Sulla’s Siege of Athens

Athenian tetradrachm, 84/3 B.C. Reverse: owl standing on an amphora, tyrant-slayers to the right, all surrounded by a wreath. Inscription indicates the mint masters, Mentor and Moschion. ANS.1944.100.24898

In May 2019, I was pleased to have presented at an international conference at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens on destruction in ancient Greek cities. Since the conference, the papers have been collected and published in a new volume now available from Cambridge University Press: The Destruction of Cities in the Ancient Greek World: Integrating the Archaeological and Literary Evidence. A major them of the conference was thinking through how reliable literary sources when held up against the archaeological record–and thinking through biases in ancient literature. Major destructive events that were presented those in Athens, Miletus, Eretria, Selinous, Corinth, and sites in northern Greece.

Of the three “destructions” of Athens (including Persian and Herulian), I presented my thoughts on the siege of the city by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in March 86 BCE. The literary sources (especially those written in the second century CE) paint a dramatic, oftentimes gruesome image of the fateful events of that military campaign by Sulla and his troops. Against the archaeological evidence, however, those scenes do not seem to hold up–or, in the very least, they are greatly exaggerated. From what we have, it seems that Athens after the siege was one of slow but steady recovery–and marks a pivotal century in Athenian history as the city would have to find its way into the growing imperial regime of Rome.

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