While listening to Gibbon's 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' I came across the following in Chapter 53:

The spacious provinces of Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece, were obedient to their sceptre; the possession of Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete, was accompanied by the fifty islands of the Aegean or Holy Sea; and the remnant of their empire transcends the measure of the largest of the European kingdoms.

I am unfamiliar with the reference to the Aegean Sea as the Holy Sea, and I tried investigating. I thought there could be a reference to the Greek or Latin etymology of the word, but an investigation of the word root notes that we don't know the derivation. Furthermore, Wikipedia notes that the sea used to be called the Archipelago by most of the people around it.

Hence, where does Gibbon's reference to the "Holy Sea" come from?

  • 1
    Maybe this here. But there's precious few other results on Google, so take it with a fistful of salt. Jul 5, 2017 at 8:09
  • @DenisdeBernardy: Interesting. However, that would rather mean all seas are "holy", no? I don't read Gibbon as meaning that though it is possible. Perhaps the Aegean would be the one by virtue of having the first position of the seas, and hence the home of the Titans? However, that book itself looks like a gem!
    – gktscrk
    Jul 5, 2017 at 8:18
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    By orthodox Greek belief,as taught in Greek schools, Aigaion (ΑΙΓΑΙΟΝ ΠΕΛΑΓΟΣ) comes from king Aigeus (ΑΙΓΕΥΣ) the father of Theseus. I don't see why a drift from A to AI and to the the wrong pneuma (spiritus) should occur. On top of that, the ending AION is nicely consistent with EYΣ, but it would be a stretch to connect it to ΑΓΙΟΝ. It seems more than fishy to me.
    – Ludi
    Jul 5, 2017 at 10:31

1 Answer 1


There are different approaches to explain the etymology of "αἰγαῖος πόντος / αἰγαῖον πέλαγος" (aigaios pontos / aigaion pelagos) as enumerated in the wikipedia entry on "Aegean Sea", e.g. αἶγες – aiges = "waves" and Αἰγεύς (Aigeús) as eponyms (see Ludi's comment above).

Gibbon (see note 13 in ch. 53) seems to offer an alternative explanation, based on the "similarity" between αἰγαῖος πόντος / αἰγαῖον πέλαγος and ἁγίος πόντος, thus "leading" to the medieval term archipelago(s) for the Aegean Sea. After a quick search, I wasn't able to find any other source for that etymological approach. Additionally, Gibbon's approach seems to presuppose the existence of orthodox monasteries around the Aegean sea, e.g. on Mount Athos, thus suggesting a specifically Christian connotation of "holiness", without roots in one of the antique cultures in Greece / Asia Minor. This isn't surprising since in the 53rd chapter, Gibbon writes about the 10th century CE. Maybe there are Byzantine sources for "holy sea", but I didn't know any. Google returns a myriad of hits where "holy sea" instead of "Holy See" is used (typos etc)...

  • Or, maybe it's just the obvious pun between "holy sea" and "Holy See":. Jun 4, 2020 at 10:21

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