BMCR 2007.02.25


, Zeus. Gods and heroes of the ancient world. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. xxv, 164 pages : illustrations, maps ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0415305020. $22.95.

Table of Contents

Ken Dowden’s Zeus, a compact and dense study on the Father of Gods and Men, is part of the new Routledge series “Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World.1 The goal of the series is to present brief “authoritative, accessible and refreshing account[s]” of various Greco-Roman divine and mythological personalities to a non-specialist readership (xi). Each book is intended not as a mere biography, but as an examination of a god as a unique member of the divine collectivity (x-xi). In other words, who is Zeus and what functions(s) does he satisfy within the Greek pantheon? Another noteworthy feature of the series is that each volume ends with a section on the post-antique reception of the book’s subject.

It is fitting that the series’ first Olympian be the Father of Gods and Men. As Dowden [hereafter D.] rightly emphasizes throughout, Zeus is not only superior to the other gods in degree, but he is also distinct in kind. Zeus, more than primus inter pares, stands above the rest of the pantheon. Zeus’s supremacy at times approaches divine singularity, and D. traces the influence of this special quality of Zeus on how ancient philosophers talked about the Divine standing at the center, as well as at the beginning, of their cosmologies. D.’s discussions of this philosophical Zeus are among the most valuable in the book.

In writing a short book about Zeus, D. has engaged in an unenviable undertaking. There are veritable mountains of evidence for Zeus in Greek religion and culture. Witness the much heftier, three-volume Zeus of Cook and Schwabl’s two lengthy Pauly-Wissowa articles.2 Every reader will have a quibble or two with D.’s inclusions and exclusions, but even Zeus himself does not please everyone (Theognis vv. 25-26). Therefore, I have kept criticisms of omission to a minimum. On the whole, D.’s judgment is very sound on this score. D. also sets for himself the no less difficult goal of balancing a synchronic overview of “how Zeus fitted together, aspect by aspect,” with “a sense of the onward march of history” (xx). D. succeeds admirably in achieving that balance.

In accordance with the format established for the series, D.’s book consists of three parts: an introduction, a discussion of the major themes and topics (in five chapters), and a concluding chapter on the post-pagan afterlife of Zeus. The introduction provides a summary of the kinds of evidence we have—divided into three categories, myth, cult and art—and what each tells us about Zeus. Beginning with the Indo-European etymology of the god’s name, D. also presents a history of scholarship about Zeus, arranged according to the sequence of major scholarly approaches to Greek myth and religion. A statement about D.’s own methodology would have been useful here.

The main section of the book begins with a chapter devoted to Zeus’s image and attributes, from Homer—dated to 650 BC, post-Hesiodic, and every bit a historical personage—through the fourth century BC. D. discusses the two familiar types of the striding thunderbolt-wielder and the enthroned ruler, canonized by Pheidias’s chryselephantine Wonder at Olympia. While quite different from each other, these two dominant iconographic types share a common effect: the projection of Zeus’s awesome power. In Chapter Two D. surveys the mythology of Zeus, his marriages, sexual escapades, birth and major battles, offering provocative ritual and/or historical explanations for the origins of several of these myths. Chapters Three and Four, certainly the best of the book, provide an excellent overview of Zeus’s principal powers. The former deals with cosmological and natural phenomena. Zeus also controls time and determines decisive moments. Chapter Four describes Zeus’s responsibilities in the human world. Zeus solidifies regional ethnic identities, oversees societal continuity, protects foreigners abroad and ensures a prosperous household. This chapter is D.’s most informative about the cults of Zeus, and gives a good sense of the wide variation within Greek religion in a short space. But D. is wrong to say that Zeus’s strong associations with kingship (and tyranny) made him a problematic object of worship in democratic Athens. The sanctuary of Zeus Polieus on the Acropolis and the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios in the Agora—both unmentioned by D.—would seem to point in the opposite direction, even if the Athenians did leave the Olympieion unfinished for centuries. Furthermore, the victory of the allied Greeks at Plataea against the Great King of Persia in 479 was, after all, commemorated with a festival to Zeus (again, Eleutherios).

Chapter Five is a diachronic account of how Greek poets and philosophers thought about and talked about Zeus. A greater consideration of the development of Zeus in cult would have been welcome, especially for the latter centuries—a discussion of Zeus/Theos Hypsistos and “pagan monotheism,” for example. And did the Zeus of the philosophers, to whom D. gives so much—too much?—room, influence how Zeus was conceived in cult? A 2nd-century AD hymn to Zeus from Pergamon (IPerg no. 324), which D. does not mention, shows clear signs of the “pantheistic” Zeus, whom ancient philosophers found so attractive and promoted. It is a shame that D. leaves the story of Zeus unfinished. The reason for this is that the story of Zeus morphs into the story of Jupiter on p. 108, and D.’s attention shifts to the West for the balance of the book. D. portrays the interaction between Greek and Roman culture as unidirectional. The Romans assimilated their Jupiter to the Greek Zeus. But what about Zeus in the Imperial Greek East, where the emperor was closely associated with Zeus?3

Chapter Six continues the narrative with which Five ended, tracing the Western European afterlife of Zeus, usually in the guise of Jupiter, down to the Information Age. Philosophers did not cease to find Zeus-Jupiter useful after the rise of Christianity, and D. points out important continuities into the Middle Ages with the philosophical traditions of antiquity. But it was mostly through mythological stories that Zeus survived, especially through popularized versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Several pages are devoted to an exhaustive catalogue of paintings of myths about Zeus-Jupiter, almost exclusively taken from Ovid’s poem. Were these myths popular because Zeus is their subject, or because Ovid’s poem was popular? I suspect the latter, and if so, what do these paintings really tell us about the afterlife of Zeus? More to the point is D.’s brief discussion of the persistence of the ancient linkage between Zeus-Jupiter and kingship in modern Europe; the court of Henri II of France, for example, was styled le nouvel Olympe. The chapter ends with D.’s observation that even today the monosyllable ‘Zeus’ remains evocative of great power, which accounts for its popularity in the names of various corporations and commercial products.

There is no doubt that the target audience of students and non-specialists will learn a lot from this book. It is simply jam-packed with information. The book is very well produced and easy to navigate, thanks to an excellent table of contents, which includes chapter sub-headings, and two indices. The figures are clearly reproduced and judiciously chosen to complement D.’s text. The maps will prove to be very helpful and are economically labeled for maximum clarity. There are almost no errors of fact, and the few typographical errors are trivial.

I have, however, serious reservations, which prevent me from recommending this book. I will leave aside individual points of disagreement, of which there are many, and limit myself to two major weaknesses. First, D.’s compressed writing style is often unclear and is apt to mislead the series’ target audience at several points in the text, since they will not be equipped with the necessary background knowledge to fill in D.’s gaps or unpack his statements. Does it matter that D. leaves the impression that Tuesday is etymologically derived from Zeus,4 or that the Kouretes appear in Hesiod’s version of Zeus’s birth? Does it matter that D. identifies himself and his readers on one occasion as “people of the first century BC,” in what appears to be a rather clumsy attempt to get us to think like a Roman of Vergil’s day (pp. 9, 33, and 111, respectively)? Perhaps not on their own, but similar misstatements appear often enough that their cumulative effect is not insignificant. Moreover, D’s compressed style often leads him to resort to oversimplification. There is no “right” or “wrong” version of a myth, and evaluating competing versions in these terms only serves to perpetuate old-fashioned, outmoded and unsophisticated notions of the nature of myth and its transmission. For example, in D.’s section on the geography of Zeus’s birth D. refers to two Arcadian traditions (mentioned in Pausanias), one associating Rhea’s pregnancy with Mt Thaumasion, the other the birth of Zeus with Mt Lykaion. “But of course both [Arcadian traditions] are wrong, because the successful cult place in this competition was in Crete and he can then be proudly proclaimed Zeus Kretagenes (‘Crete-born’).” I have no idea what D. means by either “wrong” or “successful” in that sentence. “Wrong” to whom? Surely not to the Arcadians. And “successful” in what arena? There is very little evidence for the popularity of Zeus’s Cretan birth outside of a single line of literary descent from Hesiod down to the Alexandrians and onward. Outside of Crete Zeus is hardly ever called Kretagenes (only in Seleucid Caria and in the city of Gaza). Nothing is gained by D.’s method of analysis here, while quite a lot is lost, in particular a sense of the genuine multiplicity of local traditions that populated the Greek landscape. Pausanias, after all, tells us that he could not name all of the places where Zeus was said to be born or raised (4.33.1). Admittedly, D. does show that he knows better (cf. pp. 40, 42). The novice needs more sign-posting and more connecting of the dots than D. provides; if this must come at the expense of a handful of examples, so be it.

My second major criticism concerns D.’s treatment of Greek religion. D. clearly expects his (Christian) readers to have a low opinion of ancient paganism, because of its utter lack—as far as they know—of spirituality and a striving for transcendence, the real stuff of religion. The worship of the Greek gods, on the other hand, can be summed up as “idolatry and sacrifice” (p. 120). Rather than challenging the reader’s notion of what constitutes religion, D. gives in to popular misconception and spends a good deal of the book trying to redeem Zeus-worship in Christian terms. Any ancient Greek who took his gods or even a single myth literally is belittled as childish, uneducated or unsophisticated.5 Moreover, D. leaves the distinct impression that here he is expressing his own opinion as well. The great poets and philosophers, according to D., were trying to get at the deeper truths that were obscured by traditional Greek religion and “cloak[ed]” by “the superficialities of epic poetry” (p. 112). The poets and philosophers—the intellectual elite, with whom D. obviously identifies—were the ones, in fact, who were genuinely ‘religious.’ D.’s chauvinism is an unfortunate distraction and will only leave the intended audience with a sense of relief that we now live in a more enlightened age.


1. Emma Griffiths’ Medea has already been reviewed for Bryn Mawr Classical Review ( 2006.07.52) by Isabelle Torrance. About ten other books in the series are available or forthcoming, according to Routledge’s website.

2. A. B. Cook, Zeus: a study in ancient religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914-1940; H. Schwabl in RE 10A (1972) and Suppl. 15 (1978).

3. On the increased appeal of Zeus in Crete during the early Roman Empire, see S. Alcock, Archaeologies of the Greek past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 123-130.

4. Page 9: “Tuesday for us is Zeus’s day.” D. does mention *Tiwaz on p. 11, but even there it is unclear that he is the referent of “the god of Tuesday” later in the same sentence.

5. “Only children or the uneducated would by now [AD 101] take Zeus literally” (p. 102). D.’s “by now” does nothing to salvage the statement. In a similar evolutionist vein D. claims that Euhemerus’s Sacred Record“is evidence for a weakening commitment to the gods and their worship” around 300 BC (104). In that the gods have clearly lost the devotion of Euhemerus, the statement is strictly speaking true. But beyond that?