Course Outline for Greek and Roman Religion: Honouring the Gods (HUMA 3105 6.0; version A)

General Information

Instructor: Philip Harland, Click here to email me. Office hours: Wednesdays TBA, Vanier 248.  Meetings: Wednesdays 11:30-2:20, VC 118

Office hours: Wednesdays 2:30-3:30 or by appt.

Course description

This course explores practices associated with honouring the gods in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, particularly during the first two centuries of the common era. This year the geographical focus in term one is on the Greek-speaking, eastern part of the Roman empire, especially the Greek cities of Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). In term two, we turn to several related phenonema that will provide us further glimpses into the nature and meaning of honours for the gods in various contexts in the Roman empire. In that term, we begin by surveying certain deities and their “mysteries” before moving on to other informal associations and cultural minorities. Throughout, we will draw on both archaeological (especially inscriptions) and literary materials. We will be attentive to variations in practice and belief from one locale to another and from one level of society to another (imperial elites, civic elites, urban populace, rural populace). Through examining rituals and beliefs in their contexts, students will gain an understanding of ancient worldviews that informed the development of western culture. We will also deal with theoretical problems in defining and describing ancient “religion” in modern terms. In particular, honouring the gods (traditionally labelled “religion”) through sacrifice and other means was embedded within what we as moderns distinguish as social, economic, and political spheres of activity.

Course Texts

  • James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell Ancient Religions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.
  • Coursepack for HUMA 3105 (Canadian Scholars Press, available at the York bookstore)

Evaluation (see assignment descriptions at the end of the syllabus)

  • Attendance and participation in discussions 15%
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 5 15%
  • Essay 2 (book review), 6 pages, due WINTER WEEK 5 20%
  • Test 1 (in class FALL WEEK 11) 25%
  • Test 2 (in class WINTER WEEK 11) 25%

Penalties for lateness: One grade (10%) per day (e.g. B becomes C, if one day late). Assignments are due at the beginning of class in printed, hardcopy form. My aim here is fairness both to you and to your fellow students.
Useful online resources


Discussion outline


Unit 1: Orientation

Week 1 (Sept 15)

Overview of course outline, etc.

Intro: How do we approach the study of religion in an academic context? How do we define ancient “religion”? What problems do scholars have in approaching cultural life in the ancient world?

Week 2 (Sept 22)

The Roman empire: Geographical and cultural overview (photos from Asia Minor)

Key questions: 1) What was entailed in honouring the gods (offerings, sacrifice, meals, prayers, mysteries, festivals, etc.)? What social groupings and contexts were involved? 2) What theoretical issues come to the fore in studying cultural life in the Hellenistic and Roman eras?


  • Scholarly sources: Rives, intro and chs. 1-2

Unit 2: Civic, Provincial, and Regional Cults

Week 3 (Sept 29)

Civic cults in a Greek city: Case of Artemis Ephesia at Ephesos


Week 4 (Oct 6)

Healing sanctuaries: Case of Asklepios at Pergamon


  • Primary sources: Aelius Aristides, Orations 48-49 (= Sacred Tales 2-3), from Charles A. Behr, trans., P. Aelius Aristides: The Complete Works, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1981), pp. 292-317 (coursepack)
  • Scholarly sources: Rives, ch. 4

**Reading week Oct. 9-15 – no classes**

Week 5 (Oct 20)

Divination and oracular sanctuaries: Case of Apollo at Didyma


  • Primary sources: Inscriptions nos. 4-28 (under caption “Text” + Question and Response sections) from Didyma: Apollo’s Oracle, Cult and Companions (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1988), pp. 177-203; Builders’ inscription from Miletos (alphabetical under “Miletos” in the inscriptions appendix at the end of the coursepack)
  • Scholarly sources: Sarah Iles Johnson, “The Divine Experience Part Two: Claros, Didyma and Others,” Ancient Greek Divination (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2008), pp. 76-108.
  • Online readings: Harland, “Consulting the gods about your favourite blanket” at

Week 6 (Oct 27)

At home project: The methods and approaches of archeology

(NOTE: No class meeting this week)


Week 7 (Nov 3)

Honouring the Roman emperors as gods: Imperial cults (provincial, civic, and local)


  • Primary sources: Inscriptions translated in Harland article; SEG 4, 490 = OGIS 458 (coursepack); IPergamon 374 from Pergamon and IEph 3801 from Ephesos/Hypaipa (inscriptions appendix at the end of the coursepack)
  • Scholarly sources: Rives, ch. 5; Harland, “Imperial Cults within Local Cultural Life: Associations in Roman Asia,” Ancient History Bulletin / Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 17 (2003), pp. 85-107; Rives, pp. 148-156.

Week 8 (Nov 10)

Elite (literary) perspectives 1: Dio of Prusa, a Stoic-Cynic philosopher and public speaker


Week 9 (Nov 17)

Regional and indigenous practices: Cults of Phrygia and Lydia


  • Primary sources: “Expiation and the Cult of Men,” in G.H.R. Horsley, ed., New Documents illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 3 (Sydney: Macquarie University, 1983), pp. 20-31, especially the inscriptions (coursepack).
  • Scholarly sources: Stephen Mitchell, “Pagans, Jews, and Christians from the First to Third Century,” in Anatolia: Land, Men, and Gods in Asia Minor, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 11-31 (sections “I. Pagan Worship” and “II. The Indigenous Cults of Anatolia”); Rives, ch. 5

Week 10 (Nov 24)

Elite perspectives 2: Artemidoros of Daldis, dream-interpreter


  • Primary sources: “Examples of Divination by Dreams, from Artemidorus’s Oneirocritica,” in MacMullen and Lane, ed., Paganism and Christianity 100-425 CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 15-18 (coursepack).
  • John S. Hanson, “Dreams and Visions in the Graeco-Roman World and Early Christianity,” ANRW 23.2 (1980), pp. 1395-1427 (course pack).

Week 11 (Dec 1)


Week 12 (Dec 8)


  • TBA



Unit 3: Case Studies – Mysteries and Associations

Week 1 (Jan 5)

Elite perspectives 3: Lucian of Samosata, an Epicurean-influenced satirical writer


  • Primary sources: Lucian, Alexander the false-prophet (coursepack), also online at:
  • Scholarly sources: C.P. Jones, “Alexander of Abonuteichos,” in Culture and Society of Lucian (1986), pp. 133-148 (coursepack); Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, intro.

Week 2 (Jan 12)

Intro to “the mysteries” within Greco-Roman cults; Social forms associated with the mysteries (discussion of Burkert, ch. 2); World-renowned, “institutional” mysteries: Demeter and Kore at Eleusis and the “Great gods” at Samothrace


  • Primary Sources: Homeric Hymn to Demeter, online; IEph 4337 and IEph 213 from Ephesos (coursepack inscriptions appendix)
  • Scholarly sources: Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, chs. 1-2; Kevin Clinton, “The Mysteries of Demeter and Kore,” from A Companion to Greek Religion, edited by Daniel Ogden, pp. 342-356.

Week 3 (Jan 19)

Dionysos-worshippers and their mysteries


  • Primary sources: IMagnMai 215 and IMagnMai 117 from Magnesia, IMiletMcCabe 457 from Miletos, ISmyrna 622, 600, 639, and 728 from Smyrna (coursepack inscriptions appendix); The Rule of the Iobacchoi (handout)
  • Online readings: Harland, “Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item)” online at
  • Scholarly sources: Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults chs. 3-4; Harland, “Internal Activities and Purposes: Honoring the Gods, Feasting with Friends,” in Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 78-83 on associations of Dionysos (you will be reading the entire pp. 55-88 for a subsequent meeting).

Week 4 (Jan 26)

Cults of Isis, Osiris, and other Egyptian deities in the Greco-Roman world


  • Primary sources: Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, book 11; IG XI/4 1299 regarding the temple of Sarapis at Delos as translated on pp. 206-208 in McLean (coursepack)
  • Bradley McLean, “Sarapeion A” and “Sarapeion B,” pp. 205-212 in Kloppenborg and Wilson, eds., Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (coursepack).

**Feb 2 class cancelled due to snow storm – new makeup day on Tuesday April 5 (same classroom as usual)**

Week 5 (Feb 9)

Introduction to Associations in the Greco-Roman world


  • Primary sources: Inscriptions at the back of the coursepack, especially LSAM 20 from Philadelphia in Asia Minor
  • Scholarly sources: Harland, “Internal Activities and Purposes: Honoring the Gods, Feasting with Friends,” in Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 55-88 (coursepack).


Week 6 (Feb 16)

Associations within Greco-Roman Society and Culture: Comparative Studies (civic context, imperial context, issues of identity)


  • Primary sources: Inscriptions at the back of the coursepack
  • Scholarly sources: Harland, “Imperial Cults within Local Cultural Life: Associations in Roman Asia” (coursepack)

**Reading week Feb. 19-25 – no classes**

Week 7 (March 2)

Immigrant Associations: Syrians / Phoenicians and their gods


  • Primary sources: IDelos 1520 on the Berytians translated in McLean, “The Place of Cult in Voluntary Associations and Christian Churches on Delos: The Poseidonistai of Berytos,” in Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 196-205; Other inscriptions involving Syrian immigrants (coursepack inscriptions appendix).
  • Harland, “Other Diasporas: Immigrants, Ethnic Identities, and Acculturation,” from Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, copyright Philip A. Harland (coursepack); Rives, ch. 6

Week 8 (March 9)

Immigrant Associations and Cultural Minorities: Judeans in the Diaspora


  • Josephus, Judean Antiquities 14.185-267, online at: (instructions: click on The Judean Antiquities, choose book 14, choose Niese section 185, then choose translation Whiston, then click right arrow to continue reading and browsing to section 267)
  • John M. G. Barclay, “The Province of Asia,” from Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora (T&T Clark, 1996), pp. 259-281 (coursepack); Mitchell, “Pagans, Jews, and Christians…”, pp. 31-37 (same article as used earlier in the course for indigenous cults) (coursepack)

Week 9 (March 16)

Cultural Minorities: Others who honoured the Judean God (Followers of Jesus)


  • Primary sources: 1 Peter (Bible)
  • Scholarly sources: Leonard L. Thompson, “Christians in the Province of Asia,” The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire, pp. 116-132.

Week 10 (March 23)

Elite perspectives 4: “Superstition” and stereotypes about other ethnic groups and cultural minorities


  • Primary sources: Apollonius Molon, Apion, and others as described by Josephus, Against Apion 2.65-102 online: (instructions: click on Against Apion, type in book 2, Niese section 65, then choose Layout: English, then click arrow pointing right to continue to next sections)
  • Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 (coursepack)
  • Scholarly sources: Rives, ch. 7; Harland, “Perceptions of Cultural Minorities: Anti-Associations and Their Banquets,” from Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians, copyright Philip A. Harland (coursepack)

Week 11 (March 30)


Week 12 (Tuesday April 5 in our normal classroom; makeup day for earlier snow day on Feb 2)

Retrospective discussion on honouring the gods in the ancient Mediterranean


  • TBA



Analysis of primary source (5 pages double-spaced)

Preparation: Carefully read and study Aelius Aristides’s Sacred Tales (Orations 48-49, in your coursepack). Also carefully review your readings in Rives’s Religion in the Roman Empire (chapters 1-4) and your notes from class discussions for important background information.

Paper assignment: In some respects, Aristides is representative of common Greco-Roman perspectives on the gods and their involvements in human affairs. Write a 5 page paper that draws on Aristides in order to illustrate Greco-Roman perspectives or worldviews regarding (1) how humans honour the gods and (2) how the gods’ intervene in the lives of humans. You want to show that you are beginning to understand these perspectives from an historical point of view without judging them as good or bad, commendable or silly. Be sure to provide concrete examples of the points you make regarding these worldviews, drawing on specific passages in Aristides’s writing (noting in parentheses the relevant sections). As usual with any academic paper, you will want to have a clear argument which is succinctly expressed in your thesis statement and supported throughout the paragraphs.

Academic book review paper (6 pages double-spaced)

Carefully read and study the assigned book, making note of the main arguments of the author. Write a review of the book, which entails:

  • Outlining the main argument (or point) of the book and how the author builds up this argument in sub-arguments throughout the chapters.
  • Discussing the author’s methods (or approach) and use of evidence to support his or her points.
  • Providing a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Does the author achieve what she set out to do? Is the argument convincing or not, and in what ways? What theoretical assumptions and/or value judgements influence the author’s reconstruction of history? Be sure to provide concrete examples (citing page numbers in parentheses) of the problems or strengths you discuss.

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