Politics and Religion: Politics and Ancient Mediterranean Religions

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A discussion of religion and politics in the ancient Mediterranean faces two large obstacles: the geographical and cultural diversity of the traditions encompassed by this rubric and the very difficulty of defining the terms religion and politics in each culture. None of the societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome possessed a word for religion in the modern sense of a system of faith in and worship of a transcendent power. Certainly all of these societies feared the power wielded by higher beings, but religio in Rome, for instance, does not have the same meaning as the modern word religion; it conveys rather the sense of a binding obligation between two parties. To define religion in these societies, one might apply the definition offered by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood ("What Is Polis Religion?," 2000, but cf. the critique by Woolf, "Polis -Religion and Its Alternatives," 2004) of Greek polis -religion: religion provided a means of structuring chaos and making it intelligible by articulating a cosmic order that was guaranteed by a divine order, which then grounded human order. That order in turn was incarnated in a properly ordered state, so the state served as the institutional authority responsible for articulating a pantheon of divinities and a system of rituals and sanctuaries that would organize the universe and the divine world in a religious system. The system so constructed concerned itself with the proper performance of ritual actions to maintain the cosmic order rather than with issues of belief or ethicsorthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. In this type of system, religion and the state were fundamentally intertwined.

The interrelationship of religion and politics in these societies led naturally to a high degree of integration between religious authority and political authority. Indeed, even to use the categories of religious authority and political authority with regard to the ancient world is anachronistic, for authority was not divided along these lines. Often the persons whom most people would categorize as priests acted more as administrators, responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary and its possessions and for the performance of rites. This is well illustrated by the Greek term conventionally translated as priest, hiereus, which literally means "the one in charge of the sacred things" (cf. the Latin sacerdos, "giver of the sacred"). None of these traditions possessed sacred texts or revelations that might dictate human behavior, so priests never formed a branch with specialized training completely separate from the institutions of the state. It fell to the state to develop mechanisms designed to appease the power of the transcendent beings, and the role of the priests was not to explicate the system, but to perform the proper rituals. Though it will become clear below that priests functioned differently in each of these societies, the selection of priests in each society and the manner in which they fulfilled their duties mirrored the political structure and developments within that structure to a remarkable degree.

Part of the explanation for the close links between religion and politics in the ancient Mediterranean lies in the fact that, unlike in most modern traditions, the very purpose of these systems was to safeguard and improve the welfare of the state. The very notion of separating religion and state would have astonished these societies; religion and politics could not be considered separate spheres of human activity because both were directed toward the prosperity of the community. Each city had its own tutelary divinity, and with the rise of centralized states, the tutelary deities of the leading city often became state deities. The success of the state was felt to depend on the favor of these deities, and its failure was interpreted as a sign that the deities had abandoned the state. Thus one of the primary functions of the state authorities was to maintain the favor of the divine through the proper performance of rituals, as noted above. Given the connection between religion and state, political relationships and diplomacy between states might be expressed through religious actions. Such actions are not evidence of the manipulation of religion for political purposes; they bespeak rather the deep interpenetration of religion within the life of these ancient Mediterranean societies. Functions that many modern traditions consider to be the province of religion, such as the enforcement of ethical standards, were the responsibility of the community, while the well-being of the community and its members, which most people tend to imagine as the purpose of politics, was the primary purpose of religion. In these circumstances, religion was inherently a part of political life: every communal action had a religious aspect and every religious action had a communal aspect.

Late-twentieth-century scholarship, perhaps driven by an increasing focus on individualism in the modern world, paid significant attention to the role of the individual citizen within these traditions. On the one hand, this research emphasized that the presence of ritual formalism did not mean that ancient Mediterranean religion was devoid of spirituality and that its coldness left individuals unsatisfied. By participating in civic rituals individuals affirmed their membership in the community, while the lack of an official dogma left individuals free to conceive of the gods and the world as they saw fit. Scholars have also noted the many religious actions performed by individuals, in addition to their participation as spectators in large state rituals. These actions, however "private" they may seem to moderns, still fall within the realm of public religion as defined in the ancient world. "Private" religious actions did not focus on eschatological salvation but involved different subsets of the larger community, and in this way continued to be public; indeed this behavior highlights the inadequacy of the terms "public" and "private" when used with regard to the ancient world. Polis -religion made room for individual behaviorand welcomed itbecause such behavior was mediated through the state, which had approved the deities or cults to whom these "private" offerings were made or had incorporated cults that involved personal behavior into its religious structure. "Private" religion may have provided opportunities for the individual to perform rituals rather than to be an observer at a state festival, but it cannot be seen as an activity completely separable from political life. Despite the individual differences between the societies of the ancient Mediterranean, there is no clear demarcation between the spheres of religion and politicsor between religious and political authorityin any of them, down to the end of the Western Roman Empire and beyond.


Because of their similarities and their influence upon one another, the religions of the ancient Tigris and Euphrates River valley will be treated together here, though of course Assyrian and Babylonian religions differed in some respects. For the ancient Mesopotamian, the divinities were responsible for creating order out of the chaos that existed before creation. The king, considered the earthly representative of the gods, was entrusted with maintaining order on earth, and in this way the religious beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia buttressed the political system that developed in the region. The interlocking nature of the political and religious authorities can be seen most clearly in the Assyrian Akitu ceremony, where the king's right to rule for the next year was granted to him by the divine beings, while the princes and the nobility renewed their oaths of loyalty. That religion was important to Assyrian kings throughout the year and not just at this ceremony can be seen from letters of the Sargonid period, many of which discuss the numerous religious obligations of the king. While temples in the Near East tended to have their own hierarchies of personnel and to own significant amounts of property, the kings still wielded significant authority over the priests. The head of the temple was responsible to the king as the representative of the gods, and many of these temple estates also derived income from royal benefits as well as from their own property holdings. To the extent that the temples became dependent on royal grants rather than on their own holdings, they came under more direct control of the kings, further eradicating the distinction between religious and political authority.

The "rise and fall" of individual Mesopotamian divinities also provides a very clear example of the interdependence of politics and religion at the level of city or state relations. The history of Babylonia demonstrates how the rise of individual cities to prominence brought their tutelary deities to the level of national gods; Marduk, the primary god of Babylon, became the national deity of the Babylonian empire and with the decline of Babylonian power saw a concomitant loss of worshipers. The process could also work in the opposite direction; the neo-Assyrian empire from the ninth to the seventh centuries bce destroyed temples and carried cult statues into captivity to emphasize the weakness of those gods and goddesses and of the peoples whom they were supposed to protect. In keeping with this ideology, shrines to Ashur, the eponymous god of the traditional first capital of the Assyrian empire, might be placed in some cities, but the Assyrians also rebuilt temples or restored images as a means of conducting imperial policy. Religion thus provided one means of taking political action and marking political developments in both Assyria and Babylonia.


The relationship between religion and politics in Egypt has many striking affinities with the situation in Mesopotamia, despite some major theological differences. Because the Nile River, the lifeblood of ancient Egypt, operated on a much more regular cycle of flood and retreat than the Tigris and Euphrates, Egyptian divinities were considered guarantors of a stable cosmic order rather than forces that might unleash chaos at any moment. The outstanding feature of Egyptian society during its long history as an independent polity, from roughly 3000 bce until the capture of Alexandria by the Romans in 30 bce, was that the king was considered to be of divine essence, a god incarnate. Egyptians identified the king as Horus, king of the gods, and each successive king took a Horus-name upon his succession. In the Egyptian conception, the primary responsibility of the gods, and thus of the king as Horus, was to maintain the cosmic and timeless order of the Egyptian world, and in this way Egyptian religious belief supported the institution of kingship.

In practice the existence of numerous local cults throughout Egypt complicated the situation. Each cult possessed its own temple and cult structures, as in Mesopotamia, and was served by its own local priesthood, and each priesthood aimed at advancing the claims of its divinity toward primacy. Egyptian ruling dynasties when they came to power tended to raise their local cult to the status of supreme royal god, and the shifting importance of Ptah, Re, and Amun in Egyptian history owes much to the changes in Egyptian dynasties. But as in Mesopotamia, the relationship between kings and priests was not a one-way street; as Egyptian dynasties sought to raise individual cults to supremacy by granting their priesthoods special favors, they ceded power to those priesthoods as well. The supremacy of the kings may have been felt most strongly in the Old Kingdom, from roughly 2700 to 2200 bce, the period in which the great Pyramids of Giza were constructed. By the end of this period, however, the kings had adopted the title "Son of Re," perhaps implying that they no longer held a status equal to the sun-god. That fact, and the disappearance of the king's relatives from the higher ranks of priests, may indicate that the kings had lost much of their power to the priesthoods, a trend that repeated itself throughout Egyptian history.

The Theban princes of the Middle Kingdom (c. 20001800 bce) raised Amun to a position of primacy, whereas the rulers of the New Kingdom (c. 15501100 bce) joined Amun with Re and made the new deity the supreme god of Egypt. During the latter period especially, the priesthood of Amun-Ra amassed great wealth due to royal generosity, and thus wielded significant political power, to the point of having influence on the selection of a new king. The celebrated reforms of Akhenaton (c. 13501336 bce), who attempted to install the sun-disk Aton as the sole god of Egypt and erected a new palace and temple complex for this purpose, may have been intended in part to break the power of the priesthood of Amun-Ra. The attempt ultimately failed, and when the centralized power of the New Kingdom gave way at the end of the Twentieth dynasty, the priests of Amun-Ra found themselves the effective rulers of southern Egypt. As in Mesopotamia, political and religious authority were interlocked and developed to the point where distinctions between the two are difficult to make.


The situation in ancient Greece presents some marked differences to that in the Near Eastern kingdoms, though some similarities can be observed. Considering that in Greece one does not find a unified polity ruled by a single king, but a plethora of independent polities usually governed by aristocracies, it should not be surprising to find differences in the relationship between religious and political authorities. In Greece there was no separate class of priests, but rather religious personnel were drawn from the citizen body just as were civic officials, and indeed they were often selected and served in the same manner. For instance at Athens, priests and priestesses were frequently chosen by lot and served a term of a single year; the number of hereditary and lifelong positions was always small and diminished over time. This similarity underscores the fact that in ancient Greece civic and religious authority were really two aspects of the same power; both were charged to protect the well-being of the state.

The fact that religion was so embedded in the life of every Greek city meant that considerations which most people would label religious often played a major role in both internal and external affairs. Public spaces, such as the agora in Athens, were in fact consecrated religious spaces, and cities might display their civic pride through religion. The temples of the Acropolis in Athens, built in the second half of the fifth century bce, are the best-known example of a city's self-promotion through religion, but other cities used religious spaces in similar ways. Less significant states such as Sicyon or Siphnos erected elaborately decorated buildings, filled with dedications, at Panhellenic sites such as Delphi in order to boost their image among the other Greeks. While each city might promote its tutelary divinity, the fragmentation of political authority throughout Greece meant that the temporary predominance of one state, such as Athens, did not lead to the promotion of that state's deity (in this case Athena) at the expense of others, as it did in the Near East.

Despite their political fragmentation, the Greeks recognized that they shared a common bond. Religion, especially in the form of shared practices and sanctuaries, served as one of the primary markers of Greek identity. Of the Panhellenic sanctuaries, the oracle at Delphi was one religious authority in Greece that made itself felt in all of the Greek city-states. Delphi was customarily consulted prior to the foundation of a new colony, a declaration of war, and other momentous decisions; the Spartans' decision to aid in the overthrow of the tyranny at Athens in 510 bce, which ultimately led to the establishment of Athenian democracy, was driven in part by a series of responses they had received from the oracle. But even here the authority of the Delphic oracle was limited, for her ambiguous utterances needed interpretation, and this left sufficient room for politicians to pursue their chosen paths by interpreting the oracle in a manner favorable to their policies. For example, during the Persian Wars, Themistocles famously interpreted an ambiguous, but largely negative, oracle to mean that the Athenians should pursue his policy of staking their all on a naval campaign at Salamis (480 bce). The fact that Greeks from many city-states consulted the oracle at Delphi should therefore not be considered as evidence of religious authority external to the state; rather, the oracle formed a part of the entire system of religion embedded with civic authority.

The high degree of correlation between civic and religious authority in ancient Greece aids in understanding one of the dominant religious trends in Greece during the Hellenistic period (32330 bce): the development of ruler cult. The rise of Macedon brought the inhabitants of Greece under the rule of kings, and the religious system naturally changed to accommodate the altered political landscape. Unlike their Near Eastern counterparts, Hellenistic kings were not worshiped as representatives of the divine on earth, but as divinities themselves. Scholars following the seminal work of Simon Price (Rituals and Power, 1984) have moved beyond asking whether rulers were really considered to be gods or whether this was simply a means of expressing their transcendent political power. Rather, the two kinds of power were inseparablethe locus of political power was the locus of religious power as well, whether that be a corporate body of citizens or an individual. The absence of sharp distinctions between the religious and the political in earlier periods of Greek history meant that ruler cult could be grafted onto the religious systems of the Hellenistic period without serious difficulty.


The study of Roman religion has perhaps been most affected by the recognition that the entanglement of religion with politics signifies the health of the system, not its decay. Indeed it is scarcely possible to imagine a public action at Rome that could be undertaken without religious approval: declarations of war, decisions of when to offer battle, elections, judicial proceedingsall took place literally under the auspices of the divine. In these circumstances, it should be expected that political developments, both external and internal, would be reflected in religion. The Romans themselves were quite aware of this connection; indeed Roman ideology ascribed their imperial success to their piety. Since the Roman religious system was quite open to the incorporation of foreign religious traditions, including even the adoption of cults of defeated enemies, the imperial expansion of Rome can be read in the expansion of her pantheon, as elements first from other cities on the Italian peninsula, then from Sicily, Greece, Africa, and the Levant found homes within the Roman state religion. Roman religious imperialism is scarcely separable from her territorial imperialism.

In similar fashion the organization of political power and religious power at Rome proceeds from the same sources. The same principles guided the selection of both civic and religious authorities: during the Republic (c. 50931 bce), the intent was to keep power in the hands of the aristocracy while at the same time not allowing any one member of the aristocracy to accumulate too much power. So while the records of membership in the religious colleges at Rome are filled with the same prominent names of Rome's political history, tradition dictated that no person should serve in more than one college. Furthermore, these colleges in essence were advisory only: the civic magistrates themselves carried out the necessary religious rituals, with the aid of a priestly advisor, while the Senate needed to approve decisions pertaining to the state religious system. As in other Mediterranean societies, religious authority had no separate existence in Rome.

Just as Roman expansion can be seen in the expansion of the Roman pantheon, internal political change can be read in religious developments. For instance, as the non-aristocratic residents of Rome began to muscle their way into the political arena, the method of selection for the priestly colleges changed from co-option to election by secret ballot. On the other side, as individual Romans began to accrue greater power and amass a series of unprecedented offices, their religious behavior reflected their changed status. Individuals such as Lucius Cornelius Sulla (13878 bce) or Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, 10648 bce) increasingly used religious actions or religious offices to further their careers or attempted to claim divine sanction for their activities. Though precedents existed in Rome for this type of behavior, it occurred more frequently and on a larger scale in the Late Republic and thus presented a challenge to the traditional Roman form of religion, just as these newly powerful individuals challenged the Roman political structure. Julius Caesar (10044 bce), whose actions ultimately resulted in the end of the republican system of government, first drew attention to himself by unexpectedly winning (in 63 bce) the election for pontifex maximus, the most important priestly office in Rome, even though it had limited authority even over religious affairs. Caesar also promoted himself by claiming a connection to the goddess Venus as his special divine patron. Rather than a sign of decay, as scholars looking to explain the emergence of Christianity long argued, these developments are a natural outgrowth of a society with a high degree of integration between politics and religion. As the political structure underwent revolutionary changes, religious changes paralleled the political.

The actions of Augustus (63 bce14 ce), as he effected the transformation in Rome from a Republic to an imperial system, clearly reflect these changes. During the struggle for power, Augustus made effective use not only of claims to a special connection with Venus, but also, following the deification of Caesar in 42 bce, of his status as the son of a god. In this regard he followed the pattern already laid down by Caesar and others, but he also inaugurated a pattern of ruler cult that closely approximated the Hellenistic model, even if most Roman emperors were careful not to be openly worshiped in Rome itself. The priesthoods provide perhaps the best view of the revolution in Roman society: Augustus was the first to serve on all the religious colleges at once, and after scrupulously waiting for the death of the previous pontifex maximus he assumed that position as well. As he consolidated political authority under his control, it was natural for him also to consolidate religious authority. Subsequent emperors followed his lead, so that henceforth when the titular head of Roman religion spoke, the head of the Roman Empire spoke at the same time. Ultimately, this combination of religious and political authority in the figure of the pontifex maximus outlived the Roman Empire in the West, as it came to be embodied in the Pope, who continues to reside in Rome.


Beard, Mary, and John North, eds. Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. An outstanding comparative collection, including essays on both Mycenean and Classical Greece, Republican and Imperial Rome, Ptolemaic Egypt, and sixth-century Babylonia.

Beard, Mary, John North, and Simon Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1998.

Dandamaev, M. A. "State Gods and Private Religion in the Near East in the First Millennium bce." In Religion and Politics in the Ancient Near East, edited by Adele Berlin, pp. 3545. Bethesda, Md., 1996.

David, Rosalie A. The Ancient Egyptians: Beliefs and Practices. 2d ed., rev. and exp. Portland, Ore., 1998.

Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago, 1948.

Garland, Robert. Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Holloway, Steven W. Assur Is King! Assur Is King!: Religion in the Exercise of Power in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Leiden and Boston, 2001.

MacBain, Bruce. Prodigy and Expiation: A Study in Religion and Politics in Republican Rome. Brussels, 1982.

North, John A. "Conservatism and Change in Roman Religion." Papers of the British School at Rome 44 (1976): 112. One of the critical articles that revolutionized the approach to religion and its connection to politics in Rome.

Price, Simon. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Shafer, Byron E., ed. Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths and Personal Practice. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. "What Is Polis Religion?" In Oxford Readings in Greek Religion, edited by Richard Buxton, pp. 1337. Oxford, and New York, 2000. The Oxford Readings collection includes several other essays of interest, including another discussion of polis religion by Sourvinou-Inwood, as well as one by Robert Parker on Greek states and oracles.

Woolf, Greg. "Polis -Religion and Its Alternatives in the Roman Provinces." In Roman Religion, edited by Clifford Ando, pp. 3954. Edinburgh, 2004.

Eric M. Orlin (2005)

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Politics and Religion: Politics and Ancient Mediterranean Religions