The Fortifications of Athens

This past month, Hesperia published a massive article by Anna Maria Theocharaki, “The Ancient Circuit Wall of Athens: Its Changing Course and Phases of Construction,” Hesperia 80 (2011), 71-156 (yep, it’s 80+ pages!). The article is the culmination of years (if not decades) of painstaking work reconstructing the courses of the various fortification walls of the city.  She begins with a discussion of possible Archaic walls and then goes on the identify at least 15 phases of construction and reconstruction. She locates the walls, towers, gates, moats, curtain walls, and proteichisma in the built up Athenian urban landscape on the basis of excavation reports and personal autopsy.  She then re-imposed these fragments of fortification onto the map of Athens allowing which then allowed for adjustments and reinterpretation on the basis of the urban topography and relative position of preserve sections of the wall.  She complemented her observations and arguments on the course of the fortification wall with tables, appendices, photographs, and plans. Her article is a monument to synthetic archaeological description.

The extensive scope and potentially overwhelming amount of detail in article provided a foundation for some ruminations on the state of Greek archaeology, archaeological publication, and the dreaded master narrative. Most of my comments below are not directed toward this particular article, but rather reflections that this article stimulated.

1. Digital Publication. The amount of detail in this article is truly staggering. It stretches for over 80 pages and must have required a massive amount of energy to lay-out, edit, and arrange.  It’s rather remarkable in this day-in-age that such an article could appear in a first-quality journal like Hesperia known as much for its exacting editing as its high-quality physical appearance.  What makes this more amazing is that the author is quite clear that the information in this article derives from a georeferenced-GIS dataset (77). In other words, the Hesperia version of this article in a re-analogization of a digital dataset.  The level of detail in the article and tabular arrangement of much of the information almost begs for some ambitious graduate student to redigitize the Theocharaki’s findings and essentially reproduce significant parts of her GIS plans and tables.  The point of mentioning this is simply to observe that the publication of this article on paper actually made the data contained in it less useful to the end user than the material in its original, presumably digital, form.  And this would seem to run counter to some of the basic goals of publication.

While I understand the decision to publish an article in particular format is tied to institutional politics, careful understandings of readership and audience, and basic logistic concerns (expertise, manpower, infrastructure), it is worth noting that Theocharaki’s article represents 2-4 “typical” Hesperia articles in length and perhaps much more in terms of details to be edited and printing costs.

In short, this article alone – well-edited, elegantly laid-out, and colorfully-illustrated though it is – represents the single best argument for why top-tier archaeological journals like Hesperia must embrace a digital future.

2. Context and Athenian Archaeology. One of the great things about the archaeology of Athens is it is the center of its own universe.  After all, to paraphrase an recent movie “This is ATHENS”.  Taking nothing away from the quality of the article, it is remarkable that there is almost no comparative evidence for the fortifications of the city. In fact, (and this frankly blew my mind), neither the article cites neither Josiah Ober’s or Mark Munn’s work on the fortifications of Attica, nor any of Garth Fowden’s critical discussions of the Late Roman fortifications of Athens or Attica.  It goes without saying that there is almost no discussion or comparisons with fortifications outside of Attica or goals and techniques of Greek fortifications elsewhere in the Mediterranean world (although to be fair LawrenceWinter, and Pringle were cited).  I suspect that Athens is the only city where it is possible to publish such a sweeping, highly-detailed, and lengthy article on the fortification of any other city in the Eastern Mediterranean without some consideration of at least local comparanda and discussion of larger strategic implications.  Athens has a special place in the history of the discipline that allows for a kind of scholarship whose relevance and significance is autochthonous.

3. The End of Antiquity.  When I got my copy of this article, I dutifully read the introduction and then flipped to the later phases of the fortifications to see if her work shed additional light on the city in Late Antiquity.  I am not sure whether her careful enumeration of wall finds has added much to our knowledge of the city in Late Antiquity, and I share Fowden’s skepticism of sweeping assumptions about Justinian’s role in refortifying the city and find, with the author (p. 136), that dating based on construction style alone problematic (albeit sometimes necessary).

Finally, I appreciated the olde skool concluding sentiments in a kind of hyperreal, post-ironic way:

Following the period of Justinian, as Athens became increasingly detached from its glorious past, written testimonia and archaeological data concerning the city become even more scarce, and the observation holds true especially in respect to the poorly documented Byzantine period of Athens. Our next evidence related to the Athenian wall is provided six centuries later, in Byzantine texts of the 12th century.218 The Metropolitan of Athens Michael Choniates vividly depicted the deplorable condition to which the unwalled city had been reduced at his time, and he was forced to surrender the city to the Franks without mounting any resistance.

All criticism aside, this article represents an important synthetic landmark in our understanding of the topography of Athens. It will form the basis for an almost unimaginable number of sitereports for Regular Members at the American School of Classical Studies for years to come.

One Comment

  1. Dallas DeForest April 27, 2011 at 8:54 am


    Nice on no. 2. Slipping in “autochthonous” can’t be an easy thing.



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