The Declining Polis? (continuing from 27/01/13 teleion)


The preceding evidence clearly shows that the members of many different  types of associations, representing a spectrum of social-economic  levels within society, from the more prestigious occupations of Roman businessmen
and silversmiths to the less desirable professions of dyers and  clothing cleaners, actively participated in the networks of civic life and, in  important ways, closely identified with the polis and its structures. So much,
then, for the widespread scholarly view that associations and guilds were  a replacement for the declining structures of the polis, and the equally  untenable view that they were a consistently subversive element in society,
removed from civic identity and involved primarily in negative relations with  imperial and civic authorities.
This attachment to the institutions of the polis, and the accompanying  sense of civic identity or pride, is evinced in various other ways as well,besides involvement in civic networks of benefaction. Some of the principal
social-cultural institutions of the polis, often built or renovated through  the benefactions of the wealthy, were marketplaces, baths, gymnasia, stadiums, and theatres. Here, too, there is clear evidence of active participation
by inhabitants of the cities. The age-group organizations of girls or  boys (paides), youths (ephêboi), young men (neoi), and elders (gerousia) were  a very prominent feature of gymnasium life for members of citizen families.
Jews also could participate in the life of the gymnasia in Asia: there was  a group of “younger Judaeans” (neoteroi Ioudaioi) at Hypaipa (CIJ 755), and  several Jewish names are included in lists of ephêboi from Iasos and elsewhere
(see Robert 1946, 100–101). Guilds of performers and athletes were  similarly active in the gymnasia, stadiums, and theatres, where they competed  during the various festivals held in honour of gods or emperors.
Yet ordinary associations and guilds also had a place (often in a literal  sense) within these institutions of the polis. The stadiums at Aphrodisias,Didyma, and Saittai, for example, included bench reservations for guilds and  associations of various kinds (IAphrodSpect 45; IDidyma 50; Kolb 1990). Several  latrines at the Vedius bath-gymnasium complex at Ephesus were set
aside for groups of bankers, hemp-workers, wool-dealers, and linen-weavers,
all of whom evidently frequented the place (IEph 454). Quite well known  is the Jewish synagogue contained within the bath-gymnasium complex at  Sardis in the third century CE, right next door to the imperial cult hall.
Such groups could also have special seats reserved for them in the theatre  where the assembly of the people, as well as various theatrical and other  performances, took place; the theatre at Miletos included reservations for
guilds such as the “emperor-loving goldsmiths” and the “Judaeans (or  Jews) and God-fearers,” who sat just a few rows from the front, right next  to the benches reserved for the “friends of the Augusti” (philaugustoi).10
Discussion of these kinds of social-cultural institutions leads us to  another important aspect of civic life, which attests to the vitality, not the  decline, of the polis and its social-religious life: festivals, processions, and  related activities.11 As we noted earlier, the gods, rulers, and emperors were  an integral part of the webs of relations that characterized the social systems
of the cities; festivals were one means by which appropriate honour  could be shown to these godly benefactors, who protected the polis and its  inhabitants. Thus, Plutarch, who was quite emphatic about the need for   moderation in the pursuit of honour (philotimia), felt that the best pretext  for benefaction was one “connected with the worship of a god [which]  leads the people to piety; for at the same time there springs up in the minds  of the masses a strong disposition to believe that the deity is great and
majestic, when they see the men whom they themselves honour and regard  as great so liberally and zealously vying with each other in honouring the  divinity” (Mor. 822b).
The pan-Hellenic festival established by Magnesia in honour of Artemis  Leukophryene in the second century BCE, after an epiphany of the goddess  and a consultation of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi (cf. IMagnMai 16, 17–87,100), is paralleled by similar festivals, both local and regional (pan-Hellenic or provincial), which were established in cities throughout the Hellenistic  and Roman periods. The proliferation of associations of athletes and performers  in the Hellenistic and, especially, Roman eras is just one clear indication  of the continuing popularity and importance of festivals, and the gods  and goddesses they honoured.
To cite just one example from the Roman era, Salutaris gave a substantial  financial foundation to Ephesus in 104 CE (IEph 27). The council  and the people decided that the income from the funds would be used for  processions expressing various elements of civic identity. Several groups participated,  most prominently the youths (ephêboi), who carried images not
only of Artemis and the Ionian and Hellenistic founders but also of the  emperors. As Rogers (1991, 80–127, 136–51) convincingly argues, the composition  of the biweekly procession was an expression of the multi-faceted  identity of the city, not only encompassing the Roman imperial family and  regime but also reaffirming the Ionian origins and sacred identity of Ephesus
as the city of Artemis. The procession, in fact, began and ended in  her sanctuary.

There is varied evidence for the continuing importance of gods and  goddesses (whose popularity was not dying, as some scholars imagine) in the life of the polis, especially in connection with civic identity and pride.
Virtually every city chose a particular deity as benefactor and protector, to  whom proper honour was due. The relation between the civic community  and the gods was taken seriously, and any threat to this relationship was  a grave offence. The account, in Acts (19:21–41), of the silversmiths’ riot at  Ephesus, whether documenting an actual event or not, realistically portrays
the attachment that inhabitants felt to their patron deity (cf. Oster 1976).
In reaction to Paul’s preaching that gods made with hands are not gods, the  silversmiths are said to have gathered together a considerable crowd of  other craftsmen and local inhabitants in the theatre, shouting (for two  hours), “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The more important of the  motives Acts mentions for this protest relates to the need appropriately to  honour the goddess: “There is danger…that the temple of the great goddess  Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that  brought all Asia and the world to worship her” (Acts 19:27; cf. IEph 24 [ca.160 CE]).

The official patron deity was not the only deity, however, to whom  honour was due. Temples and altars for various gods and goddesses, both  foreign and local, dotted the cities of Roman Asia. At Ephesus, for example,
there is surviving evidence of cultic activity for Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo,Asklepios, Athena, Demeter, Dionysos, Cybele, Isis and Sarapis, and others;
a similar array of evidence has been found at Pergamon (cf. Knibbe 1978; Oster 1990; Ohlemutz 1968). As well, possession of an official provincial  imperial-cult temple could be a source of rivalry among cities in Asia, as  illustrated by one particular incident Tacitus relates from the reign of  Tiberius (Ann. 4.55–56). Other local shrines or cults of the emperors, including
cultic activities practised within associations, likewise attest to the  importance of the emperors as gods within the civic system (cf. Pleket  1965; Price 1984, 190–91; Harland 1996).
The foundation and continuation of cults or associations in honour of  gods other than the patron deity of the polis were also bound up with civic  identity and well-being. An inscription from the second century CE, claiming
to be an ancient oracle, records the myth of the introduction of Dionysiac  associations (thiasoi) to the city of Magnesia (IMagnMai 215). It tells a story  about the people of Magnesia sending messengers to consult the god Apollo
at Delphi concerning a miraculous sign and epiphany of the god Dionysos,
which happened at Magnesia “when the clear-aired city was founded but  well-cut temples were not yet built for Dionysos” (lines 19–21). The oracular  response implied that the well-being of the Magnesians depended
upon an obedient response to the will of both gods, Apollo and Dionysos,
that associations devoted to Dionysos should be founded. This oracle may   have been a useful weapon in establishing the pre-eminence of these particular  Dionysiac associations within the context of religious rivalries at
Magnesia at the time.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE STUDY OF RELIGIOUS RIVALRIES
Reference to competition, of course, brings us back to the focus of this  book. I think it appropriate to conclude this chapter by outlining a few of  its main implications for the study of different religious rivalries within
ancient civic contexts. First, when discussing and explaining religious rivalries,
we must avoid adopting models of decline and broad notions of degeneration,
even though such assumptions have been widespread in this area  of study in the past. Hopefully, I have shown how pervasively and frequently  the predominant model of decline has, in the past, shaped our picture  of the polis of the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Many recent scholars, however, are beginning to deconstruct this scholarly edifice and build  instead a more complex picture with regard to the continuing importance  and vitality of the polis, despite changes, developments, and regional variations.
Yet conceptions of the decaying polis have also been the basis upon  which various other questionable theories have been built regarding socialreligious  life and the general milieu of the Greco-Roman world—theories  and assumptions that must no longer be unquestioningly employed in our  attempts to understand and explain religious rivalries. I have tried to show
ways in which problematic modern concepts and models of historical development  have played a significant role in the formation and acceptance of  many such theories. The inscriptional evidence from Asia, which I have  discussed, has further challenged, in several ways, broad notions of decline.
To begin with, it has provided concrete illustrations of the continuing  importance of the polis and its structures as a locus of identity, co-operation,and competition for members of various strata of society. At the same time,
it has also further undermined some of the more commonly accepted theories  regarding the effects on religious life of supposedly widespread feelings  of detachment from the civic community. Many scholars have thought
that such deracination led directly to the emergence of the private religion  of the individual, including mystery religions or associations, as a functional  replacement for civic structures. But we have found that, far from
being a replacement for attachment to the polis, many small social-religious  groups could be integrated, though some more than others, within  the polis and its standard structures.
The second main implication of the present study is this: that the practice  of competition, or rivalry, was a natural consequence of living within  the social system of the polis. Even more, the agonistic culture that constituted
this social system made rivalries (as well as co-operation) essential  to its continued vitality. Within such a context, both rivalries themselves  and the potential disturbances that sometimes accompanied them should
be understood as signs of vitality, not decline.

Third, it is evident that inhabitants who joined together on a regular  basis to form small social-religious groups could indeed find the polis to be  a home. They could find their place within the polis, cement their relationship
with its structures, and identify with its interests in a variety of ways,including participation in civic networks of benefaction, direct relations  with the political organs, and participation within social and cultural institutions,
including gymnasia and theatres. We also found that emperors  and imperial officials were incorporated within the civic system and its  webs of relations to such an extent that the relation of a polis to the emperors  was an important component of civic identity in the Roman era. The participation  of inhabitants or groups in imperial aspects of civic life provided
another way for people to stake a claim regarding their particular place(s)  within society.
Fourth, the vitality of both traditional and other forms of social-religious  life means that groups of Jews or Christians, like others, would have to  work hard to establish and to maintain their place within the polis. Despite
their peculiarities, the most important of which may have been a firm  rejection of many features of polytheistic cultic life, Jewish and Christian  groups, like other associations, could not utterly reject all participation in
and involvement with at least some of the varied social, economic, and  cultural features of civic life; at least, not if they hoped to persist. Those Jewish  groups that found a place (literally) within the bath-gymnasium complex
at Sardis, and within the theatre at Miletos, illustrate some of the  possibilities, even for putatively exclusive Jewish and Christian groups, of  finding a home within the social structures of cities in the Roman Empire.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT
I would like to thank Professor Roger Beck (University of Toronto), the  members of the University of Waterloo/Wilfrid Laurier University Biblical  Colloquium, and the CSBS Religious Rivalries Seminar, for their comments
on earlier versions of this chapter.

by Philip A. Harland

Assistant Professor (Social and Cultural History of Christianity) in the Religion Department of Concordia University, Montreal

the  end

About sooteris kyritsis

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