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.

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Categories: Conferences and Presentations, Isthmus, Sites, Diolkos, Sites, Lechaion Basilica, Trade and Commerce

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