The Diolkos of David Pettegrew

It was pretty exciting to see David Pettegrew’s long-previewed work on the diolkos of Corinth appear this weekend in the American Journal of Archaeology (“The Diolkos of Corinth,” AJA 115 (2011), 549-574).  I was fortunate enough to hear versions of his argument both here at the University of North Dakota and at a conference on Corinth at the University of Texas in the early autumn.


Pettegrew argues that our long-held idea of the diolkos as a major thoroughfare across the Corinthian Isthmus is mistaken. Since the 19th century, the diolkos has stood as a stone paved road that allowed enterprising Corinthians to move ships and their cargos across the isthmus from the Corinthian to the Saronic Gulf. Pettegrew showed that the literary accounts of the efforts to move vessels across the Isthmus mostly described heroic events rather than everyday occurrences. Moreover, he noted that the effort and risk required to move even modest sized vessels across the Isthmus would have made the practice economically unfeasible. Finally, he showed that there was little evidence for regular traffic in ceramics across the Isthmus. The assemblages produced at sites to the west and east of the Isthmus corridor appear be rather different particularly in the Roman period with eastern wares (like Eastern Sigillata A and B) appearing far more frequently in the East and Western Sigillatas appearing far more frequently to the west of the Isthmus.

I do wonder, however, whether the idea of moving ships across the Isthmus as a way to move goods is somewhat a red herring. It occurred to me that for a coasting merchant (or caboteur) the ship itself might always exceed the value of an individual cargo. In fact, if the way a caboteur made a living is by constantly moving many small cargos along the coast. If we follow recent thinking on the ancient economy which emphasized the highly fragmented nature of local production (dictated by micro-climates and micro-regions), there might be times when it was advantageous to move a smaller coasting vessel from one gulf to the other across the Isthmus in order to take advantage of shifts in production or markets. A merchant in Corinth could have maintained familiarity with both markets and their regional nature (as Pettegrew demonstrated in his discussion of the different distribution of fine wares and transport vessels) might have allowed them to function quite autonomously from one another.  For example, a disaster, like an earthquake in the Gulf of Corinth might have disrupted economic activities there to such an extent that an enterprising merchant might take his vessel and move to the Saronic until the regional economy equalized again. For this kind of flexibility to economically viable, all we need to do is imagine that moving a ship across the Isthmus was less expensive than purchasing a new vessel in the opposite Gulf (and that a coasting merchant would have the capital to take advantage of such an opportunity). Furthermore, seeing the occasional movement of small vessels from one Gulf to the other would not undermine Pettegrew’s main point that the massive movement of large military vessels from one gulf to the other was a heroic stratagem based on the scale of the portage alone.

Pettegrew’s article represents more than just a dismantling of the Diolkos myth. He strikes another blow against our heroic view of the past where remarkable feats of engineering were everyday occurrences. In fact, Pettegrew points out that something as accepted as moving ships across the Isthmus would have been a tremendously expensive, taxing, and dangerous operation. The amount of manpower required to move vessels on a regular basis would have been mind boggling (or mind-bottling).

It is interesting that the archaeologists who perpetuated this idea in the 19th century (and I am painting with broad brushstrokes here) hailed themselves from age of heroic industry.  In some ways, they represented the same world and nation building fantasies that produced the Corinth Canal (1881-1893) (as well as the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Railroad (and eventually the Panama Canal), et c.). Picturing the ancient world through such heroic eyes would have aligned the ancient and the modern in a way that confirmed the place of ancient Greece as the foundation of the contemporary age. It goes without saying that archaeology not only perpetuated imperialism and globalization, but worked to normalize these views of the world through the study of the past.  As the economic foundations of our own age receive increasingly vigorous critique (see: Occupy Wall Street), it makes sense that we critique views of the past grounded in the same imperialist and capitalist expectations.

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