On Wednesday 5th December 2018 Dr Maria Mili from the University of Glasgow (Dept. of Classics) gave a talk titled ‘Objects in Boiotian cult’. Maria Mili works on Greek religion and has a special interest in how belief and cult practice intertwine with larger political agendas and issues of social and ethnic identity. Her lecture at CANI focused on a recently published dedicatory inscription found in 2005 at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios in Boiotia, the area stretching south of the famous oracular Sanctuary at Delphi.
With the inscription as her starting point, Mili explored the ways in which Boiotian communities perceived their local cult objects as consecrated artefacts with divine protective powers that could be called upon for divine support and safeguard in times of danger. Consecrated arms, especially arms of defensive character such as shields, were a type of cult object that carried the fundamental notion of divine protection exceptionally well in Boiotia, and were often summoned by the local communities in precarious military circumstances.
The Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios was one of the most important oracular sanctuaries of Boiotia. It was situated just outside the city gates of Thebes and it played an important role in the shaping of Theban civic identity. The dedicatory inscription had been inscribed in verse (epigram) on a column drum twice: the earliest text in Boiotian script can be dated to the late-6th century BC and the Ionian script of the later text suggests a date of early/mid-4th century BC. The two versions, inscribed on opposite sides of the drum, are not identical but they overlap significantly.
The epigram commemorates the recovery of a lost shield that originally had been dedicated to the oracular Sanctuary of Amphiaraos by a certain Croesus. The shield was stolen but, through successful divination, it was now resituated at the Sanctuary of Apollo Ismenios. The column drum must have been the base for the shield, the latter being described as ‘gleaming’, a memorial of virtue [and suffering?], a miraculous ‘marvel to the Thebans’.
The epigram has been associated by the scholars who published it with Herodotus’ reference to the golden shield and spear that Croesus, the King of Lydia, dedicated to the Sanctuary of Amphiaraos, and which Herodotus claimed to have seen at the Theban Ismenion (Hd. 1.52). Mili questioned the certainty of such a straightforward connection of the material remains with the dedication of the Lydian king and argued for a more nuanced approach to the text of Herodotus as historical source. She conceded that the inscription may reflect local traditions regarding King Croesus who is portrayed in extremely positive light in Boiotian sources, in contrast with Herodotus’ emphasis on his hubris and punishing death. Boiotian poets Pindar and Bacchylides, instead, both describe Croesus as being generous (Pythian I. 95-97), a blessed man whom Apollo protects and actually saves from the pyre (Ode 3.25-62).
The Boiotian tradition of Croesus as a recipient of divine charis who consequently becomes a hero casts doubts to the reconstructed reading of his ‘suffering’ on the inscription, and at the same time it justifies the Theban eagerness to appropriate his legendary weapon dedication as a heroic relic. Mili noted the widespread belief that heroic relics were endowed with supernatural powers and in numerous occasions their acquisition, stealing or repatriation was paramount in securing the community’s political/social stability or military success. In this respect, the (re)possessing of a heroic shield would procure and potentially ensure divine backing to the military affairs of the community. Indeed, several literary sources testify to the use of sacred weapons in battle, or to the miraculous intervention of consecrated arms at key moments of the battle, offering magical protection and granting victory. Such miraculous appearances/disappearances of sacred weapons are often linked to Boiotian/Theban military entanglements. Mili argued that the references in the inscription to the ‘gleaming’ shield that was ‘marvel to the Thebans’ reflect established Boiotian traditions and beliefs in the agency of sacred weapons.
The final question centred on the historical context of the epigram. Mili considered the circumstances that led to the composition of the two versions in the 6th and 4th centuries BC respectively, namely the potential association of the earliest text with Theban assertions to supremacy in Boiotia, and the connection of the later reiteration of the claim with the rebuilding of Thebes after its destruction by Alexander the Great. With her informative and thought-provoking analysis of a little known relic of Greek religion, Mili gave us a thoroughly enjoyable insight on the agency and versatility of cult objects in the ancient world.