Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.15

Marietta Horster, Anja Klöckner (ed.), Civic Priests: Cult Personnel in Athens from the Hellenistic Period to Late Antiquity. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten, Bd 58.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2012.  Pp. 249.  ISBN 9783110258073.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Francesco Camia, National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens (


The present volume, the result of a workshop on Athenian priests held in Berlin in March 2010, focuses on the social, cultural and political identities of religious personnel in Athens from the Hellenistic period to Late Antiquity as a means of investigating social relations. As noted by the editors in their “Introduction” (1-3), one of the main objectives of the papers collected in this book is “to investigate the interactions between social, cultural, and political systems and their religious symbols and actors, in our case the priests and priestesses” (1). This approach has its theoretical basis in C. Geertz’s theory on the sociology of religion,1 according to which a religious system and its social and political codes are directly influenced by each other: “any act by a religious functionary … is a social action … part of a semantic system of social relations” (1). The contributors especially use monuments, both images and inscriptions, to pursue their analysis, approaching this evidence from both historical and archaeological perspectives. This collection of studies, to be followed by a planned second volume which will cover the poleis of the Aegean and Asia Minor, is a fresh contribution to the current scholarship on Graeco-Roman religion. In fact, as pointed out by Marietta Horster in her introductory paper (“Priests, priesthoods, cult personnel – traditional and new approaches”, 5-26), in spite of an increasing interest in the last few decades in the interaction between religious and political or social structures, until recently “the main focus of research in the area of religion was at first primarily the investigation and presentation of the cults in individual regions and cities” (7).

Anja Klöckner’s contribution (“Tradition – Repräsentation – Distinktion. Eine Fallstudie zu Reliefweihungen von Priestern im späthellenistischen und römischen Attika”, 27-66) analyses two votive reliefs dedicated by priests. The first was dedicated at Eleusis sometime between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 1st c. BC by Lakrateides, hiereus of Theos, Thea and Eubuleus, to those deities as well as to Demeter and Kore; it depicts, in addition to the hiereus himself, a series of Eleusinian deities. The second, datable on stylistic grounds to the early Antonine period, was dedicated by a hierophant to the thesmophoroi theai (Demeter and Kore), who are represented on the relief together with the anonymous Eleusinian priest. These are the only two known, certain Attic votive reliefs on which the dedicants are represented together with the deities who received the dedication. Klöckner shows how the priests who dedicated these reliefs used them as a medium to associate their priesthood with a past represented as paradigmatic so as to pursue legitimisation and increased prestige.

Stephen D. Lambert (“The social construction of priests and priestesses in Athenian honorific decrees from the fourth century BC to the Augustan period”, 67-133) explores the social image of priests and priestesses in Athens in the period from the fourth century BC to the Augustan age based on a corpus of 28 inscribed decrees of the Athenian Council and People honouring religious functionaries (usefully presented in an “Appendix” at the end of the paper). In the Athenian honorific decrees of the period in question, priests and priestesses are praised for their good services with no distinction between genos priesthoods and ‘democratic’ priesthoods (both appointed by lot, the former within the restricted group of genos members, the latter usually from all the citizen body). This social construction contrasts strikingly with that projected in the same period by statues of Athenian cult personnel, along with their associated inscriptions, which were mostly dedicated by the priests themselves (or members of their families) and commemorated the prestige of the eugeneia associated with the genos priesthoods. In addition, Athenian honorific decrees for priests do not substantially differ from those for other officials: neither eusebeia nor philotimia, the virtues for which Athenian priests are usually praised, are exclusive to religious functionaries. The general objective of priests’ functions, i.e. the well being of the city, does not differ from that of the other city officials. As for changes over time in the way priests and their qualities and services are described in honorific decrees, the most significant element which emerges from Lambert’s analysis is the increasing emphasis on the personal (financial) benefactions of the priests in their duties, which goes hand-in-hand with an increase in the socio- economic status of priests during the Hellenistic period. This reflects a more general phenomenon of oligarchisation of the Athenian society,2 by which both political and religious offices became the ‘preserve’ of “an increasingly narrow economic and political elite”, which especially since 166 BC “also became an elite of birth” (90). According to Lambert, the culminating point of this process was, in the Augustan period, a reform of the Athenian citizenship by which all citizens became members of a genos. Furthermore, the traditional difference between genos and ‘democratic’ priesthoods almost ceased to exist, as the latter were transformed from annual to lifelong offices and were now appointed from citizens who all belonged to gene.

Lambert’s paper is in a sense complemented and corroborated by the contribution of Eric Perrin-Saminadayar (“Prêtres et prêtresses d’Athènes et de Délos à travers les décrets honorifiques athéniens (167-88 a.C.)”, 135-159), which considers the same subject over a more limited span of time. Based on the few (8 in total) preserved honorary decrees for Athenian priests and priestesses who served in Athens or at Delos in the period from 167 to 88 BC, the author shows how priests were substantially regarded as holders of an arche and consequently treated like any other Athenian civic functionary. Motivations, services and honours which appear in the decrees for priests are very similar to those in the decrees honouring other civic functionaries. Athenian priests were honoured in proportion to the services they rendered, and, as also happened for other categories of civic functionaries, further honorary distinctions in addition to the “honneurs de routine” (praise and crown) were usually bestowed upon them only in the case of some extra (personal) contributions. The reason for this substantial similarity in the characterization of priests and other magistrates is a social one, as aptly underlined by Perrin-Saminadayar, who notes that those who served as priests in Athens and Delos in the period under consideration belonged to the same social milieu of leading citizens from which the other civic functionaries were also chosen; indeed, in many cases the same individuals held both political and religious offices.3

In a long and dense contribution Marietta Horster (“The tenure, appointment and eponymy of priesthood and their (debatable) ideological and political implications”, 161-208) analyses and critically discusses some technical aspects of Athenian priesthoods, namely appointment, tenure and eponymy. Horster notes how the difference between genos priesthoods and ‘democratic’ priesthoods rests not so much in their mode of appointment (election or sortition) as in their tenure, usually lifelong for the former and annual for the latter. A change can be observed in the duration of priestly offices in Athens by the late 1st c. BC, epigraphically revealed by the increased frequency of expressions such as διὰ βίου ἱερεύς or ἱερεὺς διὰ βίου. However, even though inscriptions attest that a few Athenian priests, such as the priest of Asklepios and that of Apollo at Delos, had changed their tenure from annual to lifelong by the end of the 1st c. BC, overall the epigraphic evidence for a general shift from annual to lifelong tenure of priesthoods in Athens between the late Hellenistic and imperial periods is inconclusive. This leads Horster to state that the question of whether the increase in the number of lifelong priesthoods in Roman Athens compared to the previous periods is actually significant seems still unanswerable. Be that as it may, Horster argues that the supposed shift to permanent-tenure should not be seen as directly influenced by the Roman concept of (state) priesthoods, which were the monopoly of the wealth-based senatorial elite. At the same time she recognises that by the late Hellenistic period “the public presentation of priests and cult-officials in inscribed stone had become more overtly orientated towards the Roman ‘aristocratic’ ideal of a small, select group of people” (202).

Erkki Sironen (“Heidnische Priester in Attika vom dritten bis zum fünften Jahrhundert nach Christus”, 209-218) presents in a schematic way, without further discussion, the epigraphic references (ca. 50 inscriptions) to pagan priests in Athens and Attica from the 3rd to the 5th centuries AD. Almost all of the ca. 80 priests epigraphically attested in the period in question date within the 3rd century AD, more than half of them within the first half of that century. The almost total absence of references to pagan priests in Attica after the third century is due for the greatest part to the general decline in the epigraphic culture from the middle of that century onwards. In addition to inscriptions, some Late Antique authors make occasional reference to pagan priests in Athens who belonged mostly to the circle of the Neo-Platonists.

Also focused mainly on the end of antiquity are the considerations of Jan N. Bremmer (“Athenian civic priests from classical times to Late Antiquity: some considerations”, 219-235) which close the volume (not exactly general conclusions, but rather comments on the papers of Lambert and Sironen, as specified by the author in the first note). Bremmer starts his reflections by pointing out that it is impossible “to present a catch-all definition of a Greek (Athenian) priest/ess”, as priests and priestesses were several things together: “ritual experts, sacrificers, preserves of sacrificial knowledge, representatives of their divinities, mediators between mortals and immortals – albeit not all of them all of the time” (223). Even though in the course of time “a certain ‘globalisation’ of the priestly figure” is observable so that “in Late Antiquity the priest had become a generally recognisable figure” (227) – which tended to be associated (yet not always) with the figure of the philosopher – the very absence of homogeneity was one of the factors that may explain the defeat of pagan priests by the Christian clergy. Due to its more homogeneous character, Christian priesthood finally proved to be more solid and less liable to political manipulation than its pagan counterpart.

This collection of papers, which is closed by useful “Indices” of the deities, sources and places (237-249), and is very well edited (typos are almost absent), reminds us of the necessity to study Greek priesthoods first within their local contexts. The ‘social’ approach to the multifaceted subject of the Greek ‘priest’ proves to be fruitful. This volume will thus represent an important point of reference (as well as a source of ideas) for further research on ancient Greek priesthoods, at the same time as it raises expectations for the planned second volume.


1.   C. Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System”, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, London, 1-46.
2.   Cf. E. Muñiz Grijalvo: “Elites and Religious Change in Roman Athens”, Numen 52 (2005), 255-282.
3.   On the relationship between political and religious offices in Athens during the imperial period see most recently F. Camia, “Political elite and priestly posts in Athens during the Roman imperial period: some considerations”, ZPE (forthcoming).

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