This Worldly Salvation: Soteria and Saving Gods in Ancient Greece
One of the classic episodes in the history of the Athenian empire is the Melian dialogue in Thucydides Book five (Thuc. 5.87-88). At the beginning of their negotiation in 416/5 B.C., the Athenians said that the Melians should consider their soteria, meaning the safety and preservation of the Melians and their property ― their homes, their land, crop, and all that would be destroyed in war. The Melians seemed to agree by replying that ‘this meeting is indeed about our soteria’. Although the Melians used the same word, they actually had in mind, not their physical survival and material security, but their political freedom or eleutheria as a Greek polis. In the end, the Melians decided not to give up their autonomy, but to trust in tyche which had ‘saved’ or ‘protected’ them. Consequently, the city was besieged, and the Melians lost both forms of soteria.
The Melian dialogue demonstrates that the word soteria can have different layers of meaning and that different conceptions of soteria might exist among different groups or within the same group in any given context. Yet soteria is not necessarily related to situations of crisis, nor is it restricted to communal concerns of the polis. All over the Greek world, there were tens of thousands of dedications brought to the gods by individuals and groups for soteria. It is one of the blessings most hoped for by the Greeks. But what did soteria mean to the ancient Greeks? Perhaps because the same word is used later in Christianity, the Greek concept has been largely neglected or avoided by Greek historians. As A.D. Nock (1951) suggests, a thorough examination of the Greek concept is essential precisely because of its entangled relations with Christianity. Making extensive use of epigraphic and material evidence on soteria and gods called Soter, this project will investigate how the cults of ‘saving’ gods in the Greek Mediterranean, the different values attached to soteria, and how the Greek concept of soteria compares to that in Christianity. Yet this project is not simply about cult epithets and religious language. I am interested in the religious belief, lived experience and perception of the gods. What did the Greeks have in mind when calling a god ‘saviour’? How did they imagine and experience soteria? The project’s particular emphasis is on worshippers’ religious world-view, and how their religious choices and behaviour were shaped by their beliefs and conceptions of the divine. Combining close analysis of epigraphic, archaeological and literary evidence, I will investigate the role of ‘saviour’ gods and the place of soteria in the religious life of the Greeks.
I intend to use my time at the CHS to make substantial progress on the project. It will lead to my second monograph to be published in the longer term. I am grateful for the support I have received from the CHS in various ways, and I am thrilled to have the valuable time and opportunity to work on this project.
Theodora Jim is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham, UK. She finished both her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford and is the author of the monograph Sharing with the Gods: Aparchai and Dekatai in Ancient Greece (Oxford, 2014). She specializes in the religion and culture of Ancient Greece and is actively engaged in anthropological approaches and questions of religious psychology. Apart from Greek religion, she has extensive interest in Greek epigraphy, Classical archaeology, and literature, and has published in Classical Quarterly, ZPE, GRBS, Kernos, and Archiv für Religionsgeschichte.