The Circus of Roman Corinth
Roman intervention in Greek political affairs resulted in conflicts that led to the destruction of Corinth in 146 B.C. and the sacking of Athens in 86 B.C. It was not until 27 B.C., however, that Augustus formally organized the Roman province of Achaea. Achaea consisted of the cities and territories of the southern Greek mainland between the Peloponnese and Thessaly, as well as Epirus in the northwest and the Ionian and some of the Aegean islands.
The provincial capital was Corinth. Under Nero in the mid-1st century A.D. Epirus became a separate province, and in the mid-2nd century Thessaly was detached and added to the province of Macedonia. Under Roman domination many cities such as Athens, Sparta, Patras, and Corinth grew in size and prominence, the latter two partly owing to their importance as ports. After an initial decline in the number of rural sites in the early Empire, by the late Roman period the countryside was densely settled with farms and villas, due to changing landholding patterns and Roman improvements in agricultural and irrigation technology. The main exports from Achaea were wine, particularly from the northern Peloponnese, as well as olive oil and honey, linen and wooolen textiles and marbles.
The Circus of Roman Corinth
The circus of Roman Corinth was excavated in 1967-1968 in the so-called Gymnasium area to the north of the city. The eastern curved meta, a portion of the spina (a total of 19 meters in length; Max. W. 4.49 m.), and a series of hard-packed racecourse floors were recovered, along with a fragmentary marble cone that was part of a turning post (meta). Lead curse tablets, typical finds in circuses, were found close to the meta. It appears that the circus was planned as an integral component of the Caesarian design of the city after 44 B.C. and constructed during the mid- to late-Augustan period. There are renovation phases in the late 1st century and 6th century A.D. This circus was probably the site of the equestrian contests of the Corinthian Caesarea festival and, at times, of the Panhellenic Isthmian Games.
In the spina and meta excavators found three large pits cut into the bedrock, spaced roughly 6 m. apart, center to center, and placed just south of the central axis of the structure(s) (pit 1: (in meta) Diam. 1.65 m.; Depth 0.88 m.; pit 2: (in spina) Diam. 1.65 m.; Depth 0.79 m.; pit 3 (in spina): Diam. 1.45 m.; Depth 0.80 m., Fig. 1) There is no indication of hydraulic cement within the pits or in the spina area. The pits can be dated to the original construction phase of the circus from the mid- to late-Augustan period. Later, in the 5th century A.D., the pits were filled in. Based on the similarities of the diameter and depth of these pits to those for cypresses at nearby Nemea, it is very likely that these are also planting pits for trees. If so, the planting pit in the meta would be evidence for a tree in the same location where the marble cone has been restored in a later phase (Fig. 2). Shallow channels cut into the bedrock lead toward the pits from different directions. No terracotta or lead water pipes were found, and there is no evidence for the water supply system, suggesting that these channels may have been simply for directing rainwater into the planting pits.
A transport/storage amphora, broken into several fragments and with the neck and foot cut off, was found inside one of the pits (pit 2, Fig. 3). This amphora was almost certainly reused as a planting pot and is further evidence that the meta and spina were planted. The amphora is a North Italian Dressel 6 or Spanish Dressel 7-11 type, with dates ranging from the 1st century A.D. to first half of the 2nd century A.D. Thus, the planting pot may not belong to the earliest phase of the circus. Fragments of marble sculpture were found in the fill above the spina, including a large egg-shaped object that may be part of a lap-counting device, a colossal hand, the fragmentary head and arm of a youth, the left leg of an athlete with palm tree support, as well as a lifesized terracotta comic mask. The presence of these fragments suggests the possibility that the spina/meta area was also decorated with sculptures amidst the garden plantings.
The so-called “hippodrome garden” type (see the Domus Flavia on the Palatine Hill in Rome, the “Stadium-Garden at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, the Villa of the Little Circus at Silin, Jericho, Pliny’s Tuscan villa, and Domitian’s villa above Lake Albano) must have been inspired in some way by Greek hippodromes and/or by Roman circuses with planted areas with sculptural and possibly architectural decoration in the central area and probably around the circumference of the elongated racecourse. It must be pointed out, however, that no Greek hippodrome has ever been excavated, although recent excavations at the Sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia may be able to shed some light for the first time on a Classical period hippodrome structure and its possible garden features. In addition, although trees appear in circus scenes illustrating the spina and meta of the Circus Maximus in Rome on 3rd – 4th century A.D. mosaics, e.g., the Barcelona mosaic, as well as on coins, e.g., coin of Philip I, and on sarcophagus reliefs, such as the Vatican sarcophagus (Humphrey, 235-236, figs. 56, 119; p. 127, fig. 56; pp. 196-203, fig. 99-101) and the possibility of plantings has been proposed in the spinae of Roman circuses (e.g., by Humphrey, 38 for the circus at Leptis Magna), no specific archaeological evidence has been recorded until the publication of this circus at Corinth.
- J. H. Humphrey, Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing. Berkeley, 1986. (worldcat)
- D. G. Romano, “A Roman Circus in Corinth,” Hesperia 74, 2005: 585-611. (worldcat).
David Gilman Romano (ORCID: 0000-0001-5764-6652)
21 Apr 2021