Milesian Islands

Milesian Islands: The Fortified Installations in the Insular Environment of Miletus in the Aegean in Context

Konstantinos Sarantidis. Milesian Islands: The Fortified Installations in the Insular Environment of Miletus in the Aegean in Context. Thiasos Monographie 15 (Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2020). 9788854910737; 9788854910652.

Reviewed by Christina DiFabio, Koç University,

Given modern national borders, regional studies in Mediterranean archaeology can often be defined within one modern country, even if a sphere of interaction in antiquity would now encompass two modern nations. This situation is particularly relevant for the region of the eastern Aegean and Dodecanese, with the western coast of ancient Anatolia belonging to modern Turkey and the islands belonging to modern Greece.[1] Sarantidis provides a regional study that transcends this modern border in his archaeological study of the fortifications of the ancient Sporades, the smaller Greek islands south of Samos and north of Kos, which were part of the territory of the ancient polis Miletos, now in southwestern Turkey.

The monograph is the author’s revised PhD dissertation written at the Polytechnic of Bari and Roma Tre University. The research was based on archaeological fieldwork done in two campaigns in October 2016 and 2017 to document the fortifications and the landscapes in which they reside via photography, architectural drawing and recording, and surface pottery analysis (if present). The islands included in his fieldwork are Agathonisi, Arkioi, Farmakonisi, Fournoi, Leipsoi, Leros, and Patmos. Sarantidis places the fortified installations of these islands in the broader context of the expansion of Miletos. Sarantidis included the aforementioned islands in his study because they have explicit ties to Miletos (either through textual or archaeological evidence; the exception is Fournoi, which seems more related to Samos), along with containing fortified installations. While he dates the construction of the fortifications to the range of the fifth to third centuries BCE, Sarantidis provides a diachronic history of the microregion of Miletos and the Milesian islands in this monograph, particularly focusing on the impact of Miletos’s growth from the Archaic to Hellenistic periods. His overall contribution is not only the detailed archaeological documentation of the fortified installations, but also his argument that these sites contributed to the protection and economy of Miletos, especially in the Hellenistic period.

Roughly the first half of the monograph (Chapters 1–4) provides Sarantidis’s research methodology as well as background information on ancient warfare and the archaeology of Miletos to set the scene for his discussion of his work on the Milesian islands in the second half of the monograph (Chapters 5–7 and sections with original maps and plans). Chapter 1, the Introduction, provides the relevant historic, geographic, and historiographic background information on Miletos and the Milesian islands. Sarantidis also outlines his research methods for fieldwork and his use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and cartography for the maps and analyses produced on the fortifications.

Sarantidis reviews the textual and archaeological history of fortifications and warfare techniques in the ancient Greek world from the Early Iron Age to the early Roman Imperial period in his second chapter, “War and Defense in Antiquity.” Detailed attention is given to the development of torsion catapults and changes in fortification architecture during the Hellenistic period. The chapter is rich in detail with comparative examples from Sicily, mainland Greece, and Anatolia. The chapter will surely be a great resource for those interested in the development and historiography of ancient warfare.

For background information about Miletos and the region, Sarantidis discusses the growth of the city and its fortifications, respectively, in Chapters 3 and 4. Chapter 3, “Miletus and Its Territory in Antiquity: A Historical Analysis,” discusses the archaeological and textual evidence for the city and countryside of Miletos from its origins to the early modern period. Sarantidis highlights the territorial growth of Miletos especially from the Archaic to Hellenistic periods: it incorporated nearby, smaller communities on the mainland as well as new lands in the Gulf of Latmos made from the progressive siltation of the Maeander River. For the Milesian islands further out in the Aegean under study, Sarantidis reviews the evidence that they were part of Miletos’s territory from at least the Hellenistic period. They were sacred to Apollo of Didyma and were a deme of Miletos. Most of the direct evidence comes from Hellenistic inscriptions; Sarantidis notes that scholars speculate Miletos had influence on these islands in the Archaic period, but the evidence is not conclusive. Chapter 4, “The Fortifications of Miletus and Milesia,” provides a diachronic overview of the fortifications at the city of Miletos and its mainland chora before and after the Persian destruction in 494 BCE. In the Classical period, Miletos was promoting security with rural fortifications as it rebuilt the city’s fortifications. In the Hellenistic period, there was increased rural activity even as smaller towns were abandoned. The growth of the chora declined in the early Roman to Roman Imperial periods as the city itself prospered in the middle Imperial period. This chapter concludes the contextual information of the book, and the following chapters focus on Sarantidis’s fieldwork research and interpretations.

Sarantidis starts discussing the details of his fieldwork in Chapter 5, “The Fortified Installations on the Milesian Islands: Topographical and Architectural Analysis.” The information for each island follows this structure: topographical description including notes on agricultural or herding potential, detailed descriptions of the fortified installations with proposed dates of construction, considerations on the placements and functions of the fortified installations. Photographs of the archaeological remains as well as intervisible fortifications by the author and hypothetical reconstructions of the fortifications are included. Most fortified installations are dated by architectural style and/or by available surface pottery. Sarantidis is clear about the pitfalls of such dating since accurate dating is secured by excavating the foundations. Previous excavation data is only available for the fortification of Kastraki on the island of Agathonisi, which was occupied from the late fourth century BCE to the second century CE. The data provides insight into the military and economic functions of the site, as excavations found shipsheds, weapons, and a murex farm for purple dye production. The rich information for each fortified installation attests to Sarantidis’s attention to detail during his field research.

The subsequent chapter, Chapter 6, “Towards an Interpretation of the Milesian Insular Fortified Installations,” builds upon the information presented in the previous chapter to discuss the functions of the fortifications under study. Sarantidis first defines different types of fortified installations found during his survey: fortified settlements (which typically have citizen-soldiers in residence); fortresses (which are primarily militaristic in function with assigned soldiers but could also temporarily house civilians); and towers or tower-court complexes (protected farmsteads, which are also known by the German Turmgehöfte). Overall, he argues that Miletos established these fortifications for protection of the Milesian territory, trade, and agricultural and economic exploitation. Specific agricultural and pastoral activities are suggested. Kastraki provides a case study for insight into these functions for a fortified settlement, based on the finds listed above as well as over 10,000 fragments of beehives for honey production and hooks and net weights for fishing. For protection and trade, he argues that the placement of the fortifications is related to regulating the sea passages and providing safe harbors between the cities of western Anatolia and the Aegean north of the islands of Ikaria and Samos. Sarantidis provides a series of maps with GIS viewshed analyses demonstrating which fortified installations on the Milesian islands (as well as some fortifications in the Milesian land chora) were intervisible. The analysis shows a network in which most of the fortifications were intervisible with at least two other fortifications within the average visible distance of 8 to 35 kilometers in ideal weather conditions and seasons. He doubts that fire signals were used due to the large distances but cannot exclude the possibility.

Sarantidis then provides brief conclusions of the study in Chapter 7, highlighting the construction of the island fortifications in the Classical to Hellenistic period in semi-mountainous regions as part of Miletos’s territorial exploitation and that, apart from the military function of the fort at Lepsioi, the island fortifications had militaristic and other functions (e.g., residential; agricultural). An interesting short “Excursus” that follows discusses a unique fourth to third century BCE roof tile from the excavations at Kastraki that partially preserves a drawing of an ancient tower. Sarantidis argues that it could represent part of the fortifications at Kastraki in a 1:100 scale and might have been used as a draft in construction. I particularly enjoyed the “Excursus” as it brought to light discussion of the planning and people behind the construction of fortifications.

Also of note are two sections of original maps and plans. The first section, “Maps,” includes topographical maps of each island studied in his fieldwork with locations of the fortified installations and modern settlements highlighted as well as 1:5,000 scale topographical maps using sources from the Hellenic Military Geographical Service to show the individual locations of each fortified installment. The second section, “Plans,” includes birds-eye-view topographical architectural plans of each fortified installment at varying scales and detailed architectural groundplans and façades of the extant remains of the fortified installments.

In this monograph, Sarantidis did an impressive amount of fieldwork and cartography. The architectural plans, maps, and GIS analyses are crucial to the first comprehensive study of these fortified installations within their environment. I found that he provides a convincing argument in Chapter 6 on the use of the fortifications in their microregion for agriculture, trade, and protection. He draws upon a great range of interdisciplinary sources of data for this chapter: from archaeology and ancient texts to modern agricultural and pastoral uses of the islands to GIS analyses. It was helpful that he checked the intervisibility of the fortified installations in his fieldwork and provided supporting photographs. I would also like to highlight his contextualization of the islands with the archaeology of Miletos and his use of comparative data of fortifications elsewhere in Anatolia.

While Chapters 2–4 on the history of ancient warfare and Miletos are rich in detail and will be of great use to those looking for overviews of that information, they read as summaries and have the potential to draw readers away from the original fieldwork contributions. Sarantidis’s research on the fortified installations is very impressive, but it would have been helpful if this work was foregrounded more by condensing some of the background information. Despite this criticism, the monograph illustrates Sarantidis’s breadth of comprehensive research.

In terms of the production of the monograph, the black-and-white images throughout the volume were clear overall. A few images used from other publications were slightly blurry, and several illustrations could have benefited from being larger and having color so the reader could better distinguish the identified sites and different land uses of the islands. Readers should also be aware that some of the grammar and sentence lengths can obscure the meaning. This is likely due to decisions and copyediting limitations from the publisher.

This monograph serves as an important interdisciplinary contribution to the study of fortifications in the ancient Aegean. The first four chapters are useful resources for the history and bibliography of ancient warfare, ancient fortifications, and Miletos. The original research and interpretations presented in the last three chapters provide a comprehensive and compelling argument about the Milesian island fortifications’ protective, agricultural, and economic functions. Sarantidis’s achievements in fieldwork on the Milesian islands should be commended and hopefully will encourage more discussion on the interactions between islands and mainlands across modern borders.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (3–18)

2. War and Defense in Antiquity (19–40)

3. Miletus and Its Territory in Antiquity: A Historical Analysis (41–86)

4. The Fortifications of Miletus and Milesia (87–120)

5. The Fortified Installations of the Milesian Islands: Topographical and Architectural Analysis (121–80)

6. Towards an Interpretation of the Milesian Insular Fortified Installations (181–224)

7. Conclusions (225–28)

Excursus (229–44)

Appendix. Table of the viewshed analyzed sites with geographic coordinates in Greek grid (GGRS 1987) (245–48)

List of Illustrations (249–56)

Bibliography (257–78)

Summaries in Greek and Italian (279–88)

I. Maps (289–306)

II. Plans (307–38)

Analytical Index (339–66)


[1] Two edited volumes relevant to regional studies of the Dodecanese and southwestern Turkey have also recently been published: Birte Poulsen, Poul Pedersen, and John Lund, eds., Karia and the Dodekanese, vol. I, Late Classical to Early Hellenistic: Cultural Interrelations in the Southeast Aegean (Oxford: Oxbow, 2021); John Lund, Poul Pedersen, and Birte Poulsen, eds., Karia and the Dodekanese, vol. II, Early Hellenistic to Early Byzantine: Cultural Interrelations in the Southeast Aegean (Oxford: Oxbow, 2021).


1. In your conclusion you say that the construction of the fortified installations on the Milesian islands (fifth to third centuries BCE) was during a time of increased population pressure at Miletos. In the monograph, you also stress Miletos’s role in land exploitation, particularly in the Hellenistic period. Your connection to the population pressure made me wonder if it’s possible to say what other identities besides Milesian garrisons were present at the various locations (e.g., Milesian families who moved from Miletos due to the growth, islanders who gained Milesian citizenship, a mixture)?

Generally speaking, the answer to this question is far from clear due to the absence of research on the islands and consequent lack of evidence. For the city of Miletos and Milesia, research has yielded more information for the period in question. Carian presence has been assumed in the extreme southeast of the Milesian peninsula during the Archaic period based on graves and compounds (buildings of a Carian pastoral population) discovered there, which have been associated with the Lelegian settlements mentioned by Strabo, and on names of groups within the population of Milesia that point to a non-Greek origin, though the historical existence of such (at least their Carian identity) is doubtful. Whatever the case, the Carian population within the region of Miletos was fully assimilated by the beginning of the second century BCE when Miletos concluded the sympoliteia treaty with the city of Pidasa (187 BCE). At this time, Miletos practically absorbed Pidasa, terminating, therefore, not only the Hellenization process of the Carian element that started centuries ago but also the political autonomy of the Carian territory. Besides the treaty with Pidasa, Miletos permanently occupied Myous in 188 BCE through the Peace of Apamea; Myous’s inhabitants migrated to Miletos around that date (ca. 185/184–180 BCE). Earlier, in the late third century (234/233 and 229/228 BCE) Miletos enfranchised more than 1,000 Cretan mercenaries, who were settled with their families (ca. 3,000–4,000 people) in the Hybandis and on the islands. The latter is the only non-Ionic ethnic group that can be acknowledged—with all due caution—to have been settled on the islands based on epigraphic testimonies. At this point, it is important to stress that circulation from one island to another, especially in the Hellenistic period, was seriously hampered by the constant danger of piracy, which was suppressed only in the Imperial era; as a result, a great deal of the islands’ population, especially the population of the larger ones lived within the walls or sought refuge and protection in periods of danger by the garrisons that were stationed there. Concerning earlier periods, what we know for sure about the islands is that the linguistic and cultural background of their inhabitants was Ionian Greek, a reality dating back to the Ionian migration. Until now, there is no piece of evidence pointing in other directions or doubting this picture.

2. You say that the use of fire signaling between the island fortified installations was unlikely, although it cannot be ruled out. You propose that messages could have been sent via ship, but I’m wondering if there is a disadvantage to this in that it takes time to sail from one island to another. Can you expand upon the advantages of having intervisible forts and using ships to transmit messages, if fire signaling was not used?

I am afraid that weighing advantages over disadvantages is an approach that does not necessarily deliver the correct response to this issue since the current state of research and the data from the Milesian islands do not allow for a straightforward answer. Undeniably, the use of fire and smoke as military signals is well attested in the literary sources, and forts are most often positioned in dominant locations that enjoy extended views, so such an interpretation makes sense. However, not every fortified installation served military purposes (i.e., as a fort), and, what is more, signaling over large distances (15, 20, or 30 kilometers), which is the case for the Milesian insular installations, presents technical difficulties in the transmission of discrete signals due to weather conditions. On the other hand, a large fire would be easily discerned among intervisible sites in the island world of Miletos, and this is a principle that could have been exploited by the islanders to alarm each other in cases of urgency or if something went wrong. However, this is as far we can go without speculating. Hence, what I suggest is that since detailed military messages could not be transmitted accurately over such distances due to natural drawbacks and the familiar technological deficiencies of the ancient material culture, the safest and only option for the transmission of such messages in the particular insular environment would be via ship. For these cases, this option—even far from optimal in terms of time and process, I am afraid—is the only one. Therefore, the intervisibility between fortified installations (with non-military or mixed purposes) need not necessarily imply the operation of a signaling network in the military sense. Still, it should be viewed as an essential pattern in the topographical situation of fortified sites.

3. I thought the reconstructions of the fortified installations were very helpful in imagining how these buildings could have looked and how they were situated in their landscapes. Can you tell me more about the artist who made the drawings and your collaborations? How did you work together to produce these images?

Really glad for this question and your comment, since my intention in including these drawings in the monograph was a more cohesive and complete appreciation of the fortified installations within their natural surroundings. The illustrator of the reconstructions is Michalis Zotos, a really skillful architect–restorer; we attended the same M.Sc. course at the National Technical University of Athens in 2009. During our studies and through our regular collaboration for the needs of the interdisciplinary program and in other projects after this, a mutual understanding and “working chemistry” developed, which paved the way to a lasting friendship. This is the wider context in which we started to discuss the creation of reconstruction drawings for each fortified installation. The initial sketches were produced within a week, during which our discussion mainly focused on the perspective of each sketch, the sizes, and the arrangement of architectural features on display (e.g., apertures, battlements, tower rooftops, and the height of the constructions). We reviewed, further, documentation that has already been produced, and we examined the natural surroundings of each fortified installation through photographs, cartography, and digital elevation models. The rest was a matter of Michalis’s perceptive skill and drawing talent.

Thank you very much for your responses! I enjoyed your book and learning more about your work.