BMCR 2022.09.08

Private associations in the ancient Greek world: regulations and the creation of group identity

, , Private associations in the ancient Greek world: regulations and the creation of group identity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 320. ISBN 9781108838993 £75.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below]

Among the many important epigraphical and papyrological genres are the νόμοι and leges collegii—sets of regulations that governed the membership, meals, finances, discipline, and etiquette in what are now called “private associations.” While a few of these νόμοι are as early as the sixth or fifth century BCE, the majority belong to the Hellenistic and Imperial eras, mainly in Greek and Latin, but a few in Demotic and Aramaic. This volume, the second publication of the Copenhagen Associations Project (CAP) (Inventory of Ancient Associations), is thematically organized on the topic of the regulations of private cultic bodies and how these aimed at producing a “well-ordered” group. (The first volume was devoted to issue of the relationship of private associations to the city or the State: see BMCR 2016.07.02).

In the opening essay the two editors offer their criteria for delimiting private associations from other more informal groups, ad hoc collectivities, and partnerships. Associations were privately organized (as opposed to State-sponsored) groups; they developed a sense of corporate identity, often using such terms as koinon, thiasos, synodos, collegium or a collective name derived from the deities honored by the group; it is usual to find compounds of syn– or con– used to convey the sense of being or acting together; the internal organization presupposed the existence of rules; associations had a durable existence with regular meetings or other activities; they developed a conception of membership that implicitly or explicitly distinguished members from non-members; and their practices and rules fostered solidarity, commitment, and social cohesion among members. The chapter concludes with an invaluable appendix tabulating 108 inscriptions and papyri that either contain the νόμοι of various associations or mention the existence of such regulations.

Nikolaos Giannakopoulos, on admission procedures and financial practice, examines a variety of association rules, including those of the orgeōnes of Bendis in the Piraeus (CAPInv 230), the thiasōtai of Artemis of Athens (CAPInv 269), the Halidan and Halistan koinon of Rhodes (CAPInv 10), and the Tyrian merchants of Delos (CAPInv 12). The financial terminology of associations (symbolai, eisphorai, phora) mimicked that of cities but, unlike cities, associations imposed the same level of contribution on all members. This, according to Giannakopoulos, created a fictive sense of equality and prevented the wealthy from displaying moral superiority through higher contributions. In imitation of civic practices, some association members—usually honorees—were designated as dues-exempt (asymboloi, ateleis, and immunes). Financial incentives might be used to encourage recruitment—for example, by offering members the ability to sacrifice without cost while imposing a fee on non-members, or by allowing preferential initiation fees to the children of current members.

One of the distinctive features of associations is that they routinely required attendance of all members at meetings and banquets and imposed fines on absentees, exempting only those who could claim to be ill or in mourning. The civic context does not supply good analogies for these practices, as Benedict Eckhardt shows. Aristotle’s ideal city (Pol. 1297a 16–28) imposed fines for non-attendance at the civic ekklesia on the wealthy, but there is no evidence that Aristotle’s view was ever replicated in reality. Nor would it have been easy to enforce universal attendance at civic cults. Some poleis required the youth to attend civic festivals, which might have been logistically possible since the neoi were an organized group; but requiring the attendance of children would have been difficult to enforce. These considerations make even more interesting the requirements for compulsory attendance among private associations. Eckhardt suggests that as they were networks of trust,[1] regular face-to-face interactions were critical to the cultivation and maintenance of trust and solidarity among members. But he is surely also right that financial considerations were at stake: because private associations depended upon member contributions, compulsory attendance ensured the sustainability and survival of the group. And because associations cultivated benefactors, compulsory attendance also signaled that the regular announcements of benefactors’ merits would be heard by a proper crowd.

Two of the chapters concern associative space. Jan-Mathieu Carbon discusses the variety of ways in which associations mimicked the purity rules associated with Greek sanctuaries, discussing examples where a private association used, but did not control, a sanctuary, and others in which the sanctuary belonged to the association which controlled the conditions of access. Most interesting are cases such as a cult group in Sounion (IG II2 1365–66) where purity included not only abstinence from contaminants such as contact with the dead, childbirth, or sex, but also moral states, and a cult group in Philadelphia (TAM V 1539) where rules pertaining to purity were not only applied to access to the meeting space but extended to conduct outside the sanctuary as well. Stella Skaltsa continues the focus on space, discussing the varying degree to which the identity of a group was anchored in the physical space used by the association and the degree to which that space was permeable to others or restricted to members.

Three of the chapters discuss associative regulations as a function of changing historical and political environments. Ilias Arnaoutoglou observes that cult associations tended to adopt the mechanisms for the management of disputes provided by the polis: “they orbit around the organization model of the planet Polis” (p. 139). Yet an important development can be seen. In the Hellenistic era the meetings of private associations appear to have mirrored the sometimes raucous behavior of the civic assembly; there seems to have been little worry about decorum (eukosmia). The Roman period saw more punitive regulatory regimes governing decorum, apparently flowing from a fear of thorybos—heckling, disturbance. This, Arnaoutoglou suggests, probably reflects the awareness of possible intervention by Roman authorities in the affairs of the association. Acts’ tale of the riot of the Ephesian silversmiths, Philo’s description of early Roman Alexandria, and the so-called “bakers’ strike” of I.Ephesos 215 illustrate well the readiness of authorities to intervene in disturbances in which private associations were implicated.

Sophia Zoumbaki offers a careful reconstruction of the regulations of three cultic groups from Mantinea (Arkadia), dated from the mid-second century BCE to the first half of the first century CE. Each pays close attention to the perquisites due to benefactors, and each elaborates penalties to be imposed should the organizers fail to grant these perquisites. Zoumbaki locates this concern in the aftermath of the decline of the Peloponnese after the destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE. As a response to the shrinkage of civic life, associations encouraged euergetism and took care to establish rules for dealing appropriately with benefactors, especially women benefactors, who were critical in the rebuilding of cultic life and the survival of cult associations.

Micaela Langellotti turns her attention to Roman Egypt and especially the private associations documented in P.Michigan V. These are of special interest since all are copies of association νόμοι that had been registered with the village archivist, Kronion. They show an increasing alignment of associative practices with the interests of the state and its organized system of licence fees. It is here that some engagement would have been welcome with recent theoretical approaches to the Ptolemaic and early Roman economies that have used New Institutional Economics to theorize the role that associations played in the management of risk and the optimization of transaction costs.[2]

It is sometimes remarked that that only a small number of association νόμοι and leges collegii are extant, despite the likelihood that most associations, especially the large Italian guilds, had formal leges. It appears that Roman associations did not routinely engrave their leges on stone, and those that are extant are mainly connected with honorific or commemorative epigraphy (e.g., CIL 6.10234; CIL 14.2112; AE 1929, 161 = 2002, 397). Nicolas Tran shows, however, that much can be extracted concerning the admission practices, expulsion processes, electoral procedures, leadership titles, and decision-making practices of Ostian associations from a careful examination of their alba, decrees, honorific inscriptions, dedications, and funerary epigraphy. This turns out to be largely consistent with what is known from the few extant leges collegii. He makes the further important point, encapsulating a major theme of the entire volume, that the strict organization of Roman collegia was neither accidental nor disinterested. The well-ordered nature of collegiademonstrated that collegiati had interiorized the values and attitudes of the elite and that this served civic integration. “Corporati aimed to gain positions in social hierarchies in the most favourable manner. . . . For dignitaries, in particular, a collegium‘s respectability, attained through the image of a strictly ordered community, was often a springboard in a quest for prestige beyond associations” (p. 213).

The collection concludes with a brief comparison of Hellenistic and Roman-era associations with a few Indian and Chinese associations.

Table of Contents

Vincent Gabrielsen—Mario C.D. Paganini, Associations’ Regulations from the Ancient Greek World and Beyond, 1–38
Nikolaos Giannakopoulos, Admission Procedures and Financial Contributions in Private Associations: Norms and Deviations, 39–62
Benedict Eckhardt, Regulations on Absence and Obligatory Participation in Ancient Associations, 63–85
Jan-Mathieu Carbon, The Place of Purity: Groups and Associations, Authority and Sanctuaries, 86–116
Stella Skaltsa, Associations and Place: Regulating Meeting-places and Sanctuaries, 117–143
Ilias Arnaoutoglou, Greek thorybos, Roman eustatheia: The Normative Universe of Athenian Cult Associations, 144–162
Sophia Zoumbaki, Private Affairs in a Public Domain: Regulating Behavioural Code towards Benefactresses and Planning a Strategy of Social Impact in Mantinean Associations, 163–178
Micaela Langellotti, A World Full of Associations: Rules and Community Values in Early Roman Egypt, 179–195
Nicolas Tran, Ordo corporatorum: The Rules of Roman Associations and the collegia at Ostia in the Second and Third Centuries AD, 196–213
Kasper G. Evers, Rules and Regulations of Associations: The Eurasian comparandum, 214–236
Vincent Gabrielsen and Mario C.D. Paganini, Conclusion: Associations in their World, 237–258


[1] See Andrew Monson, “The Ethics and Economics of Ptolemaic Religious Associations,” Ancient Society 36 (2006), 221–38.

[2] Dennis P. Kehoe, David M. Ratzan, and Uri Yiftach, eds, Law and Transaction Costs in the Ancient Economy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015); Philip F. Venticinque, Honor among Thieves: Craftsmen, Merchants, and Associations in Roman and Late Roman Egypt (New Texts from Ancient Cultures; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016); David B. Hollander, Thomas R. Blanton, and John T. Fitzgerald, eds, The Extramercantile Economies of Greek and Roman Cities: New Perspectives on the Economic History of Classical Antiquity (Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies; London and New York: Routledge, 2019).