Category Archives: Identity in the world of the early Christians

Pompeii 2: Rivalries among associations and a riot at Pompeii

As I discuss at some length in my new book on Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, members of associations could feel a real sense of belonging in the group, and at times this sense of identity could express itself in rivalries with other groups.  Christians and Judeans were not the only ones involved in rivalries or tensions with other groups within society.   In fact, alongside areas of cooperation, competition was an inherent aspect of life within cities in the Roman empire, and associations sometimes took part in this.

Among the more interesting examples of rivalries between different associations (or collegia) is a riot that took place in Pompeii in the first century (59 CE).   This is one of those rare cases when we have more than one source regarding a violent incident involving associations, one of them being a painting from Pompeii.

One of the sources is the historian Tacitus, who relates an incident in which the tensions between different associations from two different cities (Nuceria and Pompeii) escalated into a mini-battle in the amphitheater at Pompeii.  Here is Tacitus’ description:

About this time there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show . . . During an exchange of taunts — characteristic of these disorderly country towns — abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best.  Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital.  Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair.  The senate passed it to the consuls.  When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years.  Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled (Annals 14.17; trans. by Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome [London: Penguin Books, 1973], 321-22).

Tacitus’ account shows us that rival associations from the two different cities played an instrumental role in the conflict.  So both civic and group identity played an important role here.  Such rivalries would not always lead to violent conflict, however.

The second piece of evidence is a painting that can now be seen in the National Museum of Naples.  In the painting is pictured people fighting in and around the amphitheater. Why exactly someone would have this painting commissioned is not completely clear.  Were they proud of the incident since their fellow Pompeiians had gained the upper hand in the rivalry?  Did they know some members of the associations involved?  Or is the painting reaffirming the action of the authorities in quelling and preventing such civic disturbances?  Was it made to celebrate the re-opening of the amphitheater after the imperial prohibition was lifted?

Riot at Pompeii

From the Casa della Rissa nell’Anfiteatro, or house of Actius Anicetus (inventory no. 112222).  Inscriptions depicted on the walls of the palaestra (to the right of the amphitheatre) proclaim: “Good fortune to D. Lucretius” (in Latin) and “Good fortune to Satrius Valens, Augustus Nero” (in Greek).  Photo by Phil.  Full Italian description in Bragantini and Sampaolo, La Pittura Pompeiana, p.512-13.

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apology 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

Associations of Immigrants: Thracians and the goddess Bendis near Athens

As I have mentioned, I am presently writing an article on immigrants and immigrant associations in the Greco-Roman world. My primary focus now is on comparing Judean (Jewish) synagogues in the dispersion with other immigrants from the Levant (east of the Mediterranean) who likewise formed associations, especially Syrians or Phoenicians.

Jews were by no means the only group of immigrants who gathered together regularly in associations and maintained important connections with the culture and religion of their homeland. I will save the Syrians for future posts, but thought I’d mention one of our earliest attested cases of a group of immigrants who formed an association devoted to the deity of their homeland: the Thracians devoted to the goddess Bendis near Athens, Greece, in the Piraeus.

Thracian Goddess Bendis with devotees

Votive relief depicting the Thracian goddess Bendis with a number of torch-race victors approaching their goddess (c. 400-350 BCE, now in the British Museum, photo by Phil)

We know very little about the goddess Bendis herself, who is often (as here) depicted in Thracian hunting gear (and with affinities to Artemis the huntress). At the Piraeus there were at least two associations devoted to her, one of them for immigrants from Thracia (north of Macedonia) specifically and the other for citizens of the city. We first catch a glimpse of a group of Thracians requesting and gaining permission from Athens (which controlled the port city of Piraeus) to set up a temple for their goddess somewhere between 434 and 411 BCE.

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 Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (click the Books / Articles tab for a free download), 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).

In a more recent article dealing with Sardis and Smyrna, which you can read on my publications page, 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.