The Seer and the City

Religion, Politics, and Colonial Ideology in Ancient Greece

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Margaret Foster
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the ancient Greek world, the seer—mantis—was a centrally important figure who performed a wide variety of religious functions—divination, healing, and purification—essential to the well-being of the individual, household, and city. Given their importance as religious experts in Archaic and early Classical Greece, Margaret Foster’s slim but substantial monograph identifies a realm in which that expertise is curiously absent: narratives about the “colonial” activities which seeded Greek communities across the Mediterranean basin from the 8th to the 5th centuries BCE. Taking in hand the methods of New Historicism, Foster convincingly argues that the potential role of the seer as a religious authority in colonial foundation narratives was “suppressed” in favor of the figure of the oikist (a heroic founding figure) who instead received divine sanction from the Delphic Oracle. Foster builds her case in six chapters which fall into two halves. The first three lay out and develop the thesis that there existed cultural tensions between the seer and oikist by the middle of the Archaic period (during which time Western colonization overseen by Delphic consultation was ramping up); the second half consists of case studies in which the operations of the seer’s suppression are brought to light, particularly as these accounts served to entrench Delphic claims to colonial authority. 

Within the first three chapters, Foster identifies a religious economy based on a “talismanic power to secure victory” reflecting divine favor as one source of tension between these two figures. This “talismanic power” was shared alike by seers, oikists, and athletic victors (who often became oikists themselves). In acquiring analogous forms of charismatic social capital, the seer and the oikist could be seen, at the very best, as functionally redundant, and, at the very worst, as dangerously competing over the terms and claims of divine favor. In addition to these competing claims, Foster shows that legends about seers tend to stress “a cultural antagonism between mantic and political authority” (77). This was due in part to a tradition which saw seers as itinerant outsiders whose expertise was called on in times of social emergency, such as military crises, pestilence, or religious pollution. The price of a seer’s expertise, however, was often the destabilization of the very social order it was intended to preserve (whether through the ousting of established authorities like kings, or by making provocative demands of citizenship and marriage). Despite their good claims to second-sight, there were, then, “historically” compelling reasons to worry about a seer’s involvement in the foundation of new political communities. The case-studies in chapters 4 to 6 focus upon the narrative flexibility of myth to engage productively with socio-political tensions of the present. Here, Foster closely assesses how lyric poets like Bacchylides and Pindar and historiographers like Herodotus rewrote foundation myths that eliminated seers where they had once been, or carefully inoculated them against charges of stirring political conflict. These revisionist histories likewise foreground Delphi as the appropriate seat of oracular authority within their colonial narratives.  

Foster’s central observation about the striking absence of a certain style of religious expert where we might well expect them is new and important for historians of ancient religion and colonialism alike. So too, her writing is clear and the overall argument is well-constructed. This clarity is especially noteworthy in her sober reconstruction of archaic ideology through the texts of (sometimes much) later authorities. The virtues of her interpretive restraint are equally on display in her close reading of texts through the lens of cultural poetics and its heuristic quest to identify the narrative fractures which expose those documents’ ideological agendas. Such inquiry can quickly become circular, and Foster’s clear-eyed approach is to be commended. Still, not all chapters will equally convince. This is especially so of chapter 6’s treatment of the Theban oracle of Amphiaraos and the specific claim that “we also detect efforts both in Herodotus’s account and in an inscription from the Theban Ismenion to disenfranchise the Amphiareion, efforts that suggest attempts by Delphi and its allies to curb competition” (182). The evidence for Delphi’s direct hand in the “disenfranchisement” is ultimately underwhelming, as Thebes’ continued interest controlling the oracle at Oropos in the later 5th and 4th centuries shows the continuing relevance of Amphiaraos for Boiotians during that time, regardless of Delphic interloping. 

Another, more substantial criticism could be aimed at the exclusively Western gaze of a book dealing with Greek colonialism. One has to wait until the brief concluding chapter for Foster to acknowledge explicitly that the scope of her investigation is limited to mainland Greece and Magna Graeca, or to learn that the role of Delphi in determining colonial discourse and praxis shifted over the following centuries. These omissions have some potentially problematic consequences. First is the failure to consider the prominence of colonial narratives coming from the Greek-east, especially from cities like Colophon, or, even more significant for the purposes of this book, the oracle of Branchos-Didyma at Miletos, which would have played a role in directing the polis’ massive colonial enterprises along the Black Sea littoral. While we lack precise contemporary accounts of the operations of Eastern oracles, some consideration of the contributions of Eastern Greece to the emergence of colonial discourses and their ideological aims would have been welcome. Indeed, the multiplicity of types of colonial activity and their motivations suggests the related problem of whether we can or should be speaking about a singular “colonial discourse” in the archaic period at all. My feeling is that, while the narrowing of the parameters of the study to the West does not vitiate the overall argument, an earlier announcement of those parameters and more extended engagement with the now very large body of scholarship on Eastern Greek colonialism—and the importance of seer-like figures in the zones of colonial cross-cultural contact—would have benefited the book on the whole.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Calloway Scott is Lecturer in Classics at New York University.

Date of Review: 
October 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret Foster is Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Indiana University.


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