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date: 24 March 2017

Religious Innovation in the Ancient Mediterranean

Summary and Keywords

Sanctuaries and ritual traditions commonly gained prestige through claims of antiquity; conversely, novelty was an accusation occasionally leveled against groups such as the Christians. Yet ritual geography and practices were, in practice, always liable to revision, and it is evident that certain gods, holy places, and rituals had precise historical origins. How was change introduced, managed, and understood in the ancient Mediterranean world? Several varieties of innovation can be differentiated: (1) Many city-states had defined procedures for introducing new gods and initiating new collective rituals: those procedures were often envisaged as involving the active participation of the gods, as instigators or approvers of change. As in all religious systems balances were to be struck between existing religious authority, wherever vested, and the prophets, priests, and others who gained from the change; (2) Another variety of innovation represented homeostatic reactions to other changes, such as the foundations of cities, disasters survived, the fall or rise of monarchies, and the like; (3) Potentially most disruptive were those innovations brought by migration and/or the transfer of ideas and rituals across the connected Mediterranean world. The spread of mystery religions, of astrology, and of new gods provide examples of this. Certain societies were more receptive than others to this kind of novelty. Religious innovations of the first two kinds were often assimilated into the loosely bounded ritual systems of antiquity, but other changes had a cumulative effect that changes the religious geography permanently.

Keywords: Roman religion, innovation, mysteries, religious change, ancient Mediterranean, syncretism

Antiquity and Authority

Religious innovation is the process by which new ritual traditions, concepts of the divine, and religious institutions are created. Innovations rarely occur even today in the religious sphere alone, and, arguably in antiquity, they were always part of wider patterns of change. The study of religious innovations in antiquity is therefore effectively a study of the religious dimension of social, cultural, and political change.

Before modernity, ritual activity permeated every sphere of human life, few institutions were either wholly religious or wholly secular, and cosmological orders always reflected earthly ones. It should be no surprise then—given that societies and especially political systems are always in flux—that there is abundant evidence for religious change in antiquity.1 Change encompasses both the abandonment of old practices and the introduction of new ones, of innovations. Innovation is notable because it was the product of active creative agency. Each generation re-creates the social and ritual order, but it reproduces it imperfectly, omitting some elements and adding new ones. The loss of the old was often hardly noticed in societies that did not have a tradition of recording and commenting on ritual practice. But innovation did attract attention, especially when it was controversial.

Ancient accounts of religious change are neither complete nor wholly reliable. Festivals were constantly being created and modified, sanctuaries were established or became newly important, some with new specializations, such as in healing or in prophesy, and some even to new gods. Occasionally, new ritual technologies were added to the mix. In many cases, however, attempts were made to conceal the novelty of developments. It is thus possible to track the invention of mysteria—cults of personal initiation—in the Archaic Aegean world, and their subsequent spread around the Mediterranean.2 But for ancient witnesses these were always ancient cults, with origin myths set in remote antiquity. It is likewise possible to track the stages by which Babylonian astronomy was appropriated into classical astrology and to see how, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, astrological elements came to feature in a vast array of cults.3 But ancient sources provide no recognition that the science of the stars was new.

Most ancient societies claimed great antiquity for their central rituals and beliefs. The Hebrew Bible systematized traditions that connected the Jews to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia and explained the origin of their distinctive ritual tradition in a series of divine revelations followed, in historical times, by prophesies. Many Greek rituals and festivals were also explained in relation to specific myths, narratives set in a remote period prior to recorded history in which the relations of gods and humans were different. The Eleusinian mysteries probably originated in the 6th century bce, but an aetiological myth claimed they originated while Demeter wandered the earth in search of her daughter Kore. Cicero claimed that the Lupercalia was more ancient than civilization or the laws.4 Claims to antiquity might even be made competitively, as in the debates first in Jewish and then in Christian texts over whether Homer or Moses was the more ancient.5 Early Christian apologists were especially concerned to establish the antiquity of their tradition precisely because novelty was one serious charge made against Christians, relative both to ancient classical practices and to the ancestral traditions of the Jews. The assumption shared by all these groups is that the authority of a religious tradition depends in part on its antiquity.

Myth had a range of other functions. One was to explain the peculiar and unusual features of particular practices. So the story of Prometheus’s invention of sacrifice “explained” why humans had one portion of the slaughtered animal and the gods another; Passover was accounted for by the story of the slaughter of the first-born of Egypt by the Angel of Death; the Roman Lupercalia was in some sense connected to the story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf; and the Eucharist was presented as a reenactment of the meal shared by Christ with his followers on the eve of his arrest. Some stories were probably genuinely ancient. The Egyptian myth of the death, dismemberment, and reassembly of the god Osiris was retold over millennia. But most aetiological tellings of myths are first attested long after the supposed originating date of the rituals they “explain.” Many were certainly no more than pious inventions. When ancients did write about change they were often mistaken: Dionysus was widely regarded as the youngest of gods, yet his name appears in Linear B tablets from the Bronze Age. Myth both explained ritual and also relegated its origins to a period in which the rules of explanation were different. As such it helped stabilize and naturalize a contingent ritual order. Ancient authors were well aware of historical changes. The reorganization by Cleisthenes of the tribal structure of Athens had consequences for cult; Roman historians recorded the dates of the introduction of the public cults of Apollo Medicus, Mater Magna Deorum, and so on. But these notices of the origins of particular institutions—like the foundation dates of temples—did not relate to moments of revelation or revolution. For an open polytheistic system like that of the ancient city, the addition of yet another god or yet another festival did not constitute a major change in the nature of religion.6

Modern scholars have faced their own difficulties in accounting for religious innovation. Some derive from a failure to appreciate the difference between the modern religious landscape and that of antiquity. So Franz Cumont7explained the appearance of the Mediterranean cults of Isis, Mithras, and others in terms of the “spread of religions” with new spiritual content, from the East into the Mediterranean world. The modern critique of orientalism makes scholars much more skeptical of this kind of explanation. On the one hand, they are much more cautious not to lump together a series of phenomena as “eastern” and on the other hand are particularly suspicious when that assemblage is characterized as less rational or more exotic than other kinds of religion. It has been suggested that much older scholarship, in differentiating traditional Greek and Roman from newer cults designated as “oriental,” reproduced arguments about proper and improper forms of ritual that originated in the Reformation.8 It is clear now that the new cult associations and the accompanying iconographies and rituals were both enormously diverse in origin and also largely created within the Mediterranean world through an appropriation of elements from a number of sources.9 More fundamentally nothing like modern religions—strongly bounded belief systems with developed institutions, exclusive memberships, and the like—existed in antiquity.10 Even less helpful have been developmental models of religion in which societies are held to “progress” from primitive cults to higher, transcendent, or more rational world-religions.11 Schemas of this kind typically conceal ethnocentric preconceptions, such as that monotheism (or atheism) is innately superior to polytheism or that animal sacrifice is repugnant. A quick glance at modern religious practices around the globe shows the fallacy in assumptions of this kind. Ritual paid to multiple deities flourishes in the Shinto tradition, and the Islamic practice of Dhabihah includes precise prescriptions of how animals should be slaughtered and the prayer that should be said at the same moment. Conversely, the notion of “world religions” as forming a distinct category is a very recent invention, one that emerged from 19th-century Religionswissenschaft.12

Modern approaches to religious innovation in the past have also been hampered by the recent dependence on models drawn from structural anthropology. Those models often “explain” rituals in terms of other features of the societies that perform them. For instance the religious calendar may be related to the agricultural year or incidence of ancestor worship to the importance of kinship in managing everyday relationships. Anthropology has proved a powerful tool for exploring complex nexuses of myth and ritual.13 But while functionalist analysis of this sort can be very rewarding in explaining the rationale of a given ritual at a given time, it offers less help in understanding change.14 Too often religious change is represented simply as a homeostatic response to change in some other area of life. Alternatively, innovation tends to be seen as coming from “outside” the social order, as in models of “Christianization” or the “spread of oriental religions.”

Finally, some studies of ancient religion have placed too much confidence in “normative statements” contained in ancient antiquarian texts, such as Festus’s etymological dictionary. It is now increasingly appreciated that texts of this kind were, in part, composed as a response to change and uncertainty, attempts to rationalize and order rituals and practices that puzzled contemporaries. Often they contain nothing more than learned conjectures. Philologists, in particular, have treated them as much more authoritative and reliable guides to past practice than is justified. The approach followed here is to treat with skepticism all ancient commentaries on religious practice—normative, aetiological, or mythological; to posit constant areas of non-fit and contradiction between ritual practice and its context; to see ritual and religious authority as always contested; and to integrate the history of religious innovation and conservatism into wider histories of social, political, and cultural change.

Religious Innovation in the Context of State-Building

Three broad contexts help us to understand the nature of religious innovation in antiquity. The first is the appearance and growth of states in the Mediterranean world over the last millennium bce. The second is the emergence of empires, first those of the Iron Age Near East beginning with the Assyrian New Kingdom; then the Hellenistic hegemonies, both those ruled by Macedonian kings in the East and those powerful city-states that were created in the West; and finally the Roman and Persian Empires—heirs to all these developments—that together extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Hindu Kush. The third is the increased traffic of people, artifacts, and information across this vast region, a product of economic and demographic growth and improvements in maritime technology, and a phenomenon connected in complex ways with state-formation and empire-building.

Contexts of this kind help organize a history of religious innovation, but they do not wholly explain it. The main drivers for religious change were always individual and group interests.15 Rather than say that state-building entailed, required, or depended on particular changes in the ritual system, it is preferable to say that the efforts of some members of society to build states (largely to serve their own ends, naturally) created conditions in which some religious traditions were no longer attractive or viable and, at the same time, opened up opportunities for innovators to create new religious forms that served their own or sectional interests.16 Urbanization, empire-building, and the connectivity that accompanied them altered the possibilities open to innovators. Prophets, faction leaders, entrepreneurial priests, kings, and others took advantage where they saw it.

From the 8th century bce the dominant political form in the Mediterranean world west of Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt was the city-state. Eventually approximately one thousand of these micro-states could be found, most including just a few thousand people and most focused on a single urban settlement where decision-making and ceremonial activity were increasingly concentrated. One of the key archaeological indicators of state-building is the elaboration of monumental sanctuaries in the centers and sometimes on the borders of these states.17 Once one state engaged in this sort of behavior its neighbors typically followed, giving rise to regional traditions such as those of southern Greece, Etruria, or the Phoenician coast.18

By the 5th century most cities were easy to classify ethnically as Greek, Etruscan, Phoenician, and so on. But in the Archaic Age many communities had mixed populations, used a variety of languages, and they had broadly the same communal institutions. These included temples constructed in the urban centers that became sites of collective worship and housed images of the gods made of wood, stone, terracotta, or precious metal. Most images were anthropomorphic and animal sacrifice was made to them. The models for these forms of worship mostly derived from Egypt and the Near East more widely. The precise cultural transfers through which technologies such as religious statuary and monumental epigraphy were disseminated are difficult to reconstruct, but it is most likely that the first moves were made by individual innovators rather than state projects.

Typically particular deities were conceived both as members of a universal community of gods and also as closely linked to particular communities. So Melqart was both the chief god of Tyre and also worshipped throughout the Phoenician diaspora, and Athena was both one of the Olympian gods sung of by Homer and also had a special relationship with Athens and a number of other communities. Locally, the gods were held in some sense to inhabit their temples and to be present at the sacrifices that preceded meals they shared with their mortal worshippers. They were also thought to be committed to the military and other interests of their cities. Neighbors too acknowledged the special local ties of particular gods. A Roman ritual named the evocatio involved an attempt to persuade a god of an enemy people to effectively change sides in return for worship in Rome. Juno was enticed from Veii to Rome on the eve of the destruction of that city.

Encounters between different religious traditions did not derive only from military and political expansion. Phoenicians and Greeks from different places met at sites such as Pithekoussai in the Bay of Naples as traders, settlers, craftsmen, exiles, mercenaries, and explorers, as did Greeks, Carians, and Persians at Naukratis and other centers in Egypt. One of the first tasks they faced was to make sense of different notions of the divine. That impulse to accommodate the gods of other peoples reflects a widespread belief in the eternity of the divine order and a great reluctance to reject alien beliefs and practices wholesale. The more radical step of declaring the gods of a neighboring people to be imaginary and their cosmologies simply wrong was a step taken very rarely: it appears only in late Hebrew scriptures and then in Christian texts. It was common, however, to label the ritual and representational practices of alien peoples as eccentric, ridiculous, or even horrific and impious. More usual is the kind of compromise exemplified by the Isis aretalogy preserved in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses19 in which the goddess declares that she is known to the Phrygians as the Mother of Pessinus, to the Athenians as Cecropian Minerva, to the Cypriots as Paphian Venus, to the Cretans as Dictyan Diana, and so on before saying that the Egyptians worship her under her true name, Queen Isis.

In fact, a range of creative tactics were developed to deal with the new religious knowledge (or questions) generated by cultural encounters. Xenophanes wrote that the gods of the Ethiopians were black while those of the Thracians had red hair and blue eyes, drawing attention to ethnocentric understandings of the divine, probably as a first stage to creating a more philosophically satisfactory universal model of the divine. Herodotus attempted to differentiate a Greek from an Egyptian Heracles and compared the rituals of different peoples. Iconography from the western Mediterranean shows an equation was commonly made in the Archaic period between Heracles and Melqart. Bilingual texts from Pyrgi in Etruria show the Etruscan goddess Uni equated with Carthaginian Astarte. The eastward expansion of Hellenistic kingdoms and the Roman conquest of Europe generated many more encounters of this kind.

Modern scholars distinguish between interpretatio (translation), the process whereby alien gods were understood to be in some sense identical to familiar ones; syncretism, in which new images of gods and new rituals and even what were in effect new deities (like Sarapis or Mithras) were created that preserved elements of several traditions; and philosophical attempts, such as those of Plutarch, to interpret the gods of myth (like Apollo and Demeter, Osiris and Isis) as daimones subordinate to a greater deity. These projects often seem like innovations to us, but to ancients they may well have been seen as attempts to preserve the integrity of each tradition by removing contradictions that threatened the credibility of each system.

As city-states grew in size and became more institutionalized, so religious authority came to be concentrated in the hands of their rulers. What these rulers created has sometimes been termed polis religion.20 This term has been used in different senses, and some usages have been heavily criticized.21 Common ground is that relatively large resources—human and material—were deployed to fund collective cults by and for the political community and to create places for it to take place. These cults were, in most city-states, controlled by the wealthy and powerful. The main disputes concern the questions: How much of religious activity does this model account for? How reliable are the interested statements of elite members on the normativity of these cults? Should other kinds of religious activity be treated as marginal, superstition, deviance, or simply the normal background, the power of which ancient priests and magistrates tried to appropriate? It has also been suggested that polis-religion is better at explaining how particular traditions were established and entrenched than in accounting for change.

A common accompaniment of state-building was the elaboration of grand collective festivals involving a large proportion of the population through spectacles and processions.22 Huge state-run building projects led to the creation of major temples in sanctuaries that formed stages for major festivals. Calendars were promulgated fixing the dates of particular festivals. It is likely that the major periods of institutional innovation were in the Archaic period: in the Classical period, the energy of the rulers of city-states were devoted to protecting the (new) traditions and making sure that such innovations that did occur did not threaten their power base.23

Naturally there was considerable variation in detail, for city-states were not all alike. Some priesthoods in Athens were hereditary, in the hands of particular aristocratic families, but most senior priests in Rome were co-opted and came only from families in the propertied classes. For some scholars, the control of religion by these individuals has seemed to be a powerful mechanism of social control.24The location of authority also varied. The demos had the ultimate say in democratic Athens, expressed via the assembly and the courts. In republican Rome the senate and senatorial priests, organized in colleges, had de facto control of the ritual system. Separate priestly classes and religious specialists were rare in the Mediterranean world but they did exist on its borders, for example in Egypt, Syria, and Judaea. And between these polis structures were the poets, prophets, travelling wonder workers, and great Panhellenic sanctuaries, some located on the fringes of the world of the city-state.

Religious Innovation in the Context of Ancient Imperialism

The creation of imperial states did not have as dramatic an impact on ritual practice as did state formation. Early empires typically overlaid the states they had conquered and made use of local institutions and elites wherever possible to manage justice, social control, and even taxation. Emperors consequently tended to support the local cults of those communities in return for recognition and legitimation of their position. Achaemenid Persian kings patronized Marduk in Babylon, Apollo at Magnesia on the Maeander and Jahweh at Jerusalem, and ruled as pharoahs in Egypt despite their own allegiance to Zoroastrian worship. Alexander sought the support of Zeus Ammon and adopted some of the ceremony of the Persian court. The Ptolemies formed an alliance with the Egyptian priesthood. Roman emperors were mostly content for their names and images to be inserted into local cults all over the empire to form what modern scholars term the imperial cult.25

Again there were variations. Achaemenid and Hellenistic kings were adept at forming alliances with local priestly classes, but under the Roman Empire those who claimed independent religious authority—whether through prophesy, astrology, or a separate religious establishment—were often seen as potentially dangerous.26 The emergence in late antiquity of exclusive religions that claimed unique authority over both ritual practice and cosmological truth changed the situation too. By the 4th century ce Roman emperors were patronizing Christianity (and in Julian’s case a kind of Neo-Polytheism) and Persian emperors were more aggressive proponents of Zoroastrian practice. Manicheans were persecuted in both empires and Christians in Persia. Emperors struggled to maintain the support of religious hierarchies (now more autonomous) without ceding them too much power or too many economic concessions. A new articulation of empire and religion had emerged that would structure the Middle Ages from the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea.

But in the Mediterranean world during the Classical era there were very few signs of imperial intervention in matters of cult, and nothing like an imperial religious order ever emerged.27 Octavian/Augustus began the process of creating provincial assemblies (koina) based on the model of religious “leagues” of cities that had existed in the eastern Mediterranean. These bodies were reoriented toward annual festivals at which cult was paid to the emperor and gladiatorial games were held, and they were given a weak representative function. The model was extended to the west with the creation of a provincial concilium in Gaul, but the program was rolled out in an unsystematic fashion. Likewise, associations of seviri Augustales, seviri, Augustales, and other variants appear in Italian and western communities in the same period conducting cult on the emperor’s behalf, and temples to Rome and Augustus and many variants were built in many cities. But again there was no uniform titulature and institutional practices varied from one city to another. Most of these developments are now viewed as homeostatic and local adaptions, modest modifications of existing ritual systems made to maintain a homology with the changed political order at the dawn of empire.28 These festivals underwent periodic modifications just as did the religious institutions of the ancient city; Greek athletics becoming popular in the western Mediterranean, gladiators in the East, musical and rhetorical contests joining athletic ones and so on. In a few cases, such as the Panhellenion created by Hadrian, the history of these cult associations can be traced in some detail.29 The story of constant modification reflects the dynamism of ancient polytheism and its openness to incremental changes within a broad set of parameters.

Responses to Religious Change

Traditional societies that is, small scale societies that make little or no use of writing, often seem unaware of quite major historical events in their past. The deep past of myth may operate as a kind of charter for present-day relationships, and the very shallow past of living memory is of enormous importance in present-day conflict. But between the two lies a “floating gap” within which events have no contemporary significance and so are not positively remembered and recounted.30 During the last millennium bce, a few ancient societies began to develop new interests in their historical past and this led to an increase in record keeping and the development of historie (Latin historia), a form of inquiry devoted to the reconstruction of ancient events, and archaiologia (Latin antiquitates), a science of the origins of peoples and cities, building on the evidence of local legends, place names, customs, and suggestive hints in the Homeric poems and other early poetry.31 The new consciousness of the past that emerged naturally encompassed a new consciousness of religious change, both of what had been lost and of what was new.32

Conventionally, interest by the Greeks in their history is taken to have begun during the later 6th century bce and by the Romans during the late 3rd century. From these points, responses to innovation can be observed in some detail, especially when the innovations were seen as threats to the established order of state religion. A notion of patrios nomos, ancestral custom, emerged in classical Athens, and there was a series of panics in the 5th and 4th centuries over neglected rituals and the subversive novelty of the teaching of various thinkers, the most famous being Socrates. Yet at the same time the cults of Sabazios, Bendis, the Great Mother of Pessinus, and Isis found places in the city: probably the earliest worshippers of these gods were immigrants and visitors, but Athenian citizens certainly do appear in time. And alongside these innovations are the appearance of new cults of Greek gods, such as Ascelpius, and new cults to old heroes, such as Theseus. The difference between acceptable innovation and threats to ancestral custom seems to have been a matter of proper authority. If the demos accepted or introduced an innovation it became part of the complex polytheism of the community; but if innovation was based on other authority (whether philosophical reason or the alternative cosmological views of Bacchantes), that was a threat to the polis.33 It does seem as if periods occurred in which societies were more open to exploiting the additive potential of polytheistic community religion, and others when they were less receptive. Mapping and explaining the alternation of openness and resistance is high on the current research agenda. Much of the evidence for innovation in the public cults of Rome comes from the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries bce, a period of major overseas expansion. The worship of Ascelpius and Apollo and Cybele were all given prominent places in the public cults—typically a temple, a priest, and a festival. The Roman state consulted Delphi and Pessinus among other oracles. This process has plausibly been seen as manifesting a desire to bring the major cults of the Mediterranean world to Rome and to assert the special favor Romans enjoyed from the gods.34 On the other hand, this is precisely the period during which Romans began to develop antiquarian interests about their own religious history so the basis of our information changes. And as expansion continued to accelerate Rome seems less open. A contemporary epigraphic law, and the very full account given by Livy, records what seems to have been a moral and religious panic in 189 bce over the discovery of widespread worship of Bacchus in Rome and Italy.35 The most likely explanation for the reaction is that those who considered themselves religious authorities felt they were no longer in control of the proper ritual system. Yet despite an apparently draconian response, Dionysiac cult practices rapidly became normalized. The same story would be repeated in reaction to the cult of the Egyptian gods and to astrology in the last century bce and first century ce.

One complication is that much change occurred below the radar of literary texts, and it is only visible in finds of cultic material. For example, literary sources locate the introduction to Rome of the worship of Cybele, the Great Mother of Pessinus, to a specific date (204 bce) and a specific military and political crisis during the Second Punic War. The accounts of the process of introducing her are probably broadly accurate: preliminary diplomacy with kings and oracles took place together with elaborate debates in Rome over the appropriate welcome ceremony and, in due course, the Romans established a set of games, the Megalensia, built and inaugurated a temple on the Palatine, and established a priestly division of labor in which a senatorial priestly college oversaw rituals performed by eunuch priests of non-Roman origin. These events have often been taken as paradigmatic for the way in which religious innovation took place in the middle Republic.36 Yet finds of statuettes of Atthis show that the cult of Cybele long predated the beginnings of her public cult. This is not surprising given the international prestige of Pessinus and the fact that Rome in the early 2nd century was already one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities of the Mediterranean world. Literary sources shine a spotlight on the public cult. Archaeology, in this case, reveals something more of the background to its introduction.

New Religious Phenomena of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods

When examining archaeological indices, the spread of new cults and of the worship of new deities seems more continuous and routine. One of the best studied examples is the Mediterranean worship of the goddess Isis, whose cult is first attested in Bronze Age Egypt.37 Syncretisms with Demeter are already recorded by Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the period when it was part of the Persian Empire. Egyptians were worshipping Isis in a few Greek cities in the late 4th century bce and during the 3rd century she was being worshipped all over the Aegean by Greeks and Egyptians, sometimes in the context of Ptolemaic garrisons, but sometimes apparently as a result of multiple individual initiatives. Deliberate projects of syncretism in Egypt—projects that required the participation of both Egyptian priests and Greek intellectuals and presumably took place under Macedonian royal patronage—created versions of Isis that were more readily received by Greeks in Egypt and beyond. Along with a small selection of other gods, also Hellenized, she became even more popular, appearing in central Italy in the second century bce, in Rome before the end of the Republic, and throughout much of the West in the early imperial period. Along with a Hellenized iconography, and a set of images and rituals that evoked the Nile and Egypt, Isis acquired new roles in Mediterranean cities. Her annual festival opened the sailing season, she acquired mysteries modeled on those of Demeter at Eleusis and was further syncretized with or worshipped alongside a number of deities across Europe. Images of her breastfeeding her son Harpocrates are a likely model for the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child.

The spread of Isis exemplifies patterns of cultural transfer, appropriation, adaption, and modification that can be attested for many religious traditions.38 Persian, Macedonian, and Roman imperialism, the growth of Mediterranean trade, and the lowering of political boundaries in the early empire all help explain why these changes were possible. Yet no civic or imperial authority directed these movements, the greater part of which can be explained only as the cumulative result of individual transactions. Other stories of this kind include the creation and spread of a new cult of the ancient Persian god Mithras, the export of a series of Syrian deities partly by auxiliary soldiers, partly by traders, or the sequel to the Roman project that turned Cybele of Pessinus into Mater Magna Deorum, the form in which her cult spread through the western provinces. Isis and Mater Magna occasionally found themselves given official cults in Italian and provincial cities, although most of the material available seems to relate to private worship. The worship of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus and of Mithras were managed by cult organizations that Romans usually called collegia and Greeks koinoniai, neutral terms that were also used for trade associations or any kind of semi-public body. Their officers often had titles modelled on those of civic officials, but their formal links with the city-states in which they were located were usually very tenuous.39

The larger cities of the Mediterranean world, especially those that were political capitals or ports or both, were key locations for encounters between different religious traditions. They were also the main places in which these new movements appeared and grew. Modern scholars sometimes attempt to distinguish “ethnic cults” from “elective cults,” but this is not an ancient classification.40 Groups that worshipped Mithras and those that followed Mani were both occasionally labeled Persian. Jews were sometimes regarded as a people whose ancestral religion was quite distinctive and sometimes as members of a religious movement. After all it was (as it still is) possible to convert to or from Judaism. Even if Christianity is often labeled an elective cult (and for the first few centuries the majority probably were converts), in practice second- and third-generation Christians were not encouraged to worship anyone apart from the god of their parents. Perhaps of more significance than whether worshippers were born into a tradition or joined it later is the degree of freedom they subsequently had to leave and the extent to which adherence to one tradition debarred them from participation in others. There is no indication that those who worshipped Isis or Mithras did so exclusively, nor is there evidence for how long the average adherent stayed involved with a particular group. When Christianity emerged from this environment—probably by fits and starts—it was unclear to outsiders whether this was just another Jewish group, like the Essenes, a philosophical sect, or a new ethnic group. But it was clear that membership was regarded as permanent and exclusive. It was the absolute refusal to participate in the worship of other gods that earned Christians the label “atheists.”

Christians had a low profile in texts written by outsiders, perhaps because for a long time the differences between Christians and Jews were difficult to see (or agree on) and perhaps because they were genuinely very few in number.41 Much more attention was paid to more prominent deviants: celebrity prophets and sophists or practitioners of magic, for example.42 Without hindsight, the religious history of the first three centuries ce could be considered mainly in terms of the growth of international sanctuaries and the increased diversity of religious practice.43 Religious diversity is manifested in art and temple architecture as well as in texts such as Apuleius’s Metamorphoses and a number of Lucian’s comic works. As for international sanctuaries, the great Panhellenic centers of Olympia, Isthmia, Delphi, and Nemea had been joined by a number of festivals that can be titled “equal to the Olympics”; major healing sanctuaries had developed at Epidauros, Pergamum, and a mass of second-tier centers; the prestige and wealth or oracles was never higher; and major building projects created temples of unparalleled scale in most of the major cities. Economic growth, technological advances, and increased mobility all play a part in explaining this phenomenon. Wealthy individuals travelled long distances to visit particular sacred sites, whether or not their journeys should be labeled “pilgrimages.”44 Very few observers in the late 2nd century ce would have regarded this as a sign of major religious change, as opposed to the working out of long histories of competition, hierarchization, and tradition. The peak period of building seems in most regions to have been the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries ce.

By the late 4th century ce the parameters of change had altered fundamentally. The most familiar part of the story is the numerical increase in the number of Christians, the failure of imperial attempts to suppress the movement, and its capture of the Roman imperial state. But parallel changes were happening east of Rome in Persia and beyond. Alongside Christians and Zoroastrians similar exclusive claims to cosmological knowledge were made by Manicheans and Mandaeans and Buddhists. Even the last generations of polytheists seem to have attempted to create a more bounded and coherent whole out of their various traditions, although they disagreed among themselves on many issues from animal sacrifice to the value of non-Greek traditions.45 A new willingness to delegitimize the practices and beliefs of other groups (heretics and outsiders alike) was shared by most of the successful religions of late antiquity up to and including Islam.46 Religious innovation in such an environment now had a very different character.


Religious matters have always been central to the study of ancient Mediterranean societies. One reason is that ancient writers were very interested in oracles, temple foundations, and the interplay between piety and politics. Another is that a very large proportion of the durable non-literary texts that have survived were generated in the course of ritual activity: tombstones and votive inscriptions make up an overwhelming majority of epigraphy on stone and metal, and curse tablets, magical papyri, sacred laws, and accounts of offerings made to the gods are also found. Add to this the prominence of temples in the archaeological record, especially for early periods, and it is not surprising that religious matters have not been neglected.

One strong tradition of modern thought sets collective ritual at the heart of the ancient city: the first sophisticated theorizing of this kind was La cité antique.47 Discussions of what is termed in this article religion innovation have been overshadowed by teleological grand narratives. One such narrative was the notion that a rational approach to the world appeared first in ancient Greece and lay at the origins of the Enlightenment and thence modern secular and scientific philosophies. This line of thought, common to Weberian and Marxist views of history, was demolished by E. R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational,48which showed how activities and ideas that scholars regard as rational coexisted in Greek culture with those that would be regarded today as superstitious. Subsequent work has attempted to map the different rationalities of ancient worlds.

The other great teleological framework has been the story of the rise of Christianity. The notion that ancient civic religions were swept away by more mystical, utopian “cults” generally emanating from the East and focused on otherwordly salvation is often associated with Franz Cumont.49 His analysis was perhaps more subtle than it has often been presented.50 But the resulting emphasis on the dynamism of “new” eastern religions (sic) did support the idea that traditional civic polytheism was formalistic and unsatisfying, a matter of routine and convention rather than passion. Careful study of both the rich Greek epigraphy of the Roman Empire and the literature of the Second Sophistic has made us more aware of the excitement of ancient festivals, epiphanies, oracles, curses, pageants, and public gatherings and of the passions they aroused.51 The chief focus of current debate is over how best to describe long-term change—in terms of the rise of monotheisms (pagan and philosophical as well as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic),52 changes of ritual practice,53 the rise of sacred books (among Manichees and Zoroastrians as well as in the Abrahamic religions), or as a bundle of changes that came to be associated?54

Primary Sources

For the reasons explained above ancient writers offer few reflective accounts of religious innovation. So anxieties about “new gods” have to be reconstructed from a wide range of literary texts, which in ancient Athens might include tragedy and old comedy, the philosophical writings of Plato, and occasional episodes recorded by historians. Archaeological and epigraphic evidence for novelty is often difficult to coordinate with literary testimony, just as in the case of Magna Mater’s introduction to Rome. During late antiquity, specifically religious registers of discourse among Christians, Manichees, and Jews emerged, and perhaps a new interest in the sacred among satirists and some philosophers. In general, however, the study of religious innovation depends on asking different questions of the vast range of evidence for ancient religion.

Further Reading

Beard, Mary, John North, and S. R. F. Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Burkert, Walter. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Cumont, Franz. Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain. Paris: E. Leroux, 1906.Find this resource:

Garland, Robert. Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Gordon, Richard. “Religion in the Roman Empire: The Civic Compromise and Its Limits.” In Pagan Priests. Edited by Mary Beard and John North, 233–255. London: Duckworth, 1990.Find this resource:

Kindt, Julia. Rethinking Greek Religion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

North, John. “The Development of Religious Pluralism.” In The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire. Edited by Judith Lieu, John North, and T. Rajak, 174–193. London: Routledge, 1992.Find this resource:

Parker, Robert. Athenian Religion: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Rüpke, Jörg. Religion in Republican Rome: Rationalization and Ritual Change. Edited by C. Ando. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Woolf, G. “Polis-Religion and Its Alternatives in the Roman Provinces.” In Römische Reichsreligion und Provinzialreligion. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Jörg Rüpke, 71–84. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1997.Find this resource:


(1.) John North, “Conservatism and Change in Roman Religion,” Papers of the British School at Rome 44 (1976): 1–12.

(2.) Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

(3.) Tamsyn Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics and Medicine under the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994); Roger Beck, A Brief History of Ancient Astrology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007).

(4.) Cicero, pro Caelio 26.

(5.) A. J. Droge, Homer or Moses? Early Christian Interpretations of the History of Culture (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck] Verlag, 1989).

(6.) Andreas Bendlin, “Looking beyond the Civic Compromise: Religious Pluralism in Late Republican Rome,” in Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome: Evidence and Experience, ed. E. Bispham and C. Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 115–135.

(7.) Franz Cumont, Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Paris: E. Leroux, 1906).

(8.) Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

(9.) Corinne Bonnet, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, and Danny Praet, eds., Les religions orientales dans le monde grec et romain cent ans après Cumont, 1906–2006: Bilan historique et historiographique: Colloque de Rome, 16–18 Novembre 2006 (Brussels: Belgisch Historisch Instituut te Rome, 2009); Giulia Sfameni Gasparro, “Mysteries and Oriental Cults: A Problem in the History of Religions,” in The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians, ed. J. North and S. Price (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 276–324.

(10.) alad Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993); Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

(11.) Karl Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (Munich: R. Piper, 1949).

(12.) Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

(13.) Richard Buxton, Imaginary Greece (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, Athenian Myths and Festivals: Aglauros, Erechtheus, Plynteria, Panathenaia, Dionysia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(14.) Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, translated by P. Cartledge (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992); John Scheid, Religion et piété à Rome (Paris: Découverte, 1985); John Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003).

(15.) Jörg Rüpke, ed., The Individual in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

(16.) W. R. Connor, “Tribes, Festivals and Processions: Civic Ceremonial and Political Manipulation in Archaic Greece,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987): 40–50.

(17.) François de Polignac, La naissance de la cité greque: Cultes, espaces et société, VIII–VI siécle av. J.C. (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 1984); Anthony Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (London: J. M. Dent, 1980).

(18.) A. M. Snodgrass, “Interaction by Design: The Greek City State,” in Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-political Change: New Directions in Archaeology, ed. C. Renfrew and J. F. Cherry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 47–58.

(19.) Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.5.

(20.) Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, “Further Aspects of Polis Religion” Annali dell’ Istituto universitario orientale di Napoli: Sezione di Archeologia e Storia Antica 10 (1988): 259–274; Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, “What Is Polis Religion?” in The Greek City from Homer to Alexander, ed. O. Murray and S. Price (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 295–322.

(21.) Jan Bremmer, “Manteis, Magic, Mysteries and Mythography: Messy Margins of polis Religion?” Kernos 23 (2010): 13–35; Esther Eidinow, “Networks and Narratives: A Model for Ancient Greek Religion,” Kernos 24 (2011): 9–38; Richard Gordon, “Religion in the Roman Empire: The Civic Compromise and Its Limits,” in Pagan Priests, ed. M. Beard and J. North (London: Duckworth, 1990), 233–255; Julia Kindt, “Polis Religion: A Critical Appreciation,” Kernos 22 (2009): 9–34; Julia Kindt, Rethinking Greek Religion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Jörg Rüpke, “Kult jenseits der Polisreligion: Polemiken und Perspektiven,” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 47 (2004): 5–15; Greg Woolf, “Polis-Religion and Its Alternatives in the Roman Provinces,” in Römische Reichsreligion und Provinzialreligion, ed. Hubert Cancik and Jörg Rüpke (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1997), 71–84.

(22.) Walter Burkert, “Die antike Stadte als Festgemeinschaft,” in Stadt und Fest: Zu Geschichte und Gegenwart europäischer Festkultur, ed. P. Hugger, W. Burkert, and E. Lichtenhahn (Unträgeri, Switzerland: W&H Verlag, 1987), 25–44; Walter Burkert, “Athenian Cults and Festivals,” in Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 5, The Fifth Century B.C., ed. D. M. Lewis, J. Boardman, J. K. Davies, and M. Ostwald (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 245–267.

(23.) John North, “Religious Toleration in Republican Rome,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 25 (1979): 85–103; Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 152–187.

(24.) Richard Gordon, “Religion in the Roman Empire: The Civic Compromise and Its Limits,” in Pagan Priests, ed. M. Beard and J. North (London: Duckworth, 1990), 233–255; John North, “Democratic Politics in Republican Rome,” Past and Present 126 (1990): 3–21.

(25.) Alistair Small, ed., Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity: Papers Presented at a Conference Held in the University of Alberta on April 13–15, 1994, to Celebrate the 65th Anniversary of Duncan Fishwick (Ann Arbor MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996); Hubert Cancik and Conrad Hitzl, eds., Die Praxis der Herrscherverehrung in Rom und seinen Provinzen (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003).

(26.) Martin Goodman, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66–70 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Arnaldo Momigliano, “Some Preliminary Remarks on the ‘Religious Opposition’ to the Roman Empire,” in Oppositions et résistances à l’empire d’Auguste à Trajan: Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, ed. A. Giovannini (Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt, 1987), 103–133.

(27.) Clifford Ando, “A Religion for the Empire,” in Flavian Rome. Culture, Image, Text, ed. A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 321–344; Hubert Cancik and Jörg Rüpke, eds., Die Religion des Imperium Romanum (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

(28.) Simon Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Roman Asia Minor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984); Greg Woolf, “Divinity and Power in Ancient Rome,” in Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond ed. N. Brisch (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008), 235–255.

(29.) Rocío Gordillo Hervás, La construcción religiosa de la Hélade imperial: El Panhelenion (Florence: Florence University Press, 2012); C. P. Jones, “The Panhellenion,” Chiron 26 (1996): 29–56; A. J. S. Spawforth and Susan Walker, “The World of the Panhellenion: I, Athens and Eleusis,” Journal of Roman Studies 75 (1985): 78–104; A. J. S. Spawforth and Susan Walker, “The World of the Panhellenion: II, Three Dorian Cities,” Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986): 88–105; A. J. S. Spawforth, “The Panhellenion Again,” Chiron 29 (1999): 339–352.

(30.) Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (London: James Curry, 1985).

(31.) Elias Bickerman, “Origines Gentium,” Classical Philology 47 (1952): 65–81; Jonas Grethlein, The Greeks and Their Past: Poetry, Oratory and History in the Fifth Century bce (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Erich Gruen, ed., Cultural Borrowings and Ethnic Appropriations in Antiquity, ed. J. Wiesehöfer (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2005).

(32.) Mary Beard, “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 33 (1987): 1–15; Jörg Rüpke, Religion in Republican Rome: Rationalization and Ritual Change, ed. C. Ando (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

(33.) Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 152–187.

(34.) John North, “Roman Reactions to Empire,” Scripta Classica Israelica 12 (1993): 127–138.

(35.) Jean-Marie Pallier, Bacchanalia: La répression de 186 av. J.-C. à Rome et en Italie (Rome: École française de Rome, 1988).

(36.) Mary Beard, “The Roman and the Foreign: The Cult of the ‘Great Mother’ in Imperial Rome,” in Shamanism, History and the State, ed. N. Thomas and C. Humphrey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 164–190; Paul J. Burton, “The Summoning of the Magna Mater to Rome, 205 B.C.,” Historia: Zeitschrift für alte Geschichte 45.1 (1996): 36–63; Erich Gruen, Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); John North, “Roman Reactions to Empire,” Scripta Classica Israelica 12 (1993): 127–138.

(37.) Laurent Bricault, Atlas de la diffusion des cultes Isiaques, IVe s. av. J.C.–IVe s. apr.J.C. (Paris: De Boccard, 2001).

(38.) Robert Turcan, Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1989).

(39.) John S. Kloppenborg and Stephen G. Wilson, eds., Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 1996); Jörg Rüpke, ed., Gruppenreligionen im römischen Reich (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2007).

(40.) Simon Price, “Religious Mobility in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Roman Studies 102 (2012): 1–19.

(41.) Keith Hopkins, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6.2 (1998): 185–226.

(42.) Jan Bremmer, “Manteis, Magic, Mysteries and Mythography: Messy Margins of polis Religion?” Kernos 23 (2010): 13–35; Richard Gordon, “Superstitio, Superstition and Religious Repression in the Late Roman Republic and Principate, 100 bce–300 ce,” in The Religion of Fools? Superstition Past and Present, Past and Present Supplements, ed. S. A. Smith and A. Knight, 72–94 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Jörg Rüpke, Aberglauben oder Individualität? Religiöse Abweichung im römischen Reich (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

(43.) Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century A.D. to the Conversion of Constantine (Harmondsworth, UK: Viking, 1986).

(44.) Jas Elsner and Ian Rutherford, eds., Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(45.) Glen Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen, eds., One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Rowland B. E. Smith, Julian’s Gods: Religion and Philosophy in the Thought and Action of Julian the Apostate (London: Routledge, 1995).

(46.) Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).

(47.) Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, La cité antique: Étude sur le culte, le droit, les institutions de la Grèce et de Rome (Paris: Hachette, 1864).

(48.) E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951).

(49.) See, for example, Franz Cumont, Les réligions orientales dans le paganisme romain (Paris: E. Leroux, 1906).

(50.) Corinne Bonnet, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, and Danny Praet, eds., Les religions orientales dans le monde grec et romain cent ans après Cumont, 1906–2006: Bilan historique et historiographique: Colloque de Rome, 16–18 novembre 2006 (Brussels: Belgisch Historisch Instituut te Rome, 2009).

(51.) For example, Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century A.D. to the Conversion of Constantine (Harmondsworth, UK: Viking, 1986). See also Susan E. Alcock, John F. Cherry, and Jas Elsner, eds., Pausanias: Travel and Memory in Roman Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Jason König, Athletics and Literature in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Verity Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Michael Wörrle, Stadt und Fest in kaiserzeitlichen Kleinasien: Studien zu einer agonistischen Stiftung aus Oinoanda (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1988).

(52.) Cf. Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen, eds., One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

(53.) Guy G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity, trans. S. Emanuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

(54.) For example, John North, “Pagans, Polytheists and the Pendulum,” in The Spread of Christianity in the First Four Centuries: Essays in Explanation, ed. W. V. Harris (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 125–143; John North, “Pagan Ritual and Monotheism,” in One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Peter van Nuffelen (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 34–52.