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Défenses crétoises: Fortifications urbaines et défense du territoire en Crète aux époques classique et hellénistique

Défenses crétoises: Fortifications urbaines et défense du territoire en Crète aux époques classique et hellénistique

By Nadia Coutsinas (CahArch 1[3]). Pp. 541, figs. 119, tables 17, maps 33. Publications de la Sorbonne, Paris 2013. €35. ISBN 978-2-85944-763-2 (paper).

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The fortifications of Crete are a persistent part of the island’s landscape, visible today looming over headlands and crossing hillsides, yet they had received little scholarly attention until this publication of Coutsinas’ copious research in 2013. This book focuses on the classical and Hellenistic fortifications of Crete, the periods when such defensive structures were most necessary; the coming of the Romans in ca. 67 B.C.E. brought centuries of internecine warfare and strife to an end.

After an in-depth introduction that presents the geographical and physical characteristics of Crete, Coutsinas divides this book into three main parts, with an appendix at the end containing a catalogue of examples. All sections are abundantly and superbly illustrated with maps, clear black-and-white photographs, tables, and plans of sites and individual structures.

The first section comprises chapter 1 (“Architectural Analysis”). Coutsinas introduces the three types of Cretan fortifications: urban wall circuits, forts, and rural or isolated towers. The rest of the section defines each of these and emphasizes distinctions among them. Elements such as building materials, dimensions, location and use of gates and doors, and various masonry techniques are also presented. Coutsinas also notes the difficulty in dating such structures, and her approach combines ancient historical and epigraphical evidence with typological information, stratigraphic data, and dates from related ceramics.

The second section (“Urban Defenses”) contains three chapters and focuses on the defense of Cretan cities. Coutsinas positions her subject with a brief introduction on the location of these cities, both coastal and inland, and in chapter 3, she launches into the examples themselves, beginning with eastern Crete and moving to the west. Coutsinas divides the island into 10 geographic zones that reflect well the diverse topography and coastal environments, aspects that both complement and also are connected with the construction and use of fortifications. This evidence is presented by site and, where appropriate, by subdivisions of the sites: geographical location and research and excavation history provide context, followed by a description of the remains, using the three main categories defined earlier. For each site, the rest of the discussion focuses on the reason(s) behind the construction of the fortifications. Between the precise details provided about the fortification systems and their historical contexts, there is little more to say on the subject. Coutsinas neatly employs a wide range of evidence classes, including inscriptions, to understand for each site why fortifications were needed, what types and sizes were thought appropriate, where they were located, how they were made, and what materials were employed. Chapter 4 considers this information from an islandwide view. Reasons for the construction of fortifications are political, military, and sometimes economic, and Coutsinas presents some of the most common, such as the siege warfare familiar to the ancient Greeks and those more specific to Crete. The Cretan Wars, which were waged across the island from the third to first centuries B.C.E., obviously played a primary role in the need for fortifications. Less securely attested is the use of Cretan fortified coastal sites for piracy, and Coutsinas is rightly cautious in not assuming a connection between the two. An intriguing section toward the end of this chapter examines unfortified cities, and examples such as classical Sparta are set against the Cretan evidence, which is considerable. Topography seems to be a major benefit for some of these sites, but individual histories and relationships with neighbors also played a role; some Cretan cities remained independent during the Hellenistic period. The status of walls can also be connected to the status of a city, and a high proportion of Cretan fortified cities also struck their own coins.

The third part of the book, presented in three chapters, examines the extra-urban wall systems of Crete. Chapter 5 considers the definition of the spaces these occupy, including the importance of economy for each territory. Coutsinas emphasizes the importance of the countryside to the island’s economy as well as its maritime trade. The issue of “frontiers” or borders is addressed: inscriptions record six such borders that delimit or define the land holdings of an individual site, such as Itanos or Lato, or between two cities, such as Knossos and Tylissos. Chapter 6 examines the physical remains of extra-urban fortifications, beginning again with the east and moving west; many of these structures are forts, and the evidence can also be found on offshore islands, such as Mochlos and Spinalonga. Chapter 7 turns to towers and watchtowers, which tend to be found along frontiers, at crossroads, and at approaches to cities and towns. A conclusion returns to two of the most important problems related to the study of ancient fortifications, namely their identification and dating, and recaps reasons for the construction of fortifications and the major distinctions of urban and rural examples.

Coutsinas ends this book with a large site catalogue (appx.) that provides the primary data for each site, including dimensions, chronology, and pertinent bibliography.

This is, all told, a massive yet successful undertaking. It goes far beyond the construction of walls for security in the face of a threat and enables the close reader to understand the choices made by each site that are reliant on topography, unique and specific histories, and economic necessity. The Classical and Hellenistic periods on Crete were turbulent and ever changing, and Coutsinas has managed both to place the extensive remains of walls, towers, and forts within the context of their landscapes and also to explain their creation and physical appearance. While one would expect a secure grasp of the archaeological data in such a book, the author’s facility and masterful employment of pertinent literary and epigraphical evidence is also impressive.

There are only a few detractions from this handsome volume. The minute subdivision of chapters overlaid with “sections” can become confusing. Some sections seem misplaced, such as the history of fortifications on Crete that appears more than halfway through and returns the reader to Early Iron Age fortifications after a discussion of the financing of wall construction. There is also some overlap between the description of the fortifications in chapter 3 and the catalogue entries in the appendix; references to the catalogue number in the earlier chapters would have made that data more accessible.

Jane E. Francis
Concordia University

Book Review of Défenses crétoises: Fortifications urbaines et défense du territoire en Crète aux époques classique et hellénistique, by Nadia Coutsinas

Reviewed by Jane E. Francis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Francis

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