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Elites and Religious Change in Roman Athens

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Epigraphy tells about a deeply conservative Athens in Roman times. However, the civic religious life was not identical to that of earlier periods. This article is based on two main ideas. First, continuity is never mere survival; when surrounded by a new context, it may be interpreted as change. The interaction between the Roman empire and the Athenian elites provided such a new context: both Rome and local elites were interested in fostering continuity of religious forms. Secondly, notwithstanding this, epigraphy does indeed document some changes within the civic religion of Roman Athens. One of the most evident is the increasing oligarchization of religious power. It is my contention that this development had a deep impact on religiosity too.

From Hellenistic times onwards, the ties between the demos and civic religion were progressively fading away. By Roman times, the democratic fiction did not need to be maintained anymore, as the changes in the management of civic religion show. The increasing religious power of the elite is one of the factors which contributed to create a new framework of meaning. Among other things, the success of certain gods, such as Asklepios, Isis, or Zeus Hypsistos, may also be explained within this new context. Reversely, the growing power of these gods may also account for the option taken by those members of the elite who chose the cult of Asklepios or Isis as a stage on which to display their generosity and improve their social prestige. It seems only fair to conclude that changes in civic religion should also be explained by the changing attitudes of the elites.


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