Twilight of the Gods: Greek Cult Places and the Transition to Late Antiquity

Conference Paper

Closing Lecture, conference wrap-up
Saturday 2021-10-16
14:00 | 15:00
Place: Swedish Institute at Athens & Zoom

Twilight of the Gods, Dawn of the Saints? Reconsidering Continuity at Urban and Rural Sacred Sites in Southern Greece

Amelia Brown, 2021-10-16, Time: 14:00 - 15:00


While active disputes over the Hellenic literary or artistic heritage of the Eastern Roman Empire in Late Antiquity are relatively well established, the contestation of the landscape of Greece, and specifically her ancient sacred sites, remains marginal or even denied by much modern scholarship. The history of the struggle over public religious space between ‘Hellenes’ and Christians is clear for areas elsewhere in the Mediterranean, such as Rome, Antioch or Alexandria, supported by archaeological evidence and the prolific literary production of figures such as Symmachus, Libanius or John Chrysostom.  In the Roman province of Achaea, however, the nature of the transition in use of sacred space from traditional centuries-old Hellenic religion to Christianity remains a significant question. After all, into the fourth century most ancient Panhellenic or urban sanctuaries in the historic heartland of Hellas were still a source of pride, worship and local identity to those who lived there, as well as an integral aspect of cultural practices in the wider Empire. A sharp fifth-century decline in ancient textual and archaeological evidence outside of Constantinople, however, accompanies the challenges of classically-biased 20th-century historiographic and archaeological practices.

As a result, the last centuries of worship and the details of conversion (or destruction) of even the most famous Panhellenic sanctuaries remain disputed. Did the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens go straight from temple to church, and when did the Erechtheion follow suit? When did Christian activity reach inside the temenos of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, or the Altis of Zeus at Olympia? Did the healing shrine of Asclepius at Epidaurus draw pigrims for cures after the construction of the Christian basilica at its gateway? What about Dodona, or more modest yet still ancient urban or rural sacred sites, such as Ancient Messene or Zeus at Nemea? Between the Classical construction of most temples, their selective conversion or destruction, and the fifth- or sixth-century Christian basilicas which we see nearby today, how did devotional practices such as festivals, sacrifices and other collective rituals change? Did Christians grapple violently with polytheists for possession of these ancient sanctuaries, coexist and compete for a time, or simply move into ruins of meaningless heaps of stone? How long did civic, organized or informal ‘pagan’ worship continue at these sites? Why did the Christians build where they did, in the ways that they did, and to which saints were these new basilicas or converted temples dedicated? This closing paper of the conference will consider the contributions of the other papers to these questions, and point to the clear aspects of our textual and archaeological evidence that illuminates the motivations, mechanisms and chronology of Greece’s sacred sites’ conversion to Christian uses in Late Antiquity.

About the Author(s)

University of Queensland

Brown Amelia
Brown Amelia

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