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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 9 Jul 2009 10:36:45 -0500
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Tales of Epic Ancestry: Boiotian Collective Identity in the Late Archaic 
and Early Classical Periods. By STEPHANIE L. LARSON. Historia 
Einzelschriften Band 197. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Press, 2007. Pp. 238. 
Paper, $87.00. ISBN 978–3–515–09028–5.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

-Transliterated Greek has been set off within double asterisks
-Aspiration and accent (in that order) follow their vowel

CJ Online 2009.07.01

Stephanie Larson’s Tales of Epic Ancestry stands at the convergence of 
two productive strands in Classical scholarship. The first and more recent 
is a developing interest in ethnicity and identity more generally, behind 
which one may glimpse the influence of contemporary national and global 
politics, the so-called “linguistic turn” in modern historiography and, 
above all, J. Hall’s grounding of such study in a theoretically rigorous 
yet accessible framework. The second is continuing research on Boiotia, the 
best known member of H.-J. Gehrke’s “third Greece,” where there is a 
long tradition of historical, archaeological and epigraphic study.
Larson (henceforth L.) argues a two-part thesis: First, that a distinct 
Boiotian ethnicity existed already in the Archaic era; second, that this 
ethnic group did not achieve political and military salience until the 
Boiotians defeated the Athenians at Koroneia in 447/6, following a 
decade-long period of submission to Athens after the battle of Oinophyta in 
458/7. L. discusses methodology and defines key terms (the works of A.D. 
Smith and J. Hall loom large) in a brief introduction. Chapter 1 exposes a 
coherent Archaic account about Boiotos, eponymous ancestor of the 
Boiotians, who was regarded as the son of Poseidon and an Aiolid woman, and 
as the father or grandfather of a host of important figures in Boiotian 
cult and myth. Chapter 2 demonstrates that already in the Archaic period 
there was a uniform tradition about a Boiotian migration from southern 
Thessaly. By doing so, L. has already demonstrated that, by the criteria of 
Smith and Hall, the Boiotians were a bona fide ethnic group by this date.

Subsequent chapters consider a plurality of indicia of Boiotian ethnicity, 
i.e., features that may accompany and support Boiotian ethnic identity but 
are not constitutive of such an identity. Chapter 3 engages with 
Boiotia’s rich numismatic heritage in the late Archaic and early 
Classical period. Drawing on T.H. Nielsen’s recent work on the so-called 
Arkadikon issues, L. argues that those exceptional early- to 
mid-5th-century coins (probably minted in Tanagra) bearing the legend 
ΒΟΙ or ΒΟΙΟ are more likely festival issues than true federal 
issues. Individual cities routinely minted coins in Boiotia in this period, 
and L. unpacks the implications of the use of common types: The Boiotian 
cut-out shield simultaneously recalled the iconography of the 
better-established Aigina turtles, while creating an implicit association 
with Ajax, an Aiakid hero often depicted in contemporary scenes with such a 
shield. Chapter 4 less successfully explores the epic character of Boiotian 
dialect and suggests that Boiotian preservation of Archaizing and epicizing 
features connected Boiotians to their Homeric past. Dialect and coinage can 
both be seen as drawing on and mutually reinforcing Boiotian claims to 
shared descent and territory.

In Chapter 5, L. demonstrates that the ethnics Boiotios and Boiotoi were 
used in the 6th and early 5th century in cultic contexts especially, and 
often associated with Athena (Ptoion, Delphi), and that in no case do the 
Boiotians seem to express themselves as a political or military koinon, but 
rather as a community of cult. Use of these ethnics by non-Boiotians does 
not contradict this image. Thus Pindar’s awareness that Boiotians were 
slandered by outsiders as “pigs” reveals that they were regarded as a 
cultural unit, not a political one. After the middle of the 5th century, 
however, a shift occurs and the ethnics begin to have a clear political 
referent (e.g. SEG 26.475, a riddling tablet from Olympia). Chapter 6 
confronts the evidence that poses the steepest resistance to L.’s thesis, 
namely the passages of Herodotus and Thucydides that seem to indicate a 
more formal political organization of Boiotia at the time of the Persian 
Wars and earlier; L. dismisses such testimony as retrojection (often 
polemical) of late 5th-century conditions into an earlier context. Koroneia 
emerges as a turning point when Boiotia was united into a politically and 
militarily effective union. L. concludes in her final chapter with some 
broader reflection on how Boiotian ethnogenesis compares with that of the 
Arcadians and Phokians. An iconographic appendix, bibliography and separate 
indices of ancient sources and general subjects bring the work to a close.

L.’s thesis is plausible, the argument is relentless and meticulous, and 
the work as a whole is theoretically circumspect without succumbing to 
jargon. There is much to commend here, in the first four chapters in 
particular, which make the positive case for a Boiotian ethnicity and go 
some way toward describing its chief features. L.’s close readings of 
authors like Pindar or Thucydides are usually illuminating. Chapter 3 on 
Boiotian numismatics is also exemplary—“thick description” at its 
thickest and most revealing. In what emerges as a strong secondary theme, 
L. persuasively shows how Athenian antipathy impacted external conceptions 
of Boiotian ethnicity.

There are problems, however, particularly in the later chapters. Some 
mid-5th-century inscriptions are dated too closely (and conveniently) by 
letter form. The lack of discussion of Boiotian membership in the 
Pylaio–Delphic Amphictyony strikes me as a missed opportunity. More 
seriously, consideration of Boiotian identity often takes place within a 
context devoid of Boiotika (tellingly, there is no map of Boiotia); L. 
summarily discusses inter-communal rivalry in Late Archaic–Early 
Classical Boiotia as indicating the absence of a regional political 
federation (pp. 182–4), but this was simultaneously the background for 
the continuing progression of Boiotian ethnogenesis. My deeper concern is 
that notions of collective identity, ethnicity, and the like are fetishized 
here. The utility of the Boiotian ethnicity on display in L.’s work is 
abstract, and it is clear neither how it mattered on a day-to-day level, 
nor, for example, how distinct a “populous geographic collective 
mobilized around the chance at acquiring new territory” (pp. 151–2, 
L.’s description of the Boiotians at the time of their invasion of Athens 
in 507/6) was from a formal military and political league. [[1]] The prose 
style and overall bulkiness of the argument, finally, too often reveal its 
origins as a doctoral dissertation.

These criticisms do not detract from the overall value and usefulness of 
L.’s work, which represents a significant contribution both to 
scholarship on ethnicity in Greek antiquity and Boiotian studies in 

American School of Classical Studies at Athens
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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[[1]] On this point, mention should be made of the recent, very preliminary 
publication of a fragmentary Archaic columnar monument from Thebes 
inscribed with a dedication (which came to light too late for L. to take 
note of) likely recording a ‘Theban’ perspective on the crucial events 
of 507/6 (SEG 54.518; BullÉp. 2006, no. 203). In Athenian perspective, 
these northern invaders were simply [**e)/thnea Boioto^n**] (IG 13 501, 
supplemented by Hdt. 5.77).

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