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  • State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece: A Study of Theōriā and Theōroi by Ian Rutherford
  • Deborah Steiner
Ian Rutherford. State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece: A Study of Theōriā and Theōroi. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xxvii, 534. $120.00. ISBN 978–1-107–03822–6.

For the Pump Room at Bath, where the heroine of Northanger Abbey goes eagerly to meet Mr. Tilney, the object of her growing affections, substitute the festival on Delos where, according to a story preserved in Callimachus’ Aetia, Acontius from Keos first set eyes on and fell instantly in love with the Naxian Cydippe; both had traveled to the island for the annual celebration of the Delia. Ian Rutherford cites this, among other examples, in his innovatory and insight-packed study of the institution of theōriā, broadly defined as participation in a sacred delegation or sacred travel. Through the course of twenty-one chapters that present, explore, and synthesize the often fragmentary evidence, much of it from recently discovered epigraphic sources, the author moves from our earliest known instance of a theōros or “god-watcher”—one Bronze Age Sumerian king by the name of Gudea who visited the sanctuary of the goddess Nanshe in the city Nina—through to the final known instance, at Antioch in a.d. 507.

The opening chapter confronts the question of how to organize the mass of heterogeneous material and lays out the structure of the book. Following a survey of approaches and definitions supplied by earlier scholars, Rutherford presents the chief sources on which he draws (chapter 2) and supplies a historical overview of an institution that changed in volume, visibility and purpose over time and place, and from one political climate to the next (chapter 3). Four subsequent chapters detail the principal functions of theōroi, dispatched to announce and/or attend festivals, proclaim truces, consult oracles, and convey [End Page 567] offerings to and from sanctuaries. Much of the richness of the book lies in the “thick descriptions” that chapters 10–18 then supply, and which allow readers to follow the delegates from their initial selection through their journeys, some brief, others far-flung, and back to their original points of departure. Here too Rutherford details the several roles that delegations would fulfill on reaching their destinations, whether as participants in processions, presenters of sacrifices and other offerings, performers in choruses, or as those who supervised and assisted other members of the delegation, athletes in particular; strict accuracy, Theognis cautions, was required of those entrusted with reporting back an oracular response. As their name suggests, theōroi also attended as spectators, and as viewers of the athletic contests and performances by local groups or other poleis.

Brief vignettes concerning particular delegations and individual participants enliven the account: theōroi from Arcadia visiting the court of Antigonus Gonatas earned censure for misbehaving when some minimally clad Thessalian dancing girls appeared. A journey, whether by sea or land (Rutherford acutely notes that theōriā often supplied the impetus for road-building) could be hazardous, whether the delegates encountered the “bird blockade” imagined in Aristophanes’ Birds, or, in the case of two Delphians sent to announce the Pythia in the Black Sea region, fell into the hands of pirates. Rutherford tells of one calamitous Syracusan delegation led by the brother of the tyrant Diodorus II: the Greeks—who joined together to resist the Syracusans’ participation—ridiculed the tyrant’s poems, the chariots funded by Diodorus crashed into each other during the race, and the ship carrying the returning theōroi was wrecked near Tarentum.

Balancing this meticulous reconstruction of the institution—what qualified individuals for participation, how they were funded, what travel allowance they might receive, where they would be housed—are more broad-based discussions of the sociopolitical aspect of theōriā, which underscore its role in creating, defining, and modifying relations between individual city-states. As Rutherford amply demonstrates, these were vehicles not just for large-scale “networking” but also for self-presentation, occasions when cities and individuals could achieve distinction (or its reverse) and jockey for position on the panhellenic stage; the...


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