Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Olynthus and Greek Town Planning (2000)

[Image: Christaras A, 2006, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5]

I read an interesting article yesterday about Olynthus, an archeological site in Northern Greece. The article was Olynthus and Greek Town Planning by Nicholas Cahill, in The Classical World, Vol. 93, No. 5, May - Jun., 2000. Olynthus was apparently sacked by the Macedonians under Philip II soon (archeologically speaking) after it was founded. Nicholas Cahill describes it as one of the best preserved and most complete sites we have from Ancient Greece.

Olynthus is also a fantastic example of a town built according to a grid-pattern, which was passed from the Greeks to the Romans and then into Medieval Europe. Houses in Olynthus were built in blocks of ten, divided into two rows, with a drainage alley running between them. Cahill goes into great detail about the actual houses: they had courtyards and symposium (drunken party) rooms, and were likely two-stories tall. They had kitchens, some had toilets, and some even seem to have had shops which opened onto the street (although it's difficult to say for sure from just the archeological remains).

Cahill talks about how modern scholars (circa 2000) thought there was a uniformity to the design of the houses when they were built, which came from isonomia (equality) imposed from above by the government of the polis. The buildings were later modified by their owners depending on taste and wealth. Cahill, however, rejects this notion, pointing out that the building designs varied too much to be purely the work of later modifications.

Writing about industry in Olynthus, Cahill says that manual labour in Ancient Greece was apparently frowned upon by the wealthy. The aristocratic philosopher Xenophon said that working caused a man to become effeminate and treat his friends badly. Which (unless it's a quirk of the translation) actually tells us a lot about how Xenophon viewed the role of women and femininity. Effeminate indeed.

Despite Xenophon's fear of backbreaking, effeminate work, a lot of industry did apparently occur in Olynthus (although only in some parts of the city). There were workshops and large-scale agricultural processing operations.

Cahill finishes his article with some detailed maps/plans of Olynthus and of its individual houses, which helps flesh out his descriptions. The plans have been labeled as much as possible, but there are limits to how much archeology can be certain about. One house, for example, is labeled as either a mint or a counterfeiter - which I found quite fun.

Rating - 7 out of 12
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