Ancient History, Classical Archaeology

Roman Corinth

I’m on the home run of my Peloponnesian tour having got up early to drive from the southern most region, Messenia back to Corinth in the top right hand corner of the peninsula, near the so called Isthmus . In antiquity the Isthmus was a narrow strip of land where the Adriatic and Aegean seas very nearly met. Since the late 19th century construction of the Corinth canal ships can actually pass from one sea to the other here which I suppose, technically, should make the Peloponnese a proper island, connected to the rest of Greece by a bridge. This key intersection of both seas and land masses was a perfect site for a city to thrive, as Corinth  did in Archaic and Classical times, earning itself the sobriquet “Wealthy Corinth”. Visitors to the site today, however, see few remains of this period and are confronted almost entirely by ruins of the Roman period.

In 146 BC the city of Corinth was sacked by the Roman general Mummius. It is still a matter of discussion among scholars what happened to the Greek inhabitants – it was very interesting to hear the views of Guy Sanders, director of the ongoing excavations at the site on that very subject today. It is certain, however, that the city was re-founded by the Romans, under Julius Caesar as a colony which led to a complete rebuilding of the main civic centre from the period from the 1st century BC to the late 2nd century AD. The Romanness of this city can be seen in features such as the podium-style temples erected along the west of the Forum, in the fact that this was the only city in Greece to have an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games (other Greek cities held them in their theatres) and in the fact that the language of administration, as seen on inscriptions at the site, was, up to the time of Hadrian, Latin not Greek.

Corinth - the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background
Corinth – the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background

I’ve been to the site quite often and studied it for my PhD thesis so I think I understand it quite well but I’m sure it looks more than a bit bewildering to most visitors today. The colonists had created their forum – essentially the area accessible to visitors – be creating a series of level terraces in what had previously been a shallow valley. However, it’s very hard to discern these terraces today because when the site was excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries the archaeologists dug down to different levels in different places creating a very uneven appearance. To compound the problem blocks from various buildings and monuments are piled up around the site. There are also few information boards and as yet no adequate guidebook. I know that someone was working on a one, which I am also sure will be very good, but I have no idea when it will be ready.

Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth
Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth

One of the things that attracts visitors to Corinth is the city’s association with St. Paul who, of course wrote letters to the Christian community here and was hauled before the Roman governor when he fell out with the local Jewish population. At the centre of the forum is a bema, a speaker’s platform, which has recently been in part restored and which is where Paul may have faced the governor. That interpretation has been challenged recently by a scholar who thinks his interrogation was in one of the Forum’s three basilicas, but I like the idea and I’ve argued in my PhD thesis that the use of the bema on such an occasion was actually quite likely from what we know of the use of such platforms elsewhere.

Highlights of the site include the old Archaic Temple (probably to Apollo), which was one of the few pre-Roman buildings to be incorporated into the new city and the Peirene fountain, sadly inaccessible to tourists but you can get a good view of it from the hill of the temple. This was the spot where the hero Bellerophon was believed to have tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and it gets a mention in Euripides’ Medea, a play set at Corinth as a place where old men sat around playing dice. There was indeed a fountain at the spot already in Archaic times connected to an incredible labyrinthine network of tunnels, several kilometres long tapping the water of an underground natural spring. You can still hear the water gushing into the fountain’s reservoirs today. The fountain was in use throughout the Greek and Roman periods of the site and over the centuries became increasingly monumentalised, becoming fronted by an architectural façade and surrounded by a courtyard. There’s an excellent, and fairly recent, monograph exploring the various phases of the building by Betsey Robinson.

The Peirene Fountain at Corinth - note the openings in the facade
The Peirene Fountain at Corinth – note the openings in the facade

As I said, I’ve been to the site many times and today, although I had a stroll around it today I spent my time mainly in the museum studying the wonderful collection of sculpture. I’d of course been there before as well but I’d forgotten quite how many treasures are on display there. Here too most of the material dates from the Roman period. There are plenty of statues of Roman emperors, including a particularly well-known over-life-size group of Augustus and his two grandsons, Lucius and Gaius. Singled out by Augustus to be his successors, both died too young to bring his dynastic ambitions to fruition. At the opposite end of the gallery there are the colossal eastern barbarians that were part of an architectural façade that was erected across the front of one of the forum’s basilicas, the so-called Captive’s Façade. There are also plenty of heads and torsos of various other statues of gods and emperors and, in the museum’s courtyard and surrounding walkway as well as a whole group of headless togate statues that had presumably been erected to civic benefactors.

Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum
Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum

I had a good look at all of this material, taking plenty of photos of details that caught my eye and. All of these statues have been studied and published but because the Corinth excavations took place so long ago, a lot of this scholarship is open to reinterpretation in the light of advances in our knowledge. In fact there’s quite a bit of work being done at Corinth by archaeologists going through the old excavation notebooks and making use of improved understandings of the chronology of pottery – the fragments of which are so important for dating archaeological layers – to challenge old interpretations and arrive at new ones. Having studied the statues and pieces of sculpture firsthand I now need to go away and (re)read what has been written about where they were found, how they were dated, and what previous scholars have said about the details that caught my eye in order to think about the impact they might have made on ancient viewers in public space.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Athens to spend a week in the libraries some of the museums there. On the way back, however, I’m planning to visit two more sites – Perachora and Isthmia. The first is an Archaic and Classical sanctuary, not particularly relevant to my research but one of those sites that every Greek archaeologists really should have seen and which I, to my shame, have never got around to visiting. The second is Isthmia, the major sanctuary of Poseidon and venue of the Isthmian games, one of the four big Panhellenic Games, alongside Olympia, Delphi and Nemea. I have been there before but the museum was closed for refurbishment. Now it should be open – fingers crossed – and there should be some interesting Roman period monuments among the treasures there.

As a closing note I have to say that I did a pretty good job of not getting lost today. The only time I strayed off the beaten track a bit was when I left the ancient site of Corinth and tried to head for the modern town. I could see the town in the distance near the sea and thought if I picked a road heading towards it I’d be fine. I soon found myself on a gravel road skirting the highway, which I really need to cross somehow and then suddenly the road turned off to the left, away from modern Corinth and back into farmland at the foot of Acrocorinth. Out of the corner of my eye up ahead I thought I saw something that looked like a scarecrow but then I recognised it as a strung up teddy bear. There were actually a few of them but I only had the nerve to stop and take a photo of one. When you find yourself in a place where they’ve been lynching teddy bears you know you’ve got to get out and I did – fast!

A lynched teddy bear
A lynched teddy bear
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