BMCR 2020.10.13

Atene e il sacco di Silla evidenze archeologiche e topografiche fra l’86 e il 27 a.C

, Atene e il sacco di Silla evidenze archeologiche e topografiche fra l'86 e il 27 a.C. Kölner Schriften zur Archäologie, Band 2. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2019. 240 p. ISBN 9783954903665 €98,00.

There has been renewed interest, of late, in the career of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and his impact on the Late Republican Mediterranean world, especially in the Greek East.[1] Sulla’s campaign against Mithridates VI Eupator, in the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BCE), can be seen as an example of the Roman state’s assertion of its continuing control over Greece and Asia Minor. Because of its strategic importance, Athens had to be subdued at all costs; Sulla took the city by siege, breaching the walls on the night of 1 March 86 BCE. The Sullan siege of Athens was subsequently reported in a number of ancient sources, ranging from straightforward accounts of an important strategic maneuver on the part of the Romans to expressions of utter contempt for Sulla and his actions.[2] The seeming bias of the latter sources is a complicating factor for scholars investigating Sulla’s siege, which has generally been viewed as one of the greatest destructive events in Athenian history.

Caterina Parigi’s study of Athens in the first century BCE takes steps towards a better understanding of what exactly occurred in March 86, and its impact on the city. Despite the fame of the siege, there has not been an extensive study of the archaeological evidence for the event.[3] What sets this monograph apart from previous works is the examination of all available evidence throughout the city, not just one sector of Athens, providing a more holistic reading of the siege. The volume is divided into nine chapters, with an appendix for each cataloguing literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence. In the first chapter, relying on ancient sources and modern analyses, Parigi outlines the complex historical background of the siege, including the condition of Athens at the start of the first century, the events related to the siege, and what happened in Athens between 86 and 27, when the province of Achaia was established by Augustus. She argues that Athens in the first century BCE was not a moribund urban center; while the city did suffer at the hands of Sulla and his men, it was able to recover culturally and economically, as the survival of such institutions as the Panathenaic Games and the philosophical schools demonstrates.

The remainder of the monograph is devoted to the archaeological evidence for the siege, with each chapter covering a different part or feature of the city: the walls; the cemeteries; the Kerameikos; the Agora; the Acropolis and its slopes; the southern quarter; the Areopagus and the valley between the Acropolis and the Pnyx; and the area east of the Agora. Each chapter includes a history of the excavations and subsequent studies of the area, commentary on literary and epigraphic sources, and a discussion of the available archaeological evidence. Concerning the walls, Parigi shows that damage was not limited to the stretch between the Piraeus and Sacred Gates, as the historical sources suggest, but occurred at numerous points around the entire circuit. Further, she shows that over the course of the first century BCE, and beyond, the moat in front of the proteichisma was filled in, as the walls fell into disuse in the stability of the pax Romana.[4] In the chapter on the necropoleis, Parigi finds no discernable break (and thus no evidence of damage) in the use of the cemeteries after the siege. Yet, in the next chapter on the Kerameikos, she does mention apparent damage to some of the graves on the Sacred Way, such as the precinct of Dexileos, which accords with the ancient claim that Sulla’s troops entered the city at its northwestern corner.

The chapters on the major sections of the city provide the most detailed discussion of the evidence for the siege. The Kerameikos is one location with obvious destruction by the Romans, confirming literary sources. The Pompeion, located between the Dipylon and Sacred Gates, was heavily damaged (vividly reflected in the discovery there of stone catapult balls and two iron helmets), along with Bau Z to the south. After the siege, the area was rebuilt with a number of workshops (including in the area in front of the Dipylon Gate, Bau Z, and the Pompeion), in Parigi’s view a demonstration of a recovering economy. In the Agora, Parigi argues that only the Tholos and perhaps the so-called Arsenal suffered significant damage. There is some evidence for the troops pulling down statues and inscriptions, as a number of pre-86 fragments were found in the retaining wall of the façade of the new Bouleuterion constructed in first century CE. She sees no firm evidence for crediting Sulla and his men with damage to structures in the southwest corner (including the Aiakeion, South Stoa II, Middle Stoa, etc.). The Acropolis and its slopes suffered little, beyond the burning of the Odeion of Pericles, attested by the ancient sources—and that structure was later rebuilt. It seems that no widespread destruction occurred on the Acropolis, where the Athenians barricaded themselves after Sulla took the city. Restorations to the Asklepieion on the south slope in the first century do not point to Sullan activity per se, but they illustrate, as Parigi argues, that private individuals (such as the priests of Asklepeios) participated in the restoration efforts after the siege.

Finally, Parigi explores other areas of the city around the Agora and Acropolis that were probably impacted by the siege. Recent excavations in the closely packed residential quarter south of the Acropolis (connected to the Athens Metro and the Acropolis Museum), have revealed some damage in this area (especially with the closure of a number of wells). After the siege, the houses were transformed into workshops, paralleling what occurred in the Kerameikos. Parigi demonstrates that domestic structures north of the Areopagus were sufficiently damaged to be covered up after the siege and rebuilt. East of the Agora, where the Roman Agora and the Library of Hadrian would later be built, Parigi found no discernable signs of damage attributable to the siege, which leads her to posit that the Roman troops did not move through this part of the city. She traces their route from the entry point around the Kerameikos, through the Agora, skirting the Areopagus and moving past the Acropolis, then down into the southern section of the city. She concludes that the damage inflicted on the city did not follow any ideological pattern; there is no evidence that certain structures were targeted.[5] In Parigi’s view, the subsequent period was an important one for Athens, a time of rebuilding and of economic, political, and cultural recovery.

This monograph is long overdue. The quality and quantity of Parigi’s research, evident in its bibliography, is to be commended—bringing together a number of sources from excavations over the last century and a half.[6] There are, however, a few caveats. On numerous occasions, Parigi rightly points out that the physical traces of Sullan destruction are often exaggerated in the scholarship, citing a tendency to assign any discernable damage of the Late Hellenistic period to the siege of 86 (e.g., pp. 47, 80). Yet, Parigi does not offer a sound methodology for the identification of “true” Sullan destruction, or a list of characteristics that would earmark damage or debris as related to this siege. Nor does she engage fully with the generally accepted evidence for Sullan damage, such as wells and cisterns in the Agora and on the slopes of the Areopagus with “pure Sullan” deposits that have been taken to demonstrate clean-up after the siege.[7] There are also occasional incongruities in the text. For example, Parigi argues that the circuit wall was damaged at a number of points (p. 44), but, for the most part, the cemeteries remained intact (p. 56). It seems unlikely, however, that Sulla and five legions could damage the massive Athenian walls but leave the adjacent necropoleis untouched. Parigi does not sufficiently explain the presence of the six catapult balls found in the Aiakeion, in the southwest corner of the Agora, if, as she argues, there was no widespread destruction in that area (pp. 85-86). Parigi assigns damage to the Tholos, following the 1940 study by Thompson, but Thompson’s report is unclear as to when exactly the damage occurred and does not present evidence for a secure connection to Sulla.[8] Finally, while she does not deal with the Sullan damage in Piraeus, Parigi’s arguments would have been strengthened by recent work in the Piraeus, which was also able to rebound economically and socially after the siege.[9]

With that said, this volume is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on first-century Athens. At the most basic level, it can serve as a guide to important bibliography on the relevant archaeological work in different areas of the city. Further, this volume provides an important avenue into an interrogation of the nature of deliberate destruction—and how we can identify it in the archaeological record itself. The monograph also contributes to the discussion of how this particular city responded, changed, and adapted after a destructive event, slowly becoming a part of the growing Roman imperial machine, and yet still keeping its own identity as one of the original cultural capitals of the Mediterranean.


[1] For example: S. Zoumbaki, “Sulla, the Army, the Officers, and the Poleis of Greece: A Reassessment of Warlordism in the First Phase of the Mithridatic Wars,” in T. Ñaco del Hoyo and F. López Sánchez, eds., War, Warlords, and Interstate Relations in the Ancient Mediterranean (Leiden, 2018); A. Eckert and A. Thein, eds., Sulla: Politics and Reception (Berlin, 2020), pp. 33-54.

[2] On these ancient sources: I.N.I. Kuin, “Sulla and the Invention of Roman Athens,” Mnemosyne 71 (2018): 616-639.

[3] Before Parigi, the only systematic study of the siege was M. Hoff, “Laceratae Athenae: Sulla’s Siege of Athens in 87/6 B.C.,” in M.C. Hoff and S.I. Rotroff, eds., The Romanization of Athens (Oxford, 1997), pp. 33-51. Other scholarship on the archaeological evidence of the siege includes: B. Antela-Bernárdez, “Sila no vido a aprender historia Antigua: El asedio de Atenas en 87/6 A.C.,” RÉA 111 (2009): 475-491; E. Mango, “Tanta vis admonitionis inest in locis. Zur Veränderung von Erinnerungsräumen im Athen des 1. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.,” in R. Krumeich and C. Witschel, eds., Die Akropolis von Athen im Hellenismus und in der römischen Kaiserzeit (Wiesbaden 2010), pp. 117-155; P. Assenmaker, “Poids symbolique de la destruction et enjeux idéologiques de ses récits: Réflexion sur les sacs d’Athènes et d’Ilion durant la première guerre mithridatique,” in J. Driessen, ed., Destruction: Archaeological, Philological, and Historical Perspectives (Louvain, 2013), pp. 391-414; D.K. Rogers, “Sulla and the Siege of Athens: Reconsidering Crisis, Survival, and Recovery in the First Century B.C.,” in S. Fachard and E.M. Harris, eds., The Destruction of Cities in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge, Forthcoming).

[4] See also A.M. Theocharaki, The Ancient Circuit Walls of Athens (Berlin, 2020), pp. 43-45, 206-208.

[5] Contra Hoff (op. cit., pp. 40-41), who argues that damage in the Agora was inflicted on military-related structures (e.g., Arsenal and the Strategeion) and historical and cultural monuments, while civic and religious structures were spared.

[6] Parigi notes in her introduction that bibliography was updated until the end of 2016, but there were some sources that were not cited, such as the important Antela-Bernárdez 2009 and Assenmaker 2013 (op. cit.).

[7] Parigi mentions the cisterns and their deposits only in passing (pp. 112, 118-120), although her appendix to chapter 8 lists them. On the Sullan deposits in wells and cisterns, see S.I. Rotroff, Agora 29 (1997), pp. 35-36.

[8] H.A. Thompson, The Tholos of Athens and its Predecessors (Princeton, 1940), especially p. 57.

[9] D. Grigoropoulos, “The Piraeus from 86 BC to Late Antiquity: Continuity and Change in the Landscape, Function, and Economy of the Port of Roman Athens,” BSA 111 (2016): 239-268.