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Les Prêtres des empereurs, by Gabrielle Frija

Le culte impérial civique dans la province romaine d’Asie

Reviewed by Takashi Fujii

Epiktetos of Hierapolis, a Stoic philosopher in the Roman period, is said to have voiced cynical criticism of a man from Nikopolis who longed to have eternal fame by serving as a priest for the imperial cult (Arr. Epict. diss. 1. 19. 26-29): his name may outlive his life, but who will remember it outside of Nikopolis? This episode neatly illustrates the high status of the imperial priesthood as a civic career, and the social dignity that accompanied it, but at the same time, the inward-looking nature of civic priests for the emperor, which mirrors one remarkable aspect of the Roman East, the mosaic of microcosms consisting of smaller and larger cities, each with its own cultural tradition and social expectation.

Gabrielle Frija tackles these microcosms of civic priests for the emperor in the Roman province of Asia. The book under review is based on Frija’s doctoral dissertation submitted to l’École Pratique des Hautes Études in 2009, under the supervision of Jean-Louis Ferrary. Frija’s aim, expounded in the Introduction générale, is to understand through the prosopographical analysis of civic priests for the emperor how the imperial cult was embedded in the political and religious institutions of Greek cities and what the cult of the emperor meant to the higher-ranking civic élites. After summarising the history of scholarship on the imperial cult, in which scholars have shifted focus from belief to ritual and practice, Frija provides a justification of her choice of theme, namely, that the priesthood of the emperor represented one of the precise and concrete aspects of the imperial cult that undisputedly pertains to the divinity of the emperor, unlike rituals and monuments (e.g. statues), which do not always attest the worship of the emperor as divine. According to Frija, a study of civic priests for the emperor potentially illuminates two dimensions of civic élites: first, a local dimension in which civic priests for the emperor competed with their peer élites in the institutional and religious milieu of the Greek city; and second, an Empire-wide dimension in which the civic priesthood for the emperor may have contributed to the integration of the élites of the Empire, representing an ‘active’ form of Romanisation.

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