BMCR 2017.03.43

Bridge of the Untiring Sea: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity. Hesperia Supplement, 48

, , Bridge of the Untiring Sea: The Corinthian Isthmus from Prehistory to Late Antiquity. Hesperia Supplement, 48. Princeton, NJ: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2015. xxi, 386. ISBN 9780876615485. $75.00 (pb).

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

Taking its title from a line in Pindar’s sixth Nemean ode, Bridge of the Untiring Sea presents the edited proceedings of a 2007 conference held at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in celebration of more than fifty years of Isthmian research, and thus offers something of a companion piece to the 2013 Corinthian volume edited by Konstantinos Kissas and Wolf-Dietrich Niemeier and the dedicated Isthmia Series.1 In their introduction to the volume, Elizabeth Gebhard and Timothy Gregory set the Isthmus within its historical-political context, from the role of the sanctuary in the emergence of a united Greek front against the Persian threat in 481 B.C. to its accommodation of Nero’s announcement of devolution in Achaea in A.D. 66. There is, of course, no real need to convince the reader of the significance of the Isthmus, and these few short pages are sufficient to reinforce its importance and that of the volume.

The Panhellenic sanctuary of Poseidon is often central in historical accounts of the region, and the same is true of many of the contributions offered here. The structure is chronological, as expected for a work aiming to set forth the longue durée of Isthmian history (p. 1), although only two of seventeen chapters address its prehistoric component. Balomenou and Tassinos present the results of the 37 th EPCA excavations at Mycenaean Kyras Vrysi and argue for the site as one possible source for Late Helladic material previously recovered within the temenos (p. 24). Tartaron, alternatively, discusses Kalamianos and the broader results of the Saronic Harbours Archaeological Research Project [SHARP], characterising the harbour town as a contested periphery between the long-lived Saronic centre at Kolonna and an emergent Mycenae (p. 37). The site and the argument have appeared elsewhere since the ASCSA conference,2 and so there is a degree of familiarity here. The volume advances into the historical with a study of the architecture and construction of the Archaic Temple of Poseidon by the late Frederick Hemans. The structure exemplifies a shift from the pre-monumental vernacular, which Hemans explores with reference to its major innovations, including the use of single-skin isodomic ashlar masonry employing a transitional edge anathyrosis and a desire for economy that saw minimal block cutting on site. The ‘geison’ blocks are located above the cella walls as supports for structural timbers, while discussion of the Protocorinthian tile roof is enhanced immeasurably by an appendix detailing an illuminating piece of experimental archaeology elucidating its manufacture.

Anderson-Stojanović’s analysis of late Classical-Hellenistic architecture on the Rachi feels rather out of sequence between Heman’s contribution and Martha Risser’s discussion of sixth- to fifth-century B.C. pottery from the Archaic Reservoir. Using common-sense criteria to distinguish individual structures within a difficult architectural assemblage, Anderson-Stojanović resolves a settlement of small heterogenous buildings, the architecture of which would have dictated frequent and repeated communal interaction, at once serving as a call to reject notions of the uniform Greek house and raising intriguing questions about the identity of their inhabitants as Corinthian citizens, metics, slaves or extended kin-groups (p. 81). Risser’s analysis reveals patterns within the Reservoir assemblage that hint at the complex and shifting dynamics of public feasting within the sanctuary. A close association with Corinth is clear, and several sets of fine pottery were apparently produced en masse within the same workshops. Unfortunately, lack of data renders the process of their arrival at Isthmia obscure. A short appendix (p. 95-96) details ceramic evidence for destruction of the Archaic Temple between ca. 460 and 450 B.C.

This refined chronology underpins Houghtalin’s discussion of the Temple Deposit, considered by the author as an accumulation formed through the repeated dedication of both official and counterfeit coinage, and perhaps only part of an original whole. Comparison with the Roman Temple of Sullis-Minerva at Bath feels slightly anachronistic when Greek comparanda are available, and one wonders how far iconography or symbolism (rather than simple circulation patterns) truly influenced the choice of coins deposited (p. 105), although the point is well made. The significance of the down-dating of the Temple destruction becomes apparent in Houghtalin’s revised chronology for the minting of the Corinthian Ravel II.2 group and the T-back/large skew Aiginetan stater and, more significantly, the first mints at Ambrakia and Argos. There are few surprises within Thomsen’s study of the coroplastic assemblage from the sanctuary; predominant groups are associated with Poseidon, those with less obvious links feature only marginally. The decision to avoid the implications of its makeup for ritual practice at the site (p. 109) can be understood in a preliminary report. More problematic is the absence of a table of total type counts that would have served to offset occasional lapses in clarity.3

Arafat offers a comprehensive discussion of an exceptionally fine Late Protocorinthian alabastron from the Reservoir. Analysis of decorative and compositional parallels within the recognised corpus of the Chigi Painter seems to build toward a revelatory crescendo before a shift in tone, and a note on the difficulties of attribution in Corinthian vase painting, make it clear that no association is forthcoming; the question mark of Arafat’s title perhaps forewarns as much. Late Classical iron weaponry from Broneer’s West Foundation forms the focus of Jackson’s contribution, providing an opportunity to explore both the problematic character and chronological development of the building and the Macedonian influence that preceded the arrival of the Macedonian garrison. Jackson’s catalogue draws out technical and morphological details that strengthen his identification of contemporary Macedonian parallels, and he succeeds in setting the West Foundation within the regional political-historical narrative, albeit with some speculation (and an arguable over-emphasis on the pro-Macedonian Deinarchos and Demaratos), even if the true nature of the structure and the identity of its recipient remain unclear. Based on careful reading of the so-called Museum Marble Pile, Sturgeon reconstructs two statues from the Sanctuary of Palaimon. The first is identified as Publius Licinius Priscus Iuventianus, high priest for life and donor of the Antonine Palaimonion (V), and cautiously paired with a base naming Iuventianus excavated at Corinth (p. 168). A second is tentatively identified as Marcus Aurelius, perhaps originally accompanied by two officers within an imperial group commemorating Aurelius’ initiation into the cult of Palaimon (p. 182-3). Sturgeon locates the latter along the south or north precinct walls and the former, perhaps, east of the temple, in a discussion which populates the space and offers a context for the dedication of statuary therein. Wiseman provides commentary on, and partial reconstruction of, a list of victors and officers at the Isthmian, Sebastean, and Caesarean festivals of A.D. 57, preserved on a herm perhaps originally set on the plateau of the Gymnasium at Corinth. Alongside the first occurrence of the title of xystarches at Corinth (p. 221), its greatest significance, Wiseman argues, is in its implication for the study of the agonistic festival cycle, demanding an adaptive approach capable of capturing the vagaries of local and imperial timetables and the myriad factors which might influence them. Yegül examines the second-century A.D. ‘hall type’ bath complex at Isthmia within a more general analysis of the phenomenon of sanctuary baths in Greece. Although successful in contextualising the latter, and peopling such facilities more broadly, his attempt to establish parallels between the Nereid Hall and the palatial megara of the Late Bronze Age (p. 268) seems entirely inappropriate.

Ellis and Poehler report on survey and modelling undertaken within the East Isthmia Archaeological Project and, particularly, on the identification of some seventeen structural subphases from within the complex architectural morass of the East Field. The wider Roman settlement pattern of the eastern Corinthian hinterland is addressed by Pettegrew’s data-rich contribution. It, like Tartaron’s, is a product of EKAS and has similarly appeared elsewhere,4 although here Pettegrew recasts the region as an “urban periphery” (p. 309) from the later first century A.D.: a complex, connected space manifesting a diversity of occupation forms preferentially oriented on major routeways and linked to the historical trajectories of urban Corinth (p. 295). Detailed architectural study of the late Roman Fortress, and particularly Towers 7 and 14,5 leads Frey to identify its construction in the hands of individual crews who worked semi-autonomously to general instruction, employing spolia within separate building traditions in a process that, he suggests, may have contributed to the emergence of the later Roman and Medieval architectural canon (p. 326). Caraher argues for the identification of the Justinianic Viktorinos inscription from the Fortress as a conscious attempt to marry imperial authority, military policy and Christian liturgy (p. 339), and thus promote imperial and religious unity, during a period of theological tension at Isthmia. Wohl closes the volume with an analysis of variant Type XXXII lamps, a timely nod to the appearance of Isthmia X (due 2017), arguing in favour of Peloponnesian, and particularly Corinthian-Argive, production, in contrast to the Sicilian provenance propounded by Broneer (p. 351).

Minor editorial oversights, particularly in the standardisation of dating conventions, detract nothing from a thoroughly accomplished volume that serves equally as an accessible introduction to, and an important marker for, work on the historic Isthmus and, by extension, current research trends in Greece.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Elizabeth R. Gebhard and Timothy E. Gregory (1-12)
An early Mycenaean habitation site at Kyras Vrysi, Eleni Balomenou and Vasili Tassinos (13-24)
The settlement at Kalamianos: Bronze Age small worlds and the Saronic coast of the southeastern Corinthia, Thomas F. Tartaron (25-38)
The Archaic Temple of Poseidon: problems of design and invention, Frederick P. Hemans (39-63)
The domestic architecture of the Rachi settlement at Isthmia, Virginia R. Anderson-Stojanović (65-81)
City, sanctuary and feast: dining vessels from the Archaic Reservoir in the Sanctuary of Poseidon, Martha K. Risser (83-96)
The Temple Deposit at Isthmia and the dating of Archaic and early Classical Greek coins, Liane Houghtalin (97-108)
Riding for Poseidon: terracotta figurines from the Sanctuary of Poseidon, Arne Thomsen (109-118)
The Chigi Painter at Isthmia? Karim W. Arafat (119-132)
Arms from the age of Philip and Alexander at Broneer’s West Foundation near Isthmia, Alastar H. Jackson (133-157)
New sculptures from the Isthmian Palaimonion, Mary C. Sturgeon (159-192)
Agonistic festivals, victors and officials in the time of Nero: an inscribed herm from the Gymnasium area of Corinth, James Wiseman (193-246)
Roman baths at Isthmia and sanctuary baths in Greece, Fikret K. Yegül (247-269)
The Roman buildings east of the Temple of Poseidon on the Isthmus, Steven J.R. Ellis and Eric E. Poehler (271-287)
Corinthian suburbia: patterns of Roman settlement on the Isthmus, David K. Pettegrew (289-310)
Work teams on the Isthmian fortress and the development of a later Roman architectural aesthetic, Jon M. Frey (311-326)
Epigraphy, liturgy, and imperial policy on the Justinianic Isthmus, William R. Caraher (327-340)
Circular lamps in the Late Antique Peloponnese, Birgitta L. Wohl (341-351)
References (353-380)
Index (381-386)


1. K. Kissas and W.-D. Niemeier (ed.), The Corinthia and the northeast Peloponnese (Munich, 2013).

2. T. Tartaron et al. (2011) ‘The Saronic Harbors Archaeological Research Project (SHARP). Investigations at Mycenaean Kalamianos, 2007-2009’, Hesperia, 80, 559-634; D. Pullen (2013) ‘The life and death of a Mycenaean port town: Kalamianos on the Saronic Gulf’, Journal of Maritime Archaeology, 8, 245-262; T. Tartaron (2013) Maritime networks in the Mycenaean world (Cambridge, 2013); D. Pullen ‘How to build a Mycenaean town: the architecture of Kalamianos’ in A.-L. Schallin and I. Tournavitou (eds.) Mycenaeans up to date (Stockholm, 2015).

3. “…the ratio even higher when figurines found outside the sanctuary are excluded” (p. 110); “…this holds true only if we count the items…found outside the sanctuary” (p. 112).

4. D. Pettegrew (2007) ‘The busy countryside of Late Roman Corinth: interpreting ceramic data produced by regional archaeological surveys’, Hesperia, 76, 743-784; D. Pettegrew (2010) ‘Regional survey and the boom-and-bust-countryside: re-reading the archaeological evidence for episodic abandonment in the Late Roman Corinthia’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 14, 215-229.

5. Also, J.M. Frey, Spolia in fortifications and the common builder in Late Antiquity (Leiden, 2016).