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The Fortifications of Arkadian City States in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

The Fortifications of Arkadian City States in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods

By Matthew P. Maher. Pp. 448. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2017. £90. ISBN 978-0-19-878659-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The study of ancient Greek fortifications has been an active field of research for nearly 50 years, but prior focus has tended to be on developments at the Panhellenic level. Regional variations are seldom addressed systematically, primarily because the totality of archaeological remains is unavailable for study. This is the main point of Maher’s study, which aims at both presenting and analyzing the Classical-Hellenistic fortified poleis in Arcadia. Maher’s study is divided into two parts; the first (chs. 1–5) contains his assessment of the development of military defensive architecture in Arcadia in the Classical-Hellenistic period, and the second is an extensive appendix comprising a detailed catalogue of 19 sites, presented systematically with plan sketches, photographs, personal observations, and complete bibliographies. The volume is a revised version of Maher’s 2012 doctoral dissertation (University of British Columbia). It will be of particular value for scholars interested in ancient fortifications and also illuminating for those interested in Classical-Hellenistic Arcadia and the Peloponnese in general.

In line with Typaldou-Fakiris’ study on ancient Phocis (Villes fortifiées de Phocide et la IIIe guerre sacrée 356–346 av. J.-C. [Aix-en-Provence 2004]), Maher connects the fourth-century B.C.E. surge in construction of urban fortifications in Arcadia with the major political changes on the Greek mainland. In the case of Arcadia, Maher argues that the catalyst was the shifting role of Sparta in the Peloponnese and the subsequent foundation of the Arcadian League (99). Maher’s claims regarding this historical development are convincing, and he displays intimate knowledge of the sites in question.

As Maher aims to link the archaeological and historical records, his study dwells on the question of the dates of the fortification walls belonging to each respective polis settlement. He appears initially skeptical toward stylistic analysis as a definitive dating tool (as advocated by some scholars, 38–9), yet he claims that “in a particular region at a certain time, a [chronological] sequence may be arranged or a predominant style identified” (39). Combining an analysis of towers, gates, and forms of curtain walls, he consequently argues for a development in Arcadian fortifications in which the predominantly polygonal masonry style of the fifth century B.C.E. was gradually replaced by a trapezoidal style over the course of the following century. A fortification in trapezoidal masonry is, according to this model, more likely to be dated to the fourth rather than to the fifth century B.C.E., whereas polygonal masonry could belong to structures of both centuries. Maher uses this model together with textual sources to date the fortifications as presented in the catalogue (part 2), concluding that most Arcadian fortifications can be dated to the fourth century B.C.E. and the Late Classical period.

Although I agree with Maher’s overall conclusions, I find this instrument of dating at times somewhat uncritically applied. Despite claims of “historical probability,” 13 of the 19 urban fortifications in the catalogue are in fact dated using solely stylistic criteria, while the dates of the remaining six cases rely on limited archaeological and historical evidence. The hypothesized construction dates for some of the unexcavated fortifications (esp. the narrow ranges for Dipaia [375–350 B.C.E.] and Gortys [400–370 B.C.E.]) therefore appear somewhat questionable; such precision is hard to obtain even from excavated material.

The discussion is lacking in some respects, particularly regarding problems with site identification and a definition for “polis.” For instance, as the study focuses specifically on the fortifications of Arcadian city-states (as clearly implied by the title), a section on the development of local forms of social organization would have enhanced the argument. What Maher means by city-state or “polis” (2–3) is unclear, as the question is never addressed, and some of the sites in question display little resemblance to urban settlements (Dipaia, Gortys, Halous, Nestane, Paos). It is worth noting here that, as with many other mainland regions, the word “polis” is poorly attested in Arcadia prior to the late fourth century B.C.E. Even if such polities existed, it would be worthwhile to discuss the concept and the development of city-states or poleis when exploring their supposed fortifications. Similarly, as Maher aims at connecting historical and archaeological evidence, it is surprising that the volume contains no discussion or statement on site identification. This is unfortunate, as the traditional identifications (to which Maher appears to adhere) of urban sites with ancient poleis often rely on scant literary evidence, and Arcadia is no exception.

Generally, however, I believe Maher is correct in his overall understanding of the material. Had he included a more thorough discussion on the issues mentioned above, I am of the opinion that he still would have arrived at the same conclusions. The spread of large fortified urban enceintes over the Greek mainland in the fourth century B.C.E. was likely related to the activities of leagues and other regional federations and, without departing from his Arcadian focus, Maher could have developed his arguments further. Moreover, a discussion on the economics and practicalities of constructing extensive fortifications would have strengthened his argument, as a league would have been able to manage the logistics of such large-scale enterprises better than a single small polis.

Outside Arcadian studies, and as a “comprehensive and detailed account of the historical development of Greek military architecture and defensive planning” (as expressed in the blurb on the book jacket), Maher positions himself only to a limited extent in recent scholarship. It is clear from his brief historiographical outline that he regards Winter’s Greek Fortifications (Toronto 1971) as “the seminal work on the subject” (7), which becomes more evident in chapters 2 and 3, where most of the footnotes contain references to this monograph. However, other studies are referenced throughout the book, mainly those of Scranton (Greek Walls [Cambridge, Mass. 1941]) and Lawrence (Greek Aims in Fortification [Oxford 1979]), but only to a lesser degree. Even though there is some use of Frederiksen’s Greek City Walls of the Archaic Period, 900–480 BC (Oxford 2011), there is an evident lack of references to more recent studies, most strikingly the two excellent edited volumes published by the Fokus Fortifikation network in early 2015 (S. Müth et al., eds., Ancient Fortifications: A Compendium of Theory and Practice [Oxford 2015]; R. Frederiksen et al., eds., Focus on Fortifications: New Research on Fortifications in the Ancient Mediterranean and the Near East [Philadelphia 2015]). The absence of these two collections is regrettable, as they contain several papers on topics central to Maher’s study. Admirable products of their time, the works by Scranton, Winter, and Lawrence rely on somewhat unsystematically collected data and employ rather uncritical interpretations of ancient textual sources. Instead of a repetition of old arguments, it would have been of more interest to the reader if Maher had foregrounded his own understanding of stylistic elements and their relevance to dating.

The volume is beautifully typeset and sturdily bound, but it contains some unfortunate errors. Repetitions are frequent, with the same information and more or less the same wording provided in several separate chapters, within a chapter, and sometimes in the same paragraph. A particularly glaring error is the 18-line paragraph that appears in an almost identical form on two separate pages (8, 98). If the author had included a more systematic presentation of material, method, and historiography, perhaps the volume would have been less repetitious and more precise. The prose is otherwise commendable with few spelling mistakes, and it is evident that Maher has enjoyed writing on the subject. The index is of great assistance to the reader, containing subentries for the various aspects of the respective sites where they are addressed outside of the catalogue.

Some aesthetic issues (pixelated cover, low-resolution illustrations, dark photographs) are unfortunate, as their resolution would have enhanced the appearance of the book and assisted the reader considerably. Especially regrettable are the low-resolution screenshots of Google maps used for topographical illustration; these (figs. 4.1–4) are hard to interpret and convey little sense of the geographical or topographical distribution of the sites in question. As many of the sites in the catalogue are remote and little known, it would also have been beneficial for the reader to have photographs in color and in better-quality print.

Despite these issues, Maher’s study remains an indispensable addition to the study of ancient fortifications, as it presents the totality of material from one particular region. The field is in dire need of similar regional studies, and the monograph will surely be of use for any scholar interested in the Peloponnese, ancient fortifications, and the development of nucleated urban settlements in ancient Greece.

Robin Rönnlund
Department of Historical Studies
University of Gothenburg

Book Review of The Fortifications of Arkadian City States in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods, by Matthew P. Maher

Reviewed by Robin Rönnlund

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.ronnlund

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