New perspectives on the diolkos

I’m pretty jazzed about the Society of Biblical Literature Conference in Chicago. I not only get to see some old friends in and out of the conference, but I hope to meet some of the scholars whose work I regularly run across in my monthly CSM entries. I’m also looking forward to the double session called Polis and Ekklesia: Investigations of Urban Christianity where I’ll present new perspectives on the diolkos.

Those who have been stopping by this site for a while know that one of my current research fixations is the trans-Isthmus portage road known as the diolkos. I promise that I will eventually stop talking about this, but I continue to learn things about the road and discover its embedded place in traditional conceptions of Corinth as a commercial center. I am almost done with the subject, provided that I don’t learn anything new. 

On Saturday, I’ll give a talk at the conference (“The Isthmus and the Consequences of Geography: New Directions in the Study of Commercial Corinth”) discussing the recent scholarship on the diolkos and its implications for our picture of Roman Corinth. Here’s how I open:

“Since the early 19th century, the Isthmus has been a regular starting point for discussions of the early Christian communities of Roman Corinth. Conybeare and Howson’s biography of Paul, written in the early 1850s, for example, placed the apostle against the backdrop of a connecting land bridge,

‘We are thus brought to that which is really the characteristic both of Corinthian geography and Corinthian history, its close relation to the commerce of the Mediterranean… A narrow and level isthmus, across which smaller vessels could be dragged from gulph to gulph, was of inestimable value to the early traders of the Levant. And the two harbours… form an essential part of our idea of Corinth….’

In this highly connective land bridge with good harbors, a portage road, and cosmopolitan population, scholars found the reason for Paul’s visits to Corinth as well as the economic, social, and moral character of the Christian community.

The diolkos has frequently stood as a physical symbol of the heightened connectivity of the Isthmus. In traditional formulation, the diolkos was Corinth’s portage road for trans-shipping goods between the eastern and western Mediterranean. Traders arriving from Roman Italy disembarked at the western end, unloaded their cargoes, and transported the ships and freights via wheeled carts over 6 km to the opposite gulf, where they continued to the coastal cities of Asia Minor. Merchants benefited by this short cut in long-distance trade while Corinth received revenues on the tolls, transport fees, and services to passengers in transit. As a mechanism for the movement of ships, cargoes, and people between Corinth’s gulfs, the diolkos made the Isthmus a great zone of trans-shipment and made Corinth a populous city of visitors and transients.”

In the talk, I’ll summarize the new critical scholarship on the diolkos and challenge essentialist views of Corinthian geography. Three articles, all published about the same time (two in fact are stuck in production) offer comprehensive reassessments of the textual, archaeological, and logistical evidence that challenges the older view denoted in the paragraph above. They are…

  • Hans Lohmann, “Der Diolkos Von Korinth – Eine Antike Schiffsschleppe?” in The Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus (In Press). See summary here.
  • Despoina Koutsoumba and Yannis Nakas. “Διολκος. Ενα Σημαντικο Τεχνικο Εργο Της Αρχαιοτητας (“The Diolkos: a Significant Technical Achievement of Antiquity”).” In The Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus (In Press). See summary here.
  • David Pettegrew, “The Diolkos of Corinth,” American Journal of Archaeology 115.4 (2011).

What is interesting is that despite the different conclusions reached, the authors all agree that there was no regular portaging operation in antiquity—and that gives some unity to disparate perspectives.

In putting my paper together, I created a little table summing up the different reconstructions. I’m oversimplifying, and the authors may want to comment on this, but here is how I understand the differences:

Hans Lohmann’s Reconstruction:

  1. Ships: Military galleys carried over the Isthmus only several times in antiquity during war. Transferred over felled trees, not diolkos. Commercial vessels not transferred. No grand operation.
  2. Date: post-Archaic, possibly after destruction of 146 BC, evident from the emergence of a concept of “diolkos” in Strabo, the demise of the harbors in the interim period, and frequent archaic and classical spolia in the road
  3. Purpose: The trans-shipment of divisible commodities like wine and olive oil

Koutoumba and Nakas’ Reconstruction:

  1. Ships: Military ships transferred rarely in antiquity via wheeled carts, or more likely, wooden sledges over greased beams. Commercial vessels not transferred.
  2. Date: Archaic, falling out of use in the Hellenistic era after abandonment of city
  3. Purpose: Transfer of heavy freight, especially building material

Pettegrew’s Reconstruction:

  1. Ships: military galleys transferred occasionally in antiquity; ship portaging marks heroic and strategic feats. Commercial vessels not transferred.
  2. Date: Uncertain, but context suggests Archaic-Classical. Road remains in use for pedestrian traffic and small-scale portaging in Roman period.
  3. Purpose: Multi-functional, serving Corinth’s own needs (not simply the goods of other states), including especially the transfer of building materials, and the trans-Isthmus road to the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia.


If you’re at the SBL and use this website regularly, I hope we will get to meet.


  1. Thanks for the feedback. We clearly have not settled everything but the case against the traditional view is so strong that the conversation will be a very different one from now on. More archaeological work would probably answer some questions and raise many more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: