Category Archives: Greco-Roman religions and culture

I drank, I ate, I said bad things, I lie here dead

There is a review by Julia Lougovaya-Ast at BMCR of a recent collection of funerary epigrams (poetic grave inscriptions) from the south of Asia Minor which illustrates well how much fun and how intriguing inscriptions can be, even grave-inscriptions (Reinhold Merkelbach, Josef Stauber, Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten. Band 4: Die Südküste Kleinasiens, Syrien und Palaestina. München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2002).

Among the inscriptions there is one for a dog, named Stephanos, who was mourned and buried like a human. Another echoes the paraphrased title of this post (which comes from a satirical epitaph).

Others are a bit less fun, even sad, but nonetheless give us glimpses into the social realities of life in the ancient world. Among them is the grave of a woman who died giving birth to triplets. As the reviewer points out, this is one of the few references to multiple births beyond twins in antiquity.

Check out the full review, which provides some English translations of several graves (including the above). Of course, the book itself provides the Greek texts and German translations.

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.

Real Child Sacrifice at Carthage?

Over on Paleojudaica, Jim Davila points to a recent debate over the existence of child sacrifice among the Carthaginians (in ancient North Africa), with one recent native Tunisian archeologist trying to dispel the notion that the ancestors of the Tunisians sacrificed children. It is true that almost all ancient ethnographical references to human sacrifice are made by Greek or Roman (or other) authors in order to show how terrible and uncivilized the “barbarian” peoples were. In almost all cases these are standard mud-slinging stereotypes of the “other” along the lines of the accusations against Christians and the stories used in novels which I mentioned a couple of days ago. However, the case of the Phoenicians (and Carthaginians) is different. A substantial study of Carthaginian sacrifice (which I happen to have out of the library), discusses this in relation to the Mediterranean context and concludes among other things that:

a noteworthy absence of eyewitness accounts is characteristic of the ancient sources of human sacrifices and other ‘unnatural’ killings. Also characteristic is the tendency to attribute ongoing sacrifices to other people, but to assume that in one’s own group such acts took place only in the past, if at all. It is not possible to prove that most attested human sacrifices ever happened; in fact, they probably did not. Yet, at least for the Phoenicians [and hence Carthaginians], there is independent archaeological evidence that the accusations were not wholly false.
Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series, vol. 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p.149.

The interpretation of this archaeological evidence is precisely what the archeologists in the recent media report are debating.

UPDATE: More discussion of child sacrifice among the Phoenicians on N. S. Gill’s ancient history site.

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.