Special Feature:
Astraeus origins - TAFF

by Goran Grubic and Andrew Herd

This paper originally appeared in The American Fly Fisher, Fall 2001, Volume 27, number 4, pages 16-22.

We reproduce it here for readers who haven't yet subscribed to the journal.

(ll. 375-377) And Eurybia, bright goddess, was joined in love to Crius and bare great Astræus, and Pallas, and Perses who also was eminent among all men in wisdom.

(ll. 378-382) And Eos bare to Astræus the strong-hearted winds, brightening Zephyrus, and Boreas, headlong in his course, and Notus,- a goddess mating in love with a god. And after these Erigenia bare the star Eosphorus, and the gleaming stars with which heaven is crowned.


n his book De Natura Animalium, Claudius Ælianus (170-230 A.D.), often called Ælian, mentioned fly fishing for trout for the first time [1]. He explained that it was practiced on the river Astræus in Macedonia; a Roman province at the time. The only clue to the river's position was that it was "Between Berœa [2] and Thessalonica." During the past few decades there have been many attempts to identify which modern river can claim to be Ælian's Astræus, but this research has been difficult and from a reading of published work it is still not clear which river it might be. This is our attempt to summarize the literature to date and to bring more light to the subject.

The name Astræus in Greek mythology

The river Astræus probably got its name from Greek mythology. One candidate is the mythical god called Astræus, a son of a king Hippotes. His other name was Aeolus, and his wife was Eos, the goddess of dawn. By him she bore the stars and the winds: Notus, the south wind; Boreas, the north wind; Euras, the east wind; and Zephyr or Zephyrus, the west wind [3].

However, the most probable explanation was given by Hammond , who wrote that the name Astræus originated from the name of the nymph Astræa who was the protector of river headsprings that are common in limestone karst formations [4]. She was one of Naiads, one of the nymphs of flowing water. Astræa ("the star-maiden") was the daughter of Zeus and Themis. She was, as was her mother, a goddess of justice and she was selected as the nurse of the lady Beroe, the patroness of Berœa. Key features of this myth fall within the area denoted by Ælian: near the city of Berœa.

Theories about the Astræus location.

There are several theories about the modern location of the Astræus, but before we begin it should be mentioned that there was both an area of ancient Macedonia called Astræa and a city of Astraeum (and possibly there were two separate locations with the same name). It is usually assumed that those places were in Poeonia near the present city of Strumica, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. From this information it is tempting to conclude that the modern day river Strumica, which flows through the area, was the Astræus. However, that river had a different name in Ælian’s time - it was known as the Pontus (Findlay map, 1849) and therefore it is almost certain that it was not the Astræus [5].

A second theory was given briefly and without references by Jardine [6]. He identified Berœa as Stara Zagora, which today is in the Republic of Bulgaria, and explained that the Astræus was probably a river on Rodopi Mountain massif in south Bulgaria. Possible sources for Jardine’s theory are the “Atlas of the Roman World” by Cornell and Matthews [7] or Encyclopedia Britannica [8] where Stara Zagora is mentioned as a place formerly called Beroea. It is worth mentioning that on Findlay’s historical map yet another place called Berœa can be found in an area which is a part of modern Bulgaria, but this is far from Stara Zagora and both places are very distant from Thessalonica (Stara Zagora, for example is more than 300 km away). Jardine’s Berœa was in fact an ancient Thracian, rather than Macedonian settlement that in Roman times became Augusta Trajana and was subsequently called Irenopolis by the Byzantines. There is also no evidence that there was ever a river named the Astræus in this area. On the basis that it is improbable that Ælian would have located a river by naming two places separated by several hundred kilometers, Jardine’s theory doesn't seem very likely, although there are many streams in the Rodopi Mountains which support trout.

It is interesting to note that according to Cornell and Matthews and Encyclopedia Britannica , there a fourth place with a claim to the ancient name Berœa; the city of Aleppo (Halab) in Syria. Fortunately it is about 1350 km from Thessalonica and it is our most fervent hope that Ælian did not mean this Berœa in his text [9].

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Picture 1. Findlay’s historical map shows everything almost where it was in ancient times, although exact sites for many of those places have not yet been discovered (Finldlay, 1849). Click on the image to view a larger reproduction.

A third theory was set out by Hammond, a great authority on the history of ancient Macedonia, and probably the first writer to connect river's name with Greek mythology. He suggested that Ælian's Astræus is the river known today as the Arapitsas, which is a tributary of the Regional Canal that flows to the river Haliacmon (Aliákmon) [10]. In its favour, this river is roughly in the area between Berœa and Thessalonica, it has a trout population, and it starts from headsprings in the limestone slopes of Mountain Bermium (Vérmion). Hammond expressed his opinion that the foothills of Mt Bermium to the north and south were probably the original area named Astræa. He explained that as far as the previously mentioned Astræa in Poeonia was concerned "the name seems to have been taken by the Macedonians who were transplanted from that area in the homeland." That theory was supported by the investigation accomplished by Voljc [11].

In his short, but very comprehensive paper Hammond rejected two earlier theories about the identity of the Astræus: that it was either the Axios or the Aliákmon rivers [12]. Both rivers are in the area discussed by Ælian, but the Axios is a large river and bore the same name in ancient times. Furthermore, the Axios between Berœa and Thessalonika could not have been a trout stream in Roman times; although in its upper, higher reaches, some 200 km further inland, it probably was, and many of its tributaries are still trout rivers. The Aliákmon, on the other hand, is a lovely trout stream and cannot be rejected completely, although it flows southwards from the Berœa and could not be said to be exactly between Berœa and Thessalonica. We believe that Hammond’s views are correct and do not treat the rivers Axios and Aliákmon as possible candidates for the Astræus.

A fourth theory was put forward by Martin [13], who was involved in the investigation chronicled by Voljc. Martin was not convinced that it is possible to identify the exact river clearly, although he suggested that it might be the river presently known as the Edhessaíos, on the basis of an 1829 map. This theory seems unlikely, as in Ælian’s time this river was known as the Scirtus and there is no compelling reason why he should not have known of it, not least because of the problems it caused with its periodic flooding of the Via Egnatia, of which more later.

In yet a fifth theory Conrad Voss Bark [14] and Frederick Buller [15] agree that the Astræus is today the river Koutichas (Koutícha) a smaller tributary of the Regional Canal, further south from the Edhessaíos and Arapitsas. According to Voljc, the Koutichas is too small to be of any importance, but in its favour it was the closest river to Berœa (apart from a very small brook which flows directly through the city) which drained into the Aliákmon during Ælian’s time.

In summary, the most credible of these theories suggest that the Astræus is part of today’s Moglenítsas - Regional Canal system. Our own view is that identifying the exact location of the river is difficult today, but that it is most likely that the watercourse Ælian knew as the Astræus is part of, or flows into, the Regional Canal.

The game of names

By now readers will realize that much has changed in the Balkans over the last two thousand years and some further background information may be helpful before we dig deeper into the condundrum of where the river is today. During the passage of time three different types of changes have happened in the Astræus area: demographic changes; changes in toponyms; and physical change in the geography of the area.

From about 700 BC the area around the Aliákmon River was the home of Macedonians; then in 146 BC, three hundred years before Ælian was born, Macedonia became a Roman province. For administrative reasons, around AD 400 it was divided into the provinces of Macedonia and Macedonia secunda, within the district of Moesia. In line with the Roman policy of interfering as little as possible with the day to day life of areas which they had conquered, the ancient names of the towns and rivers remained reasonably constant while the Roman Empire endured. However, from about the 6th century, Slavic tribes from the north invaded the area and many toponyms were “Slavicized”. After this first period, Macedonia fell under the control of the first Bulgarian empire in the 9th century, which brought more change. During the Middle Ages parts of it were variously ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the second Bulgarian empire, and the Serbian empire, although Slavic names remained through the most of that period. During the Ottoman rule (which lasted from 14th to 19th century), Slavic names were mixed with Turkish ones. Finally, with the rise of modern Greece (Greek independence was formally recognized in 1832) the toponyms we use today started to reappear; phoenix-like. Sadly, although many ancient names are back in modern usage, Astræus is not one of them.

Table 1. Changes in the toponyms over time
Antic Slavic Turkish Modern
Berœa Ber Karaferia Véroia
Edessa Voden Vodina Édhessa
Haliacmon Bistrica Vistrica Aliákmon
Axios Vardar Vardar Axios
Loudias Bistrica Meglenca Moglenítsas
Scirtus Vodenka Vodenka Edhessaíos

In the 20th century, Greek Macedonia was created as a result of the division of the country following the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913 and the most likely candidates for the Astraeus all fell within this territory [16]. Sadly, the region knew little peace; it was occupied by Bulgarian troops during most of World War I, and by Bulgarian and German troops in World War II, but each time it was returned to Greek sovereignty at the war's end and that is how it remains today.

The geology of the area

In Ælian’s time, as now, this area had the potential to be particularly rich in trout, as most major rivers in the Moglenítsas - Regional Canal system start from limestone and probably have headsprings . Within this area there are several mountains higher than 2000 m, which are made mostly of limestone and marble. Headsprings usually occur on places where there is an “edge” between limestone, which is porous, and another non-porous rock. This type of formation is common in the area and is responsible for the clear, sparkling nature of its many rivers.

The common Slavic name for any spring-fed clear river is 'Bistrica' (literally - clean, pellucid water). The name appears frustratingly often on maps of the Balkans and also on those of many other European countries. The word appears on German or Austrian maps as 'Vistrica' and other pronunciations are: Bistritza, Bistritsa, Bystrica, Bystritsa, Bystricka, Bystrice, Bystricka, Bistrita. For reasons best known to herself, the nymph Astræa decided to protect such places, perhaps because the calm spring water acted like a mirror in which she was able to see her face among the stars. While we hesitate to take advantage of a nymph, at a stroke this gives us many more possible Astræus candidates: for example rivers in northern Greece, such as the Moglenítsas and the Aliákmon, had such names at one time or another, as shown on maps 2 and 3.

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Picture 2. The Moglenítsas as “Vistrica”: Map from 1859. with mixture of Greek, Slavic and Turkish names written in German pronunciation (Scheda, 1859). Click on the image to open a larger version.







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Picture 3. The Aliákmon as “Vistrica”: Map from 1914. with mixture of Greek, Slavic and Turkish written in German pronunciation. Click on the image to open a larger version.







Consideration of the Moglenítsas – Regional Canal system

The most serious obstacle to identifying the Astræus is that the area under consideration has been subject to numerous changes over the centuries, which have completely altered the drainage of the watershed. For this reason we have considered those events step by step and in a series of reconstructed pictures.

The first map shows the situation in Herodotus’ time. This was the state of affairs before man interfered with the natural course of things. By most accounts, Pella was the capital of Macedonia from the time of King Archelaus (313-399 BC) until the Roman conquest, and Alexander the Great (Alexander III, reigned 336-323 BC) was born there. The rivers in the area flowed into the Theramic Gulf (Thermaiko or the Gulf of Thérmai), which was much wider then than it is today, after two thousand years of siltation and alteration of sea levels.




The second map shows the situation as we understand it to have been during the Ælian’s time, reflecting the position described in De Natura Animalium. The river Astræus is between Berœa and Thessalonica and is flowing into the Aliákmon. The Theramic Gulf has become smaller due to silt from the Axios, Loudias and Aliákmon rivers. At that time there was a brackish lake at Pella (later also called Yanitsa or Giannitsa Lake).





The third illustration shows the situation after the Ælian’s time when substantial changes occurred in the river systems. The lake had become smaller still and man had started to change some of the river courses, partly because the river Scirtus was flooding the Via Egnatia near Edessa. The Via Egnatia was a strategic road connecting Thessalonica and Rome; it was an extension of the Via Appia beyond the Adriatic into Greece and Asia Minor, where it joined the ancient Persian Royal Road. Such flooding could not be tolerated and so the waters of the Scirtus were channeled into the Astræus and onward to the Aliákmon river system.

The fourth stage shows the further development of man’s influence on the water systems in the area. This included transfer of the upper Loudias tributaries into the Scirtus canal and the creation of a river and canal system which drained waters from the entire western Thessalonica plain. The Loudias remained as a much smaller river while the canal system received most of its former flow. The canal system began at the Scirtus confluence with the upper Loudias.

In the period during which the Slavic tribes inhabited the area most of the canals were not maintained and the situation slowly degraded to a position similar to the one shown on Picture 4. The Slavs gave new names to many features (Table 1). The headwaters of the canal system that once flowed into Loudias were called Moglenítsas (or Meglenica); a name which has remained until today although at one time it was called Bistrica as explained above. The name Meglenica has its origin in the high mountainous area called Meglen, where the three main head-rivers start. This area is very close to the present northern Greek border.

This situation remained the case until the early 20th century. It can be seen in Picture 2, which is a map showing the situation in 1859. Although this map, like most old maps, was somewhat inaccurate, it is possible to see Giannitsa Lake and the river Koutichas flowing much like the Astræus did “between Berœa and Thessalonica”. Voljc cites an Austrian text from 1905 where the situation was still much the same with Giannitsa Lake surrounded by swamps. The canal system was restored some time after Greece got independence, but the process was slow because of conflicts and wars that happened in the area.

The final illustration shows the situation after 1938 when Regional Canal was finished. The lake has disappeared completely. Although the canal system has been further changed and developed right up to the present day, the situation in the Astræus headwaters remains much as the illustration shows. A long time ago Herodotus called the area “the gardens of Midas” because of its fertility. Today, thanks to irrigation provided by those canals, the whole prefecture of Pella is sometimes called “the vegetable garden of Greece”. Thus, after two thousand years of man’s struggle against nature, the full circle is complete.




From the material presented above it is difficult to be sure of the exact location of the Astræus, although on the balance of all the evidence presented it was most likely to have been the Arapitsas, with the Koutichas a possibility. Our view is that given the brevity of Ælian’s description and the changes which have taken place over the many centuries which have passed since he wrote, no-one can say with confidence where the river lies now. However, the general location of the river is not under dispute and we hope that readers will be able to clearly identify it on modern maps having read this article. Whether or not fly fishing was invented on the Astræus one cannot say, but since it was first mentioned there it deserves due respect from all exponents of the “gentle art” of fly fishing. Maybe every fly fisherman should make a pilgrimage there once in his or her life.


The authors wish to express their gratitude to people who helped in finding materials connected to the investigation: Mr. Andrija Urban (army pilot), MSc. Ilija Petrusevski (cartographer), Dr. Petros Perros (physician), Dr. Giorgios Perros (mathematician), and Dr. Alexander Grubic (geologist).

© Goran Grubic & Andrew Herd (2001)

1. Claudius Aelianus, De natura Animalium, Vol XV, 1. Ed. A.F. Scholfield, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1972 p 203-4.

2. variously known in ancient and modern times as Berrhoea, Beria, Berea, Ber, Karaferia, Veroa or Véria.

3. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths. Book Club Associates, London 1984 p 52

4. Nicholas G.L. Hammond, The Location of the Trout-River Astraeus. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 1995, 36. 2. p. 173f.

5. Alexander G. Findlay, 'Macedonia, Thracia, Illyria, Mesia et Dacia,' from A Classical Atlas to Illustrate Ancient Geography (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1849)

6. Charles Jardine: Sotheby’s Guide to Fly-Fishing for Trout, Dorling Kindersley, London., 1991 p 10

7. Cornell,Tim, Matthews John, Atlas of the Roman World. Facts on File, New York, 1990, p 231.

8. Britannica Online: "Aleppo" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

9. This fourth Berœa is noted by both Cornell and Matthews, Atlas of the Roman World, and 'Aleppo,' Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. http://members.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=5637&sctn=1

10. Nicholas G.L. Hammond, The Location of the Trout-River Astraeus. Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 1995, 36. 2. p. 173f.

11. Voljc, Sulle orme di Claudius Aelianus. Fly Line. 2000 No. 1.pp 20-25.

12. Scholfield, A.F. ed., Aelian on the Characteristics of Animals, Vol III, Harvard University Press, 1972 p 203-204.

13. Darrel Martin, The Fly Fisher’s Illustrated Dictionary, The Lyons Press. New York, 2000 pp 8-10.

14. Conrad Voss Bark, The Encyclopaedia of Fly Fishing. B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1986 p 10

15. Frederic Buller, The Macedonian Fly, The American Fly Fisher, 1996, Vol. 22. No. 4 (fall)

16. 'Macedonia', Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. http://members.eb.com/bol/topic?eu=119675&sctn=1

16. Professor Aleksandar Grubic, personal communication, 2nd February 2001.


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