Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.41

Beate Dignas, Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. viii, 364.  ISBN 0-19-925408-7.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by William J. Slater, McMaster University
Word count: 1957 words

This is the revised version of an Oxford DPhil thesis, written under S. Price and seen through the press by R. Parker. It therefore should not contain terms like "annona militare" p.233, fortunately a rarity. The origins in a thesis do show in careless writing, e.g. p. 204: "Ephesus in AD 44 is a case when things went wrong because nobody cared about the goddess' property, and those who did care did not manage to prevent abuse." The statements are contradictory and both are probably false. Nor do I find an already difficult book made easier reading by sentences like this (p.220): "It is striking how much the Roman rulers perceived themselves and were addressed as executing a policy that had been established by other rulers centuries before them." Even on a second reading, the book seemed to lose its direction -- and its reader -- too often for comfort. Undoubtedly and regrettably this is one more book produced with greater speed than its author probably considered desirable. It is nonetheless a valuable and learned study in an area without much competition. There are good indices, which will make this book useful for scholars for many years to come.

Dignas' theme is the temple financing particularly of the great and ancient cults of Asia, particularly at Ephesus, Labraunda, Aezani, Baitokaike etc. where we have some good if always insufficient epigraphic evidence. She first sets out and illustrates the problems surrounding the financing of these large institutions: how far was it sacred, or civic, or are we even justified in using those terms under Persian kings. She argues for a relative independence of the temples from the neighbouring and -- to judge by the frequent disputes and appeals to higher authorities -- encroaching city administration; and that this was never lost. The next chapters follow these issues through vicissitudes of the hellenistic and Roman period, when kings and emperors joined in, so maintaining a triangular tug of war about the organization of these wealthy cult sites. She insists throughout on this tripartite balancing act, as temple authorities appealed often with success to the authorities in defence of their allegedly ancient rights and privileges. (But how often would one put up an inscription to commemorate a failed appeal?)

Dignas has read widely, carefully, and with critical acumen. So (p.270) " the role of euergetism is overrepresented in our evidence" and she wisely and repeatedly affirms the importance of money matters in ancient religion, the "lucrative character" of priesthoods. How refreshing to read (p.246): "many sacred laws were not composed for what we should call religious purposes but were simply measures that would guarantee sacred income and thereby the smooth running of cult activities." The vulgar details of money are usually concealed behind a screen of piety, only to peek forth in wondrously precise inscriptions that detail the sale of Coan priesthoods or the beauty competitions of Bargylian cattle raising. Of course even religion has an economic basis, but probably little is so reluctantly revealed in epigraphy as the actual details of Asian temple financing, which Dignas seeks. There is nowhere anything remotely like a balance sheet, and what we get are unhelpful inventory lists, annual expenditures, glimpses of disputes, regal decisions, euergetic claims, complaints by authorities, appeals by priests, nearly always one-sided, and leaving us to guess what the whole picture might have been. Even the criterion of consistency cannot be used in this area, because the authorities were themselves inconsistent. Sometimes the Romans like the kings before them would plunder, and sometimes they would restore. Dignas seeks throughout to impose some sort of order on this constant flux, but in fact she succeeds admirably in showing how complex and unstable the situation actually was.

Where there is finance, there is corruption and concealment. A precious document to which she repeatedly returns is the edict of Paullus from 44 AD about the corruption and diversion of the temple funds of Artemis of Ephesus. It is a frustrating piece of epigraphy, not just because it is incomplete but because it is extraordinarily and rhetorically vague. Who is actually diverting what funds and to what end? We can only speculate, for Paullus following in the footsteps of Vedius Pollio does not wish to tell us. The civic authorities perhaps? or individual scoundrels? or temple personnel or all of the above? Whatever is meant, it is certain that it has been going on for some time past, and one may guess is going to continue into the future. Dignas is well aware of the problem, but (perhaps to her credit) underestimates the extraordinary capacity for what we call corruption and malversation in a world where accountants were slaves. The Athenians like many others certainly in theory sought to separate civic and sacred monies, but they controlled both, so that analogies from Athens are dangerous. Analogies with Macedonia [p.247] are better. But even here, the great extra-urban sanctuaries of Asia have no equivalent, for as Dignas shows they affirmed their independence as far as possible.

One has no problem with a general heuristic triangular model of temple/ city/ regal or imperial authority so long as it allows for exceptions and refinements and recognizes that no political or accounting model can hope to comprehend the complex detail of temple financing. When publicani and the Roman administration come into conflict over the taxability of temple land, this produces primarily a dispute between Roman financial and administrative authorities, not between "Romans" and temple authorities, even if our local epigraphy will suggest that. Again, precisely in the Paullus decree, one of the culprits seems to be the powerful and aggressive associations of festival performers and their leaders, the hieronikai, who had their headquarters in Ephesus, and who had a long history of organizing festivals and even trying to take them over as at Teos; yet there is no room for powerful non-civic or even supra-civic interest groups like this in Dignas' model, and she ignores the associations, though she does ask why Pollio and Paullus put the same cap on expenditures for "the penteteric festival" at Ephesus, which is most probably exactly the festival that they organized. But here is a group who has a vested and long standing interest in controlling temple finances because their members stood to benefit directly. Yet they do not represent civic interests, and have no intention of paving streets or building aqueducts with festival money, as happened throughout the ancient world. One certainly can appreciate why Paullus would not directly name them. What then of the linen-weavers, Blues and Greens, the unions that managed to get priority in the line up for the urinals [IEph 454] at the Vedius gymnasium by well placed donations, but who also donated to temple funds and who had patrons in high places? Interest groups have different interests. The "civic interest" of Ephesus has the same claim to reality as goodwill on an Enron balance sheet; it depends how closely one looks at it.

That brings up the important issue of festivals, one of the greater and recurring expenditures of any temple organization, and one largely bypassed here, despite the large body of epigraphic evidence. Dignas is to be congratulated on affirming the financial basis for temple worship, and it is no contradiction that Philodemus [de pietate 27 Ob] asserts that our sense of religion is particularly high at festivals; but like most classical historians from Thucydides onwards, she is far more interested in the great sweep of politics than the despised "bottom-line". She does not want to itemize income and expenditure, though she cites often the evidence that temples and cities ran short of money. An accountant, fixated on debit and credit, would start by collecting all the information regarding types of income accruing to temples and then do the same on the debit side, and festivals if accompanied by a market would figure largely on both sides. Of course we do not have complete information for Asia or anywhere else, but it would be a good and well tried accounting model if we could have seen the variety of temple income and expense, and collected the information from Greece or wherever temples operated. It would be e.g. useful to ponder the financing of the Acarnanian festival, famously treated by Habicht [Hermes 85 1957 86-122], where city and league agree to pay jointly for the Apollonia but also to use hiera chremata and avail themselves of a 5% tax on slaves at the accompanying panegyris, which must often have provided such monetary assistance. I missed a discussion of such items as income from the licensing of shops in temple precincts, e.g. by Samian Hera of four shops [SEG 1977 545]; in an attempt to control dubious trading; payment is made to the tamias of the hiera. Indeed, much of the political infighting about formalizing the legacy of Julius Demosthenes at Oinoanda concerned the provision of the cattle for sacrifice at his imperial festival, and, to judge by the Bargylia dossier [Chiron 30 2000 451ff.], this was a recurring expenditure which required great planning by temple authorities as well. No wonder that ateleia as Wilhelm once [Beiträge zur gr. Inschriftenkunde 196ff.] pointed out could mean just freedom from providing a sacrificial animal for a festival. What about the accompanying markets? There is no consensus on just who got the profits, and de Ligt, Fairs and Markets in the Roman Empire (Amsterdam 1993) 168 could even argue that urban and imperial authorities got all the money from indirect taxes. But that was not likely to be true at a temple centre like Baitokaike. In the mountain cults of Stratonicea, it is difficult to assess what parts of the cult festivities were actually held in the city itself; were these paid for by the city, or when integrated into the imperial cult, by munerarii? Probably it changed as the city and festival developed.

This study therefore touches on many details of an immensely complex picture, and no scholar could pursue all the ramifications, whether into imperial cult or festival culture or all the other areas which a study of temple financing must mention; its value lies not so much in imposing order or in a comprehensive treatment of temple accounting as in exposing the pressures to which temple-finances were exposed particularly in the great Asian sanctuaries. We do not know why some places sold priesthoods -- a subject on which Dignas is particularly good -- and not others; yet her discussion shows the developed terminology used, even if we cannot now understand it fully. Likewise the leasing of the lands of the Carian mountain temples is detailed but the reasons and terminology escape us. Like the leges sacrae themselves, temple finance had its own peculiar linguistic conventions, and perhaps even if we had a balance sheet, we would discover that it told us less than we wanted.

Dignas usually cites and translates well the Greek evidence, whether literary or epigraphic, and students will be grateful for this invaluable assistance. Seldom does she indulge in textual or interpretative debate with other scholars, though the second appendix on the claims for asylia by the temples brings some conflict with Rigsby's work. Her coverage of the modern literature is outstanding and will be particularly helpful to those not fluent in European languages, though this reviewer is unable to judge whether the near eastern sources might also have contributed more to understanding the workings of these temple centres. (The sight of the special entry for sacrificial animals at the great temple of Palmyra first made him fully aware that such places were also abattoirs.) This is a useful book on a difficult subject, and one must commend the writer's courage in undertaking it.

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