Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.05

Guy MacLean Rogers, The Mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos: Cult, Polis, and Change in the Graeco-Roman World. Synkrisis.   New Haven; London:  Yale University Press, 2013.  Pp. xxv, 500.  ISBN 9780300178630.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by Heidi Wendt, Brown University (


In his new book Guy MacLean Rogers offers a richly textured history of the mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos, which were celebrated from approximately the mid-fourth century BCE until the mid-third century CE. His is not, Rogers insists, an account of decline, but rather a story of the mysteries’ unimaginable success over several centuries. In order to capture subtle yet significant changes in their administration, character, and effects, he explores multiple “fields of reference” whose overlapping contours allow for a survey that is simultaneously diachronic and synchronic (pp. 4-5). The resulting study both illuminates the changing role of a particular element, mysteries or mystery initiation, within a prestigious civic cult, and also contributes more generally to our understanding of Ephesian history.

Rogers’s treatment of the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence for the mysteries of Artemis is meticulous. Each item introduced receives comprehensive analysis, while topical sections and chapters conclude with useful summaries of what we might infer from the evidence examined therein. Evidence appendices, maps, and site plans further supplement the intricate discussions of the body chapters. Although Rogers guides readers toward plausible interpretations of how certain events and dynamics prevailed upon the character of the mysteries, he always does so cautiously with due consideration of methodological issues. For its wealth and presentation of evidence alone The Mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos is a valuable resource for any study of the site.

Since space is too limited to capture such detail, this review attempts to distill the book’s overarching themes and theses. Rogers divides it into three parts, each of which reconstructs a different aspect of the mysteries. In the first part, he theorizes mystery initiation as an extension of the reciprocal logic of ancient votive practices, and the motivations of initiates as more or less consistent with the range of interests that people pursued through common religious activities such as prayer, divination, purification, making offerings or vows, etc. (pp. 18-25).1 While the alleged benefits of undergoing initiation may seem extraordinary in comparison with other religious goals, he suggests that all of these practices should be arranged along a continuum as opposed to being treated as essentially different forms of religion.

Turning to the evidence for the mysteries of Artemis specifically, Rogers notes that their celebration is unattested before the 4C BCE, when they first appear in the context of competition among Alexander’s successors for control over the region. Our sources for the period are too sparse to determine whether the mysteries then entailed an initiation ritual as they would in later periods, but Rogers surmises that stories about the nativity of Artemis and Apollo at the nearby grove at Ortygia informed both the etiology and location of performances. He is more confident that the transfer of authority over the mysteries from the Artemision to the Gerousia of Arsinoeia at the turn of the third century was a deliberate act by Lysimachos intended to vest an institution of his new polis with significant theological responsibilities. Here we encounter an important theme of the book: The question of continuity and change in the mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos is ultimately a matter of who had the authority to determine how they would be celebrated. In this case, Rogers proposes that Lysimachos appointed Artemis as a deity of salvation in the form of military assistance and erected a statue of her in this guise at Ortygia “to help integrate and perhaps even to initiate the citizens of Arisoneia into a unified structure of religious authority” distinct from the authority of the Artemision (p. 86). His hypothesis in turn solicits wider questions about the role of mystery initiation in articulating new social formations and ideological communities.2

The second part of the book expands the theme of authority over the mysteries into the period of Roman rule, when the strategic location and wealth of Ephesos drew the polis into republican political rivalries. During the imperial era one particular religious body, the Kouretes, looms large in our epigraphic evidence for the celebration of Artemis’s mysteries. Although the Kouretes, whose name recalls more than one myth of divine birth, had traditionally served in the Artemision, during the reign of Augustus they were removed to the prytaneion and placed under the supervision of an elected official of the polis. Once again, authority over the goddess’s mysteries was disaggregated from her principal sanctuary in favor of an institution more closely aligned with the present political administration. Rogers views the removal as a defining moment in the history of the mysteries of Artemis, one that elevated a monumental Augustan building above the Artemision as the cultic focal point of Roman Ephesos (p. 121). Lists of Kouretes inscribed annually on architectural elements of the prytaneion likewise bear witness to a steady increase in the number of wealthy Roman citizens among their ranks. His case gains strength from the introduction of similar evidence from Eleusis and Samothrace, where interventions in the performance of civic mysteries also legitimated Roman political authority and projected Roman power into local contexts. The parallels invite further consideration of whether sites that conducted initiations were particularly amenable to such imperial interests.

In one of the most intriguing sections of the book Rogers apprises the character of the Ephesian mysteries during the first and second centuries CE, when the celebrations expanded to rival those of other prominent initiation cults. Numerous inscriptions convey a fuller sense of what these performances entailed, most notably, conclusive support that the mysteries now occasioned initiation. The range of cultic offices that appear in these texts indicates that the mysteries had also begun to require greater technical expertise.3 Inseparable from an increase in the specialization of the mysteries’ officiants were efforts to ratchet up their commercial appeal. As Rogers writes, “By the end of the reign of Tiberius, [Ephesos] had figured out that if Athens and other poleis could draw attention to themselves and make money from the performance of their special, local mysteries, it too could enrich itself by revealing Artemis’s secrets to more initiates” (p. 185). Artemis was not the only deity in Ephesos to boast secrets and initiations. Nevertheless, the goddess’s famed sanctuary and Ortygian birth bolstered the polis’s claim to her revelations. Nor was the Ephesians’ success in cultivating an alluring etiology for the mysteries of Artemis limited to initiations. Tacitus reports an episode in which ambassadors sent to petition the Roman Senate on behalf of the Artemision staked their case on the nativity and even took the opportunity to discredit the Delian version of the same myth (Ann. 3.61.1-2; p. 141).

In suggesting that participation in the mysteries of Artemis furthered certain political and economic ambitions, Rogers is careful not to lose sight of what he calls the “theological goals” of undergoing initiation. Indeed, by the second century a surge of interest on the part of prospective initiates and/or spectators had approximately doubled the size of the celebrations, which, in turn, had a discernible impact on the city’s urban development.4 Just after the mysteries had reached their zenith, however, Ephesos suffered an economic downturn whose ramifications were exacerbated by plague and famine. Although they would continue until Goths besieged the Artemision in 262, the polis’s annual initiations depended more and more on the largess of its prytanis and other wealthy benefactors. Inscriptions from this period also disclose major organizational changes in the associations and cultic personnel that oversaw the mysteries. Fewer individuals were willing or financially eligible to undertake service in the Kouretes, while the association’s responsibilities multiplied to include ritual tasks for other cults (p. 268). By the middle of the third century archaeological and epigraphic evidence for all mystery cults in the city trails off. Although Rogers attributes the disappearance of the mysteries of Artemis to the aforementioned factors, he raises the additional possibility that, in the face of a prolonged economic crisis, a series of natural disasters, and the destruction of the Artemision, the Ephesians’ confidence in their goddess had waned.

Rogers’s book is timely inasmuch as a wealth of new inscriptions and archaeological evidence for the mysteries of Artemis has emerged since they were last studied systematically. The cult is now poised to augment scholarship on other sanctuaries, such as those at Eleusis and Samothrace, which traded in mysteries and initiations. He is also careful to remind readers that much of our evidence for the performance of the mysteries of Artemis memorializes the interests of the casts of civic actors who presided over them, “not only [what they] did, but also what they thought and believed, or more precisely what they wanted those who read the records of their service to the cult to think about what they had done and why they had done it” (p. 10). I found these arguments for the relationship between authority and authorship over the mysteries persuasive, and I also appreciated his caveat about the narrow set of interests that the evidence reflects.

For that reason I was less convinced by the final part of the book, when Rogers adduces from the same sources a broader change in the epistemology and behavior of third-century religious practitioners. Marshalling theories of mimetic selection from evolutionary biology, he frames the cessation of Artemis’s mysteries as a rejection of the reciprocal logic of polytheism in favor of a fundamentally different and more durable Christian “memeplex.” Accordingly, the triumph of Christianity in Ephesos and elsewhere is a historically inevitable and even natural selection, as it were, for the more successful survival strategies of “Abrahamic traditions” (p. 287-288). Although I share the author’s interest in exploring how the insights of fields such as evolutionary biology might be brought to bear upon evidence form the ancient world, I am concerned that his conclusions not only reinscribe a problematic account of Christianity’s rise—namely, that it was in some way superior to “Graeco-Roman polytheism”—but also lend additional plausibility to that account by introducing an ostensibly scientific basis for some of its unexamined assumptions.

I also questioned the repercussions of the transformation that Rogers identifies—which, again, depends on evidence that is heavily slanted toward the activities and institutions of social elites—beyond civic religious institutions.5 While the book is not found lacking for the author’s focus on civic mysteries, in order to argue for a radical change in religious epistemology it seems that he would need to consider the available evidence for all varieties of religious practice during the period in question. None of these comments is intended to detract from the positive contributions of Rogers’s study, only to draw these into conversation with other ongoing efforts to theorize ancient Mediterranean religion.


1.   Here Rogers follows the influential theorization of Walter Burkert.
2.   As the sociologist Rogers Brubaker has argued, appeals to ontological similarity on the basis of ethnicity or a transformative event such as initiation are commonly made by ethnopolitical or religious entrepreneurs who seek to evoke groups by invoking them as existing entities [Ethnicity without Groups (2004), 4].
3.   The differentiation of cult attendants from the Kouretes on the basis of religious specialization mimics the organization of the Eleusinian mysteries, another clue that competitive interests were driving expansion. The same period also saw the formation of hierarchies among Ephesian initiates, a feature of other popular initiations whose members might vie for more prestigious ranks.
4.   For instance, many new structures were dedicated to Artemis, while the processional route leading to the grove of Ortygia was moved at least twice to adapt to the monumental building programs of the lower Embolos.
5.   E.g., Stanley Stowers, “The Religion of Plant and Animal Offerings Versus the Religion of Meanings, Essences, and Textual Mysteries,” in Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (2011), 35-56]. Stowers, who formulates ancient Mediterranean religion in terms of different modes of religiosity, notes that changes among civic religious institutions often had fairly limited implications for the understandings and practices of what he calls the “religion of everyday social exchange.” So, too, one wonders about the ramifications of the changes that Rogers identifies.

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