One of the most interesting bits of research I conducted during my leave last year was Nero’s doomed Corinth Canal project of 67-68 AD. The enterprise, its failure, and subsequent condemnation form a key chapter in the book I’m finishing on the Isthmus of Corinth. Historically, scholars have argued that everyone and their brother wanted to canalize the Isthmus in antiquity, that Nero was simply the last in a long line of would be canal-cutters. In the chapter, I try to outline Nero’s attempt within the immediate historical context of the AD 60s rather than some age old desire to canalize the Isthmus.
I’ll be posting periodically on some of this research into the canal ancient and modern. I paste below an abstract of the paper (“The Corinth Canal Project of 67-68 AD”) I will present at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in January. It’s a substantial revision of a more preliminary paper I gave at the meeting of the Association of Ancient Historians last May.
In 1881, on the eve of the enterprise to canalize the six-kilometer wide Corinthian Isthmus, the Hungarian engineer, Béla Gerster, completed a careful study of the extant remains of the Emperor Nero’s failed canal project nearly two millennia earlier. Published in a brief article in BCH and revised for his book on the modern Corinth Canal, Gerster’s description and map of the ancient trenches, pits, and mounds mark the only detailed record of the remnants before they were destroyed by the construction of the modern canal (1882-1893). While Gerster’s study of the trenches and pits documented an enormous undertaking (the excavation of half a million cubic meters of earth and stone) that indicates the seriousness of the ancient project, this information has played surprisingly little role in modern assessments of Nero’s tour of Greece and his Corinthian canal enterprise. In this paper, I discuss the remnants of the canal cuts within the context of a broader study of the Isthmus, and show how the remains shed light on the engineers’ plans for canalization, specific techniques of construction, chronology of the enterprise, amount of work remaining, and subsequent transformation of the landscape. The dimensions of the cuts, pits, and shafts highlight the Herculean nature of the task confronting the canal cutters, but also demonstrate the sensible approaches adopted by the engineers to meet the challenges of severing an 80 m high ridge of limestone, sandstone, and marl. Gerster’s record of trenches and shafts offers clues to the plans for the ancient Corinth Canal near the moment of abandonment in A.D. 68 and before Greek and Roman writers condemned the project as impossible.