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Neokoroi: Greek Cities and Roman Emperors

Neokoroi: Greek Cities and Roman Emperors

By Barbara Burrell. Pp. xviii + 422, figs. 157, charts 2, plans 22. Br ill, Leiden 2004. $173. ISBN 90-04-12578-7 (cloth).

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This is a large-scale study of an important phenomenon of civic and religious life that developed in the urbanized provinces of the eastern Roman empire, particularly in Asia, between the first and third centuries C.E. Burrell presents the epigraphic and, above all, numismatic evidence that 37 cities across the region acquired the title neokoros, thus advertising themselves as the wardens of specific major temples under their control. The claim to be neokoros was a source of prestige and occasionally became the focus of intense intercity rivalry. It appears alongside other titles, such as metropolis, and other claims made by cities, on their coinage and inscriptions, to be the first, greatest, oldest, or in other ways most distinguished communities of their provinces.

The origins of the title remain enigmatic. The primary meaning of the term neokoros from classical times (but also during the period covered by this study) was that of a warden of a temple, applied to a person. However, during the first century C.E., the word for the first time became applied to civic communities, usually placed in apposition to the place-name of the polis. In one of the earliest attestations, the civic secretary of Ephesus at the time of St. Paul’s visit exclaimed to the people, assembled in the theater, “who does not know that Ephesos is neokoros of the great goddess Artemis and of the heaven-fallen image?” (Acts 19:35). There is no direct evidence to show when or in what circumstances the terminology began to be applied in this way to whole communities. Burrell has no definitive answer to this question but implies that it should be looked for in the organization of the provincial koina, especially that of Asia.

The earliest and longest chapters deal with the appearance of neokoros among the titles of Pergamum, Smyrna, and Ephesus. These cities all acquired prominent and, over time, multiple temples of the provincial imperial cult. It would make sense for the Asian koinon as a whole to designate individual cities as being responsible for the upkeep of these provincial temples, just as a city might approve the appointment of an individual to be warden of one of its local sanctuaries. The institution of civic neokoria may thus be seen as closely linked to the imperial cult, and this assumption underlies Burrell’s entire treatment, especially of the evidence from Asia.

There is some room for caution, however. The quoted passage from Acts does not allude to Ephesus as neokoros of an imperial temple but of the famous civic cult of Ephesian Artemis. The earliest allusion to an imperial neokorate at Ephesus dates either to the Late Neronian or, more probably, to the mid Domitianic period (I. Ephesos 2034 with Burrell 62–5, who points out that the coins that were supposed to show that Ephesus was “twice neokoros” under Domitian have been falsified). Some of the most revealing information comes from the titles of Pergamon, which evolved from calling itself neokoros at the end of the first century to “first neokoros” in the first decade of the second century to “first and twice neokoros” after 114 C.E. (C. Habicht, Altertümer von Pergamon. Vol. 8 [Berlin 1969] 158–61). This evidence documents the rivalry concerning this title between Pergamum and Ephesus in particular but also highlights a major methodological issue. Pergamum’s status as neokoros was evidently not advertised at all until competition with rival cities became an issue. As a general rule, we must be wary of assuming that the earliest appearance of the term in the available documentation dates to its first introduction. Burrell deploys all due caution, but as a result, the chronological evolution of the title’s history is hard to establish.

Burrell’s treatment of the evidence is exhaustive, sometimes to the point of repetition. Part 2, which approaches the whole topic thematically under the chapter headings of “Temples,” “Cities,” “The Koina,” and “The Roman Powers,” inevitably repeats material and arguments that have been addressed in part 1, which deals with the evidence city by city. The approach is in a sense top-down and external to the phenomenon. What most interests Burrell is the history of the title, what it can tell us about relations between cities and emperors and among the cities themselves, and how it served civic self-advertisement. She does not probe the local realities that may have been involved. What financial and other responsibilities did a city take on by assuming a neokorate? In some way, but on a much larger scale, their duties must have been analogous to those of individuals who became temple neokoroi. Burrell’s approach needs to be complemented by an analysis of the internal running of temples, and there is much to be learned by comparing her study with Dignas’ Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor (Oxford 2004), which appeared too late for Burrell to take its findings into consideration.

Another major issue is whether civic neo-koriai can be treated as a unified phenomenon. There can be no doubt that when the leading cities within the koinon of Asia competed with one another in their choice and use of the title, they saw themselves as direct rivals for similar status, and this seems to have taken place within the institutional context of provincial emperor worship. However, it is hard to see any close link between the neokorate at this level and the fact that some inconspicuous cities obtained the title, without any direct reference to emperor worship. Antandros in Aeolis under Caracalla and, more disputably, Akalissos in northeast Lycia under Commodus both claimed to be neokoros. There is no evidence in either instance to link these claims to the provincial imperial cult. In Pamphylia during the later third century, there was a dramatic escalation in the acquisition of neokorates, so that two restored inscriptions from the last quarter of the third century appear to name Side six times neokoros (J. Nollé, Altertümer von Side 1, no. 26; 2, no. 112), and its neighbor Perge was at least four times neokoros under Aurelian (I. Perge 2, no. 331, col. 2, 14). It is hard to make sense of these inflated figures except by assuming that the cities were simply boasting of the number of civic temples that they financed. In these cases, we should also not take for granted, as Burrell does, that the title could only be used after gaining the emperor’s consent.

This book, which brings order to an enormous body of evidence, is a welcome and important addition to the literature on the civic life of the eastern Roman empire. The title neokoros can now be considered along other markers of civic prestige that demand the historian’s attention: the status of cities as assize centers in Roman provinces, their roles within provincial koina, their aspirations to be called metropolis, their claims to antiquity, or other forms of preeminence. The neokorate in Asia intersects with all these categories without being coextensive with them. However, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, abundant as it is, and the absence of any clear indication from literary sources about the institution mean that many aspects of these civic neokorates remain obscure and controversial. It is one of the main strengths of this book that Burrell nowhere hides from these difficulties.

Stephen Mitchell
Department of Classics and Ancient History
University of Exeter
Exeter, Devon EX4 4RJ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Neokoroi: Greek Cities and Roman Emperors, by Barbara Burrell

Reviewed by Stephen Mitchell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 4 (October 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1124.Mitchell

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