Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.03

Petros G. Themelis (ed.), Ancient Eleutherna. Sector I, Volume 1.   University of Crete:  Athens, 2009.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 9789608839496.  

Reviewed by Dimitris Grigoropoulos, German Archaeological Institute, Athens Department (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Eleutherna, an important Cretan city southeast of modern Rethymno,was settled continuously from the Early Iron Age (at the latest) down to the Byzantine period and has been the focus of systematic excavations by the University of Crete since 1985 under the direction of Thanasis Kalpaxis, Petros Themelis and Nikolaos Stampolidis. Research has concentrated on three areas (Sectors I-III), where rich evidence for the fortifications, residential quarters, public buildings, the street network and the cemeteries of this multi-period urban centre have come to light. Following a number of publications from the site, this volume is nominally the first in the series of final reports on the excavations from Sector I (on the east slopes of the acropolis hill) directed by P. Themelis. Though not made explicit, the open-ended noun "ancient" in the title is apparently used to differentiate the chronological span of the subject matter of the present series (dealing mainly with Classical antiquity, especially the Hellenistic and Roman periods) from the volumes dedicated to Early Byzantine Eleutherna Sector I, published in 2000 and 2004 respectively.1

As the first final report and after more than two decades of excavation in Sector I, one would first expect here a detailed exposition of the contextual and stratigraphic information for the entire material of all periods under consideration, a point made by reviews in BMCR and elsewhere regarding Volume 2 from Sector I on Early Byzantine Eleutherna.2 Instead, as stated by Themelis in his foreword, the purpose of this volume is to assemble and present all epigraphic evidence from Sector I, "written or scratched on stone, clay, and metal".3 Certainly, the five contributions by Themelis himself and the various specialists go beyond this programmatic aim; they also explore and synthesize, to varying degrees of detail but with a solid approach, a range of aspects of the epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological evidence.

After a brief foreword (p. 9), chapter 1 by Themelis, examines literary sources, epigraphic finds and archaeological evidence from Sector I to provide a historical synthesis from the earliest human presence in the Neolithic period to the 8th century AD, when the last bishop of Eleutherna is mentioned by historical sources. Overall, the text is based heavily on the chapter published by the same author in an exhibition catalogue in 2004.4 Themelis rightly stresses from the beginning the significance of the decision to excavate Eleutherna, despite the pessimistic view expressed by Humfry Payne (year, citation?) that the site had little to offer. A brief exploration of the topography and geographical setting is followed by several sections discussing the rich evidence in chronological order. Beginning with the early phases of the settlement down to the Classical period, a substantial part of this section is dedicated to the remains of an oblong rectangular building (termed "megaron") constructed at some point in the Geometric-Archaic periods (8th-7th c. BC) and used as late as the 4th c. BC. Below the so-called megaron, Bronze Age levels yielding EM-LM pottery and some Neolithic sherds were investigated. Less space is devoted to the Classical period, and the discussion here is mainly based on references to Crete and Eleutherna in historical sources rather than archaeological or epigraphic finds.

The next section is dedicated to the Hellenistic period (ending, conventionally, with the destruction of the city by Metellus in 67 BC). In addition to exploring various facets of the rich epigraphic record, Themelis traces the origins of urban organization to the period from the late 4th to the later 3rd c. BC and links the attested building activity with internal political developments in the aftermath of the war of the Achaean League against Sparta. To this period he dates the road network as well as several building remains, including a succession of building phases under the Roman temple to the S of the Early Christian Basilica, which Themelis associates with a probable cult place of Hermes Psychopompos. Another patchily preserved but apparently well-appointed "Public Building" is interpreted as the residence of a senior official, but here, as with the above, a detailed study of the architecture and finds would have provided a more definitive idea of its possible function(s).

In the following section, which deals with the Roman period (post-67 BC - 365 AD), Themelis moves first to the discussion of the two large residential complexes (House 1 and 2) that occupy the central area of Sector I. In each case he provides a detailed exposition of the layout and interior arrangements of the two houses, interspersed with comments on select finds from their various rooms. In both cases, Themelis identifies two main building phases, attributing the terminal destruction and abandonment of the two houses to the earthquake of AD 365, as demonstrated dramatically by the discoveries of human skeletons in various locations of the two complexes. Themelis then provides a synopsis of the architecture and finds from the Large and Small Bathhouse; he places the original construction of the first to the second half of the 2nd c. BC, making the building one of the earliest bathhouses in Crete, while for the Small Bath he favours a date in the 2nd c. AD with the building's use stretching to the 7th c. AD.

Themelis' contribution ends with a section on the Early Byzantine period, a large part of which is dominated by the discussion of the Early Byzantine Basilica of Euphratas and in many respects iterates the conclusions presented in the relevant final report.5 The evidence for the Early Byzantine settlement itself is accorded some space but here the lack of a plan hinders the reader from visualizing the information discussed. Apart from the basilica's architecture and phasing, Themelis pays particular attention to the various materials and decorative features used for its construction, including mosaics, wall paintings and sculptural decor. For the construction of the basilica, Themelis convincingly argues for a date in the second quarter of the 5th c. AD on various (archaeological-stylistic, epigraphic and historical) grounds, while placing its destruction during the reign of Constans II or Constantine IV.

Sidiropoulos's contribution (pp. 97-99) is a short commentary on the coin types from the Hellenistic period down to the Early Byzantine period and their provenance. The coin evidence is discussed by general period and the majority dates to Roman imperial times, from Augustus to Diocletian, with some Late Roman, Early Byzantine, Hellenistic and Venetian coins. After discussing the Hellenistic evidence, which is characterized by a large number of Eleuthernian mints, Sidiropoulos points out the frequency of coins from the mint of Knossos predating the battle of Actium and suggests for Eleutherna a pattern of continued local predominance of Cretan mints for the entire Roman period, with coins from other provinces playing a secondary role. As for the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period, Constaninopolitan issues appear to be most common, with the presence, especially for the Late Roman period, of small denominations, a phenomenon widely attested in the Aegean in the 4th c. AD.

The epigraphic part per se opens with a chapter by Tzifopoulos (pp. 103-152) which presents and discusses 38 inscriptions from a total of 62, of which 16 have already been published elsewhere. The material spans the Archaic to the Roman periods, with a single Early Byzantine inscription (no. 17), while thematically it encompasses, amongst others, honorific, dedicatory and funerary inscriptions, a treaty, inscribed altars, as well as dipinti and graffiti on instrumentum domesticum. The few Archaic-Classical inscriptions are either badly preserved or difficult to interpret, while from the Hellenistic examples perhaps the most important is the treaty between Eleutherna and Rhaukos, which Tzifopoulos convincingly dates to the period between 250 and 167 BC. Roman inscriptions represent the majority of the finds and are mostly in Greek; three possible Latin inscriptions are also presented, the only certain one being a dedication to Augustus on an Ionic base which, as argued, might have been originally placed in the city's (as yet undiscovered) Sebasteion. At the end of the section, Tzifopoulos provides additional comments on some previously published Early Byzantine inscriptions and re-assesses the historical evidence for the dating of Euphratas' Basilica, for which he proposes several dates ranging from the second quarter of the 5th to the 6th century AD.

Two extended chapters by Baldwin-Bowsky deal with two particular aspects of the epigraphic record for Roman Eleutherna. The first chapter (pp. 157-196) is a thorough analysis and interpretation of the corpus of 20 Italian sigillata stamps from Sector I accompanied by a detailed catalogue. Baldwin-Bowsky first examines this material using a series of tabulated data covering potters’ names, the chronological span of their activity and the number and geographical distribution of attested stamps first on a Cretan and then on an Mediterranean-wide basis; she then tackles a number of questions regarding the chronology, supply sources and possible routes, as well as the economic, social and cultural factors behind the importation of Italian sigillata. The author has to be commended for paying particular attention to the contexts of discovery and for her astute and structured analysis; given the strong focus of this part on issues of trade and economy, it is a pity that no mention is made of the unstamped Italian sigillata or indeed other imported finewares, so that a quantitative control of the rather limited stamped corpus is not possible. Arguably, it will be possible to appreciate these issues more fully with the final publication of the Roman pottery from the site.

In the final chapter (pp. 201-223), Baldwin-Bowsky examines a rare dipinto recording a Latin name written in Greek and preserved on a marble revetment slab discovered in a small bath suite south of House 1. By way of prelude, the author sets the inscription first against the background of discovered Roman inscriptions from Eleutherna as well as inscriptiones parietariae from the rest of the Roman world, before moving to discuss in particular detail its archaeological context. Despite the problematic architectural evidence, Baldwin-Bowsky cautiously links the bath suite with House 1, and argues in tandem with Themelis' interpretation for an overall Italian and more specifically Campanian influence in the layout of this particular residential complex. She then examines exhaustively the inscription's contents from an epigraphical as well as onomastic point of view, arguing that the named Tonnios may be linked to names attested in cities of Italy and the Aegean and pointing out this person's probable involvement in the Cretan wine trade; a good number of Roman names on inscriptions from Eleutherna and its region reveal similar links with traders and entrepreneurs, permitting to discern, as the author argues, Eleutherna's strategic regional economic and administrative role in the early imperial period.

The layout, editing and overall production of the volume continues the high standard set by the previous volumes on Early Byzantine Eleutherna, accompanied with numerous photographs, plans and drawings, many of which are in colour; very few editorial oversights were noted (e.g., "Hingely" instead of "Hingley" on p. 22 of the bibliography). Given the systematic nature of the excavations at Eleutherna, the publication of this final report from Sector I is of obvious importance for illuminating various aspects of the evolution of this urban centre in antiquity. In particular, the chapters on the inscriptions offer fresh material and insights into the epigraphic habit, onomastics and the social, political and economic history of Hellenistic and Roman Crete, and will undoubtedly become indispensable tools for students of these periods. Last but not least, the volume gives a good foretaste of the final reports yet to appear on Sector I, the publication of which is eagerly awaited.

Table of Contents

Foreword (Petros Themelis)
Abbreviations - Bibliography
The Historical Background (Petros Themelis)
The Numismatic Testimony (Kleanthis Sidiropoulos)
The Inscriptions (Yannis Tzifopoulos)
Setting the Table at Roman Eleutherna: Italian Sigillata Stamps from Sector I (Martha Baldwin-Bowsky)
Downstairs, Upstairs: Tonnius and Other Romans at Eleutherna, Sector I (Martha Baldwin-Bowsky)


1.   Π. Θέμελης (ed.) Πρωτοβυζαντινή Ελεύθερνα: Τομέας Ι, Τόμος 2. Rethymno: University of Crete, 2000 and Π. Θέμελης (ed.) Πρωτοβυζαντινή Ελεύθερνα: Τομέας Ι, Τόμος 1. Rethymno: University of Crete, 2004.
2.   See BMCR 2002.01.20 (J.K. Papadopoulos) and AJA 106 (2002), 504-506 (J. Rife).
3.   Foreword, p. 9.
4.   Π. Θέμελης, The Polis. East Excavation Sector I, in N.C. Stampolidis (ed.) Eleutherna: Polis – Acropolis – Necropolis. Athens: University of Crete, 2004, 46-80.
5.   Π. Θέμελης, Η πρωτοβυζαντινή βασιλική, in Π. Θέμελης (ed.) Πρωτοβυζαντινή Ελεύθερνα: Τομέας Ι, Τόμος 1. Rethymno: University of Crete, 2004, 46-63.

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