Hellenistic Corinth

Over the last few weeks I’ve bee reading Mike Dixon’s new book: Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Corinth, 338-196 BC for a book review. As with so many of my plans, I had hoped to have a draft of the book review done by the end of September. It doesn’t look like that will happen, so instead, I’ll write a blog post that can serve as a rough draft of the review and to capture my impressions on the book before they get washed out by a million other little projects.

Dixon’s work on the Hellenistic Corinth was eagerly anticipated. His 2000 dissertation on interstate arbitration in the northeastern Peloponnesus became a convenient guide to the unpublished antiquities and general topography of the southeastern Corinthia. It was among the finest of a group of topographic dissertations focusing on the northeastern Peloponnesus in Greek antiquity. In this work he demonstrated that he was a conscientious reader of archaeological landscapes, and he brought this same care to his reading of the political landscape of the Hellenistic Corinthia.

There is much to like in this book.

First, it appears at a time when the Hellenistic world is enjoying a renaissance and the archaeology of Hellenistic Corinthia will get its share. The publication of Sarah James’ dissertation, the imminent publication of the Rachi settlement above the sanctuary at Isthmia, and David Pettegrew’s soon to be published monograph on the historical periods on the Isthmus, and even my own modest contributions to the fortification and topography of the Late Classical and Hellenistic Corinthia demonstrate the extent of scholarly interest in this period and this place. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Hellenistic period is the new Late Antiquity. 

Dixon’s book provides a single destination for the literary sources central to the basic narrative of the Hellenistic period at Corinth. This alone makes the book valuable to scholars of the Corinthia. Dixon’s argument that the Corinthian polis negotiated its relationship with its Macedonian rulers through the strategic deployment of eunoia, or reciprocal goodwill, is likely to attract critique, but it is consistent with how scholars like John Ma have understood the relationship between cities and Hellenistic rulers.

Dixon’s book is explicitly and almost exclusively political in scope, and he creatively weaves together the admittedly limited sources for the city’s political life throughout this period. At times, Dixon’s work feels a bit speculative. For example, his efforts to understand why Corinth did not return the actor Thessalos who had fled to Corinth after angering Phillip II for attempting to arrange a marriage alliance on Alexander’s behalf. Dixon offers several possible scenarios to explain why Corinth defied Phillip’s request despite having a Macedonian garrison there. Dixon proposes (albeit gently) that Thessalos could be a Corinthian and this accounted for his confidence in fleeing to the city. The reason for Corinth’s failure to comply and endangering eunoia with the Macedonian dynasty remains unclear, and Dixon’s speculation adds little substantive to his arguments. In fact, if more evidence existed for Corinth during this period, it would be tempting to reject the historicity of the Thessalos affair and the letter of Phillip as many scholars have and move on. In Dixon’s defense, he marks his treatment of this affair as speculative, and I tend to appreciate his willingness to explore the limited sources fully, but to others these red herrings may detract from his overall arguments.

More problematic in Dixon’s work is his tendency to read the behavior of the city as monolithic in its motivation. For example, I struggled to discern the strategy of eunoia from the goals of the Corinthian state. Even when a Macedonian garrison watched over the city of Acrocorinth, there must have existed factions within the Corinthian demos who sought not only different ends but also different means to these end. For example, in the complex political wrangling that involved Corinth’s relationship with the Achaean League and the political influence of Aratos of Sikyon, some of Corinth’s vacillating might reveal political factions within the city who had varied interests rather than the pivot of the entire city based on proximate military or diplomatic threats. 

While we lack the sources to confirm the existence of these factions, Dixon’s reading of the Corinthian politics assumes certain strategic understandings of power relations in the Hellenistic world. In recent years, the study of Hellenistic diplomacy and practical political theory has enjoyed renewed attention. My entrance into these debates came through Michael Fronda’s book on the diplomatic moves of Hannibal and the Greek cities of south Italy during the Second Punic War. Dixon’s book and arguments would have been stronger had he engaged some of this recent scholarship more fully to frame his work in a larger historiographic and theoretical context. Whether this would have revealed more nuanced readings of Corinth’s diplomatic history is difficult to know, but it certainly would have linked the history of this important city more clearly to ongoing discussions on interstate relations in the ancient world. 

I would have also enjoyed a more thorough treatment of archaeological work outside of the immediate environs of the city. Dixon’s dissertation and experience excavating at Corinth demonstrated his archaeological chops, and he dedicates a chapter to the archaeology of the Hellenistic period on the Isthmus. Most this chapter focused on major monuments and sanctuaries, and most of his critical engagement with recent archaeological work in the region appears only in his footnotes. For example, it would have been useful to understand how Dixon understood David Pettegrew’s recent skepticism toward the economic significance of the diolkos. I have also valued Dixon’s take on the various remains fortifications from the Late Classical and Hellenistic period throughout the Corinthia. Understanding the strategies employed by various Macedonian monarchs (and invading armies) to fortify or garrison the city’s chora might provide insights into how recognized Corinth’s military value in a regional context as well as their approach to protecting the city’s  economic foundation in the countryside.

In general, my desire for greater attention to archaeological detail and efforts to connect Corinthian diplomatic practices to ongoing discussions within the field reflect more my interest and the book that I’d like to see, than any shortcoming on Dixon’s part. 

Finally, (and I say this with the trepidation of someone who just published a book) I wish these Routledge books were better copy edited. While copy editing problems never obscured the meaning of the text, they were frequent enough to be distracting. Things like this, however, do not detract from the book’s over all value. It’ll be the first book on a new shelf in my library ready to receive the fruits of the impending Hellenistic revival.   

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s