Eleutherai

Over the weekend, I read Sylvian Fachard, Sarah C. Murray, Alex R. Knodell and Kalliopi Papangeli’s article on the late Classical fortress at Eleutherai in the latest issue of Hesperia.

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The fort is not only spectacular, but it also brings back one of my fondest memories of my time as the “Melonaki” at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. For whatever reason, I was asked the lead the day trip for the Regular Program to Panakton, Aigosthena, and Eleutherai. I suspect it was because of the important Early Christian basilicas, including the remarkable and oft-overlooked double-basilica at Eleutherai. (That’s an ASCSA joke there). Anyway, the weather was beautiful and sunny at Aigosthena, but by the time we were set to go to Eleutherai, it was raining and grey. There’s something about the wet cold of winter in Greece that is every bit as brutal as the sub-zero days here in North Dakotaland. We stopped the bus near the base of the fort where there was a bakery and most of the students got coffee and were clearly intent on hunkering down for the rest of the day. Ever mindful of my duty, I gently insisted that we ascend the track to Eleutherai and discuss on site the long-standing debate on whether the fort was Athenian or Boeotian, hunt for the handful of low polygonal walls, and discuss the role of rural forts in the Attic countryside. The students politely ignored me and made it clear that they’d prefer to stay on the warm and dry bus with their coffee. I then begged a bit more insistently that they join me on the walk to the fort and they as insistently declined. Finally, I just went with maybe one or two students who felt bad for me. I suspect that the rest of the students eventually felt sorry for me as I wandered up the track in the steady drizzle to examine a fort as grey as the winter sky. Most of them eventually made it up to the fort and enjoyed some dramatic scenes of the fort in the low clouds. To this day, the attempted ASCSA mutiny reminds me of my limits as a teacher and that maybe not every fort in Attica is interesting in the rain. 

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This has nothing to do with the Fachard et al. article which is just as interesting on a rainy Sunday afternoon as it would be in the bring sun of an Attic summer. Not only do the authors produce a new stone-by-stone plan of the fort, but they also resolve some long-standing issues with its chronology and construction technique and its role on the Athenian-Boeotian border. They also contribute some useful observations regarding rural fortification in general which will help the WARP team make some progress on its stalled article on the fortifications of the Western Argolid. 

I won’t try to summarize the article’s 75+ pages; after all, I think that you can download the article for free from JSTOR. Instead here are a few highlights.

First, the authors not only prepared a plan of the fort, but they also conducted an intensive pedestrian survey. This survey which was part of the larger Mazi Archaeological Project documented the distribution and chronology of artifacts present around the fort. While artifact densities were predictably high, the percentage of diagnostic pottery was rather low (<15%). This was presumably in keeping with the utilitarian function of the fort and its rural setting over time. They did count almost 10,000 fragments of tile which was unsurprising. The team also collected grab samples from around various features. 

Overall, the rather small assemblage of diagnostic pottery confirmed their argument that the fort saw the most intensive activity during the Classical and Hellenistic period with limited evidence for Late Bronze Age activity on the hill, a gap in the Archaic period, and some indication of Late Roman and later reuse of the fort based as much on architectural evidence as ceramic finds. Their analysis here was more or less compelling, but I am curious about the 85% of the material that was not collected and whether it might fill in some of the chronological gaps at the site.  

Second, they do a masterful job identifying an earlier phase of fortifications at the site and tracking the various fragments of polygonal masonry and earlier lines of walls to demonstrate that the fort likely had an earlier Classical form that was replaced during the same period with the impressive coursed trapezoidal-rectangular masonry that is now visible.

Along similar lines, they also note evidence for later activity at the site including signs of Late Roman rebuilding perhaps as part of the larger effort to fortify the Greek countryside in the 6th century. Eleutherai would have been an ideal site of refuge for the nearby Late Roman settlement during times of instability. I would have loved to understand a bit more specifically the distribution of evidence for modern activity at the site particularly during World War II and the Greek Civil War when the fort guarded the road through the Kaza pass and saw military action.  

Third, the authors do an amazing job demonstrating that despite the size and substantial character of the fort, it would have likely cost relatively little to construct (at least compared to other forms of military investment in the Classical period such as manning and maintaining a fleet of triremes). In fact, the authors argue that the rural garrison needed to man the fort was a much greater expense than the resources required for the fort’s construction. To be more specific, the authors estimate the cost of the building the fort was roughly equal to the expense of maintaining a garrison of 200 soldiers at the fort for a single year. They go on to propose that “It was therefore pointless to build a fortification in the chora without the means to garrison it over the long term, and indeed an unmanned fortification represented a risk if another polity took control of it” (p. 526).

I’ll have to mull this over a bit. While Eleutherai is an impressive fort, the Greek countryside is dotted with less imposing, but undoubtedly similarly functional fortifications that one could hardly imagine being garrisoned regularly. The argument that forts where relatively inexpensive to construct, then, might account for their regular appearance at strategic points. It might also suggest a high tolerance for the risk that an opposing force could gain control of a fort to gain a strategic advantage. The mitigating factor would be that the expense of maintaining a garrison at a strategic location (and general limits on ancient manpower) which might eventually lead a state to cede tactical superiority in the name of economy.

Finally, for many the question of which side constructed and controlled Eleutherai is a matter of some academic interest (although perhaps not enough to warrant walking up to the fort in the rain of a Greek winter). The authors argue persuasively (at least for me, who doesn’t really care one way or another) that the fort is Boeotian. I now regard this matter as settled.

I do hope that they lavished similar attention on the double basilica of Early Christian date to the southeast of the fort! It’s a remarkably unusual building for southern Greece and suggests that something odd was going on in the area in Late Antiquity. 

~

As per usual, Hesperia did an amazing job producing a text largely free of errors and sharp and clear illustrations. More significantly, they published an article that ran to nearly 80 pages (without an artifact catalogue!). There are fewer and fewer places for scholars to publish an article at this length. For archaeology, though, such long articles vitally important to our field in that they allow us to present often complex evidence in a thorough way and present the kind of analysis and interpretation that is key for the creation of new knowledge. 

One Comment

  1. I’m not a specialist or archaeologist, just a retired teacher of Classics, but I feel I must wrIte just to thank you for this wonderfully informative piece. I’m most grateful for your frequent pieces.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Strain

    Reply

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