Continuity and Discontinuity: Rome and Greece

This weekend I read a couple of cool recent articles on Roman Greece: Anna Kouremenos “Ρωμαιοκρατια ≠ Roman Occupation: (Mis)perceptions of the Roman Period in Greece” in Greece and Rome 66.1 (2019) and Sarah James’s “The South Stoa at Corinth: New Evidence and Interpretations” in Hesperia 88.1 (2019).

Kouremenos’s article looks at how museums, in particular, depict the Romaiokratia or the Roman period in Greece and suggests that not only does this run counter to prevailing scholt early attitudes toward the Roman period in the East (and Greece), but it reflects an approach deeply rooted in the Greek national narrative that understands it as yet another imposed discontinuity between the modern and the Classical era. James’s article is more technical and presents the results of her excavations in 2015 beneath a Roman period mosaic floor at the South Stoa at Corinth. These excavations produce more evidence for the dating of the South Stoa as well as the phases of activity in this area more broadly.

The issue of continuity and discontinuity remains a topic of fascination for archaeologists and historians alike. The notion that the Roman period, in some way, marks a break in continuity in Greek history has deep roots in both national narratives of Greek history as well as archaeological narratives that sought to distinguish the Greek from the Roman and inscribe value judgements on the two periods.

Kouremenos’s article demonstrates how this discontinuity has shaped national narratives (and vice versa) where continuity with a pre-national past serves to define the character and potential of the national community. James’s article offers a more detailed and site specific approach. She notes that the Roman period mosaic far from destroying or producing discontinuity with the Greek past of the South Stoa, actually preserved Greek levels beneath it. At the same time, the construction of the South Stoa and the careful layering of floor packing and subfloor preserved evidence for earlier, pre-South Stoa, activity at the site. More than that, James suggested an alternate explanation for what appeared to have been evidence for the burning of the South Stoa during the Roman sack of the city in 146. The blackened roof tiles might have been caused by their proximity to iron nails and water in post-depositional contexts rather than the destructive fire caused by the Romans. 

To be clear, the goal of James’s article was not to argue for continuity or discontinuity on a grand scale but to provide a nuanced analysis of the history of a well-known building using new evidence. At the same time, her work offers a compelling way to think about the interplay between archaeological evidence and historical arguments. The persistence of aspects of the Greek phases of the stoa into the Roman period and the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor’s preservation and the earlier levels beneath are reminiscent of Shannon Lee Dawdy’s interpretation of the relationship between the destroyed and buried “House of the Rising Sun” hotel in New Orleans and a later parking lot. The sinking and relatively uncompacted levels of the destroyed 19th century hotel caused drainage and subsidence problems with the 20th century parking lot. The parking lot and its infamous predecessor might appear offer a model of discontinuity in site function and significance, but the former continued to exert its influence over the latter. In the same way, the interplay between the Roman mosaic floor and earlier construction phases in the South Stoa effectively made the Greek period visible and made possible arguments for continuity between the Greek present and pre-Roman periods. In other words, the Roman past whatever discontinuity it provides narrative of Greek identity plays a key role in this case in allowing those arguments to occur.

Assemblages, broadly construed, do strange things with time. They make both discontinuity and continuity visible and possible. While we tend to define assemblages in archaeology according to depositional context, it is clear at sites like the South Stoa that the sequence and character of deposition is deeply embedded within earlier and later activities at the site. The residual character of earlier period material in the South Stoa assemblages and the role of later periods including the early 20th-century valuation of a Roman mosaic produced conditions in which arguments for time are possible. Whatever distain exists for the Roman period material in the popular Greek imagination, this material often preserves traces of earlier periods. The chronological continuity of archaeological and depositional time (exemplified by the clunky utility of the Harris Matrix) complicates and provides a foundation for cultural arguments for discontinuity. 

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