Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.34

Mark H. Munn, The Defense of Attica: the Dema wall and the Boeotian War of 378-375 BC. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xx + 259; 43 figures. ISBN 0-520-07685-0.

Reviewed by Paul McKechnie, University of Auckland.

Josiah Ober's Fortress Attica (Leiden, Brill, 1985) was coolly received by reviewers. Concerns which underlay the first brief notices were brought into the open by P. Harding in a ten-page review article in 1988:1 Ober's view of the Athenians as relying on a complex system of forts and signals for territorial defence implied a threat to the revisionist consensus in recent work on the fourth century. Harding understood Ober to be arguing that the Athenians had been reduced to a cramped, introspective policy towards other states in the generations after the Peloponnesian War -- committing themselves first to rather obsessive measures to protect Attica, before they would take any larger responsibilities. Hence, ultimately, no effective opposition to Philip II, the enemy of Greek freedom.

General inadequacy on the part of fourth century Athenians has for many years now not struck scholars as a convincing explanation for the failure of Athens to recover from the setback of 404, or for the success of Macedonian kings in reducing city governments from sovereign bodies to municipal councils. Ober replied with warmth to Harding in the next issue of the same journal,2 complaining that Harding had misread his whole book: there was no intent to impugn the Athenians' political qualities. 'Defensive mentality' should not be thought to exclude international ambitions and high-mindedness of the type in evidence before 404.

And now Mark H. Munn, who contributed a review in faint praise of Fortress Attica,3 has produced The Defense of Attica: the Dema Wall and the Boeotian War of 378-375 BC. This book attempts to bridge the same gap that yawned before Ober's feet (and earned him Harding's misunderstanding) -- the gap between stones in the Attic countryside and political history as it can be derived from literary sources. Munn's particular contention is that the Dema wall, which runs between Mount Aigaleos and Mount Parnes in the pass between the plain of Eleusis and the plain of Athens, was built to deter Agesilaus of Sparta from invading Attica in 378 -- a move which might otherwise have been attractive as an alternative to marching further north and attacking Thebes. Moving on from this, Munn examines the Boeotian War in a more general way, detailing the role of Chabrias, the Athenians' reasons for supporting Thebes, and their reasons for bailing out in 375 and coming to terms with Sparta. In the end (and at the level of generalization) the way things turn out is to Athens' credit: Chabrias in 378 stands toe to toe with Agesilaus and the Spartan blinks first (pp.157-161) -- an important moment (pp.182-3); and in the hoplite line, learning the lessons, was a young man called Phocion, later 45 times general, probably the general responsible for territorial defence (pp.191-3). So it happened that the Boeotian War set Athens' agenda for years ahead: not 'defensive mentality' on the Ober model, but a combination of security at home with strong nerves and hard-headed calculation of what was best for Athens abroad.

Conceptually, therefore, Munn's book implies some large claims. Yet the larger part of it focuses on the actual Dema wall -- the stones in the countryside. Questions arise in two areas: how much does Munn's work on the Dema wall really contribute to his picture of the development of Athenian policy, and how persuasive are his arguments about the wall itself?

Exhaustive description is given of the wall, with maps and photographs and discussion of the finds from archaeological work at the wall, at the nearby Dema tower, and the Dema house, a building just in front (i.e. on the west side) of the wall. The remains are dealt with at greater length than in the original account of them in the Annual of the British School at Athens:4 necessarily so, because a key element in Munn's scheme is his case for putting the building of the wall forty years earlier (378) than Jones, Sackett and Eliot had done (338/7). Considerable energy goes into commending the case for this early dating. The argument for a fourth century date, rather than something earlier or later (Pisistratid? Chremonidean War? -- both put forward in earlier work), is conclusive; but tying down a dilapidated stone wall to a particular decade of the fourth century is a delicate business.

A saltcellar from the wall and two cups from the Dema tower play the star part in Munn's show. The saltcellar (which merits an appendix to itself: pp.199-201) was found in the fill of the wall. A plate of photographs for comparison (fig.43, defectively printed in my copy, but still usable) shows subtle but perceptible differences in the curvature of the sides of Attic saltcellars: the style of the Dema wall piece encourages one to guess at a date between the late fifth century and the first quarter of the fourth. One of the cups from the tower may be even older (p.71), seeming unlikely on the basis of parallels to have been made later than 400: the second should date from before 375. Munn uses these pieces to establish that the Dema wall could have been built as early as the 370s: then goes on to wider considerations to make his case for an exact context and firm date in that decade.

Munn himself, in 1979, did the excavation at the Dema tower which turned up the two comparatively early cups. There were twenty-three other finds catalogued, most of them (except odd Roman items) most easily associated with the last third of the fourth century or the early third century (pp.73-81). Munn's explanation is that the tower was built in the early fourth century and used for lookout and garrison purposes -- specifically, to receive signals from towers on the western frontier of Attica about the arrival of invading forces in order to give the army at the Dema wall time to get ready for an attack. The builders and soldiers at this period played Nine Men's Morris on tile fragments but did not break much crockery, so that the only finds datable near Munn's time of building are the two cups. The tower then fell down: tile fragments, some of them reused in a flooring layer, suggest this. It was afterwards rebuilt before a final collapse. Some time after that collapse (p.91), late in the fourth century, a beekeeper moved in, built some low walls near the ruinous tower to shelter the hives, and left bits of broken beehive kalathoi about the place (pp.84-86). This beekeeper was evidently a bit of a klutz, because (so the story goes) he also left smashed pieces of three bowls, an aryballos, a skyphos, a cantharos, two water pitchers and three amphoras. 'Accumulated discards from the daytime visits of the beekeeper' is Munn's explanatory phrase here (p.85).

The water pitchers and amphoras are the giveaway. Someone was keeping a large pot of water about the place. A beekeeper pottering round near a ruined tower might bring a bottle of water with him, if he was staying some hours to work on the hives; but an amphora means a detachment of guards. Then again, how long does it take to break an earthenware vessel? About half a second, if you drop it. If not, you can go on using it as long as you like. My parents still use plenty of things they had for wedding presents in 1956. If they break one tomorrow, it will go in the 1993 stratum of the landfill. Munn's saltcellar and two cups suggest a date which the wall and tower cannot be earlier than; but most finds point to late fourth-century activity. It is perverse to attempt to avoid this, and the butter-fingered beekeeper theory is not good enough to account for it.

There is one point in particular on which Munn has been too inflexible. He argues (pp.100-101) that the Dema wall must have been built against an invasion from the Peloponnese, because the absence of any similar wall in the Aphidna area would mean that any force invading from the north could circumvent the Aigaleos-Parnes pass. This argument ignores Munn's own conclusions about the purpose of the wall, which was to give some advantage in a battle to an army defending it against another army. The wall by itself was not the defence: it was a variant on the old practice of preparing a battlefield in advance. The Athenians could quite logically prepare a position on the route an invader was likely to use, while not making the same effort for a route that was less likely to be chosen.

Suppose, then, that the Dema wall was built about 337, when Demosthenes and nine others had been elected as teichopoioi to build walls and keep Philip out, would this damage Munn's arguments later in the book about the Boeotian War? No, barely at all. His reconstruction of events does not depend importantly on the supposition that the Dema wall was built in 378. The idea that Agesilaus might have invaded Attica instead of attacking Thebes in 378 is plausible -- after all, he was apt to do the unexpected, often more out of perversity than because of any likely strategic gain. But in the end he did go north, if only because even Agesilaus was sometimes capable of doing the obvious thing. The manoeuvre does not need the Dema wall to explain it.

The account of the war, though it forms much the shorter part of the book, is well argued and persuasive. The part played by Chabrias in particular is explained incisively. Munn promises 'another work' on the proximate and underlying causes of the war (p.130). This will be useful. But the lack of any necessary connection between the two parts of Munn's book is worrying, and gives rise to the suspicion that the problem of the relation between stones and policy has not fully been solved yet. Munn himself admits (p.111) that the association between the Dema wall and the Boeotian War stands or falls on general likelihood and the recognition that no other occasion within the chronological limits is possible. He expects future work to prove him right (p.112). Many readers will remain sceptical.


  • [1] P. Harding 'Athenian Defensive Strategy in the Fourth Century' Phoenix 42 (1988), pp.61-71.
  • [2] Josiah Ober 'Defense of the Athenian Land Frontier 404-322 BC: a Reply' Phoenix 43 (1989), pp.294-301.
  • [3] Mark H. Munn, rev. of Fortress Attica, AJA 90 (1986), pp.363-365.
  • [4] J.E. Jones, L.H. Sackett and C.W.J. Eliot 'TO DEMA: a survey of the Aigaleos-Parnes Wall' ABSA 52 (1957), pp.152-89.