Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.11

Noel Robertson, Festivals and Legends: The Formation of Greek Cities in the Light of Public Ritual. Phoenix Supplementary Volume XXXI. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp xvi + 287. ISBN 0-8020-5988-0.

Reviewed by Bob Develin, University of Ottawa.

The chance to review this book was accepted eagerly. The name of the author, to judge from his numerous and extensive articles, promised challenging interpretations and the title suggested an important contribution to social history, linking the life and nature of the polis with its festivals and rituals and the legends which went with them and could be used for the elucidation of a state's self-identity. These elements are all present and we are explicitly offered a facet of social history. While I can imagine that there will be those sympathetic to R.'s approach, I was both disappointed and annoyed. This reaction is unlikely to surprise the author, as we may judge from the sentence which concludes his introduction, a sentence I initially found appropriate, but ultimately suspected may have been at least partially meant to disarm criticism (which it will not): "Whether the present treatment commends itself remains to be seen; there is, in any case, every incentive for others to do more, or do better."

Let me suspend suspicion (which can never guarantee justification) and indicate the areas of my discomfort. This is in many ways, despite its radical treatment of the evidence, an old-fashioned work. It reminds me of the trend established at the end of the last century (and still common enough) to regard the evidence for archaic Greece and Rome as a target for demolition: the literary sources in particular couldn't have known anything and you are free to dump anything you don't like. The partisan simplification is mine, the techniques used by the practitioners are more subtle and have a pretended air of scientific enquiry. I myself have been an object of such rhetoric as talk about "the fundamentalists who believe in miracles" (p. 62); if we glance to the bottom of the page to the ending of n. 107, we find "Scholars are furtively aware of aetiology as an enormous shadow that falls across all their efforts; but they dare not confront the giant." I hope those who choose to disagree with R. are not cowed or deflated by such remarks. It is not fundamentalist to scrutinise testimony and find it credible.

The confident, aggressive tone as it operates here is indeed one of my complaints. Polemic in measure can be fun, and I can pass by other gratuitous comments in the notes. As one who has spent time in that glass house, I shall leave the stone to lie. I pass on rather to accompanying baggage of the approach. There is no bibliography. Certain works are indicated at the beginning as to be cited by short title, but when other works are also so cited after first appearance, this is to perpetuate a most unhelpful practice. In the footnotes articles are referred to without title; a bibliography would have helped the reader know from their titles whether the whole subject of the article is germane or merely a passage in a piece of different concentration. We do not need to create more hardships for our readers when the argument is difficult enough already. And in any case, I was on occasion left with the impression that R. had decided he would give us a note only if he felt like it.

The latter, I think, is part of a wider aspect in R's method. Each chapter is begun with a synopsis, spelling out the essence of what is to follow and indicating the sectionalisation of the developing treatment. This is useful, but it gives a false sense that we will at every stage be led methodically to an interpretation demonstrating the central thesis. Careful examination suggests that such points emerge rather from the author's conviction. They are not exactly obiter dicta, for they are surrounded by discussion, but the reader is left to be persuaded by rhetoric and insistence. There is a more than usual frequency of alarm words such as "obvious," "must," "plainly," -- even a potentially desperate "as plain as day" (p. 240). For an inscription we have "the only reasonable supplement" (p. 29); R. may be right, but supposedly reasonable men have not so restored. Other items are simply thrust at us. For example, we are given no argument as to why we should accept that the name Demeter derives from "demo-meter," i.e. "'Mother' of the settled community" (p. 30); at p. 229 n. 27 the meanings of the names Pelops, Oidipous, Otos and Ephialtes are explained as references to animals without the slightest indication of support.1

It will be understood that as I proceeded through the book, I was ever less ready to be persuaded. Indeed, I found the last chapter least impressive, as it seemed clear that R. had become besotted by his thesis. His aim was to take the evidence of festivals and see in them not an expression of abstract values, but a form of aetiology, to interpret them as embodiments of history and legend which have been distorted or invented on the basis of the actions involved in the festivals. Thus, rituals can, if interpreted his way, become evidence for the development of political organisation and warfare. The connected thread is found in stages of assembly for the citizens in arms and the concomitant enrolment of young men now come of age as citizens and warriors. This concentrates around Apollo, who essentially presides over this process, Athene, who is connected with weapons and ships, and Zeus, the weather god with a martial aspect (p. xvi). We begin (p. 3) and end (p. 252) with a festival of Apollo as an enrolment ritual.

First to Athens. The first three chapters deal with the Hekatombaia, Synoikia and Panathenaia, which we are to see as reflecting successive stages in the muster and enrolment process through the archaic period, corresponding also to the development of the city and the shifting of the relevant centres. R. seems reasonable in his topographical discussions; they go together with some cute maps at the end of the book. At each stage we are to see the detail of legend and history projected from or affected by the action of the festival. So at the first stage the Theseus legend sees the hero welcomed at Athens and, in his transition from boyhood to manhood, becoming enrolled as a citizen. It worries me that with the second stage the Athenians are supposed to have got things entirely wrong. For the Synoikia did not originate with the sort of synoikism envisaged in the Theseus story, but in fact mean "the coming together of houses." For R. sees the formation of the Attic polis as the combination of phratry lodges from Attike -- an idea which in itself deserves serious consideration. We are told at p. 58 n. 99 that the proper term for a ritual celebrating a synoikismos would be "synoikisteria," which suggests that the uncomprehending Athenians did not even perceive the proprieties of their own language.

As "trittys" ought to mean something composed of three parts, each revised Ionic phyle at this stage became a unit of three of the twelve phratries. This organisation contributed to the regional conflict of the sixth century, and so it was Peisistratos who made the next change. The story of his taking arms away from the citizens is "illusory" (p. 117), though n. 102 already supplies evidence against the supposition that this is merely something ascribed in general to tyrants; the argumentation is bad. The phratries were curbed, the traditional muster suspended, and the Panathenaia, with its newly instituted procession in arms, now became the enrolment ritual. The story was created to correspond.

So not only are elements of the Theseus legend to be seen as meant to provide aetiology for actions in the festivals, but even potential historical data, here attached to Peisistratos, must be seen in the same light. Such is the proposed perspective. For example, "The Theseus legend is attached at every point to Athenian cults and festivals. Sometimes the connection is secondary: when the story was already abroad, some ritual or other was pointed out as a re-enactment of the story, and the ritual in turn caused the story to be told in a new light" (p. 131).

I have not done full justice to R.'s discussion, nor would this be possible without the detailed examination which a review cannot present. I do not think it is fundamentalist faith that prevents me from jettisoning seemingly historical events of the sixth century found in Herodotos, though I imagine I shall make more effort to defend them now, should it seem appropriate to do so. Other such events suffer in the fifth chapter, on the Olympieia. R. is more ready than I to see fictions and source contradictions.

The fourth chapter concerns the Oschophoria, with reinterpretations, e.g. concerning the Salaminians, more stated that argued. But enough of Athens. The key is made and is to help unlock the truth about festivals elsewhere. Chapter 6, therefore, concerns the Spartan Gymnopaidiai, wherein nakedness demonstrates the physical maturity of those becoming citizens/warriors; it was earlier called Hekatombe, it is argued. Chapter 7 is entitled "Polyandrion Burial and the Fate of the Dioscuri." Chapter 8 deals with the festival of the Parparonia of the Argives, which is connected with Sparta and its conquest of Thyrea, but in fact it goes back beyond that. The battle of Thyrea became "a popular legend which historians situated in time according to their own lights" (p. 184). Again, I cannot dissect this in the detail which would be necessary, but must point out unease at the supposition that the Spartan seizure so grossly misrepresented actually took place in the early fifth century. In Chapter 9, "A Festival of Cenchreae and the Battle of Hysiae," the latter with its date of 669/8 goes by the board (the baby with the bathwater?).

With Chapter 10 we move to Messenia. It now comes as no surprise to be told that the legends of the Messenian Wars were shaped by the festival business of the Ithomaia; "the correspondence between the festival and the legends is interesting for its own sake, as a kind of social history" (p. 219). And so to the final chapter, concerning a festival of heroes at Phigaleia. Pausanias and Polyainos have stories about Spartan capture of the town. In the former Phigaleia is liberated by a group of Oresthasian champions, in the latter the Spartans march in disguised as friends: "This is a patent aetiology of an armed procession" (p. 232). Once more I must restrain the urge for counter-argument. The point is that with a will to make sense of the accounts as history, which is not R.'s approach, it can be done -- this does not mean, of course, rescuing every detail. Given my characterisation of R.'s method, an exclamation mark had to accompany p. 234 n. 3, where of someone else it is said he "builds a massive edifice of conjecture." The language of an oracle is said to be important (p. 237) -- it is never quoted. On p. 241 there is mention of marriage into a Phigaleian family prominent in the fourth century -- no names. There is great confidence about the nature of the writers from whom material derives.

Perhaps the extreme of R.'s view is that the gods themselves were created from the ritual: Kronos was excogitated from the Kronia (p. 29). The idea itself of a celebration of newly matured warriors is worth considering, though the question of what constituted a citizen in the archaic age is not something to go without discussion, as it does here. R. may say that in the fourth century "many Athenians belonged to phratries" (p. 61), but recent discussion has wondered if all Athenians did. These are areas where the scholarship wobbles and all readers must be on the alert for them. Assessment will also be aided by an awareness of what can be achieved by parti pris, tendentious translation and a generous capacity for disbelief.

Individual perspectives on research directions will condition reactions to this collection of connected studies. Those who feel as I do ought also to appreciate that there are yet insights of potential value and that often a negative response can serve to promote better arguments for one's own viewpoint or to suggest further angles of reproach. For all that I come away from this review unsatisfied and with genuine dismay, I do nonetheless feel that I have been challenged and that in my own reconstruction of archaic Athens I will find that I have profited.


  • [1] I use my preferred spelling of Greek terms. R. uses Latinate forms. This may be a matter of taste, but isn't there something odd-looking about Curotrophus, Enneacrunus and the Atthidographer Demo?