,

And give them life whom hunger starv’d half dead.”

(Act I Scene IV lines 92-96)

Troy was situated in the Dardenelles, just off the Aegean Sea on what is today,Turkey’s west, mainland coast. On my map, it is north of Mytilene on the southern shore of the strait of water heading into the bodies of water to the top right (Marmara Sea.) Troy was a neighbouring power. The inhabitants of Thasos would have heard the stories from Troy before Homer would have finished writing them down. In Pericles time, Trojan history was local lore. Pericles words then, are not merely allegorical but straight-forward.

After news from Tyre, Pericles sets off for home. His ships are caught in a storm from which only he survives. He is washed ashore in Pentapolis.

Pentapolis, in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in modern day Libya

Pentapolis in ancient times could mean a group of five cities. I have taken it to mean those of the north African coast, Cyrenaica, now in Libya. These cities  were Cyrene, Berenice, Apollonia, Ptolemais and Taucheira. In keeping with the idea that Antiochus referred to a monarch descended from Alexander the Great’s generals, I believe that the story is probably referring to a kingdom once ruled by descendants of another of them, Ptolemy in Egypt.

Reason Three – Thasos is closer to ancient Pentapolis than Tarsus is. From Thasos, Pentapolis is a detour on the way to Tyre. It is more likely that the fleet was misdirected descending out of the Aegean from Thasos than being blown there from Tarsus.

In Pentapolis, Pericles wins the hand of the daughter of the King in a tournament. They then set sail for Tyre. Another storm causes calamity.Thaisa, Pericles pregnant wife, delivers their daughter on board. She is believed to have died in child-birth. She is placed in a sealed container and thrown overboard. Her make-shift coffin lands off the coast of Ephesus where she is miraculously brought back to life by Cerimon. She enters the Temple of Diana (Artemis) there as a proselyte.

a temple in the Ruins of Ephesus, Turkey

A Temple in the Ruins of Ephesus – The ancient Temple of Artemis/Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world has not survived.

Reason Four – The Proximity of Ephesus to Thasos.

The make-shift coffin would have had to float up into the Aegean, passing by Crete, the Cyclades Islands, as well as several others to reach Ephesus from Pentapolis. At the same time Pericles ship had to be close enough to Tharsus to harbour there. The ship was more likely to have been near or in the Aegean when this storm commandeered it. Being in the vicinity of Thasos, floating to Ephesus, is a more direct route for the coffin, and quicker for Pericles to obtain aid for his newly born daughter.

Thassos - Limenas

Aerial shot of Thasos. The ancient theatre is visible up on the hillside on the left. The ancient marina is submerged off the coast on the right of the shore. The ancient and modern city co-exist in the same locality

Coming into shore at Tharsus, Pericles leaves his daughter, Marina, in the care of the Governor. He returns home, abandoning her for years. In the interim she grows to be a pious beauty. She excels at all she does, be it needlework or philosophy. Her stepmother, envious that her own daughter is not similarly graced, arranges for an assassin in kill her. Before Leonine has the chance to perform his duty, Marina is kidnapped by pirates bound for Mytilene.

Moria - Late Roman Architecture - Aqueduct

The Late Roman aqueduct that took fresh water from Mt Olymbos to Mytilene in late antiquity. Moria, Lesvos

Reason Five – the Renaissance association of Mytilene and Thasos and their geographic proximity.

Why Mytilene? Mytilene is the port and capital of the ancient island of Lesbos. During the Renaissance it was the seat of a Genosese dynasty who governed the islands of the north Aegean, including Thasos. The founder, Francesco Gatteliusi (1355-1384), was a pirate. He earned the governorship of the island by aiding a future Byzantine Emperor attack Constantinople.

Eventually Pericles is reunited with his daughter in Mytilene. He then sees a vision of the goddess Diana. She sends him to Ephesus where he is reunited with his wife, Thaisa.

The strongest reason why Thasos was meant for Tharsus is geography. It is more plausible than Tarsus.


The Hippodrome, Tyre

Photo credit: stevendamron / Foter / CC BY


Photo credit: weesquirt / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


Photo credit: neilalderney123 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Thasos – Limenas

Photo credit: Visit Greece / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Late Roman Aqueduct supplying Mytilene with fresh water




2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Pericles’ Voyage -Pt 3

    • You’re very kind. Crete’s peninsulas are off, islands are missing, i forgot Troy and a few more labels and the worst thing of all – i’m cringing just thinking about it – the entrance from the Marmara Sea into the Black Sea is just a river.
      I was worried about copyright prohibitions too. This is a product of baking paper over the atlas trick. Do you remember doing the tracing in pencils on both sides of the paper and then retracing onto sketch paper? I cant image kids these days going through so much effort. How things have changed!

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