CSH Talk by Sandra Blakely

Jun 20, 2017 | 11:0012:00

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Join us for a lecture by Sandra Blakely from Emory University (Atlanta, USA) on Tuesday, June 20, at 11:00 am at the Hub in Room 201.

“Samothracian Networks: Maritime Risk and Ritual Promises in an ancient Mediterranean context”



Far from the great ancient cities of Athens and Rome, the island of Samothrace looms 5,459 feet above the rough Thracian sea, topped by Phengari, ‘the mountain of the moon’. The island is poor in farmland, lacks a fine harbor, and makes little appearance in the political and military histories of the ancient world. Its fame was in its rites. For nearly 1000 years, from 600 BC to the end of the 4th century AD, the island was the home of a mystery cult of initiation sealed by secrecy. Initiates were promised safety in travel at sea, a promise as well known as the rites themselves were secret. The hypothesis of the Samothracian networks project (https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/samothraciannetworks/) is that the rituals worked: the rites created a complex human social network of merchants, generals, sailors and priests that extended spatially from Olbia to Alexandria, along the Asia Minor coast, and as far west as Rome. This network was forged on the practice of ancient proxenia, which ensured free port access, assured mutual non-aggression, and enabled the information flows which were vital to maritime safety. We have traced this network as it is preserved in the cult’s epigraphic record, which yields the names of some 900 individuals and 109 cities in the late Hellenistic world. The promises made mystical in the context of initiation were realized through very common interstate strategies, and turned an island whose only resource was its location into the mistress of divinely assured maritime safety.


Our methodology currently joins the cult’s epigraphic data with two different digital analyses. ArcGIS enables the spatialization of the data appropriate for the evaluation of a sacred promise about movement through space. Gephi has yielded models of the social networks created and sustained through the island’s proxeny decrees, reflecting the historical reality that these benefits were realized in person to person interactions. Our early results suggest a series of networks that are robust, sparse and scale free. We are currently gamifying our scholarly data in a bid to crowd source alternative, contemporary models for emergence of this network, as an agency-rich response to the noted absence of the human in quantified analyses. These models face the challenges of all ancient social network analysis: lacunous primary data, the need to integrate qualitatively different data types, and the lack of evidence for the human agency that created and was sustained by network structures. We are most interested in exploring methodologies for modeling the organic emergence of the rites. The cult was famous for maritime protections long before the epigraphic habit took hold on the island, or its royal Hellenistic patrons monumentalized the site. The mechanisms through which its promises were realized were common strategies to join scattered Greek communities. A bottom-up model of the cult’s emergence as the organic combination of smaller regional networks foregrounds sources more than elite, and more historically meaningful than traditional historiographic or archaeological approaches.


Jun 20, 2017


Complexity Science Hub Vienna
+43 1 59991 600
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CSH Vienna
Josefstaedter Straße 39
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+43 1 59991 600
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