Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.22

Dieter Mertens, Städte und Bauten der Westgriechen: Von der Kolonisation bis zur Krise am Ende des 5. Jh. v. Chr.   Munich:  Hirmer Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 463.  ISBN 9783777427553.  €118.00.  

Reviewed by Nino Luraghi, Princeton University (

[Note: The reviewer wishes to apologize to the author of this book and to the readers of BMCR for this unforgivably late review.]

A remarkable scholarly achievement, this massive book is the product of a specific German brand of classical archaeology, antike Bauforschung, which brings together the study of architecture and archaeological fieldwork. The author, the vice-director emeritus of the Rome branch of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and one of the most respected and authoritative experts on the Western Greeks, is a prominent representative of this scholarly tradition, which largely defines the scope of the book. Mertens brings together and discusses what is known of the architecture and urbanism of the Greek cities of Sicily and Southern Italy from the eighth century to the end of the fifth. In practical terms, this means that the book covers in detail temples--almost the only well-represented kind of monumental architecture--and urban footprints of the Greek cities, with close attention to developments over time. The chronological phases and the cultural regions that provide the articulation of the book are the traditional ones, and scholars who work on Sicily and Magna Graecia will have no difficulty finding their way in the structure of the book and figuring out what is where.

The book opens with a brisk introduction (pages 11-35), in which Mertens sketches the situation in Greece and in Sicily and Southern Italy before the onset of Greek colonization, as far as evidence for buildings is concerned. Included in the introduction is a very detailed explanation of the Greek architectural orders, their characteristics, and terminology (pages 26-35, with many excellent drawings), which serves as a preparation for discussions of individual temples in the rest of the book.

The first chapter (pages 36-89) has a rather more historical character than the rest of the book, and outlines the first phases of Greek colonization during the eighth and early seventh centuries BCE and the evidence for early colonial urbanism. Pride of place goes to the French excavations of Megara Hyblaia, but intriguing evidence from Naxos and Syracuse, largely from recent excavations, is presented, too.

Mertens then moves on to the archaic age and to the early phases of monumental stone architecture. These are themes of ongoing interest for him, and correspondingly the level of detail and the density of personal observation increase visibly (pages 90-215). The creation of the peripteral temple and the rise of the Doric order take pride of place, and monuments such as the Apollonion of Syracuse and Temple C in Selinus are discussed in illuminating detail. In Mertens’s reconstruction of the development of monumental Doric temples, a key role is attributed to the Artemis Temple in Corcyra (pages 132-4), which he sees as the model for the stone peripteral temples of Syracuse and Taras. The second part of the chapter deals with the best-documented cases of urban layout from the sixth century. Besides excellent surveys of Metapontion, Poseidonia, and Lokroi, this chapter harbors a truly remarkable synthesis on the archaic urban system of Selinus, where Mertens is largely presenting the results of his own fieldwork. The plan of the agora (page 177) and the image of an archaic grave with peribolos wall, in all likelihood the grave of the oikist (page 178), epitomize the new image of this expansive archaic city that Mertens has himself done so much to recover.

A short chapter, devoted to a number of very prominent temples of the late archaic period and to the influx of Ionic architecture (pages 216-256), forms a sort of bridge between the archaic and the early classical age, characterized in good German tradition as the age of the ‘Severe style.’ Key monuments, especially from Selinus (Temple D and F, and especially the gigantic Temple G) are discussed here.

The first half of the fifth century testifies especially to the impact of the tyrants of Syracuse and Akragas on the monumental architecture and the urbanism of the cities of Sicily. After discussing the Zeus Temple of Akragas, gigantic and puzzling, and the twin Doric temples of Himera and Syracuse, most of the space is devoted to Temple E in Selinus and especially to the so-called Temple of Poseidon at Paestum, with a detailed analysis of the shape and proportions of the entablature. In the part of the chapter devoted to urbanism, the presentation of the ekklesiasterion of Metapontion and of the bouleuterion of Paestum offers the starting point for a helpful synopsis of buildings of this kind (pages 334-339).

In the next chapter (pages 340-419), in what Mertens calls ‘the age of maturity,’ the central decades of the fifth century, attention concentrates at first on the urban structure of cities that were founded or re-founded after the fall of the tyrants: Naxos, Kamarina, Elea and the Panhellenic foundation of Thourioi. In monumental architecture, this is the age of the best-preserved Doric temples in Akragas, the so-called temples of Hera Lacinia and Concordia, whose structure and proportions are presented and explained in detail.

The book ends with a short chapter about the time of ‘crisis and depression’ at the end of the fifth century, where most of the space is dedicated to military architecture at Selinus and Syracuse.

The sheer amount of evidence and bibliography that went into this book is striking, and it would by itself justify its presence on the shelves of every scholar of Greek architecture or of the history and culture of the Western Greeks—and the pricing is reasonable for a book of this size and with so many plates. Drawings and photographs complete the text admirably, even though Mertens has had to resort more than once to keeping the nomenclature on maps in the language in which it originally appeared in the publication from which the map is taken, with the result that Italian and German show up capriciously, with the occasional map in French. If only as a repertoire, there is nothing quite like this book in any other language. An Italian translation has already appeared in the same year as the original, and an English translation would be most welcome.

But this is of course more than a repertoire. Actually, as will be clear from the summary, this is really two books in one—two rather different books at that. On the one hand we have Dieter Mertens the field archaeologist leading us through the remains of Greek cities of Sicily and Magna Graecia and emphasizing the regularity of their layouts, on the other Dieter Mertens the architect elucidating the development of stone temples, their styles and structures, in these same regions. In both cases the author has his own favorites, typically the sites and monuments on which he has done research himself, but it is fair to say that the coverage is comprehensive and even.

The underlying conception is very characteristic. As Mertens warns the reader right at the beginning, his purpose is to depict “the architectural realization of the thoughts and goals of the Greek settlers” of the West (page 7). There is no doubt, for him, that such goals and thoughts were of an intrinsically rational nature and progressed and developed according to their own logic, essentially without external influence. They are rooted, it seems, in ethnic identity, so much so that Dorians and Ionians appear to be recognizable on the ground, as it were (see e.g. the comparison between Naxos and Megara, pages 72-3 and 87-8, or the remarks on peripteral temples, page 125). Greek colonies are overall characterized from the very beginning by Systematik, Ordnung and Weitsicht (page 63). In the debate between Osborne and Malkin on the existence of regular plans from the earliest phases of Greek colonization, Mertens clearly sides with Malkin—actually, he sees no reason at all to question the traditional concept of colonization along the lines suggested by Osborne.1 In part because of its focus, the book shows a world inhabited only by Greeks, and Mertens is clear that the Greeks, with their regular, orthogonal architectural concepts were culturally and socially more advanced than the indigenous populations (see e.g. page 16, page 48 etc.). Readers on this side of the ocean may find these aspects Mertens’s approach rather ‘Hellenocentric’ or old-fashioned. It should be emphasized, however, that the evidence on which Mertens’s views are founded is always presented to the reader in a very clear and comprehensive way, so that the reader her/himself is in a position to assess his views.

In conclusion, this book is clearly destined to become a standard work of reference, especially as far as monumental architecture is concerned, for decades to come. Scholars and students should be grateful to Dieter Mertens for undertaking this task and bringing it to completion in such a remarkable way.


1.  See respectively ) I. Malkin, “Inside and outside: colonisation and the formation of the mother city,” in Apoikia. Studi in onore di G. Buchner (Naples 1998), pp.1-10, and R. Osborne, “Early Greek colonization? The nature of Greek settlement in the West,” in N. Fisher (ed.), Archaic Greece: new approaches and new evidence (London, Duckworth 1998), pp.251-269.

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