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Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse$

Ian Boxall

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199674206

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199674206.001.0001

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(p.232) Appendix 2 The ‘Pre-Johannine’ Reception: Patmos in Classical Sources and Inscriptions

(p.232) Appendix 2 The ‘Pre-Johannine’ Reception: Patmos in Classical Sources and Inscriptions

Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse
Oxford University Press

There are only three references to Patmos in surviving classical writings prior to Revelation. In his History of the Peloponnesian War 3.33.3, Thucydides (c.460—c.395 BCE) mentions Patmos in passing while relating events of 428–427 BCE. The Paralus and Salaminia are Athenian naval vessels, while the ‘enemy fleet’ is that of the Spartans:

And now the Paralus and the Salaminia arrived with the news that they had seen the enemy fleet at Clarus. Paches, therefore, immediately set out in pursuit and went after them as far as the island of Patmos [μεʹχρι μὲν Πάτμου τη̑ϛ νήσου‎].1

The Greek historian and geographer Strabo (63/63 BCE–CE 24), in his Geography 10.5.13, locates Patmos in relation to surrounding Aegean islands:

Nearby [to Leros] are both Patmos and the Corassiae [πλησίον δ᾽εστί καί ἡ Πάτμοϛ καί Κορασσίαι‎]; they are situated to the west of Icaria, and Icaria to the west of Samos. Now Icaria is deserted, though it has pastures, which are used by the Samians. But although it is such an isle as it is, still it is famous, and after it is named the sea that lies in front of it, in which are itself and Samos and Cos and the islands just mentioned – the Corossiae and Patmos and Leros.2

The third passage comes from Pliny the Elder (CE 23–79), in the section of his Natural History where he describes the various islands of the Sporades:

After these [first group of Sporades] no regular order can be kept, so the remaining islands shall be given in a group: Scyro; Nio, 18 miles from Naxos, venerable as the burial-place of Homer, 22 miles long, previously called Phoenice; Odia; Oletandros; Gioura, with a town of the same name, 15 miles in circumference, 62 miles distant from Andros; 80 miles from Gioura, Syrnos; Cynethus; Telos, noted for its unguent, and called by Callimachus Agathusa; Donusa; Patmos, 30 miles in circumference [Patmos, circuitu triginta millia passuum]…3

However, there is also relevant archaeological and inscriptional evidence to inform an otherwise fragmentary picture of the island in John’s day.4 Excavations on the island, particularly in the vicinity of the Ὄροϛ του̑ Καστελλίου‎ together with potsherds discovered in the area, attest to the almost continuous habitation of Patmos from the Middle Bronze Age to the Roman period, with fortifications constructed in the (p.233) Hellenistic period.5 The latter are probably related to the influence of the mainland city of Miletus, for which a number of the local islands including Patmos functioned as ϕρούρια‎ or ‘fortress islands’.6

More significant are three inscriptions from the later Roman period. The first, a decree in honour of a certain Hegemandros, testifies to the significant population on the island in the 2nd century BCE (according to Saffrey, post-183 BCE).7 It refers to a gymnasium, of which Hegemandros has been head seven times, associations of torch-runners (τω̑ν λαμπαδιστω̑ν‎) and athletic oil-users (μετεχόντων του̑ ἁλείμματοϛ‎), and Hegemandros’s donation of a stone statue of Hermes.8 The impression, at least for Patmos two centuries before John, is hardly of a cultural backwater.9

The remaining inscriptions testify to the association of Patmos with the cult of the goddess Artemis, continuing beyond John’s time. The second (undated) example is a brief dedication on a white marble altar to Artemis under her local title of Artemis Patmia: [᾽Α]ρτέμιδι Πατμ[ίᾳ]‎.10

A third inscription, preserved in the monastery and dated to the 2nd century CE, is an honorary inscription in elegiacs to the priestess of Artemis on the island, the ὑδροϕόροϛ‎ Vera, daughter of the physician Glaukios. This describes Patmos (or Πάτνοϛ‎ as this inscription prefers)11 as ‘the most illustrious island of the daughter of Leto’ (νῆσσος ἀγαυοτάτη Λητωΐδος‎), pointing to a significant ‘pre-history’ in which John’s visionary island was celebrated as an island sacred to Artemis.12 The inscription attributes the establishment of the cult of Artemis on Patmos, named here as Artemis Scythia, to Orestes, son of Agamemnon, in recompense for his sin of matricide.13 This seems to offer a Patmian variant of the Orestes myth as found in Euripides, whereby Orestes overcame his crime by recovering from barbarians in Tauria a sacred statue of Artemis, believed to have fallen from heaven. The Patmos inscription apparently claims that this sacred statue was brought, not to Athens, but to Artemis’s own island of Patmos.

In the transcription in Guérin, there is an explicit reference to her temple on Patmos: [ἐν]αὐλαι̑ς ᾽ΑρτεʹμιδοςΣκυθίης‎.14 The reading preferred by Saffrey, and McCabe and Plunkett, βουλαι̑ϛ ̕Αρτεʹμιδοϛ Σκυθίηϛ‎, has Vera return to Patmos, the island of her birth, by the ‘will of Artemis Scythia’. Nevertheless the reference to a significant cult statue, a priestess, and an altar beside which Vera offers the traditional (p.234) Artemisian sacrifice of young goats, is sufficient evidence for a thriving temple in this period. This inscriptional evidence fits with much later traditions, which claim that Christodoulos constructed the monastery on the site of the temple of Artemis, destroying the cult statue in the process.

This inscriptional evidence strongly suggests that accounts of John’s Patmos as an isolated penal colony or cultural backwater are historically implausible.


(1) English translation from Thucydides 1972: 210; Greek text cited in Guérin 1856: 1.

(2) Translation from Strabo 1941: 173; Greek text cited in Guérin 1856: 2.

(3) Translation from Pliny 1947: 169; Latin cited in Guérin 1856: 2.

(4) E.g. Pace 1914: 370–2; Manganaro 1965:293–349.

(5) Hope Simpson and Lazenby 1970: 48–51; Saffrey 1975; Stone 1981: 5; Boxall 2010; McGilchrist 2010: 143.

(6) Greaves 2002: 3–4. The others were Leipsoi (Lipsi) and Leros.

(7) Inscription 001 in McCabe and Plunkett 1985; Saffrey 1975: 394–5.

(8) See discussion by Saffrey 1975: 393–7, and Haussoullier 1902: 138–40.

(9) For a novel which offers an imaginative reconstruction of Patmos emphasizing its significant culture and its connectivity with the Asian mainland, see McCook 1911.

(10) Inscription 003 in McCabe and Plunkett 1985. On the basis of this inscription, Saffrey suggests that Patmos claimed to be the location of Artemis’s birth: Saffrey 1975: 407–10.

(11) The name Patmos is also found on a marble inscription Guérin saw on a marble plaque at the entrance to the monastery library on Patmos: ἔκτροϕόϛ ἐστι Πάτνοϛ νη̑σοϛ‎ (Guérin 1856: 4).

(12) Inscription 004 in McCabe and Plunkett 1985; see Haussoullier 1902: 140; Saffrey 1975: 399–407. Guérin, following Ross, has the reading ἀ[μ]αυροτάτη‎, ‘most gloomy’ or ‘most dim’: Guérin 1856: 58.

(13) Guérin 1856: 17.

(14) Guérin 1856: 59.