The Diolkos – Two New Articles

When I was a PhD student at OSU, there was a common joke among the grad students that if you had arrived somehow at a good dissertation topic, writer beware: the study had probably already been written in German.  And so, when I was wrapping up the revisions of a forthcoming article called simply “The Diolkos of Corinth” for the American Journal of Archaeology (October 2011), I was shocked when I learned of an article in German by Hans Lohmann called “Der Diolkos von Korinth — eine antike Schiffsschleppe?” (in English, “The so-called Diolkos – an ancient slipway?”).  How had I missed this one? 

As it turns out, I had not missed a published piece.  Lohmann’s article is forthcoming in a volume titled The Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus: Topography and History from Prehistory Until the End of Antiquity, which publishes the Corinthia Loutraki conference of 2007.  It also turns out that our articles offer complementary revisions of the diolkos thesis and yet arrive at very different conclusions. 

Compare the two abstracts.  Lohmann’s article (as translated by that author into English):

“Instead of a regular timetable-like organized transport of ships over the Isthmos at Corinth, the extant literary sources testify to sporadical large-scale military operations during which a limited number of warships – mostly triremes – were brought from the Saronic to the Corinthian gulf or vice versa. This did not happen on the road of unknown but doubtless postarchaic age excavated by N. Verdelis in the 1950th but over land by means of wooden rolls and draught animals. The road consists of reused blocks of a large archaic, classical or even hellenistic building, perhaps from the so called Long Walls of Corinth, the hellenistic Isthmus wall or a similar construction. Considering the lack of clear stratigraphical evidence its age remains uncertain. For the time being it seems most plausible that such demolition waste was most likely at hand after the demolition of Corinth by the Romans in 146 B.C. Whether the road replaced the harbours of Corinth during the period of obliteration or dates even after the refoundation of the city as Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthus by Julius Cesar in 44 B.C., it served the transport of goods by means of vehicles but not the transport of ships in any case.”

The abstract for my piece in AJA:

“Since the mid 19th century, the paved portage road known as the diolkos has been central to interpreting the historical fortunes of the city of Corinth and the commercial facility of the Isthmus of Corinth. In this article, I reevaluate the view that the diolkos made the isthmus a commercial thoroughfare by reconsidering the archaeological, logistical, and textual evidence for the road and overland portaging. Each form of evidence problematizes the notion of voluminous transshipment and suggests the road did not facilitate trade as a constant flow of ships and cargoes through Corinth. The diolkos was not principally a commercial thoroughfare for transporting the goods of other states but facilitated the communication, transport, travel, and strategic ends of Corinth. The commercial properties of the Isthmus of Corinth subsist in its emporion for exchange, not in a stage for transshipment.”

What the two articles share is radical revision of the consensus belief about the diolkos, which holds that this great portage road was constructed by the tyrant Periander and was used throughout antiquity to haul ships and cargoes over the Corinthian Isthmus.  Based on a critical rereading of texts, logistics, and archaeological evidence, we both conclude that ships were rarely moved over the Isthmus in antiquity.  At this point our interpretations go in different directions.  Lohmann concludes that the road was probably constructed sometime in the Hellenistic–Early Roman era and used for hauling cargoes; ships were carried over not on this road but via wooden rollers.  I accept that warships were occasionally carried over on the road but emphasize that the Isthmus was not the great thoroughfare for trade we usually imagine it to be; I am uncommitted on the date but lean toward a Classical-period construction. 

In the end, it was a great benefit and reassurance to read Lohmann’s article, and I look forward to seeing how both pieces advance in new directions the debate over the mysterious diolkos.


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