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Sebastoi in the Countryside: Praying for Imperial Success in Rural Bithynia

Deborah Sokolowski

Columbia University

 In the Roman province of Bithynia et Pontus, village settlements dominated the landscape, with cities located only intermittently between them, such that we might speak of cities as “islands” among the countryside. Yet scholarship to-date on Bithynian culture almost exclusively focuses on its major cities and the ascent of Bithynian elites to key political offices in the Roman government (e.g. Bekker-Nielson 2008; Madsen 2009). By concentrating solely on the career paths of urban elites, these studies fail to consider the broader cultural context in which Roman influence in the region occurred. 

This paper examines two inscriptions from hilltop sanctuaries in the countryside of Bithynia, both dedications to Zeus on behalf of the Roman emperors. The first, offered to Zeus Bennios to celebrate Geta’s ascension to co-emperor, was included as part of a wider village festival for a productive harvest season at a local temple (INikaia 1503). The second, offered to Zeus Kersoullos for victory at the outset of Trajan’s Parthian War, was a private dedication by two citizens of Prusa, who lived on a nearby estate and sought to advertise their connections with both Prusa and Rome (Battistoni and Rothenhöfer 2013, nr. 31). This sanctuary had supraregional importance and attracted visitors from across Asia Minor, but appears to have had no villages in the vicinity. Although both dedications were offered by Bithynian men on behalf of the Sebastoi at rural sanctuaries of Zeus, they invoked the name of Rome for quite different purposes.

This paper provides a critical analysis of these two inscriptions in order to elucidate power dynamics between urban elites, estate owners, and village communities in imperial Bithynia. It discusses how those living in village settlements represented themselves and their communities, as well as their relationships with the Roman emperors who ruled over them. At rural sanctuaries, urban elites could wage competition for honors, suggesting that they, too, were considered arenas of influence. However, village inhabitants were not mere pawns in the larger political power game, but in fact could wield power over religious donations and share in the bounty of Bithynia’s fertile lands. Their active participation in imperial culture reflects not only local agency, but a culture under Roman rule in which imperial and agrarian prosperity were sometimes aligned. 

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Epigraphy and History

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