The cult-place of a hero could be called by a variety of terms. Some emphasize the fact that the hero was dead: sēma, mnēma, thēkē, and taphos are all terms used for regular burials as well as heroic tombs. Hērōon refers to a cult-place with a tomb, but the term seems to denote something more elaborate than just a simple burial. The lack of a burial could be noted, as when Pausanias states that the sacrifices to Myrtilus at Olympia took place at an empty mound, kenon ērion (6.10.17). Terms used for the sanctuaries of the gods are found as well, such as temenos and hieron (a holy place or precinct), naos (temple), or alsos (sacred grove).

The diversity in terminology corresponds to the variations in appearance of archaeologically attested cult-places of heroes. The identification of a cult-place of a hero or heroine is no simple matter, and without any written evidence it is often difficult to distinguish a cult-place for a hero from that of a minor god or, in later periods, from a substantial burial monument for an ordinary dead person. Most archaeologically attested hero-cults have either been identified by epigraphical evidence found at the site or by being connected with a hero-cult mentioned in literary sources (Pausanias’ account of Greece refers to more than a hundred heroes having some kind of physical monument). On archaeological grounds alone, the means for recognizing a hero-shrine are more ambiguous.

A location on or at graves makes the identification plausible, if it can be demonstrated that the burials were in fact known when the cult was established. But a number of hero-shrines show no association with burials at all and it is also clear from the written evidence that the tomb of the hero was no prerequisite for the installation of the cult.

To single out certain kinds of votives as particularly ‘‘heroic” is difficult. Some types of figurines, such as horses and riders, or pottery shapes, such as kraters, drinking cups or large bowls for the bath of the hero, or objects, such as miniature shields, have been claimed to be typical for hero-cults. A closer comparison with local votive practices often shows that the same objects were dedicated to the gods or used as funerary gifts as well. One category of votive offering which can be said to be particularly linked to hero-cults, though their appearance often exhibits local traits, are stone reliefs or terracotta plaques showing a horseman, a seated male figure or a male-female couple, or a reclining and banqueting figure, often accompanied by a snake.

Just like the cult-places of the gods, hero-shrines could be located anywhere: isolated in the countryside, along roads, at city gates, or on the agora, the location often evoking the hero’s role as a founder or protector of the community. A number of hero-cults had a relationship with a divine cult and most, if not all, major sanctuaries of gods housed both burials and cults of heroes. These heroes were often intimately connected with the mythical history of the sanctuary: the hero or heroine founded the sanctuary, instituted the cult, and was its first priest or priestess. The performance of games was also linked to the presence of a hero in a divine sanctuary. At Olympia, Pelops’ defeat of Oenomaus was said to have been commemorated by the institution of the games or, according to another tradition, the games were founded by Heracles in honor of Pelops himself.

The tomb of a hero in a sanctuary gave rise to a myth explaining its presence. At Delphi there were different accounts of why Neoptolemus was slain at the altar of Apollo and buried within the sacred area: Pausanias (10.24.6) pointed out the peribolos with the hero’s tomb near the temple of Apollo. The fact that no convincing match has been made so far with the excavated remains illustrates the difficulties in identifying a hero-shrine.

Written and archaeological evidence makes it clear that many installations connected with heroes consisted only of a tomb, a statue, or a stele, but by no means were all such monuments the focus for sacrifices. The accidental discovery of a prehistoric burial may have called for a one-off sacrifice and dedication of votives, presumably to appease the disturbed hero, but it did not give rise to a recurrent cult. There was also a tradition of some heroes not wanting any cult, as was the case with Eurystheus, who was going to protect Athens from his grave on the condition that the Athenians did not offer him sacrifices and libations (Euripides, Heraclidae 1026-36, 1040-3).

The heroes were local phenomena, and the layout of the cult-place was adapted to local conditions and traditions. These circumstances, as well as the heterogeneity of the hero population, account for the lack of panhellenic conformity in the appearance of the cult-places. The layout of cult-places ranged from the simplest and smallest, some only a piece of land marked by a boundary stone (horos), to large and elaborate sanctuaries. The sacred area could be an abaton, somewhere it was not permitted to enter, and any votives were offered by dropping them over the walls, as at the so-called Leokorion in the Athenian agora and a number of small precincts on Delos. Many hero-cults consisted of small enclosures, in which only an offering table or altar was placed, as in the case of the Stele shrine and the Crossroads hērōon at Corinth or that of the Amyneion at Athens, which also had a well and perhaps a simple stoa.

Some were unique in appearance, as in the case of the Menelaion at Sparta, which consisted of a massive, rectangular platform, almost 15 – 20 m and at least 5 m high. It was accessed by a ramp, and on top there may have been an altar, statues, or a small temple. Finally, there were hero sanctuaries with a temple, like that of a god, and auxiliary buildings, such as the Amphiareion at Oropus, the sanctuary of Hippolytus at Troezen, and the Herakleion on Thasos. The sanctuary of Hērōs Ptoios in Boeotia had at least two altars, a small temple, probably housing the cult statue, and a stoa where the worshipers could dine and sleep, and in which votive objects were kept. The importance of this sanctuary is also evident from two rows of inscribed stone columns, from the late sixth to the mid-fifth century, supporting monumental tripods.

A fundamental trait of a hero was the fact that he was dead, but the relationship between the tomb of the hero and the location and appearance of the cult-place is complex. Some cult-places emphasized the burial aspect, as in the case of the archaic enclosure of the Pelopion at Olympia, which was centered on a prehistoric tumulus, identified as the tomb of the hero, or in that of the precinct of Opheltes at Nemea, in which a mound was artificially created in the sixth century. Others show no traces of a tomb or burial, and some heroes had cults even though the mythic narrative makes it clear that there were no physical remains, since the hero had vanished at the moment of death.

While the tomb of an ordinary dead person constituted a source of pollution, the burials of heroes were an exception to this rule and could be placed in spaces reserved for the living or for the gods, areas from which the dead were otherwise banned. However, religious personnel sometimes had to take certain precautions. Two third-century BC inscriptions from Cos stipulate that the priestesses of Demeter, in order to keep their purity, should not step upon or eat by a hērōon (LS 154 A, 21-2 and 37; 156 A, 8-10, heavily restored).

Pausanias remarks that anyone who ate from the sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia could not enter the temple of Zeus (5.13.3). Presumably participation in the cult of this hero made the worshiper impure in the eyes of the god. In several cases the bones of heroes are described as gigantic, in accordance with the notion of heroes being men larger than life. The finding of prehistoric bones may have lain behind some stories, and discoveries of this sort could also give rise to cults. The display of actual heroic bones seems, on the other hand, to have been less important for the cult than the fact that a city or sanctuary possessed them and that they were kept at a particular location. In contrast to the relics of Christian saints, individual bones did not contain the power of the hero (unless the rest of the skeleton was missing, as in the case of Pelops’ shoulder blade, kept at Olympia), and there is no tradition of the bones being used to perform miracles or healing, or of them being dangerous.

Other possessions of heroes were also displayed in sanctuaries and revered, though rarely in the same cultic sense as the bones. Among such venerable objects were spears, shields, and other items of weaponry, but also chariots, ships, furniture, and clothing, and the egg of Leda was even reported to have been kept in the sanctuary of the Leucippides at Sparta.

This post is a part of Heroes and Hero-cults series (for more info see previous posts).


RITUAL: Consumption or Destruction

Our view of the sacrificial rituals of hero-cults has in the last decade undergone substantial changes. The traditional notion of hero-sacrifices consisting of holocausts on low hearth-altars, libations of blood in pits, and the offering of prepared meals, but never including ritual dining, needs to be fundamentally revised.

This view of hero-cult ritual has been based on an uncritical use of literary sources of different date and character, and on the assumption that information derived from Roman or even Byzantine writers is valid also for conditions during earlier periods. If a broader range of evidence is considered (literary and epigraphical sources, iconography and archaeology) and a focus is maintained primarily upon contemporary sources, the sacrificial rituals of hero-cults in the archaic to hellenistic periods turn out to be very similar to those of the gods.

The main ritual in hero-cult was an animal sacrifice at which the worshipers ate the meat. The terminology used for these sacrifices was thyein and thysia, standard terms in the cult of the gods. There is literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence for the handling and division of the meat and dining facilities in the sanctuaries of heroes, and direct references to eating. For example, a mid-fifth-century Athenian decree of the cult association of the Hero Echelos and his Heroines states how the meat of the victims sacrificed, a piglet and two fully grown animals, probably sheep, was to be distributed. Present members of the association were to receive a full portion, while their sons, wives, and daughters seem to have been given at least half a portion of meat each.

Also, the terminology relating to and the appearance of the altars or sacrificial installations used in hero-cults show few differences from those used in the cult of the gods. The altar is called bōmos, while the term eschara, commonly taken to mean a particular hero-altar, was applied to the upper part of the bōmos where the fire was kept, often manufactured in a different material. In hero-cults, eschara could also refer to a simple ash altar located directly on the ground, a feature known from the Archegesion on Delos, but the sacrifices were of the alimentary kind.

Apart from regular animal sacrifices, the heroes also received theoxenia, offerings of food of the kind eaten by humans. This ritual could simply consist of a table with offerings, trapeza, and would then be a less expensive, vegetarian alternative to animal sacrifice, especially in private contexts. In official cult, this ritual often functioned as a means of substantiating a thysia, either by giving the same recipient both an animal victim and a table or, in the case of a hero and a heroine, giving the former the animal, while the less important heroine received the table.

A large number of reliefs (so-called Totenmahl reliefs) show a hero reclining at a table with offerings, while worshipers approach, sometimes bringing an animal as well. Heracles and the Dioscuri were commonly depicted as banqueters, a scheme certainly reflecting the particular importance of theoxenia in their cults. The aim of the theoxenia seems to have been to bring the recipient closer to the worshipers, and the ritual could also include the preparation of a couch and an invitation to the hero to come and participate as an honored guest. That a closer bond was desired at private sacrifices is understandable, but the presence of a Hēroxeinia festival on Thasos shows that state cults of heroes focused on such rituals as well.

On the whole, the rituals traditionally considered as typical for heroes, and as distinguishing them from the gods in general, must be considered as marginal features in hero-cults. Blood was of relatively minor importance, and at standard animal sacrifices to heroes the blood was kept and eaten, just as the meat was. At a small number of sacrifices the ritual was modified, with the blood being completely discarded, an action designated by a particular terminology denoting the technical aspects of this procedure.

The sacrifices to Pelops at Olympia, as outlined by Pindar (Olympian 1.90-3), consisted of a thysia sacrifice embellished with a laden table and couch, but the ritual was initiated by a pouring out of blood, haimakouria, presumably over the hero’s tomb or into a pit, bothros. The blood seems here to have functioned as a means of contacting and inviting the hero and ensuring his presence at the sacrifice.

Most heroes for whom such libations of blood are attested have a particular connection with war, and the ritual may have served both to underline this association and as a reminder of the bloodshed of battle and the battle-line sphagia sacrifices, at which the victim’s throat was slit and the blood flowed freely.

On Thasos, the war dead, called Agathoi, ‘‘the good men,” were honored with a public funeral, sacrifices, and an official listing of their names. The inscription gives the term entemnein for the ritual action, which in context is best understood to refer to the animal being killed and bled, the blood perhaps being poured on the tomb of the Agathoi, while the meat was eaten at a banquet in which the relatives of the fallen occupied a prominent position. A similar procedure can be reconstructed from Thucydides’ account of the rituals for the Spartan general Brasidas, who fell while defending Amphipolis against the Athenians (Thucydides 5.11). He was buried in the city, proclaimed its new founder, and venerated as a hero with games and sacrifices, which included libations of blood and public consumption of the meat.

Destruction sacrifices, at which no dining took place, were rare in hero-cults. Some of these rituals are covered by the terminology used in the cult of the dead (enagizein), and the use of this terminology seems to imply not only the burning of the offerings, but also an emphasis of the dead and therefore impure character of these particular heroes.

Heracles received thysia sacrifices, at which the meat was eaten, and enagizein sacrifices, a combination meant to bring out his dual character as both an immortal god and a mortal hero (Herodotus 2.44). In all, however, the complete or partial destruction of the animal victim was no more common in hero-cults than in the cults of the gods, most instances, in fact, being found in the cult of Zeus. Many destruction sacrifices, no matter who the recipient, were performed in a crisis context, in which this extraordinary ritual was aimed at solving the problems.

A particular heroic trait was to destroy a ninth part of the victim (or rather of its meat). The sacred law from Selinous mentions a sacrifice to the impure Tritopatores ‘‘as to the heroes” and prescribes that a ninth of the meat was to be burnt. A sacrificial calendar from Mykonos from around 200 BC also stipulates such a sacrifice (enateuein) to Semele, and the ritual was also known, but perhaps not executed, on Thasos in the cult of Heracles.

That the heroes were important recipients of worship is obvious from the actual number of sacrifices they received and the amount of money spent on these occasions. It comes as no surprise that alimentary sacrifice was the main ritual of hero-cults, considering the fact that heroes fulfilled the same role as gods within the Greek religious system. The four best-preserved sacrificial calendars from classical Attica illustrate this point clearly. Of the 170 or so sacrifices listed in these texts, 40 percent were performed to heroes, while the amounts of money spent on the victims for these sacrifices was around 38 percent of the budget. If the meat from all the animals sacrificed to heroes had been considered unfit for consumption, more than a third of animals slaughtered would not have been eaten. Such a waste of meat seems highly implausible, considering the vital role sacrifices and distribution of meat fulfilled in ancient Greek society, both as a means of strengthening the social ties between citizens and as an indicator of who belonged and who did not, and considering also the fact that virtually all meat eaten seems to have come from animals killed in a ritual context.

This post is the part III of Heroes and Hero cults series (I, II)

Book of interest

How to become a HERO (Heroes & Hero cults II)

Attempts have been made to make sense of the plethora of Greek heroes by dividing them into categories or by focusing on one particular category. Such groupings seem to have been of little importance in antiquity and most regions housed a variety of heroes cutting across these groups. Many heroes (and heroines) are found in myth, epic, and other narratives (including iconography), but there are also a large number solely known from cultic contexts and for whom we have no biographical details. Similarly, there is an intricate relationship between stories told about heroes and heroines and actual hero-cults. Myth may reflect cult practices but also be about the same rituals or about cult-places, or aim to place them in a heroic context. Though the bulk of all heroes who have come down to us in any kind of media have no attested cults, this is in many cases probably just due to lack of evidence. Every hero seems to have been a potential candidate for worship in some form.

The heroes of myth and epic were a mixed bunch, who performed extraordinary deeds and were claimed as founders of cities and sanctuaries, inventors and ancestors of families. Most of these heroes are male warriors or kings, giving rise to our modern use of ‘‘hero” and ‘‘heroic.” But myth and epic also contain a number of female figures. These heroines often occur in a familial context, as the less influential part of a heroic couple, or as virgins who give their lives to save their city, family, or husband. A perhaps more surprising group of heroes is those who are children or even babies, as in the case of the infant Opheltes/Archemorus, who was killed (or even partly eaten) by a snake when he was put down on the grass near a spring at Nemea.

Some heroes and heroines may originally have been gods or goddesses who did not fit in and were eventually subordinated among the heroes or merged with a heroic figure. At Sparta, Alexandra-Cassandra, worshiped in a shrine together with Zeus-Agamemnon, and Helen, sharing her cult with Menelaus, were both originally local goddesses who later became identified with well-known epic characters. Similarly Erechtheus’ and Hippolytus’ close relationships with goddesses suggest that they also had been gods once.

The heroes known only from cultic contexts, as recipients of either sacrifices or dedications, demonstrate a great diversity. The Attic evidence is particularly rich, and many of the heroes mentioned in sacred laws or regulations dealing with state, deme, or private cultic matters are clearly local cultic figures who must have been incomprehensible outside their regional context. Some cultic heroes had a specialized function, evident from their name, such as, for example, the Hērōs Klaikophoros, presumably ‘‘The Holder of the Temple Keys,” attested in Epidaurus, Troezen, and Messene in the hellenistic period. Others demonstrate a strong topographical link, such as the ‘‘Heroes in the Field” or the ‘‘Hero at Antisara”. There are even anonymous heroes and heroines evidenced both in the Athenian sacrificial calendars and from dedications from all over Greece. These figures must have been known by the people worshiping them, though perhaps never named.

A number of Greek heroes and heroines were historical or quasi-historical figures: founders of cities, soldiers killed in battle, former enemies, athletes, poets, writers, and other famous and exceptional individuals. For the figures of myth and epic, the reason for them being considered as suitable recipients of cult is self-evident.

Historical figures being elevated to heroes is a different matter, since they had to distinguish themselves from the ordinary dead of the same period. Having been extreme in some sense, in life or death, was the primary reason for heroic status. Poets, such as Homer and Archilochus, and the tragedians, and athletes, such as Theogenes from Thasos, as well as Hippocrates, the father of medicine, all reached hero status owing to their extraordinary achievements and contributions when alive. The first inventor of an action or an item, prōtos heuretēs, was often heroized, though many of these heroes were not actual historical figures.

Interestingly, a great number of extreme characters that became heroes had been far from benevolent when alive. This is an important distinction between heroes and Christian saints, who were given their status as a result of their good deeds and with whom the Greek heroes are often compared. A good example of extreme behavior leading to hero status is the case of the athlete Cleomedes from Astypalaea, who killed his opponent in pankration at Olympia and was disqualified (Pausanias 6.9.8-9). Consumed with rage, he tore down the roof of a school building in his home town, killing sixty innocent children. He barely escaped being lynched and took refuge in a stone chest in a sanctuary and then miraculously disappeared. The Pythia declared him a hero, since he was no longer mortal.

Another figure, Tereus, raped his sister-in-law and cut out her tongue to prevent her from telling. After being served his own son Itys for dinner as a punishment, he eventually committed suicide and was buried in Megara, where he received annual sacrifices (Pausanias 1.41.9, 10.4.6).

An extreme death, to be killed in a violent manner and at a young age, was a strong contributory cause for heroization. Many mythic and epic heroes and heroines perished violently at a young age. Among historical figures becoming heroes, a prime example of the time and manner of death being crucial is the case of the war dead, the soldiers fallen in battle. This development is linked to the rise of the hoplite armies of the archaic period, referred to in the poetry of Tyrtaeus at Sparta but also in a sixth-century epigram from a burial at Ambracia (SEG 41.540).

In the classical period, the importance of these men, especially at Athens, is evidenced by the epitaphioi logoi, the official praise of the fallen, and by their burial place, the Dēmosion Sēma, but a polyandrion of the war dead has also been investigated at Thespiae. The soldiers killed at Marathon and buried on the battlefield were venerated as heroes more than 350 years after their deaths.

Heroes were perceived as being able to help, perhaps even to a greater extent than a god, considering that heroes were thought to have once walked the earth and led some kind of ‘‘human” existence, as well as to be more intimately connected with specific locations. In times of threat or crisis, heroes were approached as helpers or acted as such of their own accord, and there are numerous reports of heroes appearing, especially to participate in battle. At the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Theseus, Heracles, and Marathon (the eponymous hero of the region) were reported to have fought for the Greeks, but so too was Echetlaeus, a figure dressed as a peasant and killing Persians with a plough (Pausanias 1.32.4). Such sightings often led to the institution of a cult.

The importance of heroes as helpers, particularly in war, is also evident from the stories stipulating that certain hero-cults or hero-tombs must remain secret and hidden from the enemy. A fragment of Euripides’ Erechtheus (fragment 370, lines 77-89 TrGF), provides a good case. Here, Athena instructs the widow Praxithea (and all of the Athenians for that matter) that the couple’s daughters, who gave their lives to save the city, are to receive sacrifices from the Athenians prior to battle, while their abaton must be guarded from the attempts by the enemy to sacrifice there to assure military success.

But not all heroes by any means were kindly disposed, and a cult could be instituted or sacrifices performed not only to procure their help but also to appease their anger. There is a strand of danger and threat discernible in certain hero-accounts already in the fifth century and a fragment of Aristophanes describes the heroes as guardians of both evil and well-being (Aristophanes, Heroes fr. 322 K-A). Some heroes are said to be directly harmful and dangerous, such as the hero Orestes, and they could even be viewed as senders of diseases (Hippocrates, Sacred Disease [vol. 6, 362 Littre´]).

The dangerous aspect of certain heroes and its consequent effects on the living can be explained with reference to the fact that they belong to the categories of the ahōroi and the biaiothanatoi, those that had died too early and in a violent way. These groups included persons who had been murdered, executed, died of plague, or committed suicide, but also young people, such as children and virgins. They were angered and vengeful and needed to be propitiated, but this condition was also the source of their power, making them stronger than the ordinary dead.

The institution of a hero-cult was often a means for solving some kind of crisis, usually related to someone having been wronged or even violently killed. The Children of Caphyae, mentioned above, pretended to hang a statue of Artemis and were stoned to death by the city’s enraged population (Pausanias 8.23.7). The local women then began having miscarriages until the Pythia ordered the children to be buried and to be given sacrifices, since they had died unjustly. This story contains elements which can be found in the creation of a number of hero-cults, especially those of athletes and enemies: first, violent death and deprivation of burial resulting in negative effects for society, and secondly, the seeking of help from an oracle, especially Delphi, which remedies the situation by ordering the institution of a cult. The wronged hero, once the bitter enemy or a hostile ghost, eventually becomes a defender and protector.

Heroes and HERO cults I


Religious transformation in the Roman Empire (pt.II.)


The Isis cult is in marked contrast in many respects. Women played a major role, though perhaps not so dominant a role as has sometimes been suggested. The goddess and her rituals were widely disseminated throughout the Empire and she had many public temples, festivals and processions in her honour, often as part of the official religion of the cities. Isis herself claimed that she was the queen above all and that she incorporated all the other deities of the Roman world. The evidence of the cult is plentiful, including a whole temple and its ritual equipment preserved at Pompeii. In the case of Isis, the mysteries cannot have been such a central element of the cult as they were in Mithraism; it is hard to judge even whether they were the highest aspiration of the goddess’ most devoted worshippers.

We have many inscriptions recording individual devotion to the cult, but only one sustained text giving an account of an initiation; that text is the last section (Book xi) of Apuleius’ famous novel The Golden Ass. The hero Lucius, who has spent most of the novel bewitched into being an ass, is finally saved by the goddess and in his gratitude seeks initiation into her mysteries. Apuleius does no more than hint at the rewards on offer to the initiate: Lucius’ everyday life is certainly transformed – he moves to Rome, becomes a successful lawyer and joins an Isiac group in their devotions. The novel is discreet, witty and even teasing, but it presupposes a rich religious life based on the group of initiates and a priest who offers spiritual guidance. For Lucius at least, his gratitude to the goddess, guided by her own appearance in his dreams, demands his passionate devotion to her worship.

In many ways, the most paradoxical cult of all was that of Attis, the shepherdboy-god from Asia Minor. He was part of the circle of Cybele, the Great Mother Goddess, who loved him and mourned his loss. She was identified with the Magna Mater, to whom the Romans built a temple after the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC); we know from a cache of statuettes under the platform of the temple that Attis came to Rome at the same time as the Magna Mater. The mystery cult of Attis seems, therefore, to have developed under the protection of the Roman state itself, at the very moment when the Bacchic cult was being destroyed by the same authorities. Attis in myth was the beloved of the goddess, and died as a result of his love. He was, at one stage of the modern debate, thought to be a clear example of the god whose death and rebirth symbolically foreshadowed the death and rebirth of his mortal followers. The evidence for this seductive interpretation is all too flimsy: in one version of the myth, the goddess in grief at Attis’ death begs Jupiter to save him for her; Jupiter does what he can, but the result of his efforts is that Attis remains incorruptible but incapable of movement – except that he can wiggle his little finger. The myth is not a guarantee of afterlife, but a parable about the limitation even of the gods’ control over fate.

In all these cases, it is far from clear whether the initiate received benefits in this world or the next or both; also, whether the afterlife was an important issue for the cults’ adherents. If these cults did provide a bridge from civic religion to new forms of religion, as has often been thought, they do so not so much in their doctrines, or in the quality of religious experience, as in their structure. They consisted of people who had chosen membership of this particular group and undergone a ritual that provided a link between the members of the group. But the commitment seems less than total and there is no real sign that the initiates cut themselves off from the worship of other gods. To judge by the evidence of archaeology, the Mithraists at least allowed other gods within their sanctuaries. The people of the mysteries had some quality of experience in common, but they were far from being a people apart.

The beginning point and the end point of the slow process of religious change are both clear. The journey between them is too badly documented for there to be much confidence in any detailed account of what was happening. The easy story would be to see the arrival of Christianity as the sole cause of the change; but in fact there are many other factors to be assessed. First, in many cities of the diaspora there was a Jewish community before the time of Christianity, which would already have offered an alternative religion; it is true that there is no evidence that these Jewish groups sought to make full converts, but all the same Gentiles sometimes attached themselves voluntarily to Jewish synagogues. Secondly, amongst pagans as well there were developments towards at least an elective element in their religious lives. Again long before the emergence of Christianity, the Bacchic cult in Italy was condemned by the senate and persecuted: the surviving decree shows that it was the articulated structure of the Bacchic cells that the senate was set to destroy. The Bacchic cult did not apparently involve such a complete rupture from pagan practice as did Christianity two or three centuries later. But it is sobering to reflect that the treatment of the Bacchists had in fact been more not less violent and methodical than the later persecution of Christians.

Christianity emerged into the awareness of pagans as a variant version of Judaism, not as a new religion at all, and it is probable that in its very early days there was much confusion as a result. What is more, the earliest followers of Christ did not form a single coherent group; it took many decades, even centuries, to create a unified orthodoxy, with a single church organization and doctrine, and orthodoxy at all dates had variant views to contend with. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, a central theme is the potential split between those (apparently based in Jerusalem) who wished to keep the new movement within Judaism and those who wished it to expand to include Gentile converts. There were, of course, fundamental differences between Christians and traditional Jews, but it is hardly surprising if pagans took time to understand these.

One fundamental difference was that, unlike the Christians, the Jews living in the cities of the Roman Empire maintained their own traditions very much as did other ethnic groups, Egyptians, Syrians in the west or Italians in the east. Their religious activities may have attracted others to join with their practices, but the Jews seem not to have sought converts, while joining Egyptians or Syrians did not involve abandoning the traditions of your own city or community. Another difference that developed quite quickly was that those who joined the Christians acquired a special name: Jews were Jews because their ancestors were Jews; most Christians were Christians because they had decided to be. It is important to see that this was a critical moment of change. However, there were similarities as well: both Jews and Christians rejected the gods – all the gods. For this reason, Christians in the east were for a time called simply ‘atheists’. For different reasons, neither group would participate in pagan sacrifices. On the other hand, Gentile Christians did not maintain the dietary rules or the practice of ritual circumcision that made Jewish customs such a talking-point among hostile pagans.

From a pagan point of view these developments have quite dramatic implications. For the first time pagans as such found themselves under serious challenge. Traditionally, the pagans have been seen as very ill-equipped to face such a challenge, because they were supposedly facing a crisis caused by their religion’s long slow decline into inanition. Modern views have on the contrary detected major areas of vigorous pagan activity: partly, these are in the area of the mystery cults and the development of Mithraism; partly, it is in the life of the great oracles in the east, where records of them survive long into the imperial centuries, implying a commitment nobody would have expected; partly, it is the reformation of pagan thoughts and pagan philosophy in the third and fourth centuries. What we can see clearly is that the opposition between pagans and new forms of religion slowly forced the pagans to redefine their own position. They became by force of circumstances a single religion and an alternative to Christianity; this must be the process by which ‘pagan-ism’ was finally invented.

Part of that process of redefinition was the persecution of the Christians, the parading of those who chose to deviate from the pagan version of civic life. Our information about this comes mostly from later Christian sources, especially martyr-acts, which had a specific role in the memorializing of its saintly heroes and heroines by the later church. These are not the best sources for establishing what really happened. But we have enough information to see that there were persecutions and that an apparatus of suppression did exist; but it is also clear that this was employed only very erratically and that it was no part either of the imperial authorities’ purpose or of the real activity of governors to conduct a methodical suppression by searching out the Christian groups and eliminating their activities. The Emperor Trajan declared precisely that they should not be sought out, but should be brought to trial only if denounced by persons who declared their names and hence took responsibility for the denunciation. This policy will have meant that persecution took place only when Christians came into conflict with the civic authorities. Only in the third century AD did persecutions begin to take on a more imperial aspect and even then it is not clear how far this was a considered decision.

The key to understanding the progress of Christianity may well lie in events in the cities large and small throughout the Empire. It is clear that cities had come to contain groups both of Jews and of Christians who were at odds with the sacrificial cult that lay at the centre of pagan civic religion. We get glimpses of this plurality, but we have all too little information of how it worked in practice. Did the Jews and Christians attend the regular pagan festivals and thus reconcile themselves formally with pagan opinion? Or did they simply absent themselves and live their own separate lives? Both groups seem to have contained members who were socially and economically successful; at least, it is certain that not all their members were drawn from the excluded groups of society and some scholars have argued that from the beginning they included members of high status. It is very hard to maintain that they were secret and separate.

In the case of Jewish communities in particular, there is some evidence of visible separateness. In some cities, synagogues were built in central, even prominent, sites. Those who attended them must have been known to the community as a whole. These seem to have included pagans, who had not converted but were informally attached to the communities and sometimes even Christians – to judge by the attacks on their backsliding by their bishops. An inscription from Aphrodisias, a notable city in Asia Minor near the west coast of Turkey, shows us a situation of a Jewish community which seems to be far more integrated into civic life than we would have predicted. It is evidently maintaining at least some parts of a Jewish tradition; but it has as patrons and supporters a number of local people, some of whom declare that they occupy prominent positions in the city itself, serving on the city’s council. The implication seems to be that this community at least was thoroughly accepted and even supported at an almost official level.

It may be argued that the crucial change should be looked for not simply at the level of religion in the cities, but more generally in the life of the cities themselves and their relationship to the whole Empire. Pagan religion was a matter of large numbers of local traditions – rituals, festivals, myths, gods and goddesses – which overlapped with those of their neighbours but thrived on local enthusiasm and commitment. Like everything else in the Empire, this activity depended heavily on the commitment of the local wealthy classes; innumerable inscriptions from the early imperial period show how they were responsible for funding and organizing the religious life of their co-citizens.

In the later period, particularly during and after the third-century troubles (235-84 AD), the flow of information about such benefactions comes to an end. There are no more inscriptions from the cities of the Empire detailing the devotion of the civic elites to the cities in which they lived. At the same time, legal sources contain much material on the controversial issue of excuses for avoiding local duties. What this suggests is that local elites, whose members had once been committed to their own communities, were now avoiding these local obligations and devoting themselves instead to the service of the central government and its bureaucracy. This change of attitude was not at all the result of events in the religious sphere, but it would have had dramatic effects on the religious sphere. If the local backers of pagan activity were abandoning it and transferring their enthusiasms elsewhere, then it would not be surprising if the effect was to encourage Christian groups to become more active and to find it easier to make converts. This is no more than one possible theory, but it does have suggestive power and needs to be tested in terms of the surviving record in individual cities and communities.

The term ‘pagan’ (paganus) originally meant country-dweller, rustic, and was apparently used by the early Christians as an unfriendly term for those who had persisted in the old pre-Christian religious ways. We do not know where or why this usage began, but it was adopted by modern writers and is today the established usage in the writing of ancient history. Some contemporary writers have preferred to use ‘polytheism’ and ‘polytheist’; but, at least when writing about earlier periods, this is definitely misleading, since it implies that the Romans thought that having many gods was what defined their religion. They did not. They believed that there were many different gods and goddesses and that all sensible people from all over the world recognized that simple fact. Only when in competition with Jews and Christians in late antiquity, were they forced to acknowledge that the number of gods had become a major issue of contention. In many other contexts today, the word ‘pagan’ either has become a pejorative term for religions of which the speaker disapproves, or else refers to religious movements of the current age which are distinct from, even if in some way similar to, the religions of the Graeco-Roman world. Perhaps a replacement of the term would be desirable for these reasons, but none is available at the moment that would not be more misleading still.


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Religious transformation in the Roman Empire (pt.I.)


In some respects the pagan religion of the Romans can be described as if it was a timeless unchanging system. This is to some extent misleading: as we could read previously, the introduction of new cults was a regular event. More significantly still, the city’s whole religious life was in fact adjusted quite dramatically to the realities of power in the state: we know enough, for example, to be certain that the religion of early Rome was built around the position of the king; that in the religion of the late Republic, the location of authority within the system had become fragmented so that power was shared between the senate, the popular assemblies, the many priests of different kinds and the magistrates of the particular year; and that by the end of Augustus’ reign (14 AD), there had been such radical restructuring that the Emperor can be said not only to be the head of the state religion but to be reorganizing the whole cult around his house, his family.

All religious decisions seem to come to him; he has become almost the only human to be depicted in the act of sacrificing to the gods; and his own status has risen almost to that of a god himself. The Emperor in many ways plays the role of guaranteeing Rome’s relationship with the gods that once had been shared between the whole ruling elite. In some ways, this religious transformation is the most important change of all in the period of the establishment of the new monarchy.

These were of course radical changes, and they would have horrified Cicero’s contemporaries had they lived to see them; but a far deeper transformation of religious life was in progress that affected not just the public life of the Empire, but the experience of all its inhabitants. The religion of Rome before 1 BC, like that of many cities of the ancient world, was an inherent part of the city’s life and activity. The individual assumed a certain religious place derived from his or her family, trade or dwelling and participated more or less actively in the festivals and ceremonies of the state, many of which had both central and domestic rituals associated with them. It is an oversimplification to say that this was a religion of ritual alone; but the specific nature of the individual’s ideas or beliefs was not an issue, as long as he or she conformed to a normal pattern of behaviour. That does not mean that some were not sceptical and others pious; but such variations had no consequences in terms of provoking persecution or of converting from one religion to another. There were no alternative religions to which one could convert at the time.

Four hundred years later, the social location and significance of religion had changed radically. By this time, a range of religions (Judaism, Christianity, paganism), cults (Mithraism, the Isis cult) and sects within religions (Arianism, Donatism, Orthodoxy) were competing for members. The notion of competition should not be exaggerated here: there was a great deal of peaceful co-existence and mutual tolerance as well as conflict. We know of families in which some members were Christian, some pagan; and we know of cities where there seems to have been no real violence for long periods. What is beyond all doubt, however, is that individual members by birth of one religion often converted to a different religion as a result of a change of conviction. The option to do so now existed and individuals – as well as whole families – made use of it. This is logically implied by the fact that Christianity started as a tiny group (in the 30s AD) and grew, very slowly at first, over the course of three centuries. In this period, in each generation the Christian groups must have contained a high percentage of converted pagans. The mixing of paganism and Christianity will have happened both externally between the rival groups and internally in the minds and hearts of the converts.

One approach to the question, and a traditional one, is implied by concentrating more on events internal to pagan life and less on the competition with new religions. Two trends have been very much emphasized in the past: the first was the rise to major importance of mystery cults; the second was a supposed trend towards monotheism, which allegedly predisposed pagans to accept a Judaeo-Christian outlook. Both these ideas have formed part of a coherent scheme of staged development starting from polytheism, passing through mystery cults and belief in the afterlife, then through monotheism to the final culmination in Christianity. The scheme was essentially a (brilliant) nineteenth-century construction and is no longer defended or defensible, though its assumptions may still be powerful.

One problem with the scheme is that the elements that are supposed to represent ‘progress’ were in fact already present in religious life long before the Roman Empire in both Greece and Italy. The mystery cults, for instance, clearly went back in their basic structure at least to the early Greek society of the sixth century BC and the idea of monotheism was discussed and highly influential also in early Greek thought. The Stoics believed in worshipping the gods and goddesses, but they saw them only as aspects of the single divine principle, the logos – the rationality inherent in the nature of the universe.

In some sense, both mystery cult and philosophical ideas about a single deity may be seen as anticipations of what happened in later history, but it is also entirely clear that both could co-exist for very long periods in a pagan and polytheist environment. Neither the existence of the mysteries nor the possibility that all the gods should be seen as a unity proved fatal to pagan practice over hundreds of years. What is needed is a demonstration that some quite new factor arose in the imperial period and that its emergence caused the collapse of polytheistic ideas.

The particular mysteries that were most prominent in these years were those of Isis, claiming to have originated in Egypt; of Attis and Cybele from Asia Minor; of Bacchus, immediately from Greece, but originally from further afield; and of Mithras from Persia. In every case, there is some substance in the claimed origin, but also a substratum of the older Greek mysteries. Perhaps, the eastern connections resulted from real contacts with the east or easterners; perhaps, it was no more than a veneer of easternness, derived from reading or learning. Mysterious wisdom was known to be a possession of the ancient eastern civilizations and the cults must have derived prestige from the association as well as natural supporters among the descendants of easterners living in the west. The cults did have some elements in common: they all had a mystery only revealed to the initiate at a ceremony; they all seem to have offered a personal experience of the divine and some contact with an experience of symbolic death and rebirth. But, beyond these basic points, they had very different ideas and systems.

The cult of Mithras, for instance, excluded women from its groups, whereas the other cults did not. It also had its own special appeal to two groups of people: soldiers in the frontier zones and freedmen in Rome and in Ostia (the port of Rome). On the other hand, there is little evidence that it had any importance among the elite groups of Rome, even though leading Romans played their parts in the cult when on the frontiers. The main evidence about the cult’s character has to be inferred from the decoration and imagery of Mithraic shrines or caves, which were the characteristic meeting-places of the cult, where cult-meals were probably held in honour of the god. There is also a plentiful and varied tradition of sculpture, including the scene of bull-slaying by Mithras himself.

There is hardly any written evidence about the ideas of the cult’s adherents from their own point of view; and even Christian writers, so loquacious about paganism in other contexts, tell us little in this case. We know that there was an elaborately structured system of grades, so that the individual group member would have undergone a series of initiations starting out under the grade of ‘raven’ and moving up through five grades (‘male bride’, ‘soldier’, ‘lion’, ‘Persian’, ‘sun-runner’) to become finally a‘father’. Each of these grades was under the protection of a planet, including the sun and moon, starting from Mercury and finishing with Saturn. These grades, and the movements of individuals through them, must have been controlled by theories about the universe and about the connections between stars and human experience on the earth. The individual ascent through the seven grades must have reflected the soul’s progress through the stars. It seems clear that they were combining in a very original way the old idea of the mystery cult and up-to-date ideas about the stars and the universe. The details are all very controversial and it is far from certain that the same theory was being applied in all the parts of the Empire… [To be continued]

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Religion in the Roman Empire (pt.III.)


The Romans had a clear sense that the dead needed to be remembered and honoured and there were annual festivals to achieve this. At the festival of the Parentalia, which occupied nine days in February, offerings were brought by families to the tombs or graves of their families outside the walls of the city. The next day after the end of this period was a time of reunion and reconciliation amongst the living members of the family. It was an obligation of those who inherited an estate to maintain the sacra of the family, that is to ensure that the rituals for the ancestors were properly carried out. All this implied that there was a sense of the continuing existence and power of the dead, at least in the mass if not as individual personalities.

Families – at least elite families – also kept a memorial of their ancestors in the form of wax masks, likenesses that lived in the atrium of the house; at noble funerals these masks were worn by actors dressed in the triumphal or magisterial robes of the dead man as part of the procession that followed the corpse. Imperial funerals were later modeled on this ritual. This implies that the family as a unit was conceived as developing its glory over time. It does not imply any concern with the individual’s survival of death.

In the second festival, in the middle of May, the dead were conceived in a different way and called lemures (hostile spirits); the ritual was intended to placate them and keep them away from the living. Ovid in his Fasti connects this ritual with the violent death of the founder Remus, killed by his own brother Romulus; this may not be entirely reliable, but it does suggest that the idea underlying the festival concerned the restless ghosts of those who had been abused. At least, the evidence suggests that the two festivals expressed opposite visions of the dead, at peace or not at peace.

It is usually argued that a concern with the individual’s survival of death originated in the period of the Empire, partly under the influence of Greek philosophy, partly in the so-called mystery cults and in the context of Christianity. This is all highly questionable in the case of the mysteries. At least in the case of pagans, however, it seems certain that there was a widespread debate of which people were aware; tombstones quite regularly assert the dead person’s rejection of the idea of survival, worked so as to imply that others do believe in it.

The dead must in this case have been carrying on an argument familiar among the living. Here as elsewhere we must never forget the limits of the subject under discussion: ‘paganism’ as such had no explicit beliefs or doctrines that were codified, debated or challenged as such; individuals of course had their thoughts and doubts, but in earlier Rome such ideas would have had no consequences, good or bad, because the question of leaving the religion and joining a different one did not arise. It was only with the emergence of religious alternatives that the nature of such religious issues became transformed.

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