Late Antiquity in the Western Argolid

The Western Argolid Regional Project has the distinct benefit of two senior staff members who specialize in Late Antiquity. Scott Gallimore, one of the co-directors, recently finished a dissertation on Late Roman Crete, and people who read this blog should be pretty aware of my interest in that period

This concentration on the Late Antiquity is, at first blush, appropriate for a project in the Argolid which scholars have long understood to be a center of activity in this period. The city of Argos, for example, appeared on most of the prominent Late Antique geographies, and had a prominent bishop in Late Antiquity who attended the council of Constantinople in 381, Chacedon in 451, and Constantinople II in 680. The ancient city was riddled with Early Christian basilicas, cemeteries, and mosaic fragments of Late Roman date. So-called, “slavic” pottery, appeared in Argos suggesting that it saw a change in material culture consistent with sites elsewhere in the northeastern Peloponnesus.

Outside of Argos, there is evidence for rather intensive activities throughout the coastal region of the Argolic Gulf. The village of Myloi, where we stay, produced a Late Roman building, probably an exurban villa, of Late Roman date, and Late Roman activity extended inland from there around the village of Skaphadaki. Across the Gulf, Nauplion produced inscriptions of the 4th century (and an informal walk through town reveals spolia of Late Antique date) and a villa was discovered near the site of Asine – better known for its earlier remains. In the well-explored Southern Argolid, Halieis and Hermione witnessed signifiant activities in Late Antiquity with the former a production center for Late Roman 2 amphora and the latter featuring a Early Christian basilica complex with impressive mosaics and inscriptions mentioning a bishop Hermias. Troezene appears in Hierokles and was a center of ecclesiastical activity with a basilica and inscriptions, and despite its coastal location it appears to have survived into the 8th century with a bishop appearing at the Second Council of Nicaea reinforced with evidence from seals. The churches in the area of Epidauros are well-known and long thought to be among the earliest in Greece (on the dubious basis of architectural style). At Ano Epidauros a substantial quantity of Late Antique activity appeared, including the intriguing church at Lailoteika which may date to the 7th century or later. Scholars have long debated the reason for the Late Antique flourishing of activity on the small islands of the Saronic Gulf like Spetses, Dolkos, and Chinitsa which seems to have continued in the 7th century.   

The Late Romans did not spare the Argolid’s famous Bronze Age sites, with the neighborhood of Limnes, Prosymna, and the mighty Tiryns producing Early Christian graves and the citadel of Midea featuring activities in the 5th or 6th centuries. 

To use a vivid Appalachian saying: you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Late Roman or Early Christian remains in the Argolid.

In contrast, the valleys of the Western Argolid including our survey area which follows the upper reaches of the Inachos River from the village of Kaparelli east through Lyrkeia and ancient Orneai, toward Sterna and the northwestern suburbs of  Argos. This region is a blank space without almost no published sites of Late Roman date. In fact, the most prominent Late Roman site in our survey area appears in a two-page reference to some Early Christian remains around the village of Lyrkeia by Dimitrios Pallas in the ADeltion of 1960 (pp. 100-101). 

Needless to say, this is odd. The valley bottom is fertile and the river provided a transportation route between the densely settled Argive plains and Arcadia which continued to prosper at least judging from the numerous buildings of Late Roman in this region. Moreover, the (relatively) easily traversed passes, strategic hill tops, and accessible valley walls, presented exactly the kind of topography to attract the attention of Late Roman military planners. This kind of “marginal land” also tended to attract Late Roman settlement. Recent scholarship has seen 5th and the first half of the 6th centuries as a period of population growth and settlement expansion manifest in monumental architecture and extensive trade in easily recognized ceramic types. In other words, the upper Inachos valley is exactly the kind of place where you’d expect Late Roman activity.

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