Last week I had the chance to visit Grand Forks, North Dakota, and give a talk on the subject of “Setting the Stage for St. Paul’s Corinth: How an Isthmus Determined the Character of a Roman City.” It was great to visit Grand Forks and the University of North Dakota especially as the weather was so pleasant. Thanks to Bill Caraher, the Department of History, and the 2010 Cyprus Research Fund for sponsoring my visit. The crowd that came out asked a round of great questions about the environment, religion in Corinth, and the nature of ancient evidence. The full talk was recorded as a podcast that is available here.
Here’s a brief synopsis of the talk:
Why was Corinth so commonly associated in antiquity with travel and trade? How should we understand that widely-circulating proverb “it is not for every man to sail to Corinth”? In the talk, I discussed how ancient writers pinned Corinth’s history, power, character, uniqueness on its proximity to an isthmus: in ancient conception, the land bridge determined the character of the city. I then asked the question of how exactly Greek and Roman writers understood the land bridge influencing the city’s development and character. The ancients did not conceive of the isthmus as a commercial thoroughfare for ships and cargoes, or think that portaging via a diolkos road made the city wealthy, but they did consistently represent it as a marketplace for the exchange of goods. The final part of the talk examined whether archaeological evidence supported the ancient view of the Corinthia as a region with greater commercial connectivity than other places. Examining the evidence from the Eastern Korinthia Survey, I suggested that the region was in fact more oriented to commerce over the broad Roman era than many other territories. My conclusions pretty much as I gave them in Grand Forks:
First, when thinking about a city like Corinth, and St. Paul’s community there, it is important to not dwell in the urban center alone. If territory was always important for ancient cities, it was especially significant for Corinth. Ancient authors consistently discuss Corinth in terms of the concentrated economic exchanges across the landscape and especially in the ports and the biannual fair at Isthmia. Kenchreai, Lechaion, and Isthmia were important bustling places in the landscape and integral to the regional economy. It is surely not mere coincidence that we hear of Kenchreai developing its own separate church community with a famous deaconess named Phoebe.
Second, archaeology has demonstrated how important is a regional framework for understanding Roman Corinth’s economy. The urban center, the sanctuary at Isthmia, the lands, the scattered villas and farms across the Isthmus created an integrated economy of production and exchange that constantly interlinked the city center, suburbs, and seascape together. Archaeological investigations in town and country have shown that the Corinthia was more connected to markets than many other regions of the eastern Mediterranean. This ‘connectivity’ and orientation to markets provides the backdrop to understanding both the literary anecdotes about Corinth and Paul’s community in crisis.
Third, the Corinthia was a place to which people voyaged, not simply a region that people passed through. People visited the Isthmus for a variety of reasons, not least of which was to conduct trade and business. This may well have been a motivation for St. Paul himself who knew that here on the Isthmus he would meet bustling crowds associated with the market places, the tourist sites, and the Isthmian games.