The Importance of Translating Place Names

By Owain Williams

I was reading Thucydides one weekend (as everybody does, of course...), when I came upon this passage: 

“They established a garrison at Pylos, manned by the Messenians from Naupactus who sent their best men for this purpose to what they regarded as their fatherland (Pylos lies in what was once Messenian territory). These Messenians kept up plundering raids on Laconia and were able to cause a great deal of damage as they spoke in the local dialect” (Thucydides, 4.41, trans. Martin Hammond). 

Upon first reading there is nothing inherently wrong with this passage, but something was bothering me. After thinking on it for a little while, I realised what was off to me: Laconia. 

To the modern reader, Laconia refers to the region to the east of the Taygetos mountains. In the context of Thucydides’ passage above, this would mean that the Messenians at Pylos, located on the west coast of the Peloponnese, would have to travel either across Messenia and the Taygetos mountains by foot or sail south along the Peloponnesian coast, across the Gulf of Messenia, and round the Cape of Tainaron to raid Laconia. The latter choice is not impossible, given the raids conducted by the Athenians at the beginning of the war, when Athenian ships ravaged the Lakedaimonian coastline. However, the verb Thucydides uses, leizomai, does not insinuate anything more than a raid, whether by land or sea, and instead generally refers to taking plunder. Neither does Thucydides tell us precisely where the Messenians raided from Pylos. 

The Laconia-Messenia split appears on most maps of Lakedaimon (user: T8612 / Wikimedia Commons)

In the Greek, what is here translated as Laconia is actually Lakonike. The term refers to the land controlled by the state of Lakedaimon. Therapne, for example, the location of the Menelaion near Sparta, is said to be in Lakonike (Isocrates, Helen 63). Epidauros Limera, on the east coast of the Peloponnese, is in Lakonike (Thucydides, 7.26). Both Methone (Thucydides, 2.25) and Asine (Xenophon, Hellenica 7.1.25), located in western Messenia, are in Lakonike. Even Skiritis, on the Arcadian border, was said to be in Lakonike (Thucydides, 5.33). Interestingly, the island of Kythera, despite being counted among the Lakedaimonian perioikoiis said to lie opposite Lakonike (Thucydides, 4.53), suggesting that Lakonike was restricted to the mainland. So, from the heart of the Eurotas valley to the Arcadian border, from the east coast of the Peloponnese to the west coast, all was Lakonike. 

Switching Laconia from Martin Hammond’s translation – Hammond is not the only translator to do this – with Lakonike, with an understanding of what Lakonike means, does change the meaning of the passage. Instead of making long journeys by foot or by ship to raid the region east of the Taygetos mountains, now the Messenians at Pylos could, conceivably, have raided closer to Pylos. This does not rule out raiding east of the Taygetos mountains, of course, but that being the only target of the Messenians makes much less sense. 

I hope this goes to show the importance of translating place names properly. Over time, names change their meaning, and can even mean different things to different people. Lakonike clearly had a different meaning to Thucydides than Laconia does to us today. 


Graham, ancient Greek is related to modern Greek in the same way modern Italian is related to Latin.

Paris was Trojan, so he wasn’t Greek…

Albert Julbe

Thanks. Is ancient similar to modern Greek? Why Paris ? which doesnt sound Greek at all

graham ward

Nice performance at STIVOS !

John Antonopoulos

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