Some Musings on Hellenistic Fortification

This past week I’ve been enjoying Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology. The book takes a reflective, photographic journey along the coastal defenses erected by Hitler’s army to defend his Fortress Europa from an Atlantic invasion. The photographs and essays are haunting. The massive, modern, brutally functional fortifications, watchtowers, batteries, and bunkers served to protect Hitler’s vision of a unified, German Europe, on a resistant population.

It got me to think a bit more about the fortification on our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Like Hitlers Atlantic Wall, the fort at the site of Vigla was likely built by the Hellenistic rulers of Cyprus sometime in the late 4th or early 3rd century. It is situated at the edge of the territory of Kition astride a major land route to the city of Salamis and overlooking a now infilled harbor. This location is interesting because the fortification would have stood watch over the eastern flank of the city of Kition had the city remained independent. Ironically, fighting between rival claimants to Alexander’s empire infiltrated the rivalries between the Cypriot cities and led the Ptolemies to put the last king of Kition to death in 312.

The fortification at Vigla, then, continued to stand at a strategically sensitive point in the territory of Kition. Only it did not serve to protect the city as an independent polity but rather to protect the interest of Hellenistic conquerers would positioned the fortification to forestall an invasion over land (as had occurred in the Classical period) or along the coastal plain. The most cynical reading of the fortress could even see as a way to occupy a strategic point to prevent local forces from holding it.

At the same time as this fortification stood watch, the southeastern corner of the island witnessed an rapid increase in settlement. Like the Akamas peninsula in the west, numerous settlements appear east of the Pyla littoral. Presumably the expansion of settlement in this area benefited from the end of the rivalry between the independent cities of Kition and Salamis and occupied what was previously a liminal zone on the island.  New settlements may have benefited from access to markets on the southern coast of the island and the end to political and military rivalries among the island’s city kingdoms might have opened up territory to capital from new sources. On the coastal plain at Pyla-Koutsopetria, we clearly see an expansion of activities including evidence for the production of olive oil.

In this context, the fortification at Vigla stands less as site to project domination and more as a site that offers protection to the new and vulnerable communities on the coast. Ptolemy the Geographer in the 2nd century AD notes a site called Dades along the coast of Cyprus and some (including us!) have plausibly assigned this name to our site at Vigla. Both Dades and the modern name Vigla are words that could refer to a watchtower (Dades means torch and Vigla is related to English words like vigilant). It may be that our site could communicate through torches to other posts along the south coast of the island. Such torch relays could alert defenders to the appearance of hostile ships or armies.

The shift in the political organization on the island also changed the meaning of fortifications in the landscape. The line between projecting power, imposing control, and providing protection is blurry during times of dynamic political change.

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