BMCR 2020.03.49

Politics, territory and identity in ancient Epirus

Adolfo J. Dominguez, Politics, territory and identity in ancient Epirus. . Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2018. xiv, 337 p.. ISBN 9788846754158 €38,00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, published as part of the Diabaseis Series, focuses on the political and social history of “peripheral” Epirus in the Classical and Hellenistic periods; it is the culmination of the Research Project “Ethnogenesis, Settlement, Territory and Federalism in Ancient Epirus” supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. As stated in the brief introduction (pp. IX-XI), the collection is composed of nine papers that address four themes: socio-political developments in Ancient Epirus (pp. 1-134, 193-282), interstate relations between the Epirote oracle of Dodona and other regions (pp. 135-192), the characteristics of the Greek language spoken in Epirus (pp. 283-301), and the archaeological discoveries made by travellers visiting Epirus in the 18th and 19th centuries (pp. 302-315). Six of the papers are written in English and three in Italian. The publication also contains an index of names and places. Each article is accompanied by its own bibliography, along with photographs, site plans, and maps.

The opening article focuses on the political changes in Epirus in the 5th and 4th centuries BC: Domínguez puts together the recent archaeological excavations in the Ioannina Basin and literary and epigraphic evidence, convincingly arguing in favour of the traditional view presented by ancient sources, namely that the political and urban development of the region was due to king Tharyps, whose relationship with Athens influenced his policies; and that this was later continued by his descendants. The author demonstrates that the construction of new unwalled settlements at the end of the 5th century BC can be linked to changes in the Molossian socio-political and administrative structure, deduced from the lists of magistrates (damiorgoi synarchontes) found in the epigraphic texts of the region and bolstered by a comparison with the Athenian system. These developments led to a new political structure in Epirus, which evolved from a “tribal kingdom” into a federal-type state.

Pascual’s contribution complements Domínguez’s text by addressing the subsequent time; it aims to revise the history of the changing political state structures of Epirus and the role of the three main Epirote koina (Molossians, Thesprotians, Chaonians). Pascual argues that the theorodokoi lists from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, which name several poleis, testify to a more extensively urbanized Epirus. The simultaneous presence in these lists of a theorodokos for Chaonia, and of the king as theorodokos for the Molossians, demonstrates the coexistence of the monarchy alongside the koinon. Such a coexistence is pivotal to one of the author’s main arguments—that contrary to the commonly held belief of the dissolution and exclusion of certain koina, the three dominant koina of Epirus existed untouched throughout the changing history of the region, were part of the Epirote “state” since the unification under the Aeacid monarchy and played a role in the kingdom’s administration. They later became part of the Epirote koinon but retained their individual character. Furthermore, the article also demonstrates that from the 4th century BC onwards the institutional history of Epirus shared many common features with those of Central and Northern Greece, particularly in terms of magistracies and administrative structures.

For her part, Milán focuses on a geographic area largely omitted in the other contributions: the south of Epirus. Her approach is an interdisciplinary one, utilizing both literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources in tandem with GIS technology. She establishes that Cassope was the dominant regional polis, its location allowing for control over the communication links between north and south Epirus, as well as connecting the sea with the mountains. By implementing Spatial Analysis techniques into her work, Milán convincingly demonstrates that the remaining lesser poleis, which marked the limits of Cassopaean territory, appear to have been dependent on the main city and that the eastern frontier of the region coincides with the historical route from Ambracia and Dodona, suggesting that Cassope may have had control over this important route. Finally, she addresses the issue of Cassopaean identity: supplementing literary evidence with epigraphic material, she shows that the two beliefs held by ancient authors—that Cassopaeans were a distinct ethnos from other Epirotes and that they were part of the Thesprotians—were not mutually exclusive and that they may have simply described the residents of Cassope at two different points in history.

The following two articles center on the oracle of Dodona and its political and religious relations with other areas of the Mediterranean world. The starting point of Intrieri’s investigation into the ties between the Epirote sanctuary and Corcyra are the ancient proverbs, “the gong of Dodona” and “the Corcyraean whip”, which have been linked to the dedication at Dodona by the Corcyraeans of a statue of a young man with a whip standing on a column. The author revises previous interpretations of literary sources describing the dedication of the Corcyraeans, and places them in a broader historical context. She deduces that the changing landscape of the region—the weakening of the position of the island as a result of the Peloponnesian War, the consolidation of Epirus, conflicts with Macedonia—as well as its proximity to Dodona encouraged Corcyra to strengthen its bonds with Epirus and the oracle.[1] She theorizes that the dedication would have been a gift from the citizen body or the young men of the city, and perhaps represents a mythical figure with ties to Corcyra and Dodona, such as Hyllos.

With Piccinini’s contribution, the focus shifts to the dynamics between Dodona and other mantic sanctuaries of the Hellenic world. She argues that neither of the approaches put forward by scholarship to date, the one suggesting rivalry between the sanctuaries and the other proposing a cooperative stance between them,[2] accurately describes the complex ties linking the oracles. By examining cases of multiple consultations and the legends attesting to filiation relationships between oracular shrines, Piccinini convincingly concludes that the sanctuaries did not exhibit an agonistic attitude towards each other. They often appear to have corroborated each other’s oracular answers, as well as helped fund other oracles. Piccinini also argues that the evidence for cooperation between the shrines is scarce. Instead, she proposes a third option—the oracular sanctuaries adopted a tactic of “desistance”, which involved mutual respect, acknowledgment of prestige and a strategy of not challenging each other’s authority.

Religion is also at the core of De Maria and Mancini’s contribution. The authors explore the religious topography of Chaonia by analyzing the relationship between its settlement system and the cult sites of the area. Their research combines geography with archaeological, epigraphic, literary, and architectonic evidence, reassessing the extent of Chaonia’s “urban” character, believed to have resulted from its proximity to Corcyra. They focus primarily on the case studies of the big urban centers, Phoinike and Butrint, around which cultic practices appear to concentrate, as well as smaller remote sites outside of Phoinike. The authors infer that the border sanctuaries, located along waterways and mountain paths, had a safeguarding function. Furthermore, the permeability of the city boundaries, which merged with the agro-pastoral reality of Epirus, resulted in otherwise non-urban cults being celebrated in the polis.

In his article, Rinaldi approaches the subject of the administrative system of Classical and Hellenistic Epirus through the prism of political and civil architecture. By analyzing the agorai and administrative buildings in the main Epirote poleisboth in a regional context and against a broader Hellenic background, Rinaldi tracks the evolution of political spaces and, along with them, the institutional framework during the gradual process of urbanization and socio-political development in the region. He concludes that there was a continuous interaction between the ethnic and civic aspects of society, based on a multi-layered distribution of political and administrative competences, but that each level was administered autonomously.

This brings us to the two last papers in the volume, which diverge from the overarching political and religious themes. The first is an onomastic study of ethnic names in local communities, lesser tribes, and koina in Epirus, based on literary and epigraphic sources. Filos initially focuses on the names of the eleven major tribes of Epirus, and then proceeds to discuss and classify the ethnonyms from Bouthrotos. He observes that while the etymology of the ethnonyms of older, major tribes is more difficult to establish, many of the minor tribes have unambiguously Hellenic names with a clear morphology, indicated through the presence of Greek suffixes.

The concluding article by Mora transports the reader from the ancient world to the 18th and 19th centuries. The author discusses the interests of European travellers in Epirote archaeology and history, as well as their contributions to locating and documenting ancient sites. Her research focuses solely on those individuals who primarily visited the Epirote region as part of military and diplomatic missions. The article contrasts noticeably with the other papers both in terms of chronological scope and subject matter. Nonetheless, Mora’s work brings to light sources that contain valuable information about the location and state of preservation of sites and relics at the time of their discovery.

This volume is a welcome addition to studies of Epirote history, geared towards specialists in the field. The decision to discuss the region’s political developments from a variety of different perspectives (koina, poleis, sanctuaries) not only broadens the scope of the work, allowing for an inquiry into traditionally less researched locations, but also provides a much-needed comparative analysis of Epirote subregions. The collection’s value lies equally in the authors’ ability to engage with a variety of different methodologies and various sources. This deliberately eclectic approach has allowed for a reassessment of older evidence from new perspectives, thus compensating in part for the scarcity of source material which has long plagued scholars researching this region. However, the volume would have benefited from a more thorough introduction, which could have linked the articles into a more cohesive narrative, particularly since overarching themes, such as the socio-political and administrative changes in Epirus during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, do emerge from most of the texts. Such an introduction could also have helped draw a clearer connection between the two final articles and the remainder of the collection by, for example, positioning Filos’ conclusion about the unambiguously Greek origins of Epirote tribe names alongside Domínguez and Pascual’s remarks on the similarities between Epirote and other North and Central Greek administrative structures.

Authors and Titles

1. Adolfo J. Domínguez, New Developments and Tradition in Epirus: The Creation of the Molossian State
2. José Pascual, From the Fifth Century to 167 B.C.: Reconstructing the History of Ancient Epirus
3. Soledad Milán, Polis and Dependency in Epirus: the Case of Cassope and the poleis of Cassopaea
4. Maria Intrieri, L’isola, l’epeiros e il santuario: una riflessione sull’anathema corcirese a Dodona
5. Jessica Piccinini, The Relationships among Greek Oracular Sanctuaries. Rivalry, Cooperation or Desistance?
6. Sandro De Maria, Lorenzo Mancini, Territori e paesaggi sacri nella Caonia ellenistica e romana
7. Elia Rinaldi, I luoghi della vita politica e amministrativa nelle città dell’Epiro
8. Panagiotis Filos, Linguistic Aspects of Epirote Ethnics
9. Gloria Mora, “On the Boundaries of Greece”: References to the Topography and Archaeology of Epirus in the Accounts of the Earliest Travellers to the Region (18th and 19th centuries)


[1] While Intrieri does mention the oracular inquiries made by Corcyraeans at Dodona, their role as evidence of the relationship between Corcyra and Dodona merits further exploration. Corcyra is one of the poleis that most frequently made public consultations at the oracle (inscriptions nr. 1-4 in E. Lhôte, Les lamelles oraculaires de Dodone, Genève 2006), and it is mentioned among private queries as well (see DVC 1088, 1229 and possibly 105, 193, 3116, 3442 in S. Dakaris, J. Vokotopoulou and A. P. Christidis, Τα χρηστήρια ελάσματα της Δωδώνης: Των ανασκαφών Δ. Ευαγγελίδη, Athens 2013, vol. 1-2).

[2] H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Dodona, Ammon, Olympia, Oxford 1967; E. Eidinow, ‘Oracles and Oracle-Sellers. An Ancient Market in Futures’, in Religion and Competition in Antiquity, ed. D. Engels and P. Van Nuffelen, Bruxelles 2014, 55-95.