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Corinth’s Greek Agora

These are boom times for articles on Corinth. I just completed Jamie Donati’s interesting new article in the American Journal of Archaeology: “Marks of State Ownership and the Greek Agora at Corinth” AJA 114 (2010), 3-26. In it, Jamie argues that the evidence for state owned objects (drinking vessels, weights, counting tables, et c.) suggests that the Archaic to Classical agora in Corinth most likely stood below the Hellenistic agora and Roman forum. This runs counter to the prevailing wisdom at Corinth which typically places the earlier agora either north of the city or under the plataea of the modern village.

While I won’t go through the detail of Jamie’s argument, he suggests that part of the reason why scholars have not seen the evidence for the Greek agora under the Hellenistic and Roman levels is because they assumed that the Archaic and Classical agora of Corinth would be in some way similar to the Classical agora of Athens which was uncovered at approximately the same time as major excavations at Corinth continued. The rivalry between these two major American excavations in Greece, in effect, shaped scholarly assumptions. Jamie argued that Corinth, with rather different civic institutions and forms of government, would not have required the same kinds of buildings at Athens. He then points out that the government of Elis met in rather modest structures which, in fact, stood outside of the proper agora of that city.

Even more interesting (at least to me) is how Jamie’s argument for the location of the Greek agora influence how we imagine the motives for the monumental elaboration of the city in the Hellenistic (and later, Roman, periods). In one of my favorite dissertations on Corinth, Betsy Robinson argues that the three famous fountains of the Corinth — Peirene, Glauke, and the Sacred Spring — were important “places of memory” for the city during the Roman period and served to link the rebuilt Roman agora with the earlier history of the Corinth as a city of water. If we accept Jamie’s identification of pre-Hellenistic agora under the Hellenistic and Roman agora, then this might contribute additional perspective to the way that place informed monumental and civic continuity in the ancient city. Sue Alcock has argued that the Athenian agora became, during the Roman period, a kind of memory theater where monuments of various aspects of the glorious Athenian past jostled for attention in a space largely devoid of any practical function. While the Corinth’s Greek agora (accepting for a moment Jamie’s argument) may have lacked monumental reminders of the city’s past, could the place itself, the topography, the views, or even more modest reminders have served to evoke urban continuity (or even a highly localized mytho-history, in Robinson’s terms) that largely functioned well below the level of monumental commemoration.

Such an approach reminds me of work on the mnemonics of landscapes where physically invisible markers could nevertheless evoke memories for individuals and groups historically invested in a place. While we tend to conceive of urbanism as replacing these relatively obscure places of memory with monumental expressions, there is no reason to assume that more subtle mnemonic places could not provide a framework for continuity within an urban environment. This observation, however, goes well beyond what Jamie argued. It will be interesting to see what folks do with this article and whether (or how) it shapes the study of urban Corinth.

Categories: Korinthian Matters
  1. Guy Sanders
    January 14, 2010 at 1:31 am

    This article is indeed an interesting take on Corinth’s agora. The idea that it is elsewhere is partly based on the absence of evidence for “suitable” monumental buildings in and around the Roman forum, the important communal area served by Peirene was presumably downstream from the fountain and that documented roads converged on an area northeast of Temple Hill. There is also inconclusive evidence from the murderous events at the Euklaia one year and that the Temple of Apollo should be close to the agora. This suggested that the agora was not under the forum, but not too far away, perhaps under that part the village northeast of Temple Hill.
    Donati has lined up evidence for public functions in the area under the forum and puts forward the falsifiable hypothesis that it was the agora. As you say, it will be very interesting to see how people react to this challenge. It makes me wonder if the building which Saul Weinberg “saw” under the Julian Basilica (Corinth I.v pp. 37-9, plan iv) indeed exists. If so, then it may have served some civic function similar to that served by the Roman basilica. Its juxtaposition with the race track is reminiscent of that of the bouleuterion to the track at Argos. The Hellenistic starting line seems to be oriented with the suggested building and they both have very similar north-south dimensions. The early Roman monumental assemblage including the basilica, the Fountain of Poseidon and the Babbius Monument, seems to relate to the track. Sarah James’s has identified post-Mummian fine ware pottery manufacture at Corinth and in a forthcoming article she suggests that life at Corinth did not come to a grinding halt after the sack. This raises the distinct possibility that some of the Roman monuments in the forum preserve memories of the Hellenistic past. On the other hand, I am beginning to view the area under the forum in the Hellenistic period to be largely agonsitic serving a festival purpose similar to the platanistas / dromos region in Pausanias’s Sparta. I have alluded to this possibility in an article on the Sacred Spring forthcoming in the publication of the “Corinth in Context” conference a couple of years ago at Austin Texas. If so, then it suggests the agora may indeed be elsewhere unless the race track is, like the Athenian Agora and unlike the case at Sparta, in the agora.

  2. January 14, 2010 at 7:49 am

    Thanks for the lengthy response and some intriguing alternative both to Donati’s perspective and the traditional views. I like his idea that the agora need not be a monumentalized area, but this makes it difficult to identify in any case — even if one could excavate all the proposed locations.

  3. Jamie Donati
    January 15, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Some great input here. If Saul Weinberg’s monumental Greek structure beneath the Julian Basilica did in fact exist, then its presence at the eastern side of what I view as the Corinthian agora would certainly be in line with how the Hellenistic agora became a more strictly defined urban venue in the Greek city. So we would have the South Stoa, Northwest Stoa, and an eastern monumental structure forming a tight architectural ensemble with the racetrack in the center. As for Guy’s suggestion that the pre-Roman forum was not the agora, but served only an agonistic function in the Hellenistic period, I would want to see how this theory fits in with the broader urban history of the site from the 7th century B.C.E. onwards. There were many structures along the southern side of the valley prior to the construction of the Hellenistic South Stoa and the re-orientation of the racetrack (e.g. Buildings I-IV, the “Centaur Bath”, a number of Protocorinthian buildings, etc.). We need to tie in this phase of the city with the Hellenistic period, rather than look at a single period or building in isolation.

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