Final Analysis of the Location of the River Astræus
previous paper (1), presented on the pages of The American Fly Fisher, we
reviewed literature published to date about the possible present-day rivers
that might be the Astræus, a river where fly fishing was recorded for the
first time by Ælian, Roman author (2). The choice of possible rivers was
reduced to just two: the Koutichas and the Arapitsas – rivers in Northern
Greece near the city of Naousa, some 70 km from Thessalonica. It is, of
course, impossible to be completely confident in this issue, since the data
about it are scarce and unreliable, but this time we will try to further
investigate the problem from various angles and give some answers.
described the position of the Astræus as “Between Berœa (3) and
Thessalonica”. However, just by looking at the map it is obvious that the
direct line between Thessalonica and Veria does not cross a river where fly
fishing for trout was possible. There are three rivers there: the Gallikos,
known in ancient times as the
Echedorus (4), the Axios and the Loudias
(Map 1). They are slow moving muddy lowland rivers (the Loudias is actually
a canal), which never supported trout. This fact alone would be enough to
discard them as possible candidates for the Astræus, but there is more
evidence to confirm that theory. First of all is that in Ælian’s time
(170-230 A.D.) those rivers were already well known under their names. The
Axios was mentioned by Herodotus (5), Strabo (6), Plinius Secundus (7),
Apollodorus (8) and Ptolemy (9). The Loudias (10) was also mentioned by
Herodotus and Strabo, while Echedorus was known from Strabo and Greek
mythology (11), as a river visited by Heracles.
Contemporary situation in the area. Numbered rivers are: 1.Gallikos, 2.
Axios, 3. Loudias, 4. Haliacmon, 5. Regional Canal, 6. Arapitsas, 7.
There is one more river in the area also mentioned as possible Astræus
candidate – the
Haliacmon (12), the longest river of Greece, which
drains its waters in the sea not far from Veria. Considering that in its
upper reaches this river does support trout it was assumed that it might be
the Astræus candidate, although it does not exactly cross the Thessalonica –
Veria line. However, this river was also mentioned under that name in the
Herodotus, Strabo, and Plinius Secundus. Works of those authors were well
known to Ælian. Some were regarded as his direct sources of information and
it is very possible to assume that Ælian would have used their names if one
of these rivers was the one where he described fly fishing for the first
time. What is more, Axios (13) and
Haliacmon (14) were also well known as river gods in the Greek mythology,
which further reduces the odds that either of them was the Astræus.
The mere fact that above mentioned rivers do not support trout would be good
enough reason to reject them as the Astræus candidates for a fly fisherman.
It seems that among professional historians there were no fly fishermen
willing to investigate the issue. So, a contact with professor Borza (15),
the great authority on Macedonian history yielded an answer that
“Ælian may have made an error, confusing the Astræus with the Axios”. With
all due respect to professor Borza, who very kindly responded to our
questions, we do not hold the view that the Astræus was the Axios, which is
why we went so much into details in the previous text. Our opinion is that
none of the above mentioned rivers are serious candidates for the Astræus,
not only from the literature but also from the visit to the area and direct
Hammond’s paper and its effects
In recent years the search for the Astræus was initiated by the short but
very comprehensive paper written by Hammond (16). This paper had a strong
influence on most recent texts published, including the one we wrote.
Apparently it solved the problem, giving that one river, the Arapitsas, was
directly denoted as the Astræus. However, the text itself held some
inaccuracies and assumptions which led scientists to consider
“his attempt to locate the Astræus speculative”
although the majority of the information in his paper was correct, made some
unintentional errors, which possibly led to the opinion that his conclusions
were speculative. A significant problem was a controversy about the Scirtus
river, which he wrote was flowing through Edessa, an old Macedonian city,
not far from Veria and Thessalonica. That river was also regarded as the
Astræus candidate, but it was rejected both by Hammond and us on the basis
that “in Ælian’s time this river was known with that name”. The river was
identified in a text by Procopius (18), where it was written that “the
Scirtus River flooded Edessa, creating countless sufferings among the
inhabitants”. However, that river was flooding another place in Mesopotamia,
also called Edessa. That other Edessa was placed between the Euphrates and
Tigris rivers, and the river Scirtus (“leaping river” in Greek) was flowing
through it (19). It was
founded as a military settlement by Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great's
generals. Today the city is in Turkey, it is called Sanli Urfa
and the river’s modern name is the Daisan. Procopius referred to the
Mesopotamian Edessa and there are other written documents about the great
flood that happened there in 201 A.D. (20).
All this leaves
us with the question: what was the name of the river that flows through
Macedonian Edessa? Today its name is the Edhessaios or the Vodas, but we do
not have evidence that this river was also called Scirtus in ancient times.
Considering that this river is in a wider area for the Astræus candidates,
we now cannot say that it can be rejected on the basis that its name was
known in Ælian’s time. Nowadays it is a river rich in clear water, that
starts from many springs at the lake of Nisos and which flows through Edessa
divided in many branches, finally finding its way out to the plain, failing
from a height of 70 meters and creating the famous waterfalls of Edessa.
Such a waterfalls could have been a prominent feature to identify the river,
had they existed in Ælian’s time, but it seems they did not. Until the end
of the 14th century the main volume of the water was held in a small lake in
the west of the town. Then the waters, perhaps after a geological
phenomenon, started to flow through the town, creating many small rivers and
waterfalls. At the same time the small lake disappeared (21). Through an
analysis of the available data and his own observations Cvijic (22)
explained the process in detail. There were three phases in the development
of the waterfalls of Edessa: 1. until the 12th century the river
flew below the ground (which is common in limestone formations), 2. from 12th
to 14th century the water was accumulated in the lake above
Edessa, and 3. after that the waterfalls were created. This helps us to
discard the Edhessaios as the Astræus candidate, not because it had
different name in the past, but in view of the fact that the river was not
there in Ælian’s time.
controversy was created by map that covered part of Macedonia published in
Hammond’s paper (16). For easy reference we are presenting a section of the
map (Map 2), which was published in Hammond’s book: “The Genius of Alexander
the Great” (17) . Effectually the author assumed that the Astræus was a
tributary of Haliacmon. We will quote Hammond’s original text:
“…the Astræus entered the
Haliacmon in the time of Herodotus… As regards recent times, a map of 1928
showed in the centre of the plain a large lake (that of Yannitsa) into which
all the waters flowing from the western foothills found their way through
swamps. Thereafter the lake was drained and a “Regional Channel” was made to
carry the waters from the western foothills not into the plain, but into the
Because the channel follows the natural lie of the land, it is
probably the line of the ancient Astræus. That is where I showed the course
of the Astræus in my Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity
(London 1991) map 12 and in The Miracle That Was Macedonia (London
1991) fig. 2.“ (16)
Hammond's map with the Astraeus
as the Haliacmon tributary
This text gave us proof to place the Astræus as the Haliacmon tributary in
the reconstructed pictures given in our previous TAFF article on the
subject. However, further study of the problem and visit to the area showed
that the situation was somewhat different. The natural position of the land
in that area never allowed the Haliacmon tributary in the place where it was
shown on Map 2. In other words, the Regional Channel did not “follow
the natural lie of the land”.
Between the Haliacmon and Veria there is an area of higher ground, formed by
eastern slopes of Vermion Mountain, which prevented rivers that flow into
present day Regional Channel to enter the Haliacmon. They all flew into the
lake near Pella (the
Lake) and surrounding swamps. It was shown on various old maps, and possibly
the best example was shown on Map 3, based on a chart published by Cvijic
(22). That work, possibly the most comprehensive book ever published about
geology and geography of Macedonia, clearly showed that at the beginning of
20th century the Haliacmon had no tributaries from the eastern
slopes of Mt. Vermion. Based on this information we can conclude that in
antiquity essentially the same situation existed, although the size of the
lake and swamps and courses of some rivers varied to some extent. This means
that the Astræus never crossed the imaginary line “Between Berœa and
Thessalonica”, and certainly not in Ælian’s time.
Translated Cvijic's map which shows the situation in 1906
Considering that the three rivers which flow directly between
Veria and Thessalonica are as far from trout fly fishing river as can be
imagined, we assumed that we have to look for suitable trout rivers close to
Veria. Such rivers have high oxygen content, which in this part of Europe
means that they are flowing from the mountain. Trout can be found in Greece
at altitudes of over 300 meters above sea level. The mountain closest to
Veria is the Mt. Vermion. Veria itself is lying on its lower slopes and it
was logical to look among the rivers that flow there. The choice was also
restricted to the rivers suitable for the ancient fly fishing style
portrayed by Ælian.
research we did for the previous article (1) it was clear that there are two
genuine Astræus candidates: the Koutichas and the Arapitsas. Investigation
on the ground showed that the Koutichas is a very small rivulet, too small
to be serious Astræus candidate (Picture 1). Its rather small and narrow
valley also showed that this was never bigger river. However, the Arapitsas
(which in Greek means “The Little Black River”), appeared just as the right
kind of stream (Pictures 2 & 3). It is obviously a trout river closest to
Veria. The Arapitsas is rising from a spring located under a limestone cliff
in Agios Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas), a park of nature, some 2 km from
Naousa and 20 km from Veria (Map 4). Until Naousa it flows in the east-west
direction and than changes its course to the north-western direction,
flowing through village of Lefkadia and not far from Kopanos in the lowland
Macedonian Plain. After that its waters join the Regional Channel. In Naousa
the river forms well known waterfalls. It is a clear and sparkling river
that supports trout in most of its flow. Fishing is forbidden there, but
there are several trout farms not far from its spring, which clearly shows
that this river has a suitable habitat. (Pictures 1-5)
2 : The spring of the Little Black River
The calm Arapitsas in Agios Nikolaos
The Arapitsas rapids in Agios Nikolaos
Picture 5. The Arapitsas below
Naousa near Aristotle's School
conclusion we can say that the Arapitsas is positioned in the area where
Astræus may be expected, and that it certainly was a trout river in the
past. But also this river is perfectly suited to the type of fly fishing
described by Ælian, and without doubt the same situation was in his time.
Ælian described fly fishing with a six feet rod and line. From our previous
investigation of traditional fly fishing we knew that this form of fly
fishing is still possible to see on some rivers on the Balkans (Picture 5).
Observation of these fishermen helped us a lot in this investigation. It was
very helpful to see what type of water they prefer and generally how they
fish. The six feet is a very short rod, but on the right type of water it is
possible to successfully fly fish with it. This is why these fishermen
prefer small to medium sized rivers with fast and broken water. The Arapitsa
is perfectly suited for that ancient fly fishing style, better than any
other river in the described area.
Contemporary situation in Naousa with the surrounding area. Numbered places
are: 1. Agios Nikolaos, 2. School of Aristotle, 3. ancient theatre, 4.
Was it possible that a story about fishing on such a comparatively small
river reached Ælian, who lived in distant Rome and never traveled much? From
the archaeological investigations and excavations it is obvious that certain
important localities existed on the banks of the Arapitsas. A number of
Macedonian tombs (tombs of the Palmettes and tomb of "Krisis" at Kopanos,
also tomb of Lyson and Kallikles at Lefkadia) were discovered on the lower
part of the river (23, 24). Also the ancient theatre at Kopanos with the
capacity estimated at 1500 visitors is located there. Quite close to the
river, the remnants of a Roman mansion with mosaic floors were discovered.
Still, much more important site was placed on the Arapitsas banks – the
School of Aristotle (Picture 6), about which at the official presentation of
Greek Ministry of Culture (25) was written the following text:
The Sanctuary of the Nymphs
lies in a magnificent landscape, rich in water and vegetation, at the site
called Isvoria, in the vicinity of Naousa. Shortly after the middle of the
4th century B.C., the whole area was properly arranged to house the School
where the famous philosopher Aristotle gave lessons of Philosophy, Arts and
Mathematics to young
Alexander, son of the
Macedonian king. In an area between two natural caves, the rock was carved
in a rectangle and an Ionic colonnade was added to form a roofed, L-shaped
Aristotle's School at Isvoria
is positioned on the left bank of the Arapitsas, near one spring about 3 km
from Naousa. In that part the river enters the Macedonian Plain and flows
through lush fruit plantations. The area is famous with its vineyards and
peach production. The water of the river is still clear and bright and it is
very likely that it supports trout even in such a lowland location. The fact
that from the age 13 to 16 Alexander actually lived on the Arapitsas bank
certainly has significance, everything connected to that great Macedonian
monarch, considered by many as the most charismatic and heroic king of all
times – became a legend. Hence, we can assume that the river that flew by
his school was certainly quite famous in classical times. It pushes our
imagination further – the Alexander’s age, while he was there, was just
right for him to try fishing. There is no evidence whatsoever about that,
but wouldn’t it be the most normal thing that a boy of 13 is interested in
basis of our research and visit to the area, the Arapitsas appears to be the
most serious candidate for the Astræus. The following reasons led us to this
conclusion: 1. it is a trout river, rather close to Veria, 2. it is suited
to the fly fishing style described by Ælian, 3. it was significant river in
ancient times. Although, as can be seen from our text, we disagree with
Hammond in certain details, we essentially agree with him in general
conclusion that, if Ælian’s location of the Astræus was correct, the
Arapitsa was almost certainly that river. The river is somewhat changed with
human activity. There are several trout farms on the first section of its
flow and part of the river was captured for water supply directly on the
spring. In the remaining river the native brown trout was replaced with
imported rainbow trout. But the Astræus is still there and everyone
interested may go and visit it.
Picture 7. Traditional fly fishing with a short hazel rod
(1) Goran Grubic and Andrew Herd (2001) The American
Fly Fisher. Fall 2001, Volume 27, number 4, pages 16-22. Link:
(2) Claudius Ælianus, De natura
Animalium, Vol XV, 1. Ed. A.F. Scholfield, Loeb Classical Library,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1972 p 203-4. Link:
History of ancient Via Egnatia
(5) Herodotus, The Histories, 7.123.
(6) Strabo; Geographica, 7.ffr.21.
(7) Plinius Secundus, Book IV of the Historia Naturalis
(8) Apollodorus, The Library, E.4.4.
(9) Ptolemy, Geography
(10) In ancient times written as Lydias
Greek Mythology Link: Heracles 1.
(12) Also known as the Aliakmon
Homer, The Iliad. 21.140.
Hesiod, Theogony, 341.
N. Borza, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History, The Pennsylvania State
University – personal communication 26th November 2001.
(16) Nicholas G.L. Hammond, The Location of the
Trout-River Astræus. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 1995, 36. 2. p.
(1997) The University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill.
Procopius: Secret History, 17, translated by Richard Atwater, (Chicago: P.
Covici, 1927; New York: Covici Friede, 1927), reprinted, Ann Arbor, MI:
University of Michigan Press, 1961
Alexander Mirkovic, 1999, Edessa - Parthian Period.
archive from Edessa recording the great flood of November 201 AD. From a
Syriac text found in 'An Aramaic Handbook' Part II/1 Franz Rosenthal, 
page 23 ff. translated by Steven Ring, March 19th 2000, Bristol, UK.
waterfalls of Edessa – History.
Cvijic (1906) The Basis for the
Geography and Geology of Macedonia and Old Serbia [Osnove za geografiju i
geologiju Makedonije i Stare Srbije]. Reprinted in 1995 by Serbian
Academy of Sciences and Arts. Belgrade. Vol. 1. page. 325.
Jovan Cvijic, ibid. Maps on pages: 369
(Vol. 1 ), 144 and 208 (Vol. 2)
Topography of 'Macedonian Tombs'.
(25) Nymphaion - Aristotle's School at Isvoria