Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.02

Christopher P. Jones, New Heroes in Antiquity: From Achilles to Antinoos.   Cambridge, MA/London:  Harvard University Press, 2010.  Pp. ix, 123.  ISBN 9780674035867.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Pauline Hanesworth, University of Wales, Lampeter (


[The reviewer apologises for the delay in the appearance of this review.]

Neither gods, nor spirits, nor mortals and yet containing aspects of all three, heroes occupy an ambiguous place in the religions of the Greek and Roman worlds. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scholarship on hero cults was wide ranging and explained the phenomena in terms of ancestor worship or downgraded localised deities.1 More recently, scholarship has narrowed its focus, concentrating on individual aspects of hero cult, such as sacrificial rituals or the cults of poets, on specific authors, such as Pindar, and on geographic areas, such as Attica.2 Such focused analyses have paved the way for Jones’ contribution to the Revealing Antiquity series.

Ostensibly focusing on new heroes, that is historical mortals elevated to heroes, this deceptively small book in fact covers huge temporal, geographic and thematic fields (so much so that the following review cannot hope to cover all the salient points). Analysing the evidence for the worship of both mythological and historical heroes from the Homeric epics to the late Roman Empire, Jones carefully, and with insightful precision, negotiates literary, iconographical, epigraphic and archaeological material in order to place the heroisation of mortals in its socio-historical contexts. In so doing, Jones looks at the reasons behind heroisation, what it means to be a hero, the main markers (practical and theoretical) of hero cult and replies to the prevalent argument that the creation of new heroes indicates a decline in the concept of the hero and his/her worship. Rather, Jones argues throughout, the expansion and changes in hero cult are the result of an evolutionary process in which religious activity adapts to changing socio-cultural environments.

Jones establishes the foundation for this argument in his first two chapters. By analysing the portrayal of those figures designated as ἥρωες in the poetic tradition and in the ‘related but separate’ (21) cults of local heroes, Jones outlines the main themes and ideas about heroes inherited by the classical Greeks. Whilst allowing for a multiplicity of meanings, dependent upon genre and poetic intent, Jones illustrates in ‘Poetic Heroes’ that by the classical period, heroes were closely associated with warriors, that they tended to attain a special afterlife that separates them from ordinary men and that there was an increasing importance placed upon the role of virtue in attaining heroic status and its attendant afterlife. Whilst his dating of this latter connection of virtue and a specialised afterlife back to Hesiod’s Works and Days (6) may be questioned if one maintains that line 166 of the text should be retained, thus giving two possible afterlives to this virtuous heroic race only one of which is specialised, Jones nevertheless is convincing in the rest of his analysis.

In ‘Local Heroes’, in which he looks both at those cults that appear to stem from Homeric poetry and those that seem to derive from localised deities, Jones then establishes the terminology, such as enagismos (working from the foundation provided by Ekroth’s monograph,3) and ritual actions, such as libations towards the ground, sacrifice and feasting, that surround the worship of heroes. He also looks at the thought processes behind the worship of, and the special status afforded to, heroes, who are often buried within city walls, and the recurrent iconography, especially that of the snake and the horse, accompanying these figures.

These two strands of heroes meet, Jones argues, in his first type of new hero, that of fallen warriors such as the Spartan Brasidas. The argument that the characterisation and the theory and practices behind the worship of poetic and local heroes lie behind, indeed sometimes in front of, the heroisation of war dead is convincing. Yet, Jones does much more than argue for an evolution of a religious practice in this chapter. By focusing on the heroisation of oikistai, warriors and statesmen, Jones illustrates the importance of political and cultural environments in the types of figures heroised: the decline of the city state results in a movement to heroise individual politicians who have helped communities, such as Euphron of Sicyon, rather than collective groups. Jones also illustrates the gap that can exist between the existence of the markers of heroisation and the act of heroisation itself. For example, Jones adds to the markers of heroisation explored in his first two chapters, games and ἡρῷα; however, often these markers are attributed to figures, particularly fallen warriors such as those who died at Marathon, whom the Greeks seemed reluctant to call ἥρωες (27). In such situations, Jones first allows for differing perspectives: whilst Athenians may be reluctant to heroise, Marathonians may have no such qualms; and second allows for a ‘range of possible existences’ (27) between mortal and full hero. Such an approach seems eminently sensible and accounts for the often conflicting evidence.

It is in Jones’ next chapter, ‘Athletes, Poets, Philosophers’, that this ‘range of possible existences’ truly comes into play. In this chapter Jones illustrates that, contrary to Fontenrose and Clay, although many athletes, poets and philosophers receive cult, few seem to attain the level of hero, and some, like Theagenes of Thasos, instead attain the level of god.4

Jones’ argument against a decline in the concept of the hero takes flight in ‘Private Heroes’ and ‘Greek Heroes in a Roman World’. In these chapters, Jones surveys individuals who are heroised owing to both private and public initiatives. Analysing, inter alia, ἡρῷα, Totenmahl reliefs, cultic activity and funeral speeches, Jones convincingly illustrates that whilst some uses of ἥρως may have been formulaic, equivalent to the modern ‘my mother was a saint’ (49), many, as in the case of Peplos of Ephesos, are accompanied by the markers of hero cult established in the earlier chapters. These uses, then, are imbued with traditional meaning. Jones dates the beginning of the societal change whereby wealthy individuals begin to heroise to approximately 200 BC, citing the example of Epicteta of Thera (50-1). However, one wonders whether this change could be dated even earlier had Jones considered such material as the South Italian vases or the so-called Orphic Gold Tablets. Consider the 4th century BC tablet from Petelia that tells the deceased, ἄ[λλοισι μεθ’] ἡρώεσσιν ἀνάξει[ς].5 Whilst the analogising of the deceased to heroes in certain of the Gold Tablets does not signify hero cult, it does indicate that private individuals could attain something approximating heroic status at an early date. Such practices, concerned as they are with private individuals rather than say the kings or men of excellence of Pindar (10 and 38), must have contributed to a society in which individuals not connected to state activity can receive hero worship.

All of the arguments proffered in chapters one through six coalesce in Jones’ analysis of ‘the most far-reaching of all heroizations of antiquity’ (75), Hadrian’s Antinoos. Comprising all of Jones’ markers of hero cult, appearing in various places on his ‘range of possible existences’ depending on geographic location, combining a resurging of the worship of the classical heroes, argued for in chapter six, with a hero cult that is both publicly and privately led, Antinoos’ cult is, Jones illustrates, the ultimate example of the worship of new heroes.

Finally, after a brief but detailed look at Christianity, in which he argues both against the notion that saints represent a continuation of pagan heroes and for the Christian adaptation of mythological heroes into exempla for moral conduct, Jones turns to the much-debated problem of living heroes. Although Jones claims that ‘it is not impossible that “heroic” honors were sometimes bestowed on the living’ (94), his tone and presentation suggest he has doubts.6 The evidence for Hagnon at Amphipolis, he implies, is misinterpreted: ta Hagnôneia oikodomêmata could simply signify buildings associated with Hagnon with no implication of cult (26). The evidence for Euthymos of Locri is ‘too late and too embroidered to make him a convincing example of a new hero.’ (40) The cases of Dion of Syracuse and the three flatterers of Demetrios Poliorcetes could be explained by way of a vote during the recipient’s life for anticipated post-mortem cult (94-5). Only Nicias of Cos is accepted unambiguously as a ‘living hero’ and he is called an ‘exception’ (96). As is typical of much of this monograph (with notable exceptions), Jones is not explicit as to his stance in certain debates. Rather he impartially presents the evidence whilst gently nudging the reader towards the “correct” interpretation. The nudging in this case suggests that the evidence for living heroes is ambiguous, often dubitable and when secure indicates extremely rare situations.

Jones’ seemingly impartial presentation of evidence makes this a very useful book, one which I envisage becoming an important reference point for any future work on heroes in the ancient world. It is a pity, then, that there is no bibliography or index locorum. Whilst the reader can mine the detailed endnotes for such information, navigation of this dense book would be eased had these items been included.

Nevertheless, despite the vast range of material, debates and evidence that Jones covers, he never loses his reader or a thread of argument but instead manages to negotiate his way across and through his topics with skill and fluency.7 Indeed, precisely because of this large scope and careful approach, Jones’ New Heroes in Antiquity will be of interest and use to students and scholars of not only hero cult but also Greek and Roman religion and ritual, literature, epigraphy and, more generally, political and cultural history.


1.   See Farnell, L. R. (1921) Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality. (Oxford: Clarendon Press) for perhaps the broadest study of this type in which heroes are subdivided into seven categories. It is with Angelo Brelich’s groundbreaking 1958 study Gli eroi greci. (Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo) that the tide turns towards socio-historical analyses of these cults.
2.   Sacrificial rituals: Ekroth, G. (2002) The Sacrificial rituals of Greek Hero-cults in the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods. Liège: Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique (BMCR 2003.06.28). Cults of the poets: Clay, D. (2004) Archilochos Heros: The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (BMCR 2005.09.32). Pindar: Currie, B. (2005), Pindar and the Cult of Heroes. Oxford: Oxford University Press (BMCR 2007.01.31). Attica: Kearns, E. (1989) The Heroes of Attica. London: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies.
3.   Ekroth, G. (2002) The Sacrificial rituals of Greek Hero-cults in the Archaic to the early Hellenistic periods. Liège: Centre International d’Étude de la Religion Grecque Antique.
4.   Fontenrose, J. (1968) ‘The Hero as Athlete’, CSCA 1, 73-104 and Clay (above n. 2).
5.   Graf, F. and Johnston, S. I. (2007) Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. London and New York: Routledge, # 2 (pp. 6-7). See also pp. 94-136 for the idea that some tablets promise an afterlife similar to Hesiod’s heroic race, one of Jones’ markers of hero cult. For certain South Italian vases aligning the deceased with heroes see Söldner, M. (2009) ‘Naiskoi für Menschen. Eine heroisierende Fiktion im unteritalischen Vasenbild’ in Schmitz, C. and Bettenworth, A. (ed.) Menschen - Heros - Gott: Weltentwürfe und Lebensmodelle im Mythos der Vormoderne. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 35-52.
6.   Thus arguing not just against Rohde, Reinach and Wilhelm (see p. 116 nn. 1-3) whom he cites but also against the more recent analysis of Bruno Currie (Pindar and the Cult of Heroes. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005). See especially pages 158-200.
7.   This fluency is aided by an almost flawless editing process; I noticed only four typing errors on my reading: p. 49, second paragraph, should read ‘one of these words’ rather than ‘one or’; p. 100 n. 2 should read ‘Herodotus: 2.53.2’ rather than ‘2.53.Z’; and p. 116 n. 1 should read both ‘p.357’ rather than ‘p.257’ and ‘wiederholender’ rather than ‘widerholender’.

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