BMCR 2006.10.27

The Mother of the Gods, Athens, and the Tyranny of Asia. A Study of Sovereignty in Ancient Religion

, The Mother of the Gods, Athens, and the tyranny of Asia : a study of sovereignty in ancient religion. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xviii, 452 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN 9780520931589 $49.95.

Table of Contents

This book is an attempt to explain a paradox: why were the archives of the Athenian democracy located in a temple dedicated to the Mother of the Gods, a relatively recent newcomer from Phrygia/Lydia? In the way of providing an answer, the author rewrites the history of Greek and Eastern interaction during the archaic and classical period and the connection between divinity and sovereignty in Greek and Eastern thought. This is indeed a very rich book, which manages to deal with a huge number of subjects of central importance. Before discussing the degree of its success, I will give a summary of its contents.

Chapter One (13-55) explores the concepts of sovereignty and divinity. Sovereignty, according to the author is ‘the principle of rulership; it is highest authority, or that which commands obeisance’ (16). Munn argues that before the late fifth century tyranny had ambiguous associations for the Greeks. Tyranny could create feelings of awe, admiration and detestation, but for a long period it simply signified the highest form of sovereignty. He discusses the relationship between divinity and sovereignty and explores athletic prowess as an important link between them. He looks at Greek stories about the Gods, the change of divine regimes and the role of female figures in accomplishing regime change. Finally, he examines the development of Greek philosophy in the late sixth century. After the sudden fall of the Mermnad dynasty of Lydia the Greeks moved from an age of innocence, in which they were adulating tyranny and its relationship to divinity, into a reconsideration of the link between humanity and divinity. The philosophy of Pherecydes, Xenophanes and Pythagoras with its new transcendental conception of divinity should be seen, according to the author, as a reaction to the fall of Croesus and the emergence of Persia.

Chapter Two (56-95) explores the origins of the cult of the Mother of the Gods and her connection to sovereignty in Phrygia. Midas, the Phrygian king, who quickly passed from history into myth, is the centre of a number of stories that explain his wealth and power as based on his close connection and veneration of the Mother. Munn examines Greek literary traditions, the archaeological record of Phrygian monuments and Near Eastern sources.

Chapter Three (96-130) explores the transference of the Mother from a Phrygian into a Lydian context, after the incorporation of Phrygia into the Mermnad kingdom of Lydia. Munn discusses the conception that the power of the tyrant depends on his copulating with a Goddess or her likeness in order to give birth to the future sovereign. He explores stories of copulation between sovereigns and goddesses, the relationship between sovereigns and their concubines, and the relationship between Aphrodite and Kybele. Munn shows that the origins of Phrygian and Lydian sovereignty are attributed to such a conception. The stories of how Gordius acquired kingship by taking as a wife a beautiful girl who gave birth to Midas and was posthumously divinised, or of Gyges’ acquisition of Lydian kingship through the beautiful wife of Candaules are examples of this conception. Munn also reinterprets the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite by arguing that the Lydian dynasty used the story of Aeneas’ birth from Aphrodite in order to justify their claim to power.

Chapter Four (131-77) looks at the connection between mortality, divinity and sovereignty. Munn explores the concept of the sacred marriage between the sovereign and the Goddess or her mortal representatives that leads to sexual perversion and incest; the stories about the grief of the Goddess for the mortality of her beloved; and the sacrifice of beloved objects, in order to achieve the Goddess’s goodwill and support. Using these concepts and motifs Munn explores in a fascinating way the stories told about Greek tyrants. Stories like Periander’s relationship with his dead wife and his mother, Thrasybulus’ advice to Periander to cut off the tallest ears of grain, or Polycrates’ sacrifice of his ring are re-interpreted in order to show the extent to which they accord with the Eastern conceptions of divinity and sovereignty.

Chapter Five (178-220), one of the most fascinating in the book, argues that the creation of the first maps by Anaximander and Hecateus was distinctly influenced by the Lydian conception of the links between sovereignty and divinity. Munn shows that the concept of Asia was originally connected to the area around the Straits and to Lydia. The extension of Asia from this limited area to encompass a continent that contained half the world can be attributed to a cosmological conception of Lydia as the centre of Asian sovereignty.

Chapter Six (221-61) explains the clash between the Asiatic and the novel Hellenic sovereignty during the Persian Wars. After the defeat of Croesus by Cyrus, the Persians appropriated in their own symbolic system the Lydian/Phrygian conception of sovereignty and divinity. Munn starts by emphasizing the puzzling Persian demand of earth and water. Scholars have not been able to explain why the Persians would demand submission in such a way. Munn uses a Lydian funerary inscription in order to argue that earth and water were tokens of submission to the sovereignty of the Mother (it has to be said though that even if the inscription means what Munn makes out of it, it mentions not the Mother, but Artemis of Ephesus and Artemis of Koloe). According to Munn’s reconstruction of the events, the Persian ambassadors with a metragyrtes as their leader asked for earth and water as tokens of submission to the sovereignty of the Mother and as reparation for the burning of her temple in Sardis during the Ionian revolt. The Athenians reacted by executing the metragyrtes, who was conveying Dareius’ message, and they thus declared openly their own distinct claims to sovereignty.

Chapter Seven (262-92) traces the repercussions of the Athenian rejection of the Mother and Asiatic claims to sovereignty. Munn stresses the importance of Delos in the alternative Athenian cosmology and system of sovereignty and of Athenian cults like the Eleusinian Demeter. The divergence between Athenian and Spartan attitudes in the aftermath of victory against the Persians can be explained by their different understandings of the role of Delos in the cosmological system of sovereignty. The Spartans were unwilling to pursue further the confrontation, because they took Delos as ‘the boundary marker of the natural and separate dominions of European Greece and Asia; to the Athenians it was the central gathering place and link that connected these two parts of the world’ (276). Athena became the chief Athenian goddess in the classical period, because, although she could bestow ‘love, wisdom and divine sovereignty’ to her people, in contrast to the Mother of the Gods, due to her virginity ‘she could never endow a line of tyrants with the supreme title of divine birth’ (292).

Chapter Eight (293-316) aims to explain why the cosmological connections between divinity and sovereignty that Munn reconstructs are largely absent from the work of Herodotus. He gives two separate explanations. Given the different approaches of the relationship between divinity and sovereignty and the contrast between the Lydian/Persian concept and the Athenian one, ‘by generally avoiding any discussion of myths about the roles of gods, particularly foreign gods, Herodotus manages to avoid the sensitive issue of evaluating the truth of one tradition as compared to another (300). The other explanation has to do with the context in which Herodotus publishes his work. Given the hostility against Ionian intellectuals who discussed cosmological and theological issues and the extreme sensitivity of the Athenians about religious matters in this period, Herodotus had to be very careful in his statements, in particular given that his primary audience, according to Munn, was Athenian.

In Chapter Nine (317-49) he explains the reasons for the introduction of the cult of the Mother in Athens and the construction of the Metroon as a housing place of the Athenian archives. Munn argues that it was Alcibiades on his return to Athens in 408 who brought the new cult. A year before, he had negotiated a treaty with Pharnabazus at Chalkedon, which many hoped might bring peace. The introduction of the cult was an attempt to propitiate the Mother for the execution of her priest back in 491 and to create a permanent settlement between Hellenic and Asiatic sovereignty. But why did this momentous event leave so little trace in the sources? Because, Munn tells us, only four years later the Athenian lost the war and they wanted to forget the humiliation of the unsuccessful attempt to secure their sovereignty by building the temple of the Mother.

This summary should have made clear the richness of material and breadth of issues examined in this book. It is impossible to discuss all the issues raised in this book; instead, I will focus on three of them, in my view the most important and fascinating: the interaction between Greeks and the East; the importance of momentous events; and the relationship between political and religious thought.

Munn makes an important point as concerns the relationship between the Greeks and the monarchies of Midas in Phrygia, the Mermnads in Lydia and later the Achaemenids of Persia. These monarchies had important interactions both peacefully and militarily with the Greek communities of the Archaic period; their dedications at Delphi, their relationship to Greek oracles, and their alliances with Greek states were still important issues of discussion in Herodotus’ time. Greek historians tend to undermine the significance of these interactions for the development of Greek history, preferring instead purely internalist explanations. Greek tyranny has been understood almost exclusively as a specifically Greek phenomenon; Munn argues, rightly in my view, that the image of the powerful monarchs in Phrygia, Lydia and Persia must have influenced the way tyranny and tyrants were conceived among the Greeks. The stories that circulated about these Eastern monarchs demonstrate clearly the keen interest Greeks showed in them; Munn finds a number of interesting parallels between these stories and stories told about Greek tyrants. Some of the parallels that Munn suggests are more convincing than others; but his general case is both important and plausible.

But here arise two major issues, which are not explored sufficiently and undermine an argument that could have been stronger. The Eastern context is not the only way in which one can see Greek tyranny. The political struggles in the Greek poleis and the attempts of individuals to dominate the political game provide another, and at least equally important, frame of reference. And it is here that a theory has been recently formulated by Greg Anderson that creates problems for Munn’ perspective of Greek tyranny.1 Instead of the sacral and supra-human features of tyranny that Munn emphasizes, Anderson argues that the Archaic figures that later Greeks from the classical period onwards depicted as tyrants were nothing more than particularly successful aristocratic politicians. In other words, the emergence of tyranny is a post-archaic phenomenon, when the creation of a new kind of institutional politics turned the successful dominant figure in the aristocratic game of politics into a constitutional form that could be differentiated from democracy and oligarchy, the other novel discoveries of classical political thought. Is it possible to square Munn’s image of archaic tyranny with that of Anderson? I believe it is, and I see two ways forward.

The one is to return to that seminal work on Archaic Greece by Santo Mazzarino2 and study the ways in which the Eastern monarchs and relationships with them could be used in order to construct and strengthen the positions of tyrants within (and beyond) their polis. The relationship of the Cypselids with the Mermnads of Lydia is only one example of this issue. The other is a study in historiography: is it possible that after the clash of the Persians Wars, which created the distinction between Eastern despotism and Greek liberty, and Greek political developments, which led to the conception of the new constitutional orders of democracy, oligarchy and tyranny, fifth-century Greeks used the Eastern template of sovereignty, as described by Munn, in order to conceive those archaic figures that now became tyrants? The work of Herodotus is seminal in this respect, for in his work we can see together the stories about the Eastern monarchs presenting the Eastern template of sovereignty, the stories about the archaic Greek tyrants, the story of the clash between Greece and the Eastern monarchies and the new constitutional distinctions. Is Herodotus’ Constitutional debate (3.79-82), using a Greek template to describe a Persian debate, the symmetrical opposite of what Greeks did with Greek tyrants?

The other important issue is the precise mechanism by which what Munn calls the Asian idea of sovereignty spread to the Greek world. The role of the Persian-supported tyrants of Ionia in fostering this idea of sovereignty seems promising. Unfortunately, Munn devotes extremely little space to them. Given that Anderson has argued that it was the Persian backing of the Ionian tyrants that transformed the whole Greek image of tyranny, this issue would repay further study.

Munn makes a further point, which is even more important. Speaking generally about interaction between Greeks and Eastern people is not enough. The Greeks were contemporaries to the dramatic political developments that took place in the Eastern Mediterranean during the archaic period. The abrupt fall of Croesus, a powerful monarch who had managed to dominate the Ionians and to amaze mainland Greeks with his wealth and dedications, must have impressed the Greeks greatly. How did they react to these events? How did they interpret such momentous turns of fortune? Munn has constructed his whole book by putting at the fore Greek reactions to the momentous events of the rise of the Phrygian and Lydian monarchies, the fall of Croesus and the emergence of Persia, the Ionian rebellion, the Persian Wars and, finally, Alcibiades’ return to Athens. This is a very constructive approach; but in my view the way Munn has applied it creates a number of problems. The main one is that we cannot simply assume that all societies understand great events in the same way, or that they will understand as great events what we understand as such. To give one example, the reforms of Cleisthenes are for modern research a terminal point and a momentous event in the creation of Athenian democracy; and yet, this is not how the Athenians saw it. The reforms of 508 never assumed the status of a momentous event in the Athenian imagination.3 What makes some events momentous in contemporary perception and others not? If we wish to study the importance of events for changing theological, philosophical and political ideas we need to study first the ways a society conceives events, temporality and change. It seems to me that Munn, by avoiding dealing with this question, and by positing a straightforward link between events and perceptions has undermined a thesis that could have been stronger. This is not a criticism aiming specifically at Munn, since almost nobody else has undertaken an exploration in these lines. But if we are to pursue further this agenda, as I think we definitely should, we need to face this issue seriously.

Finally, Munn raises the very important issue of the connection between religion, cosmogony and politics. He argues that the way a society conceives sovereignty in the religious domain must be related in some way to the way it conceives sovereignty in other domains, as in politics. It is a disappointment though that Munn explores the issue in a single-sided way. One problem is his tendency to posit that a society has only a single way of conceiving this relationship between religion and politics. Thus, there is only a single Lydian conception of divine and human sovereignty, that of the Lydian monarchy, and all Lydian monuments and texts must be seen to represent this single conception. This attitude leads to a number of exaggerated claims and special pleading that I will underline below. Even more, it is difficult to accept that the only way Greeks conceived sovereignty before the clash in 491 is the one posited by Lydian monarchy. Munn’s attempt to find traces of this Lydian conception in the Greek sources has led him to dismiss from his visual field any other conception of sovereignty. If one looks only at the Homeric epics, one can easily see that a number of different conceptions of sovereignty coexist. Again, Munn has raised a very important issue, which will hopefully be further explored in future research; but the way he has explored it creates a certain sense of dissatisfaction, which is possibly unavoidable.

These are some of the important theoretical issues raised in the book, and there are others as well. I believe that it is a totally separate issue whether one accepts his substantive points as well. In the attempt to apply this very fascinating agenda, the author has unfortunately trodden rather incautiously and rashly. In my view, there are three major problems. The first is source criticism. Modern research has set certain criteria with which to interpret textual and other forms of evidence. To give an example, evidence provided by non-contemporary sources has to be evaluated within the context of the sources’ narrative and aims, before we try to establish what (if anything) we can learn about the past from it. Stories about the past are not mere survivals of past incidents, but they are constantly reformulated to fit new agendas, viewpoints and concerns. This does not mean that they can do whatever they want with past events, but the relationship is certainly complex. When the author uses stories from Justin, Nicolaus of Damascus and Polyaenus in order to prove the connection between the cult practice of the Phrygian Mother and the exercise of sovereignty as seen in the archaic period (88-95), this raises all sorts of problems. In some cases he prefers Herodotus over Plutarch and in others the opposite (e.g. 243, 251-2), with no other justification apart from the fact that it fits his argument.

The second problem is a very low level of expectation about what constitutes historical proof. Some of the arguments are difficult indeed to accept without any larger methodological substantiation. Why should we accept that the story of Psammetichus’ discovering that the Phrygians were the oldest people reflects the fact that the Lydian king, now master of Phrygia, helped him to acquire the throne of Egypt (97-8)? Why should this story have a political background? Do all stories have one? What makes some of them to have one and others not, and on what criteria are we able to distinguish them? These are methodological issues on which the book remains sadly silent.

The suggestion that Anaximander expressed the notion of the balance of cosmic justice and drew his map ‘to display its practical implications for the benefit of Croesus’ understanding of Lydia’s place in the world’ (199), along with the proposition that Croesus decided to attack the Persians encouraged by the Delphic oracle and the implications of Anaximander’s map (207-8), are very stimulating. They portray a world in which Eastern monarchs employ Greek intellectuals and Greek intellectuals try to look at the world from the perspective of their Eastern employers. But unfortunately there is nothing than mere speculation to support this argument: no source attests any connection between Anaximander and Croesus, while Munn’s reading of Anaximander’s map is pure speculation based on a particular interpretation of the word oikoumene, which he believes he can trace in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (188-96).

Finally, the most important problem is the wide gap between the story that Munn reconstructs by reading between the lines and the stories and meanings that ancient sources explicitly convey. Typical of his general way of argumentation is the following comment: ‘Herodotus was aware of these connections, even if he did not spell them out. His Greek readers must certainly have been aware of where they themselves were situated within the oikoumene, and which deities they themselves honored, and they could ponder the consequences indicated by Herodotus’ testimony’ (238). This is of course a classic case of petitio principii.

In another case, the fact that the sacred marriage between the basilinna and Dionysus took place in the Boucoleion ‘demonstrates that the Greeks were well aware of the traditional Asiatic significance of the ‘herdsman’ in the royal rituals of lovemaking with a divinity’ (141); but more than an interesting suggestion, the author provides not the slightest shred of evidence to support his case. Even if the historical link did exist (though a structural anthropologist would interpret it in very different terms), is there any proof (i.e. any mention in the sources) that the Greeks were aware of it? Again when he argues that ‘Greek epic was criticizing the paradigm on which Lydian sovereignty was founded without actually denying its major premise, namely that the gods engender greatness among men’ (172-3), he assumes a degree of intentional reaction for which he brings no evidence.

Elsewhere, he argues: ‘The grandiose nature of Polycrates’ schemes surely made him susceptible to the idea of an alliance with the lord of Sardis at that time, the Persian Oroetes. Such an alliance, joining the Lydian heritage of lordship on earth with Polycrates’ claim to dominion of the sea, had a cosmic logic similar to the one that had earlier drawn the Spartans, the champions of European Hellas, into alliance with Croesus, the champion of Asia’ (213). What kind of argument is this? Is Polycrates’ decision one of conscious recognition of these supposed cosmic analogies? If so, why do we hear nothing of this kind of motives? If it is a structural issue, not observed by contemporary actors, but visible to the modern scholar, how exactly is it supposed to prompt humans into action? Munn’s suggestions can be evocative; but one needs to explain on what level of explanation they work, before anyone can take them as anything more than speculation.

It is a very laudable aim to try to study the relationship between Greeks and the East in a non-Orientalist, non-structuralist manner. But one has to start by taking seriously the fact that the Orientalist, polarized image of Greeks and the East dominates our ancient sources in such a way, that we cannot move beyond it without a well-thought and applied methodology of how to question and use the sources. Bernal’s project failed to convince precisely because he was unable to provide such a methodology and was content to merely use the sources as it suited his argument. In my view, Munn’s substantive case is largely unconvincing; but this does not diminish the value of a book that raises a large number of very important issues (one could compare it with Cornford’s Thucydides Mythistoricus in this respect).

It would be unfair to mention omissions in a book that already deals with a huge variety of subjects. And yet, in a work concerned with the relationship between divinity and sovereignty, the absence of any serious discussion of Egypt is striking. For, if there is one place where we know that such a relationship clearly existed, where Greeks were present continuously, and which had a deep effect on Greek culture in the Archaic period, this is surely Egypt. If Herodotus is rather silent on the influence of Lydian and Phrygian religious, social and political views on the Greeks, leaving Munn to retrace this interaction on his own, this is certainly not the case with Egypt. Should we attribute this omission to the author’s attempt to make his case for the primacy of the Phrygian – Lydian Mother as widely as possible? The other great omission is Dionysus. Munn does not try to engage with Noel Robertson’s view that the cult of the Mother of the Gods was indigenous and was only later assimilated to the cult of the Phrygian Mother. Dionysus is another example of a divinity portrayed as a foreigner and a newcomer, although we know indeed that this is not a representation of historical reality, but a way of conveying the god’s nature and function. I believe that a comparison with the Mother would have been very illuminating in this respect.

The bibliography of this book is rich, and scholars would profit a lot by consulting it. Yet again, there are some very curious omissions. It is difficult to see how a work that deals with sovereignty, tyranny, and kingship in archaic and classical Greece can miss Carlier’s seminal study.4 Equally, the absence of reference to Davies’ work on sovereignty (even more since he argues for the inadmissibility of the concept in ancient Greece),5 to the already mentioned work of Mazzarino, or to Momigliano’s Alien wisdom is really puzzling.6 Payen’s work on conquest and resistance in the work of Herodotus would have been extremely relevant for this book.7

In conclusion: this is a very interesting book, because it poses a number of important questions not raised before and has an agenda that is worth further exploration. Whether one accepts the author’s substantive agenda, is a separate matter. In my view it fails, because the author has moved too rashly, disregarding source criticism and the construction of methodological principles, in order to explore a novel approach to archaic and classical Greek history. It is a book that deserves to be read in the hope that others will be able to deal with the same issues in a more solid way.


1. G. Anderson, The Athenian experiment: building an imagined political community in ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C., Ann Arbor, 2003; idem, ‘Before Turannoi were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History’, ClAnt 24, 2005, 173-222. It should be noted that Anderson’s book gives a different interpretation of the Peisistratus and Phye incident (68-72) than that adopted by Munn (40-2).

2. Fra Oriente e Occidente: ricerche di storia greca arcaica, Florence, 1947.

3. See Anderson, The Athenian experiment, cit., 197-211.

4. P. Carlier, La royauté en Grèce avant Alexandre, Strasbourg, 1984.

5. J. K. Davies, ‘On the non-usability of the concept of ‘sovereignty’ in an ancient Greek context’ in L. Aigner-Foresti et alii, eds, Federazioni e federalismo nell’Europa antica, Milan, 1994, 51-65.

6. Alien wisdom. The limits of Hellenisation, Cambridge, 1975.

7. P. Payen, Les îles nomades: conquérir et résister dans l’Enquête d’Hérodote, Paris, 1997.