BMCR 2021.06.42

Serving Athena: the festival of the Panathenaia and the construction of Athenian identities

, Serving Athena: the festival of the Panathenaia and the construction of Athenian identities. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xxii, 532. ISBN 9781108485272 $135.00.

In this book, Shear harvests from her Ph.D. thesis on the Panathenaia, submitted in 2001, and shifts her focus to the current discourse on identities. The city’s major festival was a perfect occasion for constructing individual and collective identities. Shear’s approach is programmatically holistic; she uses literary, epigraphical, and archaeological sources as well as theories of the social sciences.

Eight chapters are followed by eight appendices (on the Parthenon frieze, the pyrrhiche, and epigraphical sources of post-classical times), numerous tables (with evidence discussed in chapters 3–7), the bibliography, and three indices (written sources, collections, general). Forty figures of excellent quality are inserted into the chapters. The decision for footnotes (instead of endnotes) is highly appreciated.

Chapter 1 provides some basic information about the festival (Shear argues for its end in the AD 390s) and the theoretical background for the approach taken. Shear finds Christine Sourvinou-Inwood’s model of “polis religion” useful but in need of being complemented by Social Identity Theory, which conceives of identities as constantly being defined and negotiated within social contexts. Identities are multiple, unstable, and subject to change.

Chapter 2 studies the festival’s founding myths and heroes. Multiple figures accentuated various perspectives: Erichthonios (who also invented the four-horse chariot and the apobatic race) was connected with autochthony, Theseus (mentioned as a refounder in some late sources) with the unity of the polis, and the cult of the Tyrannicides with the introduction of democracy. The festival was a celebration of the gods’ victory over the giants. The association of the gigantomachy with the institution of the Great Panathenaia in 566 BC[1] is suggested by its sudden appearance on Athenian vases of ca. 560 BC and its choice (attested ca. 400 BC) as the decoration of the peplos dedicated at the Great Panathenaia. Shear claims that male Athenians, when performing the pyrrhiche and the apobatic race (contests performed only at the Panathenaia and only by Athenians), imitated the goddess. This is convincing for the pyrrhiche (performed annually), invented by Athena after the gods’ victory over the giants, but not for the apobatic race (and its early introduction), because neither of the suggested models (Phye dressed as Athena on Peisistratos’s chariot and Athena as promachos, running in front of Zeus’s chariot in early gigantomachy scenes) jumped off a chariot. Erichthonios is seen as a figure with a long tradition, always distinct from Erechtheus; Homer and Herodotos, when speaking about earthborn Erechtheus, might have confused two Athenian heroes.[2]

Chapter 3 covers the Little Panathenaia, a local annual event that consisted of a procession, sacrifices, and a pannychis (the pyrrhiche and the cyclic chorus are attested for short periods). The emphasis was on the phylai (and their subgroups: gene and demes). The main evidence is provided by an inscription of the 330s BC (with decisions about sacrifices and the distribution of the meat) and some inscriptions of the late second century BC (with honors for over a hundred girls who had worked the wool for the peplos). The latter inscriptions mention an epheteios peplos, taken by Shear as evidence for the introduction of an annual dedication of the peplos (between ca. 140 and 110/9 BC).[3] The annual peplos is thought to have been also decorated with a gigantomachy, according to a scholion on Aristoph. Equ. 566a (II).

Chapter 4 explores the construction of identities at the Great Panathenaia (an event with international visitors) through participation in the procession, the sacrifices, and the dedication of the peplos. The male Athenians (and metics) demonstrated their relationship with the goddess; kanephoroi and cult personnel are the only attested female Athenians. Some groups (also) presented themselves as serving the polis: the Athenians marched in arms in the procession (in Imperial times, the ephebes were its only military unit); the metics’ daughters acted as assistants for the kanephoroi. Gene, demes, and phylai could construct identities by offering additional animals. Colonists and allies brought cows and panoplies and renewed their bonds with Athena and the polis. Through the middle of the third century BC, dedications were restricted to Athenians, colonists, and allies. After 229 BC, cities without former relations with Athens were invited.

Shear connects the peplos exclusively with the penteteric event because, before late Hellenistic times, it is only attested for that occasion. She claims that it was displayed in the procession like a sail of an elusive vehicle until the Panathenaic ship was introduced in the second century AD.[4]

Chapter 5 analyzes the construction of identities by participation in the games. Shear meticulously discusses the various musical, athletic, and hippic contests; their openness or exclusivity; their age classes; their introduction, organization, and changes over time; and the prizes awarded (cf. tables 5.1–5.19). In contrast to Panhellenic games, there were some tribal contests (for individuals and teams), among them military contests (only the hoplitodromos was open to non-Athenians). After the Kleisthenic reforms, the apobatic race and pyrrhiche were the “quintessential marker of Athenian citizen status” (203). The focus on the phylai lasted until tribal team contests ended (ca. 290 BC).

In Chapters 6 and 7, Shear defines the identities that were constructed for the various groups, depending on gender, age and status. She differentiates between service to the goddess and service to the polis (the former contributing indirectly to the latter). Although everybody involved in the festival can be considered as serving Athena (whence the title of the book), some performances focused on service to the city (e.g., contests for boys, honors for benefactors). With detailed information on the reported activities and numerous repetitions of statements in chapters 3 to 5 and within these chapters, these pages demand attentive readers.

Chapter 6 explores the complex identities of Athenian men (who participated in almost all events) and their subgroups (gene, demes, phylai; officials; cavalry; benefactors) over time. These identities were sensitive to political change. After the Kleisthenic reforms, participation in the festival signaled support for democracy (important after oligarchic intermezzos). In post-Classical times, the traditional organization of demes and phylai could be taken as a reminder of the city’s glorious past, not necessarily as a marker of democracy. When the festival was opened to foreigners in 229 BC, the Athenians constructed their identities through individual tribal contests (and their share in the meat of the sacrifices). Their relationship to Rome never became an issue at the festival.

Chapter 7 focuses on other residents and nonresidents. The identities of Athenian women and girls and of metics and their daughters (what about their wives?) built on their service to the goddess (whereas the daughters’ service to the kanephoroiis seen as service to the polis). Athenian boys, beardless youths, and ephebes constructed identities focused on their service to the city. Benefactors were rewarded for this service. Colonists and allies demonstrated their ties to Athena and Athens by sending representatives and offerings. Foreign cities contributed after 229 BC. Shear emphasizes that the community of “all the Athenians” comprised a variety of groups of varying importance and visibility, depending on citizenship and status of their members. Crucial changes were due to the Kleisthenic reforms, the introduction of the ephebeia in the 370s, the end of tribal team contests ca. 290 BC, the invitations to previously unrelated cities after 229 BC, the end of individual tribal contests in the late first century BC, and the end of the ephebeia ca. AD 267. Throughout its long history, the festival remained an Athenian one, with politics of identity at the core.

In Chapter 8, Shear takes a concluding look. She stresses that change was the norm but tries all the same to characterize similarities and differences of the annual and the penteteric event (the former being local and inclusive, the latter international and exclusive) and the idiosyncrasies of the Panathenaia in comparison to other Athenian festivals (none of which were as inclusive and as international).

Shear adds substantially to the knowledge about the Panathenaia and widens the perspective of looking at festivals in general. This is the first systematic investigation of the diversity of the participants and their respective service to the goddess or/and the polis. Shear traces the possibilities of constructing identities over a period of almost one thousand years, with an emphasis on changes over time. The most crucial changes are listed in chapter 7 (see above), to which the introduction of the annual peplos (as argued by Shear) should be added. Whereas most studies on the Panathenaia concentrate on the Archaic and Classical periods, Shear explores another 700 years, with detailed investigations (for which see also the tables and appendices). She offers a comprehensive assessment of primary sources and a persistent focus on her issue. The author’s concentration on the testimonies and her expertise in analyzing epigraphical and literary sources are the hallmarks of the book.

Shear shares a vast bibliography. Her engagement with diverging approaches and results of previous scholars is, however, mostly confined to (short) comments in the footnotes.[5] Her reluctance to go beyond what is actually attested by explicit evidence (revealed most strongly when she dismisses some colleagues’ hypotheses as contentions, as if there had not been any reasoning) will be appreciated by those who do not want to be bothered by unprovable suggestions—but, given the fragmentary state of the evidence, can we do without hypotheses and tentative reconstructions? Shear refrains from statements about the festival before 566 BC because next to nothing is known. Would the construction of the first temple not be a clue for the existence of a cult community that constructed its identity?

The peplos dedicated as a collective offering and lasting proof of veneration gets little attention as a prime marker of collective identities. In the passage on women and girls (chapter 7) it is mentioned with reference to (elusive) sources for its fabrication (and in passing in chapter 8 and appendix 6). Although the process of its production remains debated, I would claim that female Athenians saw their own weaving reflected in the peplos, considered themselves to be imitating Athena (Ergane), and constructed identities as servants to the goddess. The peplos was essential for the construction of male Athenians’ identity, too. In addition to the verses in Aristophanes’s Knights (565–566: the Athenians’ fathers are praised as being “worthy of … the peplos”), cited by Shear, in the Birds the protagonists plan their new city and ask, “Who will be theos poliouchos? For whom do we card the peplos?” (826–827). The idea of male state-builders carding wool is funny, but is the peplos as proof of the community’s relationship to the theos poliouchos equally funny? The Parthenon frieze shows the peplos in the hands of two male Athenians. The dedicated peplos united all Athenians as servants of Athena.

Shear seems to have more confidence in written sources than in visual ones. A mother’s hope that her son will drive his chariot up to the Acropolis (Aristoph. Nub. 69–70) can hardly support an interpretation of the apobates in the Parthenon frieze as participants in the procession (347; they are shown at the race, jumping off their chariots). Kanephoroi are attested for the procession, but why should six girls in the east frieze be identified as kanephoroi (259 n13; only E 50–51 might have handed a kanoun to E 49)? One should not expect visual sources to depict what is known from written sources. Isn’t the fact that on the east frieze female Athenians vastly outnumber male ones (32:7) substantial evidence for the Athenians’ self-definition as a community serving Athena?

This book provides impressive evidence for the festival throughout its history and thought-provoking insights into the logics of constructing identities for the various subgroups attested as participants over the course of time. Hopefully, it will motivate further discussion about the importance and relevance of cult practices for social history—and for the cult.


[1] L. Giuliani in Gegenwelten zu den Kulturen Griechenlands und Roms in der Antike, edited by T. Hölscher, Munich 2000, 263–286 convincingly argued that the myth was invented for that occasion.

[2] For the religious concept of being born of the earth and the political concept of autochthony and the personae of Erechtheus and Erichthonios (the latter introduced at the end of the sixth century BC) see M. Meyer, Athena, Göttin von Athen. Kult und Mythos auf der Akropolis bis in klassische Zeit, Vienna 2017, 244–267, 313–317, 362–384.

[3] See now B. Wesenberg, Qualis peplus fuerit. Zum panathenäischen Peplos, Möhnesee 2020, 207–216, who disputes the restoration [Praxiergi]dai in SEG 53:143 and the annual peplos.

[4] Wesenberg (see n3) argues (unconvincingly, according to the reviewer) that the peplos and the ship were introduced after 480 BC. The identification of the dedicated peplos with Athena’s robe should be abandoned, because it is never attested as the garment for the agalma.

[5] The passage on the Tyrannicides (76–79) would have profited from a discussion of V. Azoulay, Les Tyrannicides d’Athènes. Vie et mort de deux statues, Paris 2014, and its review by F. Hölscher, Gnomon 88, 2016, 277–279.