Some ancient Greek terms

NB: the definitions provided below are no more than the most probable (and schematic) definitions. Note also that some small variations of the meaning may exist when translating from one language into another.

1. Geographical descriptions

oikoumene (Latin: oecumene, mundus; FR: monde habité; GB: inhabited world): initially described as a circular island in the middle of an external ocean.
periêgêsis, periodos, periplous (Latin: periplus, descriptio; FR: périple; GB: round trip): designates a go-around tour with a detailed description, and ‘periplous’ being more devoted to sailing.
stadiasmos (Latin: stadiasmus; FR: stadiasme; GB: stadiasmus): description of the world based on an itinerary, usually along the coastline, on board a ship or on foot and mentioning distances (usually in stadia).

2. Harbours and mooring places

emporion (Latin: emporium, portus; FR: ville portuaire; GB: port of trade): maritime city with commercial port and trade facilities.
aigialos, aktè (Latin: acta, litus; FR: plage de halage; GB: beaching area) is a simple beach used for hauling ships on. Such a beach can be made of sand, shingle, or even rock. Thucydides (Pelop. War, 4, 26) used ‘katarsis’ and ‘prosbolè’ for a landing place. The Latin word ‘ripa‘ was used for what we might call a “beach market” where business was conducted on an urban beach without any port infrastructures (e.g., Vicus Lartidianus at Puteoli).
salos, episalos, ankyrobolion (Latin: statio navium; FR: mouillage peu profond sur rade ouverte; GB: shallow anchorage in open roadstead): shallow anchorage preferably on sandy bottom providing good holding for anchors, but with limited protection against waves and therefore of temporary use. The Latin word ‘statio’ seems to designate a secondary maritime customs office, among many other meanings.
limên (Latin: portus, statio navium; FR: rade, havre, abri, port; GB: roadstead, harbour, port): sheltered area where ships can load and unload in most weather conditions, with or without port facilities like quays. A good port will enable operations independently of wave and current conditions. Strabo (Geogr. 16, 2) also used ‘eulimenos’ for a good harbour at Laodicea and ‘euphuei limeni’ for a good harbour at Sidon. The word ‘panormos’ is used for a very good shelter and often used as a toponym. Strabo (Geogr. 14, 1 & 14, 6) also used ‘hyphormos’ for a landing place sheltered from only one wind direction.
hormos, lekanion (Latin: navaculum?; FR: darse, bassin portuaire; GB: harbour basin): enclosed area of water used for loading, unloading, building or repairing ships, with mooring facilities on a quay or on a mooring buoy. Procopius (Wars, 3, 20) first used the Late-Antique/Medieval term ‘mandrakion’ for the port complex of Carthage in the 6th c. AD.
epineion (Latin: portus; FR: avant-port; GB: fore-port): port disconnected from the city and used for war ships (e.g. Piraeus/Athens and Ostia/Rome).
naustathmon (Latin: portus, castra navalia; FR: base navale; GB: naval base, naval station): harbour, or harbour section, used mainly for war ships.
neôrion (pl. neôria) (Latin: navale, navalia; FR: arsenal, chantier naval; GB: dockyard, shipyard): place for ship building and repair, including a slipway where a ship can be hauled out of the water, and possibly a dry-dock in which a ship can be dried-out.
neôsoikos (pl. neôsoikoi), epistion (Latin: navale, navalia; FR: loge, hangar à bateau; GB: shipshed, boathouse): shed for sheltering a boat, usually built partly over water.
limên kleistos (pl. limenes kleistoi) (Latin: portus; FR: port fermé; GB: closed port): port whose access was restrained by a closing device (kleithron, pl. kleithra) (Arnaud, 2023), usually with a narrow entrance closable by means of doors and/or a chain, sometimes intra-muros and connected to the city.
kôthôn (Latin: cothon, cothonum; FR: cothon; GB: cothon): used since antiquity to refer to the circular port of Carthage. Elaborating on Festus’ definition[1], today’s specialists of harbour archaeology unduly associate this term to an excavated harbour-basin of any shape connected to the sea through a channel (Carayon, 2017). The term ‘kibotos‘ (chest, box), used in Alexandria, fits a quadrilateral shape. The Greek word for an excavated man-made harbour-basin is ‘oryktos‘.
lekanion, mandraki, hormos (Latin: navaculum?; FR: darse, bassin portuaire; GB: harbour basin): man-made harbour basin used for loading, unloading, building or repairing ships.
ichthyotrofeíon (Latin: piscina; FR: basin d’aquaculture; GB: artificial fish tank): used for breeding fish, usually a structure built out from the shoreline into the sea with hydraulic concrete, or cut into shoreline formations of soft bedrock (acc. to Oleson, 2014).
diorygma, diôrux cheiropoiêtos (Latin: fossa; FR: canal; GB: canal): man-made navigation canal.

3. Harbour structures

prokumia, prokymatia (Latin: moles, brachium; FR: brise-lames; GB: breakwater): massive structure built out into the sea to protect a port from wave attack: Flavius (Jewish War 1.412 & Jewish Ant. 15.334) describing the Caesarea mole, makes a distinction between the detached outer breakwater as a ‘prokumia’ and the main breakwater supporting the city wall, towers, warehouses and quays, as a ‘teichos’ (wall). The Latin word ‘munitio’ was found on an inscription (CIL X.1641 dated 139 AD) designating a embankment protecting the Puteoli arched breakwater. The Latin word ‘brachium’ stands for ‘arm’ and is used in ancient port descriptions to designate a mole with a curved plan-shape (typically at Portus). The word ‘mole’ is still used both in FR and GB by archaeologists for a massive structure separating two bodies of water, like a breakwater, a jetty or a causeway. A massive rubble mound built out into the sea is also called chôma. Appian (Libyca, 121) uses this word for Scipio’s rubble embankment at Carthage. However, the same Appian (Libyca, 123-124) also mentions a quay as a ‘chôma’ – ‘chômati’, and Strabo (Geogr. 5.4.6) describes the Puteoli arched moles as a ‘chômata’.
chôma, probolon, apobasis (Latin: crepido; FR: quai; GB: quay; US: dock): structure to load and unload ships that can be berthed and moored on only one side, usually made of blocks of stone or masonry. A tidal dock (FR: bassin à flot) is an enclosed basin where ships float at low water of the tide. A dry-dock (FR: forme de radoub) is an enclosed basin in which a ship can be dried-out for maintenance. To bring in a ship into the port to its allotted place for mooring, is to berth or to dock a ship (GB or US) (FR: accoster).
skala (Latin: scala; FR: appontement, débarcadère; GB: wharf, landing stage; US: pier, landing stage): structure to load and unload ships, usually on piles (e.g. finger pier).
sitônion (Latin: horreum (pl. horrea); FR: entrepôt; GB: warehouse): public warehouses used to store grain and many other types of consumables.
diolkos, olkos (Latin: clivus; FR: cale de halage; GB: slipway, ways): ramp sloping toward the water on which boats can be hauled in and out of the water with a windlass system (‘stropheion‘). The most famous one being the Diolkos of Corinth.

4. Harbour construction

symmagma? (Latin: caementa; FR: agrégats; GB: rubble aggregate): decimetre-sized chunks of rock (preferably Puteoli volcanic tuff, but possibly calcarenite) incorporated with mortar to form Roman concrete (Latin: rudus, opus caementicium).
telma (Latin: materia, arenatum, commixtione; FR: mortier de chaux; GB: lime mortar) is a mixture of lime (GR: chalix; Latin: calx; FR: chaux) and sand (GR: ammos; Latin: arena; FR: sable).
The Romans invented hydraulic concrete (FR: béton hydraulique, béton maritime) which is made by adding some activated aluminium silicates (pozzolana) to activate setting in wet condition, or underwater, and further protect hardened concrete from chemical attack, inducing an extraordinary longevity in seawater, not yet fully understood.
ammokonia, konis (Latin: puteolanus pulvis; FR: pouzzolane; GB: pozzolana) is a sandlike, pumiceous, incoherent volcanic ash, found in the Campi Flegrei volcanic district, near the city of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) (Oleson, 2014).
pila (Latin: pila; FR: bloc de béton; GB: block of concrete): large mass of concrete, often a cube or rectangular prism in shape which is poured into wooden formworks, possibly underwater.
kibôtion (Latin: arca; FR: coffrage, caisson; GB: formwork, caisson): structure, usually made of timber, into which concrete or similar materials are poured. The vertical piles placed on the outer walls of the caisson are called stipites, the piles placed inside the caisson are destinae and the horizontal tie-beams are catenae.
anachoma, gephyra? (Latin: arcae duplices, saeptio; FR: batardeau; GB: cofferdam): watertight structure, usually made of sheet piling, that encloses an area under water that can be pumped dry, in order to enable construction work to be carried out “in the dry”.


[1] Sextus Pompeius Festus (De verborum significatum, 3, 7) (2nd c. AD): “Cothones appellantur portus in mari interiores arte et manu facti” which does not refer to excavated basins but only to man-made basins. It is therefore suggested to use the word “kothon” only as a local nickname for the circular basin of Carthage.

Further reading

KOWALSKI, JM., 2012, “Navigation et Géographie dans l’antiquité Gréco-Romaine – La terre vue de la mer”, éd. Picard, Paris.

ARNAUD, P., 2023, “Closed or open ports: Technical solutions for a difficult compromise between an efficient traffic flow and security requirements in ancient ports. The limen kleistos and the kleithra (part one)”, in Archaeologia Maritima Mediterranea, An International Journal on Underwater Archaeology, 2023:20, (p 13-29).

ARNAUD, P., 2016, “Cities and Maritime Trade under the Roman Empire”, in “Connecting the Ancient World – Mediterranean Shipping, Maritime Networks and their Impact”, Christoph Schäfer (ed.), Pharos
Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike, Band 35, (p 117-173).

ARNAUD, P., 2016, “Entre mer et rivière : les ports fluvio-maritimes de Méditerranée ancienne”, Colloque ‘Les ports dans l’espace méditerranéen antique. Narbonne et les systèmes portuaires fluvio-lagunaires’, Espace Capdeville, Montpellier 22/23 mai 2014.

ARNAUD, P., 2015, “Inscriptions and port societies: evidence, “Analyse du discours”, silences, portscape …”, International Conference on Roman Port Societies through the evidence of inscriptions, organized by Pascal Arnaud and Simon Keay as part of the ERC Advanced Grant funded Rome’s Mediterranean Ports Project in conjunction with the British School at Rome, 29-30 January 2015.

BONNIER, A., 2008, “Epineia kai limenes: the relationship between harbours and cities in ancient greek texts”, Opuscula, 1, 2008, Stockholm.

CARAYON, N., 2017, ARNAUD, P., CASACUBERTA, N., KEAY, S., “Kothon, cothon et ports creusés”, MEFRA, 129/1, (p 255-266).

CASACUBERTA, N., 2018, “Limenes. The terminology of the Mediterranean ports of the Roman empire as documented in the literary sources”, PhD Thesis, University of Souithampton, Université Lton 2 Lumière, Vol 1 & Vol 2, (379 & 270 p).

OBIED, C., 2021, “Navigating Perceptions – Mariners and geographers of the Roman Levant”, in Under the Mediterranean I, Honor Frost Foundation, edt. Stella Demesticha & Lucy Blue, Sidestone Press, Leiden, (372 p).

OLESON, J., 2014, BRANDON, C., HOHLFELDER, R., JACKSON, M., “Building for Eternity – The history and Technology of Roman Concrete Engineering in the Sea”, Oxbow Books, (327 p).

OLESON, J., 1985, “Herod and Vitruvius: Preliminary Thoughts on Harbour Engineering at Sebastos; the Harbour of Caesarea Maritima”, BAR International Series 257, (p 165-172).

RITTER, M., 2021, “Naval bases, Arsenals, Aplekta: Logistics and Commands of the Byzantine Navy (7th-12th c.)”, in Seasides of Byzantium. Harbours and Anchorages of a Mediterranean Empire. Byzanz zwischen Orient und Okzident 21 (Mainz 2021).