ancient greece Ancient History diplomatic relation greece greek politics inscriptions literary sources

Myth and Polis IV: Just a Hellenistic thing?

This is already the fourth part of our series on myth and polis. Previously I have outlined how the Greeks had a whole arsenal of traditions that were used in Greek diplomacy. Referring to a common, mythological kinship between two parties was only one of the ways the Greeks tried to persuade others to join their cause. Looking at the two examples already discussed, this phenomenon seems to be purely Hellenistic. But was it really?

A large part of sources that mention these so-called mythological affiliations, are inscriptions from the Hellenistic period. During the Hellenistic world more Greek texts were engraved on stone than in the Classical and Archaic periods. This was, of course, because in addition to the poleis on the Greek mainland, now cities on the coasts of Asia Minor and the Cyclades wanted to play a role in international politics and immortalized successful diplomatic actions on the on the agora of their city. This abundance of epigraphic sources – I may be speaking of an abundance here, but compared to modern historians we are still talking about a fairly small number of number of sources – can sometimes give the impression that the use of mythological kinship as a diplomatic tool occurred only in the period after the death of Alexander the Great.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Kinship claims had long played a role in Greek diplomacy. Thus, there are also examples can be found in Greek authors such as Herodotos and Thucydides, which makes it clear that this was a tradition that existed long before the inhabitants of Kythinion relied on some strange ancestor to get money to build their new wall. When we compare the two types of sources, some interesting elements emerge.

For example, kinship in the literary sources is used more as an argument in cases of the forming of alliances, requesting  assistance or justifying the conquest or occupation of a particular territory. The inscriptions mainly concern requests for asylia,
recognition for religious festivals or political interactions between two states. In general, the literary examples are also somewhat more dramatic and mention – coincidentally or not – also some well-known historical figures such as the Persian king Xerxes. This is in all probably also due to the need of these authors to attract the attention of their audience.

Herodotus - WikipediaAbout time, then, to take a look at some examples. A first example can be found in Herodotos. In his Histories (7.150) he mentions the following story. During the Persian Wars Xerxes was preparing his invasion of Greece, when he sent a request to the inhabitants of the Greek city of Argos with the request to remain neutral during the upcoming war. He supported this request with the reference to a kinship relationship between the Persians and the Argives. The Persians, in fact, were said to be descended from Perses, the son of Perseus, the famous mythological hero from Argos. On that basis Xerxes concluded that the Argives were the ancestors of the Persians.

This passage provides an interesting example as it involves kinship ties between a non-Greek people and a Greek city. It seems very unlikely that Xerxes really addressed himself to Argos. First, although the chance exists that the Persians had some knowledge of GreeXerxes I - Wikipediak mythology, there are no Persian sources that support this idea. Second, there is also the question of whether Argos around 480 BC was politically and militarily strong enough to warrant such a demand from Xerxes. Whatever the exact reason for this passage may be, it implies the existence of a broader tradition in the Greek world in which so-called synegeneia could be used as a valid argument could be used in diplomatic interactions at the time of Herodotos.

A second example we find with the author Plutarch. Writing in the second century AD, he tells of the conflict between Athens and Megara over the island of Salamis in the sixth century B.C. According to Plutarch, both poleis had been fighting over the island for decades. When Sparta acted as mediator to resolve the conflict, both the Athenians and the inhabitants of Megara
used mythology as a means of justifying the conquest of Salamis (Plut. Sol. 10). Athens cited, among other things, that the sons of Ajax, the Homeric hero who came from Salamis, became Athenian citizens became and had left the island to the city had left the island to the city. Because Salamis eventually became Athenian property, Megara afterwards tried to strengthen their territorial claim by creating a local hero named Sciron with Salamis through the figure of Ajax.

Regardless of the historical reliability of this passage – the large time span between author and event causes the necessary historiographical problems –  this example also shows how important mythological relationships could be for the Greeks. Sometimes the inheritance of a particular territory from the son of a Homeric hero such as Ajax, was apparently a good enough argument to gain control of that area and this happened centuries before the arrival of the Hellenistic kingdoms.

Further reading:

Erksine, A. ‘O Brother Where are thou? Tales of Kinship and Diplomacy’, Ogden, D., ed., The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives,
2002, p. 97-115.
Jones, C. Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World, 1999.
Patterson, L. E.. Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece, 2010.

This is already the fourth post in a series of twelve which dives into the ways in which the ancient Greeks used their mythological past as a diplomatic tool in their relationships with others. This series is written in collaboration with Hippocrene – een Mythologisch Genootschap; where you can find a Dutch version of the post every month. Hippocrene a young association committed to bringing together academics, artists and interested parties to learn about mythology. Follow them on Facebook to keep up with their activities!






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