BMCR 2023.05.21

Côtoyer les dieux: l’organisation des espaces dans les sanctuaires grecs et romains

, , Côtoyer les dieux: l'organisation des espaces dans les sanctuaires grecs et romains. BCH supplément, 64. Athens: École française d’Athènes, 2022. Pp. 258. ISBN 9782869585638

Open access

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


This volume collects the proceedings of a conference held in Athens in October 2016 within the framework of the scientific programme “Spaces and Rites. The Archaeology of Worship in the Sanctuaries of the Mediterranean World” (French Schools of Rome and Athens, 2012–2016). Following a first book devoted to the foundation of sanctuaries,[1] this monograph focuses on the different ways of interacting with the gods by adopting a spatial perspective, that of the organization of Greco-Roman cult places, from their foundation to their abandonment. The book, composed of ten papers, brings together a vast amount of documentation from Greece, Italy, and Gaul, covering the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Imperial periods. Through the study of the attendance at, and functioning of, sanctuaries, it is both the perception and the construction of the divine and its place in the life of cities that are questioned.

Citing the importance of archaeological data to examine the dynamics or strategies of the construction of the divine, Sandrine Huber and William van Andringa divide their introduction into two parts, one devoted to the Greek world, the other to the Roman world. This unfortunate division leads to the separate formulation of the book’s main issues, as well as repetition, since the themes appear to be common to both worlds. By juxtaposing so many questions, the introduction thus misses the opportunity to initiate a true comparative reflection on the interaction with the divine and its respective treatment by the historiography of the Greek and Roman worlds. However, several central questions are worth noting: how does the spatial organisation of sanctuaries record and translate in some way the cosmic hierarchy of men and gods, the division between the sacred and the secular, and also the socio-political frame of the cities and their past histories? To what degree do the mutations of a sanctuary over time, through the construction or renovation of buildings, the addition of statues or offerings, materially translate the evolution of the cults themselves, as they are constantly reconfigured? To what extent can ritual practices, as well as more practical activities such as sleeping, eating, working or cleaning, be seen as various ways of living amongst the gods and approaching sacred space? Finally, how do images, through their material, type and location, contribute to defining the sacred character of the sanctuary and expressing the religious hierarchy between men and gods? In this respect, one regrets that the concepts, such as “côtoyer” (live amongst, interact with) and “fréquenter” (visit, spend time in a place), are not more clearly defined and differentiated in the introduction. They serve more as catch-all words than effective concepts.

The proceedings are organised in four sections. The first deals with the question of the attendance at, and functioning of, sacred spaces in the Greek world from an archaeological perspective. Hélène Brun-Kyriakidis starts with the case of Delos and considers some of the amenities offered to those who visit the gods. Adopting the point of view of the worshippers, she discusses in particular the often neglected facilities of sanctuaries, such as courtyards, squares, and porticoes where people gathered during their visit or the processional routes they took. These seemingly mundane spaces were the ones that devotees used most during their visit. In the same perspective, Sandrine Huber, Anne Jacquemin, and Didier Laroche analyse the sanctuary of Delphi and its global layout through the prism of sacrificial practice, one of the main modalities of visiting the gods. This leads them to examine the circulation in and out of the sanctuary, but also the practical and material setting of sacrifices with access to the altar, the welcoming of participants, and the areas for preparing and consuming meat. Finally, the offerings, whether monumental or not, which commemorated these sacrifices, are evoked. Petros Themelis concludes this section by addressing the sanctuary of the heroine Messana at the agora of Messene. The central location of the sanctuary, closely linked to the Bouleion, the probable Prytaneion, and the Treasury Chamber, suggests that it was part of the urban plan from the very beginning and formed the centre of the socio-political and economic life of the city. The introduction of the cult of Messana appears to be contemporary with the foundation of the city by the Thebans. It is thus closely linked to the assertion of the identity and glorious past of the Messenians in opposition to past Laconian domination. The strong symbolic component of the sanctuary probably explains why the temple became an epiphanestatos topos for the display of decrees and honours until the end of antiquity.

The second part, which focuses on the alteration of cult places, puts the Greek sanctuaries in dialogue with those of Gaul and Italy. Audrey Bertrand begins by examining the transformation of sanctuaries in central and southern Italy between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. While it was long believed that the establishment of Roman domination had led to the irreversible and widespread decline of pre-Roman sanctuaries, recent excavations have instead revealed slow and varied evolutions. Some sanctuaries, marginalised from the urban centres promoted by Rome, became extra-urban but were not necessarily excluded from the religious life of local communities. Others underwent numerous architectural, cultic, and ritual transformations, such as a relocation of the divinity, or a change in the nature of the offerings. The Social War therefore probably did not bring the sanctuaries of Lucania and Samnium to a sudden end. In his article focusing on Long-Haired Gaul, William van Andringa looks at the consequences of the provincial system set by Augustus in 13–12 BC on places of worship. The sanctuaries of the newly established provincial cities were often built in places with a pre-existing religious function or charged with collective memory. Most often, however, existing sacred structures, such as enclosures and pits, were obliterated and a new spatial and architectural layout was put in place, reflecting the Roman hierarchy between men and gods. The aim was therefore not so much to preserve the religious past of the Gauls as to selectively reuse it so as to reinforce the legitimacy of the new religious order promoted by the principate.

The relations between men and gods took place at the level of the individual, the family, the household, and the city. The third part examines these different realms of worship, private and civic, often intermingled. The first article focuses on Greek domestic cults, which are located at the home or in its surroundings. Using the example of Olynthos, Marine Garcia shows that it is often difficult to locate spaces in Greek houses reserved for sacred activity. The archaeological study of structures, religious furniture, and sacrificial waste highlights the multifunctional nature of domestic and private space. With the exception of a few fixed altars located in the courtyard, most of the relevant material remains are portable, such as miniature altars, fireplaces, incense burners, or louteria. The space became temporarily sacred when a member of the household performed rituals on a specific occasion. Once the ceremony was completed, the cult objects were stored away and the domestic spaces returned to their normal use. Cécile Durvye considers the case of the small sanctuary of Aphrodite on Delos at the end of the 4th century BC. This sanctuary, dedicated by the archon Stesileos when leaving his duties, was not a simple private family chapel but a public sanctuary, whose maintenance was ensured by the city’s sacred fund. Founded at the familial level, it was attended by civic magistrates and welcomed various dedicators. However, the family manifested its presence in the sanctuary with statues, occupied first place in the celebrations, and financed perpetual sacrifices through trust-foundations. The founder and his descendants succeeded in creating a lasting link with the deity, which was recognized by the civic authorities. Lastly, Pascal Néaud’s article focuses on the structuring role of elite tombs in the development of sacred space in Roman Gaul through the example of the sanctuary of Sains-du-Nord. Recently uncovered in a modest settlement belonging to the ciuitas of the Nervians, the sanctuary gradually developed around two earlier burials dated between 60 and 20 BC. These graves, which are certainly those of two high-ranking figures, were monumentalized with the construction of several successive buildings. The preservation of these initial burials until the sanctuary was abandoned in the second half of the 3rd century AD suggests the existence of a heroic cult where the deceased acted as privileged intermediaries between men and gods.

The final part of the volume is devoted to the place of sculpted representations in sacred space, thus extending the analysis of two recent collective works on the representation of the divine.[2] It examines the thorny question of the status of divine and human images—whether or not they were used in worship—in the design of sanctuaries and in the structuring of their spaces. What meaning should be given to a human portrait erected in a sanctuary, sometimes in the cella, as close as possible to the statue of the deity? Guillaume Biard points out that the consecration of a statue of a private individual to a deity in a sanctuary has an obvious political and social function, but also a religious significance. While the growing importance of individual representation might suggest a weakening of the religious character of statues, dedications testify to continuity in votive practice from the Archaic through Hellenistic periods. The consecration of an agalma, literally a beautiful offering that delights the gods, aims to commemorate and perpetuate through its durable material such as marble or bronze the relationship with the divinity and to attract the protection of the latter over the donor and honorand. Emmanuelle Rosso, for her part, studies the construction of the sacred in the sanctuaries of the Roman world through imperial statues. Her essay examines the presence of the imperial image and its significance in different cultic contexts: imperial statues placed in temples of traditional divinities, spaces reserved for the veneration of an emperor, and dynastic sanctuaries associating the diui and the reigning princes. The location of an imperial statue alone does not allow us to determine—any more than the material, size, or type—whether the statue had an honorary, votive, or cult function. It is in fact through its iconographic and spatial relationship to other images that the meaning of an imperial effigy could be grasped. The architectural scenography of the statues comprised of subtle differentiations between gods, diui, and reigning princes determines their function. It contributes to building the sacrality of emperors and to defining their position in the hierarchy between men and gods. Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge’s conclusion underlines the role of sanctuaries as spaces of communication and exchange with the gods. Erected by men to catch the attention of the deities and install them in their midst, sanctuaries provide a privileged setting for a long-term dialogue between the two.

Despite the few reservations noted above, the book is easy to use, thanks to its general bibliography and abstracts. The numerous illustrations, maps, and plans, which are of good quality and often reproduced in colour, are integrated directly into the contributions, making them convenient to consult. In short, the proceedings of this conference are a step forward in the analysis of the religious practices of the ancients by offering new reflections on the spatial layout of sanctuaries based on new and diverse archaeological data.


Authors and titles

Sandrine Huber, William van Andringa, “Introduction. Espèces d’espaces: façons de côtoyer les dieux dans les mondes grec et romain”

Part I. “Espaces fréquentés”
Hélène Brun-Kyriakidis, “Fréquenter les dieux à Délos: pour une archéologie de la visite cultuelle”
Sandrine Huber, Anne Jacquemin, Didier Laroche, “Sacrifier aux dieux à Delphes: espaces et agencements cultuels”
Petros Themelis, “The Sanctuary of Messana: Organization of the Sacred Space”

Part II. “Espaces en mouvement”
Audrey Bertrand, “Vitalité, déclin et abandon des sanctuaires: problèmes historiques et méthodologiques”
William van Andringa, “Fabrique des lieux de culte en Gaule romaine: mémoire des lieux et intégration provincial”

Part III. “Espaces et mémoires gentilices”
Marine Garcia, “Habiter avec les dieux: les espaces sacrés dans la maison grecque”
Cécile Durvye, “Stèsiléôs et Aphrodite: famille et dieu dans un sanctuaire hellénistique délien”
Pascal Néaud, “Quand les morts définissent le sacré: le sanctuaire de Sains-du-Nord en Gaule Belgique”

Part IV. “Espaces et images”
Guillaume Biard, “Les fonctions votives des représentations individuelles dans les sanctuaires à l’époque hellénistique”
Emmanuelle Rosso, “Côtoyer les diui: statues impériales et construction du sacré dans les sanctuaires du monde romain”

Vincianne Pirenne-Delforge, “Conclusion”



[1] Sandrine Agusta-Boularot, Sandrine Huber and William Van Andringa (eds.), Quand naissent les dieux: fondation des sanctuaires antiques: motivations, agents, lieux, Rome, 2017.

[2] Sylvia Estienne (ed.), Image et religion, Naples, 2008; Nicole Belayche and Vincianne Pirenne-Delforge (eds.), Fabriquer du divin: constructions et ajustements de la représentation des dieux dans l’Antiquité, Liège, 2015.