Category Archives: Associations

GRA II: North Coast of the Black Sea, Asia Minor — Book now out!

GRA II photoNice to finally have a copy of my new book in hand now.  This one took more than 10 years (off and on)

Philip A. Harland, Greco-Roman Associations Texts, Translations, and Commentary, Volume II: North Coast of the Black Sea, Asia Minor  (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 204; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), 565 pages, € 99.95 / $140.00 (De Gruyter order page).

Table of Contents:

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Now available for download: Associations, Synagogues and Congregations (2013 edition)

ASCCoverThe new, thoroughly revised edition of my book Associations, Synagogues and Congregations (2013) is now available for download.  On the companion site, you can read part one of the work for free online or download the entire book for a pay-what-you-will price ($0-15).  Simultaneously, I have refurbished and updated my websites for a better look.

The main advantage of this edition is that each of the inscriptions and sources mentioned is keyed to the new Associations in the Greco-Roman World sourcebook and there are direct, clickable links in the pdf of the book to the corresponding inscription on the AGRW companion website. You simply click on an inscription number (e.g. IEph 1503) and are brought to the description, Greek text, and a translation. There are also many, many new illustrations and figures (many in color).

Launch of Associations in the Greco-Roman World website

With the November release of Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook (book info), Ascough, Kloppenborg, and I have been busy preparing a companion website that I think you’ll find of some interest:

Basically, users of the site can browse through hundreds of inscriptions (450 so far) involving guilds, immigrant groups, and other associations in the ancient Mediterranean. The user can browse by geography or by topics (including gods) using the right side bar. There is also a feature we called “selected exhibits” on (hopefully) interesting topics to a general reader (with about 10 inscriptions in each exhibit). There are many documents with English translations, and the user can choose to view just those (in selected exhibits). One of the selected exhibits is for Judeans (Jews) in the diaspora. The plan is to continue to expand the website with more inscriptions relating to these groups.  There are already 100 inscriptions that do not appear in the sourcebook (marked with an asterisk).

The AGRW sourcebook itself goes beyond the inscriptions to include literary excerpts on associations (from, e.g., Philo, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Tertullian), descriptions of meeting-place excavations, and an extensive annotated bibliography (table of contents here).  The book has been designed to be used as a text in courses as well.

Update: I should also add that I have previously released a podcast series on associations and you can access that all in one place here: Podcast series 6: Associations in the Greco-Roman World.

Richard sends the latest from the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Chicago:

My new book / website: Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians

In case you hadn’t noticed, my forthcoming book on Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians: Associations, Judeans, and Cultural Minorities is now available on for preorder (due November) at under $20.  I have also created a companion website (which may be expanded further in time) for the book.  As usual, that subsite can be found in the pull-down menu for “My Other Websites”.

The book considers early Christian identities in relation to other associations, Judean groups, and immigrants in the Roman empire.  Read more about it on the companion site.  Here’s a look at the book cover:

Human sacrifice and cannibalism again — oh, and sexual perversion too

I am in the midst of writing a book on Dynamics of Identity and Early Christianity (for Continuum) which tries to shed some new light on the question by looking to associations, cultural minorities, and ethnic groups in the world of the early Christians.  “Identity” has to do with the way in which individuals and groups answer the questions “who am I” or ‘who are we in relation to others?”  Social scientists emphasize that there are two main processes in identity-construction and re-negotiation: internal self-definitions and external categorizations.  External categorizations involve outsiders’ perspectives on who a group is and stereotypes about that group, and they can play a role in how members of the evaluated group re-negotiate and express their own identities internally.

In previous posts (click here), I have noted a common set of ethnographic stereotypes that were used to categorize other peoples or groups as “barbarous” and dangerous to society, particularly cultural minority groups or ethnic groups.  The early Christians, for instance, were charged with Thyestan feasts (cannibalism) and Oedipean unions (incest), and similar charges went back and forth between social and ethnic groups in antiquity.  Judeans, too, were stereotyped and charged with the same sort of activities when a particular Greek or Roman author disliked them.

Yet, as I said, the charges go both ways.  A good example of this is offered by a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon (first century BCE or CE — in the so called Apocrypha of the Bible) which characterized ‘pagans’ as dangerous and barbarous.  This author describes the ‘detestable’ activities of those who inhabited the ‘holy land’ before the arrival of the Israelites. This gives this Hellenistic Judean author opportunity to critique contemporary associations or ‘societies’ of ‘initiates’ outside of the Judean sphere in the process, calling on the same sort of stereotypes we have seen in Greek or Roman slander against Judeans. God ‘hated them for practicing the most detestable things – deeds of sorcery and unholy rites (τελετὰς ἀνοσίους), merciless slaughters of children, sacrificial feasting on human flesh and blood – those “initiates” from the midst of a “society” (ἐκ μέσου μύστας θιάσου) and parents who murder helpless lives, you willed to destroy. . .‘ (Wis 12:4-5; cf. Wis 14:15-23 [NETS]).

At the same time, personified Wisdom herself is an ‘initiate’ of another, superior kind, an ‘initiate (μύστις) in the knowledge of God’ (Wis 8:4). Elsewhere the author critiques the ‘idolatry’ of Greeks generally, the ‘impious ones’ (άσεβοῦς) who do not know such ‘divine mysteries’ (2:22) and who instead establish their own inferior ‘mysteries and rites’ (μυστήρια καὶ τελετάς; 14:15): ‘For whether performing ritual murders of children or secret mysteries or frenzied revels connected with strange laws, they no longer keep either their lives or their marriages pure, but they either kill one another by treachery or grieve one another by adultery’ (Wis. 14:23-24). Once again, ritual murder and sexual perversion converge in this characterization of the associations of another ethnic group.

The process of defining the ‘other’ as dangerous barbarians who will kill and eat you if they can is in fact the process of defining one’s own group as well.  This is the boundary-constructing process of distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’, and virtually all groups in antiquity engaged in such modes of external categorizations and self-definition that are at the heart of identity.

(Sure this post is somewhat long, but at least I’m trying — I’ve lost the knack for short and sweet, it seems, if I ever had it).

“Mothers” and “Fathers” in associations and synagogues: My new article on familial dimensions of group identity

I have now gained permission and uploaded my most recent article on the use of parental language in small group settings in antiquity:

Philip A. Harland, “Familial Dimensions of Group Identity (II): ‘Mothers’ and ‘Fathers’ in Associations and Synagogues of the Greek World,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 38 (2007) 57-79.

This article complements my earlier one on “brothers”:

Philip A. Harland, “Familial Dimensions of Group Identity: ‘Brothers’ (ΑΔΕΛΦΟΙ) in Associations of the Greek East,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005) 491-513.

These and other articles are also accessible from the publications page.

Recent articles uploaded on Jews of Hierapolis and the (supposed) decline of the ancient city (polis)

As you may know, I always seek to gain permission from journals and others to reproduce my scholarly articles online, and you can read these articles on my publications page. I have now uploaded two of the most recent ones:

Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis,” Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (2006) 222-244. (This article looks at the grave-inscriptions of Judeans at Hierapolis in Asia Minor).

“The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context,” in Leif E. Vaage, ed., Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity. Studies in Christianity and Judaism, vol. 18. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006, pp. 21-49. (This article discusses scholarly ideas regarding the decline of the ancient city and uses evidence for associations in Asia Minor to refute some common theories).

For the gods of the homeland: Immigrants from Beirut on a Greek island

The Greek island of Delos supplies the social historian with an unusually rich source of information regarding immigrant associations in the ancient world (especially for the second century BCE). Seldom can one boast of finding communities of Italians, Samaritans, Judeans, and Egyptians to study in one locale. Added to these many groups were guilds of immigrants from two important Syrian towns, Tyre and Berytos (modern Beirut in Lebanon).

Here I would like to briefly discuss two inscriptions involving the guild of Berytian merchants. These monuments illustrate well the expression of ethnic identity alongside adaptation or acculturation to local ways.

On the one hand is an inscription which shows the continuing importance of the gods of the homeland (Poseidon and, likely, Astarte or Ashtoreth) for this group on Delos:

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers and receivers from Berytos set up the building (oikos), the pillars, and the oracles for the ancestral gods” (IDelos 1774).

On the other is a dedication not to the gods of the homeland but to the goddess Roma, personified Rome, herself.

“The association of Poseidon-worshipping merchants, shippers, and receivers from Berytos honoured the goddess Roma, benefactor, on account of the goodwill which she has in relation to the association and the homeland. This was done when Mnaseos son of Dionysios, benefactor, was chief of the cult-society for the second time. Menandros son of Melas, Athenian, prepared this monument” (IDelos 1778)

This was set up at the time of Roman ascendancy in this area of the Mediterranean, when Rome was further facilitating the flow of goods to important ports such as Delos. What particularly stands out in terms of identity and acculturation here is the fact that these immigrants honour the divine “mascot” of Rome. Yet they do so precisely because she is believed to have shown goodwill to the homeland of Beirut (in Syria) itself, as well as to these Syrian immigrants abroad.

These are just some of the many indications of continuing attachments to the homeland combined with a sense of belonging in a new home among immigrants in the Greco-Roman world. There’ll be more to come on immigrants soon.

“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).

‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays

I am presently researching questions of cultural interactions in antiquity, particularly with regard to the ways in which immigrants (including Jews) both found a place for themselves within the cities of the Roman empire and maintained their own specific ties with the culture of their homeland. So I thought I’d write a brief post appropriate to the holiday season while addressing issues of acculturation (adopting and adapting to cultural practices of others) and the simultaneous maintenance of cultural or ethnic identities. And I’ll use two Jewish families to illustrate. (This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive discussion of the Maccabean revolt, Hanukkah, and New Year’s, by the way).

On the one hand is the story of a Jewish family who refused to adapt to foreign deities and led a revolt which successfully “cleansed” and re-dedicated the temple in Jerusalem in the 160s BCE. I am speaking of the Maccabees who are at the centre of the story of the festival of Hanukkah, or Chanukah (“Dedication”; for a brief online article go here). The years following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Mediterranean (he died in 323 BCE) were a time of complicated cultural interactions as peoples living in various parts of the known world gradually adjusted to and/or reacted against the Hellenistic (Greek) customs that made their way through governmental, trade, and other social networks. As you can imagine there was a variety of reactions to Hellenistic ways and religions on the ground. Some, such as the Syrian soldiers who identified their own god — in this case Syrian Ba’al Shamem (“Lord of Heaven”) — with a Greek deity (Zeus Olympios), more readily adopted Hellenistic modes of expression. At the same time these same Syrians were also clearly maintaining certain aspects of their own specific religious practices and worldviews (it was Ba’al they worshipped under the guise of Zeus, so to speak).

We know from the story of the Maccabees itself that Judeans (Jews) were not universally agreed on what aspects of Greek culture should or should not be tolerated, adopted, or adapted. Some Judeans were willing to establish a Hellenistic-style city (polis) and gymnasium in Jerusalem, for instance. What the Maccabees and most other Judeans agreed on, however, was that their tradition of monotheistic worship in the Jerusalem temple not be compromised by identifying their God with any god of the Greeks (a “syncretistic” custom that was common in most other places where polytheism prevaled). So when the Syrian soldiers stationed in Jerusalem established an altar in the Jerusalem temple in order to offer sacrifices to Ba’al, this was normal for the soldiers but the last straw for the Maccabees and others like them (see First, Second, Third and Fourth Maccabees in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, available online by clicking on the numbers above). The Maccabean revolt resulted in the cleansing and re-dedication of the temple which are, essentially, the institution of the Hanukkah celebration (according to 1 Maccabees):

“Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev. . . they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. . . Then Judas [Maccabee] and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days. . . ” (1 Maccabees 4:52-59 [NRSV]).

Jewish family grave from Hierapolis (IJO II 196)Grave of a Jewish family at Hierapolis (IJO II 196; photo by Phil)

On the other hand is a Jewish family settled in Hierapolis (a Greek city in Asia Minor) who apparently celebrated the Roman New Year’s festival (feast of Kalends), as well as customary Jewish festivals including Passover and Pentecost. Our evidence for this comes from a family grave dating to the third century CE, which happens to preserve for us the arrangements that a certain man made for himself and his family ( IJO II 196, revising CIJ 777). (I have a forthcoming article that deals at length with questions of acculturation and identity among Jews in Hierapolis which I will post, if possible, when it comes out. In the mean time, for more on Jews, Christians and guilds in Hierapolis and the Lycos valley, go here.)

It was customary for wealthier people in Asia Minor to make arrangements (leave money) for particular people or a group, such as a guild, to come to the family grave on a regular basis and to care for the grave itself. What stands out in this case is that Glykon and his wife, Amia, who were apparently Jews, arranged to have local guilds of purple-dyers and carpet-weavers (who likely included non-Jews in their membership) attend to the grave-ceremonies on both Jewish and Roman holidays. The Roman New Year festival, a precedessor of our New Year celebrations, took place in early January and, as Ovid emphasizes, centred on the exchange of “good wishes” and gifts, including “sweet” gifts (e.g. dates, figs, honey), as well as cash, indicating an omen of a sweet year to come (Fasti 1.171-194). The celebrations were also associated with the Roman god Janus (hence January). Here, then, is a family that clearly maintained Jewish aspects of its identity and arranged for others to continue to remember them on Jewish holy days, but also a family that adapted to some Roman practices, in this case the New Year celebration.

I’ll post again in the new year. Have a good one.

UPDATE (Dec 23): For two different media takes on the Maccabees and Hanukkah (mentioned by Jim Davila), see Hanukka and Hellenization (Jerusalem Post) and The Maccabees and the Hellenists (Slate).

(Dec. 27): Even more media reflections on the Hasmoneans a.k.a. Maccabees (thanks to Jim Davila’s keen eye) here and here.

Those other (“pagan”) synagogues

Unofficial groups in the Greco-Roman world that I (and others) typically call “associations” used a variety of terms to describe themselves. Some of the favourite Greek terms were synodos (“synod”), koinon, synergasia (“guild”), thiasos (“cult-society”), and mystai (“initiates”). Today, when people (including many scholars) hear the term synagogue or head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) they tend to assume some Jewish group (or building) is in mind. However, the term synagogue (stemming from the Greek synagō, meaning to gather or bring together) was also used by other “pagan” associations and was not necessarily a sign of Jewish connections.

Thus, for instance, one monument from Apamea in Bithynia (northern Asia Minor / Turkey), which involves a group of men and women devotees (thiasitai and thiastides) honouring a priestess of Cybele (the Great Mother), mentions that the inscription was set up in the “synagogue” of Zeus (IApamBith 35). Across the Propontis in Perinthos-Herakleia in Thracia, there was an occupationally-based “synagogue of oar (or small-ware) dealers” that shows no sign of Jewish connections (IPerinthos 59 [first or second century]). At both Beroia and Hagios Mamas in Macedonia there were associations (devoted to Poseidon and a hero-god respectively) whose main leader was known as the head-of-the-synagogue (archisynagogos) (IMakedD 747 [second century]; SEG 27 [1977] 267). And there are many other “pagan” cases where the chief leader of the group, as in some Jewish gatherings, was termed head-of-the-synagogue (e.g. NewDocs I 5; IG X.2 288-289; SEG 42 [1992] 625).

Diaspora Jewish groups (including Jesus-devotees) shared more in common with “run-of-the-mill” associations of the Greco-Roman world than often acknowledged, and their “gatherings” would have been viewed as such by outsiders in some important respects.

To read more about associations in the Greco-Roman world, as well as their relevance to early Judaism and Christianity, go here.

Multiple memberships in the world of the early Christians

Until recently, the suggestion that members of the early Christian congregations may have simultaneously been members in other associations and guilds remained under-explored. In my book, I dealt with the question of multiple memberships in connection with the Christians at Corinth (addressed by Paul in 1 Cor 8 and 10) who were attending banquets alongside non-Christians (“pagans”). I also considered the possibility that the opponents addressed by John’s Apocalypse, especially those accused of eating idol-food (or idol-meat) with “Jezebel”, may have been encountering sacrificial food as members in the guilds of Thyatira (something that William Ramsay suggested, but did not explore, long ago). For all this, see pp. 205-10, 259-63 of Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations.

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my site, I looked at the implications of multiple memberships for questions of rivalries and competition among different groups.

I have now just read a very interesting article on associations on the island of Rhodes by Vincent Gabrielson, which drew my attention to another interesting case of multiple memberships in associations (dealing with IG XII[1] 155). A man named Dionysodoros, who was an immigrant from Alexandria (in Egypt), was honoured by a number of associations (koina) at Rhodes in the second century BCE, including the “Haliasts and Haliads,” the “Paniasts,” and the “Dionysiasts” (devoted to the god Dionysos). A closer look at this lengthy inscription shows that he was not only honoured by these groups, but was also a member in at least four associations at Rhodes! (See Vincent Gabrielson, “The Rhodian Associations Honouring Dionysodoros from Alexandria, ” Classica et mediaevalia 45 [1994] 137-60.)

And these memberships were not fleeting. Dionysodoros was a member of the “Haliasts and Haliads” for 35 years, and he acted as their chief-of-banquets (archeranistas) for 23 years. Simultaneously he was a faithful member and benefactor of other associations, including the “Paniasts” whom he served as chief-of-banquets for at least 18 years. This is the sort of atmosphere of multiple affiliations and interactions in which the early Christians and diaspora Jews found themselves. So we should not be too surprised if we find some Jews or Christians going to synagogue or church one day, and hanging out with friends in the guild or association the next.

Banqueting under the protection of your gods

Down in a dusty basement of the British Museum, where few will ever see it, is a very interesting monument involving an association devoted to Zeus Hypsistos (“Most High”; GIBM IV.2 1007; from Panormos, near Kyzikos in Asia Minor).

The “three-storey” relief on this monument depicts the gods to whom the association was devoted, with Zeus (left) alongside Artemis (middle) and Apollo (right). All three deities hold out a libation bowl in their right hands, symbolic of the libations (drink-offerings) which humans offer in honour of these figures.

Even more interesting is the rare picture of an association’s banquet which is depicted under the benevolent protection of the gods. Here we see a number of members of the association reclining for the meal in a customary manner as they watch a female dance, perhaps performing in honour of the gods. She is accompanied by a seated man playing a Phrygian flute and a percussionist (using reeds) while, off to the right, a man takes care of the wine bowl for the symposium (drinking party).

A monument like this illustrates well the interconnected social and religious purposes of the associations. Partying and honouring the gods went together quite well in antiquity.

The inscription in the triangular shape at the top reads as follows:
To Zeus Hypsistos and the place. Thallos, eponymous official, dedicated this relief.

There will be more to come from my recent visit to the British Museum, and perhaps more on Zeus Most High, whose connections with Judaism are somewhat controversial.

(I would like to thank Dr. Peter Higgs, curator of Greek and Roman Antiquities, for arranging access to the monument).

“Two people in charge of meat shall be chosen”: Greek Sacred Law

A new book gathers together a variety of Greek epigraphic sacred laws or regulations concerning civic and other cults and groups: Eran Lupu, Greek Sacred Law: A Collection of New Documents (NGSL). Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 152. Leiden: Brill, 2005. The book focuses on those sacred laws that were not included in earlier collections, especially Sokolowski’s Lois sacrées de l’Asie Mineure (Paris 1955) and Lois sacrées des cités grecques (Paris 1962 and 1969). Sokolowski’s collections included several regulation inscriptions that were produced by associations, including the famous Iobacchoi monument from Athens and the rules of the household-based association devoted to Zeus and Agdistis at Philadelphia in Asia Minor (on the various types of associations, go here).

Included in Lupu’s new volume is a sacred law of an association (synodos) of Herakles devotees at Paiania in Greece, dating to about the turn of the second century (no. 5 = SEG 31 122, first published 1981). Among the statutes of this group are the typical prohibitions against fighting and the supply of food and sacrificial victims for the gatherings of the group. The inscription also seems to suggest that children could also become members of the group (lines 38-40). Among the concerns to ensure supplies is the following:

Two people in charge of meat shall be chosen by lot every [festival] day and likewise two people in charge of pastries. If any of those entrusted is found to have done something sordid, he shall pay 20 drachmas (lines 31-33; trans. Lupu).

An invitation from the god Sarapis: Banqueting with the gods

When the members of associations or guilds in the Roman empire gathered together for a meal, much more than simply satisfying the appetite or merely socializing was going on. Things that we moderns might separate into the categories of “social” and “religious” were intimately intertwined in antiquity, and the sacrificial meal is a case in point. The main way to honour the gods or goddesses was to make offerings of food or animal sacrifices, and in the majority of cases this, by default, included the accompanying meal of the worshipers.

In fact, in some cases it was even imagined that the god threw the banquet and was present with devotees as they shared in a communal meal. One banquet invitation on papyrus (ancient paper made from plants in Egypt) shows that the (Greco-Egyptian) god Sarapis sometimes sent out personal invitations for dinner: “The god calls you to a banquet being held. . . tomorrow from the 9th hour” (trans. by G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. I no. 1). And this is one of those rare cases when an upper-class author (in this case Aelius Aristides of Smyrna) happens to clarify how the members of an association devoted to Sarapis might think about their god’s presence, whether in Egypt or in Asia Minor:

“And mankind exceptionally makes this god [Sarapis] alone a full partner in their sacrifices, summoning him to the feast and making him both their chief guest and host, so that while different gods contribute to different banquets, he is the universal contributor to all banquets and has the rank of mess president for those who assemble at times for his sake . . . he is a participant in the libations and is the one who receives the libations, and he goes as a guest to the revel and issues the invitations to the revelers, who under his guidance perform a dance.” Orations 45.27-28; trans. by Charles A. Behr, P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981 (second century

Worshiping the Beast / Honouring the Emperor

Quite well-known is the book of Revelation’s (aka John’s Apocalypse) condemnation of “worshiping the beast” in his writing to the Christians in Asia Minor:

[The beast rising from the sea] was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered (13:7-8 [NRSV]).

Scholars have for a long time recognized in this a reference to worship of the Roman emperor, with the emperor being cast as a chaotic beast in this passage. In the Greek part of the empire (including Asia Minor), in particular, the emperor and the imperial family were granted honours equivalent to those offered traditional deities, like Zeus or Artemis. They were referred to as the “revered ones” (Sebastoi), the Greek equivalent of the title “Augusti”. This worship included temples in their honour as well as sacrifices at both the city and the provincial levels.

Yet quite often those who have studied these “imperial cults” tend to see them as primarily political and lacking in religiosity, or as “public” rather than “private”. This problematic view is partly due to the neglect of the many monuments and inscriptions set up by small, informal groups or associations at the local level in many cities of Asia Minor. Many of these groups worshiped the emperors without anyone imposing that on them. One such association at Pergamum was called the “hymn-singers” (hymnodoi). Once in a while they participated in special provincial celebrations in honour of god Augustus and his heirs, but they also engaged in special “mysteries” that lasted three days in honour of the “revered ones” within their local meetings. Similarly, an association at Ephesus in the time of emperor Domitian had “mysteries and sacrifices” which they performed each year “to Demeter…and to the Sebastoi gods”.

If you want to read more about John’s Apocalypse in relation to imperial cults, go here. If you want to read more about the associations specifically and their imperial mysteries, go here. For a short overview of the types of imperial cults, go here.

Banquets of the anti-associations: “They sacrificed a human being and partook of the flesh”

Quite well-known are the accusations of cannibalism (Thyestan feasts) and incest (Oedipean unions) made by some Greeks, Romans, and others against Christians in the second century (as reflected in the letter written by Christians at Lyons in Gaul [France] to those in Asia Minor [Turkey] in 177 CE). Yet such allegations were part of a common set of stereotypes for describing the “other” (that is, foreign or “barbarian” peoples and groups) that were also used by ancient writers of history and fiction concerning “foreign” religious associations or criminal “lowlife” guilds.

Some Christian authors in later years would draw on the same stockpile of accusations in their fight with other Christians that they considered “heretics” (e.g. Epiphanius on the Phibionites). The same “rituals of atrocity” would be leveled against supposed heretics and “witches” in the middle ages, and most recently recurred in stories about the supposed ritual murders performed among Satanist groups in the 1980s. I am now in the midst of writing a paper that explores such accusations of wildly transgressive rituals and banquets in antiquity (for the Society of Biblical Literature Greco-Roman meals seminar).

Among the more interesting and deliberately shocking accounts in ancient Greek novels is the episode from Lollianos’ (or Lollianus’) A Phoenician Story (Phoenikika – second century CE), which describes a criminal guild of initiates engaging in ritual murder:

Meanwhile another man, who was naked, walked by, wearing a crimson loincloth, and throwing the body of the pais (child or servant) on its back, he cut it up, and tore out its heart and placed it upon the fire. Then, he took up [the cooked heart] and sliced it up to the middle. And on the surface [of the slices] he sprinkled [barley groats] and wet it with oil; and when he had sufficiently prepared them, [he gave them to the] initiates, and those who held (a slice?) [he ordered] to swear in the blood of the heart that they would neither give up nor betray [——–], not [even if they are led off to prison], nor yet if they be tortured
PColon 3328, B 1 Recto, lines 9-16. Translation from Susan A. Stephens and John J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 338-341.

What might be missed by a modern reader is just how normal this episode would be if not for the fact that the sacrificial victim is human. Greeks and Romans regularly engaged in sacrifices of animals in order to honour their gods, and the procedure described here would not be considered out of the ordinary. The sacrifice was accompanied by a communal meal sharing in portions of the sacrificed animal (including the innards, which were somewhat of a delicacy). Greeks and Romans alike would be utterly shocked and outraged, however, at the idea of a human victim. (The quotation in this post’s title comes from Plutarch’s Life of Cicero 10.4 and speaks of Cicero’s political opponent Cataline and his supposed co-conspirators in the 60s BCE.)

Perhaps this is less bland than my introductory post.

UPDATE: Now you can read a draft of my article that deals with novels and accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Greco-Roman period here. For further posts on banqueting in the Roman world in this blog, see other entries in the banqueting sub-category.