“Alive and kicking”: Associations and Roman law again

A while back, I referred to an article by Ilias Arnaoutoglou in which he argued, like I had in Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (pp. 161-173), that evidence from Asia Minor shows that Roman law or legal action regarding associations was generally sporadic and not empire-wide. This argument is significant because so many scholars of the past and present assume that governmental control of associations or collegia was somewhat consistent over time and from one region to another; at times this comes to influence discussions of both Jewish and Christian groups. In other words, a well-ingrained scholarly assumption often distorts discussions of small social-religious groups in the Roman world generally.

Arnaoutoglou now has another article that hones in on Egypt specifically, and extends the earlier argument in the process: Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, “Collegia in the Province of Egypt in the First Century CE,” Ancient Society 35 (2005): 197-216. Juxtaposing Philo’s mention of A. Aillius Flaccus’ actions in banning associations in Alexandria around 35 CE (Philo, Flaccus 4) with the actual papyrological and inscriptional evidence for associations from the late first century BCE through the first CE, Arnaoutoglou shows that this action was not part of an empire-wide attempt to quell associations and that, generally, “collegia were alive and kicking in first-century Egypt” (p. 209). For more on Philo and the associations of Alexandria, see Torrey Seland’s online article: “Philo and the Clubs and Associations of Alexandria.” (Also, for Philo generally see Torrey’s blog).

There are two key passages in Philo, the Jewish philosopher, regarding associations that are worth citing (the first reflecting his moral indignation and the latter his respect for Flaccus’ action in banning some of these supposedly wild groups):

In the city there are clubs (thiasoi) with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor and drunkenness and sottish carousing and their offspring, wantonness. “Synods” and “banqueting-couches” (klinai) are the particular names given to them by the people of the country (Flaccus 136 [trans. by Colson in LCL, with adaptations]).

[The Roman prefect Flaccus] dissolved the associations and guilds, which were continually holding feasts on the pretext of sacrifice and misconducted their offices by insobriety, dealing drastically and peremptorily with the recalcitrant (Flaccus 4; trans. by H. Box as cited in Arnaoutoglou, p. 204)

Philo doesn’t like these non-Jewish associations, in case you hadn’t noticed, and in another treatise on the Therapeutai contrasts the ascetic lifestyle of this particular Jewish group with the wild parties of the worshippers of the god Dionysos and others (see Philo, The Contemplative Life). On the need to exercize caution in evaluating descriptions of wild banquets see my earlier posts here and here. For an entire article on the subject read this: “Culturally Transgressive Banquets in Greco-Roman Associations: Imagination and Reality.”

(Like the associations in Roman Egypt, I, too, am “alive and kicking” despite some major set-backs recently and hope to begin posting somewhat more regularly, though less than usual, soon. My apologies for the hiatus. Despite the temptation, I won’t quote any lyrics from Simple Minds, by the way).