Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.49

Cristoforo Grotta, Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte. Historica 9.   Roma:  Giorgio Bretschneider editore, 2010.  Pp. xvii, 331;  26 p. of figures, 36 p. of plates.  ISBN 9788876892479.  €210.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lela M. Urquhart, Georgia State University (

In Zeus Meilichios a Selinunte, Cristoforo Grotta provides a comprehensive synthesis of the evidence related to the sacred area and cult practice of Zeus Meilichios at Selinous, the major Greek settlement in western Sicily founded in the second half of the seventh century BCE. Starting from the observation that this sacred area has nearly always been seen as subordinate to the neighboring sanctuary of Demeter Malophoros, this work argues that it was instead an independent precinct which, during the Greek period of Selinous, was devoted largely to the practice of non-official, ‘familial’ cult under the protection of Zeus Meilichios. It starts by clarifying the two main phases of use for the sanctuary, which follow the more broadly established lines of Greek and Punic occupation at Selinous. It then contributes a detailed summary of the site’s various structural components and different categories of mobile material culture, while condensing into a single package the wide range of previous scholarship on the area and on the Meilichios cult more generally.

Grotta undertook this investigation through a penetrating analysis of unpublished notebooks from the early excavations of contrada Gággera at Selinous. An appendix (Appendix I, pp. 234-277) transcribes the text of these notes, and a number of never-before-published illustrations and plans of the excavation trenches and materials are included among the 62 black-and-white figures and plates. The practices of early archaeological research often pose insurmountable interpretive problems due to lack of attention to stratigraphy and the uncertain provenance of artifacts. Grotta’s study of the archival material, his identification of lapses in logic in the early records, and his re-interpretation of evidence based on these errors contribute an impressive example of how to overcome such challenges.

A preface by Antonietta Brugnone and an introduction by the author briefly state the goals of the volume. They also explain the rationale behind the choice to work specifically on the Zeus Meilichios site: the heterogeneity and fragmentariness of its primary documentation and the incongruity of previous scholarly interpretations. Grotta himself emphasizes a desire to produce a ‘fitto dialogo’—a “close discourse”— among the disciplines of archaeology, epigraphy, and the history of religion.

Chapter 1 (pp. 1-6) outlines the history of excavations in the contrada Gággera, beginning with the discovery of the site in 1874 during fieldwork in the west necropolis of Selinous. Grotta proceeds from the relationship traditionally assumed between the area of Zeus Meilichios and that of Demeter Malophoros located immediately to its south. Two phases are highlighted: 1) the campaigns conducted between 1915 and 1926 by Ettore Gabrici, to whom fell the first major interpretation and systematic publication of the entire Gággera complex; and 2), Vincenzo Tusa’s exposure of the ‘campo di stele’ area in 1969.

Chapter 2 (pp. 7-21) provides a description of the major structures and occupation phases of the Demeter Malophoros complex. While previous studies have also summarized the structural components of this sanctuary,1 Grotta’s description stands out for its combination of clarity and detail on the specific locations and formal characteristics of, for instance, the megaron, the propylaia, the peribolos walls, etc. a full bibliography includes both primary and secondary sources for each of these structures. Scholars familiar with the historiography of the Malophoros precinct will especially appreciate Grotta’s balanced discussion of the various occupation phases proposed by previous scholars, particularly those by Gabrici and an edited version more recently adapted by Martine Dewailly.2

Chapters 3 and 4 look more closely at, respectively, the zone customarily described as the ‘sacred area of Zeus Meilichios,’ and the specific ‘campo di stele’ sector within it. In ch. 3 (pp. 23-37), Grotta summarizes the architectural features of the precinct, merging a description by Hulot and Fougères in 1910 with investigations conducted by Gabrici (1927), Tusa (1969), and Vaccarello (1986).3 He identifies two sectors within the broader Zeus Meilichios sanctuary that appear distinct in terms of formal characteristics: to the east, the ‘recinto di Zeus Meilichios,’ inside which were a naiskos, a portico, and several small wells (‘pozzetti’); and to the west, on the sandy hill-slope, the ‘campo di stele.’ Chapter 4 (pp. 39-61) discusses the characteristic features of the ‘campo’ in more depth, paying particular attention to the distinctive ‘three-betyl altar’ and the stelai themselves. The chapter also traces the development of one of the major arguments concerning the Zeus Meilichios area: i.e., that it experienced cultic continuity from the beginning of the sixth century BCE through the post-409 BCE destruction, as based on the continuous practice of stele dedication. Grotta shows that this assumption fails to recognize typological differences between the stelai-- inscribed or non-inscribed, iconic or aniconic, and those stones that are unshaped (‘informe’)-- and that it overlooks the inherent contradictions within Gabrici’s early reports regarding their original find contexts and stratigraphy.

Chapter 5 (pp. 63-100) can be divided into two sections. The first (pp. 63-87) provides a digest of the excavation notebooks between 1915 and 1922. The second (pp. 87-100) draws some general observations from them. The re-reading of these notes, above all else, clarifies the stratigraphy of the Zeus Meilichios area and situates the various classes of material found during the excavations—including the various categories of stelai, but also the famous defixio tablets—within their appropriate contexts. Grotta, for example, shows that only five examples of lead defixiones are actually mentioned in the excavation notebooks, in contrast to reports of twelve examples by other scholars.4 Moreover, all five defixiones were found within an alluvial sand layer that overlay the ‘campo di stele;’ as such, they were not included in the original ritual context of the ‘campo’. Grotta thus demonstrates that by re-reading the excavation notebooks, the various categories of material encountered in the Zeus Meilichios area can be seen to constitute an even more complex ritual space than is normally assumed. The review of the notebooks also makes it clear that there were two major, non-overlapping phases of use in the Zeus Meilichios sacred complex. The more recent centered on the ‘recinto’(temenos) and fell within the post-409 BCE phase of Selinous’ history; Grotta thus implies that all of the structures found within the precinct should be considered strictly Punic. Earlier worship, however, was concentrated in the area designated as the ‘campo di stele,’ and dated from the beginning of the sixth century into the second half of the fifth century BCE.

Chapter 6 (pp. 101-136) supplies a catalog of 16 inscriptions recovered from the Zeus Meilichios area. Each entry refers to the original provenience of the inscription, the date of its discovery, the physical attributes of the inscribed stele, the Greek inscription itself, the paleography and the formula, a translation of the Greek (into Italian), an approximate date for the inscription, and its current location. Particular attention is given to Inscription 14, which references the “Milichios of the patria (phratria?) of the daughters of Hermias and the daughters Eukleas.”

The bulk of Grotta’s argument is set out in Chapter 7 (pp. 137-219), beginning with a re-examination of the linguistic debate surrounding the epithet meilichios. The chapter then moves to a broad overview of the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence for the cult in other parts of the Mediterranean. This discussion allows the author to demonstrate the widely attested ties that Zeus Meilichios has to purification rituals as well as to the protection of the oikos, the individual family, and ancestry. The chapter then addresses the issue of connections between the rituals described in Selinous’ lex sacra and the archaeological and cultic evidence from the ‘campo di stele.’ The author concludes by arguing that the votive formulae of the stelai and names reveal the “origine esclusivamente greca dei dedicanti” and that an emphasis on familial, kinship, or associative relationships within Zeus Meilichios worship is distinguishable. This suggests to the author that the god at Selinous seems to be related more to the worship and protection of ancestral customs and ‘familial cults,’ than to broader concepts of civic or political Selinuntine identity.

The concluding chapter (pp. 221-232) brings together the claims of the preceding chapters into a very tightly argued summary. Grotta reiterates the independence from the Malophoros sanctuary of the Zeus Meilichios area, as well as its non-monumental and votive character. He also repeats his main point about the nature of Zeus Meilichios worship at Selinous: that it did not continue into the Punic phase of the city’s history and that it appears to have been the prerogative of small family or kin groups. Grotta elaborates upon this theory in the final chapter, making the case that the non-inscribed and ‘informe’ (unshaped) stelai or stones frequently found in the precinct are signs of recurring worship and ritual continuity at the site of the original “act of votive dedication,” represented by the inscribed stelai. The chapter concludes that the cult area at Selinous can perhaps be taken as a paradigm for understanding instances of Zeus Meilichios sites in other parts of the Mediterranean world.

In addition to Appendix I (described above), a second appendix (pp. 279-291) catalogues, in geographical order, inscriptions with references to Zeus Meilichios or his cult. This is followed by a bibliography (pp. 293-321) and two indices (pp. 325-331) of sites and mythological names that will facilitate the process for those who wish to consult the volume mainly for its review of Zeus Meilichios worship outside Selinous and of other deities. The volume ends with a series of plans and drawings relevant to Selinous and other sites, as well as numerous photos of the area during excavation and of materials found there.

One of the great strengths of this volume is that it gathers together a body of scholarship that has been either scattered across preliminary reports, dense catalogs, and general studies of Selinous or is simply unpublished. For scholars interested in the history of Selinous, the development of religion in the archaic Greek polis, or manifestations of religious practice in the colonial world of the west Mediterranean, this book will be a welcome addition.


1.   For example, V. Tusa, “Il santuario della Malophoros: un santuario pansicano” in M.G. Amadasi Guzzo et al. (eds), Da Pyrgi a Mozia, studi sull’archeologia del Mediterraneo in memoria di Antonia Ciasca, Rome 2002; see also F. De Angelis, Megara Hyblaia and Selinous. Oxford, 1998, and C. Parisi Presicce, “I santuari ctoni di Selinunte,” in P. Minà (ed), Urbanistica e architettura nella Sicilia greca, Palermo 2005.
2.   E. Gabrici, “Il santuario della Malophoros a Selinunte”, in Monumenti Antichi, v. 32, 1927; M. Dewailly, Les statuettes aux parures du sanctuaire de la Malophoros à Selinunte, Naples 1992.
3.   Gabrici, op.cit.; V. Tusa, “L’attività della Soprintendenza alle Antichità della Sicilia Occidentale nel quadriennio 1963-1967,” Kokalos, v. 14-15, 1968-1969, pp. 380-420; P. Vaccarello in S. Tusa et al. (eds), “Rapporto preliminare sulla II campagna di scavi,” Sicilia Archeologica, v. 60-61, 1986, pp. 13-96.
4.   contra M. Jameson-D.R. Jordan, R.D. Kotansky, A lex sacra from Selinous, Durham, NC 1993.

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