I recently came upon this animated documentary short called the “Diolkos for 1500 Years” depicting the use of the ancient diolkos portage road across the Isthmus of Corinth. It is in Greek, of course, but you can still follow along. The film was initiated by the Society of Ancient Greek Technology, produced by the Technical Chamber of Greece, and directed by T.P. Tassios, N. Mikas, and G. Polyzos. In three parts, it shows the transporting of a small merchant ship of the 4th century BC the 7-8 km distance from one sea to the other. The video was awarded best ancient film at the International Film festival in Cyprus (2009) and best educational film at the International Meeting of Archaeological Film (2010).
You can find the first and third parts of the short video on Youtube, or the entire film here. The short is a fascinating reconstruction of what must have been an incredible operation, but it does raise questions about the use of the road. Was it really that easy to transport a 30,000 lb wooden vessel overland in antiquity? Ten guys easy? And what evidence is there to suggest that commercial vessels were transferred overland in antiquity?
Bill Caraher has given us additional thoughts about some graffiti text on a wall of the baptistery of the Lechaion Basilica — observations that will be part of his presentation for the Corinth in Contrast Conference at the upcoming University of Texas. I myself have been finishing up my own presentation on “Turning Profit on the Isthmus of Corinth: The Commercial Facility of an Ancient Land Bridge.” My talk addresses the question of how Corinth’s isthmus contributed to the wealth of the city in antiquity.
The question has a long history. Thucydides was the first to raise it in the 5th century BC when he pinned Corinth’s wealth and power on its position on an isthmus. But the question circulated widely throughout antiquity. In the modern period, since the 19th century, scholars have argued that Corinth’s territory facilitated wealth in four ways: 1) through its agricultural productivity; 2) through the services provided to passing travelers; 3) through the trans-shipment of goods in long-distant trade routes; and 4) through commercial markets.
The first of these has been the subject of recent archaeological research on the agricultural orientation of the Roman colony and the meaning of the patterns of land division still visible in the landscape today. The second was the subject of Engel’s interesting and controversial work Roman Corinth (1990) which argue that the Corinthian economy in the Roman era was based not on agriculture but on the services provided (religious, political, entertainment) provided to passing travelers. The third explanation centers on archaeological and historical scholarship on the diolkos portage road–the idea is that the diolkos was used to trans-ship cargoes and ships from one side of the isthmus, and Corinth benefited from the portage business in the form of transport fees and transit duties. The fourth view explains Corinthian wealth in terms of its markets. It is largely based on the city’s ancient reputation for being a market city and trader’s depot and it is relatively unexplored in modern scholarship on the Roman city.
In my paper, I will be exploring the third and fourth view, the ones that concern the commercial facility of the Isthmus. I will be arguing against the notion that the diolkos was used regularly for portaging commercial ships and cargoes, and will come out in favor of the view of the land bridge as an emporium. Stay tuned as I’ll unpack this a bit in the next two weeks.
We’ve got another Corinth conference in the works at the University of Texas. In late September, the Departments of Religious Studies and Classics, and the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins will be hosting a conference on the theme of “Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality. As the conference website states:
“This conference explores the stratified nature of social, political, economic, and religious spheres at Corinth, and how the resulting inequalities are reflected in literary texts and material remains. The analysis focuses on a specific population center (the Corinthia) over a given period of time (Hellenistic to Late Antique).”
The 12 presentations include topics covering the city and territory from the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD, and include discussions on individuals like Phoebe of Kenchreai, Junia Theodora, Herodes Atticus, and the Emperor Justinian. Judging from the titles, St. Paul should make an appearance in at least a few papers. Thematically, the papers include such topics as agricultural systems, magic and ritual, dining, slavery, and mixed marriages in 1 Corinthians, and elite expenditure and expression.
This is the third conference held at the University of Texas dedicated to interdisciplinary discussion of the themes of religion and society in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The last two were published as Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Appraoches (2004) and Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society (2010). And the conference organizers, Steve Friesen and Sarah James, have plans to publish this third conference quickly.
Over the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the conference presentations including my own paper on the diolkos and the commercial facility of Corinth. I expect that my colleague Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota will be as well. He has already give us some preliminary thoughts about late antique prosperity and monumental architecture in the 5th and 6th century Corinthia.
Welcome to Corinthian Matters, a website/ blog dedicated to the history and archaeology of ancient Corinth and its territory. Presumably you’ve stumbled on this site because you have some interest in things Corinthian. The Corinth canal. Modern archaeology. Or St. Paul and his problematic Christan community.
There’s a good share of Corinthiaka already online in websites on archaeological projects, travel and vacation blogs, and discussions of Pauline epistles. I hope to give some attention here to these. There’s a good deal more Corinthian history and archaeology that is being slowly filtered through academic channels of journals, conferences, dissertations, and books. Such stuff, I figure, could be useful for individuals interested in the classical or Christian history of Corinth.
I’ve spent a good many summers walking about the Corinthia, conducting archaeological research, and writing about the city on the Isthmus. So I figure I’ve got at least something to say. And because I’m working on a book on the Roman Isthmus, I hope this site can provide an outlet for some of the interesting finds I stumble upon. Although I’m usually hesitant about starting a blog that fizzles, this one seems pretty low risk. Blog platforms like WordPress have expanded their capacity for displaying information traditionally found on website pages. I figure that this site with its various pages can at least be a stop on the road to Corinth and perhaps I’ll also occasionally post something useful as well.
We’re under construction for now. If you’ve got news about Corinth, ancient or modern, its territory, and the research revealing them, send them my way.