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More Contrasting Corinth

As some of you may know, I am toiling away on a paper that I will give at the Corinth in Contrast conference in Austin at the end of the month.  I’ve been looking at the way in which the 6th century, likely Justinianic, building boom in the Corinthia represented a monumentalized discourse of authority (both local and imperial, political, military, and religious) in the region.  This is a version of a paper I gave some years ago at a conference celebrating 50 years of field work at Isthmia.  In that paper, I focused on two Justinianic inscriptions; in my paper for Corinth in Contrast, I planned to focus on archaeology and architecture.

I produced a decent draft of my paper entitled “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City”, but realized that the paper had very little to do with the theme of the conference:

This conference explores the stratified nature of social, political, economic, and religious spheres at Corinth, and how the resulting inequalities are reflected in literary texts and material remains.  The analysis focuses on a specific population center (the Corinthia) over a given period of time (Hellenistic to Late Antique).

In particular, my paper had almost nothing to do with “inequality”.  This bothered me.

Over the weekend, I read Louise Revell’s Roman Imperialism and Local Identity (Cambridge 2009) with the idea models of Romanization might give me some way to access the relationship between a monumentalized discourse and social, economic, and even political inequality in Corinth.  Revell’s introduction does a nice job at summarizing recent problemizations of Romanization, and emphasizes the performative aspects of Romanization as central to way in which imperialism manifests on the local level and local practices manifest as resistance, accommodation, and ambivalence.

Despite my initial interest in performance in the way that I originally interpreted the Justinianic inscriptions, I had abandoned using this approach for a reason that I now forget (it might have to do with a particularly summary rejection of an article, but it might have just been time to move on).  After reading Revell, I began to see contrasts across the Corinthian countryside that hint at just the kind of inequality – whether manufactured as an ideological position or “real” – that would make my paper fit better to the theme of the conference and give it a more potent theoretical edge.

First, and most generally, the act of producing monumental architecture is a kind of performance.  I argue that the Lechaion basilica (and related buildings) and the renovated Hexamillion wall are buildings with projected imperial power onto the Corinthian landscape.  Corinthians themselves not only saw these buildings as intrusions of 6th century imperial theology into local ecclesiastical affairs (for more on this read over this still unpublished paper), but also contributed to the various ways that these buildings produced meaning.  Local Corinthians, irrespective of theological (or, frankly, religious predilections) surely contributed to the physical construction of the great church and the repairs to the various monumental walls Procopius reports Justinian to have funded in the Corinthia.  Building made their bodies physically complicit in the production of imperial ideology on the Isthmus.  Moreover, individuals involved in manual labor would have surrendered their bodies – if, in fact, working on imperial projects had an ideological or theological aspect – more readily than elites who could have held their bodies apart from the actual performance of imperial power.

The bodies of the work crews who labored physically to construct imperial authority on the Isthmus do leave traces. Sanders has reported that similar graffiti in the wet mortar of both the Lechaion basilica and the Panayia bath in the city of Corinth proper (and perhaps the Hexamillion wall as well) suggest that the same work crews or the same organization provided labor for both buildings.  The simple inscribed fish in the mortar of both buildings would have been probably been covered with a layer of finer stucco when the building was completed and not visible.  At the same time, the symbol of the fish seems likely to have had religious significance.  The fish had been one of the earliest symbols associated with Christianity.  While we have no idea whether these symbols were set to mark out these buildings as “Christian” (as if this was necessary for the Lechaion basilica church!) or to mark the work of a particular crew of laborers or some kind of apotropaic function that suggested either resistance or accommodation, it is clear that the laborers had agency in the act of constructing these monumental buildings and hence were capable of seeing their labor as a ideological action.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the second largest basilica in the Corinthia is the Kraneion basilica.  Roughly contemporary with Lechaion basilica, it has clear similarities in form. Both churches have numerous annex rooms, a nartex and atria (albeit Kraneion appears to have a second atria extending to the south), water features in the western atria, and a baptistery arranged to the northwest of the church.  The most striking difference between these buildings is that the naves are separated from the aisles at Kraneion by means of a series of narrow piers supporting arches.  Lechaion follows a more traditional pattern by separating the nave from the aisles by a series of columns supporting arches that spring from ornate ionic impost capitals.  At least some of the columns in this nave colonnade were imperially controlled Proconnesian marble and the ionic impost capitals are sufficiently regular in design to suggest an imperial work crew.  The absence, then, of a marble colonnade at Kraneion would have made this church stand out.  If we assume that the nave colonnade at Lechaion worked to communicate the building’s imperial funded status, then the absence of such a colonnade at Kraneion may have positioned this church as a conspicuously non-imperial foundation.  While it is impossible to do more than suggest this argument, it is striking that Kraneion is one of the few churches in the Late Roman province of Achaia that used piers in the place of the colonnade. This becomes more significant, if we assume (as I have argued elsewhere) that the colonnade in Late Roman Greece served to frame the perspective of the congregation as they watched the liturgical proceedings performed by the clergy in an otherwise empty nave.  The contrasting arrangement between these two buildings would hardly be lost on even the most casual observer especially as the Lechaion basilica demonstrates that the colonnade is a feature suited to display of wealth and control over lavish resources.  Like the fish in the mortar, the absence of a nave colonnade could represent a local response, perhaps even resistance, to the wealth and authority vested in display.

Neither of these examples explicitly suggest inequality in a modern sense fueled by a post-Enlightenment understanding of the rights of human agents as individuals.  On the other hand, these two examples (and the careful reader will observe that I do have one more, but it’ll have to wait until I get into my office this morning to check a citation), demonstrate that despite different the differing economic and social position of the actors within Corinthian society, there was nevertheless ample opportunity to participate in both acts of resistance and accommodation.

Stay tuned for more…

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  1. David
    September 13, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Look forward to reading it. I too need to retune my paper (almost finished) according to angle of inequality.

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