Campus News

Colonizing with Cults

Story posted October 15, 1999

Ancient cults, especially those surrounding female deities, played an important role in the colonialism of ancient Greece, according to James Higginbotham, assistant professor of classics, who has spent years excavating former colonies in Italy.

Higginbotham shared some of what he has learned at the excavations at a recent faculty seminar. His excavations have been at the site of Poseidonia, a Greek Colony founded by colonists known as the Achaians in about 600 B.C. Civic cults dominated the life of the city-state and large temples were often built within the city walls. Two such temples, apparently dedicated to the goddess Hera, exist within the walls of Poseidonia. Higginbotham, however, has moved beyond the walls of the city-state to examine these cults in a colonial context.

The goddesses seemed to be used to export the culture of the colony and branch out to take over areas once belonging to other deities, and other people, he said. The Achaians would construct sanctuaries and erect statues to Hera and other female deities beyond the walls of the city. (Higginbotham has also found references to Aphrodite at the excavations.)

Temples within the city were large and intended to be a backdrop to ceremonial worship. The outer sanctuary that Higginbotham has been excavating was unprotected and made greater use of surrounding natural elements than did the temples within the city walls. The area around the sanctuary was open, and marked by freestanding columns and small enclosures in which to throw dedications to the deity. The smaller temple of the sanctuary was entered during worship and was a place of mystery.

These outer sanctuaries were places where the Greeks could introduce who they were to the surrounding people, Higginbotham said. "They are overtures or statements, they invite participation from the outside."

Evidence from the excavations shows that the colonists and surrounding people interacted at the sanctuaries, but that this interaction diminished over time. The Greeks expressed diplomacy in religious terms, and the sites were meant both to warn others away from an area controlled by the colonists and to invite limited interaction at the sanctuaries.

To some extent, the success of these cults can be determined by how long their sanctuaries and temples remained in existence, Higginbotham said. Poseidonia thrived until around 400 B.C. when native Italic people took over. Then, about 100 years after that, the Romans took over the city and renamed it.

The land near the sanctuary Higginbotham has been excavating is now a tomato paste factory, but the religious nature of the site lives on in the form of a Catholic church on a hill above the former Greek sanctuary.

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