Thursday, March 17, 2016


Julietta Steinhauer, Religious Associations in the Post-Classical Polis. Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 50. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. Pp. 189. ISBN 9783515106467. €52.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Matt Gibbs, University of Winnipeg (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Julietta Steinhauer's thought-provoking monograph, based on her doctoral thesis undertaken at the University of St Andrews, examines "a novel religious form that appeared in the Aegean world in Hellenistic and Roman times" (15). It is primarily concerned with the material from Athens, Delos and, in passing, Rhodes, and (in mainland Asia Minor) Ephesus, Pergamum, and Smyrna, from the fourth century BCE to the second century CE.

The volume contains seven chapters, including an introduction and conclusion, and a bibliography. There are also two appendices: the first contains two graphs illustrating the number of inscriptions from Athens, and several plans of the architectural structures considered in the text; the second is divided into two sub-sections considering the Jews of the Diaspora and the Septuagint.

The first chapter provides an overview of Graeco-Roman associations and begins with an introduction where Steinhauer's aims are clearly laid out: "to offer a new perspective" on religious associations "based on the material remains"; to consider the "emergence and nature of the communities of worshippers which shaped the phenomenon"; and to provide "a synchronic comparative perspective of a group of cults" (16). A discussion of the terminology used by Graeco-Roman associations and an examination of the current state of scholarship follow. Steinhauer then considers the evidence, while providing the reasons behind her choice of Athens and Delos as case studies: the former is "valuable insofar as it looks back upon rather a long history of important institutions which are well documented in the epigraphic record", whereas Delos offers significant archaeological and epigraphic evidence which "illuminates a short but very important period in the history of a city that flourished enormously in the first three centuries BCE" (24). Here Steinhauer posits three arguments: first, that "individual associations worshipping the same deities were far more diverse" than is usually acknowledged; second, that "new" deities (those brought to Greece and Asia Minor by new settlers, during the Classical and Hellenistic periods [18]) were integrated rapidly into new localities and that religious associations played an integral role in that process; and third, that generally the groups who worshipped these deities completed this process by openly attracting new members of the local elite or other wealthy individuals by using "local terminology and habits" and adapting "local rules and regulations" (25).

Chapter two considers these religious associations in Athens, examines the evidence for their existence, their development, and the question of whether the apparent changes in these groups were "of form or content" (28). Focussing on some of the best-known forms, namely the orgeones, thiastoi, eranistai, and iobakkhoi (and others in passing), Steinhauer argues that these groups became part of public life here by erecting buildings and inscriptions, while retaining their individual character. Later the membership of these groups appears to have diversified: whereas earlier the members were exclusively Athenian citizens, the membership body broadened to include foreigners who "wished to worship together in Athens" (48). Later still these groups, created by metics, adopted traditional institutional forms and welcomed Athenian citizens into their ranks. In Athens and Piraeus these religious associations "offered… greater religious choice… through the adoption and transformation of older institutional forms that had been part of Athenian religion" for some time, while the content shifted from religious to social (49).

Chapter three takes Delos and its "exceptionally rich archaeological and epigraphic material" into consideration (51). Here Steinhauer suggests that the religious associations emerged later than those in Athens, in the third century BCE, and were primarily concerned with the worship of Egyptian, Syrian, and other "'oriental deities'" (58). She also considers those associations linked to "the 'synagogue'" and those associations on Delos whose membership was based on profession, but that also "met for religious purposes" (65). Steinhauer argues that political changes during the Hellenistic period had a significant impact on Delos' cultural and religious environment, that the ethnic and social composition of the Delian religious associations became "more diverse over time" (68-9), and that in turn these groups apparently began to worship several different deities simultaneously. Interestingly, she concludes that there was "a good deal of communication" between the Delian associations, whether religious or professional, likely through the social connections of the members themselves (59, 70).

Chapter four considers the membership, leadership, and organisation of religious associations. Much of the analysis here is based on religious groups who worshipped Egyptian deities or other 'new' gods (73-98), before the focus is shifted to consider members of associations of 'Greek' deities (99-104). The Serapiastai, in particular, are a useful case through which Steinhauer contends that the spread of these associations was connected "to the spread of Ptolemaic garrisons" (108), so too trade in the case of Delos and more broadly through migration to other areas of the Mediterranean (104-7). With respect to the associations and their evidence, Steinhauer concludes that most of these groups were already established by the time that their earliest inscriptions were created, and that from the second century BCE, the epigraphic record reveals a predominantly Greek membership (107), although gleaning much more is difficult: we are unable, for instance, to tell whether women, slaves, or freed people were members; on occasion, lists may provide details of gender, but "only indirectly about status" (107). Nevertheless, the attraction of these associations to potential members, she argues, was a "new or different ritual" that had "a magnetic effect" (108).

Chapter five examines the surviving material remains. Although the focus is on the buildings and assembly rooms of these groups, inscriptions and funerary sites are considered too (113-18). Beginning with the latter, Steinhauer notes that members' burials and their annual commemoration could be an important concern for religious associations (117). Like other associations, religious groups could use temples and sanctuaries, and they demonstrated this through inscriptions in these places. Steinhauer concludes that the use of public space in sanctuaries and temples was a "much more widespread phenomenon" (121). Many religious associations had their own assembly rooms or halls in which they could meet, but neither the ways in which these spaces were used nor any general architectural trends or patterns emerge from our evidence; the only religious associations that appear to have made use of any specific patterns, Steinhauer contends, were those Dionysiac associations whose assembly rooms of the first and second centuries CE "were similar in that they were all able to host banquets" (138-9). She notes that the only consistency can be found in the fact that associations worshipping 'new' deities "often appear in the newer parts of each city" and that this is likely because of "pre-existing building conditions" (139).

Chapter six considers the relationship between religious associations and the pre-existing civic institutions of the Greek poleis. By comparing the epigraphic evidence of Athens, Delos, and Rhodes, Steinhauer attempts to discover "the ritualistic and innovative side of religious associations that lies underneath the often formal mask of inscriptions" (141). Of the three cases Steinhauer concludes that only in Athens can a direct connection be drawn "between pre- existing constitutional structures and religious associations" (158), at least "to a certain extent" (147): new religious influences brought about "a re-assessment of the ritual tradition" while the antedated poleis institutions provided a useful model for them until the second century BCE (144-7). At both Delos and Rhodes, however, Steinhauer argues that religious associations developed quite differently. In the case of the former, no such groups appeared before the end of the third century BCE (149), and depended on immigrant habits and traditions as opposed to earlier cultic or political institutions: they were established "to each deity's origin… or on a completely new basis" (158). In respect to the latter, religious associations were founded "at the same time as military or professional associations" (158), and the terminology used for their identification was—in most cases—based on terms that were common in both Greece and Asia Minor (155). The Rhodian religious associations, with only one exception (those worshipping Athena Lindia), lacked characteristics that were specifically Rhodian (158). More broadly, Steinhauer suggests that the similarities in the religious associations in these poleis were threefold. First, the use of a related language with respect to the administrative and cultic offices appearing in these groups; this language and the institutional models of the poleis to which it was related were not merely copied, but adapted by the associations for their own needs. Second, a clear and definitive religious aspect (as opposed to a social or economic one) was prevalent in the foundation of these groups. Third, although the epigraphic evidence reveals little about individual associations, there is enough to indicate that "no association was like another" and that "they claimed a sense of otherness for themselves" (159). This created a "common understanding" and provided avenues of communication between association members, locals, immigrants, religious associations, and the polis(159).

In concluding, Steinhauer succinctly summarises her previous conclusions, and then provides two broad considerations. First, although religious associations have been considered as part of the fenomeno associativo, it is perhaps preferable not to classify them simply in this way, because of the particular aspects of such associations that differ from other types. (163-4). Second, through their adaptation of civic institutions and their related language, these groups offered a "particular sense of stability and… legality that was attractive to people" (164). Finally, she posits that the main reason for the popularity of religious associations in the Aegean during the Hellenistic period was inherently bound up with the issue of worship: establishing a religious association provided worshippers with the opportunity "to practice 'new' religious rituals and to worship deities that were not part of the pre-existing religious landscape" while at the same time not disturbing it (165).

Steinhauer's view that religious associations should be treated as a separate category is an interesting one, and follows a tradition dating back to the late nineteenth century.1 But as relevant as this may still be, this interpretation seems a little narrow in light of recent studies on associations: Scheid suggested that all associations were, in the first place, cultic communities,2 and several scholars, notably Philip Harland and John Kloppenborg,3 have argued for the spread of cultic and ritual practice through networks built on interpersonal bonds that crossed the gamut of ethnic, geographical, locational, occupational, and cultic and temple connections. It is the latter typology where Steinhauer's work would likely fit, and which may offer a broader body of evidence.

There are some areas where useful bibliography, and by extension, relevant comparable examples might have proved valuable. One wonders whether Ostia and Portus might have furnished a comparison for Athens and Piraeus during the second century CE, and perhaps Delos by extension too, particularly in view of the presence of Egyptians and Egyptian deities;4 a comparison with the Ptolemaic and Romano-Egyptian associations might also have been productive, with reference to the work of Mariano San Nicolò.5 But it would have been impossible for this monograph to have covered every aspect of, or comparison to, religious associations, and that limitation is certainly acknowledged (23).

The text is largely clean, although there are a few typographical errors alongside instances of bibliographic items appearing in the footnotes and not in the bibliography proper. But minor quandaries aside, this volume is a particularly useful repository of religious associations in Athens, Delos, and Rhodes. It is accessible, stimulating, and presents a number of interesting ideas.


1.   P. Foucart, Des associations religieuses chez les Grecs: thiases, éranes, orgéons (Paris 1873).
2.   "Graeco-Roman cultic societies," in M. Peachin (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World (Oxford 2011), 542.
3.   P. Harland, Associations, synagogues, and congregations: claiming a place in ancient Mediterranean society (Philadelphia, PA. 2003); Kloppenborg, J. and S. G. Wilson Voluntary associations in the Graeco-Roman world (London 1996).
4.   E.g., D. Noy, Foreigners at Rome: citizens and strangers. London.
5.   (1972) Ägyptisches Vereinswesen zur Zeit der Ptolemäer und Römer (München 2000).

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