Home > Korinthian Matters > The Ambivalent Landscape of Late Antique Corinth

The Ambivalent Landscape of Late Antique Corinth

I’m thinking out loud again. I’ve been invited to contribute a paper to a conference next fall in Austin and this week one of the organizers asked me for a title of my paper. I thought about it for about an hour and offered: “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City”.

I’m not entirely convinced that I have the ability to write a paper that coincides with this title, but a title is a start.

My initial thought was to write an article that captures some of the vexing ambiguities present in the Corinthian landscape of the 5th-6th centuries A.D. To do this, my paper would begin with two of my favorite examples of ambivalence in the Corinthian landscape:

1. I’d start with the ambivalent language of the two Justinianic texts from the Isthmus (that many veteran readers of this blog know and love so well).

2. Then I’d talk a bit about the unusual and decidedly ambivalent architecture of the massive Lechaion basilica. Its prominent transepts have long been seen to invoke the architecture of the Epirus, particularly the relatively well-documented group of churches in the immediate vicinity of Nikopolis in Epirus. At the same time, the central ambo and abundant use of Proconnesian marble suggests imperial patronage and the liturgical influence of the Eastern capital. (Again readers of this blog, know this argument)

I’d like to expand these two points with a few other observations:

3. I’d like to do something with the Nymphaion near the Lechaion Basilica. This building was excavated by Stikas in the mid 1950s and published in a fairly preliminary form in 1957 (PAE 1957, 89-94). This building is notable because it was modified extensively in the 6th century. These modifications include the use of opus sectile floors and architectural sculpture that have clear parallels in the Lechaion basilica nearby. The nymphaion, however, does not appear to have any clearly defined religious function. The use of decorative elements that tied the building to the Lechaion church suggested that the basilica extended either liturgical, or perhaps simply symbolic, influence into the larger Corinthian countryside. This influence, however, created ambiguous spaces like the modified nymphaion which was neither strictly religious in function, nor entirely disengaged from the Christianization process

4. The Fountain of the Lamps and the Ascleipeion also represent ambivalent spaces in the Corinthian landscape. Both sites show clear evidence for both Christian and pagan use over the 4th and 5th (and perhaps even 6th) centuries. While the evidence continues to be murky and problematic, it would seem foolish not to discuss the relationship between Christians and pagan in a paper on the ambivalent quality of the Corinthian landscape.

The more pressing issue, of course, is how does identifying ambivalence in the Corinthian landscape contribute to how we understand pressing historical problems. While I have not thought this out entirely at this stage, I’d argue that embracing the ambiguous position of the Corinthia sheds light on it character as contested space in Late Antiquity. Justinian’s efforts to skirt contentious Christological issues and to invest in the construction of monumental Christian churches intentionally subverted ecclesiastical authority of Papacy in the west (under whose authority religious matters in the Corinthia resided). The tentative and ambivalent nature of Justinian’s efforts, however, hint that the local residents of the Corinthia were not willing simply to buckle under his political authority, but offered a sufficient threat to warrant Justinian’s ambivalent approach to expressing political authority.   

A parallel perhaps appears between the imperial policy in the 6th century and the relationship between Christians and Pagans earlier in Late Antiquity. While few scholars continue to embrace Christianity and paganism as mutually exclusive categories in terms of Late Antique religious practices, the triumphalizing narrative of Christianization which was so prevalent in Late Antiquity, continues to cast a shadow over how we understand Late Antique religion. In fact, one could argue that the our willingness to accept the narratives of Christianization from antiquity lies in part with their neat correspondence to our own practical categories of religious behaviors. Christians and pagans, sacred and secular space, religious power and secular power, east and west, all form defining polarities in our late modern methods of understanding the world.

These polarities coincide well with archaeological practice in particular which tends to categorize evidence in exclusive ways. While the formation of hierarchical typologies of, say, ceramics has been an immense benefit to how we understand the function and chronology of ancient objects, the tendency to create such interpretative categories continues even as the categories themselves become more complex. Thus, for generations archaeologists talked about sacred space or Christians in the archaeological record. Such neat distinctions (which are largely rarely received uncritically by scholars today) often overwrote evidence for more complex and ambiguous definitions within the archaeological record. In this complexity, ambiguity, and ambivalence, once can perhaps find evidence for Corinthian resistance to imperial policy, their opaque and highly practical engagement with religious practices and authority, and their willingness to understand the polysemic character of their built environment.

Well, it’s at least a start.

Categories: Korinthian Matters
  1. November 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm

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