Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.20

Denver Graninger, Cult and Koinon in Hellenistic Thessaly. Brill studies in Greek and Roman Epigraphy.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2011.  Pp. x, 210.  ISBN 9789004207103.  $133.00.  

Reviewed by Eric W. Driscoll, UC Berkeley (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Denver Graninger’s Cult and Koinon in Hellenistic Thessaly sets out to show how state cults “played a central role in the successful development of a regional political identity that was vital for the Thessalian League” (1) ca. 196-27 BC, which is to say in the Thessalian koinon as (re)instituted by Titus Quinctius Flamininus following the Second Macedonian War. The book, which is a revision of the author’s 2006 Cornell dissertation, consists of an introduction, a coda, an epigraphical appendix, and four substantive chapters: “Thessalian Histories,” “The Federal Sanctuaries,” “The Thessalian Calendars,” and “International Religion.” It is not an exhaustive study of regional Thessalian cults, but an attempt to mount a focused argument about ethnic and political identity in the late Hellenistic Thessalian koinon.

The introduction outlines each chapter’s arguments, briefly recounts some of the foundational as well as the more recent scholarship on Hellenistic and Roman Thessaly, and details the author’s intellectual commitments: the work is explicitly situated within the “general camp of identity studies” (5), especially as developed by Jonathan Hall’s Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity. One of Graninger’s more important insights concerns the possibility for social tension as well as unity between the koinon as a regional political structure, ‘Thessalian’ as a potentially regional ethnic identity, and sub-regional local identities.

The first chapter, “Thessalian Histories,” offers an analytical history of Thessaly from the Archaic period to 27 BC, when it was incorporated into the new Roman province of Achaia. Graninger focuses especially on the fluctuating political and ethnic geography of the region, detailing the changing relationships between the tetradic ‘core’ of Thessaly and the perioikic periphery.

“Federal Sanctuaries,” the second (and longest) chapter, opens with the observation that the new koinon began to publish important league texts at two sanctuaries: of Athena Itonia at Philia, and of Zeus Eleutherios at Larisa. These are described as federal sanctuaries, defined simply as “any sanctuary which is patronized by a federal league (or apparatus thereof)” (44). Athena Itonia’s cult at Philia stretches back to at least the Iron Age, and previous scholars have often assumed that its federal and “Panthessalian” status in the late Hellenistic koinon sprang from its apparent regional importance earlier in the millennium.1 Graninger severs this relationship, pointing out that evidence of this sanctuary being central for Thessaly begins only ca. 179-165 BC. This crucial insight allows him to examine the ways in which the re-imagination of the cults of Itonia throughout Thessaly, and at Philia specifically, was connected to the formation of the koinon. However, the analysis is not especially robust: there is no doubt that the “Thessalian League was a conscious, deliberate actor and that its patronage of the Athena Itonia sanctuary at Philia… was by design. This sanctuary had to be (re)made into a symbolic center of the new federal league” (64), but the discussion preceding this conclusion, focused mostly on sorting out the archaeological development of the regional shines to Itonia, does not really expand on the insight that the koinon transformed the sanctuary at Philia from a local or sub-regional one into a central federal sanctuary.

The second half of the chapter is significantly more successful and deserves a full exposition; it turns to the cult of Zeus Eleutherios at Larisa, newly made into the capital of the koinon. The earliest evidence for the cult (the first one to Zeus Eleutherios in Thessaly) is from the 180s, presumably because it was founded along with or soon after the koinon. Graninger traces back from the new cult to two “historical paradigms” that influenced it: (a) the cult of Zeus Eleutherios instituted after the battle of Plataia; and (b) the funeral honors given by the Thessalians to Pelopidas, the fourth-century Theban general. Graninger shows that the Second Macedonian War was “ideologically constructed, after the fact, as an iteration of the Persian Wars” (68), allowing Thessaly to wipe away the stain of having medized on that occasion by participating in the “liberation” of Greece on this. The foundation of a cult to Zeus Eleutherios was but a part of this ideological construction. And second, in 364 BC, a joint Theban- Thessalian force under Pelopidas defeated Alexander of Pherai in a battle at Kynoskephalai; Pelopidas, perishing in the battle, was widely mourned and vigorously honored throughout Thessaly. In the years before his death, Pelopidas had most likely been involved in a significant reorganization of the Thessalian League. The events at the beginning of the second century were remarkably similar: a foreign general, Roman this time, won Thessalian freedom by a military victory at Kynoskephalai, and proceeded to reinstitute the koinon, for which the Thessalians apparently remembered him as liberator.2 As a whole, this section admirably elucidates how this choice of cult tied the new koinon to the past while also redeploying that past to solidify Thessalian identity both internally and abroad. The chapter concludes with a detailed discussion of the Eleutheria festival games, which blended international appeal with local events (the ‘Thessalian triad’: bull hunt, aphippolampas, and aphippodromas).

The third chapter, “Thessalian Calendars,” makes the point that calendars are cultural features with important ramifications for identity, not simply uncomplicated tools for marking time. In the Thessalian case, the new koinon adopted a uniform calendar, although the relative paucity of evidence – we have that official calendar and fragments of several local ones – prevents absolute certainty about some issues, most notably whether the League simply adopted Larisa’s calendar or created a new one that blended months from other cities as well.3 Even so, the chapter is able to trace the adoption of the League calendar over time and to discuss regional variation in that adoption. Finally, after analyzing the potential religious significance of the known month names, Graninger contrasts the Thessalian choice to slowly impose a (potentially) blended calendar with that of other Hellenistic koina where a bland, administrative federal calendar (such as the West Lokrian koinon’s Πρῶτος, Δεύτερος,…) was used alongside preexisting local ones.

The book’s focus shifts and expands considerably in the fourth chapter, “International Religion,” which explores the “cultic expression of political identity” (116) abroad. The chapter again falls into two parts. The first deals with Thessalian membership in the Delphic Amphictyony and with the history of that institution. As far as the book’s argument is concerned, the most important conclusion here is that even during the time of the centralized late Hellenistic koinon, the formal political institutions of the state did not – or could not – totally preempt the prerogatives of its underlying ethnos substructure. The second part surveys Thessaly’s participation in international festivals in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Graninger proceeds by examining inscriptions recording names of theorodokoi and theoroi as well as League dedications abroad; before 196, Thessaly remains a “region of cities” (144) as far as international religion is concerned (the Delphic Amphictyony excepted). But in the second and first centuries, the koinon seems to become the primary actor; it is the League, rather than individual cities, that is invited to send theoroi to Mytilene, Kolophon, and elsewhere, and the League that makes a dedication to the Great Gods of Samothrace.4

A brief postscript concludes the work, illustrating the “continued vibrancy” of a local ethnos religion (that of Ainis) beyond the period dealt with in the book proper. And finally, the epigraphic appendix presents Graninger’s new editions of seven victor lists from the Eleutheria and one from a Larisan dramatic festival. The necessity of these new editions is justified in the introduction: they were “presented in IG in a jumble with other victor lists from Larisa,” causing scholarly confusion (3-4, n. 2).5 Each text is accompanied by ample epigraphical notes and (mostly prosopographical) commentary. Although this corpus of texts is chiefly important for Graninger’s reconstruction of the Eleutheria rather than for the overarching argument, their inclusion and the textual improvements are certainly welcome. Cult and Koinon is characterized by strong attention to the strengths and weaknesses of all the relevant evidence and the arguments supported by it. At the same time, the overarching argument is bold; the idea that politics and religion might somehow be connected is not new, but this book approaches it with a distinctive blend of tools from identity/ethnicity studies (in particular the idea of identity tiers, undergirding his chs. 3 and 4) and from the history of Greek religion, as well as a thorough grounding in traditional modes of scholarship.

Yet it should also be said that, whatever their individual merits, each thread of argumentation advanced here suffers somewhat from not being woven together with the others into a satisfyingly coherent whole. The four chapters share a common concern for the interaction between state religion and institutional development, and the introduction highlights an intellectual debt to Jonathan Hall and Catherine Morgan’s work on archaeology, ethnicity, and identity. But it is not always clear how the chapters relate to one another, especially in broader, theoretical terms. The underlying vision does not shine through. Similarly, the material discussed here is only a part of the picture. One of the most well-known pieces of evidence from Hellenistic Thessaly, the inscription recording the mechanism for producing grain to ship to Rome (SEG XXXIV 558), is only very briefly discussed (32). But it is a major source of information for how the League functioned. Likewise, the text refers here and there (e.g. 132-133) to the fact that ethnic Thessaloi appear to retain control of the actual state machinery of the koinon, but nowhere present this evidence in a comprehensive way. Arguably, neither that prosopographical fact nor the grain inscription falls within the ambit of “cult and koinon.” Nevertheless, one could construct a somewhat deeper and more convincing study by relating that sort of administrative and political detail to the developments in cultural practices explored so well in the present volume.

Cult and Koinon, all the same, is a significant contribution to the history of the Hellenistic Thessalian koinon. Scholars working on the dynamic relationships between cultic practices, political structures, and identity will find a lot to think about, as will anyone interested in koina, ethnicity, or Hellenistic history more generally.6

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements – ix
Map – xi
Introduction – 1
I. Thessalian Histories – 7
II. The Federal Sanctuaries – 43
III. – The Thessalian Calendars – 87
IV. International Religion – 115
Conclusion and Postscript: Ainian Futures – 153
Epigraphical Appendix – 159
Bibliography – 183
Index Locorum – 199
Subject Index – 209


1.   See C. Morgan, Early Greek States Beyond the Polis (London, 2003), 135-141, for further information on the relevance of Philia to all of Thessaly in the Iron Age and Archaic periods.
2.   The evidence for this last part is somewhat scanty. Beyond citing Livy’s depiction (42.38.6) of Thessalians thanking a Roman embassy for securing their freedom, Graninger is able to do no more than assert that “it would be surprising if [Pelopidas’] memory was not honored in some way at the Eleutheria in Larisa” (73).
3.   All four known Larisan month names occur in the League calendar, but it does not follow that the two were identical.
4.   The conclusion that international cultic primacy is assumed by the koinon should be treated with some caution; some of it might simply be due to a shift in the kind of evidence we have to work with (as discussed by Graninger on p. 148).
5.   Moreover, autopsy has enabled Graninger to improve the texts in some ways: take his no. 4. In l. 1, he shows that Arvanitopoulos’ reading Ἀ̣θ̣η̣[ν]α̣ῖ̣<ο>[ς] does not match the traces, so he suggests Ἀ̣θ̣α̣μ̣[άν] instead; in ll. 11 and 17 he determines that Arvanitopoulos’ restorations are too short; and so on.
6.   I would like to thank Emily Mackil for help and advice in the preparation of this review.

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