Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.10.07

Barbara Burrell, Neokoroi: Greek cities and Roman Emperors. Cincinnati Classical Studies, New Series Volume IX.   Leiden:  Brill, 2004.  Pp. xviii, 422; pls. 37.  ISBN 90-04-12578-7.  €147.00.  

Reviewed by Kieran Hendrick, Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 3287 words

One of the most distinctive aspects of the practices which modern scholars identify as "imperial cult" is the institution of "neokoria". In the first century C.E., the term "Neokoros" ("temple warden", originally an official charged with maintaining a temple building) came to be applied to cities in certain (mostly Anatolian) provinces of the eastern Roman empire, first as a metaphor, but later as a formally regulated title, in celebration of their possession of a temple of the Roman emperor administered by the provincial league of cities (koinon). This was both highly prized and fiercely competed for; a successful neokoros city usually flaunted the title in its coinage and inscriptions. The process by which a provincial imperial temple was granted involved internal dialogue within the koina of Greek cities and between their representatives and the Roman emperors and senate. This formalization made it a much more coherent phenomenon than most aspects of imperial cult, both capable and worthy of detailed study, thereby illuminating many aspects of ancient history. Burrell's1 splendid monograph brings together all of the evidence for these neokoroi, but it is more than a simple catalogue. She also analyses the institution with clarity, insight and incisiveness. This is the most comprehensive work on the topic to have been produced to date, and is therefore likely to remain definitive for quite some time.2

Just as human neokoroi were the caretakers, rather than owners, of their temples, so neokoros cities were simply the hosts for a provincial temple that was formally administered by the koinon; yet it was a highly prestigious honour. Being both unambiguous and flexible, the title "neokoros" fit well with the game of one-upmanship among rivalrous Greek cities. It could be applied both to a city and its citizens, and -- crucially -- it could be multiplied without conceptual difficulty (compare "metropolis") when a neokoros city received more than one koinon temple (pp. 3-6). Formalization of neokoria as an institution became necessary because it was useful to all of the interested parties, Roman authorities as much as Greek cities: it "reified a reciprocal bond between city and emperor [and] gave the city higher standing among its peers" (p. 283). Only in exceptional circumstances was it granted for a temple to a traditional divinity rather than a new provincial temple to the emperor, and even then it was still strictly centrally regulated (otherwise, any city could have freely used the title for any of its temples, which did not happen: p. 118; cf. pp. 69-70).

The book is organized in two parts, the first a compendium of the evidence for each neokoros city, the second a series of synthetic analyses. There are thirty-seven black-and-white plates at the end, containing 22 architectural ground-plans and 175 photographs. Each part essentially treats the same material in different ways, "to allow the reader to see the same evidence in several different contexts" ("How to Use This Book", pp. 12-13). It is a book to be consulted, rather than read through from cover to cover. It is easily navigable: all the material pertaining to any individual city or province can be immediately located within the relevant chapter(s), while clear chapter titles and sub-headings immediately identify the contents of the synthetic chapters.

Part One (pp. 17-269) contains some 37 chapters, one for each city attested in any medium as Neokoros. The cities are grouped according to the koinon to which they belonged. Both the koina and the cities within each koinon are arranged according to the chronological order of their first neokoria. Within each chapter, the evidence is discussed according to chronological relevance, and each neokoria which the city is known to have held is considered separately; a list of all the coins and inscriptions which name a city as neokoros is appended to the end of each city-chapter. Although fifteen different provinces are represented, Asia dominates, and certain cities are more prominent than others: the twenty-one pages on Pergamon (pp. 17-37) or twenty-seven (pp. 59-85) on Ephesos contrast with a mere three for Tralles -- or the single page devoted to Tripolis in Phoenicia (p. 252), the only city of its Koinon believed to have been neokoros.

Every case is carefully argued and analysed, generally persuasively. B's analysis is always informed and up-to-date; she is also well aware of current archaeological work in Turkey (including that conducted by Turkish archaeologists). A few suggestions seem a little contrived, though not absurd -- that Perinthos became twice neokoros under Septimius Severus, but did not say so until a rival Thracian city became neokoros under Elagabalus (p. 241), or that the title neokoros was granted for the Temple of the Augusti at Ephesos under Nero (when coins were minted showing the temples and title), but that the temple itself was not completed for twenty years (p. 62). Nevertheless, when appropriate, B displays commendable willingness to recognize the limitations of the evidence, or to admit that her preferred interpretation is provisional.

At her best, as in her brilliant untangling of the confusing mess of the third neokoria of Ephesos (pp. 70-75), B expertly combines the skills of an historian, a numismatist, an epigraphist and an archaeologist. Coins bear the greatest weight of most of the arguments in the book, and sharp and clear photographs of 152 of the most important are shown with their obverse and reverse sides, all at a scale of 1:1. Inscriptions, however, do not fare so well. B cites only those lines that attest to the title neokoros, thereby sometimes omitting those parts (such as imperial titulature) that are relevant to either the date or the significance of the inscription (e.g. her Inscription 2 of Laodikeia, p. 120 = IGUR 37; cf. the inscriptions of Tralles, p. 131). Another problem is that neither line divisions nor line numbers are indicated in her texts, which makes it very hard to visualize the original stones or to assess the validity of restorations, since it is impossible to tell the probable number of missing letters -- all compounded by the fact that no inscription is illustrated. Since full epigraphic references are provided, original publications can be found easily, but this almost defeats the purpose of quoting inscriptions at all, especially when she proposes new readings (e.g. Side Inscription 4, pp. 186-7 = SEG VI 731) without printing texts of them.

Many of the conclusions of the synthetic analyses in Part Two (pp. 273-374) will not startle readers familiar with recent trends in research on imperial cults. B broadly accepts the current consensus model for the imperial cult which follows the landmark study of Simon Price,3 fully acknowledging her debt to his general and particular observations on Asian ruler cult (p. 1, fn. 1). But it is still useful to have so much sensible discussion and synthesis in one place, and there is much value in B's being able to bring documentary bulk and force of argument to these topics.

Chapter 38 is a general historical analysis of the development of neokoria (pp. 275-304). This is a significant contribution; notably, one of the few general criticisms of Price's work was his treatment of cult as a synchronic rather than diachronic phenomenon,4 thereby leaving the impression of something that was more uniform across time and space than is warranted. While the status of neokoria seems to have continued to be vital well into the later third century (and beyond), B's subtle and rigorous analysis is able to show how both Greek and Roman attitudes and practices changed from the early days under Augustus. She demonstrates the value for the historian of tracking such things as the disappearance and re-emergence of the title neokoros from a city's quota, shedding welcome light on third century history, as successive emperors were condemned or rehabilitated. Neokoriai granted by Caracalla were often overturned by a successor and later restored; neokoriai granted by Elagabalus were mostly cancelled by Severus Alexander but regained under Valerian.

Chapter 39 (pp. 305-330) assesses the nature of the koinon temples and of the statues within them. B's survey of the archaeological remains shows that koinon temples tended to be large, conservative and Hellenistic in style, not following a "cookie-cutter pattern," but "adapted to conditions in the cities where they were built" (p. 317; cf. p. 111, pp. 306-309).5 This can be instantly backed up by a glance at the plates, where the ground-plan of every archaeologically-known koinon temple is beautifully drawn on a uniform scale. Also invaluable is B's discussion of the iconography of the recognized cult statues from imperial koinon temples (pp. 317-323). Every substantial identified fragment of the Antonine sculpture group from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis, the head of Titus from Ephesos and the pieces of the statues of Trajan and Hadrian from Pergamon is illustrated (figs. 23-45), surely the first time that they have all appeared in print in the same place.

Chapter 40 (pp. 331-342), on the Greek cities, covers some familiar ground on the Graeco-Roman elites, euergetism, and festivals. Notably, since the granting of neokoria did not entail an associated festival without a separate petition, there was no link between the number of prize crowns displayed on coins and the number of times the city was neokoros (pp. 173, 217, 335 ff.). The presence of an imperial title in a festival cannot automatically be taken to indicate koinon games associated with neokoria, and they should not be used to draw inferences about the nature of provincial cults.6

Chapter 41 (pp. 343-358), on the provincial koina, is the most fascinating of the synthetic chapters, illuminating the ways that pursuit of neokoriai was implicated in the dynamics of inter-city rivalry. The increase in the number of neokoros cities by the third century led to a sort of title inflation, parallel to the monetary inflation of the time. A 'title race' was generated as the title spread to 'second tier' cities; the major cities of a province sought multiple titles to keep ahead of their neighbours, some boasting of being up to "six times neokoros". Until the very end, however, the quantity of times that a city could be neokoros relative to its provincial rivals was strictly proportional to its size and importance; the term thus functioned also as a kind of "barometer of status" (p. 203).

Chapter 42 (pp. 359-371) examines the role of Roman officials, from the living and deceased emperors to the Senate and proconsuls. This is solid and useful, but it would have been further strengthened had B been able to take account of I. Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion, Oxford 2002.7

By exploring the entire phenomenon of neokoria, B is able to make important observations throughout on many aspects of civic life in the Roman East. B suggests that the idea of exclusively male priests for male emperors and women for females may be faulty, pp. 40-41, noting that a female chief priestess of the Augusti is depicted wearing an agonothetic crown with both male and female busts. There is no reason to postulate an (otherwise unattested) imperial visit as the occasion for an emperor's granting of neokoria to a city (pp. 194-195, 218) -- although naturally an emperor's presence in the general vicinity could make a difference, since he was more accessible to petitions and embassies (pp. 227-228). B is properly sceptical of the naïve association with imperial cult of the common formula in the East in which structures are dedicated to patron god, emperor(s) and city (pp 31-2, 69).8 B also shows that Price's notion of a general Hellenic anxiety about the emperor's equivocal status manifested in imperial cults at least does not apply to neokoriai. Where a koinon temple was built specifically for an emperor, he was always the primary object of cult, and the temple was seen to belong to him (pp. 324-326).9 Even when the temple was shared with Roma or another cult partner, this other god was often merely "a placeholder, whose name could drop from common reference" (pp. 2-3). Significantly, this was never true in reverse, even when the other deity was one of the traditional pantheon. Thus a coin depicting Pergamon's first and second koinon temples could show not just Augustus standing alone in his temple but also Trajan alone within his (even though it was shared with Zeus Philios), "indicating ... what the Pergamenes thought to be essential: the emperors" (p. 25).

B's command of her material is complete. Errors of fact are almost non-existent in the text; most are very minor, and never of direct relevance to B's main theme. It would not have been Eusebius, but his Latin translator Jerome who "translated [Zeus Xenios] to 'Jupiter Peregrinus'" (p. 264). The idea of a 'colossal eikon' of Hadrian as object of worship in the Panhellenion at Athens (p. 318, citing A.D. Nock10) no longer has any evidentiary basis 11; the inscription cited by Nock as IG III 9 was re-edited as IG II2 1081/5 with the (restored) reference to Hadrian removed. Her repetition of Cassius Dio's term "hero" to describe Julius Caesar as an object of cult (pp. 147, 163-164 etc.) is misleading if it is taken to imply that "hero-cult" in the Greek sense is meant. Dio clearly uses the term as a translation of divus (it applies to the practice of emperor-worship in general: "and indeed they are made heroes", i.e. are proclaimed as divi, 51.20.8; cf. Dio 54.35.4, 56.46.3).

The bibliography is both current and long. Inevitably, however, it might be supplemented in places: among the many recent works on Lykia, J. Ganzert, Das Kenotaph für Gaius Caesar in Limyra, Tübingen 1984 and now C. Kokkinia, Die Opramoas-Inschrift von Rhodiapolis, Bonn 2000, are relevant to B's discussion on pp. 254-5; add B. Le Guen, Les associations de technites dionysiaques à l'époque hellénistique, Paris 2001, and S. Aneziri, Die Vereine der Dionysischen Techniten, Historia Einzelschriften 163, Wiesbaden, 2003 to p. 258, n. 12.

In general, the book is attractively produced, with very few misprints ("obcure", p. 354; "had a rival in for the title", p. 184; correct the reference "367-2", under "Senate, Roman" on p. 421 of the Index, to "367-370"). British spellings occasionally intrude ("practised" p. 94; "judgement" p. 371) but for the most part such mid-Atlantic confusion has been avoided. Turkish toponyms are not always spelled consistently: "Ayvagedigi Hoard" and "Ayvadegi Hoard" within the same sentence on p. 217 is presumably a misprint, but "Degirmen-tepe" (p. 46) mysteriously reappears as "Deirman-tepe" on p. 307. The typesetting of the footnotes in Chapter 8 goes awry at the bottom of p. 121: for the remainder of the chapter most of the footnotes appear on the page after the one containing the text to which they refer. The plates are not numbered, even though illustrations are always referred to in the text by plate number.

The only serious criticism of the book is that the marriage of text and illustration is not always as harmonious as it could be. While rightly emphasizing the importance of temple-placement within the urban environment throughout the text, B misses the opportunity to demonstrate it visually. For instance, a general view of the Akropolis of Pergamon, dominated by the temple of Zeus Philios and Trajan and its massive vaulted substructures, would instantly show the extent to which that temple is "magnificently sited" (p. 306). More seriously, a handful of photographs (figures 35-36 and 42-43) are disappointingly sub-standard. Figure 36 at least illustrates an otherwise invisible part of a head of Faustina from Sardis, but the blurred and unevenly lit figs. 35, 42 and 43 add very little. B's self-imposed restrictions mean that comparative material is not illustrated, even when it would strengthen her arguments. Since she wishes to re-identify one of the colossal Sardis heads as a portrait of Lucilla (wife of Lucius Verus, whom she suggestively proposes, pp. 105-106, as the subject of another member of the Sardis group, discovered in 1996 and previously identified as Commodus), it would have been more helpful to illustrate a comparandum such as the portrait head in the Izmir Museum, to which she refers on p. 106. Statues that are described at some length could profitably have been included as photographs (e.g. the Ciliciarch from Pompeiopolis, p. 215). More generally, it is a pity that not there is not a single photograph of an inscription nor of any kind of architecture, from decorative ornament to still-standing koinon temple. Also conspicuously absent are city-plans, which makes it hard to follow some of B's detailed topographic arguments. The situation of Degirmen-tepe (a height in Izmir) relative to the rest of the city is very important for the possible location of Smyrna's temple of Hadrian (pp. 45-46), yet few readers are likely to know where it is; similarly with the controversy over the site of Temple of Hadrian at Ephesos (pp. 67-69). Furthermore, the neokoroi of B's study are now spread across five different countries, and not all sites are equally familiar even to archaeologists. This omission is particularly odd in that B emphasizes in the text the importance of analysing temples in their greater urban setting; her illustrations appear to be working against her own sound instincts.

The temple-plans do not adequately distinguish between hypothetical restoration and remains on the ground, most egregiously in the case of the pseudodipteral temple at Sardis, of which only the south-east corner was ever excavated but which is confidently drawn (figure 10) as a complete temple.12 The excavators themselves were more cautious,13 as is B herself in the text of the book (compare p. 101). Indeed, one wonders to what extent B actually oversaw production of these drawings; she comments mysteriously on p. 117 that the seven-step krepis of the Temple of Zeus at Aizanoi was "unfortunately omitted" in figure 13. Finally, the plans themselves can be confusing, particularly Figs. 11-12, which are almost impossible to make sense of; none has a key.

The book, though generally jargon-free, is not always friendly to neophytes. Architectural terminology is never glossed. B regularly cites a city with a very common name (Neapolis, Antioch, Herakleia, Nikopolis etc.) without specifying which one she means. This may cause problems for advanced undergraduates or even many graduate students, for whom otherwise Part Two would be ideal as a preliminary overview of the field. Moreover, in both parts of the book, the reader is often sent elsewhere in order to make an assessment of many of B's judgements, or even to recover contextual information about the cities, coins or inscriptions that she includes. Since the book is already amply long (and expensive), perhaps this was a necessary trade-off for B's great service in having gathered together so much useful material, synthesis and analysis. Perhaps also the high price of the book will mean that it will mostly be purchased by libraries, so B's presupposition was fair that further reference material would be accessible to her readers.

B's comprehensive, thorough and judicious treatment of all of the evidence for neokoroi should go a long way towards dispelling some of the confusion, misunderstandings and uncertainties that still persist. She amply documents why the desire to obtain neokoriai was such an important aspect of Hellenic civic life, how it was at the centre of the cities' self-representation to themselves and their rivals, and why it mattered also to the Romans. The result is a book that clarifies and deepens both our general and our particular understanding of a phenomenon that was one of the most significant aspects of civic life in the eastern Roman empire, and historians and archaeologists alike will consult it with profit. No one engaged in research in Roman Asia Minor should ignore this book, and we will doubtless be returning to it for many years to come.


1.   The author is henceforth referred to as "B".
2.   Supplanting K. Hanell, "Neokoroi" in RE 16.2, pp. 2422-2428 (1935).
3.   S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power, Cambridge 1984.
4.   Cf. S. J. Friesen, Twice Neokoros: Ephesus, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family, Leiden 1993, pp. 142 ff.
5.   Price's work (Note 2) already suggested this, conforming to the pattern set by temples of Augustus across the empire: cf. H. Hänlein-Schäfer, Veneratio Augusti, Rome 1985.
6.   Cp. Friesen (Note 4), Chapter 5, on the Olympia at Ephesos.
7.   Gradel's analysis of Cassius Dio 51.20.6-9 would also have been helpful; B's interpretation is perhaps overly strict.
8.   Cf. P. Veyne, "Les honneurs posthumes de Flavia Domitilla", Latomus 21, 1962, esp. pp. 81-84 (not cited by B).
9.   Following A.D. Nock ("Synnaos Theos", HSCPh 41, 1930, pp. 1-62), Price (Note 2, pp. 146-156; "Between Man and God", JHS 100, 1980) argued that in instances of temple-sharing between an emperor and a traditional deity, the emperor was often in a subordinated position, reflecting a status somehow less divine than his cult partner. But the cases they analysed concerned the addition of an emperor to a pre-existing temple, so the 'problem' turns out to be less existential and theological than a reflection of the relative venerability of the cults at any particular shrine.
10.   Note 9.
11.   Unless with D. Willers, Hadrians panhellenische Programm, Basel 1990, one identifies the precinct of the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens (in which Pausanias saw a colossal statue of Hadrian, 1.18) with the Panhellenion, though no ancient writer mentions such a thing, and the location and even nature of the Panhellenion itself remains controversial.
12.   The existence of an opisthodomos is purely conjectural, and the long sides could certainly have had thirteen instead of the restored fifteen columns, like the Temple of the Sebastoi at Ephesos: cf. D. Pohl, Kaiserzeitliche Tempel in Kleinasien, Asia Minor Studien, Bd. 43, Bonn 2002, pp. 65-72.
13.   Compare Illustration 7, Fig. j, in C. Ratté, T. N. Howe and C. Foss, "An Early Imperial Pseudodipteral Temple at Sardis", AJA 90, 1986, p. 61.

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