Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.11.11


Pontus Hellström and Brita Alroth (edd.), Religion and Power in the Ancient Greek World. Proceedings of the Uppsala Symposium 1993. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1996. Pp. 204. SEK 174.00. ISBN 91-554-3693-5 (pb).


Reviewed by Jon L. Berquist, Westminster John Knox Press, Jberquist@aol.com.

This book collects the papers given at Uppsala during a conference, October 7-10, 1993, sponsored by the Department of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. These essays combine the department's interest in archaeology and history with questions about religion and power. But these rubrics hardly do justice to the variety in this volume. Religion refers to medley of ritual and cultic practices, as well as iconography and a range of ideological issues. The essays treat power broadly, more as social organization or stratification than as power per se. The sixteen chapters together constitute a multitude of explorations of how archaeological investigations and their findings about infrastructure can provide insight into concerns of social structure and ideological social superstructure.

As such, some of the chapters concern themselves with significant methodological matters. How can artifacts bear upon social practices? How can an interpreter -- whether historian, sociologist, or scholar of religion -- examine a sculpture and draw conclusions about belief structures or patterns of social interaction? As a whole, this collection is highly optimistic about these methodological moves. Each essay presents positive results; at times, the authorial optimistic certainty left me skeptical, but overall most of the arguments are persuasive. Space does not allow a full engagement with each essay. Instead, I have elected to discuss a few key chapters at length, and to offer a brief description of the others.

The first chapter, "Power and Ideology on Prehistoric Cyprus" by A. Bernard Knapp (9-25), provides an excellent introduction to the book in that it is one of the most methodologically self-aware essays within the volume. This is despite his own claim that he is not, strictly speaking, dealing with Greek world or with religion. Knapp is offering a defense of his earlier assertion that Bronze Age Cyprus was not a "temple-based" society, but instead that the ritual and the production of social symbols were part of the political economy of the island. More than half of essay, however, provides a methodological framework for discussing these issues. He understands religion (or, rather, ideology) and power (whether political, economic, military, or social) as unrelentingly interwoven. After surveying some of the philosophical and social scientific discussion of ideology, he focuses on the difficult connection between ideology and archaeology, or "how meaning and mentalité may be found in the material record" (13). He answers this question with care (and with a wealth of citations that provide a wonderful starting point for any historian wishing to pursue this more anthropological and sociological line of thought). Ideology and the political economy combine to dominate physical resources such as labor and land as well as symbolic resources such as the interpretation of the supernatural or the society's status system. These actions upon the physical resources may create traces that archaeologists can follow and that may enable them to argue back to the ideology involved.

Mary Blomberg and Göran Henriksson ("Minos Enneoros: Archaeoastronomical Light on the Priestly Role of the King in Crete," 27-39) examine the religion based on observations of the sun and moon. They conclude that the Mycenaean king had important priestly functions tied to this religion (which had been based on inherited elements of Minoan culture) and that the religion served to legitimate the king as the proper authority in the new Mycenaean order.

Catherine Morgan ("From Palace to Polis? Religious Developments on the Greek Mainland during the Bronze Age/Iron Age Transition," 41-57) focuses on ritual, defined as "a means of transmitting cultural regulations about ethical relationships within the community and between humans and the divine" (45). She understands ritual as not necessarily static, but as changing with the fluctuations in the culture at large and political realities. As such, ritual becomes a way to support rulers' positions, and to enforce the requisite allegiance from their populace. After an examination of many shrines in the mainland, she concludes that ritual and religious practice appropriated some earlier forms while at the same time shifting to accommodate changing locations of political power. In many cases, she notes that the slow collapse of centralized (and centralizing) power resulted in many of the rituals moving from the central places to the local households.

François de Polignac ("Offrandes, mémoire et compétition ritualisée dans les sanctuaires grecs à l'époque géometrique," 59-66) discusses the prestige offerings in ninth- and eighth-century Greek regional sanctuaries. These are often used to argue for the cults' positions of centrality during cities' rise to power. Instead, de Polignac examines the local shrines where the ritual practices of shared meals provided a site for the construction of local and regional alliances and other relationships that shaped the politics of regions. In so arguing, the essay allows social function to make a distinction between archaeological sites that would otherwise be difficult to distinguish.

Ulrich Sinn ("The Influence of Greek Sanctuaries on the Consolidation of Economic Power," 67-74) addresses sixth- and fifth-century shrines located on borders between cities' spheres of influence. Sinn argues that these sanctuaries were jointly funded by two cities and provided a way to create a neutral boundary territory. Thus, sanctuaries created "sacred channels" between cities, which may have involved safer travel and increased opportunities for trade. A map and three photographs demonstrate the strategic placements of these shrines as well as the visibility that they enjoyed from some distance. Sinn's thesis is provocative and creates multiple points for further expansion, since it deals with the geography of frontiers and borders, the architecture of sanctuaries, inter-urban trade and travel, the functions of religious sites, and the deployment of domestic economy. But the essay as it stands is merely suggestive, rather than presenting a basis for reflection on the larger-scale issues at play.

Irad Malkin ("Territorial Domination and the Greek Sanctuary," 75-81) directly addresses de Polignac's treatment of sanctuaries situated far away from any of the Greek cities. Malkin introduces time into the historical reconstruction, arguing that the sanctuaries were not built at the same time as the cities. In other words, at the time of the shrines' construction, they were not half way between cities. Malkin argues that there was a more religious rationale for the founding of these extra-urban sites. The religion called for the gods to be given the best lands, regardless of their location, so the people built sanctuaries in out-of-the-way places, and roads were subsequently developed to connect these sites with other cities. Over time, the road system caused cities to develop along their lengths. Malkin reverses the direction of de Polignac's causation. Whereas de Polignac argued that the location of cities caused the construction of shrines in between them, Malkin asserts that religious imperatives caused the construction of shrines, which in turn, over time, contributed to the building of cities.

The conflict between these two articles points to one of the underlying difficulties within this collection and its methodology of interpreting religion and power. The task of asserting what happened is problematic enough, but the task of suggesting why things happened the way they do raises much deeper issues. The question of causation is always a hypothetical matter, a construal of what happened by the later human interpreter. Causation is a thing to be tested with the predominance of evidence, always looking for an evaluation of that evidence, and even then making claims about causation reflects the criteria of interpreter, not any objective element within the ancient world. This book is valuable in that it shows the methodological morass clearly; had more attention been given to the depths of this problem the book would have been even more helpful in advancing the scholarship of the ancient world.

Frank J. Frost ("Faith, Authority, and History in Early Athens," 83-89) asserts that in early Greece there was universal faith in the gods because the religion was so deeply embedded into the social authority structures of kinship and community. During the seventh century, there was no centralized city or state government, and so the leaders of the dominant families, who were also the chief priests, enforced an aristocratic rule. In later centuries, politics emerged as local persons strove for wider influence, paralleling a reinvention of cult and history as legitimation for new leaders hand in hand with a growing centralization.

Robert S. Garland ("Strategies of Religious Intimidation and Coercion in Classical Athens," 91-99) examines ways that Greek religions enforced religious obedience. Seers and other sacred officials could denounce the disobedient, impiety trials could be convened, priests could curse individuals or groups invoking divine retribution, or the gods could intervene on their own initiative. After exploring these means and the literary records mentioning them, Garland argues that late fifth-century Athens experienced a decline in piety and obedience to the gods.

H. A. Shapiro ("Athena, Apollo, and the Religious Propaganda of the Athenian Empire," 101-113) opposes the traditional view of Athena's religious ascendancy after 454 B.C.E. by arguing for Apollo's key role in Athenian religion after that time. Nine photographs of vases with art of deities adds to the development of this idea, explained as an Athenian propaganda as a fair and righteous empire, symbolized by Apollo's depiction as a god of law.

W. R. O'Connor ("Theseus and His City," 115-120) argues that Theseus symbolized two different Athenian self-understandings: Athens the homogenous integration of various Attic peoples (represented in the Synoikia) and Athens the city openly receptive to diversity through its acceptance of outsiders and immigrants (represented in the Metoikia). Thus, Theseus functioned as a symbolic unity of two competing civic identities.

Tullia Linders ("Ritual Display and the Loss of Power," 121-124) asserts that large votive offerings not only indicated the wealth and power of the donor, but could function as a compensatory device for those who had lost power. Thus, at least some of the major donations represented attempts by persons who had recently lost social status to reverse their decline.

Hugo Montgomery ("Piety and Persuasion: Mythology and Religion in Fourth-Century Athenian Oratory," 125-132) develops the notion of oaths to gods as a powerful rhetorical device within Athenian speeches. Examples include curses as well as charges of blasphemy or impiety. He portrays the Greeks as a people of sufficient religiosity that they could be effectively swayed by arguments about the gods' involvement in current affairs.

The essay by one of the editors, Pontus Hellström ("Hecatomnid Display of Power at the Labraynda Sanctuary," 133-138), demonstrates clearly my hesitations regarding the collection's methodological moves. There are profound difficulties experienced when one uses archaeological evidence to make arguments about individuals' practices. Hellström explores the sanctuary at Labraynda, a site in southwest Asia Minor that was part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. From 377-344 B.C.E., the city was ruled by two brothers, first Maussollos (377-352 B.C.E.) and then his younger sibling Idrieus (351-344 B.C.E.). Hellström concludes that "I believe that Maussollos used the building project at Labraynda as a display of power primarily to an international audience," matching the ancient sources' depiction of him as "a very ambitious man with far-reaching plans for the future," whereas "Idrieus ... gives no impression of having had an international audience in mind" (137). Such certainty gives me pause. I would argue that we cannot know what these two brothers had in mind; we cannot even know what effects their edifices had upon others. At most, we can assert our own constructions of what might have happened, what we think happened, but never the wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. On these terms, Hellström's construction is persuasive; his version of what might have happened seems to account quite elegantly and powerfully for the evidence as he presents it. But his apparent claim to know the minds of these ancient politicians, on the basis of uncritical readings of third-party ancient sources and restorations of one prominent public building, renders me suspicious of the entire depiction's plausibility. This is despite Hellström's mastery of the relevant Hecatomnid evidence, the attractiveness of the results, and the powerful possibilities unleashed by his notion that the change between the brothers' goals of their rule reflects a shift from imperial expansion to consolidation, a shift for which I have argued concerning other places within the Persian Empire.

Uta Kron ("Priesthoods, Dedications and Euergetism: What Part Did Religion Play in the Political and Social Status of Greek Women?," 139-182) exemplifies an effective combination of archaeological and literary sources in social reconstruction. Women participated more fully in Greek religion than in most other areas of public life, and yet most of the literary sources were written from male-dominated points of view and do not adequately reflect women's involvement in the cult. Kron notes that women attended mixed festivals as well as public celebrations for women only. Despite the paucity of literary evidence for women's involvement, the epigraphic and statuary evidence shows that many women enjoyed places of honor within the many cults, including priesthoods or roles very similar to those of priests. The dedications in many temples or other places demonstrate that women were often recognized as major donors to religious sites. These donations could also take the form of euergetai or public benefactions. By the second and first centuries B.C.E., these roles for women had increased, and the epigraphs refer to women with positions such as magistrates and archons. Kron argues that women's influence began in the religious sphere and moved into public secular life, such as governmental roles. This use of epigraphs and statues to balance literary sources produces a much more satisfactory depiction of women's participation in ancient Greek social life.

Charlotte Wikander ("Religion, Political Power and Gender: The Building of a Cult-Image," 183-188) argues for a change in gender roles represented by the procession of Ptolemaios II Philadelphos during 270s B.C.E. In this ritual of public religion, the role of the queen, Berenike, was pronounced. Wikander correlates this with an increase in dynastic power over aristocratic power, resulting in power concentrated in the few hands of the dynastic family. The restriction of power in society as a whole gave greater power to a few women, as a by-product of this large-scale social change. This new role for a woman was in the public religious sphere, since that was one of the few arenas open to women.

Burkhard Fehr ("The Laocoon Group or the Political Exploitation of a Sacrilege," 189-204) considers a statue of Laocoon and his two sons, which Pliny states was once owned by Titus, the son of Vespasian. By analyzing the body language of these figures in comparison with other statues of this period, Fehr argues that the snakes of the statue intend to kill Laocoon, then his younger son, and only then his elder son. This created a possible analogy to Claudius and his sons Britannicus and Nero. Fehr claims that Titus was aware of this analogy and used the statue as political propaganda to support his own claim to the throne. This article, as is true of many others in this collection, asserts insights into mentality that seem impossible to justify, as can be seen from the start of Fehr's concluding paragraph: "I have speculated on some thoughts that Titus' guests may have had in front of the Laocoon group, more precisely, on these guests' suppositions about thoughts that Titus probably expected them to have in that situation. I cannot prove these expectations of Titus' -- certainly a delicate matter, which he probably commented upon, if at all, only very ambiguously" (204). Despite his demurral, Fehr not only speculates on Titus's guests' thoughts, but on their motivation for having such thoughts. This seems, at best, to be a very tenuous chain of inference from one statue to the mentality of these many people.

It is perpetually difficult to summarize a collection of essays. Clearly, specialists in a number of periods and locales will find rich insights in this volume, and all those who work within the ancient world can learn from the methodologies advanced herein, as well as from the excellent documentation of primary and secondary sources and methodological discussions. One would wish for further and more consistent treatment of the methodological issues, or for a recognition of religion's ability to contradict and oppose other social powers. At the end, the book raises highly important questions about our modes of construction and reconstruction of the ancient world, and its range of answers will provide significant starting points for the debate that should follow.