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The Defective Insularity of the Peloponnese

Eric Driscoll

University of California, Berkeley -- Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology

In the longue durée, the Isthmus of Corinth was apt to be fortified. This history of fortification has hitherto been treated piecemeal and from a military-historical perspective, but the present paper draws on the archaeological and textual evidence from all periods in order to suggest that the impulse behind their construction derives instead from an enduring sense of what might be called the defective insularity of the Peloponnese. Trans-Isthmian walls in effect redeem the Peloponnese as a true island, a situation recognized by writers from the fifth century BC onward. But as Gregory (1993, 150-51) notes, there is no evidence that a trans-Isthmian wall was actually ever successfully defended against attack. The temporal depth of the pattern, then, I argue, arose from its deep and recursive imprinting in the landscape, literal and cultural, rather than from basic military circumstances. After a brief review of the evidence, I further elaborate on two important responses to these walls, Herodotus’ and Plethon’s, and conclude with some reflections on how the Peloponnese can contribute to the surging interest in insularité as an object of historical-geographical study, especially in its relation to ideals of autarky and utopia.

From a Mycenaean wall that already controlled the land route into the Peloponnese down to the Ottoman period, trans-Isthmian walls along various lines were built and rebuilt time and again: in 480, in 369, and in 279, as Persian, Theban, and Celtic armies threatened; several times between Valerian and Justinian; and repeatedly in the 14th and 15th centuries AD, as the Morea became a stronghold during the twilight of the Byzantine empire. Recent developments in archaeological theory (e.g., Lucas 2005, 2008; Olivier 2008) help explain this pattern by refocusing attention away from common-sense military logic and onto issues of temporality, materiality, and memory: the persistence of configurations of material in the world, those enduring through processes of ruination included, as repositories of memory. The ruins of a wall still standing acquire a new significance as a synapse joining one time to another. When Byzantine historians refer to the various rebuildings of the wall, they inevitably figure the later as repetitions of the earlier (often degenerate, as when Phrantzes says that, unlike emperors of his own day, Justinian built the wall “not out of necessity, but simply because it seemed good to him” [p. 96 Bekker]). 

What’s more, fortification can essentially transform even a slice of the mainland into an island ([Xen]. Ath. Pol. 2). As Laonikos Chalkokondyles wrote, the “Isthmus encloses the entire Peloponnese, so as to render it an island” when fortified (p. 184 Bekker). In 1415, when Manuel II Palaiologos rebuilt the Hexamilion, the philosopher Plethon was inspired to write several pamphlets (edited by Lampros 1926-30) advocating a utopian, communistic scheme for social reorganization in the Peloponnese. The systematic, utopian reorganization he envisages is engendered by newfound Peloponnesian insularity. Plethon’s texts are often justly compared with Plato’s city-in-speech (cf. Barker 1957), but may perhaps more profitably be juxtaposed to Herodotus’ narrative surrounding the fortification of the Isthmus in 480/79. In the latter case, the fortification of the Isthmus is recognized as essentially meaningless without control of the seas, while for Plethon the islandification of the Peloponnese restores it to a state of (imaginary) purity and autarky (cf. Bresson 2000, 109-30).

The two writers thus offer opposed yet complementary perspectives on insularity: connectivity as vulnerability, isolation as strength (Horden and Purcell 2000, 74-77, 225-27). Plethon’s utopian text, compared to the realism of Herodotus’, highlights the paradoxical nature of utopia as a genre in the way it discursively transforms the contradictions of late Byzantine reality into a refigured version thereof (cf. Jameson 2005, 22-41). But it also, then, serves to highlight intellectual tensions within the conceptualization of insularité itself, as the whole case of the Isthmus fortifications links landscape, ruins, and human action over the very long term—and the defectively insular Peloponnese slides between the categories. 

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Political and Military Conflict in the Greek World

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