Reading Faith and Occupation in Late Antique Graffiti

Last month, Bill Caraher posted a working draft of a paper on the Christian landscapes of the Corinthia  in which he discusses a variety of Christian graffiti–crosses,  fish, Chi-Rhos, and prayers inscribed in stone–scratched in mortar and stone on churches, baths, walls, and villas of the Late Antique Corinthia.  Bill argues that these symbols shed light on the new regional contexts of power that craftsmen faced in the fifth and sixth centuries.  Since Kostis Kourelis wrote an interesting response to Bill’s paper, and Diana Wright followed up with handprints in Argos, I can’t help but add something to the discussion.

I’ve been thinking a bit about low-status individuals of the (late) Roman a lot this semester, in part because I’m working on a paper on peasants, in part because I have been teaching a first-year seminar at Messiah College titled “Faith, Education, and Vocation in the World of Late Antiquity.”  In that class, we’ve been exploring how the Christianization of the Roman world and the theological language of calling influenced the way that people thought about work and occupation.  Under the influence of ascetic currents of the later 4th century AD, many aristocratic Christians abandoned otherwise normal and respectable occupations like oratory and the law courts to join religious communities or make a home in the desert.  St. Augustine’s famous conversion, for example, occurred in conjunction with his renunciation of career as teacher of rhetoric and with the recognition that he could ‘serve the Lord with his pen.’   By exploring the concept of vocation in the past, students reflect on the different forces today that shape their life occupations.

The theme of the class works well for a school like Messiah, where vocational language and the ‘sense of calling’ frames campus-wide discussions.  But the theme also works well historically for framing discussing of a range of Christian texts of the 3rd-5th centuries.  For Christian authors of this period frequently thought and wrote about the calling of the Word to salvation and its specific consequences for work and occupation.

A major problem, however, is that most of our stories are written by and about aristocratic men, and even the few sources written by or about women—e.g., Egeria’s pilgrimage to the holy land, Perpetua’s martyrdom, or the letters of Jerome—tend to describe and refer to elite renunciations of elite lifestyles.  We have very little information about the rest of the population, the 95% who were not elite but spent their lives working in the fields, creating craft, constructing buildings, and laboring in skilled and unskilled occupations.  Did the ascetic revolution of the fourth century have any impact on how the majority of Christians understood the meaning of their occupation?

We only get fleeting and deflected glimpses of the rest of the population through texts of the period.  John Chrysostom, preacher of Antioch, for instance, speaks to the artisans in his congregation and tells them that they too have the responsibility of pursuing a life of virtue for “even Paul was a tent-maker…Let no one, therefore, of those who have trades be ashamed.” (In 1 Cor. hom. 5.11).  Chrysostom says that the  working artisan can be truly happy when he applies  himself entirely to the task at hand, thinks of work as a kind of asceticism, and uses his gifts (the ability to construct) to preserve life (In 2 Cor. hom. 15.4-5).  But in such sermons, we are seeing the potential vocation of the craftsman reflected through the eyes of an educated bishop.

Enter the Corinthian archaeological material, which provides no clear window.   This image shows a fish on the Hexamilion wall across the Isthmus, but what exactly does it mean and why did the builder insert it?


Many such religious signs were not even intended to be seen, but, like the concrete body of this modern church in the village of Sophiko in the southern Corinthia, the religious language (in this case, the Greek abbreviation for “Jesus Christ conquers”) will eventually be covered by a marble or brick façade.DSCN7730

In the context of late antiquity, what would have gone through the mind of a craftsman who scratched such patterns in the work he was creating?  Since such signs appear so frequently in 5th and 6th century contexts, they must be part of a common language of finishing monumental buildings.

Here is what Bill has to say about the meanings of these symbols in a late antique context.  I quote (with his approval) from his paper (pp. 17-18):

“These markers in the mortar of the exterior wall of the basilica would have been visible for only a short period of time as they would have almost certainly been covered with either a layer of finer stucco or the surrounding ground level when the building was completed. The symbol of the fish may have religious significance as it was one of the earliest symbols associated with Christianity. We have no idea whether these symbols were set to mark out these buildings as ‘Christian’ (as if this was necessary for the Lechaion Basilica), to serve some kind of as apotropaic function or to mark the work of a particular crew of laborers. These modest graffiti might well suggest that the same groups of workers or, perhaps, the same organization provided labor for both buildings.

Whatever their function, it is clear, however, that the monumental architecture of the Corinthia not only projected power across the region and onto (and through) the bodies of laborers, but it also provided a new context for the everyday actions Corinthian workers. The subtle traces left by individuals working on the walls provide a glimpse of the physical labor responsible for the construction of imperial authority on the Isthmus. The appearance of the graffiti fish in inconspicuous places on a number of contemporary buildings suggests a division between the explicit message made by the architecture anddecoration and the simpler, hidden graffito.”

While Bill suggests that these actions reflect on new contexts of power and resistance, it is obvious that a craftsman would also have understood his action most immediately as imprinting the language or signs of faith on his work.  Moreover, in  certain contexts, like the construction of the monumental religious building of Late Antiquity—the enormous Lechaion church, for instance—he could only have felt himself directly contributing in his trade to a monumental and communal expression of faith albeit one that reflected the hierarchical social world of his day.  I wonder, too, whether, he may have thought about the metaphors of building in the language of the bible, and in particular, the temples.  Would he have made (or been instructed about) any connection to Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 3:9-10?

“You are God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.”

How exactly he thought about this participation is totally beyond our grasp, but here we have one tiny arena where a potential connection between ordinary work and the faith of the builders is visible.  These connections would have naturally intersected with the social and political dimensions of building.  Participating in the grand project of ecclesiastical church building would have intertwined thoughts about the bishop, the emperor, the nature of building, and the triumph of Christ.

In the last two weeks of class, we’re dedicating some class time to discussing these kinds of problematic glimpses into the worlds of ordinary occupations.  When I asked my first-year seminar today what they thought about the fish and the cross graffiti buried in the plaster, they commented on the significance of its invisibility (not for show), the meaning of the act of construction, and the probability of some association with the faith of the craftsman.  One student commented that the builders sought to leave a piece of themselves in the work.  That observation may be as close as we get in a local context to understanding the connection of faith to the work of the builder.

Did a tsunami destroy ancient Lechaion?

In early July, Andreas Vött and his colleagues announced that sometime in the 6th century AD, a tsunami destroyed ancient Olympia, the famous site of pan-Hellenic athletic contests.   In considering recent scholarship on historical tsunamis in the Gulf of Corinth, I pondered here at Corinthianmatters whether there was any evidence for tsunamis in the Corinthia.  As it turns out, a workshop on tectonics and earthquake geology occurred in late September that included presentations on the subject. The papers at the workshop have now been published as short articles in Earthquake Geology and Archaeology: Science, Society and Critical Facilities and include two relevant articles, both of which consider tsunamigenic deposits at Lechaion:

  • Hadler, Hanna, Andreas Vött, Benjamin Koster, Margret Mathes-Schmidt, Torsten Mattern, Konstantin Ntageretzis, Klaus Reicherter, Dimitris Sakellariou, Timo Willershäuser, “Lechaion, the Ancient Harbour of Corinth (Peloponnese, Greece) destroyed by Tsunamigenic Impact,” pp. 70-73.
  • Koster, Benjamin, Klaus Reicherter, Andreas Vött, Christoph Grützner, “The Evidence of Tsunamigenic Deposits in the Gulf of Corinth (Greece) with Geophysical Methods for Spatial Distribution,” pp. 107-110.

Some of the same researchers (Hanna Hadler, Andreas Vött, Konstantin Ntageretzis, Timo Willershäuser) responsible for this work also published the Olympia tsunami.  Indeed, the Olympia and Lechaion studies are both part of a broader study of tsunamis in the Ionian Sea and the Peloponnese.  The Hadler et al. paper is especially intriguing.  The abstract:

Lechaion, the harbour of ancient Corinth, is situated at the south-eastern extension of the Gulf of Corinth (Peloponnese, Greece).  Due to extensive fault systems dominating the gulf, seismic activity is frequent and often related to landslides or submarine  mass movements. Thus, the  study area is highly exposed to tsunami hazard. By means of geo-scientific studies comprising geomorphological, sedimentological and geophysical methods,  evidence of multiple palaeotsunami impact was encountered at the Lechaion harbour site and the surrounding coastal area.  The detected tsunami signatures include allochthonous marine sediments intersecting  quiescent  harbour  deposits, extensive  units of tsunamigenic  beachrock  and geoarchaeological destruction layers. Our results suggest that the harbour at Lechaion was finally destroyed in the 6th century AD by strong tsunami impact

I asked Dr. Richard Rothaus of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental Heritage if he would review the Lechaion piece as guest blogger.  Rothaus offers an expert opinion in multiple ways.  He published the seminal English article in OJA on the harbor of Lechaion, discussed the late antique phases of Lechaion harbor and basilica in his book Corinth: The First City of Greece (2000) and, in his role as coastal archaeologist in the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey, took vibracores at Lechaion.

What follows is Rothaus’ review as well as a report on his own work at Lechaion.  I have added several images as visuals for the discussion.


The Second International Workshop on Active Tectonics, Earthquake Geology, Archaeology and Engineering 19th-24th September 2011 contains several articles about the palaeoseismicity of the Corinthia, as Dr. Pettegrew has already indicated. I am particularly interested in the papers on Lechaion.  I became interested in the harbor at Lechaion at the first INQUA meeting in Corinth, and worked with several palaeoseismologists, under the lead of Stathis Stiros in investigating the coseismic uplift on that harbor. Stiros and his team published a paper in Geoarchaeology suggesting a possible c. 600 BC construction date for Lechaion. The borings of marine mollusks Lithphaga lithophaga L. with a clear upper terminus were observed on the interior face of the limestone blocks lining the channel that connects the inner harbor to the Corinthian Gulf.


Figure of Lechaion Basilica, the innner and outer harbors, and Roman land division patterns (after Romano 2003, Fig. 17.19)

Lithophaga generally live in the sublittoral zone, and those that are established in the midlittoral zone are not long preserved due to bioerosion. The preservation of lithophaga borings on the wall has been interpreted as an indication of sudden coseismic uplift. Samples were removed from two shells in living position, and AMS radiocarbon dates indicate a date between the fifth and third century BC. The researchers have interpreted this to indicate a construction date prior to an uplift event of greater than 1 m (and that excludes correction for sea-level change). I was a coauthor on this paper, and also published an archaeological overview of the harbor at Lechaion that included that date in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

Corinth Tour 010

Lechaion Harbor mounds and moles viewed from Korakou to the east

More importantly (at least for me) I also learned at that INQUA meeting that earthquakes and coseismic phenomena (e.g. uplift, tsunamis) are far more complicated than I ever suspected.

Subsequent to the meeting and those publications, I began a closer study of seismic and coseismic evidence in the archaeological record with my colleagues Eduard Reinhardt and Jay Noller. That study has taken many interesting turns, including visits within a few weeks of events to earthquake-stricken areas in Turkey in 1999-2000, and India in 2001. Those visits solidified our concerns that the evidence for earthquakes in the archaeological record is very, very difficult to read. Likewise we became increasingly aware of how localized co-seismic phemomena can be. Some of our results from Turkey were published in Natural Hazards, and I used the results from India to highlight the unreliability of the literary record here. Most recently I assisted Simon Donato in identifying allochthonousmaterial to document the impact of the 1945 Makran Trench earthquake in Pakistan on the shores of Oman.

As part of our study, Dr. Reinhardt and I pulled vibracore samples from the interior of Lechaion harbor for sedimentary and micropaleontological analysis.  While the results of those cores has not yet been published, one conclusion seems certain.  I was quite wrong in the 1995 and 1996 articles, which suggest the harbor went out of use quite early.  All indications are that the harbor at Lechaion continued into use well in the 5th or 6th centuries AD (a conclusion also reached by the INQUA authors). I can’t explain the early date of the lithophaga shell, but we have numerous C14 dates from our cores that indicate otherwise. Our hesitancy in publishing this material has been driven by our increasing awareness of just how very complicated the palaeoseismic and archaeological records are for Lechaion.  Lechaion is a shallow harbor in the Gulf of Corinth, and there are numerous phenomena that have impacted the record there, including harbor construction, coseismic uplift and sea-level change.  Trying to isolate those causes from one another has proven most difficult.

I was very happy therefore to see that the 2011 INQUA volume contains two strong papers on Lechaion.  Hadler et al. conducted a study to identify “allochthonous high energy events” within the sedimentary record of the harbor. In simpler words, they pulled cores and looked for things that would not normally be found in calm harbor.  When a tsunami occurs, even a small one, sediments and marine creatures normally found in deeper waters can be tossed inland.  Donato’s work in Oman relied on a similar approach, and he identified tsunami deposits by locating articulated marine bivalves farther inland than they could have been carried by tidal activity or a storm surge.

When Reinhardt and I pulled the cores over a decade ago, tsunamis were not much in our thinking. In our 1999 investigation of the Izmit earthquake we documented a localized tsunami generated by submarine slumping of sediments.  Hadler et al.note that the Gulf of Corinth is similarly susceptible to such events, and they focused their study of Lechaion on identifying these. The authors identify potential tsunamigenic impacts from the 8th century BC to the 6th century AD based on their vibracores. They also hypothesize that the gravel and marine material burying the Lechaion basilica is a result of tsunami backflow, ultimately suggesting a large 6th century AD tsunami. They also suggest that beachrock in the area may be related to the tsunami.


Vibracoring (Korphos) Eduard Reinhardt, Fleur Leslie, Lee Anderson, Richard Rothaus


Vibracoring (Lechaion) Fleur Leslie

Hadler and colleagues make some interesting suggestions, but I am not fully convinced. The beachrock idea is new to me, and I am still researching that.  The idea that the Lechaion basilica was buried by tsunami backflow I find least convincing, despite the added geophysical evidence of backflow provided by Koster et al.  The harbor, beach, and basilica lie just above sea-level and are well within the reach of storm surges.  In many years of working in the area I have seen storm surges cover and uncover archaeological features in and around the harbor. Postulating a tsunami seems unnecessary.  A few extremely large storm surges could create the same backwash and burying effect.  The good news is that this is a “knowable unknown.”  Careful excavation or coring of these sediments would allow grain-size analysis to be conducted.  Variations in grain-size (or lack thereof) would very likely identify the number and timing of events responsible for burying the basilica.

I also think, however, that the archaeological record at the basilica is very complicated. Many visitors have asked the obvious while gazing upon the foundations of the folorn basilica: where is the rest of the building?  The answer is, of course, all over. The blocks and columns and walls were carted away for reuse.  Disassembling and removing what was at the time the largest basilica in the world created a huge amount of debris and disturbance.  I think some of the materials burying the basilica remnants are a byproduct of that work.  But that also is something careful study could identify.

DSCN8019 (CM)

Part of the Lechaion Basilica with the inner harbor (white) in center-left and Acrocorinth in the background.

Hadler et al. also identify tsunamigenic elements in their cores.  This I find more intriguing but complicated by the same issues holding back our study.  The deposition of sediments in the harbor is controlled by multiple phenomena.  The shallow harbor of Lechaion is particularly difficult for two reasons.  The first is coseismic uplift.  The entire coastline is being uplifted, and there has been uplift since the harbor was constructed.  When uplift occurred, the harbor would have been isolated from the Gulf.  Over time the topography of the gravel beach would have shifted from steep to level, and eventually a storm surge would push itself into the harbor.  As uplift repeated, so would these events.  But a second issue makes this even more complicated.  The level of the Corinthian Gulf has risen about a meter since Roman times.  Sea level rise has been gradual, and this is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to identify in sediment cores.  Combine that sea level rise with uplift, storm surges, and possibly tsunamis and you have a very complex record indeed.  This is one reason why the results of our study at Korphos, a Corinthian harbor that is subsiding, have already been published–the variables are easier to control when coastlines are going down than when they are going up. The tsunami hypothesis is intriguing, and gives us one more factor to consider.

DSCN8005 (CM)

Lechaion Basilica from the west, with dredge mound visible in distance

In sum, the authors provide some much needed hard evidence in the consideration of the geological and archaeological history of the Lechaion harbor and basilica. Their data, if incorporated into a study that controls for all the environmental variables, will be a valuable contribution indeed.  On a personal level, I also am happy to see independent confirmation of my idea that localized tsunamis are something we need to be considering. That idea took us into the heart of disasters in 1999-2001 and I like to think the difficulties were worthwhile.

St. Leonidas and the Seven Virgins, Martyrs, April 16

On the eve of the start of Holy Week in both western and eastern churches, it is appropriate to highlight the life of Leonidas and companions, martyred for their faith in Corinth while celebrating Pascha sometime in the mid-third century AD.

The Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church notes April 16 as the day commemorating the martyrdom of Leonidas, Charissa, Nike, Galina, Kalisa, Nunekhia, Vasilissa, and Theodora.  Like most Corinthian saints, we know very little about Leonidas, and even less about his companions.  His fame certainly paralleled Kodratos, martyr and bishop of Corinth, and clearly he numbered among Corinth’s most famous saints and church leaders.  The site of his martyrdom (west of the harbor Lechaion) was historically associated with an enormous basilica-style church of 6th century date–among the largest early Christian basilicas  of the eastern Mediterranean.

Leonidas and the seven virgins

Leonidas and the seven virgins are listed in the Acta Sanctorum, April, II, as part of a larger group of Corinthian martyrs celebrated on April 16.  But as the editors of AS explain, some of these names reflect different documentary traditions of the martyrdom of Leonidas.

Callistus, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Charisius, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Leonides, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Christiana, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Galla, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Theodora, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Lota, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Tertia, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Caristus, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Chariessa, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Nice, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Gallena, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Nunechia, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Basilissa, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)
Calis, Martyr, Corinthi in Achaia (S.)

Acta Sanctorum, April, II, pp. 402-404, also collects the different manuscript traditions for their suffering, and these different ancient and medieval traditions explain the variety in modern accounts of their passion.  It would be valuable at some point to post English translations of these different accounts.  For now, we can provide two brief overviews.

The Orthodox Church of America provides this brief summary:

The Holy Martyr Leonidas and the Holy Martyrs Charissa, Nike, Galina, Kalisa (Kalida), Nunekhia, Basilissa, and Theodora suffered at Corinth in the year 258. They threw them into the sea, but they did not drown. Instead, they walked upon the water as if on dry land, singing spiritual hymns. The torturers overtook them in a ship, tied stones around their necks and drowned them.


John Sanidopoulos of the Mystagogy blog produced a useful overview of Leonidas (“Newly-Revealed Martyrs Leonidas and His Companions“) which summarizes his life, details his modern veneration in New Epidaurus and Troezen, and describes the Lechaion basilica. Sanidopoulos provides a short bibliography and links to additional material, including Bill Caraher’s interesting piece,  “Some Thoughts on St. Leonidas and Baptism in Lechaion in Greece”  that highlighted the relationship between the martyr account of death by sea, the sacrament of baptism, his death on holy Saturday, and the position of the Lechaion basilica on the coast.  Sanidopoulos’  summary:

Leonidas was a teacher of the Church in Troezen of Peloponnesos. He was brought to Corinth for trial for his Christian faith before the governor Venousto during Holy Week along with the seven women who were later martyred with him. Venousto tried to convince Saint Leonidas and the seven women to recant their faith, but they remained steadfast. Saint Leonidas was tortured by being hung up high and scraped with a sharp instrument. When all tortures failed, Venousto condemned them all to be drowned in the Gulf of Corinth.

Before being thrown into the sea, Saint Leonidas looked up to heaven and said: “Behold! And with this second baptism today have I been baptized, which makes the man within us more clean.” They were thrown into the sea but the sea received them not. They walked upon the sea as upon dry land and it is said that Saint Charissa sang to God with the words of the Prophetess Mariam: “On the field of battle, I ran O Lord, and the army pursued me; O Lord I did not deny You; O Lord, save my soul!” Seeing them, the heathens, at first were amazed, but after they overtook them in a ship as the saints continued chanting the hymn. They tied stones around their necks and again threw them into the depths of the sea and they drowned. Their martyrdom occurred on Holy Saturday.

Their martyrology dating from the 13th century offers the following note after the bodies of the martyrs were washed ashore: “Pious men, dragging the bodies of the saints lying on the beach, having attended to them in honor they buried them, having built a church on the spot, where [the bodies], both augustly venerated and extolled everlastingly, to those who approach faithfully they make to gush out healings each time.”[1]

In several of the manuscript traditions, the group was arrested on Saturday evening, while singing hymns as part of the Easter vigil.

Further Reading:

Another summary of the passion can be found on pp. 450-452 of V. Limberis, “Ecclesiastical Ambiguities: Corinth in the Fourth and Fifth Century,” in Schowalter and Friesen (eds.), Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, Cambridge, MA 2005, 443-457.  And Amelia Brown, in her recent dissertation on Late Roman Corinth, also discusses the life briefly and includes citations to the different hagiographic sources.

The Lechaion Basilica and Baptistery were excavated by the Greek archaeologist Demitrios Pallas in the late 1950s, and published in modern Greek in the 1960s.  Useful English summaries and analyses of the site, the architecture, chronology, and the historical significance of the monument can be found in:

William Caraher, Church, Society, and the Sacred in Early Christian Greece (Dissertation, Ohio State 2003)

Richard Rothaus, Corinth:The First City of Greece, Leiden 2000. [see also his article on Lechaion]

G.D.R. Sanders, “Archaeological Evidence for Early Christianity and the End of Hellenic Religion in Corinth,” in Schowalter and S.J. Friesen (eds.), Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, Cambridge, MA, 2005, 419-42.

Dissertating Corinth

The American School of Classical Studies’ website has a nice piece on Angela Ziskowski’s recently defended dissertation The Construction of Corinthian Identity in the Early Iron Age and Archaic Period. As Angela describes her work there:

My work on this topic focused on whether or not archaeological remains and literary testimonia from the city and region of Corinth could provide evidence for the construction of civic and cultural identity.  My study considered the topography and resources of the region, production practices, ceramic and epigraphic remains, iconography, as well as cultic institutions to allow the question of identity construction to be considered from many angles.  Through this synthetic approach, I tried to offer a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of how the early city of Corinth created its own civic identity and successfully differentiated itself from neighboring regions.

Angela joins a number of recently completed PhD dissertations in different fields (Classics, Classical Archaeology, and History) that have brought together archaeological, textual, epigraphical, and environmental evidence to speak to broad cultural issues.

The ASCSA website lists five other dissertations on Corinth completed in the last two years.  I was curious about the dissertations on the Corinthia (broadly defined) over the last decade and ran a search in Worldcat on doctoral dissertations with keywords Corinth*, Kenchreai, Nemea, Isthm*, and Lechaion. The search generated 454 hits!  Some of these hits are redundant probably because the dissertations are owned by several universities that have classified them differently.  A few relate to medical studies (isthm* is responsible here) and the Battles of Corinth (the American civil war, not that of 146 BC).  But the great majority of those dissertations–say, 75% or more–center on some aspect of 1 and 2 Corinthians.  I’ve said it before: it must be tiring for New Testament scholars to keep up with the scholarship.

So, as I often do, I compiled a list of archaeology and history dissertations completed since 2000.  No doubt incomplete and I’m sure I have left off some (your!) important study. But the list gives you a sense of some of the trends in the field.  Of the 21 dissertations in process, defended, or completed, some patterns:

1. Archaic-Hellenistic: Studies of the  Corinthia / NE Peloponnese of the period of the polis dominate but these studies cover the full range from the Early Iron Age to Hellenistic.

2. Late Antiquity: some 7 dissertations focus on the late Roman Corinthia or deal with it as part of the study of the Roman Corinthia, although that number could in part reflect my own knowledge of the dissertations.  Only 3 studies focus on the Earlier Roman period.  Most “Roman” studies go into Late Antiquity.

3. Materials: Ceramic studies are most common (n=4) but in general, we find variety: wall paintings, coinage, architecture, fountains, walls, baths

4. Landscape: countryside, territory, and cultural landscapes are the focal points of several studies and frame / complement many of the other studies.  Corinth in broader context.

5. Archaeology and history: more archaeological discussions here than historical but many of the studies consider the textual evidence, and most of the archaeological studies frame their studies within broader contexts (social, economic, cultural): “a contextual study,” “the culture of water,” “mortuary practices”, “language of reuse”, “production and distribution”

Three new papers on the Roman Corinthia and Isthmus

A new book on Hellenistic to Roman Corinth called Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality is now in the works.  The volume is edited by Friesen, James, and Schowalter and is based on the conference in Austin in early October which brought together archaeologists, historians, and New Testament scholars to discuss the topic of inequality and contrast in the ancient city.  Two earlier posts about the conference can be found  here and here.

If you’re interested in the Roman Corinthia or Isthmus, three working papers have been posted online.  These are drafts that will undoubtedly change as the papers are reviewed and edited, but they provide a sense of how the Isthmus fits well within a discussion of inequality and contrast.  Agriculture and land use, commerce and transit, and imperial monuments.  That about sums up the common conceptions of the isthmus in antiquity.

Guy Sander’s piece, “Landlords and Tenants: Sharecroppers and Subsistence Farming in Corinthian Historical Context,”  examines documentary evidence for peasant farming, land use, sharecropping, and land and taxes in the Peloponnese in recent centuries (16th-19th) and makes comparisons to the growing Roman colony of the first century.

Bill Caraher’s chapter, “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City,” examines the theme of resistance to imperial action evident in the landscape of the Corinthia in the 6th century AD, and discusses the early Christian basilicas of territory, settlement patterns (from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey), the Hexamilion fortification wall, and Corinthian theology.

My piece, “The Diolkos and the Emporium: How a Land Bridge Framed the Commercial Economy of Roman Corinth,” examines ancient conceptions for how the Isthmus shaped the economy of the city.  I argue that the diolkos played almost no role in ancient conception while the emporium in the harbors of Kenchreai and Lechaion were central to the ancient image of the economy of the city.  The piece can be downloaded here, and I’ve embedded it in the document below.

The Commercial Facility of the Isthmus

Bill Caraher has given us additional thoughts about some graffiti text on a wall of the baptistery of the Lechaion Basilica — observations that will be part of his presentation for the Corinth in Contrast Conference at the upcoming University of Texas.  I myself have been finishing up my own presentation on “Turning Profit on the Isthmus of Corinth: The Commercial Facility of an Ancient Land Bridge.” My talk addresses the question of how Corinth’s isthmus contributed to the wealth of the city in antiquity.

The question has a long history.  Thucydides was the first to raise it in the 5th century BC when he pinned Corinth’s wealth and power on its position on an isthmus.  But the question circulated widely throughout antiquity.  In the modern period, since the 19th century,  scholars have argued that Corinth’s territory facilitated wealth in four ways: 1) through its agricultural productivity; 2) through the services provided to passing travelers; 3) through the trans-shipment of goods in long-distant trade routes; and 4) through commercial markets.

The first of these has been the subject of recent archaeological  research on the agricultural orientation of the Roman  colony and the meaning of the patterns of land division still visible in the landscape today.  The second was the subject of Engel’s interesting and controversial work Roman Corinth (1990) which argue that the Corinthian economy in the Roman era was based not on agriculture but on the services provided (religious, political, entertainment)  provided to passing travelers.  The third explanation centers on archaeological and historical scholarship on the diolkos portage road–the idea is that the diolkos was used to trans-ship cargoes and ships from one side of the isthmus, and Corinth benefited from the portage business in the form of transport fees and transit duties.   The fourth view explains Corinthian wealth in terms of its markets.  It is largely based on the city’s ancient reputation for being a market city and trader’s depot and it is relatively unexplored in modern scholarship on the Roman city.

In my paper, I will be exploring the third and fourth view, the ones that concern the commercial facility of the Isthmus.  I will be arguing against the notion that the  diolkos was used regularly for portaging commercial ships and cargoes, and will come out in favor of the view of the land bridge as an emporium.  Stay tuned as I’ll unpack this a bit in the next two weeks.