BMCR 2024.07.20

Thisoa am Lykaion: Ergebnisse der Forschungen

, , Thisoa am Lykaion: Ergebnisse der Forschungen. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2023. Pp. 380. ISBN 9783954905386.

This volume presents the results of fieldwork undertaken at the site of Thisoa in southwestern Arcadia in 2007 and 2011–2012 under the direction of Torsten Mattern. It also covers aspects of the earlier survey, documentation, and excavation carried out by the Netherlands Institute at Athens (NIA) from 1984–1988. The book will be of interest to a wide range of scholars and is essential reading for anyone working on Arcadian history, religion, topography, archaeology, and architecture. From a broader perspective, scholars of ancient Greek architecture, fortifications, and late Classical and Hellenistic history will find it most useful.

In Chapter 1, Mattern and Yvonne Goester review the history of research. The topographical details of the site, which occupies a hill called Lavda on the northern slopes of Mt. Lykaion, are also outlined, and there is a useful reproduction of relevant passages from all the significant travel accounts of the 19th century. The discussion of the ancient sources (Polybius and Pausanias) includes an interesting suggestion about the relationship between Thisoa and the other toponym potentially associated with this area, Lykoa: We may be dealing with an alternative name for the same site, or perhaps even a renaming. The latter solution would dovetail nicely with the argumentation found throughout the rest of the book, which demonstrates that the stronghold on Lavda hill was re-founded in the middle of the 4th century BC.[1]

Chapter 2 deals with Thisoa’s fortifications. The city wall is 895 m in length and served both to fortify and retain the area within the enceinte. The upper extent would have continued in mudbrick above the preserved stone courses, and the main gate, which faced southeast, was located on the southern side, where a major east-west route linking the western Alpheios valley with Megalopolis also ran. The wall is further defended by three bastions, five sally ports, and at least one tower.[2] The acropolis wall fortifies the hill’s highest point and retains an upper plateau; its gate opened in the southeast and was protected by a bastion. A date after the third quarter of the 4th century BC but before first quarter of the 3rd is proposed for the fortification walls. The walls were subsequently repaired and reused by the Franks in the 13th century AD, who also added a round tower on the acropolis. Blockages in the main gate and elsewhere in the city probably occurred right before the Byzantine assault in AD 1302.

Chapter 3 treats the interior space of the city-state and offers a meticulous description of each documented discovery. The reader will find the accompanying catalogues and plans useful here. Mattern presents a methodology for identifying, associating, and assigning relative dates to surface finds at unexcavated sites that should be required reading for anyone commencing archaeological work of this kind. Two major phases can be identified: ancient and post-ancient. In addition to the fortification walls, the ancient city consisted of a network of streets laid out in a grid pattern, which in certain places had to be modified due to the topography. The agora occupied the westernmost zone, where the remains of some long halls have been tentatively identified. The NIA excavated a Hellenistic house on the “Upper Plateau” immediately west of the acropolis, which, although without exact parallels, is reminiscent of corridor houses from nearby Megalopolis and Trapezous (Kyparissia). The acropolis had a public square with a stoa, which is the subject of Chapter 4. The post-ancient remains largely belong to the Frankish Château Sainte Hélène mentioned in the Chronicle of the Morea. A chapel in the ancient agora indicates reuse of this area, and terrace walls throughout the site can be associated with small farmsteads. The center of the Frankish settlement was the castle on the acropolis, traces of which are found in the southeast near the acropolis gate.

Chapter 4 is largely dedicated to Mattern’s detailed reconstruction of the Doric-Ionic Stoa. The distribution of membra disiecta across the site implies that this building stood in the southeastern zone of the acropolis near the gate, where it probably fronted a square to the north. While much remains hypothetical due to the fragmentary nature of the material, Mattern’s accomplishment here is impressive and his reconstruction of the building is both cautious and convincing. The architectural details suggest a date in the middle of the 4th century BC, and the prominence and beauty of the stoa indicate that it may have served as a significant topographical marker in the local landscape. The remainder of Chapter 4 deals with other architectural materials that probably belonged to different structures.

Chapter 5 deals with finds and includes Goester’s account of the ceramics, coins, and sculpture. The Hellenistic House included material from the late 4th century BC, but the majority is from the 2nd and 1st centuries, with no clearly Roman material. Excavation undertaken in 1985 in the western city-wall (“Tower 9”) produced ceramics that are similar to Hellenistic material from the sanctuary on Mt. Lykaion. Coins include primarily Hellenistic specimens (six Sikyonian, three Megalopolitan, two Athenian, one Thourian, one Rhodian, and one of Ptolemy III), but four late Roman coins were recovered as well (Diocletian, Constantine I, Constans I, and Constantius II). The only sculptural fragment may be from a small Nike, and the stamped roof tiles include one that reads ΘΙΣ[ and thus supports the identification of the site. The chapter concludes with Gerwin Abbingh and Ulrich Schädler’s publication of a game table (for “Pente Grammai”) discovered in a fill in the Hellenistic House.

In Chapter 6, Volker Grieb publishes an important fragmentary inscription that was discovered reused in a Frankish wall on the acropolis. The text is presented with a detailed description of each line and is admirably cautious in its reconstruction. The inscription records an Argive decree awarding the status of theorodokos for the Nemea and Heraia, philia, proedria at Argive contests, and asylia. Mention of [Θ]ισοα[ῖ]οι strongly supports the identification of the site with Thisoa. The honors granted, terminology, and punctuation suggest a date in the third quarter of the 4th century BC, which would make the inscription the earliest currently known Argive decree of this kind. The commentary includes a discussion of the transfer of control of the Nemea festival from Kleonai to Argos. Unfortunately, the exact nature of the relationship linking Thisoa with Megalopolis cannot be determined from the inscription. Grieb makes a most plausible suggestion for the wider context of the honors given: The Argives, who had been allies of the Arcadian League at the battle of Mantinea in 362 BC, understood the importance of this strategic site located above the route traditionally linking Sparta with Olympia and Elis. Awarding such honors at Thisoa thus served to underscore Argive support for this critical area.

Chapter 7 discusses the wider regional context of Thisoa in the Alpheios Valley. Timo Willershäuser and Andreas Vött provide a helpful overview of the geology, geomorphology, soils, climate, and vegetation. They make it clear that the only significantly productive land is found in the Alpheios floodplain, and much of Thisoan territory was thus rather poor. Mattern then discusses the link between Kynouria, the subregion to which Thisoa belonged, and neighboring Parrhasia. He makes the interesting suggestion that Kynouria may have been a part of Parrhasia, and that the meaning of Kynouria (“Dog’s Tail”) referred to the fact that it was a kind of appendage to the larger Parrhasia. Plausible suggestions for the identifications of the five rivers in Thisoan territory are made, although it should be noted that it is better to associate the nw-pi-r’-i-y mentioned on the statue base of Amenhotep III with Nauplia in the Argolid rather than Thisoan Naphilos/Naliphos.[3] A grotto sanctuary of the nymph Thisoa is proposed in the vicinity of Tsouraki, and the review of sites in the Alpheios valley is an essential resource for anyone investigating this area. Thisoa and its immediate neighbors inhabited a border zone that tended to be developed only when the military concerns of neighboring states made it important, such as was the case in the late Classical and Hellenistic periods. This is an excellent point, and I would add that the Mycenaean burial sites located across the Alpheios (Palaiokastro, Bardaki, Kakoureїka) thus may imply elevated importance during this period as well. The chapter ends with an exhaustive account of the ancient routes in the vicinity of Thisoa.

Sascha Schmitz presents in Chapter 8 an analysis of the lines of sight available from the acropolis of Thisoa. An interesting discussion of fire signals is included, and Schmitz convincingly argues for a wider defense system covering western Arcadia that aimed to check any potential Spartan aggression in the area. The greater network of sightlines is discussed, and Schmitz ascribes its development and maintenance to the Arcadian League in the 360s BC. Its importance as an early warning system can thus help to explain why Megalopolis not only allowed Kynourian communities like Thisoa to continue their existence but also — at least in certain cases — invested in their fortification.

Chapter 9 offers a history of Thisoa from the period before the development of the fortified site on Lavda hill through the Frankish occupation. To the discussion of the etymology of the name must be added the recent suggestion of Sophie Minon: *Θεσ-σσοϝ-ᾱ (< θεός and σεύω).[4] Mattern demonstrates how the myth of Zeus’ birth on Mt. Lykaion was utilized by the Arcadian League to foster a greater sense of Arcadian identity. He provides a superb analysis of the sculpted table from the sanctuary of the Great Goddesses in Megalopolis and the decorated altar of Athena Alea at Tegea, both of which featured scenes of the nativity of Zeus. While Thisoa is present on the latter, she is absent from the former, and Mattern convincingly argues that the table thus predates the importance of Thisoa and therefore the development of the site. The altar, on the other hand, implies that by the date of its construction the nymph and her homonymous territory had acquired new significance, most probably due to the concerted actions of the League. This political reading of the altar is further supported by the presence of Phrixa — the nymph of a city-state in Triphylia, the most recent addition to Arcadia — as well as the Tegean nymph Oinoe, who (pace Mattern) is in fact known as the mother of Pan from the work of the Tegean author Ar(i)aithos.[5] Following an excursus on coinage by David Weidgennant, Thisoa’s history prior to its development is covered, although we know little more than that it must have existed. The turbulence of the later 360s BC magnified the importance of this zone and prompted development at the site. Although the Argive inscription (Chapter 6) implies that Thisoa was in fact an independent polis, its ability to act was probably seriously restricted by Megalopolis, which may have been responsible for financing much of the construction. Thisoa remained a crucial node in the defensive system of Megalopolis until the Roman takeover in 146 BC. The Frankish Princes of Achaia refortified Thisoa, which they called Château Sainte Hélène, but the site was destroyed by insurgents in June of AD 1302.

The book includes Greek, German, and English summaries; detailed catalogues with 291 entries (building members) and 238 entries (identified findings, including proposed structures); appendices on the ancient sources and place names; bibliography; 129 black and white plates; nine color plates; and three fold-out supplementary plans.

In sum, the authors and contributors are to be congratulated on a fine volume that will serve as a model for future work on similar sites.



[1] Note, however, that Lykoa could have been located somewhere to the north and/or west, perhaps on the north bank of the Alpheios; Y. Pikoulas, “The ‘Twins’ of Arkadia: The Homonymous Settlements,” in K. Tausend (ed.), Arkadien im Altertum / Ancient Arcadia. Geschichte und Kultur einer antiken Gebirgslandschaft / History and Culture of a Mountainous Region, Graz: Unipress Verlag, 2018, p. 320.

[2] The earlier work of the NIA identified nine towers.

[3] E. Edel and M. Görg, Die Ortsnamenlisten im nördlichen Säulenhof des Totentempels Amenophis’ III (Ägypten und Altes Testament 50), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005, pp. 181–183.

[4] “Letter Forms and Distinctive Spellings: Date and Context of the ‘New Festival Calendar from Arkadia,’” in R. Parker and P.M. Steele (eds.), The Early Greek Alphabets: Origin, Diffusion, Uses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021, p. 178. Although this artifact was originally said to have appeared in a London flea market sometime around 1965, this story has been called into question, and the tablet may have been acquired illegally.

[5] Brills New Jacoby 316 F4.