BMCR 2001.02.10

Der Golf von Korinth. Historisch-topographische Untersuchungen von der Archaik bis in das 1. Jh. v. Chr.

Klaus Freitag, Der Golf von Korinth : historisch-topographische Untersuchungen von der Archaik bis in das 1. Jh. v. Chr.. Quellen und Forschungen zur antiken Welt ; Bd. 34. München: Tuduv, 1999. 504 pages : maps ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3880735743

In recent decades classical scholarship has become increasingly interested in the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, in its geographical and cultural complexities. In the sense that the Gulf of Korinth in many ways structurally replicates the Mediterranean and elicits similar patterns of behavior from the inhabitants of its shores, F.’s book on this ‘Mediterranean within a Mediterranean’ should be of considerable interest.1 In 1988 Sebastian Bommeljé, then director of the Dutch Aitolia Studies Project, in an article on the problem of the control of the coastal area around Kalydon and Pleuron, indicated the importance of the geography of the gulf in influencing the complex history of this region, and wrote, with equal measures of resignation and provocation, that ‘the history of the Corinthian Gulf…has yet to be written.’2 Bommeljé highlighted the role of the gulf as an ‘artery of Greek culture’ and as a device connecting, rather than separating, the Peloponnese and mainland Greece. The challenge of making sense of this highly complex body of water, and the world of interaction that its waters, shores and hinterland bore, has at last been taken up, with admirable thoroughness and attention to detail.

F.’s book is divided into four main sections: an introduction; an analysis of the ancient names given to the gulf and its constituent parts; individual, historical-topographical studies of 45 locations along the shores of the gulf, taken in clockwise order, beginning with Akarnanian Oiniadai, and ending with Akhaian Dyme; and a conclusion which attempts to synthesize the complicated mass of details offered in the third part, considering the gulf as an ancient Lebens- und Interaktionsraum. These details are supported by a very full bibliography, three thorough and useful indices, and three distinctly unhelpful maps. These maps, which depict (a) the names of the sub-regions of the gulf, (b) major shipping and ferry routes across its waters, and (c) the cities and harbors that dotted its shores from the archaic through the hellenistic period, are a real weak point in a book that is so centrally concerned with the minutiae of topography. Rivers, mountains, roads, inland poleis and bodies of water are not named (though the rivers and lakes are shown, like ghosts on a landscape), despite their intimate relations with the gulf itself and the states on its shores, which F. refers to throughout as die Golfanrainer.

The spirits of Braudel and Weber are invoked in the opening pages of the book, and, despite his own assertion that the coastal position of the cities coming under scrutiny was the necessary and formative characteristic of their economic and political structures, F. distances himself from ‘das Konzept eines längst überholten “geographischen Determinismus”‘.3 It is a difficult distance for a historical topographer to keep, but F. on the whole does an excellent job of it. One interesting example may illustrate his method. In assessing the historical and economic importance of the cities on the Boiotian coast of the gulf, F. makes the valuable argument that we should take Ephoros ( FGrHist 70 F 119 apud Str. 9.2.2) seriously when he describes Boiotia as being heavily influenced by its position on ‘three seas’ (viz., the Krisaian and Korinthian gulfs, and the gulf of Euboia), where its harbors received goods from Italy, Sicily, and Libya, on the one hand, and could on the other engage in Aegean trade with places like Egypt, Kypros, the Kyklades, Makedonia and the Propontis. Far from being rough and inhospitable, the ports of the south Boiotian coast were, F. argues, closely connected with the interior as well as with the world of maritime trade. This is evidenced in one case by the hellenistic proxeny decrees of Thisbe, revealing close relations with the Interaktionsraum of the Korinthian gulf, including Pagai, Sikyon, Amphissa and Naupaktos.4 At the same time, however, (and this is perhaps not emphasized heavily enough by the author), Thisbe had proxenoi in Panopeus and Khaironeia, on the other side of Helikon. In the fourth century, the Boiotian koinon issued proxeny decrees to citizens of Karthage, Byzantion and Makedonia.5 It is the dual orientation of the Boiotian cities, toward the interior and toward the sea, and the active choice made to achieve it, that must really be emphasized in order for the historical topographer to escape the dangerous but strong draw of geographical determinism. It is no longer persuasive to argue that mountains act as barriers to trade and communication; rather their complex landscapes can create a network of routes and passes that facilitate, rather than hinder, communication.6

The greatest bulk of the book (278 pp.) is taken up by the third section, which in 45 individual sub-sections trots exhaustively through the evidence for as many coastal places. In each sub-section F. duly notes the first attested literary evidence for a given place, virtually all of its subsequent appearances in the history of the archaic, classical and hellenistic periods, and any information we have on the topography of the place and its archaeological record. It reads for the most part like a work of reference, and the real utility and convenience provided by the collation of this evidence (always very up-to-date) will be most effectively harnessed if readers use it as such.

The benefits resulting from such Sitzfleisch are quite considerable, and F. has made an important contribution to our understanding of the economic importance of the Korinthian Gulf for the inhabitants of central Greece and the Peloponnese. It is perhaps not surprising to find that Korinth’s harbor at Lekhaion functioned as a distribution center for goods destined for other gulf states (section III.6.3), but its close ties as a distribution center with the produce of the interior is an important nuance. Of particular interest is the provision of stone to be used in building projects at Delphi, shipped from Lekhaion and quarried in and around the Korinthia. F.’s work highlights the very similar activities at Sikyon in the archaic period (section III.7). The Corinthians vigorous pursuit of trade in the archaic period has long been known, but we can now see more clearly how those economic activities were influenced by their location on the coast of a body of water that was almost always navigated with ease. The considerable risk of losing valuable goods at sea in the course of long-distance trade is minimized in voyages confined to the short distances and relatively calm waters of the gulf. (Though the destruction of Helike by an angry Poseidon in 373 was an extreme case, choppy waters are still to be seen; Paus. 9.32.1 provides an important reminder of the potential turbulence of the gulf.) We can, in other words, see the maritime activities of Korinth and Sikyon as a human reaction to the very particular conditions offered by the gulf, rather than as determined by the mere presence of a body of water.

Another important contribution made by the detailed investigations of this central section is F.’s development of the concept of a sacred port at Kirrha (used interchangably with Krisa in the sources), analogous to the plain of the archaic city allegedly consecrated to Apollo by the Delphic Amphiktiony after the First Sacred War. Bacchyl. Ep. 4.9, a hymn in honor of Hiero’s four-horse victory at the Pythia, rather than mentioning Delphi, mentions the ‘sea-girt corners of Kirrha’. This particular circumlocution is striking, and can perhaps be read to indicate the point of arrival for a visitor from Syracuse; it is a nice example of the kind of direct interaction that is facilitated by the geography of the gulf. Already in the fifth century the port at Kirrha saw the cooperative creation by several states of a regular residence for theoroi and ambassadors; an inscription from the latter part of the fifth century, recording an agreement between Andros and Delphi, makes it clear that when a ship containing pilgrims and ambassadors arrived at Kirrha, it was allowed to stay at the port for the duration of the visit to the sanctuary. It also received ships bearing gifts for Apollo, grain, and building materials for the temple (already noticed in connection with Korinth and Sikyon); various harbour facilities were created to facilitate the unloading of such goods.7 These details provide an important contribution to our understanding of the unique way in which the inland sanctuary of Delphi related to the coast that contributed so much to its accessibility and wide repute.

F.’s focus throughout is on what he refers to as die Golfanrainer, a word used to refer both to the poleis and harbors that lie on the coasts of the gulf, and also to the inhabitants of those settlements. Much of his study is accordingly dedicated to harbors, and in his concluding section he draws a distinction between two basic types of harbor. The limen is defined as a port situated in a natural bay, which lay in the vicinity of the settlement center of a polis or an ethnos (p.310); 17 are listed for the Gulf of Korinth, among which are Oiniadai, Kalydon, Naupaktos, Kalydon and Patrai. The other basic type of harbor is the epineion, defined as a coastal place at some distance from the settlement center (whether polis or ethnos) which controls it politically; six such places are listed, among which are Korinthian Lekhaion, Thespiaian Siphai, and Pellenian Aristonautai (pp.311-314). F. goes on to note as features of the epineion facilities such as warehouses, storerooms, temples for securing the safety of the harbor and its users, and an extensive fortification system designed to protect the entire coastal region. But aside from the fortification system, it is difficult to see how the structure and organization of these ports differed from those of the limen, and this issue is not addressed. Nor is the fact that five of the six epineion harbors belong to federal states, Lekhaion being the exception. It may be not only the distance of the port from the settlement center but also the concern of an entire region, unified to some degree under a federal government, that drove the construction of the far-reaching fortification systems which F. notices as a feature of these harbors.

There is, however, in my judgment a less productive side to F.’s focus on die Golfanrainer, and that is an overly narrow conception of the extent of the Gulf of Korinth. The geographical confines of the gulf can be grasped by a quick glance at any decent map, bearing in mind studies of coastal changes since antiquity. A map cannot, however, readily convey the gulf as a Lebens- und Interaktionsraum for the network of interactions which it facilitates extends far beyond its physical shores. This small body of water, like the greater Mediterranean itself, has rather long arms. One way in which they were extended in antiquity was down roads, and one example is the network of roads which led from Aegeira and Pellene on the Akhaian coast south to Arkadian Pheneus (Paus. 8.15.5 & 8); we have already seen that routes reached from the coastal places of Boiotia through the mountains and into the central plains. Perhaps a more obvious illustration of the long reaches of the gulf is the phenomenon of colonization in Italy and Sicily led by gulf states. Korinthians, Lokrians, and Akhaians are believed to have sent colonies to the west, and while F. mentions each of these individually, some consideration of this activity in geographical perspective would have been advantageous. The same western orientation continued, as evidenced by the presence of Italian merchants at the Akhaian city of Aigion in the republican period.8

Another product of thinking too closely about die Golfanrainer is the failure to consider the Ionian islands in their own right as part of the Lebens- und Interaktionsraum of the Korinthian Gulf. The Korinthian colonization of Leukas and Akarnania is itself important in this connection, but that act had further repercussions in the world of the gulf, drawing the hostilities in which Korinth was engaged (e.g., with Athens, 429-426 BC) far west to the very edges of the mainland. A very early grave epigram honoring one Menekrates of Lokrian Oiantheia reveals that he was proxenos of Kerkyra and was killed at sea, probably near Kerkyra; the island was, in other words, bound by the sea to the Interaktionsraum of the gulf. 9 Ships from Kephallenia joined the Aitolians in harassing the west coast of the mainland in the spring of 220 BC, and around 223/2 the Aitolians sent a colony to Same, one of the four chief poleis of the same island; it is argued from these two events that Kephallenia became a member of the Aitolian koinon probably in the mid-220s. It suffered for its allegiance, being unsuccessfully attacked by Philip V in 218, at the beginning of his campaign of depredations against Aitolia, which culminated in the sack of Thermon.10 In explaining Philip’s strategy in attacking Pale, Polybius reveals the strategic and geographical importance of Kephallenia: it provided the Aitolians with their only naval equipment with which to engage in hostilities against Akhaia and coastal Epiros and Akarnania and was situated at almost equal distances from each of these and from Aitolia itself. The Ionian Islands are, in other words, an integral part of the complex net of interactions which F.’s study has revealed, and their absence from the book is to be regretted.

F. has written an ambitious, detailed and important book, the weakness of which is primarily the author’s narrow conception of the extent of the gulf and the spheres of interaction that it engendered in antiquity. If it can help break down the rigid conceptual lines which separate ‘central Greece’ from ‘the Peloponnese’ and ‘northwestern Greece’, by conveying a sense of the integrity of this complex region as a whole, it will have made an important and lasting contribution.


1. E.C. Semple, The Geography of the Mediterranean Region. Its Relation to Ancient History (London: Constable & Co. Ltd., 1932), 62, observes that the Gulf of Korinth structurally replicates the Mediterranean Sea as a whole. Both bodies of water have east-west inlets, are bordered by steep, mountainous coasts, are naturally penetrated only in the west, by a narrow strait which opens to a larger sea, and both are bounded by a narrow isthmus in the east, pierced in each case only in recent history. The quote is from P. Leigh Fermor, Roumeli (London: J. Murray, 1966), 154.

2. S. Bommeljé, ‘Aeolis in Aetolia. Thuk. III.102.5 and the Origins of the Aetolian ethnos‘, Historia 37 (1988), 297-316 at 316.

3. The quote is from F., p. 3. For the concept of Küstenkultur to which F. appeals, M. Weber, ‘Die sozialen Gründe des Untergangs der antiken Kultur’, Die Warheit 6 (1896), 57-77; Freitag 2-3.

4. Pagai: SEG 3.344; Sikyon: IG VII.2223, SEG 3.346 & 348; Amphissa: SEG 3.349; and Naupaktos: IG VII.2224. F. gathers evidence for Thisbe’s use of at least two different ports, but we do not know where they were located, though Korsiai is a candidate (pp.155-159).

5. Panopeus: SEG 3.344; Khaironeia: SEG 3.345; Karthage: IG VII.2407; Byzantion: IG VII.2408; and Makedonia: REG 1984: 45-46.

6. On the principle that mountains unite, rather than divide, see now P. Horden & N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study in Mediterranean History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2000), 82. A.R. Burn, ‘Helikon in History: A Study in Greek Mountain Topography’, ABSA 44 (1949), 313-323 illustrates this phenomenon very clearly for Helikon.

7. See pp. 132-134 with fnn.

8. J. Bingen, ‘Inscriptions d’Achaïe’, BCH 78 (1954), 82-85; D. van Berchem, ‘Les Italiens d’Argos. Un post-scriptum,’ BCH 87 (1963), 322-324.

9. The document is most probably to be dated to the first quarter of the sixth century BC. IG IX I 2 3.867 = Meiggs-Lewis 4 (who date it to (?) 625-600, following Jeffrey, LSAG 232 no.9); cf. M.B. Wallace, ‘Early Greek Proxenoi’, Phoenix 24 (1970), 190 (who dates it to post 582).

10. Plb. 4.6.2 on Kephallenian naval aid to Aitolia; IG IX.1(2).1.2 for Aitolian colonization of Same; Plb. 5.3.3-5.11 for Philip’s attack in 218.