Isthmia: Roman Baths and Muscular Men

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Amazing Mosaic at Roman Bath Complex, Taken by myself 2008

Not entirely sure where my work is going today so I have thus decided to take a short break to tell you about one of the more interesting, actually the most interesting sites I have worked on so far: Isthmia, Greece.

Isthmia is a genitive noun with the meaning ‘of the Isthmus.’ It generally refers to the site that held the famous Isthmian Games near Korinth on the Isthmus. A natural assembly place for many Greeks and travellers.

Isthmia in Antiquity was one of Greece’s large Panhellenic sanctuaries and played host to the Isthmian Games (founded in 584BC) and hence held a special importance throughout the Greek and Roman periods, with its athletic and religious festivals coming second in significance only to Olympia. The Isthmian Games was held in the spring of the second and fourth years of each Olympiad and were believed to have originated with the King of Corinth Sisyphus or Theseus himself. They were open to all Greeks but were particularly popular with the Athenians. Romans were also allowed to take part from around 228/9 BC onwards. Unfortunately they, alongside the other great Games, left to the wayside with the rise to dominance of Christianity. In their heyday the Isthmian Games saw the implementation of the Isthmian Truce with was declared by Corinth to grant athletes safe passage through Greece.

The site is often associated with the events and matters of Korinth due to its close proximity and because it was administered by the city-state of Korinth. It was also a natural place for the sanctuary considering its place near the Isthmus and the many travellers that passed through on land and at ports. For instance, the Macedonians brought an army through the Isthmus in 225/4 to face another Achaian force trying to take Korinth. Due to its location, armies would frequently march through it with often disastrous consequences to the site and its temple. Even after the Isthmia had been abandoned between the late 7th century and 11th century AD, the Isthmus continued to be an important medieval and early modern strategic location.

The sanctuary was primarily dedicated to the worship of Poseidon with a large Doric temple to Poseidon being built around 700BC which was later replaces around 465 with a newer larger temple complex. The temple of Poseidon was discovered in 1952 by Oscar Broneer. Unfortunately, by the year 400AD with the force of Christianity, the sanctuary and the games at Isthmia had been abandoned. In its current state, the site of Isthmia includes The Sanctuary of Poseidon, an Upper sanctuary, Roman Bath (Including a beautiful mosaic floor), Greek Pool and fortress and Hexamilion (A wall constructed in the reign of Theodosiius II across the Isthmus), as well as an eastern field which still warrants investigation. Excavations have been carried out by The Ohio State University and the University of Chicago.

Remains of Roman Bath Complex

The Roman Bath at Isthmia was constructed around the mid-second century AD and it most often the focus of Isthmia in the current day. Artefacts in the form of pottery, walls and cement floors indicate that the area was used at least as late as the Byzantine era despite being abandoned as a bath in the late fourth century AD. An extremely elaborate structure, the Bath contained vaulted ceiling, sculptures, marble walls, and most obviously a huge Italian style monochrome mosaic accompanied by colossal statue bases and evidence of sculpture in what would most likely have been the great hall of the complex. Among an array of rooms, pools and furnaces is also highly sophisticated drainage systems and heating systems, with the drainage systems still in sufficient working order in the present day. The Roman Bath was built over a Greek structure; with the mosaic covering what was before hand a Greek pool.

A short but informative post I say. And now back to the realms of chapter writing on recurring themes of certain pieces of ancient Greek literature.