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The City and the Countryside

Studies highlight the importance of rural areas in the ancient Greek cities of the Mediterranean

Vestiges of the Temple of Hercules in Agrigento: a monument in the urban part, the ásty, of an ancient Greek polis in Sicily.

PJT56/Wikimedia CommonsVestiges of the Temple of Hercules in Agrigento: a monument in the urban part, the ásty, of an ancient Greek polis in Sicily.PJT56/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers from the Laboratory for Studies of Ancient Cities (Labeca) at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology of the University of São Paulo (MAE-USP) are trying to gain a better understanding about how the poleis—the ancient Greek city-states—used the entire territory within their spheres of influence during the Archaic and Classic periods, i.e., between the 8th and 3rd centuries BC. From the standpoint of land use, the poleis, an innovative and autonomous form of societal organization not subject to a centralized power, were divided into two areas: the ásty, more dense, “urban” and smaller, which included the city’s founding nucleus, where citizens—free male residents who were born there—engaged in political activity; and the khóra, the rural region, larger, and dedicated to crops, animal husbandry, and timber extraction. The borders of a polis were defined by the boundaries of its khóra.

The role of the khóra, an area that would be fought over by the poleis in wartime because of its strategic importance as a source of food and an expression of political power, is the central theme that connects the research efforts put forth by the Labeca team in the past four years. To that end, MAE archeologists have made field trips to Greek sites in Mediterranean Europe and researched specialized literature on the subject. “The bulk of the writings since the 19th century have focused primarily on the ‘urban’ parts of the ancient Greek cities, as if they represented the entire polis,” says archeologist Maria Beatriz Borba Florenzano, coordinator of Labeca and of a thematic project about relationships between the ásty and khóra of ancient Greek cities.

The primary focus of Labeca’s work has not been Athens, Sparta, or Thebes, the best known and most studied cities of Balkan Ancient Greece. Instead, it is studying groups of poleis situated both within and outside continental Hellas (as Greece was known by its citizens), especially those of Magna Graecia, the name the Hellenic people gave to southern Italy, Sicily, the north of Africa, and the Argolid, the northeast region of the Peloponnese peninsula. The first Greek settlements in Sicily date from the 8th century BC when Athens, Corinth, and Argos were still under construction in the Balkans. The process of occupying Sicily extends through the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Data from textual sources do not always coincide with information obtained from archeological excavations and field work, but it is currently believed that Naxos, Megara Hyblaea, and Syracuse emerged between 750 and 730 BC. Gela was founded in 680 BC and Selinus, established by former residents of Megara Hyblaea, was possibly formed around 650 BC. In the 6th century BC, the inhabitants of Gela planted the nucleus of another important polis on the island, Agrigento. The chronology on the Italian peninsula is about the same. In the 1990s, vestiges of Pithecussae, a Greek city from the beginning of the 8th century BC and perhaps the oldest in Magna Graecia, were discovered on Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples.

086-089_Grecia_2331,500 Poleis, one language, one religion
Thus the first poleis erected on the western shore of the Mediterranean were contemporaries of the founding of the principal cities of continental Greece itself. They developed independently and concurrently with Athens and the other poleis of the Balkans. In those days, there was no finished model for the use of the ásty or khóra that could be copied, so local and regional issues determined the specific ways in which land was appropriated. “Ancient Greece should be referred to as the Greek world in the Mediterranean,” Florenzano says. “It included the Greek settlements on the Balkan peninsula where we find present-day Greece, as well as settlements in Turkey, Italy, France, Spain, the north of Africa and on the Black Sea.” In the period being studied, the area thought of as Greek was much bigger than the land that lies within the present-day boundaries of Greece. Founded 2,500 years ago, the Greek polis of Chersonese, for example, was settled on part of the territory of what is now Sebastopol, an important port in southern Crimea, a region currently in dispute between Ukraine and Russia.

More recent surveys indicate that about 1,500 poleis were established by the ancient Hellenic people, almost all of them near the Mediterranean coast. Although the number of known poleis is very high, most historical and archeological studies concentrate on Athens, which was long seen as the model of what had been an ancient Greek city-state, the polis par excellence. However, that view, according to Labeca researchers, is extremely partial and should be revised. As part of an effort to overcome that reductionist approach to the ancient Greek world, the MAE laboratory created Nausitoo, a database with information, photos, and maps of the occupation of urban and rural spaces in almost 200 poleis scattered around the Mediterranean. “The residents of the Greek poleis, regardless of geographical location, spoke a common language and adopted the same religion and customs,” explains archeologist Elaine Hirata, another Labeca researcher. “There was an interconnected world in the Mediterranean. The database makes it possible to study comparisons among cities.”

Syracuse, the most powerful polis in Sicily, is perhaps the most extreme case of those ancient connections. The relationship between metropolis and colony among the Greek poleis was not asymmetric, although the strongest exerted influence over the weakest ones. Depending on the circumstances, alliances were forged to battle other Greek cities or fight off external enemies such as the Persians, Phoenicians, or Carthaginians. Syracuse became the second largest Greek polis in the 5th century BC and defeated Athens in wars.

Ruins from the 5th to 4th centuries BC of Syracuse: a castle and wall protected the khóra, the rural part of that ancient city in Sicily

Giovanni Dall‘Orto / Wikimedia CommonsRuins from the 5th to 4th centuries BC of Syracuse: a castle and wall protected the khóra, the rural part of that ancient city in SicilyGiovanni Dall‘Orto / Wikimedia Commons

The form of land use in Syracuse exhibited peculiarities in relation to the other polis, according to Labeca researchers. A protective wall surrounded the ásty, the central nucleus of Athens and of most Greek poleis. That was the general rule. At its peak, however, Syracuse had a much bigger wall, which even included part of its khóra. Some innovations referring to the organization of the more “urban” space also seem to have arrived earlier in the Sicilian city than in other parts of the ancient Greek world. Syracuse was born on the tiny island of Ortygia, almost contiguous with terra firma. Its roads were laid out in an orthogonal shape, an “urban” mesh design that would later be used on the other side of the Mediterranean. “Athens rebuilt the area around the port of Piraeus by adopting orthogonality as an urbanistic principle for organizing the space,” Hirata says.

The countryside as zone of contact
For a long time, the major historical or archeological studies described the khóra as a less important part of the Greek polis. This was because political buildings like those that housed the assemblies and councils, the spaces where citizens gathered as they do today, and the sanctuary of the protector divinity, were both situated in the ásty. The most remote portion of the territory of a polis would be of lesser importance, considered only as an area for farming, which was done by slaves who cultivated the land for the free men of the ásty, the civic center that was the seat of power. Labeca researchers say that in recent decades, especially as a result of the archeological excavations carried out outside the “urban” nucleus, that view has been reformulated.

The khóra now appears as an area of great economic dynamism, much more densely populated than texts would have us believe. It is also seen as a space for monumental structures, such as temples devoted to important divinities that served as “symbolic borders” between one polis and another. “The enormous attention that ancient Greeks paid to the ásty-khóra interaction is present in the calendars of their religious festivals that called for rituals, such as processions that brought the public from the more strictly political nucleus of the polis to the sanctuaries situated throughout the khóra,” says Florenzano. “The polis represented itself in those rituals as a unit made up of specialized spaces that shared the same values, worshipped the same gods, and would band together to defend its territory.”

The confines of the rural part of a polis were also a zone of intense contact with Greeks from other cities and with non-Greeks, especially in areas outside the Balkan Peninsula. Interactions with other cultures promoted reciprocal changes among the groups involved; this is a topic being studied by contemporary Mediterranean archeology. “There are reports of cohabitation between Greeks and Phoenicians in western Sicily and in Sardinia, an area controlled exclusively by Carthaginians. We also have evidence of numerous material exchanges between Phoenician Sicily and Greek Sicily,” says archeologist Cristina Kormikiari, a professor at MAE and another researcher working on the project. She is studying the cities established by the Phoenicians, who were devoted to maritime trade.

City and territory in ancient Greece: organization of space and society (nº 2009/54583-1); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal Investigator Maria Beatriz Borba Florenzano (MAE-USP); Investment R$419,833.30 and US$17,780.00 (FAPESP).