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Religion was central to ancient Greek and Roman life. The gods lived high on Mount Olympus, where they ate ambrosia and drank nectar, orchestrating human affairs below. Occasionally, they convened with mortals, sometimes to protect them, and often to satisfy their sexual urges. But most of the time, they watched from on high to be evoked in prayer and appeased by sacrifice.

The gods also inhabited the earth. In everyday life the Greeks and Romans met their gods on drinking vessels, coins, wall paintings, oil lamps, as well as in their stories. These many encounters did not cheapen the gods. Rather, they gave them the power to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

But to be taken seriously by a god, one went to a sanctuary. Sanctuaries were places separate from the secular world, where communities met to worship together and in so doing, to assert and create community identity and to demarcate territory. It was here that sacrifices were performed, festivals celebrated and oracles consulted. Everything inside the sacred boundary of these sites belonged to the god. Even the temple was an offering.

The ancient sanctuary of Apollo, Delphi Photo © Kate Cooper, 1992.

Some sanctuaries were huge and famous throughout the ancient world. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, with its famed Pythian oracle, attracted major monumental dedications of treasuries, victory monuments, works of art and inscriptions. Visitors came from all over the ancient world to consult the oracle, and attend the festivals, and the dedications set up at the sanctuary were seen by all these visitors. City-states from all over Greece could here compete with one another on an international stage. Later, the Romans would make their mark at sanctuaries such as this and assert their power over Greece by building there.

The Romans also adapted the dedications at Greek sanctuaries for their own purposes. Many of the best known statues of the Greek world, such as the Apollo Sauroktonos created in the fourth-century BC by Greek sculptor Praxiteles, were originally displayed in sanctuaries, gifts to the gods. The versions of these statues in the Fitzwilliam collection, and countless others like them, were made in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds to be displayed in bathhouses, gardens, houses. Once removed from the sanctuary, the significance of these statues changed forever.

Votive pottery miniature shapes from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Not all sanctuaries were on the scale of that at Delphi, nor were all dedications monumental. On the slopes of Mount Parnassus, for example, above Delphi, is the Corycian Cave, which worshippers believed was sacred to the rustic god Pan. This remote cave has yielded around 50,000 terracotta figurines left as dedications to the god. Inexpensive items such as jewelry or specially made votive pottery and votive plaques of clay or stone were also common dedications at sacred sites. The tiny objects excavated at the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta included over 100,000 small lead plaques. Whether a worshiper was rich or poor they left gifts; propitiating and thanking the gods was a serious business.

Further reading

Mary Beard et al.Religions of Rome Volume 1: a History, and volume 2: a Sourcebook (Cambridge, 1998).

Mary Beard, podcast ‘Risk in the Ancient World’, Darwin College Lecture Series, 2010.

Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: a Sourcebook (Oxford, 2010).

Michael C. Scott, Delphi and Olympia: the Spatial Politics of Panhellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods (Cambridge, 2010).