Further exploration of the settlement on Xeropolis suggests that reports of its destruction and abandonment at the end of the eighth century may be exaggerated. Only one building appears to have been destroyed by fire, while others excavated subsequently show no such damage; furthermore, its abandonment may actually date to the seventh century. But Thucydides’ testimony remains and some explanation is required to explain the decline in prosperity of the central Euboean settlements in the eighth century. It has been proposed that nothing but a dramatic war could have ended the dominance of Euboea.
However, an alternative proposition might note that from the late eighth century Corinth begins to dominate in the Aegean world, perhaps encouraged by its position on a gulf which allows direct access to the fledgling Greek colonies in Italy – such a proposal also makes sense of the supposed expulsion by Corinthians of Eretrian settlers on Corcyra, where the gulf meets the Adriatic, although no archaeological evidence supports the reality of this event (Plutarch, Greek Questions 11). It is likely, however, that with an ascendant Corinth in a better geographical position, there is no need for a Lelantine War to bring Euboea to its knees or destroy Lefkandi.
The sites on the Euboean gulf were particularly prominent after the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces, when sea traffic was largely internal. The Euboean gulf not only allows access to the north and south Aegean, from which point the east and central Mediterranean can be reached, but a coastal, insular site like Lefkandi almost necessitates naval connectivity. From the tenth century at the latest Euboea was increasingly active in overseas activities which will have relied on navigating – and perhaps even controlling – the straits, but it was not the only site on either side of the gulf to prosper: particularly prominent are the sites of Kynos and Mitrou, in east Phocis, which link the prominent EIA sanctuary site of Kalapodi to the Aegean.
Archaeological excavation at Kynos and Mitrou has revealed material connections to Lefkandi, as well as strong evidence that seafaring along the gulf was no easy endeavour. From twelfth-century Kynos a number of kraters are known which depict scenes of combat taking place on ships. Meanwhile, excavations at Mitrou have revealed evidence of destruction at the site in the mid-tenth century.
The evidence from Kynos and Mitrou can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A positivist approach would suggest that the evidence supports recurrent conflict amongst the communities of the gulf, whether with one another or other, piratical groups hoping to gain from the most prosperous regions of the Aegean in the Early Iron Age [see also Kramer-Hajos]. Roughly contemporary with the destruction at Mitrou, the so-called “heroön” at Lefkandi is constructed and dismantled as part of the burial rites of a warrior; this is followed by a century-long sequence of “warrior burials” at Lefkandi.
On the other hand, critical examination of the evidence from Mitrou reveals that only one building is known to have been destroyed – the same kind of limited evidence which has led to questions of the reality of the destructions at Lefkandi and Nichoria. However, the burning of the building is subsequent to, and thus cannot be responsible for, its collapse; furthermore, the building was not emptied prior to its destruction, suggesting that it was not abandoned first. But we cannot show why it collapsed, and to assume from this limited evidence that the whole site was destroyed is methodologically flawed. Further excavations may clarify these issues. But at this point we cannot be certain that Mitrou was intentionally attacked, nor can we ever be sure of the identity of the attackers.
What, then, is different when we turn to the Argolid and the destruction of Asine? The historical sources remain late, with most information originating with Pausanias; in Strabo’s discussion of Asine he makes reference to the fourth-century historian Theopompos, the most closely contemporary literary source, some three-and-a-half centuries after the fact. However, archaeological evidence confirms that the site was destroyed and largely abandoned in the late eighth century, while the adoption of the cult of Apollo Pytheus in Argos at around this time has been taken as confirmation that this site was the aggressor, allowing the comparison of both the site destroyed and a probable attacker.Show Hall 2014, pp. 160-62.
There remains much in Pausanias’ account which must be dismissed. Argos is said to have destroyed Asine in retribution after the Asinaeans supported an invasion of the Argolid by Sparta; as a consequence, the Asinaean refugees were allowed to resettle in newly-conquered Messenia. The connection here is likely to be part invention, to account for the place-name Asine in Messenia, and part elaboration of the history of the conquest of Messenia after the Messenians gained their independence. Nino Luraghi has highlighted the resemblance of the alliances recorded for the Messenian wars to those after the battle of Leuktra;Show Nino Luraghi, The Ancient Messenians: Constructions of Ethnicity and Memory (2008), p. 79. this is not the earliest attestation of Argive/Spartan rivalry, but it makes sense for such vague histories to be drawn together into a more coherent whole. Strabo’s account claims that the Argives destroyed several other settlements in the Argolid with the somewhat dubious motive of “disobedience”; the chronological information on this point is vague, and archaeological evidence suggests that the destructions of Nauplia and Tiryns were certainly later, and again it is suspicious that the destruction of Asine is being tied so closely to other events about which much more appears to have been known.
Turning to archaeology, the evidence is more positive. Unlike the destruction of Nichoria, the supposed aggressor is local. There is a little evidence for continued occupation at Asine after the destruction, including the sanctuary of Apollo Pythaeus on the Barbourna hill, which suggests use of the adjacent fertile plain rather than a substantial settlement. In the destruction level itself, a single arrowhead was discovered – not much, but more of an indication that this destruction was violent than for any of the other late eighth-century destructions so far considered. Meanwhile, the size of the settlement at Argos in the late eighth century, the succession of burials including not only weapons but also body armour – not known in the Aegean since the Bronze Age – and the adoption of the cult of Apollo Pytheus after the destruction of Asine all indicate that Argos is a good candidate for the aggressor.
The deeper history of the Argolid also sheds some light on events in the late eighth century. After the destruction of the Argive Mycenaean palaces ca. 1200, it is the then-coastal site of Tiryns which first prospers. However, after the twelfth century the Argolid largely appears to go into a comparative slump, with reasonable numbers of graves known, but few of comparable wealth to those at contemporary Lefkandi or even Athens.
The ninth and especially the eighth century see a revival, with absolute numbers of burials drastically increasing as well as the numbers of metal objects and imports, largely in Argos and Asine. While it is entirely possible that the excavation history of Mycenae and Tiryns has prevented full appreciation of their size in the Early Iron Age, and subsequent activity certainly limits what we know about ancient Nauplia, the number of known graves points more securely to the size and importance of Asine and Argos.
While it is possible to confirm our belief in some of what Pausanias has told us anyway, the further questions come from what he does not reveal, and what I have thus far rejected from his narrative, principally why and how Argos destroyed Asine. With the possible exceptions of Mitrou and Nichoria we have no evidence that large, nucleated settlements were even attacked during the centuries between the destructions of the Mycenaean palaces and Asine and, even if we incorporate these two, Asine remains distinct as it is completely wiped off the map.
The Argolid provides the study of early Greek warfare with evidence unparalleled in any other contemporary settlement, which may point towards the reasons for Argos’ success. The first known bronze panoply since the Bronze Age was discovered in Tomb 45 at Argos; however, this is not the beginning but the culmination of the Argive tradition of burials with weapons, which is known from the ninth century. This is the best-known sequence of burials with weapons in eighth-century Greece after Athens abandons the practice early in the century and the known cemeteries at Lefkandi no longer receive burials towards the end of the ninth century. Two earlier eighth-century Argive burials contained helmets, one alongside scraps which may have been a breastplate.
One must not be fooled into thinking that burials with weapons represent weapons and armour as they would be used: Thucydides makes reference to swords as articles of dress in times gone by and Hans van Wees has reasonably proposed that many burials with weapons can be interpreted as daily dress rather than war gear.Show Hans van Wees, “Greeks bearing arms: the state, the leisure class, and the display of weapons in archaic Greece”, in: Fisher, N. and H. van Wees (eds.), Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (2008), pp. 333-378. The short length of all of the swords recovered from Argive graves may support such an interpretation. The helmet and cuirass may not be interpreted this way, but comparable armour from central Europe is usually interpreted as ceremonial, not practical. In addition to this the helmet, which would balance precariously on the head of the wearer, may also be decorative.
Nonetheless, this armour takes its inspiration from a wide network of contacts and indicates that the Argives may have been innovative with their military equipment. Supporting evidence includes representations on pottery of the “master of horses”, often represented as a single human figure between two horses. On a number of vessels the Master is armed or armoured; at least one depiction includes a helmet which is remarkably similar to that found in Tomb 45. In addition to this, the Argolid includes some of the earliest depictions of mounted warriors in the round. Terracotta figures of figures on horseback occur in Argos, Asine, the Agamemnonion at Mycenae, Tiryns, and the Argive Heraion; these figurines are largely likely to date to the seventh century, but they may indicate the role of the Argolid in military innovations at around this time: some figurines also carry large, round shields, which may be depictions of the so-called “Argive” shield with porpax and antilabe.
These developments are not strictly Argive: as mentioned previously there are good reasons to suppose that the inspiration for the cuirass comes from Europe while the helmets closely resemble contemporary and earlier examples from the Assyrian Empire. Our knowledge of Argive overseas activities in the late eighth century is limited when compared to other regions, such as the neighbouring Corinthia and central Euboea. It is possible that these influences did not come directly to the Argolid. But it is here that they are found, as is the best evidence for their use in battle.
In order to fully understand the significance of the destruction of Asine the wider context of the late eighth-century Aegean needs to be taken into account. I’ve described in a previous article the abandonment of the sites of Zagora and Hypsele on Andros ca. 700. Like Asine, Lefkandi, and Nichoria, the archaeological preservation of Zagora and Hypsele is largely down their abandonment at the end of the eighth century.
Explanations for their abandonment have ranged from earthquakes to the disruption caused by the Lelantine War, but an absence of movable objects or completely preserved pots in the ruins of Zagora suggest that the inhabitants chose to abandon that site, at least. The evidence for the foundation and expansion of a third site on the island, the city of Andros (modern Palaiopolis), suggests an alternative explanation: synoikismos, the merging of several communities into one polis.
The island of Andros provides an interesting contrast to the Argolid in the late eighth century. In each of these regions decisions are being made on a community-wide level. If Zagora and Hypsele were both abandoned in agreement with one another, then a group must have had the authority to command the inhabitants to do so. Their power may not have been absolute, as Hypsele was not completely abandoned until the sixth century, but the settlement arrangement there and at Zagora suggest close communities as early as the ninth century. These settlements are beginning to organize themselves on a much greater scale. The flipside to this approach can be seen in the Argolid: other settlements are becoming threats to communities as they come to establish themselves. In one region co-operation is observed; in the other, conflict.
These sites can be connected together in a number of ways, perhaps best summed up by their failure: they are all losers. Asine, certainly, appears to have lost a war, but even Zagora and Hypsele must have ultimately come to the conclusion that they cannot survive as they are. Lefkandi fits between the two, perhaps loser in a war, perhaps located in a position which has become a failure; like Mitrou, it may be the case that it has to be removed so that another power can dominate the Euboean Gulf.
With the exception of Nichoria, these losing sites have another thing in common: they are all coastal, specifically located at least in part on a plateau or tell which protrudes, steep-sided, into the sea. Except Mitrou, large walls have been excavated at each site across the isthmus connecting them to the mainland, perhaps indicating that they suspected trouble, but perhaps also that they were able to cause it. Asine, Lefkandi, and Mitrou could all disrupt sea traffic in their respective areas – Jonathan Hall suggested that it was necessary for Argos to destroy Asine to prevent piracy. It is perhaps better to say that Asine controlled access to the Aegean Sea from the Argolic Gulf, and thus controlled Argive connectivity to the Mediterranean world in this important period of expanding horizons.
Argos does not appear to have been disconnected from the wider world prior to the destruction of Asine, as seen earlier when looking at the origins of the armour in its graves. But the clearest relations Argos had were over land, to Olympia where Argive bronze figurines are known in abundance, and it was perhaps here that the Argives came to see the control that coastal Asine had over them.
How successful a move it was for Argos to destroy Asine is unclear, as the archaeological record for the seventh century BC is patchy, seeming to reflect a period of austerity. There is no further “orientalizing” in Argive material culture, although there are a number of Corinthian imports. In the long term, however, Argos became one of the most significant poleis of the Greek world.
On the wider scale, the destruction of Asine suggests a larger scale of warfare, but perhaps also a decline in violence. Its destruction was greater than that of Mitrou, Nichoria, or even Lefkandi – by human hands or otherwise – for at those sites only a few building were destroyed and there is evidence for reoccupation.
But while all of these sites were offered some protection by walls, none of their replacements appear to have been immediately fortified; many Greek cities would not be until the later seventh and sixth centuries. Other evidence also points to the increasing scale and organization of warfare: the polyandrion at Paros includes one-hundred and twenty dead young men, but also organization in collecting, cremating, and burying their remains in a mass grave.
Warfare, therefore, is indicative of the development of the ideas behind communities and their protection, exemplified furthermore by the consolidation of Zagora and Hypsele. But the destruction of Asine, and perhaps other sites, indicates a darker element to this trend. While the inhabitants of Andros were identifying as a unit, together, the inhabitants of the Argolid began to see themselves as competing groups, which ultimately led to destruction.
This article’s featured image is a photograph of Asine.