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Mythology was put to the service of ancient Greek diplomacy. Image of the mighty god Zeus. Source: zwiebackesser / Adobe Stock

Of Kin and Kind: The Role of Myths in Ancient Greek Diplomacy


Myths in the ancient world were not confined to the world of movies and children’s books like they are today. They played a vital part in political life and ancient Greek diplomacy. For example, myths were used to create diplomatic ties between cities and peoples. A city with little significance could gain a surge of influence through relations based on mythical kinship, for example. The differentiation between a historical and a mythic kinship, may not have existed in antiquity. As Erskine concludes in his 2002 Brother, Where Art Thou, when it came to ancestral claims “diplomacy, kinship, and Greek cultural identity merged.”

Magnesia Using Mythology in Ancient Greek Diplomacy

As the Hellenistic world emerged, Greek cultural influence expanded. Eastern cities were caught in an abstract game that had tangible consequences. If they could successfully recognize (or reinvent) their Greek mythical connections, they could be ennobled and preserve influence in the new political landscape. The following examples capture this prevailing phenomenon.

An inscription named I.v Magnesia was discovered by German archaeologists in Magnesia on the Menander’s agora (city center), an ancient Greek city in today’s western Turkey. The inscription gives an account of the various envoys Magnesia sent out to the Greek world to attract participation to her festival and the wider PanHellenic world. The mythic ancient Greek diplomacy that played out during the exchange reveals something about the tantalizing role of myths in the politics of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Nearly half a millennium before in the Greek Dark Ages (1100 to 750 BC), the Magnesians were competing with the progenitors of the Thessalians for Thessaly in central Greece. As part of this rivalry, Hall contends in her 2002 Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture, that the Thessalians invented a mythical lineage that attempted to discredit the Magnesian’s Greek identity.

The Thessalians, essentially, fabricated a myth that the progenitors of Magnesia were not Hellenes. In circa 1000 BC, the Magnesians founded their city along the Maeander in west Minor Asia instead, which became her new home. During the Hellenistic period ( c .221 BC), the I.v Magnesia inscription details the city’s attempts to recognize her festival and respect from the PanHellenic community. This way, Magnesia had hoped it would bring prestige to the festival of her archēgetis or founding goddess, Artemis Leucophryene.

Despite extending invitations to the Hellenic world, it was all too no avail. The inscription records that the festival attracted little participation. Then in 208 BC, they tried a second time and succeeded. Participants from across the Hellenistic world competed in Magnesia’s festival, recognizing Magnesia’s membership in the Hellenic world.

Ruins of the ancient city Magnesia (Magnesia on the Maeander), Turkey. (lic0001 / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of the ancient city Magnesia (Magnesia on the Maeander), Turkey. (lic0001 / Adobe Stock)

So, What Was So Different the Second Time Around?

Magnesia had a successful correspondence with Same in Cephalonia (a Greek island in the Ionian Sea). Here, Magnesia made the case that the oikeiotatos or relationship between Magnesia and Same stemmed from the sungeneian or kinship of their eponymous ancestors, the wind-god Aeolus. Magnesian envoys made the case that Same and Magnesia were related through a common ancestor, Aeolus. Aeolus was Magnus’ father (Magensia’s eponymous founder) and Cephalus’ grandfather (Cephalonia’s eponymous founder).

This ancestral claim is the earliest attestation of Aeolus being Magus’ father. This relationship later makes it in the work of the mythographer, Apollodorus. Aeolus is thus significant because he created a genealogical link between the two cities. It appears that Magnesia’s arguments were compelling as Same did sail to Minor Asia, along with other cities, to participate in the festival and affirm Magnesia’s acceptance into the PanHellenic world.

Mythology was used, then, to create genealogical ties, and persuade the PanHellenic world to participate in a festival for the first time. This is especially significant when considering that a group of Greeks (the Thessalians) attempted to deprive Magnesia of her Greek identity during the Dark Ages.

The same medium the Thessalians used to exclude Magnesia, she used to bring herself into the Hellenic limelight. As such, in the ancient Mediterranean world, mythology was successfully used as an advertisement campaign for a new festival, and to reinstate a city’s connections to Greek culture.

Magnesia made a case for its relationship with Same via kinship with the wind-god Aeolus, depicted here being asked by Juno to release the winds. (Public domain)

Magnesia made a case for its relationship with Same via kinship with the wind-god Aeolus, depicted here being asked by Juno to release the winds. (Public domain)

“This is Jewish Sparta” - The Jewish Initiation by Mythical Matrimony

While some cities used myths to strengthen their Greek connections, other cities in the Hellenistic world used them to create a link where there it was previously non-existent. The 2 Maccabees (a Jewish text) record Jason, a Hellenized High Priest, who after the Maccabean uprising against the Seleucid Empire (167 to 160 BC), sought refuge in Sparta predicated on the kinship between Sparta and the Jews.

Where does this odd kinship originate from? The Jewish historian, Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, and The Maccabees attest an earlier letter from King Areus (309 to 261 BC) from Sparta to a certain Onias describing the Jews and the Lacedaemonians being of one genos or family and sharing oikeiotes or connections with Abraham.

This reference may have been an allusion to an even earlier legendary tradition. Josephus further records a legend in which it was believed that Herakles had married Aphra’s (Abraham’s) granddaughter when campaigning against the giant Antaeus of Libya.

It is this mythical kinship that Jason may have appealed to when seeking to sail to Sparta. Although the letter between King Areus and Onias is probably fake, the mythic kinship between the Jews and Spartans was not, as evidenced by Jason’s flight to Sparta. So, it appears in the Hellenistic world myths could make intercultural connections when they were virtually non-existent.

Indeed, it seems the potential for a mythical kinship with Sparta was so great, even non-Hellenized Jews succumbed to its prospects. This may be why even after the Maccabean Revolt, the religiously fervent Jewish leadership, the Hasmoneans, curiously continued their kinship with Sparta.

According to Momigliano in his 2011 Alien Wisdom, Josephus and The Maccabees record Jonathan’s correspondence with the Spartans, which is probably authentic, and then the response from the Spartans to Jonathan’s successor Simon which is undoubtedly authentic. In the liaison, Jonathan appeals for a renewal of their kinship by stating that the sacred scriptures confirm they are related.

Momigliano argues that the earlier letter by King Areus of Sparta to the High Onias was fabricated to provide a background for an authentic correspondence that existed from the first half of the third century BC. What all this means is that far from distancing from the Greek world, the Maccabean revolution brought about a new Jewish commitment to Hellenism, and mythology was an articulation of it.

The reason behind this kinship may have had an underlying political agenda. The new Jewish authorities may have carried their kinship with Sparta due to Sparta's ties with Rome in the early second century. The Greeks had forced Sparta to join the Achaean League in 192 BC, which resulted in Spartan exiles seeking help from Rome. After defeating the Achaeans in 146 BC, the Romans forced them to pay reparations to Sparta and exempting her from paying tribute to Rome like most of Greece.

In addition to this political tie, it was believed the Sabine women, which the Romans had taken as wives, were relatives of the Spartans. Although not explicitly attested, the Hasmoneans may have used their kinship with Sparta to influence Rome.

This is well within Hellenistic practice whereby ambassadors would appeal to a primary party but also other parties who are also seen favorably. In so doing, the Jewish authorities may have used mythology to forge political ties that placed them in advantageous positions while under foreign rule.

In the Hellenistic world, myths were used by the Greeks to conceptualize the adopted Eastern peoples, and by the newcomers, to initiate themselves in a Greek paradigm that could be exploited for political ends. Apart from conceptualization, how did Greek cities, benefit from affirming the connections to Eastern cities?

Attempts were made to create a certain kinship between Sparta and the Jews, such as a legend in which it was believed that Herakles - seen here - had married Aphra’s (Abraham’s) granddaughter. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5)

Attempts were made to create a certain kinship between Sparta and the Jews, such as a legend in which it was believed that Herakles - seen here - had married Aphra’s (Abraham’s) granddaughter. (Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC BY 2.5)

Greek Pergamon: Dubious at Best, Spurious the Rest

Allowing Eastern cities to express their mythical connections meant that Greek cities became relevant again. Athens’ and Delphi’s affirmation of Pergamon is an excellent example of this prevailing advantage in the realms of ancient Greek diplomacy. The old world became beneficiaries of Pergamon’s ascendancy by permitting Pergamon to express her Hellenization. Like many cities Alexander founded in the East, Pergamon’s Greek origins are dubious at best, and spurious the rest. One of the reasons is that her foundation has little resemblance with the Ionic foundations on the west coast of Asia Minor.

By the fifth century BC, Pergamon came under Persian rule. Even during the Hellenistic period - the period that saw the erection of Athena Parthenos in the Pergamene Library - funerary inscriptions suggest a considerable population with non-Greek names. Indeed, the ancient geographer, Strabo, tells us the mother of the city’s first Hellenistic ruler, Boa, was the butt of Greek jokes for her foreign-sounding name. She was dubbed the “barbarian flute girl” by poets.

To overcome her barbarous image, and thus regain (or reinvent) her Hellenic honor, Pergamon needed to fit into Greek categories. The mythical past presented Pergamon this opportunity and her donations to the motherland became how she could make her objective worthwhile. In her desperation, the motherland became the beneficiaries of many projects. One of the many donations gifted to Greek cities includes a portico at Delphi in 223 BC commissioned by Attalus I.

The structure spanned thirty feet wide, with Doric columns and a frieze with three triglyphs over each intercolumniation. Even more revealing, recent excavations exposed two sanctuaries which relate to the legends of the eponymous hero, Pergamon. These donations, among others, lavishly adorned the Oracle at Delphi while conveniently reinforcing Pergamon’s Hellenic connections through mythology.

A view of the Stoa of Attalos from the Acropolis hill in Athens. (A. Savin / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Flattery for the Powers That Be: Athens’ Attestation of Pergamon’s Mythic Ties

Comparatively, the Pergamene donations to Athens also expressed their Greek origins through myth. One of which, the ancient historian Pausanias records, “at the south wall of the Acropolis are figures about two cubits high, dedicated by Attalus.” These were categorized into four scenes. The first attested the proverbial struggle between civilization and barbarism, the Gigantomachy (the battle between the Olympic gods and the Titans).

Two commemorated Athenian victories, Theseus’ defeat over the Amazons, and the Persian defeat at Marathon. Lastly, the fourth scene portrayed Pergamon’s victory over the Gauls. It is here Pergamon attempted, quite unceremoniously, to sow into the mythic tapestry that had existed for thousands of years.

Pergamon’s donations could be allusive in three ways. Firstly, Pergamon may have generally asserted her place in the Greek paradigm, of which, the mythic past was its foundation. This could mean that the victory over the Gauls was as momentous and therefore has its place with the feats of the gods of old, Theseus against the Amazons, and the Battle of Marathon.

Secondly, she may have depicted herself as the natural progression, or product, of Hellenism throughout the ages up to the present. Lastly, Pergamon may have desired to present herself as the torchbearer of Greek civilization that was handed down by Athens, and/or may even have been so bold as to pronounce herself the new Greek superpower like Athens once was.

Whatever the case may have been, the frieze unabashedly announced Pergamon’s Greek connections by first paying homage to the Athenian mythic and legendary past and by donating projects to the city.

Apart from the frieze, the eldest sons of Attalus I constructed two stoas to the city spanning nearly 540 feet long (165 m), over 58 feet (17.7 m) wide and 382 feet (116.4 m) long and 64 feet (19.5) wide. By building these generous projects, Pergamon may have attempted to ground her identity through mythology, while Athens reaped all the rewards that came about as a result of it. Athens may have allowed Pergamon’s meddling with the past because it benefited the city in the present.

In sum, as much as it might offend our modern sensibilities, mythology appear to have played a pivotal role for the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world and ancient Greek diplomacy. These narratives and figures could produce real-world outcomes by occupying a space outside of folklore and entertainment.

Top image: Mythology was put to the service of ancient Greek diplomacy. Image of the mighty god Zeus. Source: zwiebackesser / Adobe Stock

By Thanos Matanis


Erskine, A. 2002. “Brother where art thou? Tales of kinship and diplomacy” in Ogden, D. (ed.), The Hellenistic World: New Perspectives. Classical Press of Wales: Havertown.

Hall, J. 2002. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture. Chicago (Ill.): University of Chicago Press

Josephus, F., Whiston, W. & Pfeiffer, C. 1984. The works of Flavius Josephus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Momigliano, A. 2011. Alien Wisdom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pausanias, Jones, W.H.S., Litt, D. & Ormerod, M.A. 1918. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation. Vol. 4. Harvard University Press: London.

Rigsby, K. J. 1996. Asylia: Territorial Inviolability in the Hellenistic World. Berkeley: University of California.

Strabo, Jones, H. L. & Sterrett, J.S. 1917. The geography of Strabo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Thanos Matanis's picture


Fact is stranger than fiction. Historiography has its origins in entertainment. While we should not fabricate the past, we need to remember how historiography began and re-engage with its narrative qualities. Like Herodotus, my passion as a writer is to... Read More

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