Online Review: Book

I Santuari di Asclepio in Grecia. Vol. 1

Jürgen W. Riethmüller


By Milena Melfi. Pp. 578, figs. 71, tables 16. L'Erma di Bretschneider, Rome 2007. €330. ISBN 88-8265-347-1 (cloth).

"Una visione, il più completa possibile." Melfi's book is meant to be the first conclusive study of sanctuaries and cults of Asklepios in Greece, though actually it is only the third within the last three years. It is the first volume of a corpus, well furnished with plans, photographs, and (not very revealing) distribution maps, dealing with sanctuaries on the Peloponnese, in parts of Middle Greece, and on the Cyclades. A second volume concerning Northern Greece is in preparation.

A general treatment of sanctuaries to a principal god (and/or hero) like Asklepios always faces the same problem: an overwhelming amount of heterogeneous information. Not only are considerable architectural remains relevant but also inscriptions, literary sources, sculptures, votives, and so forth, of different character and date. Accordingly, one must focus on certain important issues, without leaving the rest aside. Here Melfi goes her own way. As declared in her introduction, she concentrates almost exclusively upon the architecture and inscriptions of the 11 best-documented sanctuaries of the area. All are discussed in extensive chapters, beginning with Epidauros, Gortys, Alipheira, and Pheneos in Arcadia, followed by Messene, Corinth, Athens, Paros, and Delos, and finally Orchomenos in Boiotia. In addition, each chapter includes a thoroughly compiled and helpful list of inscriptions in chronological order.

However, problems arise from the start. First, one wonders why many essential studies are completely disregarded—not only older works but also recent studies by Krug, Steger, and this reviewer. The second problem emerges from the sequence of sanctuaries, which already implies her conclusions about the general development. Based particularly on the inscriptions, she takes it for granted that Epidauros was the original center, and that from the cult spread in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. Actually, these are outdated assumptions, as I have tried to show. A third problem concerns "the others." At least 92 remaining sanctuaries in the investigated area, only documented by minor (but nevertheless important) archaeological, literary, or epigraphic evidence, are virtually left out of consideration—not a good idea for a corpus. Consequently, significant regions like Laconia completely disappear. Also excluded is the myth of Asklepios, though the earliest literary references and distinct local traditions about his birth, death, and different graves are primary sources and point to a much earlier origin in Thessaly, not in Epidauros. Moreover, the fundamental question, whether Asklepios is originally a hero or a god—a crucial topic for the understanding of the healing cult and the character of the sanctuaries—is not even mentioned. Finally, much attention is devoted to percorsi rituali, rituali performativi, and other helpful conceptions, but there is hardly anything substantial about the main ritual in the sanctuaries—the incubation.

An analysis of the architecture should be expected, but that is not her intention. In the case of Epidauros, buildings belonging to Greek phases are listed briefly on five pages, with hardly any discussion of architecture, chronology, or function. The Tholos, for instance—one of the most important and disputed monuments (in all probability a heroon, i.e., one of the graves of Asklepios)—is only casually mentioned. By contrast, the inscriptions, the obligatory percorsi rituali, and the Roman alterations are extensively discussed over 124 pages—not a balanced treatment of an essentially Greek sanctuary. More or less the same approach appears in the following chapters.

Discussion is focused in almost every case on inscriptions, her main source for a detailed history of the sanctuaries, including items such as administration, officials of the cult, clientele, and rituals such as sacrifice, lustration, and incubation. Four main phases are identified: the rise of the cult in the Classical and Early Hellenistic periods, a sharp decline in the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, a "rinascita" in the second and early third century C.E., followed by the final (late third- and fourth-century) phase. This picture is essentially sound and is largely persuasive regarding the late—especially Roman—phases at Epidauros, Athens, Corinth, and Paros. A fascinating and thorough analysis of the inscriptions makes it the most valuable part of the investigation.

This epigraphic perspective, however, is at the same time the main problem. Architecture, literary sources, and votives are relegated to secondary importance. Above all, there is too much reliance on the validity and strictly chronological interpretation of inscriptions. This certainly gives the impression of dynamic development. However, this is largely due to the scantiness and special character of these testimonies. For example, there are numerous references to incubation and healing in the fourth century B.C.E., whereas in Hellenistic and Early Roman times, the majority of inscriptions concern honorary statues and decrees. Hence, she suggests a predominantly political character in this latter phase. Only in the second century C.E. did a revival of the healing cult occur. This picture seems unsound for several reasons, not least because incubation halls continue to be the primary features of the sanctuaries. We are dealing with continuity, not fundamental change, in the healing cult.

Additional misinterpretations can be cited, resulting from her selectively epigraphic view and the neglect of architecture. For example, in Melfi's opinion, both Asklepieia at Gortys are late foundations of the fourth century B.C.E. In fact, literary sources, a votive deposit, and architectural remains of an early shrine show that they go back at least to the Archaic period. In Messene, new investigations that prove the existence of an Early Archaic phase are completely ignored. The same misinterpretations of initial phases are found in Corinth, Paros, and Orchomenos.

All these problems become apparent in the conclusion, in which she attempts a general history of the cult. From the supposed center and model at Epidauros, it spread in the late fifth century B.C.E. via Corinth to Athens, then in the fourth to Arcadia and Messenia, and at the same time via Athens to the Cyclades. Finally, in the third century it reached Middle Greece. Apart from the fact that this proposal is based only on 11 of more than 100 sanctuaries in the area, a look on the chronology shows that such a development is impossible. Seven sanctuaries are wrongly dated or misunderstood (esp. in their initial phase), among them complexes that are even older than Epidauros. In short, for the late phase and the inscriptions this work is a valuable book, but for the general development of the sanctuaries and the cult, it is, unfortunately, not.

Jürgen W. Riethmüller
Institute of Ancient Studies
University of Greifswald
Rudolf-Petershagen-Allee 1
17487 Greifswald


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