Home > Korinthian Matters, Late Antiquity > More Corinth in Late Antiquity: Corinth in Context?

More Corinth in Late Antiquity: Corinth in Context?

David Pettegrew dropped me a line a few weeks ago that Amelia Brown’s dissertation, The City of Corinth and Urbanism in Late Antique Greece, was done and available on line.  It’s great that she is making her important work on Corinth easily available on the internet.  Her dissertation takes its place along the growing list of dissertations (and books) that focus on the Corinthia in Late Antiquity. 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noted the boom in interest in Late Antiquity.  The first issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity, for example, seemed a natural development for this expanding area of specialization and interest.  I have also noted, however, that the the field has tended to emphasize a rather limited number of paradigms for analyze “post-classical” antiquity.  As a rule, students of Late Antiquity continue to find irresistible tired arguments for “continuity vs. change” under various guises (prosperity vs. decline, centralization vs. dissipation, economic sophistication vs. economic stagnation, paganism vs. Christianity, et c.).  Moreover, these arguments almost all depend upon an ironic interpretation of the traditional good/bad (classical antiquity/post-classical antiquity) dichotomy.  So far, this paradigm has produced a significant body of new knowledge and may have even started to de-center the traditional areas of emphasis in the field of “Classical Archaeology”.

Nowhere is the continuity/change (good/bad, classical/post-classical) debate more engaged than in Greece where the field of Classical Archaeology has a kind of prestige that borders on veneration.  The city of Ancient Athens with its “Sacred Rock” and sprawling Agora in the middle of the modern metropolis plays a crucial role in making visible and tangible the significance and value of Classical Antiquity.  Down the road from Athens stand the ruins of the ancient Corinth.  Corinth, with its neighboring sites in the Corinthia (Isthmia and Kenchreai in particular), has begun to stand out as a counter-weight to Classical Athens.  Set amidst olive and citrus groves in small villages across the Isthmus, the Corinthia has become a center in Greece for significant work on Late Antiquity over the past two decades.  In American academic circles in particular the American excavations in the Roman (and Late Roman) Corinthia represent a counter weight to the American excavations at the Archaic and Classical Athenian Agora.  This is not to suggest that these sites cannot make significant contributions to the work on other periods.  There has been plenty of interesting work on Roman and Late Roman Athens and pre-Roman Corinth, for example, but Corinth is a Roman city and Athens a Classical one in both the popular and academic imaginations. 

Whatever the cause of the Corinth/Athens dichotomy, credit for the recent rise in interest in the Late Antique Corinthia falls largely to the efforts of American archaeologists in the region, most significantly Tim Gregory at Isthmia and Charles Williams and Guy Sanders at Ancient Corinth.  Williams, Sanders, Gregory, Slane and others have produced a massive bibliography which has not only transformed the Late Roman topography of the Corinthia but revised in substantial ways the chronology of the region.  Students associated with these sites and scholars have produced a bumper crop of works which drawn in whole or in part from Corinthian comparanda (R. Rothaus, D. Pettegrew, R. S. Moore, B. Robinson, J. Frey) with assurances of more on the way (particularly J. Rife’s important Isthmia volume on the Roman period burials there and his recent work at Kenchreai, the proceedings of a conference celebrating 50 years at Isthmia with several articles specifically dealing with the Corinthia in Late Antiquity, a dissertation of the Roman and Late Roman wall painting from Corinth, et c.). 

It is interesting to consider the effect of this relatively recent boom in work on the Corinthia on how we think about Late Roman Greece more widely.  On the one hand, the status of Corinth as the capital of the province of Achaea justifies some of the recent archaeological attention.  It was clearly an important city in Greece and stood at an important cross road of Mediterranean trade.  Its place in Christian scriptures more than makes up for the relative dearth of archaeological evidence for a Christian community in Corinth prior to Late Antiquity.  So, the emphasis on the Late Roman period in Corinth fits within long-standing administrative, economic, and religious narratives of the period. 

On the other hand, Corinth and the Corinthia represents just one important center in the “busy” rural and urban landscape of Late Antique Greece.  My work on Late Antique Basilica style churches (with its strong emphasis on the Corinthian buildings), for example, has enumerated the vast number of these buildings throughout Greece.  Other centers throughout Greece certainly shared he prosperity, religious dynamism, and administrative centrality of Corinth even if on a smaller scale.  Even sites on a comparable scale, like Nikopolis in Epirus, Nea Anchialos in Thessaly, Argos, Patras, and Sparta have received far less attention than Late Roman Corinth.  Should this disproportional focus on Corinth and the Corinthia be a matter of some concern for how we understand the development of Late Antiquity in Greece?  Even if we understand fully the reasons why Corinth has become so central to our reading of Late Antique Greece (on account of structures within the narrative of American archaeology in Greece, the support of specific American scholars, and the history of careful and relatively open excavations) what are the implications of this emphasis?  Do we see Late Antique Corinth pulling scholarly attention and intellectual resources away from other parts of Greece or is our ever expanding knowledge of the Corinthia pushing the study of the 4th-8th centuries elsewhere in the southern Balkans.  It is safe to say that both a certain amount of pushing and pulling are in play here.

Since I know some of my colleagues who study the Late Antique Corinthia are sometime readers of this blog, I invite them to respond to this!  How do we understand both the academic traditions of Corinthian Archaeology and the narrative of the Late Antique city of Corinth “in Context”?

  1. November 11, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Dear Bill,
    Thanks for including me in your thoughtful comments on Late Antique Corinth and its study. In researching my dissertation, I was most struck by how prominent features of the present Greek landscape- the Parthenon and other monuments of the Acropolis in Athens, the Temple of Apollo and Hexamilion wall at Corinth- guide archaeologists and casual visitors alike to form certain ideas of the relative importance of certain eras of history at those cities. How difficult it is in the present to balance the visible and invisible pasts! Cheers, Amelia

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