Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.02

W. G. Cavanagh, S. E. C. Walker, A. W. Johnston , J. N. Coldstream (ed.), Sparta in Laconia: The Archaeology of a City and its Countryside: Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium (BSA Studies Series No. 4).   London:  The British School at Athens, 1999.  Pp. 170.  ISBN 0-904887-36-7.  £26.50.  

Reviewed by Graham Shipley, University of Leicester (
Word count: 3578 words

Three years after the colloquium mentioned in the subtitle, this volume appeared in the now firmly established series 'BSA Studies'.1 It brings together eighteen historians and archaeologists from different countries (mainly Greece and Britain but also Germany, the Netherlands, and the USA) who are working on Laconian topics. Despite the laments of certain reviewers in the e-pages of this journal, a strong set of links is not to be expected in a conference volume such as this. Nevertheless, there are clear themes, and the book succeeds in offering an effective overview of current work on Sparta and Laconia from late prehistory to Byzantium. Among the fifteen papers are groups dealing with landscape history and archaeology (Catling, Spyropoulos, Cartledge, Mee and Cavanagh, Wilkinson), material culture (Förtsch, Hodkinson, Stibbe, Smith, Pipili, Karapanayiotou-Oikonomopoulou), and settlement archaeology (Waywell et al., Panayotopoulou, Raftopoulou). Several of them offer important new evidence or ideas about the history or archaeology of Sparta and Laconia.

The book is well printed, though some may find the double-column format hard on the eye. Some of the papers are evidently in much the same form as when delivered, and some of the light scatter of misprints seem to derive from authors' typing errors that have not been corrected. (A major printing error on p. 136 is noted below.) There are a few intrusive hyphens in the middle of words, relics no doubt of authors' word-processed files. The lack of an index is regrettable, and with that in mind I have summarized the papers quite fully.

(1) Hector Catling's overview of British activity in Laconia (pp. 19-27) makes clear the relatively innovative character of the programme of exploration set in train in the 1900s, but also the patchiness of resulting publications, in which post-classical periods were sometimes neglected and interest tended to focus on buildings and epigraphy. The chief exception, of course, is the magnificent work on Artemis Orthia, published almost two decades after the excavation. Otherwise, the main value of this first phase of British work was to map agendas for those who came after, both in urban topography and in the history of rural settlement and cult. The second phase, in the 1920s, concentrated on public buildings, notably the theatre of Sparta, while after the second world war rural Laconia was again to the fore. Since the 1970s, the two streams have recombined. Work has resumed at the Menelaion and the theatre, while two major landscape projects have broadened the rural perspective. Catling also traces continuities of personnel between British and other projects, such as the important Dutch excavations currently under way at the perioikic acropolis of Geraki (ancient Geronthrai). British work, as we are reminded, has been under-funded by comparison with that of some other 'foreign schools' in Greece. I can report, however, that since the present volume was published major benefactions (though sadly not from British sources) have become a realistic prospect. They will accelerate and intensify the application of modern archaeological strategies to a landscape that, despite its crucial place in Greek history, has been relatively neglected. The other papers in the volume amply confirm the potential of Sparta and Laconia to rival, in future discoveries, better-explored parts of the Peloponnese such as the Argolid and Corinthia.

(2) Theodoros G. Spyropoulos (pp. 28-38), the ephor of Arcadia and Laconia, presents some results, and a selection of impressive finds, from excavations of the massive tholos tombs at Pellana in north-western Laconia. Placing them in the context of other Bronze Age finds in the area, he proposes to locate the early and middle bronze age central place of Laconia, as well as Mycenaean and Homeric Lakedaimon, at Pellana rather than at Vapheio or the Menelaion. (Readers should note Yanis Pikoulas's subsequent demonstration, in Horos, 13 (1999), 235-8, that Spyropoulos's claimed Mycenaean roadway at Pellana is a wall of later date.)

(3) Paul Cartledge (pp. 39-47, already reprinted elsewhere)2 examines the ways in which city and chora were differentiated in Spartan ideology. An exceptionally sharp distinction between town and country was reflected in differing statuses and in Spartiates' obligations to the community. Yet the central settlement did not have a significantly monumental character in the archaic and classical periods. Differentiation was partly provided by a circle of major sanctuaries close to Sparta. The recently excavated Zeus Messapeus sanctuary, for example, was probably a Spartan limitary shrine. The most important Spartan festival, the Hyakinthia, was markedly unlike the Panathenaia of Athens. Not only was it not dedicated to the chief patron of the city, it was also celebrated not in the main urban centre but at the outlying fifth constituent village of the polis, Amyklai. It 'thus retained a strongly separatist and local flavour' and 'was consciously designed to emphasise...the centre's separation from and domination over the periphery' (p. 46). In a coda covering some of the same ground as Catling, Cartledge emphasizes the British contribution to Laconian studies, identifying important contributions to our understanding of Laconian prehistory and Spartan history.

(4) Reinhard Förtsch (pp. 48-54), in a paper whose brevity belies its importance, explores afresh the well-trodden field of Spartan austerity. By examining the chronologies of many classes of artefacts, he establishes that a peak of stylistic innovation occurred in the second half of the seventh century BC and the early sixth. Between 575 and 525, a large number of forms ceased production, possibly reflecting fundamental social change. In the third quarter of the sixth century, more specifically, while novel forms were few they were not wholly absent. New artistic themes, such as hoplites, received added emphasis and certain kinds of ostentatious work were encouraged in the public sphere, even while private consumption of art may have decreased. The fifth century, in contrast, saw a conservatism of genres and a narrowing of the range of production. Yet Spartan art did not die, as is often claimed; rather, it continued to evolve, and its uses changed radically.

(5) In another paper bearing on the austerity problem, Stephen Hodkinson (pp. 55-63) sets out a methodology for quantifying Spartan expenditure on bronze dedications.3 He shows that, even allowing for the incomplete archaeological record, certain hypotheses can be advanced. For example, in the second half of the sixth century, datable bronze finds decrease at Artemis Orthia and the Menelaion but increase on the acropolis and at the Amyklaion. During the fifth century, despite an overall decrease, there is clear evidence of continuity. At Orthia, the numbers of votive lead figurines, often taken as a sign of austerity in view of their supposed cheapness, begin to increase well before the supposed sixth-century date of austerity. They even decline once austerity is supposedly fully in place, as do the numbers of expensive bronzes. Jewellery declines after c.550, but statuettes and terracotta figurines increase; there are contrasting trends at different sanctuaries. Furthermore, some overall trends after the mid-sixth century are paralleled elsewhere in Greece. Many questions remain to be explored, but Hodkinson's work, in conjunction with that of Förtsch (above), confirms that material culture was no simple reflection of the development of a military ethos.

(6) Conrad Stibbe (pp. 64-74) present a selection of objects he has studied, the only evident connection between them being that they can be considered 'exceptional' within the Laconian ceramic repertoire. Various cylindrical objects may have served a double function 'as tube for sacrifices and as a stand' (67) and suggest metal parallels. An olpe with graffito imitates a mid-sixth-century Attic form. Lekythoi come in unusual shapes. A long-necked jug, with figured decoration perhaps depicting Artemis Orthia, recalls the potnia thêrôn and the Grächwil hydria's appliqué figures, but may be linked to hero cult, which found artistic expression chiefly from the mid-sixth to mid-fifth centuries. A fragmentary Attic C-cup from Tyros, previously published by Romaios, was dedicated to Apollo on behalf of Dorieus, perhaps the famous bearer of that name (Stibbe does not give the epigraphic references: IG v. 1. 1521; SEG xi. 893 + xxxv. 298).

(7) Tyler Jo Smith (pp. 75-81) reviews archaic komast figures and komos scenes in Laconian art. Komoi are popular with several vase-painters, and while their works show Corinthian and Attic influence they deploy the decoration in a different manner. Komasts probably took part in sympotic events, though some vases hint at religious (including Dionysiac) contexts. The frequency of komos scenes on kraters suggests the importance of drinking, perhaps belying the alleged austerity of late archaic Sparta. In lead figurines, some of Wace's types (none, unfortunately, illustrated here) can be interpreted as komast figures. Some bronze statuettes, probably from large vessels, show human figures holding drinking-vessels. An early sixth-century bronze volute krater from Sicily, possibly Laconian, has incised komast figures though their style is not distinctively Laconian. In sum, archaic Sparta 'presents the first and only instance of the komast figure employed for religious or dedicatory purposes'. Despite the ubiquity of komast imagery in archaic Greece, its uses in Laconia suggest distinctive social practices (though see Pipili's discussion of symposia, below).

(8) Maria Pipili (pp. 82-96) first reviews mythic scenes on archaic Laconian vases whose subjects cannot be identified. She then focuses on other scenes that combine generic images--small winged daimones in sympotic contexts, musicians encircled by komasts, etc.--in ways that make Laconian vase-painting particularly unusual. The Naukratis painter favours such scenes. While Corinthian influences on his work have been noted, not enough weight has been given to East Greek influence. The peak of his output precedes Polykrates' tyranny in Samos, when Spartan-Samian relations may have cooled. In fact, Pipili's charts of his works and those of four other artists can be combined to show that 155 of their 236 known vases have been found in sanctuaries, no fewer than 89 of them in the Samian Heraion. These artists probably produced much of their work expressly for dedication at overseas sanctuaries. Small winged daimones (sometimes regarded as Erotes) are East Greek rather than Laconian in inspiration. Some sympotic representations may have been created for a Samian rather than Spartan clientele. Representations of lyre-players, too, may reflect cult celebrations of Hera. Likewise, the Rider Painter's scenes may have a Samian prototype, again perhaps reflecting Hera's festival. Scenes with gods and worshippers, however, are harder to interpret. The important Samian sanctuary of Artemis (cf. Hdt. iii. 48), excavated by Tsakos in 1980 just outside Pythagoreio, yielded examples of the rare Laconian 'calyx-krater' or high-footed chalice. This shape evidently continued to be commissioned by those offering votives to Artemis even during Polykrates' reign. In summary, cultic scenes on sixth-century Laconian vases are most easily interpreted in connection with the places where they were dedicated. Pipili's paper has important consequences for the social location of sixth-century vase-painting, and for Sparta's overseas relations.

(9) In a tripartite paper (pp. 97-111), G. B. Waywell, J. J. Wilkes, and S. E. C. Walker present the re-excavation by London University of the theatre at Sparta. Waywell (pp. 97-103) notes that the form of the theatre was inspired by that at Megalopolis. Stratigraphic evidence points to a late first-century BC date, probably after Actium and during Eurykles' reign. The use of mudbrick along with rubble concrete is transitional between hellenistic and Roman practice, as is the presence of a Doric colonnade atop the 114 m wide cavea. Another Doric colonnade, later broken up and incorporated into a rebuilt stage building, may have formed the front of the original stage building. The Doric order of these colonnades was probably chosen to symbolize Sparta's Dorian heritage. Wilkes (pp. 103-8) considers the first phase of the stage building. The evidence of channelled blocks, some in situ, reopens the possibility (suggested by Bulle in 1937 but rebutted by Buckler in 1986) that there was a movable stage building. As Wilkes predicts, further excavation has since confirmed the hypothesis.4 Walker (pp. 108-11) considers the Corinthian-style renewal of the stage building. The Flavian inscription (IG v. 1. 691, SEG xi. 848) recording a donation by Vespasian to the city can now be linked with this. The project may reflect the cultural transformation of Sparta after the Euryclid dynasty fell under Nero. The Corinthian façade, with its mix of different imported marbles, can be provisionally reconstructed; the upper order may have undergone restoration around AD 200. Although this section, and thus the paper, ends abruptly, we learn from the abstract that the theatre remained in use until the end of the fourth century AD.

(10) Anastasia Panayotopoulou (pp. 112-18) reviews the mosaics of hellenistic and Roman Sparta; no fewer than 137 had been found at the time of writing. They come from many parts of the town, but are concentrated in an area extending from south-west of the acropolis to the borders of Magoula in the north-west. Hellenistic pebble mosaics (though apparently only one example is known: see Raftopoulou below) were succeeded by tessellated Roman ones, and their popularity increased in the second and again in the third century AD. In the fourth century, representational techniques became less skilful, but mosaics continued to be constructed and repaired, albeit in smaller numbers, until the sixth century. The third century saw an elaboration of style, with new geometric borders and panels. Floral motifs are rarer than elsewhere--a sign of Spartan taste? During the later third century there is an increase in figured decoration, particularly with musical, poetic, and theatrical themes as well as myths involving Olympian deities and Medusa. Homeric scenes and depictions of nature and daily life are uncommon, marine scenes popular. Everything points to an active local workshop at this time. Panayotopoulou's paper is tantalizing; one wishes for more illustrations (some can be found in Raftopoulou's chapter, below), while some that are illustrated seem to invite more detailed treatment. A synthetic treatment in the future will be welcome.

(11) Anna Vasiliki Karapanayiotou-Oikonomopoulou (pp. 119-24) publishes a second-century AD sculpted head found (not in situ) in Monemvasia. Detailed consideration of its iconographic techniques points to a Trajanic or early Hadrianic date. It may have been commissioned by an Eleutherolaconian city, and probably originated in an Attic workshop which also produced a portrait of Gaius Julius Philopappos. It may thus represent Herculanus, the last Euryclid ruler of Sparta, who was honoured in several Laconian towns and was a relative of Philopappos.

(12) Stella Raftopoulou (pp. 125-40) gives a useful and well-illustrated overview of rescue excavations in Sparta during 1991-5. Although a fifth basilica has come to light, generally public buildings are rare, probably because they clustered on the acropolis. While sanctuary architecture is unlikely to turn up, votive deposits of miniature vases and terracotta plaques are more common, both from cemeteries and from workshops. The streets of Sparta were not arranged on a rectangular grid before the imperial period. Hellenistic occupation layers are quite rich when found but are largely destroyed, mosaic pavements and wall-paintings being the main evidence of houses. Roman town houses are often luxurious, though not necessarily two-storied. All hellenistic and Roman mosaics are tessellated, apart from one third-century BC pebble mosaic which is similar to others elsewhere in Greece. One fourth-century AD triclinium mosaic of exceptional quality depicts Dionysos with other figures and may copy a hellenistic painting. The occurrence of Dionysos, otherwise rare in Spartan mosaics, in another triclinium mosaic indicates the role of private patronage. Several atria with impluvium mosaics have been uncovered. There is evidence for Roman house-gardens with water features. Some houses remained in use in the fourth century.

Turning to mortuary data, two-storey tombs or heroa were built from archaic to hellenistic times, when there were also a few monumental tombs of Macedonian type, usually in rosso antico. One cemetery spans archaic to Roman and includes a tomb containing a fine set of archaic Laconian vases. In classical times, however, citizens were not individualized in their commemorations and were not named. (On p. 136, the bottom nine lines of the first column have been displaced from the top of the same column, completely inverting the author's meaning; these words should run on from the end of p. 135.) A large hellenistic cemetery south-west of the acropolis is evidence of burial still taking place between houses within the built-up area. Burials are sometimes found in stone vases, while figured funerary reliefs are rare. In the late hellenistic period, we see the first organized cemeteries outside the bounded area of the city, coinciding with the erection of the first city walls. The northern cemetery continued in use until the third century AD. In the imperial period generally, burial styles became more typical of other parts of Greece. The locations of cemeteries are evidence that protogeometric and geometric Sparta lay only in the Limnai area, east of the acropolis, and expanded across the northern part of the present-day town only in the archaic period. Raftopoulou's plans of the town, showing excavated plots with features numbered according to references in her text, will be useful to those interested in the layout of ancient Sparta.5 Her paper is rich in valuable data, and it is exciting to read of the many ways in which current work is revising the history of the city.

(13) C. B. Mee and W. G. Cavanagh (pp. 141-8) first summarize the results of the Laconia Survey. The survey area was first colonized in late and final neolithic times, but dense occupation occurs first in Early Helladic II. In the middle and late Bronze Age, the Menelaion became a central place. After the fall of the palace system, a new organization of the landscape is not seen until the sixth century. (Further study, however, has identified a collapse in rural site numbers in the late classical period.)6 An early to middle hellenistic upturn is followed by a late hellenistic and early Roman trough, though the authors raise the possibility that a 'purely archaeological' factor may be preventing us from seeing some sites. In the survey area, there is no marked late Roman upturn in settlement. After a masterly resumé of recent debates about isolated rural settlement and land ownership in ancient Greece (pp. 143-55), the authors next describe the Laconia Rural Sites Project. The aim of that operation was to fill out our knowledge of sites found by the Laconia Survey with new sources of data. The case study of site LRSP1 shows how such an exercise can reveal whether subsurface features are likely to be worth investigating and how far they conform to surface finds. In this instance, surface scatters proved to be a reliable indicator of subsurface structures, while geochemical traces confirmed human activities in the same areas, specifically pointing to Roman farm buildings used as storehouses and workshops rather than for residence. The LRSP points the way forward as an exemplary field investigation, combining a range of surface and subsurface techniques that complement one another.

(14) Keith Wilkinson (pp. 149-56) outlines recent work on the geoarchaeology of the Sparta acropolis and the Evrotas valley. He emphasizes how field research that fails to take account of the geological history of an environment runs the risk that its conclusions will prove unfounded. For example, part of the landscape may be covered with recent sediments that hide the sites of earlier periods. After outlining the geological history of the Evrotas valley, he shows that all its sediments either derive from the limestones of Mts Parnon and Taygetos or are of relatively recent (Pliocene or Neogene) marine, colluvial, or fluvial origin. In the Sparta theatre, analysis of sediments revealed a distinction between two kinds. Construction fills perhaps derive from now eroded terra rossa deposits on the acropolis. Greenish post-Roman deposits derive from Neogene outcrops or 'Older Fill' sands in the vicinity of the cavea and contain organic material which implies that the cavea was by then something of a 'rubbish disposal facility'. Wilkinson suggests that many historical-period sites in the Evrotas valley have been covered over by recent geological deposition, so that surface exploration needs to be reinforced by subsurface and geoarchaeological investigation. As with the study of Cavanagh and Mee, this paper is a masterly demonstration of the value of inter-disciplinary work.

(15) The volume closes with a crisp paper (unencumbered by references) from Donald Nicol (pp. 157-9). He makes the point strongly that for the inhabitants of Byzantine Mystras their city was not a successor to ancient Sparta but a Christian capital. Similarly, medieval pilgrims were drawn to the Parthenon of Athens not by its classical connections but 'by the holy relics and thaumaturgic icons contained inside it'. Among late Byzantine writers, the use of 'Sparta' for Mystras was merely a literary trope. Hellenic meant 'pagan', and the revivalist Gemistos Plethon was anathematized for attempting to fuse classical Hellenism with the new religion; his admirers were to be found not in Greek lands but in Renaissance Italy. Even Plethon was apparently not moved to explore the remains of the old city, as his admirer Cyriac of Ancona did.

This elegant concluding essay is a useful reminder that we need to take account of all the cultural and chronological filters through which we view ancient Sparta and Laconia and that neither history nor archaeology is an island. We cannot understand medieval Laconia without understanding Mystras and the Byzantines' reading of Plutarch. Equally, we cannot understand the ideology of archaic or classical Sparta without the information provided by material culture, and vice versa. Laconia, as this important volume of papers makes abundantly clear, remains a region pregnant with possibilities for multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research. The next generation may be the most exciting yet in Laconian studies.


1.   I apologize for the extreme lateness of this review.
2.   In P. Cartledge, Spartan Reflections (London, 2001), 9-20.
3.   This work has been taken further in S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (London and Swansea, 2000).
4.   G. B. Waywell and J. J. Wilkes, 'Excavations at the ancient theatre of Sparta 1995-1998: preliminary report', Annual of the British School at Athens, 94 (1999), 437-55.
5.   For further information about the urban form of Sparta, see E. Kourinou, Σπάρτη· σψμβολὴ στ̀η μνημειακὴ τοπογραφ́ια της (διδακτορικ̀η διατριβή) (ἡ Μεγάλη βιβλιοθήκη) (Athina: Horos, 2000).
6.   R. W. V. Catling, 'The survey area from the early Iron Age to the classical period (c.1050-c.300 BC)', in W. Cavanagh, J. Crouwel, R. W. V. Catling, and G. Shipley, Continuity and Change in a Greek Rural Landscape: The Laconia Survey, i: Results and Interpretation (BSA suppl. vol. 26; London: British School at Athens, forthcoming 2002).

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