Course Outline: Greek and Roman Religion – Honouring the Gods (HUMA 3105; 2019-20; version C)

General Information: Instructor: Philip Harland (pharland -at- yorku -dot- ca).  Office hour (in Vanier 248): Thursdays 2:30-3:30 or by appointment.  Meetings: Thursdays 11:30-2:20.

Course description: This course explores practices or “ancestral customs” associated with honouring the gods in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.  In term one we focus on understanding a range of customs in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire, and in term two we explore how Greeks and Romans viewed and described the ancestral customs of foreign or subject peoples.  We also give special attention to the perspectives and practices of these subject peoples themselves.  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” in modern terms and in the value of ethnicity as a scholarly concept.

Course Texts

  • James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell Ancient Religions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).
  • Readings linked below in the course outline

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

  • Attendance and participation in discussions (10%)
  • Quizzes: Beginning of class surprize quizzes on readings (20%)
  • York University academic integrity tutorial and quiz (due week 4, Fall term).  All students must read the tutorial website (link) and complete the academic integrity quiz (link) before the first assignment, achieving a 10/10 (100%) and submitting a hardcopy print-out of the results of their test. Assignment 1 will not be accepted without a completed academic integrity test submitted beforehand.
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 5 (15%)
  • Essay 2 (book review of Bowden), 6 pages, due WINTER WEEK 5 — **one week extension, now due February 8 at the beginning of class** (15%)
  • Test 1 (in class FALL WEEK 11) (20%)
  • Test 2 (in class WINTER WEEK 11) (20%)

 Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Everyone is responsible for reading and studying works listed for a particular week before coming to class.
  • 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: and
  • 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.



Useful online resources


Discussion outline

Unit 1: Orientation

Week 1 (Sept 5): Course overview and introductions

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, 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:
    • Primary sources:
      • 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)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Rives, ch. 3

Week 4 (Sept 26): Healing sanctuaries – Case of Asklepios (Asclepius) at Pergamon

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Aelius Aristides, Orations 48-49 (= Sacred Tales 2-3) (link)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Rives, ch. 4

Week 5 (Oct 3): Film on the Eleusinian mysteries

Week 6 (Oct 10): Divination and oracular sanctuaries – Case of Apollo at Didyma

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • AGRW 179 from Miletos (link), AGRW 202 from Magnesia (link)
      • Fontenrose, Didyma, Inscriptions 20-25 on  pp. 194-202 (link)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Sarah Iles Johnston, “The Divine Experience Part Two: Claros, Didyma and Others” (link).
      • Harland, “Consulting the gods about your favourite blanket” (link).

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

Week 7 (Oct 24): Honouring the Roman emperors as gods – Imperial cults (provincial, civic, and local)

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • SEG 4, 490 = [122] EJ 98 (link)
      • AGRW 117 from Pergamon (link), AGRW 160 from Hypaipa (link), AGRW 163 from Ephesos (link)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Rives, ch. 5
      • Harland, “Imperial Cults within Local Cultural Life: Associations in Roman Asia” (link)

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

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • “Some Confession (or Reconciliation) Inscriptions from Lydia and Phrygia” (link); AGRW 22 from Laureion in Attica (link)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Stephen Mitchell, “Pagans, Jews, and Christians from the First to Third Century,” pp. 11-31 (link; sections: I. Pagan Worship and II. The Indigenous Cults of Anatolia)
      • Rives, ch. 6

Week 9 (Nov 7): Elite perspectives 1 – Epictetus the Stoic philosopher and Dio of Prusa the Stoic-Cynic philosopher

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Dio Chrysostom, Oration 12, especially sections 21-85 (link).
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Luke Timothy 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:
    • Primary sources:
      • Lucian, Alexander the False-Prophet (link)
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Jones, “Alexander of Abonuteichos” (link)

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

Week 12 (Nov 28): Elite perspectives 3 – Artemidoros of Daldis, dream-interpreter

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Artemidoros, Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica), books 2.33-40, 2.55-57, 4. 47 (link); John S. Hanson, “Dreams and Visions in the Graeco-Roman World and Early Christianity,” especially the dreams described on pages 1401-1405 and 1415-1419 (link).


Unit 3: Ethnic Relations 1 – Greeks imagine or describe the ancestral rites of foreign peoples


Week 1 (Jan 9): Greek perspectives 1 – Herodotos, Hippokrates and Ephoros on northern peoples and Scythians (southern Russians)

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources: Herodotos, ??; Pseudo-Hippokrates; Ephoros in Strabo
    • Scholarly sources: Harland, “Herodotos etc” or Munson 2014 “Herodotus and Ethnicity”? or Vlassopoulos

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

  • Readings:
    • Primary Sources: Diodoros preface and parts of Egyptian section
    • Scholarly sources:

Week 3 (Jan 23): Roman perspectives – Tacitus on Germans and Judeans

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
    • Scholarly sources: Woolf, “Ethnography and the Gods in Tacitus’ Germania

Unit 4: Ethnic Relations 2 – Subject peoples, ethnic identification, and reactions to other peoples

Week 4 (Jan 30): Judean perspectives 1 – Artapanos, Josephos and Philo of Alexandria on Egyptians and Judeans

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources: Artapanos (link); Josephus, Against Apion, selections (link)
    • Scholarly sources: Harland, JBL article

Week 5 (Feb 6):  Judean perspectives 2 – Sibylline Oracles and Paul on Greeks, Romans, and other peoples (“gentiles”)

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
    • Scholarly sources:


Week 6 (Feb 13): Babylonian and Phoenician perspectives: Berossos and Philo of Byblos

  • Readings:

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

Week 7 (Feb 27): Jesus Adherents’ Perspectives on “Barbarian Wisdom” ??

  • Readings:
    • Scholarly and primary sources:

Week 8 (March 5): Minorities in the Diaspora 1 – Egyptians and their deities

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Chairemon, On Egyptian Priests (fragment 10) in Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals 6-8 (link); AGRW 221 from Delos (link); Anubis: AGRW 47 (Thessalonica), 185 (Smyrna), 294 (Narmouthis)
    • Scholarly sources: Moyer, “The Delian Sarapis aretalogy and the politics of syncretism” (link)

Week 9 (March 12): Minorities in the Diaspora 2 – Phoenicians / Syrians and their deities

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Phoenicians / Syrians: AGRW  223* (Tyrians), 224* (+ B8), 225, 226, 227, 228 (Berytians), 229* (Syrians), 258, 317* (Tyrians)
      • Kitians from Cyprus: AGRW 10
      • Thracians: AGRW 18, 208
      • Asians: AGRW 64, 71, 77, 78
    • Scholarly sources:
      • Harland, “Other Diasporas: Immigrants, Ethnic Identities, and Acculturation,” from Dynamics of Identity in the World of the Early Christians (link).
      • Rives, ch. 6

Week 10 (March 19): Minorities in the Diaspora 3 – Judeans and devotees of the Judean god

  • Readings:
    • Primary sources:
      • Judeans: AGRW  46*, 86*, 145*, 152*, 305–307*
      • Israelites: AGRW 222a*, 222b*
      • AGRW L9, L10, L33, L37
    • Scholarly sources:
      • John M. G. Barclay, “The Province of Asia” (link; course password required)
      • Rives, chapter 7

Week 11 (March 26): **In class test**

Week 12 (April 2) :  Film – Judeans and devotees of the Judean god in the diaspora: Followers of Jesus



Analysis of primary source (5 pages double-spaced)

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

Step 1: To familiarize yourself with the genre of the academic book review, read at least 10 book reviews (reviewing single-author books, not edited ones) that interest you in The Classical Review (accessible through JSTOR on our library system) or in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review online at:

Step 2: With a focus on the arguments and main points, read the book (Bowden, Mystery Cults of the Ancient World).

Step 3: Write an academic book review of the book (in the form of an essay), which entails:

  • Explaining the main arguments of the book and how the author builds up these arguments with sub-arguments throughout the chapters.
  • Discussing the author’s methods or approach and the author’s use of evidence to support the author’s points.
  • Providing a critical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Does the author achieve what he or she set out to do? Is the argument convincing or not, and in what ways? What theoretical assumptions and/or value judgments 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.

The review paper should have a clear thesis statement or argument (concerning your evaluation of the book) which is supported throughout the paragraphs. The paper should be clearly written and structured with no spelling or grammatical errors. Be succinct and do not exceed the prescribed length.

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