BMCR 2020.12.13

Thesprotia expedition IV: region transformed by empire

, Thesprotia expedition IV: region transformed by empire. Papers and monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, vol. XXIV. Helsinki: Suomen Ateenan-Instituutin säätiö, 2019. Pp. iii, 482. ISBN 9789526850047.

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

This impressive volume introduces important archaeological evidence about Hellenistic and Roman Thesprotia in modern-day northwestern Greece. It is an especially positive development for Roman research agendas, because the articles in it begin to formulate a new story about the trajectory of the Roman province of Epirus, revising especially the character of its early Roman countryside and that of its inhabitants, which raises questions and can help fill gaps in broader Roman Greek narratives.

The volume is the fourth in a series produced by the Thesprotia Expedition, an interdisciplinary project centred on the Kokytos valley in central Epirus that has combined archaeological survey and trial excavations of rural sites with geological and historical research. The Expedition, begun in 2004, developed as a collaboration between the Finnish Institute at Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Thesprotia, a regional branch of the Greek Archaeological Service. In addition, the project has involved in its publications the independent work of Epirote scholars and archaeologists, who also make significant contributions to the present volume. It is this spirit of cooperation that has advanced our knowledge of ancient Thesprotia in just a few short years.

The goal of the volume is to explore how Thesprotia was transformed by Empire, specifically in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The collection will be particularly attractive to those working on the ancient Greek and Roman countryside. It consists primarily of articles presenting new archaeological material from rural sites as well as from burials and from the little-explored Roman town of Photike. Individual articles will be useful to archaeologists of the Greek countryside (Turmo), specialists on fortifications (Suha), coins (Talvio), Roman burial customs (Palli; Betsiou) and inscriptions (Korhonen and Forsén; Korhonen in Palli’s article). An excellent publication of a 1st-century CE deposit (Reynolds and Ikaheimo) awaits Roman ceramicists. The centrepiece is the villa of Agios Donatos. The seven articles on it in this volume, along with a few others in the earlier volumes of the Thesprotia Expedition, paint one of the most in-depth accounts of an exceptional early Roman villa in Greece, making a significant contribution to villa studies. Owing to limitations of space, I focus on the articles whose topics I am most familiar with.

Forsén’s introductory article assembles scattered evidence and combines it with the studies in the volume to build a revised, up-to-date narrative of the development of Hellenistic to Roman Thesprotia in the broader context of Epirus. He singles out five phases of change by Empire: Macedonian influence, a violent (but exaggerated) Roman conquest, rampant exploitation by Roman (or specifically, Italian) entrepreneurs, more organised Roman colonisation, and the transformation of Epirus into a “frontier region” in Late Antiquity. He synthesises old and new archaeological, epigraphic and literary sources, impressively interweaving settlement patterns, rural sites like the Nekyomanteion and the Agios Donatos villa, and urban, funerary, economic, and environmental evidence to re-examine the traditional narrative of provincial development from a holistic perspective. He thus presents perhaps the most nuanced picture to-date of the effects of conquest on Epirote towns which differentially survived into the early Imperial period; his argument is a development building on the work of past scholars.[1] Forsén concentrates on change driven by forces beyond Epirus and on Roman direct agents, such as Italian negotiatores like the Cossinii; this was a family with well-attested economic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean in the last two centuries BCE, on Leukas and on Delos, and in the first two centuries CE on the coast of Asia Minor. He argues that the Cossinii, who were also active in Epirus where they were situated by Varro and Cicero, could be connected to the Agios Donatos villa, where bricks stamped ‘COS were used in its construction (see also the article by Forsén, Korhonen and Reynolds). It would be worthwhile for future research to explore change from within Epirus and to use the material from Agios Donatos and other sites to explore how access (or lack thereof) to trade over time may have affected local developments. While there is room for such work, Forsén’s reconstruction is a very important step forward for understanding Hellenistic to Roman Epirus and illustrates how this can masterfully done by grounding new work on evidence that was, till now, dispersed in different publications.

Turmo’s report on the Gouriza kiln complex is exemplary in highlighting in a small rural unit (at first sight seemingly insignificant) a variety of rich economic activities. A rectangular kiln engaged in large-scale ceramic production, probably of roof-tiles, in the late Classical period gave way to a probable oil press, succeeded by a Hellenistic domestic unit. Turmo successfully combines technical analysis of the architectural remains and the production equipment with methodical pottery work to construct phases. Given the little in-depth study of production sites in the Greek countryside, Turmo’s report is precisely the type of work that positively contributes to the study of the ancient Greek economy.

Moving from Greece to Rome, two-thirds of the volume focus on Roman Thesprotia. The articles by Palli, Betsiou, and Korhonen and Forsén use funerary and epigraphic evidence to examine the social and cultural backgrounds of the inhabitants of Roman Epirus, who are very little is known.

Palli appraises the social significance of some of the graves uncovered in the early Roman cemetery of Mazarakia through their layout and finds. Korhonen reconstructs and analyses two epitaphs. It is intriguing and uncharacteristic for Roman Greece, as Palli highlights, that in Mazarakia primary cremation (i.e., the cremation of the deceased on the site of their final resting place) persisted until the middle of the 2nd century CE. Above the graves, Latin inscriptions recorded Greek names of the deceased and dedicators. Palli concludes by posing interesting questions about the social differences amongst these local people.

Betsiou studies the inhumation graves unearthed in the middle- to late-Roman mausoleum located next to the Zavali villa. This burial monument was known for its three Attic sarcophagi, which were repeatedly looted, thus obscuring the mausoleum’s history. Betsiou clarifies it by using the pottery and coins from newly excavated graves to phase activity from the Roman period to the 17th century. Her work also suggests that the occupation of the nearby villa may have ended in the 3rd century CE, when some of its rooftiles were used in tile graves.

Korhonen and Forsén move from the private to the public sphere through their study of 25 stone inscriptions, predominantly on marble, from Photike. The inscriptions, excavated by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Thesprotia in the basilica of Panagia Lambovithra, nearly double Photike’s epigraphic corpus. On the basis of previously published inscriptions, Photike had appeared to have existed from the later 1st century CE at the earliest.[2] Korhonen and Forsén, however, suggest that the new epigraphic evidence (presumably dated on letter forms) indicates an early Roman community probably extant from Augustan times. This is an exciting discovery from a forgotten Roman town, today buried by the forests of Paramythia. Even more exciting, is the synergasia that will follow between the Finnish Institute at Athens and the Ephorate of Antiquities of Thesprotia to uncover parts of Photike. Like the epitaphs from Mazarakia, the Photike inscriptions were predominantly written in Latin, but mention Greek names.

Forsén, in his introduction, combines the epigraphic evidence from Photike with material from southern Epirus, namely from the Greek-speaking Nikopolis in the public sphere, and from inland Epirus, to produce a useful map of the distribution of inscriptions by the language that they use. One wonders how the epigraphic evidence from these public spheres would compare with that from private domains. The evidence could be used to consider the Roman conquest from a local perspective, not discussed by literary sources, and its interactions with Roman changes. For instance, it is curious that in Thesprotia, which in the early Roman period has been explored mainly as anItalian playground, most names in predominantly Latin inscriptions are Greek.

At Agios Donatos the Italian factor is strong, as numerous contributions argue. They include a comprehensive report and interpretation of the areas excavated (Viitanen) followed by presentations on the villa’s wall-paintings and mouldings (Freccero) and ceramics from early Roman deposits (Reynolds and Ikäheimo). In his introductory article, Forsén explores the role of the villa in the early Roman developments of Thesprotia.

Together these articles help us to understand aspects of the layout, decoration, chronology, location and significance of a villa which challenges our conceptions of Roman villas in Greece and perhaps beyond Greece, in the following ways. In the Roman Greek villa-scape, Agios Donatos stands out because of its early construction in the late 2nd/early 1st centuries BCE. This date is significantly earlier than that of most other villas in Greece, which instead flourished in the middle and late Roman periods, as Viitanen points out. Agios Donatos is also exceptional because the villa spaces were built inside the skeleton of a Hellenistic fort, whose fortifications stood when the villa was constructed; indeed, the villa could only be accessed through its eastern gates. Yet, inside, sumptuously elegant rooms contrasted with the rugged exterior; at least one was decorated with high-quality wall-paintings of the Second Pompeian style, meticulously reconstructed by Freccero. Furthermore, Forsén stresses that the villa had a strong connection with Italy, as indicated, for example, by vast quantities of Italian sigillata from Augustan times onwards, which surpass the quantities found in the Butrint and Diaporit villas further north in the region of Chaonia. While the authors correctly emphasise these close Italian connections and characteristics, it seems to me that Agios Donatos is also an idiosyncratic structure. The desire of the villa owners to utilise the existing fortifications, coupled with the location on a rocky promontory rather than on more level terrain, would have given the villa a fort-like character that was possibly quite dissimilar from contemporary villas in Italy. The combination of Hellenistic masonry and lavish Roman furnishings would have made for a rather special villa, not only for Greece but overall, warranting further investigation of its character.

The Thesprotia Expedition team have consistently achieved the thorough, meticulous and analytic publication of material related to Agios Donatos, offering us rare and valuable insights into a little-understood early Roman Greek countryside. Our understanding of Agios Donatos would be further aided by an assembly of the material currently dispersed in different articles within a single publication on the villa’s architecture (ideally, with a phased plan), finds, and topography, allowing for comparisons with villas elsewhere. This could also clarify the villa’s development over time and intriguing aspects like the  absence until Augustan times of fine ceramic imports, which subsequently skyrocketed especially from Italy.

Reynolds’ publication on the Late Hellenistic/Late Republican and 1st-century CE contexts from the villa tower deposits, with contributions by Ikäheimo on the finewares, is particularly impressive. It includes study of cooking wares, amphorae, thin-walled wares, and Italian, regional and eastern sigillata. The equal attention and extensive knowledge applied to different ceramic wares allow for a particularly complete reconstruction of the types of pots that characterised a 1st-century CE context in Epirus. This is valuable for the study of early Roman Greek ceramic assemblages more broadly because it can help to clarify their ambiguously understood composition. Included is an excellent 50-page catalogue—compact, thorough and easy-to-follow with plentiful drawings.

The collection’s main achievements are that it identifies and addresses two complementary research gaps on Roman Epirus—the evidence about its early Roman countryside and about its people—that together have more far-reaching importance. The evidence is indicative of closer and more pervasive Italian connections during the conquest and in the early ‘colonial’ period than that which is reflected from other Greek areas, as well as of greater investment in the countryside. It begs the question whether this is an exception, owed to proximity to Italy, or was far more typical of the early years of Greece’s Roman conquest, which have remained an elusive mystery. The volume produces a close regional reconstruction that is successful precisely because it raises such questions, making Thesprotia Expedition IV applicable far beyond the seemingly not so insular mountains of Epirus.

Table of Contents

Björn Forsén, Disruption and Development: Tracing Imperial Vestiges in Epirus
Mikko Suha, Towers, Batteries and Indented Traces: Enfilading in Epirote Fortifications
Tommi Turmo, The Gouriza Kiln and Adjacent Structures
Tuukka Talvio, Coins from Three Sites in the Kokytos Valley
Ourania Palli, Filling in the Gap: The Early Roman Cemetery in Mazarakia
Atalanti Betsiou, New Finds from the Roman Mausoleum of Zavali, Ladochori
Kalle Korhonen and Björn Forsén, New Inscriptions from Photike
Eeva-Maria Viitanen, The Roman Villa and Late Medieval Burial Ground of Agios Donatos
Agneta Freccero, The Roman Villa of Agios Donatos: Fragments of Wall Painting
Björn Forsén and Mikko Suha, Tower Stratigraphy on Agios Donatos
Paul Reynolds and Janne Ikäheimo, Late Hellenistic and Roman Pottery from the Tower Deposits of Agios Donatos
Björn Forsén, Small Finds from the Tower Deposits of Agios Donatos
Björn Forsén, Kalle Korhonen and Paul Reynolds, Brick Stamps and Graffiti from Agios Donatos
Markku Niskanen, A Late Medieval Burial from Agios Donatos
Voula Tritsaroli, The Early Ottoman Cemetery of Gouriza


[1] G. Riginos, ‘Η Ρωμαιοκρατία στα δυτικά παράλια της Ηπείρου με βάση τα πρόσφατα αρχαιολογικά δεδομένα από τη Θεσπρωτία’, in Nicopolis B, ed. K. Zachos (Preveza, 2007), 163–73; W. Bowden, ‘“Alien Settlers Consisting of Romans”: Identity and Built Environment in the Julio-Claudian Foundations of Epirus in the Century after Actium’, in Roman Colonies in the First Century of Their Foundation, ed. R. J. Sweetman (Oxford, 2011), 211.

[2] D. K. Samsaris, Η Ρωμαϊκή αποικία της Φωτικής στη Θεσπρωτία της Ηπείρου. Ιστορικογεωγραφική και επιγραφική συμβολή (Ioannina, 1994).