BMCR 2010.11.04

Civic Rites: Democracy and Religion in Ancient Athens

, Civic Rites: Democracy and Religion in Ancient Athens. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2010. xvi, 272. ISBN 9780520262034. $24.95 (pb).


Nancy Evans’ new book focuses on the intersection of democracy and religion in fifth-century Athens. As the introduction makes clear, this volume is specifically aimed at readers who have no previous knowledge of the ancient Greek world; it also claims to be of interest to ‘[m]ore advanced students and scholars’ who are to ‘trace the larger argument that ties together two distinct subfields of classical studies that have normally been kept apart—namely, political history and religion’ (9). This book sets itself an ambitious agenda, which it only partially fulfils. It does succeed in showing the Greek religion was ‘embedded’ in Greek society and so permeates all aspects of it, but this conclusion is not now particularly novel. In terms of addressing its various readers, the book will give general, albeit American, readers a fairly standard introduction to Athenian religion and it will bring out some of the ways in which it intersected with political and military events in the fifth century. That these readers will not get a good narrative history of the fifth century will perhaps not worry them nor will the rather large number of errors of fact.1 These issues, together with the decision not to provide specific references, will make the book not as useful for students as it could be.

The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, an epilogue, a glossary of terms, suggested reading by chapter, a bibliography, and an index. The chapters are supposed to focus alternately on political (1, 3, 5) and religious matters (2, 4, 6, 7). The first chapter (Introduction: The City of Pericles and Socrates) introduces the volume and its organisation and it provides very brief introductions to democracy, religion, and polytheism. It also includes a brief paragraph on evidence; longer discussions about Herodotos and Thucydides are reserved for chapter 3. Chapter 1 (Cleisthenes: The Family Curse behind Athenian Democracy) provides further preliminary information on Athens, Attica, their natural resources, and trade. It then turns to the beginnings of Athenian democracy with discussions of Solon, the tyranny of the Peisistratidai, and then Kleisthenes. The order is not entirely chronological and discussion of the Kylonian conspiracy and the resulting curse on the Alkmeonidai is reserved until the end of the chapter. As presented here, Athenian history is very much made by named men so that Kleisthenes, rather than the Alkmeonidai, enlists the aid of Kleomenes (without the Delphi oracle) to overthrow Hippias.

Further introductory material appears in chapter 2 (Athena: Religion and the Democratic Polis) which primarily discusses polytheism and especially animal sacrifice ( thusia). I would agree with Evans’ stress here and elsewhere that participation in the city’s sacrifices and other rituals is important, but readers wishing to know why will not be helped by the omission in the chapter bibliography of The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks (eds. M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, Chicago, 1989) or R. Parker’s important essay on reciprocity (in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece, eds. C. Gill, N. Postlethwaite, and R. Seaford, Oxford, 1998). The discussion on sacrifice brackets a section on the Panathenaia, the only part of the chapter specifically concerned with Athena. This discussion is dated in some important respects. It also illustrates the difficulties of talking specifically about fifth-century Athenian religion: the summary of competitions very clearly draws on the (unreferenced) list of Panathenaic prizes from ca. 380 B.C. ( IG II 2 2311).

Although chapter 3 is entitled ‘Pericles: Empire and War in the City of Athena’, it actually covers the period from the Ionian Revolt to the death of Perikles. Included in this political chapter are significant discussions of the Delphic oracle, the Panathenaia and empire, and the burial of the war-dead and the Epitaphia. In 36 pages, this chapter has a lot of ground to cover, but the battle of Marathon should not be presented as an isolated battle rather than as part of a campaign. In contrast, the events in 480 and 479 are better presented.

With chapter 4 (Demeter: Civic Worship, Women’s Rites, and the Eleusinian Mysteries), we return to religion and specifically the Thesmophoria and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The discussion adheres fairly closely to the relevant chapters in R. Parker’s Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford, 2005) and it is the strongest one in the book. It does, however, flag up the complications of the repeated use of the term ‘civic’, which is never defined. The Thesmophoria is limited to the Athenian wives of Athenian citizens, who are not citizens in the sense of participating in politics. While the polis is heavily involved in the Mysteries, this ritual is voluntary and open to all adults, as long as they speak Greek. In these contexts, ‘civic’ is not a particularly helpful term.

Chapter 5 (Alcibiades: Politics, Religion, and the Cult of Personality) covers the period of the Peloponnesian War from the death of Perikles to the fall of the Thirty. It does not really provide a narrative of the events and readers will not gain a clear understanding of the war. The Archidamian War is particularly poorly served: the Sphakteria campaign is not mentioned at all, despite its important consequences, and the Spartan invasions of Attica appear out of sequence. Instead, the chapter provides a discussion of selected events particularly connected with religion. In addition to affairs of the Herms and the Mysteries in 415, the Delia, the cult of Brasidas, and tomb cult (in connection with Arginousai and the trial of the generals) also appear. At the same time, there are some missed opportunities: the cancellation of the festival of Apollo Maloeis at Mytilene in 428 brings into focus the issue of cancelling festivals generally and relationships between humans and the divine; the Delia draws attention to how and why festivals might change over time; the episode of Hagnon’s and Brasidas’ cults at Amphipolis brings with it hero cults (not discussed in this book), the religious relationships of colonies to mother cities, and how cults might change and develop. Since this book repeatedly stresses the Athenians’ adherence to ‘ancestral [religious] practices’, discussion of how cults and festivals change would be welcome and would counteract the impression of a static and unchanging religious system.

In chapter 6 (Dionysus: Cultic Rituals of Wine, Theatre, and Transformation), we turn to Dionysos and his various Athenian festivals: the Anthesteria, the Oschophoria and Pyanopsia, the Rural Dionysia, the Lenaia, and the City Dionysia. There is much which remains in doubt about these festivals and I would have liked to have seen more acknowledgment of these uncertainties. Happily, the issue of change is mentioned in this chapter (187), but, as it is acknowledged, the discussion of the rituals presents them as static. Readers without previous knowledge are likely to need more explanation of the politics of the City Dionysia and how the plays intersected with them. The chapter ends with some discussion of Dionysiac mysteries.

Chapter 7 (Socrates: Impiety Trials in the Restored Democracy) concerns three trials which took place in 400 and 399: those of Andokides, Nikomachos, and Sokrates. As background for these legal cases, the chapter also discusses the Reconciliation Agreement of 403, which is repeatedly described as the Amnesty even though its text was not limited to this one issue. There are a number of misconceptions. Most importantly, the agreement did not concern the leaders of the oligarchies of 411, unless they had also been among the Thirty, the Ten, the Eleven, or the Ten in Peiraieus. The trials for these men were not some great court event against discredited leaders, as the text implies, but voluntary euthunai which would allow them to be reintegrated among the Athenians. The actual amnesty clause of the agreement covered everyone except these leaders and the Athenians were not to remember the past wrongs of anyone else; no distinction was made between ‘crimes against the Athenian state’ and ‘cases of private injury’ (215). In terms of the trials, it is true that religious issues were involved in all three of them, but Nikomachos does not seem to have been charged with impiety. Nor is there evidence that ‘to deliberately change a law amounted to a type of impiety’ (224). More could be done to explain the Athenian legal system to readers who also need to be told that these trials were just three among many at this time. This chapter would benefit from engagement with the studies of Stephen Todd and Andrew Wolpert. An epilogue (Epilogue: The City after Socrates) looks very briefly ahead to some fourth-century developments. Here, as at the end of the previous chapter, the existence of the Second Athenian League is ignored.

Accordingly, this book provides brief discussions of selected aspects of Athenian religion in the late sixth and fifth centuries B.C. It does not discuss all the city’s festivals nor all the divinities with cults in Athens and Attica. As such, it does not provide a comprehensive introduction to Athenian religion in the classical period. The narrative chapters provide a limited overview of the history of the period and they would need to be supplemented significantly, if this book were used in an undergraduate class. All readers would benefit from the addition of further illustrations, particularly plans of the city of Athens, the Agora, and the Akropolis. Illustrations of the Pnyx’s change in orientation under the Thirty would also clarify the relevant discussion.


1. I noticed over forty-five such errors in the course of reading the volume. They concern facts about topography and monuments, religious, and political matters. A number of references are also incorrect. For a list, please see the BMCR blog.