Delos is a small island in the center of the Cyclades measuring about five kilometers north-south and 1.3 kilometers east-west at the widest. In antiquity, it was famous as the birthplace of Apollo. Apollo’s sanctuary, founded in the seventh century B.C., is situated on a small plain next to the main port. It became a principal Panhellenic cult center and always formed the heart of the later settlement and city. The city was under Athenian supremacy in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and became independent only in 314 B.C. Although extensive public building occurred during the period of its status as an independent city-state and the island began to develop as a commercial center, the city remained relatively small and was still mainly engaged in local and regional trade with the surrounding Cycladic islands. This changed significantly when the Romans handed control of Delos to Athens in 167 B.C. and declared it a free port. It soon developed into a booming cosmopolitan trade center with merchants coming from all over the Mediterranean world. As a consequence the city grew considerably, mostly to meet the needs of its new purpose. Squares, quays, warehouses, shops, new residential quarters, and clubhouses of foreign associations were constructed, and public buildings and sanctuaries were either renovated and extended or newly built. Although Delos was sacked twice, in 88 B.C. by the troops of Mithridates and 69 B.C. by the pirates under Athenodoros, its desertion during the first century B.C. is predominantly due to the rivalry of increasingly successful Roman ports like Puteoli and Ostia. Life in Delos did not come to an abrupt halt as evidenced by remains of Roman thermae and several Christian basilicas, but it continued on a much smaller scale.
In the Late Hellenistic houses of Delos the impluvia of peristyle courtyards were usually paved, and rainwater falling into these courtyards was emptied as wastewater by sewers into nearby streets. However, in two large houses (Quarter of the Theater, Insula II, Houses E and F) and two clubhouses of associations (House of Fourni; Quarter of the Stadium, Insula I, building B, the so-called perfumery) the impluvia of the peristyle courtyards were not paved, with the exception of some scattered stone settings. Whereas one of them might have been left unfinished in a phase of remodeling (Quarter of the Theater, insula II, House F), the others were certainly all used, comprising of different phases of enlargement and embellishment. Thus, the lack of pavement cannot be due to the unfinished state of the buildings, but must have been deliberate. The sizes of these impluvia range from 30.20 square meters to 75.80 square meters. In all cases no cistern was established under the impluvium, as is usual in Delian buildings with peristyles. Furthermore, all four peristyle courtyards are provided with a sewer for the drainage of rain and waste water; the earthen floor of the impluvium could probably not absorb the occasional large quantities of rain water pouring down in heavy storms, so that at least some of the rain water had to be drained away. So far, planting was only proposed for the courtyard of the so-called perfumery, but no specialized examinations or excavations were performed in any of the four courtyards. In addition to the above-mentioned characteristics, some other features might speak in favor of luxurious garden-peristyles for these Delian buildings. In Delian private buildings, peristyle gardens were probably introduced rather late, during the heyday of the free port in the three or four decades before 88 B.C. Within the local context, the Agora of the Italians could have served as the most immediate model for this new fashion. The design of these gardens would have been simple. They would have consisted mostly of small trees, shrubs, and plants, which did not need much water. All of them had to be irrigated by hand, like the garden of the Agora of the Italians and many of the kitchen and commercial gardens, as Late Hellenistic Delos was not provided with a water pipe system.
The three-sided peristyle in the courtyard (b) of House E in the insula II of the Quarter of the theater comprised a large rectangular altar in its center (Figs. 1, 2). An exedra with two columns (f) opened to the north and was only accessible via the impluvium. Again, this arrangement would have required frequent use of the impluvium and, therefore, even more so its systematic pavement. Instead, the impluvium of 48.80 square meters, which is only equipped with some scattered stone slabs, was probably transformed into a kind of sacred garden. Two altars at either side of the entrance, which were probably combined with ‘liturgical’ paintings, might indicate that a Roman or Italian owned this house at least for a certain period.
Whether the impluvium of 30.20 square meters (a) of House F in insula II of the Quarter of the Theater was left unfinished or planned or even realized as a garden, cannot be decided (Figs. 1, 3). Following the latest fashion, the initiators of the last major transformation of this house might well have conceived of a planted impluvium. This house, however, was not (yet?) equipped with any water supply.
1st c. BCE
- J. Chamonard, Le Quartier du théâtre. Étude sur l’habitation délienne à l’époque hellénistique. Exploration archéologique de Délos VIII. Paris 1922/24. (worldcat).
- P. Bruneau, Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l’époque hellénistique et à l’époque impériale. BEFAR 217, 1970. (worldcat).
- P. Bruneau and J. Ducat, Guide de Délos. École française d Athènes. 4th edition, Paris 2005, Nos. 79, 117, 124. (worldcat).
- M. Trümper, Wohnen in Delos. Eine baugeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Wandel der Wohnkultur in hellenistischer Zeit. Internationale Archäologie 46, Rahden/Westfalen 1998: 262-265, 317-318, figs. 59. 62, plan I. (worldcat).
Monika Trümper (ORCID: 0000-0003-4524-6242)
21 Apr 2021