“The Isthmus and the Consequences of Geography: New Directions in the Study of Commercial Corinth” David K.

Pettegrew Messiah College ************************************************************** Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature Chicago, IL Session 17-123: Polis and Ekklesia: Investigations of Urban Christianity Theme: Roman Corinth November 17, 2012 **************************************************************

Introduction Since the early 19th century, the Isthmus has been a regular starting point for discussions of the early Christian communities of Roman Corinth. Conybeare and Howson’s biography of Paul, written in the early 1850s, for example, placed the apostle against the backdrop of a connecting land bridge,1

“We are thus brought to that which is really the characteristic both of Corinthian geography and Corinthian history, its close relation to the commerce of the Mediterranean… A narrow and level isthmus, across which smaller vessels could be dragged from gulph to gulph, was of inestimable value to the early traders of the Levant. And the two harbours… form an essential part of our idea of Corinth….”


W.J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson. The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. London 1852: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.


In this highly connective land bridge with good harbors, a portage road, and cosmopolitan population, scholars found the reason for Paul’s visits to Corinth as well as the economic, social, and moral character of the Christian community. The diolkos has frequently stood as a physical symbol of the heightened connectivity of the Isthmus. In traditional formulation, the diolkos was Corinth’s portage road for trans-shipping goods between the eastern and western Mediterranean. Traders arriving from Roman Italy disembarked at the western end, unloaded their cargoes, and transported the ships and freights via wheeled carts over 6 km to the opposite gulf, where they continued to the coastal cities of Asia Minor. Merchants benefited by this short cut in long-distance trade while Corinth received revenues on the tolls, transport fees, and services to passengers in transit. As a mechanism for the movement of ships, cargoes, and people between Corinth’s gulfs, the diolkos made the Isthmus a great zone of trans-shipment and turned Corinth into a populous city of visitors and transients. In the time I have with you today, I want to summarize three recent studies that have reinterpreted the archaeological and textual evidence, and reached conclusions markedly different than the traditional view.2 While the authors of this new critical scholarship disagree on the road’s date and function, we share the view that the diolkos was not used for portaging commercial ships and had limited functions in the transshipment of cargoes. In summarizing this scholarship, I have a broader point to make about how we should employ the Isthmus, its harbors and sanctuary, and portage road as the commercial backdrop for Corinth of Paul’s day. The Isthmus was never a


Hans Lohmann, ―Der Diolkos Von Korinth — Eine Antike Schiffsschleppe?‖ In The Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus: Topography and History from Prehistory Until the End of Antiquity, edited by W.-D. Niemeier and N Kissas. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, In Press; Despoina Koutsoumba and Y. Nakas. ―Διολκος. Ενα Σημαντικο Τεχνικο Εργο Της Αρχαιοτητας (The Diolkos: a Significant Technical Achievement of Antiquity).‖ In The Corinthia and the Northeast Peloponnesus: Topography and History from Prehistory Until the End of Antiquity, edited by W.-D. Niemeier and N Kissas. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, In Press; David K. Pettegrew, ―The Diolkos of Corinth.‖ American Journal of Archaeology 115. 4 (2011), 549–574.


static territory that determined Corinth’s history, but a dynamic landscape that was developed in accordance with the region’s changing place in its broader environment.

The “Diolkos” of Corinth: The Toponym and Road The diolkos is one of the great misnomers of modern scholarship. In antiquity, the term was applied only once to Corinthian territory by the geographer Strabo, who adopted it strictly as a toponym referring to “the narrowest part of the Isthmus,” a district where the temple of Poseidon was located and where ships were once dragged from sea to sea. Ancient and medieval writers referred to the portaging of ships over the land bridge, but no ancient writer ever imagined a monumental portage road that made the Isthmus a major trade route. The view of the diolkos as a commercial highway was invented by scholars in the 1820s-1840s. Putting together disparate texts spanning from the Classical age to the Byzantine era, they described the diolkos as a physical feature in the landscape. Translated first as land carriage (Cramer 1828), then railway (Mott 1842) and railroad (Finley 1841), then slipway (Koeppen 1856), the word soon became synonymous with a celebrated road used for the overland conveyance of maritime vessels. When sections of an ancient limestone road were noted in the territory in the late 19th century, and then excavated in the 1950s, scholars claimed to have found the monumental road that made the Isthmus a central trade route in the ancient Mediterranean. But as the diolkos became linked in scholarly literature to a physical road, it lost its specific ancient connotation as a geographic district of the Isthmus, visible from Acrocorinth. From this paved road, archaeologists found support for the view that the land bridge was a trans-shipment zone. Excavated by Nikolaos Verdelis, the section of road uncovered ran eastward for a kilometer from the Corinthian Gulf. Although the pavements could not be traced beyond a certain point, Verdelis surmised that they continued to the opposite sea. The excavator dated the road to the Archaic age,

specifically the reign of the Corinthian tyrant Periander in the late 7th century, based on associated pottery and cut stone blocks with inscribed early Corinthian alphabetic characters. Verdelis held that the diolkos remained in use through the end of antiquity as a great portage for moving military ships and commercial vessels and cargoes. The recent critical scholarship of the diolkos has called into question all the major points of Verdelis’ interpretation. Reanalysis has highlighted the road as an amalgamation of different phases of construction that could begin as early as the 7th century BCE, but which are not necessarily earlier than the 5th. Different styles of construction and the reuse of architecture like column capitals indicate at least one phase later than the early 4th century BCE. There is some disagreement about the dating of the road. Hans Lohmann believes that the spolia of Archaic and Classical architecture reused in the road, point to a post-Archaic date, possibly after the destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE when numerous temples in the district lay derilect, destroyed and accessible for mining, and when Corinth’s harbors were out of use. Koutsoumba and Nakas, in contrast, have accepted Verdelis’ Archaic date, but noted that Nero’s canal trenches decisively severed the road in 67 CE. The cutting of the road via the canal, and the failure to repair it in subsequent years, suggests that it was not an important resource at all for the early Roman colony. My view is similar to theirs: the road was paved in the Archaic or Classical period but was not very important for portaging in the Roman period, although it continued to be used through the end of antiquity for a variety of purposes, as the direct road for pedestrians and carriages moving across the Isthmus, and as a principal road to the sanctuary of Poseidon from the Corinthian gulf. As for the form and extent of the diolkos, Koutsoumba and Nakas have argued convincingly that limestone blocks were only placed in the loosest sandy sediments near the coast, and that these pavements stop at higher elevations where rockier ground


provides a sufficient foundation for the movement of heavy cargoes.3 If this is right, some 75% of the road ran over packed earth or shallow bedrock, which is why the excavator Verdelis did not find it continuing over the ridge despite his excavation trenches. This at least suggests that while the road was indeed important in its day, it was not necessarily the “greatest railway of ancient times,” as one scholar has put it (Werner 1997), and involving, as another scholar once estimated (Cooke 1986, 65-66), 40,000 sq meters of stone pavement and 60,000 man days to lay it. The new critical scholarship, then, has asked that we rethink the meaning of “diolkos,” the character of the road’s architecture, and the chronology of construction and use, all of which problematize older interpretations of the road as a portage superhighway open for business from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE.

The Texts for Portaging Now, the foundation for the commercial highway thesis developed principally from a dozen ancient and medieval texts describing the movement of ships across the Isthmus. Most of these texts comprise descriptions of military portages by admirals dragging their military fleets across the Isthmus during times of war. But particularly important are passing “general references” by Aristophanes, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder suggesting that commercial ships were portaged overland with some regularity. Taken together, the descriptions of military portages have usually been read as explicit examples of a regular current of ship carting vaguely noted in the general passages. Two recent developments in the interpretation of these texts have suggested new scenarios of ship portaging. The first is the recognition that the “general passages” do not actually provide good evidence for frequent portaging of ships. When the playwright Aristophanes has a character voice a sexual innuendo about the Corinthian


They also note that part of the road, the so-called ―quay‖ or ―platform‖ of Sector A, must be associated with Nero’s ancient canal, and has nothing to do with the diolkos.


Isthmus, he is referencing not a constant commercial operation but the recent transfer of military vessels in the year before the production of the play, when the Peloponnesians drew a fleet of 21 ships overland in a surprise maneuver that caught the Athenians offguard. When Pliny the Elder suggests in the late 70s CE that smaller ships were drawn over the isthmus on trolleys instead of sailing around Cape Malea, he is not making a contemporary observation but is summing up his knowledge of historical shipcrossing episodes that included Philip V’s decision, three centuries earlier, to portage small undecked ships and send the larger decked ships around Malea. When Strabo describes the diolkos as the place “where ships are transferred overland,” he is not commenting on a contemporary portage operation of the 1st century but is noting the district where famous portages had occurred in ancient times.4 Strabo and Pliny are secondary accounts of ship transfers, and their mention of portaging reflects their interest and background in the historical geography of the Mediterranean. The second key shift in interpretation of these texts is a new recognition that the episodes of generals and admirals carting ships overland never constituted “ordinary” military portage activity. In the old view of the diolkos, the accounts of ship transfers in the context of war were read as the casual and passing mentions of common military activities, but recent scholarship has drawn attention to the rhetoric of these accounts.5 I have argued that the narratives all assume a common form in describing covert and decisive military stratagems signifying remarkable achievement that required some explanation. The historians explain why the generals decide to portage—as a stealth naval offense, as a sign of ambition, as a hasty retreat during an emergency6—as well as how the portage occurs—as a costly and involved activity requiring significant expenditures of resources and manpower. The explanations indicate that the historians
4 5

Lohmann has even questioned the interpretation of the word porthmeia as ―ships,‖ Koutsoumbas and Nakas have noted, for instance, that the military portages are always described in the language of secretive and rapid attack. 6 Stealth Offense: Thucydides in 428 BC and 412 BC; Polybius for Demetrius of Pharos 220 BC. Ambition: Polybius on Philip V in 217. Hasty retreat: Livy on King Eumenes’ haste in 172 BC; Cassius Dio and Octavian.


had to convince their readers of there being a need for portage that outweighed the difficulty involved. In reinterpreting these texts, scholars have offered a new solution to three bodies of evidence that once seemed to conflict with one another: known historical instances of portaging ships, generic references to portaging, and the logistical challenges involved in the endeavor. The specific instances of ship carting described by the historians and the three general references are all referring to the unusual stratagems of ancient history that were worthy of mention precisely because they were logistically extraordinary. They were extraordinary because small warships were 35-40 meters long, 5-6 meters wide, and nearly 4 m high, weighing, when dry and without its movable equipment or crews, over 20 tons, or 40,000 pounds. This is about the same height and weight of a tractor-trailer truck, but double the length and width. Such ships were built to stay in water, not move over dry land. This takes us to our third body of evidence, the technology of conveying ships overland.

The Logistics of Portaging Recent scholarship has decisively reject the view that commercial vessels were carried over the Isthmus—a view that was always based on an improbable reading of Aristophanes, Strabo, and Pliny. When we recognize that these authors are referring to unusual military portages, there is no reason to invent a scenario that is improbable and extremely risky. Decades ago, scholars accepted that the transfer of even the smallest commercial vessels 6-8 km by wheeled cart, over a ridge 85 meters above sea level could only have been uncommon given its inherent difficulty, traction requirements, costs, and great risk to a shipowner’s prize investment. Moving military fleets also must have been difficult, but conveying them was possible given sizable crews of 150-200 men and the proper apparatus or mechanism for the transfer.

Interestingly, recent scholarship has downplayed the role of the diolkos in even these transfers. While it was once thought that wheeled carts were the mechanism for the transfer, the recent articles by Hans Lohmann, and Koutsoumba and Nakas, have suggested, rather, that fleets were transferred over felled trees, or greased wooden beams. Such techniques are known from other accounts of portaging in antiquity and correspond well to Thucydides’ comment that the Peloponnesians prepared “holkous” for the transfer of their fleets. Koutsoumba and Nakas prefer the sledge explanation because they believe that it would have been easier and quicker to acquire wooden beams than construct numerous wheeled carts for the overland movement of a fleet. Lohmann prefers this explanation because the curvature of the road would not been conducive to portaging 30 m long ships. In both of these reconstructions, we would place the movement of ships on a dirt road next to the diolkos. But if the road was never central to a grand operation of conveying commercial vessels and military fleets, then why was it built and how was it used?

Cargo Thesis Since Cooke and MacDonald debated the subject in the 1980s, scholars have accepted that the portage road was used primarily for the transfer of cargoes and freights, and secondarily for ships. The thesis is compelling because of the reputation of the isthmus for facilitating trade and because the excavated physical road bears deep deliberately cut grooves in areas of great ascent and curvature that point to the need for keeping carts on track. Clearly the construction of a paved road and preparation of rails proves that heavy objects were moved overland in antiquity. Recent scholarship is split over the sorts of cargoes portaged. Hans Lohmann believes the road was mainly used to move divisible commodities like grain, oil, and wine transported in baskets and amphoras during the Roman era. Koutsoumba and Nakas, and myself, much prefer the proposal made years ago by MacDonald that

highlighted the use of the road for the movement of heavy construction material like timber, building stone, and marbles, destined for monumental buildings in the panHellenic sanctuaries. There are four reasons for accepting that the road was built and used in the Archaic-early Hellenistic periods for the movement of heavy construction materials rather than divisible freights like amphoras. 1. First, the overland transfer of wagons with amphoras and divisible commodities does not have need of a massive stone road with deep ruts, while the movement of stone and timber weighing many tons would benefit from such a road. 2. Second, breaking down a cargo ship was time-consuming and costly, involving hundreds of porters, hundreds of ox-drawn carts, and several days time. Given the compounded costs of harbor taxes, cargo duties, and porting costs, could any merchant really have turned a quick profit on the sale of oil and wine of a slightly different variant than could be purchased in the opposite gulf? A trader contracted to acquire expensive building material destined for a particular sanctuary, on the other hand, could afford to take time and care in the delivery. 3. Third, the movement of divisible cargoes would have undermined Corinth’s own commercial advantage resulting from its possession of two harbors with access to eastern and western markets. The movement of marbles or cut stone from the Aegean, on the other hand, would not have posed this threat. 4. Fourth, the ceramic evidence from excavations and surveys in the Corinthia and neighboring regions of the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs simply does not bear out the view that the land bridge facilitated the westward and eastward flows of commodities. Mark Lawall, for instance, who has synthesized the evidence for transport amphoras from the Archaic to Early Roman eras,

concluded that eastern Aegean transport amphoras are rarely found in the western Adriatic and western amphoras rarely found in the Aegean. Studies of Roman sigillata table wares by John Hayes and Archer Martin have similarly higlighted the Isthmus as the transition point to different markets.

Commercial Corinth This leads us, in conclusion, to the question of the implications for understanding Roman Corinth and the early Christian communities in the city. If we accept the interpretive shifts in recent scholarship outlined here, we must put out of our mind the notion of a regular operation of transporting ships over the diolkos. We should reject the view of the Isthmus as a commercial conduit, a great trans-shipment zone that made goods flow between east and west. Whatever its potential for overland portage of freights, the canal cut through the road in 67 CE, and the decision not to repair it, indicates that the road was not seen as particularly important for the city’s economy. The evidence from pottery, in any case, argues against the notion of commercial highway. If we abandon the view of the Isthmus as a great east-west trade route and Corinth as a hub in the flow, then our picture of Corinth becomes a bit less exotic, multicultural, and cosmopolitan. Was Roman Corinth really the hub of international commerce, travel, and transportation? Even if we give up the diolkos, we are still left with the region’s harbors, which ancient writers like Strabo placed at the center of Corinth’s wealth, acting as an emporium between east and west where merchants exchanged and reshuffled goods. While we do not have time here to explore how the harbors functioned in the regional economy of the Roman city, we can underscore that the harbors, like the diolkos, require more nuanced treatments sensitive to the contingent nature of the evidence and highlighting their development through time. Synthetic approaches that smash together textual and archaeological sources of different forms and dates—a little

Thucydides, a bit of Strabo, a touch of Pausanias, some Aelius Aristides, and some excavated finds—lead to synchronous and static views of a bridge of consequence that determined the rise and fall of the Greek city and guaranteed the foundation and growth of the Roman colony. I think it is preferable to see in Corinth’s territory, harbors, settlements, and sanctuaries, a dynamic landscape that grew in accordance with the urban center and broader connective networks of commerce and empire, all of which shifted regularly between the first century of Corinth’s refoundation and the end of antiquity hundreds of years later.


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