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Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, Thusias heneka kai sunousias. Private religious associations in Hellenistic Athens

Yulia Ustinova
p. 542-545
Référence(s) :

Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, Thusias heneka kai sunousias. Private religious associations in Hellenistic Athens, Athens, Academy of Athens, 2003. 1 vol. 17 × 24 cm, 231 p. (Academy of Athens. Yearbook of the Research Centre for the History of Greek Law, 37, supplement 4). ISBN : 960-404-034-0.

Texte intégral

1The title of this book comprises two phrases, one in ancient Greek, the other one in modern English. This dichotomy reflects a basic characteristic of the subject: it can be adequately described and perceived only within the framework of the Greek culture, whereas modern definitions and comparisons, indispensable its discussion, are always inaccurate, and often misleading. The author (henceforth A.) is completely aware of this problem. The book starts with a warning that modern word usage and ideas about cult groups in the contemporary world are inappropriate for Classical and Hellenistic Athens. Towards the end of his study, the A. demonstrates that “the modern legal background of associations … is entirely irrelevant to the Athenian experience” (p. 119).

2He is less explicit about the applicability of another present-day notion, the opposition of private to public, to the discussion of Athenian associations. The word ‘private’ appears in the title, although on several occasions the A. emphasizes the mutual permeability of various spheres of activity of the Athenian democracy and Athenian associations (e.g. pp. 21, 156). During the last decade, the study of ‘private’ vs. ‘public’ in the life of ancient Greeks attracts a growing number of researchers, as a number of recent conferences on this theme indicate: for instance, the colloquium “Entre public et privé en Grèce ancienne : lieux, objets, pratiques,” organized by Centre Louis-Gernet in 1995 (Ktèma 23 [1998]) and the conference of CIERGA “Idia kai demosia. Les cadres ‘privés’ et ‘publics’ de la religion grecque antique”, held in the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) in 2003 (Kernos, suppl. 15 [2005]). It becomes increasingly clear that the spheres of ‘private’ and ‘public’ in Greek cult practices and social life were intermingled to such an extent that even the use of the terms seems problematic. In particular, the demarcation line between private and public associations in the Greek polis was blurred. It would therefore be more accurate to tag Greek associations as ‘voluntary,’ rather than ‘private,’ as the A. does.

3The book is based on the A.’s Ph.D. study of forms and legal features of religious association in Athens, carried out at Glasgow University under the supervision of D.M. MacDowell. The main text of the book is followed by two appendixes: a catalogue of epigraphic testimonia (p. 171-186) and a list of known members of Athenian associations (187-206).

4The Introduction (p. 19-30) gives a brief summary of the research on Greek associations during the last two centuries, and a condensed exposition of the A.’s methodology. In the A.’s view, “cult association is nothing more than a Weberian ideal type, useful in pinpointing the divergence of societal organizational models” (p. 27). Real associations were different from place to place and from period to period, which means that they are to be studied within their historical context, and that extreme caution is required in reconstructions based on parallels. Another essential observation concerns the limitations of the existing record: although the bulk of epigraphic material is dated to the 4th cent. BC and later, private cult associations undoubtedly came into existence earlier, and remained unattested, because the ‘epigraphic habit’ spread only in the early Hellenistic era. These and other principles define the A.’s approach to the evidence, both epigraphic and literary, in the following chapters.

5Chapter 1, “Pieces of Evidence” (p. 31-88), is a discussion of the available evidence on the activities of cult associations identified in their documents as orgeones, thiasotai, and eranistai. Special attention is paid to the terminological difference between epigraphic and literary dossiers, as well as to the chronology, hence to the historical context of the information. Although certain positions may be questioned, as for instance the A.’s reluctance to commit himself to an opinion on the origin of the law ascribed to Solon in the Digest (47. 22. 4), the diachronic analysis of the record enables the A. to come to important conclusions on the nature of various groups. He shows that “… orgeones denote invariably portions of the population connected either by social qualification … or … by religious identities and through them with local identities. Indeed, the latter is the only element that associates the late sources with the earlier and gives us a coherent picture of a possible evolution and continuity” (p. 57). As to thiasotai, the A. argues that in the literary tradition the range of possible meanings attributed to the words thiasos and thiasotai “indicate that these words may describe different patterns of communal living, whose common feature was conviviality” (p. 64). The A. puts forward a subtle distinction between thiasos and thiasotai in the epigraphic evidence: “… the word thiasos is used either as a subdivision of the phratry, … or to indicate a religious function of any group of thiasotai in which non-thiasotai could take part. The term thiasotai is used in general to describe not only the members of a phratry’s thiasos, but also to define a private cult association, acquiring in this way a broader sense” (p. 70). This assumption remains not entirely convincing, given the wide spectrum of meanings of the words thiasos and thiasotai. In contrast, the need of discrimination between the words eranos and eranistai is more persuasive. The A. demonstrates that before the first century the term eranos means ‘loan’ and has nothing to do with associations, whereas the terms eranistai and koinon eraniston designate members of an association or an association, possibly, but not necessarily, involved in financial affairs.

6Chapter 2, “The Structure of the Groups” (p. 89-118), deals with the administration of the associations, their membership, assembles, and offices, as well as honours bestowed on eminent members. While stressing certain features of the associations that have already been established by his predecessors, such as the emulation of the polis administration, the A. provides some stimulating insights concerning the organization of private associations. The lack of provisions concerning their dissolution, as opposed to minute stipulations for apparently less crucial events, has puzzled many scholars. The A. gives a very reasonable explanation for this neglect: cult groups had a religious dimension, which meant that “dissolving a group devoted to the cult could mean dishonouring the god or the goddess” (p. 95) and might ensue his or her wreath. The continuation of the group’s activities was considered guaranteed through the introduction of new members, be they children or strangers. A keen analysis of decrees of private cult associations discloses their real and proclaimed values and aspirations.

7Most interesting are the two closing chapters of the book. Chapter 3, “Looking for the Rules…” (p. 119-144), is devoted to the legal basis of associations. The A. demonstrates the irrelevance of the approach based on application of present-day notions, such as juristic personality, to the analysis of the Athenian experience. Instead, he follows Aristotle’s statement that associations were a part of the polis, and envisages their functioning in the framework of the Athenian polis. Here, as in other chapters, the A. grounds his assumptions on thorough analysis of the evidence, and especially of the particularities of word usage in the documents of associations. His observations on the meaning of the words nomos and psephisma in these documents, on the significance of the terms designating associations, and on the peripheral nature of property matters for the assessment of the juristic personality of Athenian associations are very convincing. As a result, the A. defines cult associations as “structured collective entities” (p. 142), and emphasizes their role as “centers of civic activity, in which established beliefs were reassured and socially expected attitudes were rewarded" (p. 143). In the case of non-citizens, the associations both delimited their particularity and "reproduced civic virtues and attitudes”(p. 143), which created an atmosphere of tolerance towards them, and their integration in the long run.

8Finally, Chapter 4, “Cult Associations on the Ground” (p. 145-164), examines the experience of Athenian associations after the fourth century, when the polis lost its independence, and was governed by notables rather than by the people’s assembly. The A. demonstrates that associative life involved several features of the model of “euergetism,” which reflect their integration into the social context of their time. However, other characteristics, as for instance “the forging power of the group’s identity and cohesion” (p. 153), which cannot be incorporated into this model, find their explanation in the integrative function of the associations. Associations differed in another important respect: their membership ranged from exclusively citizen to foreign. Nevertheless, according to the A., it would be misleading to label even the latter as marginal, since they followed the mainstream system of values. The A. prudently avoids attributing uniform attitudes and modes of existence to all the Athenian associations, which were in his view “multi-functional units of people,” pursuing different aims and acting in various ways inside the wider society.

9The research on associations in the Greek world seems to surge every half a century: E. Ziebarth (Das griechische Vereinswesen, Leipzig, 1896) and F. Poland (Geschichte des griechischen Vereinswesens, Leipzig, 1909) on the turn of the 20th century, were followed by W.S. Ferguson (“The Attic Orgeones”, HThR 37 [1944], p. 61-140 and other works) in the middle of the century, and by N.F. Jones (The Associations of Classical Athens, New York, 1999) and I. A. Arnaoutoglou five decades later. The book by Ilias N. Arnaotoglou is a valuable contribution to this research. The A. combines precise analysis of testimonia with measured application of sociological theory, as well as profound understanding of the changing historical context and its effect on the associations. The resulting diachronic study succeeds in establishing the place of cult associations in the social framework of the Athenian polis.

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Yulia Ustinova, « Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, Thusias heneka kai sunousias. Private religious associations in Hellenistic Athens », Kernos, 18 | 2005, 542-545.

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Yulia Ustinova, « Ilias N. Arnaoutoglou, Thusias heneka kai sunousias. Private religious associations in Hellenistic Athens », Kernos [En ligne], 18 | 2005, mis en ligne le 24 mai 2011, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL :

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