Honouring the Gods in the Ancient Mediterranean, aka Greek and Roman Religion (HUMA 3105; 2021-22; Remote in Fall)

General Information:

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 honours for the gods within informal associations and among immigrants 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.  Students will learn how to analyze historical materials from a variety of angles while also improving their analytical, writing, and discussion skills.

Required readings

  • Linked pdf readings throughout the outline below  – please print, read, and bring to meetings for discussion each week
  • AGRW = Excerpts from Philip A. Harland, Richard S. Ascough, and John S. Kloppenborg, eds., Associations in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook (link) – please print
  • John Scheid, The Gods, the State, and the Individual (link to ebook) – for the book review essay (excluding chapters 3 and 7)

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

  • Attendance at zoom meetings, participation in discussions (in meetings), question-generation (3 questions developed in advance), and surprize quizzes (at beginning of meetings):  20%
  • Fishbowl discussion co-leadership x 2 (first 15 minutes of class meeting):  15%
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source: Aristides’ Sacred Tales), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 5:  15%
    • Academic integrity quiz: link (send a screen shot of your 100% test result as an attachment along with the essay)
  • Essay 2 (academic book review: Scheid, excluding chapters 3 and 7), 6 pages, due FALL WEEK 10:   20%
  • Essay 3 (historical analysis of primary source: Apuleius and initiation into the mysteries of Isis), 6 pages, due WINTER WEEK 5:   15%
  • Essay 4 (historical analysis of primary source: Tacitus’ account of Judean customs as “superstition”), 7 pages, due WINTER WEEK 10:   15%

Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials before meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: Assignments are due at the beginning of class (if in person, hardcopy; if remotely, by email attachment). 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 York’s policies here and here.
  • Password protected files for the course, which are used under fair dealing provisions for the purpose of education, are for course use only and should not be redistributed in any form.


Focus questions for course discussions and fishbowls:

  • Overall: How important were gods and goddesses within the lives of the populace in the ancient Mediterranean world?  What differences did class, wealth, ethnicity, occupation, and location make?  Were these practices or “ancestral traditions” communal or individual?
  • Evidence: What types of evidence do we have for these ancient cultural practices (e.g. literature, archeology, epigraphy, papyrology)?  What is the nature of a particular piece of evidence?  What sort of approach do we need to take to such evidence?  What are the limits of the evidence?  In what ways can we interpret the evidence?
  • Practice and belief: What practices did people engage in to honour gods and goddesses?  What worldviews, beliefs, or notions are implied by our evidence for such practices?  What role did stories about the gods (“myth”) play within such contexts?  What kinds of cults or groups do we encounter engaging in such honours?  What is the relationship between these different cults and groups?  What do they have in common or how do they differ?  What was most important to the particular people we are studying?
  • Diversity: What common denominators or variations do we encounter from one place or region or group to the next?  What united or distinguished people in different parts of the Mediterranean?
  • Individual and the group: To what degree was honouring the gods a communal or individual affair?  What types of groups were the primary settings for honouring the gods?
  • Ethnicity: What is the relationship between ethnicity, ancestral traditions, and honouring the gods?  What evidence do we have for variations in practices between different ethnic groups and immigrant populations?  How did members of one ethnic group (e.g. Greeks, Romans) view the ancestral traditions of other ethnic groups (e.g. Babylonians, Judeans, etc)?  What tensions existed between ethnic groups with regard to honouring the gods?  What was the experience of immigrant populations in maintaining their own ancestral traditions and in engaging with the gods or ancestral traditions of others?
  • Class / social stratification: How did one’s class or position in the social hierarchy make a difference for how people approached or honoured deities?  How did members of one class view the practices of other classes?
  • Scholarly approaches: What does a particular scholar argue concerning honours for the gods?  What does that scholar think is most significant about these ancient cultural practices?  What are the principal concepts or categories that the scholar employs?  What debatable or problematic assumptions does a particular scholar make?
  • Theory: What scholarly concepts or categories are most useful or fitting for studying honours for the gods in the ancient world?  What problems are there with using “religion” as our principal category?  What are the origin and nature of the category of “religion”?  What other scholarly categories may be more useful?


Discussion outline

Unit 1: Orientation

Week 1 (Sept 9): Course overview and introductions

  • Discussion of distributed reading:  Praise for Isis from Maroneia, Thrace (link)
  • 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 16): The Roman empire – Geographical and cultural overview (photographic tour of 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?  3) Is the category of “religion” a useful one for studying the ancient world?

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Introduction to Honouring the Gods (link)
  • Readings: Rives, “Identifying Religions in the Graeco-Roman World” excerpts pages 13-14, 21-42 (link); Nongbri, “Lost in Translation” excerpts pages 25-38, 45 (link)

Unit 2: Civic, provincial, and regional cults

Week 3 (Sept 23): Civic cults in a Greek city – Case of Artemis Ephesia at Ephesos

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): A City and Its Patron Deity – Artemis of Ephesos (link)
  • Readings: Acts 19:23-41 (link); AGRW 161 and 164 on silversmiths at Ephesos (link); Inscriptions regarding Artemis and her temple at Ephesos (link); “Greco-Roman deities: Artemis of Ephesos”, parts 1-3 (link); Roller, “Religions of Greece and Asia Minor” (link)

Week 4 (Sept 30): Divination and oracular sanctuaries – Case of Apollo at Didyma

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Messages from the Gods – Apollo at Claros and Didyma (link)
  • Readings: AGRW 179 on the Didyma oracle and AGRW 202 on the Delphic oracle (link); Fontenrose, Didyma, select oracles (link); Johnston, “The Divine Experience Part Two: Claros, Didyma and Others” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (four people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class): Delia, Amber, Aathes, Liam

Week 5 (Oct 7): Film on Pompeii

  • Video (watch before meeting): Life and Death in a Roman Town (link; 120 min)
  • Reading: Beard, “A City Full of Gods [at Pompeii]” (link)

*Essay 1 due*

*October 9-15: Fall reading week with no classes*

Week 6 (Oct 21): Healing sanctuaries – Case of Asklepios (Asclepius) at Pergamon

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Salvation from the Gods – Asklepios at Pergamum (link)
  • Video (watch before meeting): Medicine and Religion in Aelius Aristides’ Sacred Tales, with Prof. Daniela Manetti (link)
  • Readings: Aelius Aristides, Orations 48-49 (= Sacred Tales 2-3) (link); MacMullen and Lane, “Healing Shrines” (link); Petslais-Diomidis, “Body and Space [in the Pergamon Asklepios Sanctuary]” (link)

Week 7 (Oct 28): Honouring the Roman emperors as gods – Imperial cults (provincial, civic, and local)

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Associations and the Roman Empire (link); Honouring the Emperors as Gods (link)
  • Readings: AGRW 117, 120, 159, 160, 163 (link); Harland, “Imperial Cults within Local Cultural Life: Associations in Roman Asia” (link)
  • Preparation for review essay: start reading Scheid’s book for the review, intro and chapters 1-2 (link to ebook)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Anna, Destiny, Jason, Naya, Bahareh

Week 8 (Nov 4): Regional and indigenous practices – Case study of Phrygia and Lydia

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Justice from the Gods in Lydia (link)
  • Readings: “Some Confession (or Reconciliation) Inscriptions from Lydia and Phrygia” (link); AGRW 19-20, 22, 95, 327 on migrating Phrygian deities (link); Mitchell, “Pagan Worship” and “Indigenous Cults of Anatolia” (link);
  • Preparation for review essay: continue reading Scheid’s book for the review, chapters 4-6 (link to ebook)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Simardeep, Hongyi, Alexis, Dylan

Unit 3: Elite perspectives on honouring gods and goddesses

Week 9 (Nov 11): 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, “Identifying Religion in the Graeco-Roman World,” pages 21-23 only (link)
  • Preparation for review essay: continue reading Scheid’s book for the review, chapters 8-9 (link to ebook)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Nikola, Jaimie, Emma, Tanya

Week 10 (Nov 18): Elite perspectives 2 – Lucian of Samosata, an Epicurean-influenced satirical writer

  • Readings: Lucian, Alexander the False-Prophet (link); Jones, “Alexander of Abonuteichos” (link)
  • Preparation for review essay: finish reading Scheid’s book for the review, chapters 10-11 (link to ebook)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Storme, Sarah, Nahom

*Essay 2 due*

Week 11 (Nov 25): Discussion of Scheid’s work

  • Videos (watch before meeting): Delphi – The Bellybutton of the Ancient World (link; 60 minutes)
  • Readings: Scheid, The Gods, the State and the Individual, excluding chapters 3 and 7 (link to ebook)

Week 12 (Dec 2): 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)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Akshar, Brandon, Elliott, Anisa



Unit 3: Honouring the gods within small groups, associations, and guilds

Week 1 (Jan 13): Introduction to honours for the gods in associations, part 1 – Types of groups

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Introduction to Associations in the Greco-Roman World (link); Associations and Greco-Roman Society (The City) (link)
  • Primary sources: AGRW 121 (household); AGRW 196, 208, 220, 257 (ethnicity or immigration); AGRW 111-112, 138, 155-156 (occupation); AGRW 118, 172 (neighbourhood); AGRW 93, 126 (initiation in “mysteries”) (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Chantel, Shawn, Naya, Briana, Amber

Week 2 (Jan 20): Introduction to honours for the gods in associations, part 2 – Activities and purposes

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Social, “Religious,” and Burial Activities of Associations (link)
  • Readings: AGRW 195, 295, 299-301 on regulations as a window into activities; re-read AGRW 22, 121 (from earlier readings); Harland, “Purposes: Honoring the Gods, Feasting with Friends” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Elliott, Anisa, Chantel, Shawn, Delia

Week 3 (Jan 27): Case study of “mysteries”, part 1 – Associations devoted to Dionysos in Greece and Asia Minor

  • Video (watch before meeting): Bacchus Uncovered – Ancient God of Ecstasy (link)
  • Readings: AGRW 7, 103, 115-116, 176, 189-193, 202-203; AGRW B1, B2, B6; AGRW L16; Bowden, “Dionysus” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Aathes, Liam, Anna, Destiny, Bahareh

Week 4 (Feb 3): Case study of “mysteries”, part 2 – Associations devoted to Dionysos in Italy and Roman perceptions of foreign practices

  • Readings: Livy, History of Rome 39 = AGRW L23; AGRW 330 on the Agrippinilla association; Harland, “Paintings of Pompeii 1: Villa of the Mysteries of Dionysos (Villa Item)” (link); Walsh, “Making a Drama Out of a Crisis” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Briana, Jason, Simardeep, Hongyi

Week 5 (Feb 10): Case study of “mysteries”, part 3 – Associations devoted to Mithras

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): In Our Time – Cult of Mithras (link)
  • Readings: Closely examine images on “The Roman cult of Mithras: Catalogue of monuments and images of Mithras,” especially CIMRM 390, 1083, 1283 (link); Gordon, “Authority, Salvation and Mystery in the Mysteries of Mithras” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Alexia, Dylan, Nikola, Jaimie

*Essay 3 due*

Week 6 (Feb 17): Case study of “mysteries,” part 4 – Associations devoted to Egyptian deities (Isis, Sarapis, and others)

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Approaches to Studying Ethnic Associations and Identities (link)
  • Readings: Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass, book 11 (link); AGRW 52, 97, 98, 100, and especially 221; AGRW B7 on the Sarapis sanctuary on Delos; Kleibl, “Greco-Egyptian Religion” (link)

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

Week 7 (March 3): Immigrant Associations honouring Syrian or Phoenician deities

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Phoenician Immigrant Associations, part 1 (link); Phoenician Immigrant Associations, part 2 (link)
  • Readings: AGRW  223-229, 258, 317; AGRW B8; Harland, “Other Diasporas: Immigrants, Ethnic Identities, and Acculturation” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Emma, Tanya, Storme

Week 8 (March 10): Immigrant associations honouring the Judean god, part 1 – Glimpses into Judean ancestral customs (and reactions to them) via Josephus

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Judean Immigrant Associations, part 1 (link)
  • Readings: Josephus, Judean Antiquities 14.185-189, 213-260 (link); Josephus, Antiquities 16.162-178 (link); Barclay, “The Province of Asia” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): Sarah, Akshar, Brandon, Nahom

Week 9 (March 17): Immigrant associations honouring the Judean god, part 2 – Judean ancestral customs and local situations on the ground

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Judean Immigrant Associations, part 2 (link)
  • Readings: AGRW  46, 145, 149-152, 222a-b, 305–307; van der Horst, “Judaism in Asia Minor” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class):

Week 10 (March 24): Other associations honouring the Judean God – Jesus adherents

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Jesus Groups as Associations and Cultural Minorities, part 1 (link); Jesus Groups as Associations and Cultural Minorities, part 2 (link)
  • Readings: 1 Peter (link); AGRW L40 = Pliny the Younger, Letters; Thompson, “Christians in the Province of Asia” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class):

*Essay 4 due*

Week 11 (March 31): Elite perspectives on the deities and practices of foreigners – Judean customs as “superstition”

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 1 (link)
  • Readings: Tacitus, Histories 5.1-13 (link); Beard, North and Price, “The Boundaries of Roman Religion” (link)

Week 12 (April 7): Elite perspectives on the deities and practices of minorities – Jesus adherents as cannibals

  • Podcast lectures (listen before meeting): Cultural Minority Associations and Ethnic Stereotypes, part 2 (link)
  • Readings: Justin Martyr, 2 Apology 12 (link); Tertullian, Apology 7-10 (link); Minucius Felix, Octavius, especially chapters 1-13 (link); McGowan, “Eating People” (link)
  • Fishbowl discussion (15 minutes at beginning of class): TBA



Fishbowl discussion (first 15 minutes of meeting, students marked individually):

  • For most weeks, four or five students on their own will begin discussion of that weeks main readings in their group with the rest of us observing quietly and, eventually (after 15 minutes), joining the discussion.  Our focus questions for the course may be a guide for some issues to explore.  You will also want to show how the current week’s readings relate to other things we have been learning in the course.
  • There is no need for the group to meet or discuss things in advance.  In fact, it is preferred that you don’t since this is not a cooredinated presentation but rather a somewhat spontaneous discussion based on your own reading of the materials.

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

  • Preparation: Carefully read and study Aelius Aristides’s Sacred Tales (Orations 48-49  –  link). 
  • 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: Academic book review and analysis of scholarly argument – Scheid (6 pages double-spaced)

  • Carefully read and study the assigned book (you may omit chapters 3 and 7), paying careful attention to Scheid’s main arguments.
  • Write a review essay in which you explain in your own words two things: (1) Scheid’s main arguments or theory (regarding civic religion or polis-religion) as developed throughout the chapters ; and (2) key hypotheses of the alternative scholarly position Scheid refutes.  In the process, you will want to discuss the author’s method or approach and what types of evidence Scheid employs to support his arguments.  Do you find Scheid’s argument convincing or not, and in what ways?  Be sure to provide concrete examples (citing page numbers in parentheses) of the problems or strengths you discuss.
  • IMPORTANT:  An academic book review essay is NOT a summary of the content of the book.  The main focus should be on you explaining the purpose and argument of the book in your own words and you should not be quoting the book (even though you will certainly be citing page numbers to support your claims about Scheid’s arguments).

Essay 3: Analysis of primary source – Apuleius

Essay 4: Analysis of primary source – Tacitus




  • Readings (for your essay): Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.1-44 (link); Brisson, “Stoics, Epicureans, and the New Academy” (link)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *