Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.52

Christian Habicht, Divine Honors for Mortal Men in Greek Cities: The Early Cases (Translated from the German by John Noël Dillon; first edition 1956; second edition 1970).   Ann Arbor:  Michigan Classical Press, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 238.  ISBN 9780979971396.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by S.G. Caneva, Université de Liège (

This volume is the English translation of the classic book dedicated by Ch. Habicht to the origins and historical significance of cultic honors for living human beings in the Greek world, from the late 5th century (the time of the bestowal of cultic honors upon Lysander at Samos) to the mid-3rd century BC. Originally published in 1956 as Habicht’s doctoral dissertation (Zetemata 14), the book, entitled Gottmenschentum und grieschische Städte, was re-edited in 1970 with two appendixes, respectively providing an updated list of relevant documents and a response to the methodological criticisms that the first edition had raised in the’50s and ’60s. This new edition is a translated reprint of the 1970 text. As in the previous editions, the content is organized into two parts: an analytical discussion of cults for individual political leaders through literary and epigraphic sources (Part 1) and a thematic discussion of the cults and their historical significance (Part 2). In addition to the text of the 1970 edition, the present book includes a short preface, an enlarged documentary appendix,1 and a very succinct bibliographical note (pp. 216-218) of the studies published after 1970, to which Habicht refers in his discussion in Supplement 2.

One can confidently describe Habicht’s book as one of the most influential studies of the phenomenon of Hellenistic cultic honors for political leaders in the 20th century. At first sight, the decision to republish this beautiful work in English appears as an homage to the prestigious career of its author and an attempt at making its content more directly accessible for a global audience of researchers and students. However, the interest of the book is greater than this. To date, and with the important exception of Ph. Gauthier’s Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs,2 Habicht’s work still provides the sole encompassing historical discussion available of cultic honors for political leaders in the Greek cities of the Hellenistic period. Moreover, Habicht’s theses revolutionized the way cultic honors for living beings were perceived by scholars of Greek history and religion at the time of the book’s first publication, and have continued exerting a deep influence on later studies ever since. A fundamental role was played by Habicht’s reassessment of the spontaneous initiative of civic institutions establishing cultic honors for their benefactors, and the consequent local embeddedness of the decreed cultic honors. Habicht’s arguments proved the vivacity of the Hellenistic polis in years in which the “decline paradigm” of the post-classical Greek city was still the dominant interpretative model (p. 141):

The local character of cults for living persons is related to the forms in which the Olympian gods appear. [...] In the worship of living persons, this effort is expressed in a number of cult honors that symbolically integrate the ruler, who stood outside the city, into the community. [...] Civic cults were not factors that promoted the internal uniformity of the Hellenistic empires, but on the contrary are the most vivid illustration of the fact that cities [...] continued to exist as independent, self-determining entities with all their specifically local idiosyncrasies.

Habicht brought the city and its traditions back to the foreground of history, paving the way to later works like the aforementioned study of Hellenistic honors for political leaders by Gauthier, as well as the fundamental reconsideration of Imperial worship in Asia Minor by S. Price.3 Another point having gained long-lasting consensus is the thesis of a difference in degree, not in principle, between the greatest profane honors for benefactors and those implying a religious treatment of the recipients: “[c]ultic worship is thus a higher form of honor than that which is normally visible in the honorary decrees of Greek cities; [...] [t]he divine worship of a living person is not based on new, idiosyncratic conceptions, but rather is a heightened form of traditional notions” (p. 153). Once again, Habicht’s thesis bravely moved against a dominant paradigm theorizing a clear-cut separation between religious honors for the gods and those for human beings. In this respect, one can especially praise the warning against modern generalizations based on early Hellenistic intellectual criticisms about cults for living human beings, which Habicht convincingly explained as the product of the political agenda of elites in conflict against the supporters of Macedonian power in Athens. Later developments in the study of the mutual position of gods, heroes and human beings in Greek polytheism have shown that Habicht was right.

Because the legacy of Habicht’s work is still alive and influential in the current research, it is also necessary to discuss the points where his theses need rectifying in the light of later developments in the scholarship. To begin with, the exclusively textual analysis carried out by Habicht leaves his conclusions somewhat disembodied, whereas a more complete understanding of the mechanisms of organization of the sacred space (with particular regard to the category of synnaos theos, “temple-sharing god”) would particularly benefit from an interdisciplinary discussion of the correspondences between a unique linguistic formula and the various spatial solutions that can be traced in the archaeological record. Of course Habicht is in good company in this respect, and admittedly he could not treat all the documentation in his dissertation, but the need for an interdisciplinary turn in this field needs to be highlighted.4

My second observation concerns Habicht’s approach to the religious content of the honors. As the author explicitly states in the introduction, his study “deliberately foregoes any attempt to illustrate the specifically religious content of this divine worship in context” (p. xv). This choice results into a schematic summary of cult places, actors and occasions (99-115), whereby Habicht rarely goes beyond an inventory approach, thus disregarding the historical developments of the cults across time and space. On some occasions, moreover, his interpretation of specific documents is misleading and fails to grasp the dynamics by which cults for living leaders were embedded in the religious life and traditions of the local communities. As an example, Habicht generalizes the message of the ithyphallic hymn to Demetrius Poliorcetes at Athens —a very particular piece of propaganda produced for a specific occasion—as symptomatic of the religious thinking of the contemporaneous Greeks, thus postulating that the rise of cults for living political leaders would accompany a decline of traditional religiosity (p. 169): with their expectations of salvation from the monarchs and the consequent establishment of cultic honors expressing gratitude for benefactions, “[t]he cities thereby create a surrogate for worship of the gods”. With this conclusion, which cannot be accepted in the light of recent studies of post-classical Greek religion, Habicht re- embraces, by applying it to the sphere of religious life, the “decline paradigm” which he rightfully criticizes in relation to the political life of the Hellenistic polis.

The issue becomes bigger in the sections concerning the general interpretation of the religious significance of establishing a cult for living political leaders. In the section devoted to The Nature of the Act of Establishing a Cult (pp. 123-130), Habicht argues that “[t]he cause-and-effect relationship” between the protection bestowed upon the city by an individual and the divine honors he receives, “can be explained only if the recipient’s action revealed his divinity. He could do this only if he was more than a man, only if he was a god.” Therefore, “[t]hat means that his divinity is primary, that his divine nature is what enables him to accomplish the deed at all”, whereas the act of establishing the cult “is secondary and indicates no more than the city’s willingness to recognize the existence of its protector’s divinity” (p. 123). I would not go as far as this. In fact, there is nothing in the early Hellenistic honorific decrees that can allow us to grasp any form of theological thinking about the “nature” of the human recipients of cult. This is correctly shown by Habicht, when he points out that practically all attestations of terms referring to “theopoetic” processes of divinization and apotheosis put in practice by Greek cities date to the mid/late Hellenistic and Imperial periods (pp. 125-130). On the one hand, this lexicographic analysis provides perhaps the most tantalizing pages of Habicht’s book, as the author convincingly points to a historical development having occurred between the first and the second part of the Hellenistic period, which still has not yet been properly investigated. On the other hand, however, he fails to understand that what was at stake in the early Hellenistic decrees was by no means the religious “nature” of the honorands, but the recognition, at the ritual level, that traditional gods and monarchs were equally effective in bestowing salvation upon the community. Habicht seems to retract his conclusions when, in the section concerning the Relationship to the Cult of the Gods (pp. 141-145), he states that “identical cult forms do not prove that persons worshipped in cult were real gods in the eyes of the community. Although they received honors reserved for gods, they were not gods” (p. 142); accordingly, the divinity of the honored persons “is not self-evident but artificial”, and depends “on human judgement” (p. 143). In other words, the divinity of the Hellenistic political leaders is indeed secondary, inasmuch as it is a social construct. I agree with Habicht on this, but I must add that, in my vision, the fact that the decrees do not use a terminology evoking a “theopoetic” faculty, simply depends on their exclusive interest in establishing honors effectively equating human and divine saviors at a ritual level (p.142), without any felt need for ontological reflections on the implications of such cults. Accordingly, the ambiguous category of religious “nature” should not be used at all outside the discussion of ancient intellectual discourse on the ontological relationship between humans and the superhuman sphere.

Finally, some reserves must also be expressed as regards the editorial choice of integrating the discussion of new documents only in Supplement 2, leaving the core of the book and the methodological appendix unchanged (and the latter clearly outdated) in comparison with the 1970 text. Moreover, the fact that the new documentary addenda are printed together with those of 1970 (with no marker of difference except for the second part of no. 22d), makes it difficult for a non-specialist reader to understand where the discussion relies or not on up-to-date bibliography. For instance, a student exploring the developments of cults for Alexander on the Greek might overlook that the supplement no. 12, which dates to 1970, does not include references to the vivid recent debate concerning this theme.5 Similar examples could be multiplied. On the other hand, the decree of Aigai on the cults of Seleukos I and Antiochos I (no. 34a) would have usefully enriched the general discussion of the articulation of sacred space for old (Apollo in this case) and new recipients of cult, and perhaps justified a new paragraph concerning the renaming of public buildings after the honored kings.6

Even with these reservations, re-reading Habicht’s inspiring book has been a pleasant and refreshing experience. With this work, Habicht, then at the beginning of a brilliant career, showed his courage and competence in addressing complex and highly debated issues and an admirable vision in constructing an innovative interpretative paradigm of cultic honors for political leaders in the Greek world. Another proof of the value of this work, and one for which I would like to express my particular admiration, is the vivid intelligence that gives strength to it and makes even its footnotes worthy of being read with attention, in search for inspiring ideas and research paths to be explored. All in all, even if Habicht’s book has inevitably grown old in some respects, it has done so without losing the inspiring authority which emanates from scholarly works that combine rigor with an outstanding concentration of intelligence and vision. For decades, this seminal book has exerted a far-reaching influence over a research domain increasingly popular among scholars of Hellenistic history, and one can reasonably expect that it will continue doing so in the upcoming future, also thanks to this new English edition. That a first work can have this brilliant destiny, is more than what most scholars (including the writer of this review) are reasonably allowed to wish for themselves.


1.   The new entries are no. 5, 6-6e, 8, 9-9a, 10, 11, 12b, 14, 17, the end of 22d, 24, 25, 26, 28c-e, 34a, 36a, 42g, 44, 44b, 44d, 46b, 47b, 52.
2.   Ph. Gauthier, Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (IVe-Ier siècle avant J.-C): contribution à l'histoire des institutions (BCH Suppl. 12), Paris 1985.
3.   S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, Cambridge 1984.
4.   On the synnaos theos, cf. D. Steuernagel, “Synnaos theos: Images of Roman Emperors in Greek Temples”, in J. Mylonopoulos (ed.), Divine Images and Human Imaginations in Ancient Greece and Rome (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 170), Leiden; Boston, pp. 241-256. A good example of an interdisciplinary method combining textual (epigraphic) and archaeological analysis is provided by J. Ma, Statues and Cities: Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation, Oxford; New York 2013.
5.   See, among others, F. Muccioli, Gli epiteti ufficiali dei re ellenistici (Historia Einz. 224), Stuttgart 2013, pp. 40-43; E.M. Anson, Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues, London; New York 2013, pp. 114-120.
6.   SEG 59, 1406; see now also CGRN 137.

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