Corinthian Exceptionalism in Western Civ Textbooks

In the comments to my post last week on Athens, Sparta, and Corinth in Western Civilization texts, Dimitri Nakassis pressed me to say a little more about how Corinth has figured differently into western civ textbooks over time—how changing times have differently imaged Corinth.  Since western civ textbooks were traditionally conceived to provide the foundations and western values to a broader public, I also wondered what knowledge of Corinth students would have taken away at different points in time. 

If we consider where Corinth has entered the narrative of the civilizations of the west, the dozen texts I examined suggest a strong conservatism in how textbooks have discussed Corinth.  In order of greatest frequency:

  1. Commercial Power in Conflict with Athens in Classical Age (11 of 12 texbooks): 1939, 1947, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1974, 1983, 1986, 2002, 2007, 2012
  2. Conflict with Rome and destruction in 146 BC (6 of 12): 1939, 1947, 1967, 1969, 1970, 2007
  3. Advantageous Geography, Commercial Economy, and Significant Culture in Archaic and Classical age (5 of 12): 1939, 1947, 1967, 1973, 1986.  Example: Barnes 1947: Classical Corinth is, like Athens, unique in its highly commercialized economy in contrast with the “bucolic simplicity” and “cultural backwardness” of the other poleis.
  4. Important Role in Archaic Colonization (5 of 12): 1967, 1973, 2003, 2007, 2012

Corinth has been important to the overall narrative of western civ for four reasons, especially: 1) its commercial interests led to conflict with Athens, which led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War; 2) its conflict with Rome led to its destruction in 146 BC; 3) it had a developed commercial economy which gave it significant culture in the Archaic and Classical eras; and 4) Corinth was an important colonizer.  The first two have the most staying power—noted in texts from the 1930s to the present day.  The latter two are fairly diachronic although Corinth as a colonizer appears only from the 1960s. 

Corinth is noted inconsistently for other reasons as well.  For the Archaic and Classical age, Corinth appears in respect to Greek tyranny (1939, 2003, 2007), Greek culture (1947, 1973, 1986), early temples (2002, 2007), resistance to Persian war (1974), exceptional level of prostitution (1947), and pan-Hellenic games (1986).

After the 5th century, Corinth appears inconsistently in connection to the congress of Philip II in 337 BC (1939), refoundation as a Roman colony (1939, 2007), Clement’s letter to the Corinthians in the late 1st century AD (1967), as a flourishing city of the Roman Empire (1983), and Alaric’s destruction in 395 AD (1939).

What I found interesting about this general pattern is that:

  1. The pattern generally relates in some way to Corinthian exceptionalism—the idea, first clearly articulated in Thucydides, that geography (location on an Isthmus) made Corinth unique in its orientation to the seas and commerce.  Corinth mainly enters these introductory historical narratives in respect to its maritime and commercial aspects: colonization, commercial economy and power, and conflict with Rome.  Even some of the occasional and singular mentions—like tyranny, Greek culture, prostitution, flourishing Roman city—relate to this notion. 
  2. What textbooks note about Corinth is almost entirely based on a traditional narratives
  3. The modern archaeological investigation has had almost zero influence on the traditional narrative. 
  4. Even modern histories have had little influence on the traditional narrative.  Cole et al. 2012, for example, note that Corinth’s great location but impoverished land encouraged them to the seas!  (contrast with Salmon 1984). 
  5. Corinth as a Roman city, or an Christian city (e.g., apostle Paul’s early Christian missions) is undeveloped despite the enormous modern scholarship on the subject. 

What is noted about Corinth in western civ texts, then, is mainly out of sorts with

Two other interesting patterns to note: 

First, western civ texts conclude that Corinth’s commercial interests were directly responsible for the outbreak of hostility.  As early as Watts 1939 and Barnes 1947, Corinth’s advanced economic position set it against the other major commercial player, Athens.  Threatened by the growth of Athenian power, the Corinthians persuade (a sometimes reluctant) Sparta to go to war with Athens.  This narrative remains constant with the exception of Kagan et al. 2002, who describe an Athens threatened by Corinthian intervention in the affairs of the Corcyraeans.

Second, assessments of Corinth’s destruction in 146 BC reflect changing historiographic assessments of Roman imperialism:

Barnes 1947, 157, for example, describes Corinth as an exception to the beneficial results of Roman expansion (157):

“Aside from the financial exploitation incident to Roman imperial administration, the Roman conquest of the entire Mediterranean world in some ways benefited the entire regional economically. Once the political supremacy of Rome was established, the pirates who had preyed up on commerce were slowly wiped out, and the Mediterranean was more efficiently policed. Pompey finished the task of clearing away the pirates. With the exception of the treatment afforded to Carthage and Corinth, which were senselessly destroyed, the commercial policy of Rome toward conquered regions was liberal.”

Hayes 1967, 33, on the other hand, advances the classic line of defensive imperialism.  Corinth and Carthage were Rome’s case studies of the futility of resistance:

“Dominion over the central and western Mediterranean made Rome an imperial power which, to protect itself, felt obliged to oppose any other Mediterranean state whose strength rivaled its own. Thus, expansion led to further conquest until the entire Mediterranean world was brought under Roman domination. A pretext for intervention in the eastern Mediterranean arose shortly after the fall of Carthage…Moreover, after a league of Greek cities which had taken up arms had been crushed, as though to teach the Greeks a lesson comparable to that of Carthage, Corinth was burned (146 B.C.) and thousands of Greeks sent to Rome as slaves. The city-state of Rome was henceforth mistress of the entire Mediterranean basin.”

Stromberg 1969, 54 is less kind in his description of an aggressive imperialism:

“The recipe for success the Romans used in building an empire appears to have been one that combined ruthlessness with mildness…Corinth was another city wiped off the face of the earth, an unpleasant habit the Romans formed in dealing with a troublesome enemy or rebel.” (54)

Easton 1970, 114, 137, draws attention to Rome’s role as arbiter in Greek affairs.  The Romans were drawn in reluctantly:

“The Romans, who had been loath to annex any part of Greece and had, indeed, in 196 B.C. solemnly proclaimed the independence of all the Greek city-states, found that they could not avoid interfering in Greek affairs.  The Greek leagues…were constantly quarreling with one another, and one or the other would appeal to Rome to settle their quarrels. In the end the Romans felt they had no option but to subject Macedon and Greece to their rule. In 146 B.C. they sacked and destroyed Corinth, the most important commercial city of Greece. By this time there were enough Romans with a vested interest in imperial expansion to override the views of those senators opposed to it, and thereafter the empire was expanded in accordance with their wishes, often without any excuse save the fact that they possessed the necessary power.”

Likewise, Kishlansky et al. 2007, 79, depict the Romans not so much as aggressive imperialists but drawn into conflict.  “Gradually, the Roman shadow fell over the eastern Mediterranean.”

All of these examples demonstrated well the point of our symposium session on the transforming book—that interpretation in foundational textbook narratives change significantly over time.  But what perhaps surprised me more was a recognition of how traditional western civ textbooks have been in rehashing the same ground (Corinthian exceptionalism, the Peloponnesian War) without incorporating major advances and changes in modern scholarship more generally. 

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