Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.01

Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999.  Pp. xii, 217.  ISBN 0-521-38201-7.  $50.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-521-38867-8.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by F.S. Naiden, Harvard University (
Word count: 1691 words

Simon Price's short new book is part of the series "Key Themes in Ancient History," which includes such works as R. Thomas' Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece and D. Konstan's Friendship in the Classical World. The aim of the series is "to provide readable, informed, and original studies of ... basic topics ... for students and teachers...." Price (hereafter P.) has met the first two of these criteria, if not the third; if "reliable" were substituted for "original" he would meet the third, too, except in chapters where the scope of his subject makes summary hazardous. This slim volume must shoulder a heavy load, and for the most part does so sturdily.

Harder to assess is whether it deals with a "basic topic." The use of the plural, "Religions," suggests divided counsels, not just on the part of the author, but on the part of this fellow scholars. Some, like P., no longer conceive Greek religion as a whole; others like J. Bremmer in the Burkert Festschrift, Ansischten griechisher Rituale (1998), go so far as to question the term "religion."

The benefits of this approach, already evident in R. Parker's Athenian Religion: A History are detailed treatment, careful use of visual materials, and, with the passage of time, the creation of a mosaic of scholarly work that does justice to the breadth of evidence discovered, catalogued, or re-interpreted in recent decades in which topics like Greek religion have grown to large for any latter-day Nilsson to control. In P.'s case, the result is a survey with the best qualities of a monograph: cogent discussion of narrow issues, judicious summary of larger one.

The no less evident cost is methodological, as noted by C. Calame in his recent BMCR review of S. Pulleyn's Prayer in Greek Religion. Whether singular or plural, the term religion is modern. As P. himself notes, it divides sacred and secular, themselves modern categories. It also divides entertainment from religious instruction and faith from superstition, and here, too, it is modern. Rather than grapple with these distinctions, however, P. has followed Parker's lead and confined himself to what he calls "practice" rather than belief." He has much to say about ritual, little about myth; within ritual, he has more to say about δρώμενα than λεγόμενα. Dionysus and Asclepius excepted, he says as much about sacrificial animals as about any individual god or hero; about heroes as a group he says almost nothing. His is perhaps the first book to include an appendix of translated inscriptions but not an index locorum.

P.'s empiricism will offend two schools, first, believers in a Homeric and Archaic song culture in which a blend of composition and performance allows ritual or "practice" to re-enact myth or "belief"; and second, narratologists who discern cultural factors in even the most exiguous written records. The second school, unlike the first, can offer an objection that covers P.'s entire chronological sweep from the Archaic period to Pausanius: P.'s separation of belief and practice is itself an expression of a belief, a distinctly modern, scholarly belief in the autonomy of ritual. This belief has heuristic value and it also happens to have ancient precedents, but it does not square with several statements in the sources.

Socrates was perhaps the first to anticipate P. by reducing religion to "practice", or in Socrates' terms, to bribery of the gods through ritual (Pl. R. 390e on Phoenix's speech at Il. 9.497-511). For Socrates, however, such practice was reprehensible, whereas P. thinks that non-philosophers regarded it as normal. P. thus fails to realize that ritual could cause controversy, and he also fails to notice that many Greeks responded to controversy about ritual by taking a moderate position. On the one hand, they heard Socrates and others deprecating ritual and instead stressing morals; on the other hand, they knew that Phoenix was alleged to do the reverse; and they reacted by embracing ritual and morals both. So, among the poets, Homer often shows that the gods welcome ritual, but he also reports that Zeus punishes the guilty (Od. 3.144-6). and helps the innocent (14.404-5, 415-16). Similarly, Hesiod endorses ritual observance but also says that "A laboring man is much dearer to the immortals" (Op. 309). These statements belie P.'s conclusion that it was Plato, not Homer or Hesiod, who "sought to make true piety depend on the moral behavior and intentions of the individual," so that "it contained an element of justice" (137, and more in this sense through 141). The poets care about "moral behavior," too, and so do later writers who balance ritual and morals (Isoc. 2.20; Arist. NE 1163b).

P.'s conclusion can also lead to the misrepresentation of rituals with moral and legal aspects, such as supplication and prayer. However, P. omits these two from his survey, just as he omits evidence that these and other rituals were politicized, as in tragedy, where every single supplication at an Athenian public altar succeeds, but other supplications often fail.

P.'s strengths emerge in the chapters that recall his sociologically oriented Rituals and Power: the Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, his weaknesses in chapters using literary and philosophical material. Ch.1 presents the religious practices of Xenophon's 10,000 as typically Greek, and turns from this tidy introduction device to remarks on the interplay of archaeological and written evidence. Chs. 2 and 3 ("Gods, Myths, and Festivals" and "Religious Places") form a pair in which topography à la française is more important than myth, and the vexed topic of myth and ritual is only briefly noticed (17-19). Also neglected is the recent Olympian-Cthonian controversy. The high point of these two chapters is the description of several Attic festivals in Ch. 3.

The ambitious fourth chapter, "Authority Control, and Crisis," assails the common view that Greek polytheism was open, tolerant, and unhampered by priestly bureaucracy. P.'s command of epigraphical evidence allows him to show the contrary: public cult, at least, was regulated, difficult to expand, and dependent on priests performing a variety of administrative functions. The short account of the politics of oracles is tantalizing, while the equally short account of Socrates' trial quotes the familiar passages from Aristophanes but lacks other background.

Ch. 5, "Girls and Boys, Women and Men," says that the individual citizen, not the household, was the "ideological center" and "basic unit" (89) of Greek worship, an unconventional assertion followed by a conventional if useful survey on structuralist distinctions. The chief weakness is the omission of slaves and non-citizens, remedied somewhat in Ch. 6, "Elective Cults," in which P. concentrates on four phenomena" pilgrimage to Asclepia, public and private mysteries, Orphism, and Pythagoreanism. Here P. cites basic texts like Gold Leaves at some length, but is cautious in his interpretations.

Ch. 7, "Greek Thinkers," traces the philosopher' criticisms from Xenophanes onwards. The cosmologies of the pre-Socratics are missing, as is any account of Plato's myth-making. The hostility between philosophy and traditional religion is thus exaggerated in a way to which P. Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? offers a corrective unnoticed by P. Among the best pages in the book are those at the start of the next and last chapter, "Reactions to Greek Religions." Here P. devotes 15 astute pages to Roman reactions, especially in the Imperial period. Jew and Christians then receive the short shrift of only 6 pages.

Buyers or users of this book will wish to know how it compares to recent Continental books on the same subject. First, P.'s work has largely Continental roots. Defining bribery of the gods as "practice," e.g., as a kind of exchange, stems from Mauss' Le Don, while P.'s interest in religion as an expression of social solidarity stems from Durkheim, and his concentration on religion in Greek poleis rather than other Greek communities reflects recent French interest in the structure and topography of polis cult. Second, recent Continental work is nevertheless less sociological than P. The most recent Continental study of Greek religion, Bremmer's Greek Religion (1994), resembles other recent contributions, including J.-P. Vernant's in The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. M. Eliade, 99-118), in trying to balance P.'s theme of practice with morals and belief. Bremmer devotes as many chapters to gods and myth as to rituals and sanctuaries and also draws a distinction between the Archaic and Classical periods on the one hand and the Hellenistic and Imperial eras on the other: poetry and public devotion dominate the former, philosophy and private devotion the latter. This historical scheme gives some weight to the history of ideas and to economic and political factors. Vernant's structuralism is not historical, but again deals as much with belief as with practice.

All these works presented religion as a topic in intellectual history, not just sociology, and even within the parameters of sociology, Bremmer and Vernant give more weight to gender than does P. Bremmer also gives more weight to foreign influence, following the lead of Burkert in The Orientalizing Revolution: Near-Eastern Influence in Greek Culture in the Archaic Age. Much older than this Archaic influence is the kinship between Semitic and Greek sacrifice, and in particular between Semitic sacrifice and sacrifice to the Olympians, with Cthonian sacrifice having more Indo-European elements. This connection has informed scholarship from Robertson Smith to Burkert by way of Burkert's predecessor Meuli, but P. does not consider it, any more than he considers the related topic of theories of sacrifice.

P.'s work enters a crowded field. For teachers, GGR, and other landmarks will loom no less prominently than before, while for students Burkert's Greek Religion will remain the best introduction to more remote peaks of scholarship. The most comprehensive short work is still Nilsson's A History of Greek Religion, while the best recent work is Parker, and the most original Bremmer 1994. Nevertheless, P.'s book has two uses. It offers the only brief, up-to-date treatment of Greek religion from a sociological viewpoint widespread in the United States and England, and thus broadens a literature dominated by Continental scholars with different agenda. Since it offers excerptable short treatments of varied subject, it can also provide a teaching aid for undergraduate courses in Greek religion and history.

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