BMCR 2006.10.20

Sanctuaries and the Sacred in the Ancient Greek World

, Sanctuaries and the sacred in the ancient Greek world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xviii, 272 pages : illustrations ; 27 cm. ISBN 9780521809351 $25.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

The purpose of this book is clearly explained in its preface. It serves as an introduction to Greek sanctuaries and the ritual activities that took place in them for beginning undergraduate and advanced high-school students. It does not take a theoretical approach and avoids an analysis of Greek religion; instead, it successfully paints for the reader a concise, well-articulated picture of how Greek sanctuaries would have looked and functioned in their own time.

The book is divided into 14 chapters that fall into three parts. The first seven chapters offer general characteristics of sanctuaries and their activities. The next group examines five specific examples (Olympia, Delphi, Samos, Poseidonia or Paestum, and the Athenian Acropolis). The last two chapters are devoted to later periods, from the Roman conquest to modern times. A glossary and bibliography conclude the book.

The introduction (Chapter I) defines sanctuaries in the most basic terms, outlines the book itself, and offers a very brief overview of Greek religion. Chapter II (“Setting the Stage”) discusses the characteristics of individual gods, explains the time-frame and geographical extent of Greek culture and thus sanctuaries, sets out the literary and archaeological evidence, and notes the role that religion played in Greek society. These two chapters go hand-in-hand in providing the reader with general background.

The following two chapters likewise fit together. Both are concerned with the development of sanctuaries within the context of Greek religion, although Chapter III places more emphasis on chronological development and Chapter IV (“The Siting of Sanctuaries”) focuses more deliberately on space. The latter chapter is especially important for highlighting the different types of sanctuaries, interurban (especially Panhellenic), urban, suburban, extra-urban, and rural. It also allows the author to discuss some of the lesser-known sanctuaries, which do not warrant coverage in individual chapters but nevertheless form part of the overall fabric of sacred spaces in the Greek world.

The final section of Chapter IV, however, seems in several ways to represent a digression. It focuses specifically on the ideas of one scholar, F. de Polignac, and his book Cults, Territory and the Origins of the Greek City-state, as opposed to Pedley’s usual brief mention of others’ views and his references in the text to unnamed “commentators.” Pedley also allocates several pages to summarizing this author’s thesis, which contrasts with the depth of analysis in the book overall, aimed as it is at an audience with “no previous acquaintance with the ancient Greek world” (p. xv). Despite the emphasis given to de Polignac, Pedley offers serious criticisms of his approach, which makes one wonder why this section was even included in his book.

In Chapter V, Pedley builds upon the previous information and begins to narrow his focus by examining the types of architecture that may appear in sanctuaries. He makes it clear that only a few of these features (altar, boundary markers) are necessary and, as he treats each type in turn, notes the variety that they may exhibit. The types are covered in a logical order, beginning with temenos walls and moving to gateways, then examining altars and temples, and finally addressing “other buildings,” including treasuries, stoas, dining rooms, athletic structures and theatres, and fountain houses. His discussion of temples explains their functions as well as their forms, tracing their development from the eighth century and their introduction of architectural orders around 600 B.C. This discussion culminates with a separate section on the Parthenon, which is indeed important for its use of two separate orders (but perhaps Corinthian rather than Ionic columns in the rear chamber) and its thorough embodiment of proportions. Yet such a detailed discussion of one building seems somewhat out of place here. Instead, it would be useful to discuss subsequent developments through other temples, in order to offer the reader a more complete chronological picture. The Parthenon, and particularly its sculpture, would also fit better in the subsequent chapter on the Acropolis.

Chapters VI and VII examine the various activities that take place at sanctuaries. They have similar titles (“Activities and Experiences”) but are distinguished by subtitles. The first chapter deals with rites and rituals, which are treated in the following sections: festivals, sacrifices, dance, dining and drinking, initiation, a broad category of asylum, purification, and healing, a vaguer category entitled “Getting in Touch,” and a specific event, the Thesmophoria. The second chapter deals almost exclusively with physical offerings, except for a final section on prayers, hymns, and songs, which is entitled “Verbal Offerings,” but might belong as easily with the activities in the first chapter. This demonstrates the difficulty of grouping material into distinct chapters that apparently aim for comparable length. Nevertheless, both of these chapters provide an excellent overview of the role of sanctuaries in Greek society and show how closely Greek life was tied to the sacred.

The following five chapters focus on individual sanctuaries, beginning with the great Panhellenic sanctuaries of Olympia (Chapter VIII) and Delphi (Chapter IX). In both cases Pedley traces their development from early times, their legendary history, and their earliest dedications. Here he also discusses the activities that made them so important, the games at Olympia and the oracle at Delphi.

As the author notes (p. 127), “[m]ajor sanctuaries…are the places where critical advances in Greek architecture and sculpture may be observed.” It is therefore appropriate that special emphasis is given to the monumental dedications of both sanctuaries. The Temple of Zeus at Olympia is discussed in some detail, including its architectural sculpture (which had particular meaning for the deity and site) and its cult statue. The other buildings are treated more succinctly, often identified only by location and function, but all are placed within the chronological development of the site. A similar approach is taken at Delphi, although here the early temples are legendary, the sixth-century one is best known for its sculpture, and it is the fourth-century temple that remains on site. Treasuries are more numerous than at Olympia and provide better evidence for architecture and its decoration than the temple; they are thus given greater prominence in this chapter.

Both sanctuaries were well endowed with sculpture and other large-scale dedications. At Olympia, the well-known sculptures of Nike and Hermes holding Dionysos are both illustrated and discussed, while the lesser-known and no longer preserved victor’s dedication of Kyniska is cited as an example of female pride and recognition. At Delphi the author details familiar works such as Kleobis and Biton, the Naxian Sphinx, and the Delphi Charioteer as well as others now known from fragments (e.g., chryselephantine statues), literary sources, and inscriptions. The locations and dates of several of these works provide evidence of their purpose, as offerings to the god that also claimed superiority for the donors’ own cities.

The following three sanctuaries represent some of Pedley’s other types. That of Hera at Samos was extraurban; at Poseidonia sanctuaries to Hera were both urban and extraurban, while that to Aphrodite was suburban; the Athenian Acropolis, fortified already in the Bronze Age, was certainly urban. These also reflect the geographical range of Greek settlement and thus sacred spaces, from Asia Minor in the east to south Italy in the west. Moreover, their histories mimic those of Greece itself.

Thus Pedley traces the ascendancy of the Samian Heraion from the time of the first Greek settlers at the end of the Bronze Age, as demonstrated by the early altars, the construction of a monumental temple perhaps already in the eighth century with two much larger replacements in the sixth century, the Great Altar and perhaps affiliated constructions in the sixth century, as well as sculptural dedications. In a section entitled “New Perspectives” he describes evidence for sacrifice and less splendid votives that have been uncovered in recent excavations.

The chapter on Poseidonia (XI) draws on the author’s personal familiarity with the site, owing in part to his excavations at the Santa Venera sanctuary. He discusses the well-known and well-preserved temples to Hera in the city and mentions the few other structures that existed. What is particularly important here is the lack of foreign imports, which leads Pedley to conclude that temple construction was funded locally and thus reflects a more egalitarian approach than in the Greek mainland (p. 173). This last statement finds substantiation in another observation, that the sanctuary lacked large-scale dedications in stone or any offerings in luxury materials (pp. 174-75). The author also traces the development of the city’s important extraurban sanctuary at Foce del Sele, with particular attention to its sculpted metopes. He draws parallels with the urban sanctuary but notes a contrast in the absence of architectural sculpture there. One should mention that, although they are not preserved, evidence has been found for sculpted metopes on all four sides of the Temple of Hera I (Basilica).1 The territory of Poseidonia has also yielded evidence for rural sanctuaries, including that at Albanella. This last was particularly important during the Lucanian period and represents a local interpretation of the cult of Demeter. The material from Poseidonia thus fills out substantially our understanding of sacred spaces and expands the investigation into the Greek colonies.

In the final chapter on “Sanctuary Histories,” which examines the Athenian Acropolis, the author truly presents a history, summarizing the development of the site from the Late Bronze Age fortification to the dedications of Alexander the Great. Although the Acropolis has been the subject of much recent scholarship, the summary presented here is useful for the beginning student.

The book concludes with two chapters on later developments. The first of these (XIII) picks up with the fourth century (Samos) or Hellenistic period and carries the reader into Christian times; the second (chapter XIV) focuses on the post-classical fate of sanctuaries, including alterations by Christians and others, removal of antiquities by collectors, investigations by travelers and archaeologists, and modern-day conservation. This attempt to bring the reader up to the present makes for a comprehensive assessment of the subject.

For those who emphasize Greek sanctuaries in high school or college courses, this book is long overdue. R. A. Tomlinson’s contribution on the same topic, appropriately titled Greek Sanctuaries, is now 30 years old and long out of print. Moreover, whereas Tomlinson focused primarily on architecture, Pedley blends the archaeological and literary evidence to show how sanctuaries were actually used. This leads to some repetition, as in the discussions of dining at Corinth (pp. 76, 84-86), the Zanes at Olympia (pp. 116, 123, 134), or the dedication of Kyniska (pp. 111, 129), but this is perhaps inevitable. Each chapter has a bibliography for further investigation, although specific references in footnotes would also have been helpful. The book covers a wide range of periods and material and thus accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it provides the basic information to help the reader “understand something of the workings of Greek sanctuaries and their place in ancient Greek society” (p. xv).


1. D. Mertens, Der alte Heratempel in Paestum und die archaische Baukunst in Unteritalien. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern 1993, 30.