Studying the Borders

Although the chôrai of many city-states have been the focus of intensified archaeological research in the past decades, few projects have focused on studying and locating their borders on the ground. Yet mapping out the borders is a necessary step when studying the territory of an ancient Greek city. Borders delimit the political, economic and religious space of a polis.

Difficulties and issues

Studying the successive borders of Greek chorai is difficult for several reasons: the extant boundary stones are scant; centuries of conquests and environmental planning have displaced them significantly; there are some grey zones between city-states; and inscriptions give bearings (‘a rock’, ‘an oak’) that have not withstood the test of time very well, and, consequently, are of little use to us — incidentally, they were of little use in Antiquity too: judges in some cases relied on shepherds for directions!  [1]. Borders, then, were seldom marked on the ground in most of the cases; they were virtual boundary lines following a river or a mountain ridge.

The contribution of epigraphy and archaeology

The most recent and most comprehensive studies on Greek borders have been carried on by D. Rousset (EPHE, Paris), who is currently collecting some 240 inscriptions relating to Greek borders[2]. These inscriptions show that the Greeks seldom used boundary markers; they relied on orographic and hydrographic landmarks instead. They also show that the border zones are to be found, often, in unpopulated mountain regions (Rousset labels them ‘desert-borders’). The absence of archaeological sites can prove the presence of borders, as A. Snodgrass and J. Bintliff have shown in their study of the chorai of Thespiai and Haliartos[3].

By studying the epigraphic evidence, it is possible to gather information about the geography of the borders and the zones in which they were fixed.


Here are the steps that I’ll follow in my study of the borders of Attica:

  • I wish to map the archaeological sites of the borderland, highlighting the “identity tags” belonging to one city or another, such as ancient toponyms, coins, pottery, funerary steles (onomastics), necropoleis, sanctuaries, etc.
  • I plan to identify the main orographic and hydrographic limits likely to have been in use.
  • I also plan to study the Ottoman and more recent Greek municipal limits.

These different layers of information should enable us to draw a diachronic map of Attica’s borders at different periods of its history.

[1] see L. Robert, Bergers grecs, Hellenica X (1949) 152-160.

[2] Les frontières des cités grecques. Premières réflexions à partir du recueil des documents épigraphiques, Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz 5 (1994) 97-126.

[3] A. M. Snodgrass, Survey Archaeology and the Rural Landscape of the Greek City, in O. Murray – S. Price, The Greek City from Homer to Alexander (1991) 129 ; see also J. L. Bintliff – A. M. Snodgrass, The Cambridge/Bradford Boeotian Expedition : The First Four Years, JFA 12 (1985) 144.