BMCR 2022.06.22

Romanisierung und Verbrüderung: Das Vereinswesen im römischen Reich

, Romanisierung und Verbrüderung. Das Vereinswesen im römischen Reich. KLIO / Beihefte. Neue Folge 34. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. 440. ISBN 9783110751864 $126.99.


With this book, the author presents a kind of summary of his numerous works on Graeco-Roman associations in the early imperial period that is poised to become a defining interlocutor within this branch of research for a long time to come.

Eckhardt’s basic thesis is that from the 2nd/1st century BCE onwards, associations throughout the Mediterranean were modelled on Roman collegia. It can therefore be assumed that associations in the Greek East were transformed on the basis of this Roman model. This transformation of an essential dimension of social interaction, however, did not take place on demand or even by command, but was part of the far more extensive process of Romanisation.

In finer detail, Eckhardt first argues that “Romanisation” is to be understood in the sense that local actors made efforts of their own accord to adapt legal procedures, political constitutions, models of social order and cultural expectations to the new conditions under Roman rule (2). This also concerns “fraternisation”, by which Eckhardt sees the basic motif of “voluntary association” addressed.

The second chapter is devoted to the legal basis of such associations. Here Eckhardt deals with state regulations in the Roman Empire, an area that has been the subject of discussion for centuries. He cleverly formulates that the sheer existence of associations seems like an accident of history in view of the frequent prohibitions (17). The author refers, among other things, to the inconsistent terminology on associations in republican times and the emergence of “concepts of corporativity”, which paved the way for the lex Iulia de collegiis. For the imperial period, he goes into more detail about the lex Irnitana as well as the Digests, which show that a fundamental prohibition of associations was combined with the legalisation of individual groups, which included above all professional associations. Collegia licita were opposed to collegia illicita. Eckhardt interprets Marcian’s controversial provision on collegia tenuiores (Dig. 47,22,1pr-1) as permitting the assembly of common people but prohibiting the formation of an association. The problem of this “solution”, which Eckhardt also considers (34), is however that the determination of what makes the difference between an association and an assembly that meets monthly on the occasion of a cult and has a common treasury (according to Marcian) remains undefined. Thus, a “permission” becomes a threat to be qualified as a collegium illicitum at any time.

With chapter 3, the so-called “useful associations” are discussed, which are characterised by utilitas publica. Eckhardt first treats the professional associations here (including fabri, centonarii and dendrophori) and emphasises their integration into the structures of the state. Even if they also pursued private interests, they were “semi-state” organisations that were legally recognised and served the interests of the state (tax collection, for example). Moreover, where the state’s power of determination had not been active, professional associations had taken over these structures through self-alignment. According to Eckhardt, this pattern of utilitas and recognition could also be found in the Augustales, veterans’ associations and Jewish synagogues. With their balance between private formation and institutionalisation, they were an essential part of Roman society, which was to contribute to public benefit (professional organisation, imperial cult) as well as to the administration of privileges.

Eckhardt understands the large part of preserved association testimonies that do not reveal any public benefit (including, almost strikingly, associations with a decidedly religious interest) as “private associations” (chapter 4). For them, too, he states that they were oriented towards the state organisation of priesthoods and imperial cult colleges, which thus became the model for private organisational formations in the legal grey area between assembly and association (78). This “institutionalised isomorphism” led to an overall resemblance of association organisations beyond the distinction between collegia licita and private associations. With this formula, he sums up the historical process that, in his view, took place in the imperial period: only what could be classified into this “isomorphism” could be qualified as an association.

From the very few references to Roman regulation of associations, among which the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan stands out, the author nevertheless concludes that all elements of the Roman order of associations also applied in the East of the Roman Empire. Therefore, the terminology of associations and the internal structures of associations in the imperial period followed the Roman model, even if local differences may be observed.

Based on this thesis, the author first examines different types of associations (professional associations, associations of neoi, gerousia). He then looks at developments in different geographical areas (the West and Africa, Greece and Macedonia, Thrace and the Black Sea region, Asia Minor, Levant, Egypt). This section contains numerous new interpretative approaches to inscriptional and papyrological sources, each of which is worth reading in its own right. Eckhardt concludes that in general the Roman model of association was adopted in the imperial period, but at the same time archaic elements were incorporated.

Chapter 8 focuses on translocal organisations. Eckhardt identifies three different forms of such organisations: firstly, state-privileged networks that, like the Technites, were embedded in the ruling structures of the empire. Secondly, he deals with religious groups whose cults and structures were identically developed throughout the Roman Empire, more precisely mystery cults (Mithras, Isis, Serapis, Attis, Jupiter Dolichenus and also Dionysos). From a historical perspective, Eckhardt formulates the question with regard to the form of organisation whether this could have been an indirect consequence of the spread of Romanised corporate bodies. Thirdly, the emerging Christianity is treated under this heading as an example of a translocal bond that represented a counter-image to the Roman Empire. This topic is the clearest demarcation in the book from research positions that are accused of focusing on banalities and a lack of interest in historical processes (among which he also counts the reviewer). Against a placement of early Christianity within the phenomenon of Greco-Roman associations the author emphasises that the isomorphic behaviour which, according to his reconstruction, associations displayed in the imperial period, was not to be found in Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity saw itself as a counter-world to the Roman Empire.  In this section in particular, Eckhardt’s legal definition for the concept of associations narrows and becomes decidedly different from that of phenomenologically oriented research from an etic (not emic) perspective.

The book concludes with a short section on Christianisation and nationalisation, which deals mainly with state regulations. In the author’s opinion, these regulations did not yet represent nationalisation per se, but were consequences of the semi-statehood that had existed since Augustus.(286).

Indexes on places, names, objects, and sources make the volume accessible in an exemplary manner.

The book, which presents the author’s numerous preliminary studies as a unified concept, is an exciting and insightful read. It contains a clear and thoroughly argued thesis as well as diverse individual observations, which are not presented here in detail, but are all the more forcefully recommended for reading. It offers much material for discussion and will remain an important contribution to further research on Roman associations, but also on the religious history of the imperial period.