Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.38

Gabrielle Frija, Les Prêtres des empereurs: le culte impérial civique dans la province romaine d’Asie. Histoire.   Rennes:  Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012.  Pp. 323.  ISBN 9782753517387.  €20.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Takashi Fujii, University of Oxford (

Table of Contents

Epiktetos of Hierapolis, a Stoic philosopher in the Roman period, is said to have voiced cynical criticism of a man from Nikopolis who longed to have eternal fame by serving as a priest for the imperial cult (Arr. Epict. diss. 1. 19. 26-29): his name may outlive his life, but who will remember it outside of Nikopolis? This episode neatly illustrates the high status of the imperial priesthood as a civic career, and the social dignity that accompanied it, but at the same time, the inward-looking nature of civic priests for the emperor, which mirrors one remarkable aspect of the Roman East, the mosaic of microcosms consisting of smaller and larger cities, each with its own cultural tradition and social expectation.

Gabrielle Frija tackles these microcosms of civic priests for the emperor in the Roman province of Asia. The book under review is based on Frija’s doctoral dissertation submitted to l’École Pratique des Hautes Études in 2009, under the supervision of Jean-Louis Ferrary. Frija’s aim, expounded in the Introduction générale, is to understand through the prosopographical analysis of civic priests for the emperor how the imperial cult was embedded in the political and religious institutions of Greek cities and what the cult of the emperor meant to the higher-ranking civic élites. After summarising the history of scholarship on the imperial cult, in which scholars have shifted focus from belief to ritual and practice, Frija provides a justification of her choice of theme, namely, that the priesthood of the emperor represented one of the precise and concrete aspects of the imperial cult that undisputedly pertains to the divinity of the emperor, unlike rituals and monuments (e.g. statues), which do not always attest the worship of the emperor as divine. According to Frija, a study of civic priests for the emperor potentially illuminates two dimensions of civic élites: first, a local dimension in which civic priests for the emperor competed with their peer élites in the institutional and religious milieu of the Greek city; and second, an Empire-wide dimension in which the civic priesthood for the emperor may have contributed to the integration of the élites of the Empire, representing an ‘active’ form of Romanisation. Greek cities in the province of Asia are a natural choice for Frija’s purposes since there is an abundance of primary sources: ca. 460 priests are attested in some 80 cities. Relevant civic priests are listed in Annexe I and also in a website (Prêtres civiques), the latter of which offers a mine of information for further investigation.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of civic priests for the emperor in Asia, dealing mainly with the chronological development of the civic priesthood for the emperor, its relationship with the provincial imperial priesthood, and communication between the imperial centre and Asia in terms of the civic priesthood. Although the predecessors of the imperial cult (the ruler cult of Hellenistic kings, the cult of the goddess Roma and so on) may have provided some models for the worship of mortals and Roman power, there was no visible institutional continuity between the imperial cult and the preceding cults. Performance of the imperial cult in the cities of Asia started in the early years of Augustus, following the establishment of the imperial cult at the provincial level in 29 BCE. Frija draws a rough chronological picture of the development of the civic priesthood, in which a huge variety of titles of imperial priests in the formative period gave way towards the second century CE to the institutionalised and neutral title archiereus, and in which the civic priesthood for the emperor, though in most part surviving the third- century ‘crisis’, started to disappear in the late third century at the establishment of Christianity. The imperial cult on the provincial level in Asia seems to have provided a model for the name of the civic priesthood (archiereus without qualification) and the emergence of female imperial archpriests. On the other hand, the civic imperial cult had no direct, institutional relationship with the cult of the deified emperors and imperial family members in the imperial centre, the city of Rome, though Frija touches on priests’ (possible) personal relationships with emperors (like the civic priests with Roman citizenship in the Augustan period) and on the succession policy in the centre that probably played a role in the nomenclature of priests (as in Aphrodisias).

After the overview of civic priests, chapter 2 provides a detailed examination of the political and institutional elements of the civic priesthood. The civic priest probably entered his office in September, the first month of the calendar of Asia, and served for a year, like the priest for traditional deities, though in special cases, such as private foundation of a cult, the tenure was for life. As for female priests of the emperor, who are well attested for second- and third-century Asia, Frija maintains that they did not play an active, independent role in the performance of the cult, e.g. as an eponymous priest or in the staging of imperial festivals. Frija examines this rather homogeneous picture of the civic priesthood, focusing on its local variations across Asian cities and its importance in the formation of civic identity. The office of archiereus, which became the most prevalent priesthood for the emperor in accordance with the institutionalisation of the civic imperial cult (see above), was homogeneously adopted by the cities of Asia. Thus, the local variety in the civic priesthood found its expression not in its appellation, but rather in other aspects, for instance, its combination with other offices and the way in which the civic priest represented his own city. In Stratonikeia, the archiereus also served as stephanephoros, forming part of the eponymous magistracies, and some cities, Synnada and Silandos for example, struck coins with the names of civic priests. These last cases, however, did not mean that the civic priest and his cultic activity formed a paramount part of civic identity. It was in most cases only in combination with other offices and together with peer magistrates that the civic priest acted as an eponymous priest of the city. And, even if the priest held festivals for the worship of the emperor and served as ambassador to the emperor, which perhaps promoted civic identity in relation to neighbouring communities as well as the imperial centre, he did so as a member of the élite who was responsible for these burdensome activities, not because of the specific duty of his office. Furthermore, the civic priesthood was not the sole office dealing with the imperial cult. Frija appears to argue here that the priest of the emperor, deeply embedded in a civic institution, held nothing more than a normal post among the local élite in spite of the apparent ‘special relationship’ with the emperor himself that the office appeared to allow; this is a recurrent thesis in this book.

Chapter 3 examines a classic issue in the study of the imperial cult, the religious status of the emperor in the civic pantheon, but Frija takes a tricky approach to it: she goes over the religious representation of the emperor by analysing the appellations and activities of the civic priest. This original analysis, however, confirms the classic (and reasonable) conclusion, proposed by Simon Price and other scholars, that although it was only on rare occasions that the emperor was worshiped in full and equal combination with traditional deities, the Greeks represented the emperor with religious vocabulary used for traditional deities. Of course Frija’s study also adds interesting nuances to the issue. One of them is that the civic cult became more and more influenced by the Roman institution of the religious status of the emperor (e.g. the bestowal of the epithet theos only for the deceased and deified emperors) and the Roman system of imperial titles (e.g. imperator), after the age of Augustus in accordance with the diffusion of the priesthood archiereus steering the cult of successive emperors. With regard to the rituals that the civic priest was responsible for, Frija examines in turn sacrifice, prayer, dedication, and the staging of festivals and feasts. The civic priest for the emperor did not exclusively finance and perform these ritual activities, but conducted them in collaboration with other magistrates and euergetai, and also occasionally while serving in another official role. The worship of the emperor formed part of the usual beneficial acts of civic élites. Thus, when the civic priest is honoured for his eusebeia, this quality implies not only his reverence towards the emperor, but also his euergetism to the home city.

In chapter 4 Frija reinforces her image of the civic priest as deeply embedded in the world of local élites, this time from the viewpoint of his social status. Although a large number of the attested civic priests have tria nomina and those who acquired their Roman citizenship in the periods of the triumvirate and Augustus may have enjoyed special relationships with the eminent politicians of the age, Roman citizenship was not a premise for the priesthood. Rather, civic priests became Roman citizens as members of local élites in Asia who from the end of the first century CE onwards increasingly held citizenship. Those of equestrian and senatorial rank were a minority, contrasting with the provincial priests for the emperor whose descendants potentially achieved élite status of the Empire. Most civic priests pursued their career in local contexts, where the imperial priesthood was amongst the highest offices. But, Frija (again) emphasises the ‘usual’ character of the office: civic priests did not form an ordo in a judicial sense, their honorific titles were not specific to the priesthood, and their experience as civic priests did not assist their promotion to the provincial priesthood.

In the Conclusion générale Frija reiterates her theses: that, after the dynamic formative period for the civic cult under Augustus, the archiereus became the appellation of the civic priesthood par excellence and the institutional uniformity of the imperial priesthood was accelerated over Asia; that the civic priest was integrated to a high degree into the religious and social life of city; and that local élites incorporated the priesthood into their political career and social duties. On the basis of these assertions, Frija provides her final answer to the issue of Romanisation: the imperial cult, a new element in the Roman period that markedly advertised the dominance of the Empire, did not replace Greek civic identity, but was merely added to it. The Greek élites successfully and peacefully integrated the imperial cult into their religious and social life. In this sense, the vitality of the Greek city and its integration into the Empire were not contradictory, but supplemented each other.

Frija eruditely addresses a bulk of evidence, convincingly delivers her argument, and her conclusion sounds reasonable. I would like to propose two additional points one might have wished to see. First, Frija could have offered a more detailed examination of the particular dynamism that in her view enables both the diffusion and later the homogenization of the imperial cult in Asia. What kind of cult communication existed between Greek cities and among their leading citizens? And, why did this communication, if it existed, result in the homogeneity of the institution of the priesthood? Second, archaeological evidence is almost ignored in this book. An in-depth case study of archaeological material in one well-surveyed city, e.g. Aphrodisias, could potentially have shown the topographical distribution of civic priests’ statues and the religious and social implications of their costumes, which would have added a fruitful nuance to Frija’s theses. Taken as a whole, however, there is no doubt that this book successfully expounds a topic not so far synthesised, and it offers, along with the website cited above, an excellent starting point for the investigation of the exciting microcosms that were the Greek cities in Roman Asia Minor.

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