Ancient History & Civilisation

APPENDIX I Religious Festivals in Thucydides

©1. Greek religion in Thucydides is much like the famous dog in the Sherlock Holmes tale who provided a clue because he did not bark in the night: Thucydides’ comparative silence on Greek religious practices and institutions dramatically illustrates the rationalizing and secular nature of his work. Herodotus, for example, refers to the famous sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi more than five times as often as does Thucydides.

©2. Precisely because Thucydides’ secular outlook anticipates modern inclinations, we must make an effort to understand how atypical this would have been: Socrates was, of course, executed for impiety, while the mutilation of the Hermae (6.27.1-3) and the profanation of the Eleusinian Mysteries described in Book 6 of Thucydides (6.28.1) brought down sentences of exile and death. An eclipse of the moon frightened the Athenians into delaying their retreat from Syracuse and led to the annihilation of the entire expedition (7.50). Thus the average fifth-century Athenian must have been far more superstitious and intolerant than one might suspect from reading Thucydides’ calm and rational narrative.

©3. It is important to bear in mind two key aspects of Greek religion. First, Greeks had no religious texts comparable to the Bible or the Koran. Their religion centered around ritual practice rather than doctrine: participation in communal activities was at the heart of Greek religion, while belief was less important. Second, all Greek religious actions were, to some measure, exclusive: some religious cults were restricted to kinship groups, others were open only to citizens of a particular city-state, and the great “Panhellenic” events were restricted to those who could prove themselves to be Greek. Participation in any Greek religious activity was a sign of membership in an exclusive group, whether small or large.

©4. Scattered as they were among hundreds of small city-states from the Crimea to Spain, the Greeks desperately needed a number of central locations in which they could gather, exchange information, establish and strengthen personal contacts, and compete for a prestige that would transcend that which they had gained in their own city-states. Thucydides stresses at 1.3 that Homer has no word for the Greeks as a whole: the idea of Greece and a common Greek identity gained force only after the Greeks founded colonies throughout the Mediterranean world and came into contact with a number of different, often unfriendly, cultures.

©5. In the eighth century the local athletic contests at Olympia began to acquire an international character, as Greeks from outside the Peloponnese started competing for prizes and the admiration of their peers. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi also evolved into an international Greek institution: those who wished to found a new colony regularly consulted the god, and the oracle could, at the least, prevent two expeditions from accidentally setting off to colonize the same location. The popularity of the athletic contests at Olympia grew so great that in the first half of the sixth century games were added at Delphi (the so-called Pythian Games) as well as at Nemea and the Isthmus of Corinth. Alcibiades’ speech at 6.16, which boasts of his victories at Olympia and of the credit that they conferred on Athens as a whole, provides an outstanding account of how Greeks viewed these games. Greek states took pride in the achievements of their citizens, and individual citizens could convert their athletic prestige into political power (witness the attempt by the Athenian Cylon at 1.126.3 to make himself tyrant after becoming an Olympic victor).

©6. The Greeks were extremely jealous of their independence and suspicious of any entity that acquired too much power. Panhellenic religious centers badly needed at least the appearance of neutrality if they were to maintain their authority. Unquestionably, the religious hub of the classical Greek world was the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Located in the virtual center of the Greek world (it was, in fact, called the “navel of the world”), Delphi played a crucial role: it was militarily weak and thus could not translate any cultural prestige or moral authority into imperial power. Eventually, when the oracle of Apollo at Delphi took sides and reported that the god would aid the Peloponnesian side (1.118), it violated its apolitical status. Even Panhellenism had it limits: both sides assumed that the Peloponnesians would “borrow” the treasures accumulated at Delphi and Olympia (1.121; 1.143).

©7. Similarly, a universal truce was supposed to reign among Greeks during the Panhellenic athletic contests at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. When the people of Elis barred the Spartans from competing (5.49), it caused a major scandal that many feared would lead to war and undermine the cultural authority of the games. The people of Elis justified this action by accusing the Spartans of invading the territory of another Greek state during a previous Olympic truce. Thucydides reports that a truce for the Isthmian games delayed a Corinthian expedition to Chios (8.9), and that during the games themselves the Athenians gained knowledge of the Corinthian plan and were able to take preemptive action at Chios (8.10).

©8. By contrast, each Greek city-state and even many kinship groups had their own exclusive religious rituals. These included the Carneia (5.75.2) and the Hyacinthia (5.23.4) at Sparta and the Dionysia at Athens (5.23.4). Athens had pretensions to Panhellenic stature: the Eleusinian Mysteries (8.53) and the “Festival of All Athens” (Panathenaea, 6.56.2) had potential for Panhellenic stature, but the power of thens, especially in the fifth century, made many Greeks leery of these religious institutions and limited their appeal. Contests at the religious festivals included cultural as well as athletic events—poetry, music, even orations—but it was the local festival of Dionysus at Athens that produced Greek drama, one of the most successful literary forms ever produced.

Gregory Crane
Classics Department
Tufts University
Medford, Massachusetts

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