Thursday, February 23, 2006

Honours and Worship: Emperors, Imperial Cults and Associations at Ephesus (1st to 3rd centuries C.E.)

Philip A. Harland: "Historians of Greco-Roman religion such as Arthur D. Nock, Martin P. Nilsson, G.W. Bowersock, Kurt Latte, Ronald Mellor, Dieter Ladage and Eleanor G. Huzar emphasize aspects of political expediency and loyalty and underplay or discard the importance of 'genuine' religiosity with regard to cults of the emperors.(4) These imperial cults are frequently portrayed as [321] empty shells void of any real religious meaning for the participants. Nilsson, for example, states that imperial cult 'lacked all genuine religious content,' and, with very few exceptions, the imperial cult's 'meaning lay far more in state and social realms, where it served both to testify to loyalty to the rule of Rome and to the emperor and to satisfy the ambition of the leading families.'(5) Though Nilsson and others may be partially correct in acknowledging this social and political role, exclusion of religious significance on a local level for various strata of society is not justified.

Similar assumptions are evident among scholars who discuss religious associations and guilds specifically.(6) For example, in his monumental study of associations, Franz Poland states that 'the cult of the emperors appears relatively seldom [within associations] and, where it does occur, has little independent meaning'; moreover, it had little significance for an association's 'self-understanding.'(7)

But the above outlined view or paradigm is not without some opponents. E. Will, H.W. Pleket, Fergus Millar and, more recently, Robin Lane Fox, for example, criticize the general tendency within scholarship to overemphasize the political and neglect the religious aspects of imperial cults.(8) More recent research focussing on the cult of the emperors in Asia Minor by scholars such as S.R.F. Price, Steven J. Friesen and Stephen Mitchell(9) also [322] demonstrates both the inadequacy of some previous assumptions and the need to re-view cults of the emperors on a regional basis.

Underestimating the religious significance of cults of the emperors is partially the result of the imposition of modern viewpoints onto ancient evidence. First, for example, the traditional interpretation of imperial cults reflects the modern distinction between politics and religion. In antiquity, however, the social, religious, economic and political aspects of life were intricately intertwined. Thus to say that worship of the emperors was simply an expression of political expediency or to say that it was utterly an expression of religious piety are both misleading. As we shall see, what we can say is that worship of the emperors in western Asia Minor certainly encompassed religious and other aspects to a degree underestimated in the past.

Second, the issue of whether the ancients who engaged in worshipping the emperors believed the emperor to be human or divine, which reflects modern ontological concerns, has also contributed to scholars' undermining the religious character of imperial cults.(10) From a modern perspective it is difficult to comprehend that what we as moderns know to be human could be worshipped as a god by ancients, and, as a result, a modern scholar is more inclined to suggest that apparent worship of a human as divine must be superficial (or simply political in the case of emperors). But an approach which focusses primarily on the ontological status of the emperors is inappropriate since we cannot get into the minds of ancients to see what they actually believed, and, more importantly as the present essay begins to show, the vast majority of the evidence that we do have for local imperial cult activities and rituals shows that the characteristics of and practices connected with worship of the emperors virtually coincide with those connected with worship of more traditional deities.(11) Moreover, the evidence [323] suggests that in practice, within the context of imperial cults, the emperors functioned as gods.(12)

Third, it is quite common in modern contexts to measure true religiosity and piety in terms of emotion or feelings and this tendency sometimes extends to scholars' assessments of ancient religion.(13) Though there are certainly some cases where religious feelings are very strongly expressed by individuals in antiquity,(14) piety (eusebeia) and religiosity were more frequently concerned with the proper performance of cultic acts to maintain fitting relations between communities and the gods rather than with the inner feelings of individuals.(15) This does not make such activity any less genuinely religious within that context.(16)

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