Sunday, June 17, 2012


Linda-Marie Günther, Sonja Plischke (ed.), Studien zum vorhellenistischen und hellenistischen Herrscherkult: Verdichtung und Erweiterung von Traditionsgeflechten. Oikumene. Studien zur antiken Weltgeschichte, 9. Berlin: Verlag Antike, 2011. Pp. 208. ISBN 9783938032473. €49.90.

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, Ghent University (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of contents is listed at the end of this review.]

This volume is the result of a seminar held in Bochum in the context of a research project on the history of religion in Asia and Europe. If the brief introduction (7-10) pays lip service to this wider framework and asks a few questions about the development of the hellenistic cult as a Greek or oriental phenomenon, this perspective disappears in the rest of the volume and little attempt is made to bring the various studies together. This is, then, not more (but also no less), than a series of interesting studies on the Hellenistic ruler cult.

The volume sets off with a very good start. Robert Rollinger reviews the evidence for ruler cult in the Achaemenid empire, and does so with full mastery of the Greek and Persian sources and of the methodological issues involved. Besides discussing all the evidence, he makes three important points. First, proskynesis for the Persian King did involve prostration, and not just the blowing of a kiss. In other words, there is substance to Greek reports (e.g. Herodotus 1.134), although their interpretation of it as divine honour is not correct. Second, there is evidence for cult acts performed for deceased rulers. Whether it was a form of 'hero-cult' or of divine honour cannot be established. Third, an unpublished tablet (BM 72747) refers to sacrifice performed before a status of Darius in a Babylonian temple. The tablet dates from the first year of Xerxes: this renders it plausible that the sacrifice had also been performed during Darius' life-time. This is very important new evidence, which should re-open debate about the origin of the Hellenistic ruler cult. If the evidence is too slight to return to the thesis of an oriental origin that was subsequently merely adopted by the Hellenistic rulers, it does demonstrate that ruler cult in a strict sense of the word (cultic acts performed for the ruler) was much more widespread in the ancient world at large than often assumed.

Sonja Plischke offers a survey of the evidence for cults for Lysimachus, setting them in the context of his general attempt to legitimise his position by assimilating himself to Alexander the Great. The paper is useful for the evidence it gathers, but the interpretation could have been pushed further: given the turbulent times in which Lysimachus established his rule over parts of Asia Minor, one could ask, for example, to what extent the civic cults established there for him respond or interact with the cults established for his competitors.

Gregor Weber proposes to understand the development of the Ptolemaic ruler cult as a series of experiments, some of them abortive, others directed towards the Greek segment of the population, still others towards the Egyptian inhabitants. The spread of the cult was often not driven by the ruler himself but by elites who identified themselves with the ruling dynasty or merely sought social promotion. This is an important corrective to a tendency to see the ruler cult as a tool for political legitimacy promoted from on high; it restores complexity to the social reality in which the cult thrived. Nevertheless, the paper had a slightly abortive feeling to it: at the beginning Weber counsels against identifying Greeks and Macedonians as the same group and same audience, but that distinction is never operative in the rest of the paper. If Weber importantly counsels against attempts to identify either the Greek or the Egyptian sphere as ultimately providing the framework for the cult, he later does seem to accept a priority of the Greek cult.

Linda-Maria Günther demonstrates that rulers often exploited the ambiguity of visual messages. A coin of Demetrius II, minted at the beginning of his second period on the throne (129-126/5 BC), shows a beared man on the obverse. Using parallels from earlier Macedonian and Sicilian coinage, she argues that the figure refers to the figure of Zeus Nikephoros, introduced by Antiochus IV on coinage, but that it remains for the viewer to decide whether he sees in the coin image Demetrius in the guise of Zeus or Zeus with characteristics of Demetrius.

Another solid contribution is dedicated to the Attalids. Christoph Michels argues against the thesis that the Attalids stuck more to traditional civic ideals than the other Hellenistic monarchs and thus held back the development of ruler cult. Although there is clear evidence that ruler cult developed increasingly after the empire was extended in 188 BC, in particular through the application of the title theos to defunct members of the dynasty and the adoption or creation of (high-)priests for the dynastic cult, Michels argues that the close association of the Attalids and Dionysus can already be traced to Attalus I. Thus, the Attalids used divine associations in their royal self- presentation already from early on, and did not limit themselves to a 'bourgeois' image. One minor critique: Michels emphasises the distinction between real cult after death and god-like honours during life-time, suggesting that the latter do not constitute real divinization (188). Hence the fact that Attalus III was synnaos of Asclepius and received sacrifice (OGIS 332) leads to the conclusion that 'Attalos III. zu Lebzeiten also nicht vergottet wurde' (123). This is a rather unsatisfactory distinction: on that criterion the only way to determine whether a Greek god is indeed divine is to see whether he is designated as theos, and not that one sacrifices to him. Moreover, it ignores the fluidity in the Greek concept of the divine.1

Peter-Franz Mittag traces the development of the dynastic cult of Antiochus I, king of Commagene. Establishing a relative chronology of the inscriptions, he shows how elements were progressively added to celebrations for the king's birthday and enthronement cultic, including a cult for his forefathers and a rapprochement of Antiochus himself and the gods. He underlines, in addition, that although Antiochus increasingly brought himself nearer to the gods, he did not assimilate himself to them: his statues remain eikones, and are never agalmata. For Mittag this was 'an invisible border line' imposed by the local traditions. It would be interesting to bring his results together with those of Rollinger, who, in fact, seems to argue that the Persian tradition did know cults of the living king.

All the individual papers represent solid scholarship and combine an exhaustive analysis of the sources with steps towards new interpretations. As such, they will be useful starting points for future research. As a collection, however, the volumes leaves it to the reader to draw his own conclusions. A bit more effort by the editors in drawing out some of these conclusions would have been helpful. There is, in fact, much to think about in the volume: issues such as intercultural transmission (Rollinger, Weber, Mittag), the elite participation in shaping and expanding the cult (Michels, Weber, Mittag), the definition of ruler cult (Michels, Mittag, Günther, Rollinger), and the role of myths in shaping divine claims (Plitschke, Michels) – to name but a few topics that ask for further exploration. The contributors are to be thanked for providing food for thought.

Table of Contents

R. Rollinger, Herrscherkult und Königsvergöttlichung bei Teispiden und Achaimeniden. Realität oder Fiktion?, 11-54
S. Plischke, Herrschaftslegitimation and Städtekult im Reich des Lysimachos, 55-76
G. Weber, Der ptolemaïsche Herrscher- und Dynastiekult – ein Experimentierfeld für Makedonen, Griechen und Ägypter, 77-97
L.-M. Günther, Herrscher als Götter – Götter als Herrscher? Zur Ambivalenz hellenistischer Münzbilder, 89- 113
C. Michels, Dionysos Kathegemon und der attalidische Herrscherkult. Überlegungen zur Herrschaftsrepräsentation der Könige von Pergamon, 114-140
P.-F. Mittag, Zur Entwicklung des „Herrscher-"- und „Dynastiekultes" in Kommagene, 141-160


1.   See H. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, Leiden, 2012.

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