A Corinthian Cemetery Conflict

One of the great things about working in and around Corinth is the intensity of the archaeological rivalries. Scholars in the Corinthia and endlessly “getting up in each other’s business.” Over the years this has produced some tremendously exciting, public disputes including the famous “Scotton on Rothaus on Scotton on Rothaus” debate of 2002. So, when an article has a title “A debate with K. W. Slane” and turns Slane’s 2012 article into a question, it is impossible as not to get excited (M.E.H. Walbank, “Remaining Roman in Death at Corinth: A Debate with Kathleen Slane,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 27 (2014), 403-417; K.W. Slane, “Remaining Roman in Death at an Eastern Colony,” JRA 25 (2012), 442-455) . This is like a classic Philadelphia Big 5 basketball game from the 1980s. The stakes are low, but the intensity is high.

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I was attracted to the article no only because of the opportunity to get front row seats to a Corinthian showdown, but also because I’ve been thinking about how communities on Cyprus construct identities. To do this, I’ve been looking at Late Roman church architecture and ceramics, particularly table wares. You can read a draft of my thoughts here and publish a response to it on your own blog.

Archaeologists have worked at Corinth and the Corinthia more broadly for over 100 years. As a result, the archaeological assemblage from this region is massive and complex. Roman period graves and tombs, for example, must number in the hundreds, and present an appealing body of evidence for how Corinthian denizens wanted to represent themselves at an important, and final, stage of their lives. In particular, tombs have become an important for unraveling the complex ethnic identity of Roman Corinthians. After the city’s destruction in 146 BC and later refoundation as a Roman colony, scholars have debated the relationship of Corinthian elites to the city’s Roman and pre-Roman past. Did the new Corinthian elites want to emphasize their Roman-ness and ties to Italy, or did they want to appropriate the heroic past of the Greek city? 

Slane argues in her 2012 article that Corinthian elites showed a clear affinity for Roman forms suggesting that Early Roman Corinthians continued to look to Italy as they constructed their new Corinthian identities. Walbank suggests, in contrast, that Slane has misread or misunderstood the evidence and, instead, has found much more interleaving of Italian and broadly Greek features in these tombs. In many cases, the debate comes down to different interpretations of features like benches, motifs in wall painting, and funerary practices. The evidence is often ambiguous and fragmentary. 

Funerary customs as well as urban architecture, ceramics, and religion all seem to point to a complex and, at times, pragmatic interleaving of Roman and Greek aspects in Corinthian culture. On the one hand, some features of the Greek city persisted prominently in the Roman landscape (for example, the ancient water sources around the city center) and could not be easily overwritten. Building practices, natural resources, and regional economic connections likewise shaped the kinds of decisions that the new arrivals and elites could make as to how they presented themselves to their peers and their communities. On the other hand, the authority of the newly arrived political elites in the city depended heavily on their ties to power in Italy and at Rome. In this context, it would make sense for archaeologists to identify ways in which this group demonstrated their positions of authority and the larger mechanisms of power.

Of course, looking for the Greek and Roman at Corinth runs the risk of breaking Corinthian culture into a fairly simple binary, but I suppose this is a start. Issues of dating tombs and their reuse adds practical complexity to any debate concerning what the builders or owners sought to express in the tomb’s features and decorations. Finally, I wondered a bit about the reception of the tombs and their intended audience. Ultimately, reception is as much the context for ethnic representation as any essentialized definition of “Greek” or “Roman” features. After all, Walbank notes that many features in Corinthian tombs appear throughout the Eastern Mediterranean in the loosely defined “Hellenistic world.” I’d have liked to understood how the tombs around Corinth compare to those, say, around Argos or Athens which were much more likely to be points of reference for travelers in the region than tombs in Asia Minor, the Levant, or even south Italy.  

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In any event, ultimately deciding whether the Corinthian elites thought of themselves as “Roman/Italian” or “Greek” or “Corinthian” based on burial customs is probably a difficult, if not impossible task. What is more interesting is understanding how Corinthian elites distinguished themselves from other local elites, competing groups, and other, less elite, residents of the region, and the diversity of media, motifs, and practices at their disposal. Walbank gets to some of this in her article. The best part, however, remains the competitive spirit of Corinthian scholarship. Even if you don’t care at all about funerary practices in the Roman colony (and it’s fine if you don’t, I promise), the article provides a front row seat the kind of scholarly debate that makes Corinth such an exciting place to work and follow!  

One Comment

  1. Richard Rothaus December 8, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Oh, man. Don’t send people to the wordy part of 2002. Send them to the succinct and funny part: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2002/2002-09-18.html

    Reply

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