Thirty New Roman Sites on the Corinthian Isthmus

I recently finished editing proofs of a chapter for the forthcoming book, “The Bridge of the Untiring Sea”: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity”. The piece, which grew out of a paper I delivered in Athens in 2007, offers a new synthesis of settlement patterns on the Isthmus during the Early Roman (44 BC-250 AD) and Late Roman (AD 250-700) periods. The synthesis pays special attention to the findings of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey carried out in the eastern territory of Corinth between 1997 and 2003 and produces a series of maps of new Roman villas, farmsteads, communities, and towns. In the chapter, I challenge the old idea—popularized by Donald Engels’ book on Roman Corinth (1990)—that the Corinthians of the Roman period did not cultivate or inhabit their territory because their town was oriented solely to commerce (an idea that has been undermined by David Romano’s study of centuriation in the region). On the contrary, I argue that a semi-continuous suburbia (what Penelope Goodman has called “urban periphery”) develops in the course of the later first and second centuries AD that extends settlement from the town center to the harbors. The documentation of 30 distinct Roman-era sites in an area of only a few square kilometers shows that the eastern hinterland of Corinth was much more densely inhabited than scholars have previously estimated.

The figure below shows 26 high-density sites of the Late Roman period.


Here’s a taste of the piece from the introduction. When I receive a final PDF copy of the published article, I’ll post a full version to Academia or Research Gate.

Since Thucydides wrote his famous account of the growth of Corinthian naval power (1.13.5), the Isthmus has been central to historical interpretations of the ancient city. In the Roman era, for example, every educated person knew that a narrow neck of land had shaped the rise and fall of the Greek city and the birth of the Roman colony. Writers like Strabo claimed that the city grew wealthy due to its position on a bridge linking the maritime worlds of Asia and Italy. Others linked Corinthian geography to the city’s port-town reputation, sexual immorality and general loose living—so the proverb ran “It is not for every man to go to Corinth.” In pinning Corinthian myth, image, and fortune on the city’s eastern landscape, writers of the Roman era followed earlier Greek writers in finding historical consequences in a connecting Isthmus.

Given the frequent mentions of territory in ancient discussions of Corinth, it seems paradoxical that textual sources provide so little information about actual land use and settlement in the Greek or Roman era. Ancient writers discussed Corinthian territory frequently enough, but their interests lay in a few places like Isthmia, Kenchreai, and Lechaion that were famous by association with historical events and people. For example, when Pausanias described the route from Isthmia and Kenchreai to Corinth in the mid-2nd century a.d. (2.1.6–2.2.3), he noted nothing in-between except for Helen’s Bath and a few noteworthy tombs. No writer of the Roman period gave serious attention to patterns of land use or habitation in Corinthian territory.

Scholars who have read such sources literally have interpreted Corinth as a commercial town, lacking agricultural orientation and rural dwellings. Most scholars, however, have highlighted the biases of ancient sources and developed alternative views based on the study of the territory’s natural resources and archaeological remains. In his survey of the Archaic and Classical city, for example, Salmon argued that literary sources mislead: arable land, rather than commerce, was the fundamental economic resource base for the Hellenic city. Studies of centuriation patterns have shown the Roman colony’s agricultural orientation from its foundation, despite the near absence of written testimony. Other recent scholarship has pointed to the array of natural resources in the territory, such as timber, limestone, clay, honey, and marine resources. None of these resources appear prominently in the ancient textual tradition but each was an important component of the local economy.

The archaeological investigation of regions has contributed to this discussion by producing independent and localized evidence for settlement and land use. Archaeological investigations in the Corinthia in the last half century have filled out the territory with towns, villas, farms, sanctuaries, churches, graves, baths, and fortification walls (Fig. 14.1). The investigations that brought these sites to light have included rescue excavations by the Greek Archaeological Service, official excavations by the Archaeological Service and Ministry of Culture, the American School of Classical Studies’s excavations at Kenchreai and the Isthmian Sanctuary of Poseidon, extensive topographic surveys by Sakellariou and Faraklas and Wiseman, and intensive surveys directed by Gregory, Kardulias, and Pullen. Yet, despite all this work and its implications for interpreting the social, economic, and cultural character of Roman Corinth, there have been few attempts to synthesize the findings.

My purpose in this study is to fill a gap in modern scholarship by offering a summary description and interpretation of Roman settlement patterns on the Isthmus. The substance of this chapter is a discussion of the results of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey (EKAS) as they relate to patterns in (a) the chronology of land use during the Roman period; (b) the concentration and spatial distribution of settlement; and (c) the types of settlement (ephemeral occupations and farmsteads, villas, communities, and towns). In the final section, I argue that the patterns of settlement documented for the Isthmus—the intensive habitation and cultivation, numerous elite buildings, variety of habitation, and continuous built environment—are not “nucleated” or “dispersed” as scholars have often suggested, but rather, “urban periphery.” This study, then, introduces a new body of evidence relevant to age-old assessments of Corinth’s economy and establishes a building block for subsequent historical discussions and interpretations of the Roman city in its territory.


Categories: Agriculture, Demography, Economy, EKAS (Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey), Isthmus, Late Antiquity, Periods, Late Antiquity, Periods, Roman, Territory, Trade and Commerce

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