Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.55

Michael Scott, Delphi and Olympia: The Spatial Politics of Panhellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2010.  Pp. xix, 356.  ISBN 9780521191265.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Chris Eckerman, University of Oregon (


Michael Scott provides a synthetic overview of the built structures and monumental dedications at Delphi and Olympia from 650 to 300 BC. The book complements C. Morgan’s Athletes and Oracles (1990), which focuses on Delphi and Olympia in the tenth to seventh centuries BC. Scott argues that Olympia and Delphi have been studied primarily for their athletics and oracle respectively, while the material culture and spatial politics of these sanctuaries has been underappreciated. The book has an introduction (essentially a literature review and a description of Scott’s method), a chapter on the regulation of dedications at Delphi and Olympia (precious little is known), five chapters tracing the chronological development of the sanctuaries, a chapter that compares the two sanctuaries, and a chapter that critiques the contemporary concept of Panhellenism. Overall, the book is a notable success. The archaeological bibliography on these two sanctuaries is extraordinarily large and written primarily in French and German; Scott’s synthesis and analysis of this vast amount of research provides a particularly helpful English-language overview of the sanctuaries’ material culture, while offering several novel, illuminating ideas along the way.

In his introductory chapter, “Athletes and oracle—but what else?,” Scott traces a history of scholarship on Olympia and Delphi and situates his own work within it. Some may find his rhetoric in this chapter somewhat unfortunate: instead of stressing the importance of the work that has come before him in different realms, he regularly claims that it was inadequate or misdirected.1 It perhaps would have been fairer for Scott to point out what has been done well and to show how his work will take previous scholarship in interesting new directions. For example, we should not find fault with previous scholars for studying the games at Olympia and oracle at Delphi instead of studying Scott’s ‘spatial politics,’ and, in some sense, it is especially strange for Scott to claim that scholars have been myopically preoccupied with athletics and the oracle when there are countless excavation reports, articles, and monographs on the material culture of both these sanctuaries. Regardless, Scott promises a new approach to the analysis of these sanctuaries, finding it unfortunate that scholarship has focused primarily either on synchronic analysis of individual monuments and buildings (what he refers to as micro analysis) or on the study of the wider landscape (macro analysis; in the case of these sanctuaries, macro analysis regularly focuses on their “Panhellenic” status—Scott will have more to say on that problematic term later). In place of such micro- and macro-level analysis, Scott wants us to focus on the semi-micro—the somewhere in between—or middle-level analysis. Specifically, he wants us to look at the manner in which the development of the sanctuary affects the interpretation of the site and its monuments over time (20). In addition Scott expresses an interest in examining space as a social construct, focusing on the experiential aspects of space. He is, of course, in tandem with contemporary approaches to spatial studies in this regard. Scott’s method and interests, then, seem productive and important from this introductory chapter. We shall see how they play out in the meat of the book.

In his second chapter, Scott focuses on the sanctuaries’ management, examining what dedicators were allowed to do in the sanctuaries. Scott rightly stresses that we often think of Olympia as a Panhellenic sanctuary (whatever that means), but that we would be better in some respects to think of it as an extra-urban sanctuary under the control of Elis (or one of the other poleis that had occasional control of Olympia). Scott argues that Elis had a great deal of control over the placement of votives within the sanctuary, as most readers would expect, but suggests that dedicators had greater say in the placement of their votives at Delphi. What evidence there is suggests that this may be the case, but there is not enough evidence to take the argument very far.

The next five chapters analyze monumental dedications at Olympia and Delphi within a chronological and spatial frame. It is in these chapters that Scott’s middle analysis is most clearly on display. The reader begins to understand, however, why Scott’s middle-level spatial analysis has not been undertaken previously in any great detail. In short, most of what Scott refers to as middle-level spatial analysis is intelligent speculation. For example, we know that the eastern terrace of the Apollo temple was prime real estate within the sanctuary and that dedications placed here would be particularly prominent. The positioning of Gelon’s victory monument to the battle of Himera at the north end of the eastern terrace resonated with the Plataea monument that was positioned more centrally in front of the Apollo temple. These were both victory monuments for wars waged by Greeks against “barbarians” (western and eastern) and surely the viewer who saw the Deinomenid victory monument in relation to the Plataean monument realized that these monuments could be read productively in relation to one another within this space as well as in relation to the other monuments that surrounded them. This is an example of middle-level spatial analysis: the examination of individual monuments not in a vacuum but in relation to their surroundings. The fundamental “problem” with this scholarly method, however, if we should call it a problem (perhaps limitation would be a better choice), is that there is very little that can be known for certain in individual instances. We regularly can say little more than that one monument resonates in some particular way due to its relationship to another, that the dedicator is using the monument to bolster his prestige in some way, or that a monument is participating in one-upmanship with a nearby structure. This is not to disparage Scott’s labor, however; Scott is a very sensitive reader of space and his interpretations of the meaning that can be read into objects by viewing their spatial context are thought provoking. In addition, the extended discussion of individual monuments and their contexts in these five chapters is particularly rich.

In his chapter “Comparing Spaces,” Scott addresses several topics. He specifically looks at the form of management of the sanctuaries, the distance between the sanctuaries and their governing bodies, the physical landscapes that motivated different developments in the sanctuaries, control over dedicatory practices within the sanctuaries, the clearing and destruction of dedications in the sanctuaries, and the relationship between athletic and religious space in the sanctuaries. In addition, Scott analyzes Pausanias’ description of the two sanctuaries; one of the more interesting conclusions that Scott develops here is the manner in which the physical landscapes at Delphi and Olympia affect Pausanias’ narrative tactics. For example, the open, relatively flat space of Olympia allows Pausanias to move more freely in the sanctuary and to shape his narrative thematically rather than in relation to space in the sanctuary. In contrast, the more controlled space of the temenos at Delphi with its structured zigzagging movement encourages Pausanias to narrate in order as he moves up the Sacred Way.2 In closing, Scott also looks closely at the two sanctuaries in the 4th-century BC and ends with a description of the sanctuaries at Isthmia and Nemea, addressing how they relate to Olympia and Delphi.

In his last chapter, Scott critiques the concept of Panhellenism, which I found to be the most interesting section of the book. Scott points out that our standard concept of Panhellenism does not tally well with the facts. For example, we think of these sanctuaries regularly as places that promote Greek unity, but these were spaces that wars were fought over and places that fueled disunity through conspicuous, regularly confrontational dedication. More interesting still is the manner in which contemporary nationalism and ideology has affected the way that these sanctuaries are constructed. For example, Scott insinuates (258-9) that the great French scholar G. Roux privileges Delphi as a Panhellenic sanctuary precisely because the French excavate Delphi. In a very interesting section, Scott provides a history of the term Panhellenism itself. Building on the work of other scholars, Scott points out that Panhellenism is very rare in Greece before the Roman period when the term was developed to fulfill Roman ideological and political needs. In addition, the political situation in Greece in the nineteenth century (when Greece was fighting for independence and developing in the wake of independence) also aided the development of a concept of Panhellenism. Although Scott thoughtfully deconstructs the term and notes its fundamental problems, he also realizes (e.g. 266) that Panhellenism was an important concept, at least rhetorically, already in the early Classical period. For example, Pindar clearly recognizes Olympia to be what we would call Panhellenic.3 At the end of the day, I believe that Panhellenism in the Classical period may not be as fleeting or nonexistent as contemporary scholarship now regularly suggests, but rather an ideal (at least for some) that was rarely attained. This stimulating chapter should do much to make sure that we take into consideration what a truly problematic term Panhellenism is.

The book is equipped with a helpful index and six appendices, which provide chronological lists of buildings and monumental dedications at Delphi from the archaic and classical periods. The book is more or less typo free, and Cambridge UP has done a particularly nice job of producing this attractive book.


1.   For example, “We have allowed the story of the oracle to become the story of Delphi…the focus on Delphi has blinded scholarship to the ways in which the sanctuary’s many other activities both created their own roles for the sanctuary in the wider Greek world and, just as importantly, impacted and engaged with one another” (7); “in scholarship on the sanctuary of ancient Olympia itself…we have also focused our attention too much on the minutiae of organizing, managing and competing in the games” (9). Numerous examples could be cited.
2.   As Scott notes, however, Pausanias narrates in a rather linear fashion also when in the Athenian agora. The physical landscape of individual sites was thus only on of multiple factors that affected Pausanias’ decision how to narrate individual sites.
3.   See, for example, Chris Eckerman, “Pindar’s koinos logos and Panhellenism in Olympian 10,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 151 (2008): 37-48.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 10:18:04, Friday, 20 August 2010