Ancient Greek walls, politics, and power

Anthony Snodgrass associated changes in Greek fortifications over the course of the Archaic period with the rise of the polis, i.e. the “city-state”. Does that idea have merit?

Josho Brouwers

As discussed in a previous article, Anthony Snodgrass suggested that fear of attack was the main reason behind the construction of fortifications in Greece during the Early Iron Age and Archaic period (ca. 1000–500 BC).

However, Snodgrass also suggested that toward the end of the Archaic period the nature of these structures changed. I cite the relevant passage in full from his paper, “The historical significance of fortification in Archaic Greece”, published in La fortification dans l’histoire du monde grec (1986), pp. 125–131, edited by P. Leriche and H. Tréziny, p. 130:

The main phase of later Archaic fortification is, in my view, a different and in large part an independent story. Instead of representing a series of tactical expedients governed by local considerations, Greek fortification now becomes essentially a physical manifestation of the workings of Archaic Greek politics. As such, not surprisingly, it shows a degree of assimilation in each area where this political system prevailed, even though the starting-point for development was not the same in different areas.

The political system in question here is, of course, the polis or city-state. Use of the term “polis” is not without its problems and fosters a dichotomy – civilized polis versus more primitive forms of social organization (viz. the ethnos) – that I do not belief is very useful.

Nevertheless, Anthony Snodgrass seems to me fundamentally correct in relating changes in fortifications to changes in the political realm, more specifically to contuining political integration. The main noticeable effects of this are increases in scale – such as the extent of territories controlled by major cities – and centralization of political control. Both of these seem to be features that arise in the course of the Archaic period and become very noticeable from the second half of the sixth century BC onwards.

Walls and changes in warfare

The spread and development of fortified sites in the course of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries seem to keep pace with changes in warfare. Initially, warfare seems to have taken the form of relatively small-scale raids, which gave way to more fervent encounters over land between armies of rival polities in the seventh century BC, followed by increases in scale (territory) in the course of the sixth century BC. These developments seem to run parallel with an increase in the number of fortifications in the course of the Archaic period, which we may treat as indicative of, among other things, conflicts between neighbours.

There are some fifteen sites that date to before 700 BC (on the Cycladic islands, Chios, Crete, Anatolia, and even Agios Athanasios in Phocis and Asine in the Argolid), excluding re-use at known Mycenaean fortified sites such as Agios Andreas on Siphnos, Mycenae and other place, about twenty sites that were fortified between 700 and 550 BC (such as Neandria in the Troad, Pergamon in Aeolis, and Phocaea in Ionia, as well as Oeconomus near Paros, Samothrace, Thasos, and Vroulia on Rhodes, Argos and Corinth, and other places). The remainder of sites, which are far more numerous, either date to after 550 BC or are more nebulously dated to the sixth century BC in general.

Symbols of power?

Walls became symbols of a community’s sovereignty, its political and military independence. During times of war, the walls provided the first line of defence protecting, and thereby reaffirming, the polity’s independence. If a fortified settlement was captured, its walls were generally torn down, a practice very familiar from Classical sources, but not unknown in the Archaic period. This destruction wrought by a conquering army was a powerful way to transform the military defeat of the victim into an easily visible statement about their loss of political autonomy.

A very insightful case study of the growth of a town’s power is provided by Jonathan Hall’s treatment of the emergence of Argos in the course of the ninth to fifth centuries BC in his article “How Argive was the ‘Argive’ Heraion? The political and cultic geography of the Argive Plain, 900–400 BC”, American Journal of Archaeology 99.4, pp. 577–613. As the Argives slowly made themselves master of the Argive plain, they attacked and conquered the rival town of Asine at the end of the eighth century BC, appropriated the use of the Heraion (Temple of Hera), and finally laid waste to the towns of Mycenae and Tiryns in 486 BC.

Especially during the sixth century BC, there is some evidence that communities became more concerned with clearly delineating and defending their territories, as well as their settlements. An example would be the early fort at Phylla (Vrachos) on Euboea, probably constructed toward the end of the sixth century BC. The island of Lesbos is dotted with the remains of towers and irregularly shaped enclosures, some of which may be Archaic in date, although only few towers have been excavated or examined in any great detail. These may mark territories, but can also have been the result of peer interaction (status rivalry).

Some Greek communities turned to constructing walls to reinforce their borders. The most famous example is the wall constructed by the Phocians to ward off Thessalian invaders, and which was subsequently rebuilt by order of King Leonidas in preparation of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.27). These Archaic attempts at consolidating territories are harbingers of further developments in the construction of border defences and fortification systems of the Classical period and beyond.

Adam Smith makes a good observation in his book The Political Landscapes: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities (2003). He argues against regarding monumental architecture like fortifications as merely “symbols” of power. He makes the cogent point that such structures not only reflect power, but are constituent to them. In other words, in this case, fortifications not only reflect the power of the authorities in a Greek community, but are themselves fundamental to that power. It would not only have demonstrated power, but would have been a source of power itself that local elites responsible for such structures could draw upon to legitimate themselves.