BMCR 2023.01.16

The destruction of cities in the ancient Greek world: integrating the archaeological and literary evidence

, , The destruction of cities in the ancient Greek world: integrating the archaeological and literary evidence. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 361. ISBN 9781108850292.


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


In countless Greek cities that were allegedly razed to the ground by a foreign army, the archaeological excavations fail to confirm a systematic destruction, and the cities prove to be much more resilient than suggested by our written sources. It is with these observations in mind that Sylvian Fachard and Edward Harris organized a conference on destructions, survival and recovery in May 2019 at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The outcome of this conference is a welcome addition to scholarship on the subject of the destruction of cities, since most studies that rely on archaeological evidence for destruction concern either Bronze Age sites, or natural disasters.[1]

In their introduction, the editors show that ancient authors tend to exaggerate the extent of city destructions and that we should often interpret their accounts as literary topoi. Therefore, the archaeological evidence is of crucial importance for the study of such events, but it is by no means straightforward. It is not always easy to identify destructions in the archaeological record, or to date them precisely enough to allow us to relate with certainty a destruction documented by archaeological sources to a destruction known from literary descriptions. The case studies in this book demonstrate that cities were rarely completely destroyed, since such a task would require considerable time and effort. Utter destruction and subsequent abandonment should rather be seen as the result of a political decision to erase a city from the map. In most cases, at least some of the buildings and people survive, allowing cities to recover more or less quickly, depending on several factors such as their wealth.

All chapter authors discuss the types of evidence that are indicative of or may suggest a destruction, such as debris layers, the presence of sling bullets or catapult balls, coin hoards and various ceramic assemblages found in wells or cisterns. Traces of destruction can be obliterated by later reoccupation, although in exceptional cases, the abandonment of a city offers a snapshot of the site as it was at the end of the war: in Methone, for instance, Manthos Bessios, Athina Athanassiadou and Konstantinos Noulas were able to identify what can possibly be interpreted as a rare archaeological testimony of a siege. Destruction layers in some public buildings in the agora contain lead sling bullets and arrowheads, and the large quantities of household utensils and kitchen ware found in the same layers suggest that people lived in these buildings during the siege of 354 B.C.E. The authors also identify possible traces of the Macedonian camp that was used during the siege and of assault ramps constructed against the fortifications.

With reference to a number of case studies, Panagiotis Karkanas shows that destruction layers can be best interpreted by a combination of stratigraphical analysis and the microscopical study of soil samples. This allows him to determine, among other things, the type of material burnt during a conflagration event; whether a wall collapsed or was demolished; if the roof of a building collapsed rapidly or not; if the building was reused after its destruction; or whether a deposit formed after a destruction accumulated rapidly or over a long period of time. Christos Gatzolis and Selene Psoma focus on a particular category of evidence, coins, to study the destruction of cities in Northern Greece. The quantification of the coins present on a site gives insights into the life of the city. For instance, at Thermi, the decline in the number of coins after the reign of Cassander suggests that the population gradually relocated to Thessalonike, founded through synoecism by this king. Since coins are more precisely dated than ceramics and other types of archaeological material, they can also help us date destructions that are only documented archaeologically, such as the one that occurred in Tragilos. In this chapter, the authors seem to take it for granted that a decline in the number of coins can always be related to a demographical decline. They do not take into account other factors that could be at play, such as the disappearance of stratigraphical layers due to post-depositional processes, or the incomplete state of the excavations. Additional contextual information for each site would have been helpful to help evaluate the significance of a decrease in coin numbers.

As in the case of the conquest of Selinus by the Carthaginians in 409 B.C.E., studied by Clemente Marconi, most contributions concern destructions that are confirmed by archaeological sources but whose extent seems exaggerated by ancient authors. According to written sources, Sulla’s sack of Athens in 86 B.C.E. led to a massacre of its inhabitants as well as a destruction of its cultural patrimony. As shown by Dylan Rogers, archaeological sources confirm an important destruction of some parts of the city around this time, but they also show that there was no systematic destruction that could be described as an “urbicide”. In light of the lack of mass graves dating to this period, the accounts noting the killing of Athenians seem exaggerated. In fact, the Athenians seemed to have a positive opinion of Sulla a few years after the attack, as indicated by the various honors the general received and his celebration as a tyrant-slayer. It is only in the 2nd century C.E., in the context of the Second Sophistic, that our sources begin to depict Sulla and his army under a very negative light. In Miletus, the Persian destruction of 494 B.C.E. had long-lasting effects but the city was not completely destroyed and depopulated, despite Herodotus’ account. However, as Hans Lohmann points out, it is difficult to assess the actual impact of the destruction since the archaeological material cannot be dated precisely enough. In particular, dates shortly before or shortly after 494 have been proposed for the construction of the new temple dedicated to Athena. Depending on its date, it was either destroyed by the Persians and abandoned, or built quickly after the destruction of the city. Thus, its date has important implications for the history of the city and its recovery. While most contributions concern cities that were physically damaged during their conquest, Guy Ackermann’s study on Eretria reminds us that a city’s capture does not necessarily involve its destruction. The only extensive destruction documented in the city is dated to approximately 88–86 B.C.E., while the absence of any equivocal sign of destruction that can be attributed to Antigonos Gonatas’ siege in 267 suggests that it was against the Macedonian ruler’s interest to destroy a city in which he planned to install a garrison.

Even though the siege and the sack of a city can have an important emotional impact on its inhabitants, their long-term effects are often much more limited. John Camp attributes Athens’ particularly quick recovery after the Persian destruction of 480/479 B.C.E. to several factors: the fact that an important part of the population was sent away to Salamis or the Peloponnese and survived the attack; the city’s wealth, increased by looting during the Persian Wars; the establishment of priorities for the reconstruction, in particular the decision not to rebuild the temples immediately; and finally the quality of Themistokles’ leadership. The city of Thespiai even seems to thrive after it was allegedly laid waste in 371 B.C.E., as John Bintliff shows in the book’s epilogue. The same author argues that the destruction of cities is not the relevant factor in understanding the major transformations brought about by the Roman conquest of mainland Greece. The “Romanization” of settlement patterns, with the shrinkage or disappearance of most urban centers and the concentration of the population in the countryside, can rather be explained by the “anti-democratic and proto-capitalist aims of the Roman ruling classes” (p. 351). Likewise, Björn Forsén, who studies the effects of Roman control of Epirus after 167 B.C.E., argues that the destruction of cities did not have as important an impact as the arrival of Roman negotiatores exporting agricultural products, whose presence led to drastic changes in the economic landscape of the region. A century and a half later, the foundation of the three Roman colonies of Nikopolis, Butrint and Photike by Augustus is the probable cause of abandonment of many of the old Thesprotian towns located near the coast, while the Molossian settlements, located farther inland, remained inhabited.

In Athens, the consequences of the Herulian invasion of 267 C.E., studied by Lamprini Chioti, have often been overestimated, and the city recovered rather quickly, as evidenced, among other things, by the construction of several baths in the late third or early fourth century. However, the city’s destruction led to a major transformation of the urban fabric. The city center seems to have shifted to the east, where most new buildings were located. Workshops were set up in public areas that had been destroyed, and the agora lay in ruins and no longer functioned as a public space. In Corinth, the consequences of the sack of 146 B.C.E. by Lucius Mummius are much more severe than in other sites, probably because the city was regarded as an obstacle to Rome’s supremacy over the seas. Charles K. Williams, Nancy Bookidis, Kathleen W. Slane and Stephen Tracy review the sources concerning the destruction of Corinth and its aftermath. The archaeological evidence for the destruction is difficult to find, mainly because of the Roman reuse of the site and the fact that the destruction layers cannot be securely associated with the Mummian destruction. Yet the city seems abandoned after 146, as suggested in particular by the wheel tracks that cross ruined monuments and the absence of any archaeological material in sanctuaries. However, it seems certain that part of the archaeological material found onsite belongs to the Interim period between the destruction of 146 and the foundation of the Roman colony in 44 B.C.E., even though the nature of the activity that took place in the city is difficult to discern. It is not clear whether some Corinthians returned to build a settlement or whether the city was only frequented by visitors, such as surveyors seeking to sell or lease Corinthian land belonging to the Romans.

Alain Bresson’s contribution does not focus on war as a cause of destruction but instead on destruction caused by an earthquake and the steps taken by the Rhodians around 227 B.C.E. to rebuild their city. The wealthy city organized a public subscription but also sent ambassadors to ask for help. The author analyses the impressive surge of solidarity that followed this request. He explores the reasons that motivated the various kings and cities that chose to send benefactions and analyses the nature (money, grain or other donations) and amount of the gifts that were sent by the kings, showing that they depended on each kingdom’s resources. Finally, the author gives a very detailed account of how these gifts may have been used in practice in order to allow the Rhodians to recover from the catastrophe.

In a very useful online appendix, Sylvian Fachard, Cédric Pernet, Gavin Blasdel, Rebecca Sausville, Hanna Smagh, Florencia Foxley and Steven Brandwood list all documented destructions of cities in mainland Greece, the Aegean Islands, and Western Asia Minor, and note in each case the available written and archaeological sources, the extent of physical destruction, the fate of the population, the signs of recovery, and the eventual abandonment of the city.

This volume raises many important methodological issues regarding the identification of destructions and the interpretation of our sources, both textual and archaeological. It highlights that destruction can take many different forms and that the speed of recovery of a city does not only depend on the extent of physical damage to its buildings. Because it brings together the literary and the archaeological evidence, the book is a must-read for both historians interested in the impact of war on cities and archaeologists who are dealing with the material remains of such events. My only regret is that photographs are in black and white, which makes the stratigraphical sequences and microscope images of soil samples difficult to read.


Authors and Titles

1. Introduction: Destruction, Survival, and Recovery in the Ancient Greek World / Sylvian Fachard, Edward M. Harris
2. Destruction, Abandonment, Reoccupation: What Microstratigraphy and Micromorphology Tell Us / Panagiotis Karkanas
3. Miletus after the Disaster of 494 B.C.: Refoundation or Recovery? / Hans Lohmann
4. The Persian Destruction of Athens: Sources and Archaeology / John McKesson Camp
5. The Carthaginian Conquest and Destruction of Selinus in 409 B.C.: Diodorus and Archaeology / Clemente Marconi
6. Ancient Methone (354 B.C.): Destruction and Abandonment / Manthos Bessios, Athina Athanassiadou, Konstantinos Noulas
7. The Destruction of Cities in Northern Greece During the Classical and Hellenistic Periods: The Numismatic Evidence / Christos Gatzolis, Selene Psoma
8. Eretria’s “Destructions” during the Hellenistic Period and their Impact on the City’s Development / Guy Ackermann (translated by E.M. Harris and S. Fachard)
9. Rhodes Circa 227 B.C.: Destruction and Recovery / Alain Bresson
10. Destruction, Survival, and Colonisation: Effects of the Roman Arrival to Epirus / Björn Forsén
11. From the Destruction of Corinth to Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis / Charles K. Williams, Nancy Bookidis, Kathleen W. Slane, with Stephen Tracy
12. Sulla and the Siege of Athens: Reconsidering Crisis, Survival, and Recovery in the First Century B.C. / Dylan K. Rogers
13. The Herulian Invasion in Athens (A.D. 267): The Archaeological Evidence / Lamprini Chioti
14. Epilogue: The Survival of Cities after Military Devastation: Comparing the Classical Greek and Roman Experience / John Bintliff
15. Appendix: The Destruction of and Survival of Cities [Online] / Sylvian Fachard, Cédric Pernet, Gavin Blasdel, Rebecca Sausville, Hanna Smagh, Florencia Foxley, Steven Brandwood



[1] See in particular W.J. McGuire, D.R. Griffiths, P.L. Hancock and I.S. Stewart (eds.), The Archaeology of Geological Catastrophes (Geological Society. Special Publication 171), London, The Geological Society, 2000, and various papers in J. Driessen (ed.), Destruction. Archaeological, Philological and Historical Perspectives, Louvain-la-Neuve, Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2013.