The Kaiadas Cave: Legendary Spartan Pit of Death
The Spartans of ancient Greece were always known as fierce warriors and determined fighters. Much of what we know about them is related to their military history and equally militarized society. Many of their cultural traits were focused on physical and mental prowess, on athleticism, and on Spartan supremacy over other Greek city-states. Often enough, physical training and the introduction to their military mindset was encouraged from a very early age. But no society is perfect, each producing its particular form of outcast. For the Spartans, being a misfit was inexcusable. It is believed that many of their unwanted members of society were cruelly disposed of. This gave rise to the myth of the Kaiadas Cave, a deep cavern into which criminals, traitors, cowards, and unhealthy newborns were thrown. But is there truth to this legend? Archaeology and devoted research can provide us with the answer once again.
Archaeologists have used ancient texts to pinpoint the exact location of the Kaidas Cave, which has been identified in the slopes of Mount Taygetus, seen here in an image taken from the ruins of the Sanctuary of Menelaus and Helen in Sparta. (George E. Koronaios / CC0)
The Kaiadas Cave in Ancient Greece
One of the earliest historical mentions of this cave comes from the Greek writer Plutarch, who tells us that the Spartans cast their deformed, sickly, or unwanted infants into the depths of the Kaiadas cave. The writer informs us that due to the fact that such newborns were unfit to fulfill the ideal model of an adult Spartan, they were disposed of. An important insight into the validity of Plutarch’s claim is hidden in the etymology of the cavern’s name.
The first part of the name is Kai. In ancient Greek, the words Cai, Chai, or Caias, signified a house or a cave. This is similar to the word cava or cavea that the Romans used. Why did this word signify both a house and a cave? The explanation is simple. The ancient Greeks believed that the very first houses in the infancy of the world, were caves and grottoes.
- Spartan Soldier From Birth: Growing Up In A City of Warriors
- Sparta: An Ancient City of Fierce and Courageous Citizen Soldiers
- How the Spartan Arsenal Helped Make Them Some of The Deadliest Warriors of the Ancient World
The second part of the name comes from the Greek deity of the dead, the underworld, and the infernal regions, Hades. Many regional variations of the name existed, and one of the earliest attested forms of the name Hades was in fact Aides and Aida. Thus, Kaiadas, could roughly be translated as the “House of the Dead/Death” which gives us a insight into its original purpose.
Finding the exact location of this cave, while relying only on historical written sources that are centuries old, has certainly been a challenge. Nevertheless, scholars and archaeologists are certain that the currently agreed location of the cave is correct. All ancient writers placed the cave somewhere in the vicinity of Sparta, which as the first clue as to its location. But it was local folk tradition that pinpointed its location. Around the gorges and slopes of Mount Taygetos, close to the village of Trypi, a deep pit has been known by the name of Kaiadas for countless generations. Being in the historic vicinity of Sparta, and situated near the modern day Sparta-Kalamata road, it seemed to be a safe bet for researchers.
A major breakthrough happened when archaeologists took a peek into the gloomy depths of this hard-to-reach pit. The original discovery of the Kaiadas Cave was almost accidental. The owner of a nearby hotel informed archaeologists of the existence of a nearby cavernous pit, in which he claimed to have seen “great masses of bones.” The first photographs were taken not long after, when a researcher, with the assistance of local authorities, managed to climb down into the pit to see the piles of human bones for himself. The cave was filled with incredible numbers of almost exclusively human bones, so many that they were arranged in what has been described as stratified layers.
By breaking down the etymology of its name, Kaiadas Cave literally translates as “House of the Dead/Death.” The second part of the name comes from the name of Hades, the Greek deity of the underworld. (Public domain)
The Brutality of Ancient Greek Warfare
After these initial assessments, the researchers were given a green light to explore this cave even further. Thus, a professional team was assembled, with three persons at the helm: J. Ioannou was the chief speleologist, E. Kampouroglou the chief geologist, and Th. Pitsios as the lead anthropologist. All of them had previous experience in cave exploration. Their preliminary research only confirmed the initial assessment, that this was in fact the Kaiadas Cave of ancient Sparta, almost untouched all these centuries later.
Thus, the historic Kaiadas cave was finally discovered, close to the village of Trypi, at the entrance to the Langada gorge and just some 12 kilometers away from Sparta. However, one interesting fact emerged. Out of the numerous human bones discovered inside, almost none belonged to infants or children. Most, if not all, belonged to men between the ages of 18 and 35 years, a fact that placed a big question mark over the ancient claim of the Spartans’ barbaric disposal of newborns.
This issue is well explained by leading scholars of the subject, who argue that the Spartans perhaps never used the hole to dispose of newborns, a myth possibly spread around by their opponents, but instead used as a form of capital punishment. Into the pit they would hurl their traitors, cowards, criminals, and prisoners of war. Numerous pieces of evidence point to the fact that the Kaiadas Cave was actively used during the first two Messenian wars, in 8th, 7th, and 4th centuries BC. The great number of skeletons in it suggests that the Spartans threw captive Messenians into it, or perhaps disposed of corpses of the slain enemies. But certainly that is not the only source of bones within it.
A lot of what was ascribed to the Spartans was certainly true, and their practice of punishing malefactors and lowlifes in that way was well known to all. In fact, this cruel form of execution was greatly hated by Sparta’s enemies. One documented incident from around 430 BC claims that two Spartan envoys to Persia were intercepted en route and captured by Athenians. They were tried and killed without being allowed to defend themselves, and were at once thrown into a rocky chasm. It is also stated that the Athenians did this as a reprisal, avenging the captives slain by the Spartans in that same vicious manner.
The Spartans of ancient Greece have been remembered as fierce warriors and fighters, with a deeply militarized society. Their obsession with perfection and cruel punishments were recounted by the Greek philosopher Plutarch, who claimed that the Spartans cast their unwanted infants into the Kaiadas cave. (Vladyslav / Adobe Stock)
A Goatherd Stumbles Upon a Deathly Chasm
This fact is further proven by the recent discovery of numerous artifacts amongst the skeletons. These included many pottery fragments, pieces of iron chain links, ceramic lamps, and also a unique human skull with a bronze arrowhead embedded within it, which could prove that Kaiadas Cave was used for this malicious purpose even before the onset of the Iron Age. But even though this recent research has provided a crucial glimpse into the cave’s history, it is not the first time the cave was explored, or even discovered.
That privilege goes to one Olivier Rayet, a prominent French archaeologist and professor of the mid-to-late 1880s. Around 1879, a Greek goatherd stumbled upon an opening in the hills and observed the human remnants within. His discovery came to the attention of Rayet, who at the time was working in Greece as one of the leading French archaeologists specializing in ancient Greece.
Olivier Rayet thus examined the Kaiadas Cave in 1879. Following thorough exploration, he made a lengthy report, which was published in Paris in 1882 in La Poesie Alexandrine sous les trois Premiers Ptoelemees (and also published in English in 1931 as Alexandrian Poetry under the first Three Ptolemies). Today, this report is regarded as a crucial source of information on Kaiadas Cave and its early exploration. Following are some of the key remarks that Rayet made, guessing that it was in fact Kaiadas that he had explored:
“The Hamlet of Trypi is situated at the entrance to the gorge, at a considerable height, at its southern side…[...] On the top of this projecting rock [..] there is a hole to which the shepherds never paid any considerable attention, for formations of this kind are so frequent in these mountains. Some years ago [..] an earthquake caused some rocks to fall in, thus opening a second fissure. For a long time no one though of penetrating into it, and it is only about two years ago that a goatherd of Trypi had the idea of doing so. After climbing down about twelve meters he landed in a very high cavern, the uneven floor of which was covered with human bones. [The story] aroused my curiosity, and I myself penetrated into the cavern in September of 1879, on my way from Sparta to Calamata.
The first person on record as having explored the Kaiadas Cave, pictured here, was Olivier Rayet, a French archaeologist of the mid-to-late 1880s. (Christos Koudounis / CC BY-SA 4.0)
From below, the sky can be seen through the upper orifice, which looks very small and must be about forty meters above the bottom. [..] The floor of the cavern consists of a mass of human bones mingled with the soil, and upon it have fallen a few large masses of rock. How many skeletons are there? It is impossible to say, but there is a great number of them. The bones have become spongy and brittle, but a slight calcareous incrustation produced by the water which drips from the grotto walls has preserved them fairly well. All the skulls that I was able to pick up were those of very vigorous men who were still in their prime, to judge from the state of preservation of the teeth.
If a fire is lighted, similar bones can be seen on all the projections in the walls of the cave, from its top to its bottom. It is clear that the men whose remains we see here were thrown in through the upper aperture, that some of them remained hanging on the rough projections of the rock, while others fell to the bottom and were crushed. Was it not in similar fashion that the prisoners perished who were cast into the Caeadas?”
Aristomenes is known for having famously resisted the Spartans on Eira Mountain during the Second Messenian War. (Public domain)
Aristomenes: The King Who Fled the Dark of Kaiadas
This last sentence of Rayet’s report reveals that he was clearly aware of the myth of the Kaiadas Cave, and suspected that the cavern he had entered might very well be it. He also made a very important connection between the cave and the story of Aristomenes. Aristomenes was a legendary King of Messenia, who famously resisted the Spartans in the Second Messenian War, which lasted from 685 to 668 BC. For eleven years, Aristomenes held out on the Eira Mountain and made a daring escape in the end, just as the mountain fell to the enemy. Legend says that he was snatched by the Gods and led to safety, however, history tells us otherwise: he escaped and subsequently died at the island of Rhodes.
Nevertheless, one interesting story connects Aristomenes with the Kaiadas Cave. During his eleven-year holdout, it is said that he and fifty of his men were captured by the Spartans during a failed raid. They were all thrown into the chasm of Kaiadas, the pit into which criminals and prisoners were thrown. The story tells us that only Aristomenes managed to survive the fall and subsequently escape the cave rejoining his forces on the mountain.
While many fantastical legends explain how he escaped the pit, Olivier Rayet provided a more scholarly and reasonable explanation. By observing the openings in the cavern that he spotted, and also the one through which he entered, Rayet proposed that it was perhaps the same hole through which Aristomenes eloped: "[...] it is not easy to resist the temptation to believe that the aperture through which we have entered the cavern is the very hole through which Aristomenes made his escape, and that in course of time it has grown larger."
A Cruel Form of Capital Punishment
The grim and terrifying stories that Plutarch preserved for posterity were perhaps rather exaggerated. There simply is no evidence that proves that the Spartans were throwing undesired and unfit newborns into the Kaiadas Cave. If anything, the finds prove the opposite as the only bones discovered within were those of strong and adult males, probably warriors.
Plutarch’s stories might have served the purpose of demonizing the Spartans, or, perhaps even making them look tougher, stronger, and militaristic. Nevertheless, Kaiadas Cave is as real as can be. Both the chasm and the countless bodies of sentenced men have survived through many centuries, only to be rediscovered by chance. Nowadays, it serves as an important testament to the brutality of ancient times and the terrible fate that awaited those who were hurled within it!
Top image: Can the great piles of bones found in Kaiadas Cave in Greece help us separate fact from fiction in the legends of Kaiadas Cave? Source: Warpaintcobra / Adobe Stock
Hubert, J. 2013. Madness, Disability and Social Exclusion: The Archaeology and Anthropology of 'Difference'. Routledge.
Morritt, R. 2011. An Analysis of Ancient Mythology MDCCCVI by Jacob Bryantek. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Pritchett, K. W. 1965. Studies in Ancient Greek Topography. University of California Press.
Pritchett, K. W. 1974. The Greek State at War: Part V. University of California Press.
Unknown, 2012. Kaiadas. Archaeology Newsroom. Available at: https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/issue/kaiadas/