Considering the Corinthia

This summer, I’ve enjoyed working with David Pettegrew on an article surveying the archaeology of the Late Antique Corinthia for some or another edited volume. The piece is getting pretty close to being done and I plant to work on it for a four or five hours this morning. I’m particularly happy with the introduction, which to be fair, was largely written by David Pettegrew (and I generally like how he writes and thinks about Late Antiquity). 

Here’s the current draft of it: 

Around the middle of the last century, American classicist and archaeologist Oscar Broneer sat down to describe the dire archaeological situation of the later history of the Roman city of Corinth. The excavations of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens had exposed extensive portions of the city in intermittent excavations over the previous half century. Time and again the work of clearing the city revealed evidence for destruction events dating to the final quarter of the fourth century. Summing up a city in decline, Broneer minced no words. The city fell into a state of “overwhelming disaster and material decay, reflecting a general exhaustion and deterioration of the creative ability of the people…The invading Goths under Alaric delivered the coup de grace to this unhappy period of twilight of Classical Corinth…In the Early Christian period and during the first centuries of the Byzantine Empire, many of the classical buildings continued to be used, but the ruins of that era bear the marks of material dilapidation, artistic decline and civic helplessness.”

Paradoxically, it was exactly at that moment when Dimitrios Pallas, one of Greece’s foremost archaeologists of the Early Christian period, first began exposing and publishing a series of large and lavish monumental churches in Corinthian territory. He proposed that the churches dated to the fifth and sixth centuries—the age of “material dilapidation” and “civic helplessness”—but suggested enormous (even imperial) investments of resources and capital. The behemoth Lechaion Basilica, for example, was about as long as Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the monuments incorporated elements of specialized imported marble. Moreover, at that moment, Oscar Broneer himself was beginning to undertake excavations ten kilometers east of Corinth at the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, the site of biennial athletic contests in the Greek and Roman period. Those explorations would bring to light the same demolition phases of the late fourth century but also expose a massive imperial late antique project to fortify the Isthmus in the early fifth century.

Scholars today rarely describe the late antique Corinthia as a period of dilapidation, decline, and twilight (pace Brown 2018). A wealth of archaeological study in recent decades has introduced new perspectives that point to a flourishing and vibrant population even to the late sixth or seventh century, and scholars underscore the continuing relevance of the region within broader geopolitical and religious spheres. It is now apparent that private citizens expended great resources on private and public buildings. That they did so while many of the primary monuments of old Corinth fell down points to a complex local situation. One cannot deny the evidence of investment any more than one can deny the tremendous transformations of religious, settlements, and built environments that redefined fundamental aspects of Corinthian landscapes. Our aim in this paper is to reconsider the discrepant histories of the Late Antique Corinthia in light of recent archaeological and historical study of its landscapes.

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