Ephesian gerousia, old customs, and imperial cult under Commodus

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One of the principal institutions of Ephesus reinstates old cultic practices and connects them to the imperial cult and the perpetual preservation of the Roman emperor.
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Local decree
Original Location/Place: 
Local decree
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Most of the surviving fragments are preserved in the British Museum, London (IBM III.2 483)
180 CE to 192 CE
Physical Characteristics: 

16 fragments from 4 blocks fixed to a wall. Interpunctuation is frequent but not consistent. 

Surviving blocks are approximately 88 centimetres high and wide. The wall was 23 thick. Letters are 2 centimetres tall.
Roman, Greek

Die Inschriften von Ephesos I no. 26.


The original blocks of the inscription have been found broken in many fragments, some of which are not complete and complicate the reading of this important document. Although meaningful restorations have been proposed by modern editors, this commentary focuses on certain secure elements illustrating the cohabitation of Greek tradition and Roman Empire in the cultic life of Ephesus at the end of the 2nd century CE.

The first certain element is that this document originated in the γερουσία/gerousia. Literally translated as “council of elders”, this institution had been present in many Greek cities before the Roman rule (see Zimmermann, Les origines). In the case of Ephesus, it was inaugurated by the Hellenistic monarch Lysimachus according to Strabo (Geography XIV.1.21). A reference to this foundational (οἰκισμός/oikismos) episode of the city (πόλις/polis) is also made at the beginning of our inscription confirming the prevalence of the tradition in the high imperial period. Strabo (Geography XIV.1.20) also described the traditional celebration of mysteries in Ortygia and Solmissus to commemorate the place where Artemis was allegedly born (see Picard, Éphèse et Claros, p. 287-302). Our text in lines 3 to 5 equally attributed these μυστήρια/mysteria and sacrifices (θυσίαι/thysiai) to the Hellenistic foundation when the members of the council (συνέδριον/synedrion) had enough common funds (κοινὰ χρήματα/koina chrêmata) to perform these rites for the goddess. Prior to the moment in which the inscription was set up, these celebrations had been affected by the lack of resources lamented in line 6. The epigraphic evidence from the Roman imperial period shows that the gerousia had more modest tasks than in the Hellenistic age, even though it still received money from theSalutaris’s Foundation, could lend and collect debts (see Rogers, Sacred Identity, p. 62-64), and was in charge of significant elements of the imperial cult such as the images reported by Ulpius Eurycles when he acted as curator of the city.

These financial necessities had eventually been removed thanks to an individual called Nikomedes in line 7. The donation of this high-ranking member of the council enabled the return to the aforementioned “old custom” (τὸ παλαιὸν ἔθος/to palaion ethos). However, at the end of the 2nd century CE the crucial difference was that the gerousia did not only reverence (εὐσεβεῖν/eusebein) and sacrifice for Artemis, the “guiding” goddess of Ephesus, but also for Commodus and the eternal preservation (αἰώνιος διαμονή/aiônios diamonê) of this Roman emperor. The combination of such Ephesian elements and the imperial cult in the sacred celebrations of the city was not novel as attested in the Salutaris’s Foundation which furnished both representations of the Ionian heritage and images of Trajan, Plotina and the Senate, among others. Likewise, Roman officials had consistently been involved in the festivals of Artemis as attested, for example, through the edicts of Paullus Fabius Persicus and Popillius Carus Pedo. Indeed, the prevalence of the imperial cult in Ephesus can be observed even before a permanent temple was dedicated to Domitian, and the self-proclaimed emperor-loving population (φιλοσέβαστος/philosebastos) devotedly reacted to Hadrian’s visits. On the other hand, the particular connection between Roman emperors and the promotion of the oligarchic structures of the gerousia is clear in places such as Sidyma (TAM II.176), and, especially, Athens, where Marcus Aurelius favoured the establishment of an entity that enquired about the preparation of golden portraits for the imperial family. When such elements are combined, the proposal of Nikomedes’s foundation and its acceptance by the Roman authorities should be better understood.

The following lines of the fragmentary inscription are concerned with the sum of money that was devoted to a banquet (δεῖπνον/deipnon). Further instructions are also contained in the decree (ψηφίσμα/psêphisma) of the gerousia attached between lines 12 and 20, which sought to safeguard the legislation (νομοθεσία/nomothesia) of what is described as an act of piety (εὐσεβεία/eusebeia). For example, the ritual feast was preceded by a torch race that is also typical in the Eleusinian mysteries as reported in Aristophanes’s Frogs, or the performances that the false prophet Alexander instituted in northern Anatolia and the satirist Lucian (XXXIX) denounced (see Rogers, Mysteries of Artemis, p. 214-216). Money distributions (διανομοναί/dianomai) were also common in Greek cities as a symbol of generosity from munificent benefactors such as Nikomedes (see Mrozek, Les distributions). From all those instructions, nonetheless, the most interesting detail is provided by the fragmentary chronological sequence appended at the end (l. 19-20). Ephesus branded a day of its 12th month as “imperial” (Σεβαστή/Sebastê) and celebrated the birthday (γενέθλιος/genethlios) of, most likely, a Roman emperor. Again, the presence of such elements of the imperial cult in the city was not unprecedented, since we know that Asia changed very soon its calendars to honour Augustus, and the provincial capital had also celebrated Antoninus Pius’s anniversary.  

Hellenistic tradition and Roman Empire therefore blended in the restitution of elements dating back to the foundational stages of Ephesus. On the one hand, torches, banquets and mysteries were held as old customs belonging to a primordial institution. On the other hand, the gerousia added reverences and sacrifices for the new ruling power that controlled its finances, viability, and survival. Artemis and Commodus were equivalently celebrated, so Rome could favourably accept the proposal of a local official who was committed to enhancing his Ephesian identity in the framework of the imperial cult. Such a symbiosis between ancient and novel religion was not so fruitfully embraced by other provincial communities such as the Jews; and the resulting conflicts should be compared with these stories of inscribed success in the emperor-loving (φιλοσέβαστος/philosebastos) capital of Asia. 

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Ephesian gerousia, old customs, and imperial cult under Commodus
Author(s) of this publication: Aitor Blanco Pérez
Publishing date: Mon, 01/29/2018 - 08:30
URL: https://www.judaism-and-rome.org/ephesian-gerousia-old-customs-and-imperial-cult-under-commodus
Visited: Sun, 02/25/2024 - 13:32

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