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Myth and Politics V: behind the scenes?

In the previous parts of this series, we have already seen kinship policy in action. From these examples, a few things become very clear. We do know that these kinship ties were used as an effective effective means of achieving certain goals, but do we know which ties where used and, more importantly, who these stories were meant to convince? In this next article, we are going to see to what extent we can find out who was active behind the scenes and what these claims were usually based on.

In the last contribution I mainly looked at the  literary sources, but given the size and the nature of the epigraphic material, it provides us with more opportunities to find an answer. As mentioned earlier, there are more examples of kinship myth in the inscriptions than those of classical authors. An additional advantage of these epigraphic texts is that they did not come to us through an additional intermediary. However subjective these texts may seem, we can see them in the way the way the authors wanted them to be seen. As far as their state of preservation allows this, of course. If we put the inscriptions side by side which speak of sungenēs/sungeneia or oikeios/oikeiotēs, it is clear that we often know what the results of a specific request were, but not how it came about. Fortunately, there are a few rare inscriptions that can help us.

A first example in which allows us a small glimpse behind the scenes of this of this diplomatic tradition is an epigraphic text from the second century BC, IC I.XXIV.1. It is part of a series of inscriptions from the Ionian town of Teos in which the inhabitants of Crete acknowledge the city asylos. Many of these inscriptions use the typical Greek terms of kinship with which we have become familiar in this series. In this particular inscription a rhapsode named Menecles is praised by his home town of Teos for his appearance before the public assembly of one of the cities of Crete. In this performance Menecles sang of local myths from Crete as well as works of famous poets such as Timotheus of Miletus. The purpose of this performance was of course to reveal the mythological link between Teos and the inhabitants of Crete but the text does not say what those specific examples were.

What is interesting is that the inscription tells us that the poet performed for the people’s assembly. This was also the seat of the ordinary’ citizens, not all of whom were familiar with the obscure stories of unknown mythological heroes and family ties sometimes mentioned in past examples. The fact that Menecles’ performance could charm and perhaps convince them to vote for the asylia of Teos, is shown by his veneration in the same inscription. The importance of the public assembly or ekklesia in the making of political and administrative decisions is also shown by numerous other epigraphic texts. The form of government of most poleis during the Hellenistic period was also democratic and so it could certainly be that it was the citizens of the city who during the meetings of the ekklisia had to be convinced. It is important to note that this text is only one very specific example and certainly a general conclusion cannot be drawn, but it does offer us an an interesting opportunity to think about.

What we can say with a little more certainty is that the basis for many of the mythological links in the Hellenistic period (and to some extent before that) can be sought in existing local mythological traditions. These local myths were in many cases adapted in order to make possible family connections easier to form. If we look back for a moment to the example of Magnesia on the Meander in IV Magnesia 35 which was extensively discussed in the third contribution of this series. In this text it is mentioned for the first time that Magnes, the hero and founder of the city, is the son of Aeolus. Through this link the inhabitants of Magnesia could easily claim their mythological kinship with the Same on the island of Kefalonia. Until then Magnes was a figure already known in Greek mythology but whose father was not Aeolus. 

The fact that in the Greek world there were often different versions of certain myths is perhaps no surprise. For example, there are different birthplaces for the gods: Asclepius was born in Doris according to one regional tradition, while another other gives birth to him in Epidauros. The ultimate source that juxtaposes several of these traditions is the historian Pausanias. In his Periegesis, he describes not only the numerous monuments of the cities he visits, but also the local stories and legends about the creation of the cities. Sometimes different versions of the origins of commonly known mythological characters emerge, making it clear that the Greek cities, in creating their foundation myths, did not hesitate to bend these stories to their will in order to fit their own local identity into the Greek world.


These mythological heroes and their deeds were an ideal tool because the broad outlines of their actions were known throughout the Greek-speaking world, but often remained so vaguely defined that the details could be adapted without too much trouble to fit one’s own local identity into the wider mythological framework. It seems only logical that the same technique was used by cities during the Hellenistic period (and before) to support so-called vague affinity claims. Thus, although we often do not know what arguments were used by the Greeks to assert their kinship with a particular city or individual, it seems logical that the local myths, heroes and stories of a city played a role in this.

This is already the fifth 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!

(c) Bouleuterion in Teos 

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