Monday, January 16, 2017


Fritz Graf, Roman Festivals in the Greek East: From the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era. Greek culture in the Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 363. ISBN 9781107092112. $120.00.

Reviewed by W. Andrew Smith, Shepherds Theological Seminary (

Version at BMCR home site


Fritz Graf is Distinguished University Professor and Director of Epigraphy at Ohio State University, and this book represents his ambitious exploration of pan-Mediterranean festivals in the eastern Roman Empire from the reign of Augustus to Constantine Porphyrogennetos. For the beginning of this period Graf makes abundant use of epigraphic and other often overlooked evidence to build a cogent explanation of how Roman city festivals were integrated into the culture of the Greek East and what forms required adaptation. For the subsequent post-Constantinian era, when evidence is abundant, Graf turns to the question of how these pagan festivals continued to survive in the Holy Roman Empire despite ardent opposition from the Christian bishops. In both periods, Graf meets the daunting challenge of connecting the dots in a very lacunose picture; where the dots are few he confesses to speculation or admits that not all scholars will agree with the foundational material used to build his case. Regardless, Graf's constructions remain imaginative and compelling, rooted in expansive knowledge of imperial festival practices.

In the first part of this three-part volume, Graf examines festivals in the Greek East during the imperial age prior to Constantine. While much has been written on the polis-centered religious festivals of Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic Greece, the evidence is sparse for festival life in Greek cities during this period. Throughout this book Graf's footnoting is superb, providing readers with supporting text both in the original Greek or Latin and in translation; the cited epigraphical evidence in these chapters is particularly helpful.

In Chapter One, Graf makes a case study of the restoration of Ptoia, the festival of Apollo Ptoios in Boiotian Akraiphia by a certain Epameinondas. By that time the greatest asset of the Greek city was its glorious past, so reviving a festival (that had lapsed for thirty years) along with its traditional elements provided an opportunity to increase the city's status. The epigraphical evidence records the inclusion of the "traditional" dance of the syrtoi, of which we know nothing. Graf speculates that with the passing of three decades the population may have forgotten the dance and perhaps this represents an instance of invented tradition à la Hobsbawm and Ranger (18-20). For some readers, this application of invented tradition may appear a bit forced, since practitioners of the dance were very likely still living and the complexity or fixed nature of the dance is unknown. Yet the introduction of innovation in "traditional" practices provides a challenging perspective from which to view the flexibility and adaptability of festivals for the remaining chapters. Following this study, Graf effectively demonstrates how cultic dedications, images, and processions provided a means for the Greek East to elevate their cultural commodity before their Roman rulers while interweaving innovative practices that cemented the relationship with Rome.

Shifting from Greek to Roman festivals in Chapter Two, Graf begins with a look at the rabbinic discussion of idolatrous festivals in Palestine. Evidence from the Mishnah on Avodah Zarah 1:3 has often been overlooked in discussions of Roman or Greek religion, but it provides a list of Gentile festivals in which transactions with "idolaters" were to be avoided on the three days prior to the festival itself (66). The Kalendae Ianuariae and Saturnalia are clearly identified there. The third festival, κράτησις (קרתסטס or קרתסטם) is less clearly identifiable, though Graf convincingly argues that this "Empowering" is the commemoration of the emperor's accession (68-69). Finally, though there is confusion in Jewish literature surrounding the "day of birth and the day of death," Graf aligns himself with the Babylonian Talmud's interpretation of these days being the public imperial celebrations of the birth and death days of kings (in this case the birthdays and memorial days of the imperial household). Regardless, Graf demonstrates that the Mishnah provides an early and unambiguous witness to the celebration of Kratesis, Kalendae, and Saturnalia in the Greek East.

In the remainder of the second chapter, Graf analyzes how Roman city festivals were transplanted into the Greek East, either as a complex mingling of the imperial cult (and vota) with local practices or as a globalizing of a local Roman festival for practice elsewhere. As an example of the latter, Graf considers Hadrian's transformation of the Parilia (a shepherds' festival for the purification of sheep) into the Natalis Urbis that celebrates the birth of Rome. While it would have been difficult to draw easterners into a festival for a goddess they did not know (Pales), celebrating the birthday of the ruling city was an easy sell.

In the second part of the book, Graf delves into the persistence of Roman festivals in the east after Constantine. This begins in Chapter Three, where he reviews an imperial rescript of Theodosius I. The people (including many Christians and Jews) loved festivals because they were times of merriment, dancing, singing, feasting, and the like. Additionally, Rome benefited from the unity and shared identity created by an empire-wide calendar of holidays and rituals. In 389, Theodosius I reformed the Roman legal calendar to include not only the Christian holidays of Sundays and Easter, but also to guarantee celebration of these pagan feriae: the Kalendae Ianuariae, the Foundation Days of Rome and Constantinople, and the birthdays and accession days of the rulers. While the number of holidays (here culled by Theodosius) eventually expanded, Graf notes the wisdom of Theodosius' ruling here, evidenced by the rescript's persistence in Roman law.

Not all agreed with Theodosius, however. In Chapter Four, Graf interrogates four public voices of the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries that address the debate over the appropriateness of celebrating the Kalendae. On the positive side, Graf presents Libanius' enkomion on the Kalendae, which praises the festivities for their spirit of generosity and the swapping of anxiety and disharmony for peace and joy, among other lesser benefits. Graf believes Libanius was responding to the second voice, an attack on the Kalendae by John Chrysostom. In the earliest extant sermon against the festival, Chrysostom preached against specific "devilish all-night celebrations" and toward a model in which Christians do not observe any festival day (137). The remaining two contemporary public voices are Asterius of Amaseia (who preaches that the poor suffer from the gift-giving and that those in power act shamefully or self-servingly during the celebration) and Augustine (who urges the Christian to replace the drinking, eating, and merriment of the idolatrous festival with fasting and alms-giving). Though Theodosius had ended the sacrifices of January 1 (so that the festival was no longer directly related to a pagan god), the behavior during the festivals remained problematic for Christian leaders. Additionally, Graf sees "two spikes of Church resistance against the Kalendae, the first in several sermons in East and West between c. 390 and c. 420, the second in canons of regional synods between Autun (after 561) and Tours (567) in the West and Trullo (692) in the East, with Martin of Braga referring to the Eastern canon pre-dating Trullo" (150).

Chapter Five turns to celebration and transformation of the Lupercalia from the period of Augustus to Constantine. The festival is nearly invisible during the first three imperial centuries (163), but it persisted well into the Christian era despite the disgraceful public nudity (i.e., of little clothing) involved in the race. Graf traces the transformation of the festival from the condemnation of Pope Gelasius in the fifth century to the barely recognizable variant of the festival found in Constantinople in the tenth century; what was once a celebration of fertility and prosperity later marked the change from winter to spring (180-181).

In Chapter Six Graf notes that "festivals are not only performed, their performance is also explained and legitimized by aetiological myths" (184). Considering transformation and innovation in festival practices, the question is raised as to whether these modified festivals are equally supported by aetiological myths. To answer this question, Graf calls upon the sixth-century John Malalas, who wrote on the origins of the Brumalia and Concilia (185). In both cases, the new forms are provided myths that equip them with legitimacy, dignity, and ancient tradition. Per Graf, John does the job of a historian "to explain the present from the past, even if with him this turned into an explanation of the past from the present—a not uncommon fate for any historian" (200).

Chapters Seven and Eight examine two of the festivals again: the Brumalia and the Kalendae. The festival of the Brumalia is the subject of Chapter Seven, its origins traced by Graf from the Bruma of the Latin West. While the Bruma was a western one-day pre-Constantinian festival celebrated indoors with gift-giving and banquets, it eventually became a 23-day celebration called Brumalia (lengthened perhaps to replace Saturnalia). Chapter Eight then considers the dichotomous form of the Kalendae in the twelfth century, when the elite intellectuals gathered for extravagant food and drink while the common people gathered for amusements (223). Despite the changing form of the festival, Graf notes that it remained a time of generosity and enjoyment.

Finally, a chapter on Christian liturgy and the imperial festival tradition rounds out this part of the book, examining "how paganism disguised itself in a Christian world, to the dismay of many bishops but to the delight of the crowds" (8). The lengthy liturgical processions that developed in Jerusalem by the fourth century will immediately remind the reader of the parallels in public use of space for a political/theological broadcast described in the earliest chapters of this volume—though Christians paired fasting with festivals instead of banquets (231). Christians in Jerusalem transformed Aelia Capitolina "into Christianity's most holy city by the construction of churches and by the invention of rituals that redefined public time and space" and revived some of the Jewish past that Hadrian "hoped to obliterate" (232).

The third part of the book provides a glimpse into Christianity and its surprising compatibility with pagan private ritual. Chapter Ten deals with the practice of incubation, or receiving healing through dreams. At first blush there appears to be a similarity between pagan incubation and Christian practices such as sleeping by the graves of saints. However, Graf notes that incubation (and sometimes dreaming itself) was universally condemned by Christian theologians; while visions were experienced by Christians, they were never in a ritualized setting nor initiated by the recipients. Graf's conclusion in this chapter is that the differences between pagan incubation and Christian dream healing miracles are far too great to ignore. Then in Chapter Eleven the much-studied practice of Christian magic serves as an excellent example of syncretism in the early church. While the pagan world distinguished between harmless theurgia and evil goetia, Christian theologians such as Augustine condemned both as the work of demons (270). Legally, Constantine had distinguished between divination and magic; divination had to be used in public and magic could only be helpful (e.g., for healing or protection of crops). Christian use of magic, especially in the form of amulets, suggests that learned people were producing these items despite injunctions against priest and monks from "freelancing as sorcerers or exorcists" (294).

The book closes with a seventeen-page epilogue that helpfully summarizes the trajectory of the book regarding why Roman festivals survived despite Christian opposition and how that survival is related to the end of sacrifices. Graf occasionally draws conclusions at the end of chapters, so the epilogue profitably ties together the material into the central themes of the book.

In conclusion, this engaging book serves a wide range of historical interests. Graf has produced a detailed and heavily researched guidebook that breaks new ground on Roman festivals and their practice in the eastern empire during the Christian and pre-Christian eras, raising and answering important questions about the miscibility of Christian and pagan practices during this period.

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