Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.03

Jessica Piccinini, The Shrine of Dodona in the Archaic and Classical Ages: A History.   Macerata:  EUM-Edizioni Università di Macerata, 2017.  Pp. 203.  ISBN 9788860565471.  €14,00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Anna Kouremenos, University of Tübingen (anna.kouremenos@gmail.com)

The shrine of Dodona was one of the foremost religious sites in the Archaic and Classical periods in Greece. Located on the fringes of the Greek world beyond the Pindos mountain range, it gradually acquired a Pan-Hellenic reputation, second only to the shrine of Delphi. This book stems from the author’s DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford with additional research conducted in subsequent years.

In the Introduction, Piccinini lays out the history of Dodona´s discovery by focusing on travel accounts from Pausanias to the nineteenth century, with Lord Byron being the most famous visitor and the site featuring in his Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage, Canto II, 53. Dodona captured the imagination of generations of historians and antiquarians, not least because its precise location was unknown until it was identified correctly by the architect Thomas Leverton Donaldson in 1819 and later by Christopher Wordsworth, the bishop of Lincoln.

In Chapter 1, the author presents the place of Epirus in the Greek world and Dodona´s central point within it. For most of its history, the region was on the periphery of the Greek world and ancient writers, most of whom were Atheno-centric or Sparto-centric, did not concern themselves much with it. However, the geographical and cultural isolation of Epirus did not hinder pilgrims from various parts of the Greek world from paying a visit to the shrine of Dodona. The earliest activity in the area dates to the Bronze Age, when a population that may have been composed of transhumant shepherds occupied an area that later became the bouleuterion, as remnants of structures and portable objects suggest. Traces of occupation in the area appear to have ceased by the Early Iron Age, however, when the rise of cultic activity, attested by the presence of bronze tripods and cauldrons, iron double axes, spearheads, and small pendants, indicates that there was both votive and perhaps communal dining activity on the site. According to the author, the presence of figurines of people and horses dating to this time period suggests that local elites made these offerings, although I am not convinced by this point as no further evidence is offered to support this view.

Chapter 2 focuses on the presence of Euboeans in Dodona. In the second half of the seventh century BC, the fame of the oracular sanctuary at Dodona rose and seems to have attracted Euboean visitors in particular, who likely frequented Dodona during their colonization ventures on both sides of the Adriatic and Ionian seas. The Euboeans were probably not simply visitors to the site but may have set up settlements along the Epirote and Illyrian coast. Ancient authors (Lycophron, Plutarch) state that Euboean men settled on the nearby island of Corcyra but later were expelled by the Corinthians. The presence of Euboean settlers in Corcyra and Epirus is absent from the archaeological record, so Piccinini puts forward the attractive hypothesis that the Euboeans in Epirus and the Ionian Islands were not stable colonizers but transient seafarers with no interests in establishing firm trade-network settlements there.

Chapter 3 focuses on the main players in the Epirote-Illyrian area during the Iron Age – the Corinthians. They were attracted to the Epirus region due to its metals – mainly silver – and iris roots (used in perfumes). Corinthian offerings to the sanctuary of Dodona were made as early as the late 8th- early 7th century BC, but it is difficult to discern whether these were from elite Corinthians, Corcyreans, or from local Epirote elites that had acquired them from Corinth through trade or gift-exchange. The close ties between Dodona and Corinth are best illustrated by a scholion to a verse in Pindar’s 7th Nemean, where a certain Aletes re-founded Corinth after consulting the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. This legend bound the two regions together and cemented the contact of Corinth with northwest Greece.

The region around the shrine is the subject of Chapter 4, “The Greeks of the North-West.” Dodona’s place as an oracular shrine was paramount for the populations living in its vicinity. Both local individuals and poleis made dedications and consulted the oracle, with Apollonia in Illyria and the island of Corcyra perhaps being the most prolific. In the case of the latter, public consultations preserved on lead tablets and an anathema dedicated by the polis are a testament to the close ties between island and sanctuary.

Chapter 5 focuses on Spartan activity at Dodona. Both material and literary evidence indicates that the Spartans frequented the shrine from the 6th century BC onwards. Some of the most prevalent offerings were large bronze craters and statuettes, although whether these were produced in Laconia or Dodona is a matter of speculation, with the author favoring the former as a place of production. Literary evidence also points to a series of consultations made by Spartans, the most prominent of which is that of Lysander and his plot to bring about a constitutional change. Further consultations by the Spartans pertained to battles, with the most well-known one being the request for the outcome of the battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. A series of oracular tablets also confirm that individuals from Laconia and Messenia went to Dodona to consult the oracle about private matters.

Chapter 6 deals with the presence of Boeotians in Dodona, in particular their ritual of tripodephoria; every year, a tripod was stolen overnight from a Boeotian shrine and delivered to the sanctuary at Dodona. The Boeotians performed the tripodephoria ritual as an expiation rite from the last quarter of the fifth century BC. Recently, a Pindaric fragment mentioning the tripodephoria of the Boeotians at Dodona and the mythical wandering of the Boeotians and Thessalians sixty years after the Trojan war was discovered in an Oxyrhynchus papyrus. This fragmentary poem, which probably belongs to Pindar’s tripodephoric melos, confirms the arrival of the Boeotians from Thessaly and the close ties of the former’s relations with Dodona.

Chapter 7 highlights the relationship of Athens and Dodona. The first attested Athenian to visit the shrine was Themistocles, who as the guest of the Molossian king in 480 BC, consulted the oracle about a private matter. After the mid-5th century BC, Dodona attracted many Athenians, as the shrine’s role in several ancient dramas suggests (i.e., The Suppliants; Women of Trachis; Prometheus Bound). Athens’ relationship with Dodona probably reached its peak after 331 BC, when Zeus Dodonaeus was frequently consulted by Athenians, as both literary sources and archaeological remains within the temenos indicate.

The book would have greatly benefited from the inclusion of additional illustrations, as well as a conclusion tying the chapters together. Apart from two maps in the Introduction and Chapter 1 respectively, there are only two additional images (on pp. 91 and 110) to illustrate a plethora of texts and artefacts mentioned throughout the text. There are several typographical errors and missing or repetitive words throughout the book (e.g., on p. 87, “Their recourse to oracles for private and private matters was particularly intense.”; p. 93, “In either case, whether Lysander’s plot was invented or a real, the fact…”; p. 111, “Oxyrincus” instead of Oxyrhynchus) but these are only minor. Another point that would have made the book stronger would have been the inclusion of a chapter on comparisons between the shrine of Dodona and other shrines of Zeus in the Greek world; although Piccinini does mention Nemea, Kalapodi and other shrines in passing, the reader is left with the impression that Dodona was perhaps the pre-eminent shrine in the Greek world, which was not the case. Despite these minor problems, however, the author is to be commended for producing a publication that is both accessible and concise, well-written and well-cited in addition to being informative for both academic and general readers.

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