BMCR 2001.08.11

Σπάρτη. Συμβολή στη μνημειακή τοπογραφία της

, Σπάρτη. Συμβολή στη μνημειακή τοπογραφία της. Megalē vivliothēkē ; 3. Athens: Ēoros, 2000. xv, 296 pages. ISBN 9789608569119.

It is indeed shocking to learn from the author of this monograph that in modern Sparta, founded in 1843 more or less on the site of ancient Sparta, only a small section was under the control of the Archaeological Service until as recently as 1994 despite protests by the local Ephoreia of antiquities. In the building boom since the 1960s, excavations for the foundations of new structures in the areas outside that restricted zone had been taking place without any archaeological inspection or evaluation. In 1995 at last, the whole of modern Sparta was placed under archaeological control, but considerable information about a large section of the ancient city had already been lost, a fact lamented in print by C.M. Stibbe1 and orally by many others. This tragic loss in poignantly illustrated by the author’s report that during her seven-year service at the local Ephoreia, only once did the owner of a property outside the controlled area notify the archaeologists on his own about the finding of antiquities and that only five plots were excavated in that large area in about twenty-five years.

This is just one of the three major obstacles Kourinou (hereafter K.) faced in her study of the topography of Sparta that was a PhD dissertation for the University of Athens. A second obstacle is the change of street and district names during the twentieth century that creates confusion in the identification of provenance of early finds. A third, the very slow publication of finds from the many rescue excavations of the last decades, reflected in the frequent absence of reports for Lakonia in the Deltion and Archaeological Reports. Under such circumstances, this monograph is a welcome addition to Spartan bibliography since it attempts to appraise the current state of evidence and synthesize the growing body of evidence about the topography and public monuments of Sparta.

Despite the detailed description of Pausanias and the plethora of finds during systematic and rescue excavations, the identification of most public buildings of Sparta remains problematic because several excavations remain incomplete and the finds are largely non-illuminating. It is particularly frustrating, as K. notes, that in the areas where one is likely to find public buildings, no new rescue excavations are conducted because of a no-building zone, while the areas of current rescue excavations lie outside the public areas and thus reveal mostly private Roman houses. Thus we are in the very awkward situation that no securely identified monument has been added to those few identified by the British at the beginning of the twentieth century. Recent studies of the city’s topography and monuments by Stibbe and Overbeek,2 based on Pausanias, archaeological data, and personal inspection, have put forward many suggestions regarding the identification of monuments but have also left many questions still open.

In her dissertation, K. has addressed several of these unanswered topographical questions and has attempted to identify some important monuments of Sparta using a wealth of materials from a variety of sources. Like other students of Spartan topography, she uses Pausanias as her guide and main source since, although the periegete describes the flourishing second-century AD city, it is clear that earlier monuments had been respected and incorporated into the Roman town-planning. K. relates information from Pausanias and other literary sources with archaeological data derived from older excavations and, most importantly, from unpublished rescue excavations, as well as archival material not accessible to other scholars. She focuses on the area within the Hellenistic walls and its immediate vicinity, delimited by the Mousga ravine to the north, Eurotas to the east, the Magoulitsa ravine to the south and southwest, and the supposed course of the wall to the west.

After an introductory chapter where she surveys the earlier topographical studies and sets out the aims of her own study, K. gives short introductions to the physical geography and history of Sparta, setting the stage for the examination of the monuments. The main body of the volume consists of two parts, one dealing with the defence of the city (fortifications, gates, bridges) and another with the organisation of urban space ( komai, public spaces and buildings, urban road network, sanctuaries, cemeteries, water supply, drainage). Excluded from in-depth examination are the securely identified sanctuaries of Orthia and Athena Chalkioikos and the theatre. Moreover, cemeteries, water supply, and drainage are considered only in the framework of the topographical issues of the city. Very useful is a detailed 12-page English-language summary.

According to K, the reason Sparta remained unfortified for most of its history, unlike most other Greek cities, was the extension of its borders far beyond the basic urban nucleus and the assumption of its main line of defence by its entire territory ( chora), where every settlement acted as a miniature military camp. Thus the perioikoi would have formed a buffer against external enemies while, as P. Cartledge recently argued,3 a number of sanctuaries, forming a cluster around or close to the city, would have constituted a kind of sacred boundary, separating at the same time the territory of the citizens from that of the perioikoi.

The course of the oval circuit of walls, first constructed during the Hellenistic period, was traced by the British in the early twentieth century on the basis of excavated remains and especially surface finds of stamped tiles. Correlation of stamped tiles with securely dated officials has allowed K. to revise slightly the British chronology of the walls. The first complete fortification wall was put up by King Kleomenes III in the second half of the third century BC, as part of a larger defence program in northern Lakonia, reflecting the serious security problems of the Spartan polis. In the early second century BC King Nabis reinforced the wall with the construction of a moat and surrounding palisade and probably extended it to the south. The wall was destroyed by Philopoimen in 188 BC and rebuilt ca. 183 BC. New evidence indicates that long repairs were undertaken during the first century BC.

In the Late Roman period (third and fourth centuries AD) the Palaiokastro and Akropolis hills were fortified with walls of which several well-preserved sections survive. K. argues persuasively that the square shape of the fortification walls on the Palaiokastro hill must have been determined by pre-existing structures, most likely of the agora. Pre-existing buildings on the small plateau to the north must also have affected the course of the later walls since only one part was fortified.

No securely identified remains of the gates of the Hellenistic walls have been located so far. Suggestions about their number and location have been based mainly on literary information. K. builds on previous studies but relies also on recent archaeological information: observations on the construction of the wall; the existence of Late Hellenistic and Roman cemeteries that were often located along main thoroughfares outside the walls; and the location of main roads and bridges, elements of the older system of land communication that predate the gates and thus dictated their construction. She thus argues for the existence of six gates, three more and three less securely identified.

The first securely identified gate is the North Gate, placed by K. between the hills Kalimeri and Moudina Rachi. The establishment of the Northeast Gate near the modern double bridge of Eurotas relies on traces of a fourth-century road nearby which led to the ancient bridge, securely identified through architectural remains. As Stibbe has documented, this must be the location of the bridge near the sanctuary of Athena Alea used by Epameinondas in his fourth-century invasion (Xen. Hell. 6.5.27) and rebuilt in the first century BC and eleventh century AD. K. brings in new evidence that supports the location of the Alea sanctuary in that area: a few first-century BC stamped tiles from the wall, denoting the part corresponding to the Alea sanctuary, and a fragmentary fourth-century BC throne with an interesting dedicatory inscription to Alea. Since the throne was found in secondary use, however, its discovery hardly constitutes a “very strong indication” (p. 83, 157) for the location of the sanctuary. The restoration of the third securely identified gate, the South Gate, near the Ayios Nikolaos church relies entirely on the existence of a bridge restored by Stibbe on the Magoulitsa ravine. K. shows conclusively that this is the bridge seen by Leake but disagrees with Stibbe who believes that the present remains belong to a Late Roman or early Byzantine phase.

According to the author, there are some indications for the location of three more gates: the Southeast Gate, which may have given access to the Phoibaion shrine and district, placed by K. in the Psychiko suburb, where a monumental altar has been found; the Southwest Gate, near the Evangelistria church; and the West Gate, somewhere near the Kokkinaki hill. On the other hand, the crossing of the Eurotas on the northeast, as attested through the building of successive bridges and the importance of the road there as the main exit from the city indicated by the discovery of a miliarium, speak against the existence of another bridge on the Eurotas to the southeast as suggested earlier by Wace.4 As a further argument for the location of the bridge to the northeast rather than southeast I would cite its proximity to the agora. Two more bridges, which according to K. served Sparta, cannot be securely identified: one to the south and one on the Mousga ravine to the north are deduced from the hypothetical existence of gates and roads. In general, while the restoration of gates on the basis of pre-existing roads seems justified, the restoration of bridges on the basis of roads is not, especially in the case of ravines that may have been crossed on foot during most of the year.

With the exception of Amyklai, which lay 5 km to the south, the komai of which Sparta was composed were adjacent to each other, albeit with loose and changeable boundaries. The discovery of graves of all periods (isolated or in small groups) inside the Hellenistic walls helps the general definition of these borders, since it seems that the burial ground of each kome was located at its border. As K. concludes, the building of the first walls in the third century BC opened the way for Sparta to develop into a more conventional city by affecting its old settlement pattern based on komai that led to its urbanistic unification. However, in contrast with Sparta’s political unification, which was completed by the eighth century BC, its urbanistic unification was very gradual and was achieved only in the first century BC. Only then were a complete road network, water supply and drainage systems, and unified town plan constructed. The continuation of the komai as autonomous urban centers even after the erection of the wall is shown by burials that continued to be placed in areas between the komai. As Krightly points out, the peculiarity of Sparta lies there and not in the burial pattern of earlier periods. The establishment of organised cemeteries outside the walls indicates that the urbanisation of Sparta was completed by the first century BC, even though occasional burials were still located inside.

One of the major topographical problems still left open is the location of the agora, the place Pausanias describes first in his tour of the city and his starting-point for the various itineraries through the neighborhoods. K. rightly sides with the scholars who place it on the Palaiokastro plateau-like hill to the north of the Roman Stoa and east of the akropolis and theatre, a large area about 200m square enclosed within the later walls. Since this area is mostly unexcavated, the location of the agora there should remain tentative even though it agrees with the direction taken by Pausanias on his way to the theatre. The second main candidate, the flat ground south of the Roman Stoa, is a less likely choice since it was not included in the later walls, as should have been expected, and despite recent intensive excavations has not revealed architectural remains of public buildings.

The impressive Hadrianic two-storeyed Roman Stoa buttressed the agora plateau and delimited its southwest side. The recent British excavations uncovered neither pre-Roman phases nor finds earlier than the first century BC. Thus, as K. concludes, there is no reason to identify (as commonly done) the Roman Stoa with the refurbished Persian Stoa, financed from spoils of the Persian wars and decorated with images of captive Persians. The latter, K. hypothesizes, may have been situated further up, on the northwest side of the agora, perhaps where the remains of a monumental structure built in the fourth or third century BC were partly unearthed in the 60s. As the author admits, such an identification must remain entirely hypothetical until further excavation of the area since there are no traces of a fifth-century phase. What is certain is the public character and great importance of the building in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, as shown by its monumental character, its long life, and the finds, among which is a bronze statue of a Late-Roman empress. K. also argues that the controversial “Round Building” on the west side of the agora is the Choros, where the Gymnopaidiai festival took place, as preserved in its modified Hellenistic form. Even though only complete excavation might validate this proposal, this is an attractive identification for the large structure that has conclusively been shown to be semicircular and a kind of base or retaining wall rather than an actual building. On the other hand, K’s conclusion that the agora existed already in the first half of the seventh century (pp. 127, 132) because of the celebration of the Gymnopaidiai since 669 BC seems bold, to say the least, since the identification of the Choros remains only a suggestion and the festival could have been celebrated somewhere else in the earlier period.

On the basis of Pausanias’ route and/or surface finds K. makes some suggestions for the identification of some other sanctuaries, that of Dionysos Kolonatas, Hera Argeia and Hera Hypercheiria, and Artemis Issoria, but without any excavations in these areas these identifications remain open. In particular her placement of Pausanias’ Asklepieion “towards Booneta” in City Block 121 seems very tenuous, since it is based only on a hypothetical connection between the healing god and Artemis, votives to whom were found in a rescue excavation there. The interesting anatomical votive reliefs dedicated to Kyparissia show the therapeutic abilities of the divinity (whether Artemis or Athena, since the epithet is attested for both) and the terracotta figurines of Artemis may show the existence of a cult in that area, but it is not certain that the two groups came from the same sanctuary since both were found in secondary use; furthermore, the name Kyparissia and the various types of Artemis figurines do not necessarily prove that the goddess was officially worshipped there in her three aspects as Agrotera, Phosphoros and Kyparissia (pp. 182-83), even less that the cult of Artemis Kyparissia was transferred for political reasons from the Hyperteleaton to a pre-existing sanctuary of Artemis Agrotera in Sparta during the first century BC (p. 184).

In the section on the urban road system the author traces the course of the roads Pausanias followed on the basis of new identifications of monuments known to have been located along them. Thus Sparta’s main street, the Aphetais, which started at the agora and running roughly north-south led to Amyklai, passed through City Block 36, where K. locates the sanctuary of Poseidon Tainarios, and went over the bridge on the Magoulitsa ravine. The identification of this sanctuary is based on the establishment of the nineteenth-century findspot of three Hellenistic inscriptions. On that basis she reviews some Thucydidean passages dealing with the events of 466-65 BC and concludes that the city sanctuary existed already in the fifth century BC and was the setting of the killing of the suppliant helots and of the discussion between the general Pausanias and Argilios before the former sought asylum at the Chalkioikos sanctuary.

K. argues that the Aphetais was embedded in (and perhaps even affected) the Roman street network placed under the control and care of a special official. She points out that alongside the urban unification and the fortification of the city came the need for and first attempt at an urban water supply through aqueducts and large-scale drainage works. Although no remains of Hellenistic aqueducts have been found so far, epigraphical evidence reveals that special officials were entrusted during that period with the administration and care of the water supply.In general K. has succeeded in synthesizing a large amount of data in a clear, readable text, cognisant of recent scholarship. Primary and secondary sources are well researched, evaluated, and integrated, and arguments are cautious and easy to follow. In view of the difficulties noted above, speculation is unavoidable, and it is certain that some of her identifications will fuel the debate on the location and character of Spartan monuments and Pausanias’ itinerary.

Among the flaws I note some contradictions (e.g., in p. 132 the beginning of the Aphetais is to the north of the agora, while in p. 136 on its south side); circular arguments (e.g., the Aphetais in pp. 238, 281 is defined through the identification of the site of the Magoulitsa bridge, while in p. 86 the establishment of the location of the bridge is affected by the course of the Aphetais); repetitions of information (e.g., pp. 53-54, 156 and 166 on the location of the Alea stamped tiles) and even of quotations of ancient texts (e.g., Polybios’ text at pp. 37, 58, 67). Earlier suggestions for the identification of monuments could have been summarized to avoid repetitions, rather than listed in chronological order and according to scholars; ancient testimonies on the fortifications could have been better placed in an appendix, since they are not incorporated in the text.

I also have some quibbles regarding the book’s appearance. In a topographical study one would expect more and better maps where monuments and sites could be clearly indicated. Thus a map of wider Lakonia would have been useful for the better understanding of the roads and the locations they lead to, as would have been another of the city with the findspots of the graves plotted according to chronological periods. A larger (perhaps foldout) map of modern Sparta containing most street names was needed since the author refers to several streets not named on the existing map and to some city blocks whose numbering is obscured by labels. Finally, all maps should have been in the same location and not divided between maps and plates. The main text contains some typographical errors of which I note here only the potentially misleading ones: read ” 3ουαἰ. μ.Χ.” instead of” 3ου αἰ. π.Χ.” (p. 81 line 2); “9” instead of “138” (p. 145 n. 476 line 3); “1st century” instead of “3rd century” (p. 283 line 12).

Does this volume constitute an important contribution to the topography of Sparta that elucidates many of the remaining problems? I think that the author’s words (p. 14) give the answer: “our knowledge today about the topography and monuments of the city has not progressed much since the early twentieth century”. Still, those of us interested in the culture and archaeology of the area should be greatful to K. for assembling a large amount of the new evidence and putting out some interesting suggestions. How correct Thucydides was in his apparently snobbish remark that the appearance of Sparta was disproportionate to its fame (1.10.2) remains to be discovered.


1. BABesch 64 (1989) 61; BABesch 69 (1994) 73.

2. C.M. Stibbe, “Beobachtungen zur Topographie des antiken Sparta,” BABesch 64 (1989) 61-99; M. Overbeek, The Topography of Ancient Sparta, Master’s Thesis, Universiteit van Amsterdam, 1993. An article by G. Waywell, “Sparta and Its Topography,” BICS 43 (1999) 1-26, came out after K. had submitted her dissertation.

3. “City and Chora in Sparta: Archaic to Hellenistic,” in W.G. Cavanagh and S.E.C. Walker (eds.) Sparta in Laconia. Proceedings of the 19th British Museum Classical Colloquium. Nottingham 1998, 39-47.

4. “Laconia. I. Excavations at Sparta, 1907. The City Wall,” BSA 13 (1906-7) 6-7.