Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.26

Stephanie L. Larson, Tales of Epic Ancestry: Boiotian Collective Identity in the Late Archaic and Early Classical Periods. Historia Einzelschriften 197.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner, 2007.  Pp. 238.  ISBN 9783515090285.  €54.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Fabienne Marchand, University of Oxford (
Word count: 1765 words

This book, derived from the author's doctoral thesis, explores the construction of Boiotian collective identity in the late Archaic and early Classical periods. Genealogy, shared symbolism and dialect (among others) are analysed, mainly in the light of epic tradition. The book culminates with a reassessment of the creation of the Boiotian koinon in chapter 6.

A very short introduction inaugurates the book. Larson explains the structure of her research and the terminology adopted, and justifies some restrictions, notably on Boiotian cult.

In the first chapter Larson explores in great detail, with the meticulousness she displays throughout her book, the tradition of the genealogy and parentage of the eponymous hero Boiotos and provides p. 26-7 two stemmata. She highlights the Thessalian connections of the myth and associates it with the tradition of Boiotian migrations, which she discusses in the following chapter.

In Chapter 3 she offers an original study of early Boiotian coinage and assesses a possible link with a military federation. Larson argues that the Tanagran issues stamped with BOI were minted in the context of a religious festival and dismisses their value as evidence for a military federation in the early fifth century. In the rest of the chapter she focuses on what she suggests should be called the 'cutout shield' (instead of 'Boiotian shield') illustrated on coins, which recalls the Aiginetan turtle. Using literary and iconographical evidence, Larson attempts to establish a link between the shield and the epic Aiakid descendants Achilles and Telamonian Ajax (related in the tradition to the hero Boiotos). In an extensive iconographic appendix she gathers no fewer than 265 representations of Achilles, Ajax (and Menelaos) bearing a shield, in Attic black and red figure vases1 as well as in other media. The fact that in the text references to the LIMC and other publications are supplied instead of the numbers found in the appendix is rather inconvenient. Unfortunately, not a single illustration is provided.2 The association between Boiotia and shields is indeed indubitable, however the association of the cutout shield with Achilles and Ajax, and therefore of the shield depicted on the coins to that of the heroes, is far from convincing. Indeed, the cutout shield is not exclusively associated with Ajax and Achilles (cf. among others the Amazones, or even Herakles, as Larson notes p. 80). Furthermore, as shown in the appendix, both Achilles and Ajax are commonly represented with a round shield.3 The scarcity of material produced in Boiotia representing Achilles and Ajax is particularly striking. Of the two Boiotian vases listed in the appendix (B3 and C13), only the former depicts Achilles with a cutout shield. In this particular chapter, the use of non-Boiotian material to discuss Boiotian identity raises methodological questions. Larson notes in her introduction that 'aspects of collective identity result in part from the perception of outsiders' (p. 13). Even if this is now, as Larson points out (p. 13), a well-accepted view, its application to vase painting cannot be straightforward. One would still have to assume an excellent knowledge of the iconographical repertoire of Attic vase painting in Boiotia, and the two Attic vases depicting Achilles with a cutout shield found in Boiotia (A6 and A49) do not provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that 'its [the cutout shield's] association with the Aiakid Achilles was familiar inside the region' (p. 90). The fact that Attic vase painting is both abundant and particularly well-studied often (mis)leads scholars into taking it as a standard and unfortunately regional fabrics are still too often studied from an Athenian perspective. The very well documented final pages of the chapter devoted to Boiotian manufacture of raw materials and weaponry place Boiotia within a larger geographical context and open out research on economic relations with the neighbouring regions (p. 100-6).

In chapter 4 Larson pursues her quest for shared indices of ethnicity with the Boiotian dialect, using literary texts, such as Korinna, the pseudo-Hesiodic Aspis and the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, as well as inscriptions.4 Her assessment of the Aeolic categorization of the Boiotian dialect could have been helped by a recent article by G. Vottéro,5 who minimizes the Aeolic heritage in the Boiotian dialect, but this article seems to have been published after Larson's book. Larson then tries to defend the view that 'many of the Aeolic features in Boiotian also appear in epic' (p. 116) -- such as the use of the patronymic adjective, of the digamma and the dual.

In chapter 5 Larson examines the use of the regional ethnics Βοιωτοί and Βοιώτιος and emphasizes their primary geographical and cultural (as opposed to political) connotations down to the middle of the fifth century BC. She opens her research with a study of Boiotian cultic identity, starting with the sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios and Athena Pronaia, followed by the Itonion. The latter was a primary religious centre for the later Boiotian koinon and Larson demonstrates here its importance during the Archaic period. Larson then re-examines the earliest epigraphic attestation of the collective regional ethnic Βοιωτοί found in a fragmentary dedication from Delphi (Marcadé, Signatures I 108). Marcadé proposed a date in the fifth century BC, but on the basis of the script Larson suggests instead a date in the mid- to late sixth century. She then argues in favour of a dedication to Τριτογένεια, an epithet of Athena (unattested so far in Central Greece) found in the pseudo-Hesiodic Aspis thought to be a sixth-century Theban work. Finally she offers a rather hypothetical partial restoration of the dedication (p. 142).6 In the section devoted to the epigraphic evidence all sorts of monuments are discussed, and it would perhaps have been worth examining their purpose more carefully (private inscriptions, victors list, dedications, etc).7 On the basis of the script again,8 Larson proposes a later date, in the second half of the fifth century BC,9 for FD III (1) 574, a dedication by Ἐππίδαλος Βοιότιος ἐχς Ἐρχ[ομενο̂], and jumps quite swiftly to the conclusion that this new date 'should be accepted as the safest terminus post quem for the use of the adjectival ethnic as an individual marker of collective identity for a Boiotia' (p. 148). Evidence on the external use of the regional collective regional ethnic is gathered at the end of the chapter. Larson discusses the famous dedication set up by the Athenians after their victory over the Boiotians and Chalcidians in 507/6 (IG I3 501) and emphasizes the contrast between the use of the ethnic in that inscription and in epic. Larson continues with a lively and very close analysis of the stereotype of the 'Boiotian pig' in Pindar's work, demonstrating that 'the Boiotian ethnos was seen as a cohesive unit by the second quarter of the fifth century at the latest' (p. 154). Larson shows then how in the middle of the fifth century a shift in the use of the term βοιωτοί occurs, revealing a change in the way Boiotians were perceived externally. Larson points out that 'non-Boiotians were beginning to comprehend the Boiotian collective not only as inhabitants of a geographic region, as a group meriting derogatory humor, or as individual Boiotian literary figures, but also as a collective that could act together politically' (p. 157). Larson takes as an illustration for this phenomenon SEG XXVI 475, for which she suggests a new context after the battle of Oinophyta in 458, a date that suits her purpose well.10

The shift in the use of the collective ethnic in the mid fifth century leads her to reassess in chapter 6 the date of the foundation of a military and political federation in Boiotia and to argue against the opinio communis of an early date in the sixth century BC. After systematically rejecting the previously alleged evidence for an early date, such as coinage and passages of Herodotos and Thucydides, she proposes to identify the battle of Koroneia (447/6 BC) as the turning point for the creation of the Boiotian federation.

In her conclusion she compares Boiotia with other Greek regions, Phokis, Arkadia, Achaia, and identifies rivalry with Lokris and Thessaly as external catalysts for Boiotian collective cohesion.

The 15-page bibliography reveals the quality and variety of works used by Larson. Two articles by A. Schachter could have appeared there: 'Gods in the service of the state: the Boiotian experience', in Aigner Foresti et al. (eds), Federazioni e federalismo nell'Europa antica. Bergamo, 21/25 settembre 1992. Milano, 1994, p. 67-85 and 'Costituzione e sviluppo dell' ethnos beotico', QUCC 52 (1996), 7-29. Since the publication of Larson's study Angela Kühr's book has appeared, Als Kadmos nach Boiotien kam: Polis und Ethnos im Spiegel thebanischer Gründungsmythen. Hermes Einzelschriften 98. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2006, as well as a relevant inscription for the events of 507/6, SEG LIV 518 = Bull. Epigr. 2006 no. 203, 2, with full commentary by V. Aravantinos, 'A new inscribed kioniskos from Thebes', ABSA 101 (2006), 369-377.

The index of literary sources and texts is particularly impressive, and one needs to emphasize that most of the translations offered are her own. The index of inscriptions is deceptively short: Larson quotes many inscriptions in her footnotes, which are unfortunately not indexed.11 The index consists of a curious mix of museum inventory numbers and publications arranged alphabetically. References to proper epigraphic editions -- such as the standard IG VII, outdated but with no alternative yet - -are too often replaced with other publications which simply draw on IG VII without a revision of the stone, such as Buck's Greek Dialects. Some of the editions indicated are outdated.12 The book closes with a short but indispensable general index.

Larson's prose is clear and fluid, yet sometimes repetitive. She uses with a remarkable integrity a large variety of sources such as coins, inscriptions and vases. Therefore the complete absence of illustrations (including maps) is often frustrating. Larson seems particularly at ease with literary texts for which she systematically offers close analyses. Her extensive use of epic tradition, however, raises the question of poetry as a source for history when it is exploited, as in Larson's book, on the same level (and obviously considered as reliable13) as other sources like inscriptions, texts from Herodotos and Thucydides or coins. Indeed, as she notes in her introduction, the evidence 'is often frustratingly slim and riddled with gaps' (p. 12), but one can wonder whether this justifies so heavy a reliance on literary traditions.14 Larson's book will nevertheless be valuable to scholars interested in regional identities and processes of construction of such identities, as well as to specialists of Boiotia since no comprehensive study on this particular topic has been offered so far.


1.   The standard abbreviation ABV for Beazley's Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters should have been used instead of Beazley 1956 (especially since the book was reissued in 1978), as well as ARV2 instead of Beazley 1963 and Para for Beazley 1971.
2.   Therefore it would have been useful, following the custom, to accompany references to illustrated notices in the LIMC by an asterisk.
3.   See sections C (35 examples), E (7 examples), G (44 examples) and I (6 examples), in other words 92 out of 265.
4.   'Dittenberger 1892' should have appeared as 'IG VII'.
5.   G. Vottéro, 'Remarques sur les origines 'éoliennes' du dialecte béotien', in C. Brixhe, G. Vottéro (eds.) Peuplements et genèses dialectales dans la Grèce antique. Nancy, 2006. See now also H. N. Parker, 'The Linguistic Case for the Aiolian Migration Reconsidered', Hesperia 77 (2008), 431-464 (who seems unaware of Vottéro's works) and C. B. Rose, 'Separating Fact from Fiction in the Aiolian Migration', Hesperia 77 (2008), 399-430.
6.   Larson discusses this inscription in greater detail in a recent article (without any cross-reference to the same discussion in her book), where she offers a slightly different (and tidier) restoration of the inscription: S. Larson, 'Reassessing an Archaic Boiotian Dedication (Delphi Museum Inv. No. 3078)', ZPE 162 (2007), 99-106. See also Bulletin épigraphique 2008 no. 277.
7.   See for example Roesch, Etudes béotiennes p. 442ff.
8.   The criteria established by Jeffery are on several occasions applied quite rigidly, as if the letter forms succeeded each other chronologically and could not be contemporaneous.
9.   The date had already been challenged: see SEG XLVIII 596.
10.   Two other possible contexts are outlined in SEG XLVI 465.
11.   See for example the many inscriptions from Ducat, Les kouroi du Ptoion mentioned in the footnotes p. 132, or SEG XLI 506 text p. 145 and n. 71.
12.   For example p. 116 n. 35 instead of Solmsen and Fraenkel 1930 Roller 1989 no. 87 should have been quoted since the author publishes a new copy, prepared by P. Roesch, of the famous Tanagran inscription related to the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore.
13.   See for example her restoration of the dedication from Delphi (Marcadé, Signatures I 108) on the basis of the Aspis.
14.   See in the index of source the amount of space devoted to the Iliad and Hesiod as opposed to others.

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