There are no monuments of ancient Corinth more famous and iconic than the Fountain of Peirene. Any modern visitor who has wandered among the ruins will likely have shot a photo like the one below of the Roman spring facade and court. And anyone who walks into a tourist shop will have seen plenty of postcard images of the arcade and courtyard. Indeed, the fountain ranks as one of the greatest discoveries of the American School of Classical Studies Excavations at Corinth.
In recent years, a rope around the courtyard has kept tourists a stones throw away from the arcade but only 10-15 years ago, the visitor could walk directly on the pavements. This seeming accessibility to the monument in former days, however, was itself nothing more than a facade, for the court and arches and columns represent but the start of an intricate underground water system stretching hundreds of meters beneath the Roman forum, and the architecture preserved today marks a visual fragment of numerous phases of construction, use, additions, and renovations. The publication of Betsey Robinson’s Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2011) is a major milestone in Corinthian studies because it makes accessible the complex histories of a monument that was always central to the life of the ancient city.
Histories of Peirene has much to say about contexts and histories. The first part of the book (Chs. 1-4) places the fountain into its various landscapes: the physical subterranean landscape of topography, springs, and underground tunnels (Ch. 1), the imaginative conceptions of well-watered Corinth promoted through ancient visual images and literature (Ch. 2), and the history of archaeological investigations of the American School’s Excavations (Ch. 3), including especially the work of the excavator Bert Hodge Hill (Ch. 4) whose life was dedicated to documenting and publishing the fountain. The second part of the book (Chs. 5-11) offers a “biography of the fountain” from the Geometric era through post-antique periods. Two chapters explore the Geometric-Hellenistic developments (Ch. 5 and 6), three are dedicated to Early Roman phases (Ch. 7-9), and one each to the 4th and 5th century (still visible today) and post-antique phases.
1. Peirene Today and Yesterday: Anatomy and Physiology
2. The Storied Spring: Peirene in Pictures and Poetry
3. Great and Fearful Days: the Rediscovery of Peirene
4. A Corinthian Hydra: the Labors of Bert Hodge Hill
5. Beginnings: Hellenic and Hellenistic Peirene
6. Corinthian Grotesque: The Cyclopean Fountain
7. The Genius of Place and Master: Romanizing Peirene
8. High Roman Style: the Marble Court
9. A Pendant for Peirene: The Scylla of Corinth
10. Palace for the People: The Triconch Court
11. The Ruin of a Beautiful Thing
In a certain sense, this study is written for scholars and archaeologists, the sorts of people who would feel at home reading through the stratigraphic descriptions of a field report in the journal Hesperia or trudging through a final archaeological report in the Corinth series. One finds in Histories many interpretive essays, arguments, and hypotheses based on detailed and comparative discussions of art and architecture, block dimensions, walls, faces, phases, and dating. Robinson arrives at many original conclusions along the way. To name a few, the enigmatic and grotto-like Cyclopean Fountain is actually a 6th century BC creation and designed to represent a natural grotto, the dark home of the famous nymph Peirene; the memory and monument of Peirene was appropriated early in the life of the new Roman colony because the mythology surrounding the nymph, Pegasos, and Bellerophon was historically meaningful and generally known; and the triconch court, still visible today, is later 4th (not 2nd) Century AD.
But the work is also accessible and relevant to a wider readership including, for example, anyone interested in New Testament studies or Greek and Roman archaeology. Allow me to explain why.
1. This book is not simply a study of a fountain, but a study of the most famous fountain in Greece and a monument that was central to the city’s ancient image. Peirene is the only Corinthian fountain to have held widespread and enduring literary fame in antiquity. As such, it is, like the Isthmus and Acrocorinth and the harbors, a major orienting point in the landscape for understanding Corinthian history and ancient conceptions of the city. Peirene was so identified with Corinth, in fact, that it became another name for the city. The nymph and her associates-associations such as the hero Bellerophon, Pegasos the horse, the grotto and fountain, and Acrocorinth appear on a wide range of media (protocorinthian pottery, red-figure vases, wall painting, stone reliefs, sarcophagi, coins, glass phiales, and silver cups) across a wide span of space (Patras, Pompeii, Rome, S. Italy, Algiers, Tyre) over a long period of time (7th century BC to 4th century AD). The Corinthian myth of Peirene and the importance of her fountain would have been common knowledge for any educated child in antiquity.
2. This is a visual work. While the text of the work is lengthy (nearly 400 pages with notes and references), one finds nearly 200 figures, some in color, some black and white, including photos of architecture, wall paintings, coins, statues, elevations, aerial photos, and architectural plans. The photos take us into Corinth’s watery underland and back in time to the first excavations at the site in the late 19th century. Collectively the images are instructive and interesting and demonstrate how art historical evidence can inform our understandings of material contexts.
3. The book provides an excellent introduction to the water systems of ancient Corinth. The Roman facade and arcade are only the beginning of the fountain. The spring facade gives way to chambers, drawbasins, reservoirs, and tunnels through the marl of Corinth’s plateau. We learn how Corinthian geography naturally channels water, how the fountain flows at a rate of 7-12 cu. meters / hour, how ancient engineers created a vast underland of tunnels, and how the water of Peirene is salty, hard, and easily contaminated. We also meet some inhabitants of the underland including bats, crabs, freshwater shrimp, and early 20th century archaeologists.
4. The third and fourth chapters are a riveting case study in the history of classical archaeology in the early to mid-20th century through quotations from field notebooks and correspondence. We learn of the discovery of the monument at the start of American School excavations at Corinth and how it provided the key to unlocking the entire urban plan. We discover quite a bit about early methods of excavation: 500 railroad carts of earth were removed per day. We hear about the difficult, miserable, and heroic process of clearing earth and mud from the entire tunnel system in the first three decades of the 20th century, and the ensuing results: desertion of workers, broken bones, bouts of malaria and typhoid, and even deaths of directors. We find Bert Hodge Hill, the principal excavator of the site, giving site tours to German soldiers during World War II and unable to complete the work after the war due to his perfectionist personality and ethnical obligations to the villagers to sanitize the water.
5. The study provides an up-to-date chronological discussion of the complex history of Peirene. The visitor to Corinth peers on a marble facade of the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, and thinks she is beholding the ancient fountain. But the fountain is (like most archaeological sites) actually a complex palimpsest of development, aggregation, revision, and transformation that stretches centuries of time from the 8th century BC to the 20th century. Robinson makes these histories accessible and gives readers the diachronic overview of one of the social focal points of Corinth at many points in its history. In making accessible the chronological phases of the fountain, Robinson also contextualizes the developments in terms of the broader urban development of Corinth—we, consequently, learn a good deal about the history and archaeology of Corinth. People who study or dabble in New Testament studies will find in Ch. 7 a valuable overview of current debates about Romanization and Hellenization. Writers of historical fiction will find plenty of text and visual material for creative retellings.
6. Finally, Robinson’s overall approach is not a technical archaeological report so much as a contextual study of text and material culture. There’s a creative flow that makes it interesting reading. From the book jacket, we appreciate the basic idea of this flow:
“Peirene developed from a nameless spring to a renowned source of inspiration, from a busy landmark in Classical Corinth to a quiet churchyard and cemetery in the Byzantine ear, and finally from free-flowing Ottoman fountains back to the streams of the source within a living ruin. These histories of Peirene as a spring and as a fountain, and of its water imagery, form a rich cultural narrative whose interrelations and meanings are best appreciated when studied together.”
Such webs of meaning bring otherwise dry archaeological evidence to life through association with ancient poetry, modern stories, and visual media. In short, this text should be of interest to many different kinds of readers interested in Corinth.
For further review, see:
- Andrew Reinhard’s overview at the ASCSA webpage including a preview (PDF) of front matter and Chapter 1 and 3.
- Bill Caraher’s review at The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World