Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (2002)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (2002),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

I had been planning to read Beate Dignas’ book on the economics of sanctuaries in Asia Minor for some time, and I have finally done so: Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Oxford Classical Monographs; Oxford: OUP, 2002).   Here I’ll merely provide some highlights from my reading; this will not be a formal review.

Dignas argues that many studies of sanctuaries of Asia Minor in both the Hellenistic and Roman periods have been working with problematic assumptions.  The main assumption that Dignas challenges throughout the work is that concepts such as “polis religion” (in other words “city-state run religion”) or “state cults” or “public cults” are the most appropriate concepts when describing cults in Asia Minor.  In other words, she suggests that the common identification of cult with city (polis) and the notion that the sanctuaries were utterly dependent on civic government is not correct.  Dignas also feels that past attempts to categorize sanctuaries and to deal with the different categories in isolation do not find a basis in the ancient evidence.  In particular, she challenges a stark differentiation between urban and rural cults, or between Greek and so-called indigenous sanctuaries, or between regular sanctuaries and “temple-states”.  Here Dignas would stress similarities more than differences among these previously common categories.

Instead, Dignas emphasizes inscriptional evidence which points to the independence of certain cults from the cities with which they have been associated.  She also highlights cases when those in charge of a sanctuary (priests or what have you) sought to assert the interests of the sanctuary over against the city’s interests, usually by means of diplomatic relations with Hellenistic, Attalid, or Roman rulers.  The relationship between the cult of Zeus at Labraunda and the polis of Mylasa serves as the ongoing illustration of this point, alongside other examples.  The advantage of this particular case is that we possess epigraphic evidence from various points in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.  Dignas’ focus is on the economic management of the sanctuaries, with issues of administration, land, and income.

Dignas proposes a triangular understanding of the relation between city, cult, and ruler, with cases of rulers siding with cults being an important factor in her argument.  Hellenistic or Roman rulers and governors served a mediating role in these conflicts of interest, sometimes siding with a sanctuary’s leadership against the polis’ stance, and sometimes with the polis.  This approach rightly emphasizes the request-response and ad hoc nature of both Hellenistic and Roman rule.  She suggests that the motivations of these rulers in supporting the requests of specific cults may well have been related to concerns to honour the gods and ensure the ongoing welfare of the sanctuaries (rather than mere political interests).

Built into Dignas’ approach is an emphasis on continuity in the administration of sanctuaries from the Hellenistic to the Roman periods, with little change in the overall dynamics of this triangular relationship.  She also suggests the ongoing economic stability of many sanctuaries over this period.  In doing so, she is correctly arguing against a far more common scholarly tradition which emphasizes the decline of traditional cults in the late Hellenistic and, especially, in the Roman periods.  She is definitely on the right track in deconstructing that older, previously dominant view.  For my own views on such theories of decline, you can check out my article on “The Declining Polis? Religious Rivalries in Ancient Civic Context.”

Although I feel that Dignas has a legitimate point to make regarding evidence for the independence of some sanctuaries at certain times, she sometimes tends to substitute repeated assertions regarding independence for actual evidence.  At times the rhetoric of these assertions or claims is problematic as well.   On one occasion, her confidence in her own claims approaches prophetic status:  “future studies will confirm” what I [Dignas] am saying (p. 242).  In cases when the evidence is minimal or difficult to interpret, she nonetheless proceeds full steam ahead with assuming or asserting a high level of independence.   Although I think she is right about some level of continuity in sanctuary life from the Hellenistic to the Roman period, the strength with which she asserts this continuity is not necessarily consonant with the fragmentary nature of the evidence she presents.  Strong claims of either continuity (Dignas’ point) or discontinuity (far more common in previous studies) are based on very partial evidence, and it is important to be very clear about that situation.  More nuanced statements are called for.  Still, she is right to suggest that the evidence does point to the ongoing vitality of many cults in Asia Minor.

Another conceptual difficulty with somewhat far-reaching implications is Dignas’ repeated contrast between “secular” and “profane” with the modern notion of the separation of “church” and “state” as a loose analogy (e.g. p. 13).  This is based, in part, on Dignas’ attempt to assert the independence of sanctuaries (the sacred) from the polis or civic control (profane).  Dignas is here working against a now common claim that what we as moderns label “religion” was in fact embedded within various other dimensions of life in antiquity.  So that what we as moderns might label a “political” factor or an “economic” factor was, in the Greco-Roman world, bound up in what we would tend to call a “religious” sphere, and vice versa.  In other words, some scholars (including myself) would emphasize the relative inadequacy of these categories for studying cultural life in antiquity.  On the other hand, Dignas can conclude with the claim that “a religious sphere can be distinguished within any context of life in ancient Anatolia” (p. 223).  I find Dignas’ attempt to go back to a clear differentiation between religion and politics or the sacred and the profane quite odd.  In reading her theoretical comments on such matters it becomes clear that Dignas is not exactly up to date on the academic study of religion generally.  Nor does she actually engage such theoretical issues in a direct way.  This is problematic when dealing with the subject of sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman world.  And yet it’s important to recognize that this book began as a dissertation in a Classical Studies department, not a Religious Studies department.  And, in an overall way, Dignas’ assertions that an independent “religious sphere” existed is based less on any theoretical consideration of the issue than it is based on her attempt to argue for the independence of many sanctuaries from the cities (which to me does not require a claim that religion was separate from other aspects of life).

Despite these theoretical problems, I nonetheless found Dignas’ work very useful, particularly since we generally lack monographs on the topic of cults in Asia Minor.

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