The Warrior’s Banquet: Syssitia in Ancient Crete

Although the island of Crete is most famously known today as the homeland of the Minoan civilization of the second millennium BCE, during the Classical and Hellenistic periods in Greece (ca. 480 – 67 BCE), the island was famous in the Greek world as the homeland of a large number of independent poleis (Greek city-states). Ancient Greek literature portrays the Cretan poleis as sharing in a common socio-political and economic model of organization, called the Cretan politeia (constition). The Cretan poleis were dominated by an aristocratic upper class of citizen-warriors ruling over dependent populations of slaves, serfs, and free non-citizens. Among the important institutions of the Cretan politeia were the distinction in class between citizen warriors and agricultural producers, the military education of the citizen youth, and the common meals in which adult male citizens and their sons participated, called the syssitia. According to the ancient literature, such a model of organization in the island was considered to be both very ancient (stretching back to the Heroic Age, the time of the legendary King Minos) and was also practiced throughout the island. While many scholars over the last century and a half have pointed to epigraphic and archaeological evidence in support of the literary accounts of the island, recent scholarship has however brought the literary tradition regarding the Cretan politeia under question. Critics of the literary tradition (most notably, Paula Perlman) argue that on the one hand, it is a priori unlikely that such a large number of independent states (numbering at least 49 during the Classical period) would share an identical constitutional format. On the other hand, epigraphic evidence from the island may also demonstrate too great a degree of diversity to warrant speaking of common Cretan constitutional format. Perlman suggests that the idea of a common Cretan politeia was not based in actual knowledge of the island’s socio-political and economic organization, but was rather a philosophical construct that developed amidst philosophical and political debates centered in Athens during the fifth century BCE. Despite these objections, scholars continue to employ the ancient literary sources in studies of Cretan society during the Archaic (c. 750 – c. 450 BCE), Classical (ca. 480 BCE – ca. 320 BCE), and Hellenistic (ca. 320 BCE – 67 BCE) periods—collectively referred to in this thesis as the pre-Roman period. Acknowledging however that there was some degree of heterogeneity in the constitutional formats of the Cretan poleis, how might we define the value of the ancient literary portrayals on Cretan society? Using the Cretan common-meal institution of syssitia as a case study, this thesis defines the value of the literary accounts of pre-Roman Crete as (albeit imperfect and perhaps not universal to the island as a whole) reflections of actual practices. This thesis analyzes the degree to which epigraphic and archaeological evidence upholds literary portrayals. This thesis shows that, despite a degree of variation in practices, civic communal dining (syssitia) was in fact a foundational institution of Cretan communities even prior to the formation of the poleis in the Early Iron Age (twelfth to eighth centuries BCE), and continued to play an important role in Cretan poleis in the central and central-east portions of the island throughout the later Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. Further, this thesis proposes explanations for the apparent koine of communal feasting practices in Crete as related to the interconnections between Cretan communities established at an early period in both religious and economic spheres.

Lewis, Jesica Jayd Harrison. “The Warrior’s Banquet: Syssitia in Ancient Crete.” (Under the direction of Dr. S. Thomas Parker.)

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