Like Frogs Around a Pond: The Role of Maritime Religion in Ancient Greek Culture and Identity

Tuesday, 27 May 2014. 6:30 pm
Babel Building Middle Theatrette, University of Melbourne

Dr Amelia Brown, University of Queensland

The ancient Greeks were never politically unified before the rise of Rome, yet they succeeded in spreading and maintaining a common culture around the Mediterranean sea ‘like frogs around a pond’ (Plato Phaedo 109b). Modern historians struggle to explain how the ancient Greeks could have shared such strong bonds of language, religion and identity, despite a homeland of separate city-states and large-scale migration and intermarriage with other ancient peoples around the Mediterranean sea. This paper looks to the maritime religion of the ancient Greeks for an answer, especially the widespread cults of saviour gods and the rituals practiced at harbors and aboard ships. I argue that the religious system of sailors and travellers helped the ancient Greeks develop and maintain their common culture, all around the Mediterranean sea. Cults of seafaring gods like Aphrodite, Apollo and Poseidon were carried from port to port around ancient Greece, to the Greek colonies and into foreign cities, yet this maritime religion and carriage of cults ‘on the winedark sea’ is not well understood today. The sources are very widely scattered, from ancient testimonia for seafaring rituals of embarkation, accurate navigation and safe arrival on shore, to the archaeological remains of shipwrecks, harbourside sanctuaries and votive offerings. Bringing this evidence back together, however, reveals a durable yet flexible network of travelling rituals and beliefs which bound the ancient Greeks together in unexpected and close-knit ways, even across great distances and without political bonds.

Amelia Brown is Lecturer in Greek History and Language within the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics at The University of Queensland. She was awarded her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and has published research on the cultures of Late Antiquity and Byzantine Greece and post-Classical Greek cities (especially Corinth and Thessaloniki).