Honouring the Gods in the Greco-Roman World (HUMA 3105; 2019-20; version C on ethnicity)

General Information: Instructor: Philip Harland.  Meetings: Thursdays 11:30-2:20 (DB 0009).  Office hour (in Vanier 248): Thursdays 2:30-3:30 or by appointment.

Course description: This course explores practices or “ancestral customs” associated with honouring the gods in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.  In the first term we begin by considering a range of Greek and Greco-Roman cults in Asia Minor (Turkey) before turning to elite perspectives on ancestral customs for deities.  In the second term we begin by looking at Greek and Roman characterizations of the gods and customs of other peoples before turning to the perspectives and practices of subject peoples under Hellenistic and Roman hegemony.  In this way we can understand discourses concerning honouring the gods within the context of ethnic relations and rivalries.  Through examining rituals and beliefs in their contexts, students will gain an understanding of ancient worldviews that informed the development of western culture.  Furthermore, we will engage theoretical problems in defining and describing ancient “religion” and culture in modern terms and in the value of ethnicity as an analytical concept.

Course Texts

  • James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell Ancient Religions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
  • Linked readings in the course outline below (please print all pdfs, read and study them, and bring them to class for discussion)

Evaluation (see full assignment descriptions at the end of the course outline)

  • Attendance and participation in discussions (15%)
  • Quizzes: Beginning of class surprize quizzes on readings (15%)
  • Academic integrity tutorial and test: link. Students must print out and hand in perfect test results before the first assignment (due week 4)
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 6 (15%)
  • Essay 2 (historical analysis of primary source), 8 pages, due WINTER WEEK 6 (15%)
  • Test 1 (in class FALL WEEK 11) (20%)
  • Test 2 (in class WINTER WEEK 11) (20%)

 Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials BEFORE class meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: All assignments are due at the beginning of class. Late submissions will be penalized by one full grade (e.g. from a B to a C) and a further grade for each additional day beyond the due date.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. Study our policies at: http://www.yorku.ca/secretariat/policies/document.php?document=69 and  http://www.yorku.ca/tutorial/academic_integrity/.
  • Cell-phones, laptops, and other devices: All cell-phones and other hand-held devices must be completely turned off and remain unused during class and tutorial times. Laptops are permitted for note-taking only.


Discussion outline

Unit 1: Orientation

Week 1 (Sept 5): Course overview and introductions

  • Discussion of distributed reading
  • 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 12): 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?

  • Readings:
    • Scholarly sources: Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, intro and chapters 1-2

Unit 2: Civic, provincial, and regional cults

Week 3 (Sept 19): Civic cults in a Greek city – Case of Artemis Ephesia at Ephesos

  • Readings: Acts 19:23-41 (in the Bible; link); AGRW 164 from Ephesos (link); Oster, “Holy Days in Honour of Artemis” (link); “Greco-Roman deities: Artemis of Ephesus”, parts 1-3 (link); Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, ch. 3

Week 4 (Sept 26): Divination and oracular sanctuaries – Case of Apollo at Didyma

  • Readings: AGRW 179 from Miletos (link), AGRW 202 from Magnesia (link); Fontenrose, Didyma, Inscriptions 19-25 on  pp. 192-202 (link); Johnston, “The Divine Experience Part Two: Claros, Didyma and Others” (link).

Week 5 (Oct 3): Film: Pompeii – Life and Death in a Roman Town (120 min)

Week 6 (Oct 10): Healing sanctuaries – Case of Asklepios (Asclepius) at Pergamon

  • Readings: Aelius Aristides, Orations 48-49 (= Sacred Tales 2-3) (link); MacMullen and Lane, “Healing Shrines” (link); Rives, ch. 4

*Essay 1 due*

*October 14-18: Reading week with no classes*

Week 7 (Oct 24): **Special Visit to the Fisher Rare Book Library (120 St George St, Toronto — subway exit St. George), meeting at 12 noon in the foyer to that library (up the cement stairs near the head of the peacock)** – 12-2pm (with assignment)

  • Readings: Harland, “Imperial Cults within Local Cultural Life: Associations in Roman Asia,” including the inscriptions IEph 213 on page 91 and IEph 3801 on pages 94-95 (link))

Week 8 (Oct 31): Regional and indigenous practices – Cults of Phrygia and Lydia

  • Readings: “Some Confession (or Reconciliation) Inscriptions from Lydia and Phrygia” (link); AGRW 22 from Laureion in Attica (link); Mitchell, “Indigenous Cults of Anatolia” (link); Rives, ch. 6

Unit 3: Elite perspectives on honouring gods and goddesses

Week 9 (Nov 7): Elite perspectives 1 – Epictetus and Dio of Prusa, Stoic philosophers

  • Readings: Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12, especially sections 21-34 and 39-85 (link); Johnson, “Religion as Moral Transformation: Epictetus” (link); Rives, pp. 21-42 (again)

Week 10 (Nov 14): Elite perspectives 2 – Lucian of Samosata, an Epicurean-influenced satirical writer

  • Readings: Lucian, Alexander the False-Prophet (link); Jones, “Alexander of Abonuteichos” (link)

Week 11 (Nov 21): **In class test**

Week 12 (Nov 28): Films: Delphi – The Bellybutton of the Ancient World (60 minutes), and Eleusis – The Sacred Way (50 minutes)

(Other years – not required 2019-20: Elite perspectives 3 – Artemidoros of Daldis, dream-interpreter

  • Readings: Artemidoros, Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica), book 1.1-2, book 2.33-57, book 4.47 (link); Walde, “Dream Interpretation in a Prosperous Age?” (link))


Unit 4: Ethnic relations 1 – Greeks and Romans imagine or describe the gods and ancestral customs of foreign peoples

Week 1 (Jan 9): Greek perspectives — Ethnography — Herodotos, Ephoros, and Strabo on Pontic peoples and Scythians (southern Russians)

  • Readings: Herodotos, Histories book 4, sections 46 and 59-80 (link); Strabo, Geography 7.3.7-9, including description of Eratosthenes’ and Ephoros’ views (link); Braund, “Scythian Laughter,” pages 347-356 and 362-363 (link)

Week 2 (Jan 16): Greek perspectives — Diodoros of Sicily and others on Egyptians

  • Readings: Diodoros, Library of History 1.1-29 (link); Muntz, “Mythical History” (link)

Week 3 (Jan 23): Diodoros continued

Week 4 (Jan 30): Roman perspectives — Tacitus on Germans and Judeans / Egyptians

  • Readings: Tacitus, Germany 1-10 (link); Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 (link); Woolf, “Ethnography and the Gods in Tacitus’ Germania,” pages 133-140, 145-146 (link)

Unit 5: Ethnic relations 2 – Subject peoples explain their ancestral customs and respond to Greek, Roman, and other peoples

Week 5 (Feb 6): Egyptian perspectives and customs — Chairemon and Isidoros

  • Readings: Chairemon, On Egyptian Priests (fragment 10) in Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 6-8 (link); Chaeremon, Egyptian History (fragment 1) in Josephos, Against Apion 1. 288-92, starting at page 279 of the pdf (link) ; Isidoros, inscribed hymns for Isis from Narmouthis (link); Frankfurter, “The Local Scope of Religious Belief [in Egypt],” pages 97-111, 131-138, 143-144 (link)

Week 6 (Feb 13): Judean perspectives and customs – Artapanos, Josephos and Philo of Alexandria on Egyptians and Judeans

  • Readings: Artapanos (link); Josephus, Against Apion, selections (link); Harland, “Climbing the Ethnic Ladder: Ethnic Hierarchies and Judean Responses” (link)


**Reading Week Feb. 17-21 – no classes**

Week 7 (Feb 27): Babylonian and Syrian (“Phoenician”) perspectives and customs  — Berossos and Philo of Byblos

  • Readings: Berossos, Babylonian Matters, part of book 1 as preserved by Synkellos (link); Philo of Byblos, Phoenician Matters, sections preserved by Eusebius (link); Breucker, “Berossos Between Tradition and Innovation” (link)

[Omitted in 2020: Syrian and Phoenician perspectives and customs — Lucian of Samosata

  • Readings: Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess (link); Andrade, “Syria Writes Back” (link)]

Unit 5: Minorities and their gods in the dIaspora — case studies

Week 8 (March 5): Israelites and Judeans

  • Readings: Josephus, Antiquities, selection of diplomatic documents (link);  AGRW 46, 145, 149-152, 222, 305-307 (link); Barclay, “The Province of Asia” (link)

Week 9 (March 12): Syrians and Phoenicians

  • Readings: AGRW  223-229, 258, 317 (link); Harland, “Other Diasporas: Immigrants, Ethnic Identities, and Acculturation” (link)

Week 10 (March 19): Egyptians

  • Readings:  AGRW 221 from Delos (link); other inscriptions involving Egyptian deities at Delos (link); Moyer, “The Delian Sarapis Aretalogy and the Politics of Syncretism,”  pages 142-144, 153-164, 175-179, 194-207 (link)
  • Lecture in the form of two podcasts (each about 20 + 45 minutes):
    • Podcast 6.11: Jesus Groups as Associations and Cultural Minorities, part 1 (link)
    • Podcast 6.11: Jesus Groups as Associations and Cultural Minorities, part 2 (link)

Week 11 (March 26): TESTTest distributed by email at 11:30am on Thursday and returned to prof by 2pm the same day as an email attachment

Week 12 (April 2): Film on Jesus adherents: Empires – Peter and Paul and the Christian Revolution (link)



Essay 1: Analysis of primary source (5 pages double-spaced)

Preparation: Carefully read and study Aelius Aristides’s Sacred Tales (Orations 48-49; ) (link).  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.

Essay 2: Analysis of primary source: Josephus’ Against Apion (8 pages double spaced)

Preparation:  Carefully read and study the selected sections in Josephus’ Against Apion (link).  Also carefully review your readings and notes regarding Greek and Roman perspectives on the ancestral customs of subject peoples (from weeks 1-4), including Judeans specifically (from week 3, including the article by Harland on “Climbing the Ethnic Ladder”).

Paper assignment:  Using the case of the Judean (or Israelite) Josephus, write an essay about ethnic relations focussed on how subject peoples (like Josephus) responded to Greek, Roman, and Egyptian stereotypes and perspectives about Judeans and their ancestral customs.  In particular, what strategies does Josephus employ in responding to Greek and Roman categorizations of Judeans and how does he himself categorize other non-Judean peoples?

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