BMCR 2018.10.52

The Fortifications of Arkadian City States in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods

, The Fortifications of Arkadian City States in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiii, 426. ISBN 9780198786597 $125.00.


Matthew Maher’s book is the revised version of his dissertation submitted to the University of British Columbia in 2012. In the introduction, he briefly outlines the book’s goals (“a comprehensive and detailed survey of the historical development of Greek military architecture and defensive planning specifically in Arkadia”, p. 3) and provides an overview of historical and modern sources on the history of Arkadia and research on fortifications in general. The first part covers the methodology and the second contains a catalogue of fortifications.

In the first chapter, Maher deals with theoretical considerations of Arkadia as a geographical concept and whether there were poleis in Arkadia. In order to determine what makes a settlement a polis, he refers to the criteria of the Copenhagen Polis Center (but does not give an exact definition). Maher comes to the conclusion that most Classical Arkadian settlements had also been Arkadian in the late Archaic period, and that the territory had not expanded much in the Hellenistic period. According to Maher there are hints that some of these Arkadian settlements may have been poleis even since Archaic times (p. 28 f.).

In the second chapter, Maher examines types of fortifications and their construction. He investigates the question of the “ideal” position of a polis and classifies the fortifications of Arkadia according to his own typology: the acropolis type (using natural defenses), horizontal type (using manmade fortifications), or uneven type (using both manmade and natural defenses). 1 Maher concludes that all Arkadian fortifications of the Classical and Hellenistic periods comprise stone foundations with mudbrick walls. From other building types used in Greek fortifications he excludes from his considerations the “entirely of stone” one, because it does not exist in Arcadia, but also that where “curtains and ground storeys…were of stone and the battlements and upper portions were of mudbrick or wood” – without saying why he does not take a closer look. This examination is followed by a summary history of the “Classification and Treatment of Masonry”. The detailed explanations of individual masonry types are limited to those actually occurring in Arkadia,2 but the time periods provided for when which masonry was in fashion, however, seem to refer to the entire Greek world. Maher also addresses the topic of the “Stylistic Chronology of Masonry and its Limitations”. According to his study, any dating based on the stylistic sequence of the masonry of a fortification wall—independent of the fortification types—can only be a “chronological consideration”. Nevertheless, he agrees with Rune Frederiksen’s opinion that observations and interpretations based on style, in combination with historical arguments, can generally be considered useful and valid (p. 43). 3

In the third chapter, Maher discusses both the tactical development of the components of a city wall (curtain walls and battlements, towers, gates, posterns and outworks) as well as the development of warfare (decline of hoplite battles, introduction of artillery). For example, the development from the earlier gastraphetes —or “belly-bow”, an early form of a crossbow that got its name from the method of cocking the sinew—to torsion artillery was an important step that influenced the formation of new tower shapes, as did the use of undermining and ramming during a siege. Thus, fortifications in the 2 nd half of the 4 th century BC took on a more active defensive character, which found expression in much higher and stronger walls, the replacement of battlements by a screen wall, and the introduction of the indented trace (a fortification wall with jagged course), as well as the increased use of posterns.

The fourth chapter contains a topographical, architectural and historical analysis of the Arkadian fortifications. Maher observes that there is a clear link between the geographical distribution of poleis and the dating of their city walls. The oldest fortification walls in Arkadia (late 5 th /early 4 th century BC) were located in the southwest, northwest and east, and all had in common membership in the Peloponnesian League or threats from the hegemonic claims of Sparta.

Local topography led to the formation of the Arkadian fortification types defined in Chapter 2, with the predominance of the acropolis-type. With the exception of Mantineia, all Arkadian poleis integrated naturally protected high areas into their fortifications, and all poleis used water in some way for defense. Nevertheless, fortifications were essential. In the case of the Arkadian fortifications, in the two-leveled stone base of the mud-brick walls, which were probably provided with battlements, polygonal masonry was frequently used until the early 4 th century BC, after which trapezoidal masonry became popular. According to Maher, the proximity of the poleis to each other was apparently of importance for the choice of masonry style. The “indented trace”, frequently found in other regions, only appears twice in Arkadia; rather towers were the most versatile, tactical component of the Arkadian fortification walls in the early 4 th century BC. Rectangular and semicircular towers there predominate from the end of the 5 th to the early 4 th century BC. The towers of most Arkadian fortifications are strategically placed, so that they have to be erected before the introduction of the catapult into war technology.

Maher also includes gates and posterns in his consideration of fortifications, which, according to him, “brings to light a number of interesting relationships” (p. 85). But his results — that acropolis-type fortifications exclusively use frontal gates while uneven or horizontal sites display a greater variability (p. 87) — do not reveal many differences from the fortifications of other regions. 4 Maher argues that a trigger for the increased construction of fortifications in the 4 th century was undoubtedly the foundation of the Arkadian League and the threat posed to it by Sparta and her allies.

In the fifth chapter Maher stresses the importance of studying fortifications on a regional level and emphasizes that Arkadia was wrongly seen by ancient authors as a “cultural and political backwater” (p. 100). The fortifications in particular demonstrate that the Arkadian poleis were up-to-date with respect to defense technology.

Part two of the book (pp. 103-394) consists of a detailed catalogue. Here, in alphabetical order, the fortifications of 19 Arkadian poleis are treated. Maher presents the location of the settlement and then its “ polis status” (in ancient sources like literature or inscriptions). Reflections on the history of the place, the local topography, and its natural protections follow. Then come sections on the fortifications: type, preservation, construction, and tactical components (towers, gates, and citadel), followed by a commentary and bibliography with the ancient and modern literature on the site. A supplemental appendix provides brief descriptions of 14 other settlements where fortifications are no longer visible, the identification is uncertain, or the status as a polis is uncertain. The individual catalogue entries are complemented by topographical maps, plans and few, but exemplary, photographs of the masonry. A detailed bibliography and an index complete the book.

With this book, Maher presents a regional study of ancient fortifications. The regional approach seems to me appropriate: regional similarities can be compared with fortifications from other regions, as, for example, Frederiksen does. More regional studies of fortifications are needed. 5 Although Maher’s book is intended for experts, it can also introduce others to the subject of fortifications. Chapters 2-4 provide a good summary of the main literature on fortifications and tactical elements to those new to the subject and thus are not only useful for readers interested in Arkadia—but they do not bring anything new. One might have wished for a few more pictures, especially in the catalogue. The literature on general research on fortifications mentioned in the introduction should be supplemented by the publications that have emerged from the work of the “Fokus Fortifikation” Network,6 the omission of which may be due partly to the overlap of those publications and the printing of the present work. That is a pity because the Fokus Fortifikation publications provide the basics for a (supraregional) view of the fortifications themselves (origins, evolution, building technique) and how fortifications can be explored practically (documentation, interpretation)—themes Maher also tackles.

In summary, Maher’s book offers not only an illustrative compilation of the fortifications of Arkadian poleis with a structured catalogue, but also a good introduction to ancient fortifications.


1. His types are “roughly equivalent” (p. 32) to designations of other scholars, which raises the question why Maher did not use existing categories. For typologies, see R. Frederiksen, Greek City Walls of the Archaic Period, Oxford Monographs on Classical Archaeology (Oxford 2011), pp. 50–53.

2. He mentions “Lesbian masonry”, but since it is rarely represented outside of the Aeolian and Ionic sphere of influence, “this category needs not concern us here” (p. 39).

3. Frederiksen, Greek City Walls of the Archaic Period, p. 69.

4. In the case of those acropolis-type fortifications, no other type of gate was possible because of natural conditions.

5. I myself dealt in my dissertation with the fortifications of the Carian Chersonese; the publication is in preparation.

6. J. Lorentzen, F. Pirson, P. I. Schneider, U. Wulf-Rheidt (eds.), Aktuelle Forschungen zur Konstruktion, Funktion und Semantik antiker Stadtbefestigungen. Kolloquium 9./10. Februar 2007 in Istanbul. Byzas 10 (Istanbul 2010); S. Müth, P. Schneider, M. Schnell, P. De Staebler (eds.), Ancient Fortifications: A Compendium of Theory and Practice (Oxford, 2016); R. Frederiksen, S. Müth, P. I. Schneider, M. Schnelle (eds.), Focus on Fortifications: New Research on Fortifications in the Ancient Mediterranean and the Near East. Papers of the Conference on the Research of Ancient Fortifications, Athens 6–9 December 2012. Fokus Fortifikation Studies 2, Monographs of the Danish Institute of Athens 18 (Oxford, 2016).