XI Notional and Real Communities
SINCE THE HELLENISTIC AGE
THE FIRST TO THIRD CENTURIES AD
, it had become increasingly common for people living in the cities of the Mediterranean to join together in societies; during the first two centuries of the Roman Empire, this trend further intensified and expanded beyond the Hellenistic cultural space. Individuals combined together most readily when they shared professional interests, whether as artisans in a particular trade in their home city, or as merchants of common origin in far-flung places. So the “clubs” of the elite, which had often been organized in the form of priesthoods, were now paralleled by thiasoi
that met occasionally for festive meals, and often guaranteed their members a suitable burial on the basis of subscriptions. The expansion of the artisanal and mercantile trades, which underpinned economic growth, also increased social differentiation, and those who benefitted from higher status, once their gains were secured, might aspire to preserve that new status beyond the grave.1
Those who organized themselves in this way were not members of minorities. In Pompeii, about a quarter of the adult population, mainly but not exclusively male, may have been organized in collegia with memberships of between fifteen and two hundred.2
These were private groups only in appearance. They were able to acquire special legal status, and, from the time of Marcus Aurelius [r. 161 to 180 AD/CE
, best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy] at the latest, were registered. As organizations of members employed in the same trade, they undertook to safeguard their own interests along the same lines as medieval guilds.3
When such interests were at stake, formal distinctions of status between free individuals, freed men and women, and even slaves, might be secondary. To members, it was likely more important to have a presence in a city’s public space, and to be recognized by virtue of their group status. This might be achieved by holding a festive banquet in public, such as was organized in the early 130s in Lavinium near Rome by the collegium
of the worshippers (cultores
) of Diana and the only recently deified Antinous.4
To the same end, groups cultivated associations with the emperor or with important local cults.
As an alternative to renting public space, such as the dining halls attached to temples,5
some groups built and maintained their own buildings, which provided them with constant visibility.6
As, however, they normally met only a few times in the year, at most monthly, such an undertaking was more a bid for prestige than a practical necessity. A frequent precondition was, of course, an enormous degree of engagement on the part of patrons. All in all, collegia were intermediary organizations that strengthened local integration into the third century AD.7
1. Textual Communities
An initial question: what role did reading and writing play in religious groups?12
It is in the second and third centuries AD that we find authors of numerous texts formulating polemics that appear to delineate boundaries between groups, and thus to prepare the ground for group formation. There was evidently competition between groups that found expression in claims of exclusivity. On the one hand, rigid positions adopted in a bid for members do not necessarily indicate a background of sustained conflict with other groups.13
On the other hand, too much competition was regarded as problematic, as Philostratus makes clear in the picture he paints of the biographies of various “sophists.”14
But did these texts belong to such “societies” as we are discussing here?
Some of the texts became foundational, at least in the context of the religious and intellectual history of Europe, and to some extent they continue to color our perceptions of the religious “other” to the present day. This applies not only to the New Testament canon, but also to heresiological works. As a second-order observation, such a work as Irenaeus’s Adversus haereses: Élenchos kaì anatropé tês pseudônúmou gnóseôs
(Examination and rebuttal of gnosis falsely so called), in its Latin translation, was a source of religious-historical classifications into the Early Modern Period ...
... often sheer rivalry and an uncomfortable convergence of opinion that led [heresiographical
authors] to manufacture the profound disagreements described in these texts.17
Some processes of systematic rhetorical exclusion often had social consequences. This was the case with the entourage of the visionary Montanus in Asia Minor in the second century AD, characterized by the label “Montanist” and then treated accordingly in terms of exclusions and polemics.18
The formation of a community based on a common text was, however, no simple process. It rested on long-term reading in common, and the formation of common modes of interpretation shaped by that reading.19
It began with the basic elements, texts themselves in their material form, and their mediation within a communicative process.
In the scriptographic cultures of antiquity, where the only means of duplication was copying by hand, each book was a unique entity. There is no doubt that there was commercial production and distribution of books from the early Imperial Age onward, relying on dictation to a number of slaves writing simultaneously, and that there was a book trade. The percentage of texts disseminated in this way may, however, have been negligible, perhaps confined to a few fashionable authors.20
More vital was dissemination by means of dedications, and subsequently by the dedicatees themselves, and within circles of acquaintanceship,21
potentially making available the entire libraries of participants in such circles.
Any collector, publisher, or mere writer of letters would not be interested purely in personal recipients. He would more likely be aiming at an anonymous public, or at delivery aloud to a particular circle of recipients. In the early second century AD, the so-called second and third Epistles of John point to the problems involved in controlling the recitation space, perhaps by forbidding visitors to read aloud. While the second epistle portrays the good group, which effectively communicates its faith, the third, formally addressed to only a single member, Gaius, describes the bad group:
- I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.28
Finally there were intellectual contests, debates between professionals who lived by public polemic. Antagonists both male and female29
confronted one another in Rome, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria, the Empire’s chief intellectual centers,30
and the subjects of their debates included religious knowledge as a sub-section of philosophical discourse. Rhodon, a pupil of Tatian, illustrates this when, in works subsequently cited by Eusebius, he gives an exhaustive account of a discussion with Apelles.31
Galen compared the arguments of Moses and Plato as if they were known to all present.32
The new texts that recorded these intense debates were perhaps a pot pourri of earlier materials.
Listeners remembered what they had read, and writers what they had heard (fig. 63). Written texts and oral presentations influenced one another. Publilius Syrus’s collection of aphorisms of the first century AD relied on his vivid memory of his success as a mime in the second half of the first century BC. At about this same period, Cornutus’s interpretations of myths and allegories similarly functioned only when viewed against a background of narratives that were common knowledge, remembered and reactualized in a mutually dependent relationship with the images concerned ...
Rüpke, Jörg. Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion
(pp. 327-332). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.