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From Resolving Stasis to Ruling Sicily: Herodotus on the Hereditary Priesthood of the Chthonic Goddesses

Virginia M. Lewis

At the beginning of Herodotus’ account of the Greek embassy’s visit to Gelon (7.153-164), Herodotus tells how Telines, the ancestor of Gelon and the Deinomenid tyrants, secured the priesthood of the Chthonic goddesses for his descendants: when a stasis broke out in Gela, Telines led the defeated faction back to the city taking with him only the ἱρά of the goddesses (and no manpower) for protection. He restored the exiles to the city on the condition that his descendants would be the ἱροφάνται of the goddesses. When read together with the epinician odes for Syracusans, it becomes clear that Demeter and Persephone are symbols of civic ideology in Syracuse. I argue that we should view Herodotus’ account of the Telines episode in the context of Deinomenid reframing of their inherited cultic authority as religious power that benefitted all Syracusans—in this sense the episode is important because it provides background for and critically reflects upon the merger of private and state interests associated with rulers in Sicily and Syracuse.

Scholars have long recognized that the Deinomenidae took advantage of their position as priests of Demeter and Persephone to reinforce their political authority. Nonetheless, treatments of the Telines episode have tended to focus on the historical accuracy, sources, and dating of the account (e.g. Compernolle, Caltaldi, Scibona) or have attempted to evaluate the extent to which the cult reveals Deinomenid sympathies with democratic partisans in Syracuse (e.g. Dunbabin, White, Privitera). However, the most distinctive aspect of the episode is the way in which Herodotus emphasizes the interdependency of Telines’ acquisition of the hereditary priesthood for his genos and his resolution of the stasis in Gela. Telines’ action at once benefits his family through his acquisition of the priesthood and the state through his resolution of the stasis. As Luraghi has observed, Telines’ reunification of the Geloans mirrors Gelon’s return of the aristocratic Syracusan Gamoroi to Syracuse when he became the tyrant of the city. I argue that this story not only echoes Gelon’s rise to power in Syracuse, but also anticipates the political ambitions of the Syracusan state as seen in the poetry of Pindar and Bacchylides. In particular, three odes for Hieron and his associates (Pindar’s O. 6, N. 1; Bacch. 3) demonstrate that the cult functioned in Syracuse as both an emblem of the Deinomenid genos and as a civic symbol with deep cultic roots that united the mixed citizenry and expressed the expansionist aims of the tyrant and the polis.

A contrast with the regulation of ancestral priesthoods in democratic Athens sharpens the point. In Athens, the potential conflict between the privileges of elite families and the democratic state was mitigated by the creation of new priesthoods assigned by democratic methods and by state oversight of festivals even in cases where hereditary priesthoods endured (Boedeker 236-37). The Eumolpidae, for instance, who served as the ancestral priests of the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis and likewise controlled the ἱρά of the goddesses, held authority in some legal matters, but in major state crises such as the recall of Alcibiades during the Peloponnesian War their opinion was more symbolic than authoritative (Thuc. 8.53, Mylonas). Herodotus’ emphasis on the fusion of private and state cult begun by Telines and continued by his descendants underscores the contrast between Athens and Syracuse developed further by Herodotus in the dialogue between Gelon and the ambassadors. This paper reads the Telines episode both in terms of this contrast with Athens and in terms of the full importance of the goddesses in Syracusan civic ideology. Herodotus’ account, by showing how an ultimately problematic combination of religious and political authority originally served a useful purpose, reflects on the way historical precedents created a need for boundaries between elite families and the public sphere in the fifth century BC.   

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Problems in Greek History and Historiography

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