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Religious Ritual and the Configuration of Power in Interstate Alliances: Elaea and Rome, 129 BCE

Larisa Masri

     As noted by Fergus Millar, the Greek cities of the Hellenistic world laid claim to three things: internal self-government, self-representation implying a degree of independence, and diplomatic respect (Rome, the Greek World, and the East).  Civic cult practices, especially loyalty to one’s patron deities, were integral to the expressing these political prerogatives: patron deities were invoked by magistrates and assemblies, those deities and their cults featured prominently in local self-representation, and in the realm of diplomacy, alliances were established by sacrifice to one’s own patron deities.  In my paper I offer an analysis of a decree of Elaea (Syll3 694), issued to celebrate the occasion of a treaty and alliance with Rome, to show how the religious rituals employed by the Elaeans in its ratification served to bind their city to Rome.  Although this text has been studied by K. Rigsby (“Provincia Asia”) and R. Kallet-Marx (Hegemony), the significance of its religious aspects remained unexplored.  

     While sacrifice to inaugurate interstate agreements was ubiquitous in the Hellenistic world, in alliances made with Rome there was a crucial difference – Hellenistic leaders sacrificed first to Jupiter at his temple on the Capitoline hill, and then to their patron deities in their home city.  This ritual expressed Roman dominance in that allies had to request permission from the Senate to perform it and that the Romans did not offer a reciprocal sacrifice to their allies’ deities.  I argue, however, that upon their return home, allied cities such as Elaea employed their own religious rituals to recast their relationship with Rome as one between equals.

     After Attalus III bequeathed his Pergamene kingdom to the Romans, the city of Elaea, the port of Pergamum, fought on the side of Rome against a local uprising and sought to officially affirm good relations with Rome in the Senate.  The Elaean decree recounts their success in this endeavor, detailing their dedication of the treaty inscribed on bronze at the temple of Jupiter. (Foreign dedications to Jupiter are discussed by A. W. Lintott, “Capitoline,” but their reception in other cities has not been studied.)  Upon receiving this news the Elaean council and assembly decreed parallel acts, ordering the dedication of the agreements on bronze at the temple of their patron deity Demeter, and alongside their statue of Democracy in the town hall. Secondly they ordered sacrifice to their deities Demeter and Kore and to the goddess Roma, along with a holy day to mark the new relationship with Rome.

     I argue that the Elaeans celebrated their alliance with Rome because it was taken to affirm their freedom and autonomy, a position expressed by the Elaeans through their dedication of the alliance at the temple of Demeter, protectress of the city, and alongside Demokratia in the Boule, the locus of political action.  The Elaeans further asserted their independence in the language of the prayers and the order of the sacrifices that they specified, in which the Elaean people and deities take precedence over the Romans. For instance, prayers are offered first for the Elaean people and secondly for the Romans, and sacrifices are offered first to Demeter and Kore, “the presiding goddesses” of the city, and secondly to Roma.  Notably, the Elaeans omitted any mention of Jupiter in their prayers or sacrifice. 

     Like other cities in the Hellenistic world, Elaea sought to preserve its local autonomy under the sway of Rome, as it had under the kings.  The Elaeans harnessed their religious rituals to assert the continuing relevance and legitimacy of their political institutions in the face of Roman hegemony, and to portray their relationship with the Romans as a partnership between equals.  In the absence of any appearance of rupture with their political and religious way of life, Roman dominance was rendered more palatable. There was no urgent reason to defy Rome.  

Session/Panel Title

Roman Imperial Interactions

Session/Paper Number

51.2

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