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Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman and Christian City

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman and Christian City

By Amelia Robertson Brown. (Library of Classical Studies 17). London: I.B. Tauris 2018. Pp. xiv + 341. $120. ISBN 978-1-78453-823-1 (cloth).

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Brown’s volume is an impressive compilation of the available evidence for the fate of the Greek and Roman versions of the city of Corinth. The city, poised on the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece, has attracted travelers, scholars, and tourists consistently since antiquity. Early excavations, as at so many sites, began with efforts to reach Greek levels, but Corinth was blessed all along with more than a few archaeologists with an interest in things Byzantine and Roman. That early rush, added to continuous excavations over several generations, results in generous but labyrinthine records for any scholar attempting synthesis of the Late Antique period. Brown’s work, the latest to make the attempt, is classical and teleological in focus, following the fate of monuments and sculpture into the Late Antique and Christian periods, and noting what was built in their places when they disappeared. The scope of the work is defined roughly by the areas discussed by Pausanias’ visit to Corinth, and it includes the city as well as Corinth’s two harbors, Kenchreai and Lechaion. To the many scholars who are focused on untangling the Roman period from the overwhelming Corinthian remains, Brown’s work will be comfortable and appealing.

In keeping with Pausanias, Brown’s journey runs through “Landscape and Civic Authorities in Late Antique Corinth”; “The Forum and Spaces of Civic Administration”; “Commerce, Water Supply and Communications”; “Spaces of Civic Assembly and Entertainment”; “Creation and Destruction of Public Sculpture”; “Sacred Spaces Around the Forum”; “Sacred Spaces in the City and Corinthia”; and “Fortification Walls: Isthmus, City and Acrocorinth.” This approach is beneficial in its exhaustive documentation. The appendices, notes, and bibliography occupy as many pages as the body of the text, and for many years to come Brown’s work will be the first and last stop for references on any monument in Roman Corinth. The book also includes a lengthy encomium for the archaeologists of Corinth, most from the American School of Classical Studies, begun in the introduction and continued in an appendix. 

The detailing of who excavated what when, added to the inherently fragmentary nature of the archaeological evidence, makes Brown’s peregrination less than a smooth narrative. Only the most devoted scholar of Corinth will be able to keep their bearings in the wealth of information. The detail and documentation perhaps make this a price worth paying. I suspect Brown’s work will be used more as a reference to be returned to again and again than as a book to be read at one sitting. I am, however, a bit disappointed that with the overwhelming detail, there is sometimes not room for the interpretive voice of the author. I would have liked to have seen, for example, Brown’s opinion on the disputed date of the Hexamilion, the wall built across the Isthmus of Corinth (151–55). 

Brown is best when pulling together diverse and disparate excavation results, and this is no small feat in a multiperiod urban site such as Corinth. The challenge is amplified by the varying nature of the excavation reports, as she is drawing on more than a century of work, where documentation styles, expectations, and aims have been markedly different. Brown succeeds in finding focus despite this overabundance of material. In the chapter on civic administration (ch. 2), the reader will, for example, find references and some descriptions of larger villa complexes and their possible roles as domestic spaces reinforcing the authority of their inhabitants. The chapter on commerce, water supply and communications (ch. 3) provides an overview of archaeological work in these areas and will quickly point readers to relevant archaeological reports. While one might have expected to see a discussion of ceramics or core–periphery ideas in a chapter on commerce, the reader should remember this work is focused largely on the monumentalization of the city. One of the great strengths of Brown’s work, however, is that if you do not find what you are looking for, the references and footnotes will still point you in the right direction. Subsequent chapters continue in equally meticulous fashion. For one scholar to have covered the breadth of excavated material across an ancient city in one book, and documented the work so thoroughly is an accomplishment. My criticisms are incidental in the face of such a success.

Scholars of Late Antiquity and early Christianity may need to use Brown’s work with some care, as there is an interpretive framework they almost certainly do not share: “It is hard to believe the church service and festivals offered the range and depth and culture available in the third century from Greco-Roman traditional religious festivals. . . . Christian civic events were also more limiting to creativity and human expression” (163). Leaving aside the illiberalism of such a statement, I wonder if Brown’s antipathy to Late Antique Christianity might cause her to bury the lede in some places. The Fountain of the Lamps, adjacent to a collapsed sanctuary of Asklepios, has one of the largest deposits of religious offerings from any period in Corinth. If we accept Brown’s identification of the fountain as Christian, then it is a subterranean worship site with over 4,000 votive lamps that earns only a few sentences (130–32). The Kenchreai glass opus sectile panels, intended for the rebuilding of the monumental apsidal structure at the harbor, perhaps evidence the Late Antique change in taste to reliefs and wall decorations. An unparalleled discovery for the ancient world, they merit no discussion (140).

In places, Brown cites revised readings of archaeological materials, but she usually defaults to the interpretation of the original publication. As archaeological excavation and interpretation is putatively iterative, not originalist, this creates some problems. No one who has worked at Kenchreai in the past several decades thinks the original excavators’ identification of the sunken apsidal structure as the sanctuary of Isis is correct, including the most recent archaeological project on the site (J.L. Rife, “Religion and Society at Roman Kenchreai,” in S.J. Friesen et al., eds., Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society, Brill 2010, 403). Guy Sanders pointed out almost two decades ago that Late Roman strata in Corinth dated by ceramic and numismatic evidence need to be recalibrated (“Recent Developments in the Chronology of Byzantine Corinth,” in C.K. Williams and N. Bookidis, eds., Corinth, The Centenary: 1896–1996 [Corinth 20], American School of Classical Studies 2003, 385–99). Brown cites the article but does not trace the implications for her work. 

I also worry that Brown has seriously underplayed the vitality of the Late Roman and Early Byzantine economy in the Corinthia. Even after discussing numerous Late Antique monuments, she concludes, “Both local and imperial traditional authorities had to make do with less funding in Late Antiquity” (160). In the fifth and sixth centuries, Corinthians built (among many other things) the phenomenally large Lechaion basilica and the sizeable basilicas at Kraneion, Stikas, and Skoutelas; revitalized the western harbor; and refurbished the Hexamilion. That is a construction spree including places of worship that make the remains of the Roman temples look sad indeed. This does not strike me as a story of “less funding”; it is a story of a great deal of funding being applied to new priorities and tastes. Such building campaigns must have occurred with support and organization from municipal, ecclesiastical, and imperial authorities, in a period when the lines between these authorities were blurring.

The importance of Brown’s book is to be found in the exhaustive aggregation of material, and it is recommended for any archaeologist working in the Corinthia or, given the centrality of Corinth, Roman Greece. The next book on Late Antique Corinth will easily be able to build on Brown’s substantial base, and that is a significant value. New work could perhaps use and synthesize new interpretations, not just those of the original excavators, as well as struggle with the much more difficult issue of recalibrating the dates of Late Antique strata, destruction layers, and deposits.

Richard M. Rothaus
College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Central Michigan University
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Book Review of Corinth in Late Antiquity: A Greek, Roman and Christian City, by Amelia Robertson Brown
Reviewed by Richard M. Rothaus
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Rothaus

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