Another Article on the Diolkos

Back in January, I noted another new article on the diolkos of Corinth by Yannis Nakas and D. Koutsoumba forthcoming in the Loutraki volume (more on this soon).  Since then, I’ve been in contact with Yannis Nakas about the piece and his ideas about the diolkos.  Yannis is a maritime archaeologist in Greece and also a professional illustrator; any archaeologist needing someone to illustrate artifacts or Greek sites may want to look at this outstanding portfolio.

Yannis kindly wrote up a fuller version of his abstract in English, which I include below.  Like my recent piece on the diolkos and Hans Lohmann’s forthcoming article, Nakas and Koutsoumba critically reassess the traditional interpretation of the diolkos as a major slipway for moving ships overland.  They suggest that ships, when moved during episodes of war, could more easily have been transferred over the Isthmus via wooden beams, and that no commercial ship owner in his right mind would have transferred his vessel over the ridge.  Interestingly, they also observe / suggest that the Sector A “platform” relates not to the diolkos road but to Nero’s canal—and is, consequently, Roman in date.  Finally, they conclude, as Lohmann does, that the portage road excavated by Verdelis did not run all the way across the Isthmus!  These three articles together should contribute to new views of the dating and use of the diolkos road in antiquity—and consequently, the commercial economy of ancient Corinth.

So, here’s the extended and enriched abstract of the article “The Diolkos: a significant technical achievement of antiquity” (International Archaeological Conference. Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus: Topography and History from Prehistoric Times until the End of Antiquity”, Loutraki 26-29 March 2009 (under publication) by D. Koutsoumba and Y. Nakas:

For more than a century, the diolkos of Corinth has intrigued scholars and public with the quality of its construction and its function as a unique slipway for the transportation of ships. Certain attributes, however, of the diolkos have received minimum attention from scholars and can shed light on questions concerning the monument’s initial function and use. Here are some of them:

The actual diolkos seems to have covered only part of the Isthmus. No remains of any stone-paved road have been located beyond the Isthmus’ west coast, even when the area was still free of modern structures. Apparently a stone paving was applied only on the parts of the road where the soil was soft and unstable, such as the Isthmus’ west and east coast; the diolkos must have continued as a simple stepped earth road across the central limestone ridge of the Isthmus.

Secondly, the preserved parts of the diolkos belong to at least three different phases of construction. The main part of the road appears to have been built more or less in the same period, sometime before the early 5th century BC, as a Doric capital in secondary use suggests. The west end of the road (today disappearing into the canal), constructed with impressive ashlar blocks set in regular rows is of different construction style but its dating is uncertain. The Π-shaped loading platform also belongs to another phase and could date to the early 4thcentury BC. Finally, the west end of the diolkos structure, a simple paved platform (its inclination is probably caused by the modern canal cut at its edge), is of totally different construction style, indicating a working area, possibly the only surviving remain of Nero’s works (Nero’s canal followed exactly the same course as the modern one).

Another noticeable element is the blocking of the main part of the road by two series of rough blocks (inside the modern Engineers’ Corps School), deliberately placed on the course of the main wheel tracks. It is unknown when this task took place and by whom. The existence of multiple wheel tracks on top of the blocking indicates that the road remained in use for a long time after that. A final element is the possible existence of two stepped earth roads on each side of the diolkos, as reported by the only excavator of the diolkos, N. Verdelis.

The diolkos was beyond doubt a highly sophisticated and elaborate work of craftsmanship of ancient Greece. It was repaired and expanded, due to its continuous use and also possibly incapacitated at one time. What was, however, its original function? Although the hauling of galleys over the Isthmus was a rather common practice during wartime, nothing similar is actually attested for merchantmen, whose transportation on wheels or sledges (both techniques feasible in ancient Greece) would require a disproportionate amount of money compared to the actual cost of the ship and its cargo, not to mention the cargo losses and the ship’s necessary repairs afterward. Nevertheless, the diolkos was worn out by extensive use, as indicated by the deep and multiple wheel marks on it. The Corinthian-controlled ferrying of great and heavy cargoes between both sides of the Isthmus would not only explain the use of the road but would also justify its initial construction.

It remains a mystery why the stone-paved diolkos was completely forgotten by the time of Pausanias or why it never reached any written source of the Greco-Roman antiquity. Was it so mundane a thing not of interest to ancient authors? Was it only used for a few years after its construction and then fell into disrepair and disappeared? Furthermore, who built it and when? Can we rule out totally its use for ferrying ships, or was it actually a slip-way operating only in special occasions? These questions remain unanswered and only further research and excavation at the area might provide some answers in the future.


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