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Dei nello spazio degli uomini: I culti dell’agora e la costruzione di Corinto arcaica

Dei nello spazio degli uomini: I culti dell’agora e la costruzione di Corinto arcaica

By Rachele Dubbini (Supplementi e Monografie della Rivista Archaeologia Classica 7, n.s. 4). Pp. 236, b&w pls. 25, figs. 40, table 1. L'Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2011. $189. ISBN-978-88-8265-616-4 (paper).


After 117 years of coordinated scholarly activity at Corinth, with nearly continuous excavations only interrupted by the two world wars, it should not come as a surprise that there has been a continuous stream of new scholarly studies and investigations across all periods. That our understanding of the site at all periods has evolved with the steady accumulation of new or more complete data sets and differing theories and methodologies is normal. That identifications of key structures or within key assemblages may still be under discussion may puzzle enthusiasts, but not specialists. That the main feature of the excavations, however, is again being debated may surprise most everyone.

From the first season of the American excavations at Corinth in 1896, one of the primary objectives was to find the agora. When the Peirene fountain was found that year, the excavators were convinced the agora was near; after all, Pausanias (2.3.2) had described it as such. By 1899, with the discovery of the Glauke fountain, a general plan of the agora had been suggested to the south of Peirene, although farther east and significantly shorter than the evidence would now indicate. For about 15 years after that, architecture in the valley above Peirene was judged by the following criteria: "good masonry" equaled Greek, "fair" equaled Roman, and anything with chinking was medieval. A self-fulfilling assessment soon "confirmed" the belief that the agora had been found. More careful evaluation of specific buildings recognized that the majority of what had been found in this area was Roman, but the belief persisted that under the Roman forum had to have been the Greek agora. The extensive excavations conducted over a more than 30-year period by Charles Williams in multiple sites in and around the forum indeed revealed Greek or Hellenistic remains, but there was very little that might be considered consistent with an agora. The scholarly consensus among those working in Corinth became that the Greek agora had to be located elsewhere and that the agora that Pausanias described was clearly and only the Roman forum. Recent studies have challenged that assessment based largely on theories of the evolution of agoras and what their basic components were and also by citing specific Greek- and Hellenistic-period structures beneath the Roman forum at Corinth as consistent with the model of a Greek agora.

As the title of the book under review makes clear, Dubbini asserts that the area that became the Roman forum was first the Greek agora. The book is organized into five chapters with a preface (written by Hölscher), premessa, introduction, and bibliography. Chapter 1 defines the investigation and then discusses urbanization theory, in particular the evolution of the agora, the agora as political space, cultic space, and the activity within it, and lastly the suitability of Corinth as a case study, including problems specific to Corinth. Dubbini draws most significantly from the theoretical work of Roland Martin and Frank Kolb, both of whom she quotes and cites often, but supplements them liberally by the more recent efforts of many scholars.

In chapter 2, Dubbini presents a thorough overview of the mythical, legendary, historical, and archaeological background for the site. Dubbini admits there is some controversy over what she has previously presented as fait accompli (i.e., the Greek agora lies under the Roman forum [85]). The primary division between the two camps has been those who follow closely the archaeological record and those who adhere to the theoretical model. The archaeological side does not see evidence for the political or economic center of Greek Corinth (e.g., a bouleuterion, a dikasterion, sites for market activity). The theoretical side sees the components of an agora (e.g., sanctuaries, crossroads, a dromos) and supposes that the agora at Athens may not be an appropriate model for Dorian agoras. The most controversial issue is the identification of Buildings I–IV, all dated to the late fifth–early fourth centuries B.C.E., along the southwest side of the archaic dromos. Very little remains of Building I, but what is there is consistent with a sanctuary. A cellar is the best-preserved feature of Building IV, but there is very little extant of the ground-level structure, thus making an identification difficult. Building III was first identified as the Tavern of Aphrodite by Charles Morgan. Its poor state of preservation renders interpretation hazardous. Williams suggests that Building II, the best preserved, may have had dining facilities. Dubbini and others identify it as a civic building and as evidence that the Upper Peirene Valley was indeed the site of the agora. A recent publication (I.D. McPhee and E.G. Pemberton, Late Classical Pottery from Ancient Corinth: Drain 1971-1 in the Forum Southwest. Corinth 7[6] [Princeton 2012]) of the Late Classical period drain that ran between Buildings I and II reveals that the evidence for dining from Building II and perhaps Building I likely reflected cultic activity in the context of communal meals.

In spite of Dubbini's claim to refute Williams, the archaeological record tells a different story. There is not the room here to address all the issues, but two of the major ones can be cited briefly. After the earthquake of 77 C.E., the level of the forum was raised 0.60 m. This is a crude estimation, but this had to require roughly 3,600 m3 of fill. That large amount of fill and that of the terrace in front of the South Stoa could have come from most anywhere in the general area and with most anything in it. The point being, material in the fill should not be assumed to be in situ. Secondly, it has been assumed that a dromos is a common feature of agoras. In fact, evidence as early as Homer (Od. 8.104–25) speaks to this, at least for laying out a temporary track in whatever he and eighth-century B.C.E. Greeks considered to be an agora within the context of a kingdom. The difficulty is that few known agoras have one. A serious blow to this theory came recently from the Athenian Agora, when the so-called starting line proved to be one side of a peribolos, thus removing the most famous example from what was already a small number of examples of a dromos in an agora.

It is unfortunate that Dubbini got involved with an issue that is tangential to the focus of this book. In spite of the discussion above and her continuing matter-of-fact statements that this is the agora, the next two chapters, which are roughly half of the book, are excellent and make a very important contribution to cultic studies in general and to Corinth especially. What Dubbini provides is a very important update to Williams' 1978 University of Pennsylvania dissertation, "Pre-Roman Cults in the Area of the Forum in Ancient Corinth." In the 30 years between the two works, much has happened both on the ground and in scholarship. Chapter 3 discusses the various shrines and sanctuaries for nine of the Olympian gods. Only Hera, Hestia, and Hephaistos are unrepresented. Each god is considered in an individual subsection with first the literary and then the archaeological sources presented with key architectural, sculptural, and ceramic evidence depicted in the figures. Although I do not agree with all of Dubbini's interpretations of the shrines, that is not an issue. The evidence is presented well enough that the difference between it and interpretation is clear.

Chapter 4 presents six sites and/or structures, including the Sacred Fountain and the Heroon of the Crossroads. It is not clear why Dubbini chose to include the Greek remains within the Peribolos of Apollo. These certainly are interesting and important shrines, but they are clearly outside of the parameters of the Upper Peirene Valley. Regardless, the discussions of the archaeological evidence are good. With the exception of the discussion of Kotyto, there is no literary evidence to complement the archaeological one for these sites.

The final chapter (ch. 5) is a series of conclusions based on the belief that the Upper Peirene Valley is the site of the Greek agora. If one keeps in mind that this is a hypothesis and not settled fact, there is value here. But there are other possible solutions to what the archaeological record reveals. No one doubts that the Upper Peirene Valley was public space; the shrines and especially the dromos connote this conclusion. The question is: do shrines, a dromos, and even a stoa necessarily connote an agora? No, they do not. The Sanctuary of Pan on Mount Lykaion in the Peloponnesos is an example of a site with all of those, and it is not an agora. The problem is that public space, even civic space, is not necessarily commercial or political space. What the evidence does suggest for Corinth is that by the Archaic period, the valley is a festival site and an area well scattered with shrines. Nearly absent is one of Corinth's most famous attributes: water. The Sacred Spring, although significant in ritual, does not appear to have been a primary water source. Its flow was low volume, and it seems to have added more of an aesthetic rather than major contribution to the notion of the "well watered town of Corinth" (Simon. 720–23). The most prolific source was of course the Peirene fountain. A site before and/or north of Peirene (i.e., downstream) is a more likely site for an agora, which interestingly enough was an area put to use by the Romans at least a decade before they moved into the upper valley and began construction of what became the Roman forum.

The fact that the site of the agora of Corinth is most likely somewhere else does not detract from the true value of this book. Dubbini has made a very important contribution to Corinthian scholarship in her discussions of the various sacred sites in and around the Upper Peirene Valley. In spite of the concerns I have raised here, this is a book many will consult for some time to come.

Paul D. Scotton
Department of Comparative Literature and Classics
California State University, Long Beach
Long Beach, California 90840

Book Review of Dei nello spazio degli uomini: I culti dell'agora e la costruzione di Corinto arcaica, by Rachele Dubbini

Reviewed by Paul D. Scotton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Scotton

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