Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.08.26

Lee E. Patterson, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece.   Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2010.  Pp. xiv, 255.  ISBN 9780292722750.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Naoíse Mac Sweeney, University of Leicester (


In recent years, there has been considerable scholarly interest in myths about origin, descent and identity in the ancient Greek world.1 Studies have highlighted the innovative and strategic use of such myths, as well as their astonishing variety and flexibility. The focus of Patterson’s book is on myths that enabled cities to claim ancient kinship with each other, usually by arguing a genealogical connection between mythic ancestors or civic founders. Such myths, were an important part of interstate diplomacy and politics.

Patterson’s volume offers a good introduction to the topic, and presents current thinking in an accessible and approachable way. In addition, Patterson also contributes to this body of scholarship by tackling an issue which has not received enough attention: the popular reception of such myths, and the extent to which they were believed by the general population. Patterson is not concerned with the veracity of the various kinship myths he discusses in the book. Indeed much of the volume examines in detail the invention of traditions, and the strategic creation of mythic fictions. Rather, Patterson’s main interest lies in how these stories were embraced by the populations who were both audience and subject.

In the first chapter Patterson states that his aim is “to answer the question of why the Greeks offered myths as facilitators of political action, specifically in the context of interstate relations” (p.3). He establishes his interest in ‘degrees of credulity’ and the extent to which people may have believed the myths featured in kinship diplomacy.

The second chapter addresses this question directly, considering the issue of how myth was viewed in the Classical and Hellenistic Greek world. Patterson argues that myth was largely understood as a form of early history, and that no distinction was drawn between mythic and historical time. At the same time, he recognises the fluidity in Greek mythic traditions, and notes ahigh tolerance for variant and alternative stories, while asserting that “firm belief in tradition can be born out of fluid thinking” (p.44). Over the course of these two chapters, several examples are cited to illustrate the points made, including: the Return of the Heracleidae (27ff), the recovery of the bones of Theseus (39ff), and the establishment of games at Magnesia on the Maeander in 221 BC (1ff).

The third and fourth chapters explore examples of kinship diplomacy described in the literary sources. The third chapter discusses three key passages: Herodotus (7.150) describing the potential kinship links between Persia and Argos through the figure of Perses;Thucydides (2.29) denying kinship links between Athens and Thrace through the figure of Tereus; and the letter (1 Maccabees 12) reportedly sent by the Jewish High Priest Jonathan claiming kinship with the Spartans. In contrast to these instances of kinship claims as a means of making political alliances, the fourth chapter focuses on kinship claims made to legitimise conquest and territorial ownership. This chapter considers the competing claims of Athens and Megara in their dispute over the ownership of Salamis, and the Spartan justification for the conquest of Messenia implicit in the myth of the Heraclidae.

The fifth chapter focuses exclusively on the kinship links apparently claimed by Alexander the Great at various stages during his reign. According to historians such as Arrian, Plutarch and Diodorus, Alexander seems to have connected himself with both Achilles and the Trojans, and also with the god Dionysus whilst he was in India. Patterson points out that it is not only instructive to consider the circumstances where Alexander made use of kinship diplomacy within the wider Greek world and in India, but also the places where he conspicuously did not. Patterson points out that potential kinship links could have been argued to legitimise the conquest of the Tyrians, the Egyptians and the Persians, but that there are no records of these opportunities being taken up (p.92ff). The use of kinship diplomacy seems to have been appropriate only in specific contexts and with specific peoples.

Patterson concludes this section of the book by considering how often conquering powers used kinship myths as a way to appease their new subjects. He suggests that the type of top-down assertions of mythic kinship discussed so far in the book must have had their limits. From the perspective of the general population, myths pertained to self-perception and identity, and established stories would have prompted stronger and more emotional reactions than newly invented ones. From the perspective of the conqueror, Patterson adds, kinship was not seen as the only or even necessarily the most legitimate, basis for territorial claims. Conquest was a claim in itself (p.107).

The two following chapters focus mostly on epigraphic material from the Hellenistic period. Patterson argues that instances of kinship diplomacy found in civic inscriptions and sanctioned by civic councils and assemblies imply a certain level of acceptance from the wider population. Myths found in these sources cannot be said to have been imposed from the top down as in many of the cases described in the literary sources. In the sixth chapter, Patterson discusses inscriptions outlining kinship diplomacy between Teos and Crete, Magnesia on the Maeander and Cephalonia, and Cytenium and Xanthos.

The seventh chapter introduces Pausanias into the mix, arguing that his text can be mined for local traditions and stories, which Pausanias collected on his travels. His reports concerning local traditions, Patterson suggests, offer another source of evidence for what myths were widely accepted and had popular support. However, Patterson avoids the potential problem of relying on a later source for earlier period by basing much of his argument on epigraphic sources, and resorts to Pausanias only in instances where he offers further elaboration on a kinship link already attested by inscriptions. Amongst the examples he discusses are: the Aetolian League’s connection with Heraclea on the Latmos, Phocis’ links with Tenos and Magnesia, and Pergamun’s relationship with Tegea. Several foundation myths are also mentioned for the Ionian cities of Miletus, Priene and Samos. Patterson asserts that the combination of Pausanias’ testimony and inscriptions show that in many places people were willing to embrace new mythic genealogies and kinship links.

The book ends with an eighth chapter, which summarises the main examples discussed in the previous chapters and revisits once more the question of credulity. Patterson concludes that “innovation often became tradition in ancient Greece” and that people were generally far more accepting of stories which were obviously new and invented than we might expect (p.162). Details and the concept of a canon, he argues, were far less important in antiquity than they are to us now.

Patterson’s book tackles an interesting topic, and draws in an impressive range of Classical and Hellenistic literary and epigraphic examples, although almost all could have been accorded a more in-depth treatment. The overall impression gives the reader a good sense of the range of different types of cases and the flexibility of kinship diplomacy in general, but this reviewer cannot help but feel that something is lost without at least one really in-depth detailed case study. The potential of numismatics to explore public reception of myth is largely unexplored; likewise the forms of cult activity and evidence from votive dedications and onomastics.

Overall, Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece has much to recommend it, and provides a good introduction to an important topic, and one in which much more remains to be done.


1.   See, for example: Clarke, K. 2008 Making Time for the Past: Local History and the Polis, Oxford; Erkine, A. 2005 in E. Gruen (ed.) Cultural Borrowings and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity, Stuttgart; Luraghi, N. 2008 The Ancient Messenians, Cambridge; and several others.

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