Lambert, Athenian Decrees Honouring Priests (February 25, 2010)

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, February 25th, 2010. Brief report by Caroline Barron.)

Athenian Decrees Honouring Priests and Priestesses to 20/19BC.
Stephen Lambert, Cardiff University

In this seminar Stephen Lambert presented a series of Inscriptions from the forthcoming IG II³, which are concerned with Athenian decrees honouring Priests and Priestesses from the early Classical period to 20/19BC.

Dr Lambert highlighted that the decrees honouring the Priests and Priestesses were inscribed on stone, thus indicating the worth of the individual, or individuals, being honoured. They are presented as being worthy of praise in the eyes of the citizens, and in the eyes of Athens, and therefore, in the eyes of the gods.

The presentation was divided into three sections, the outlines of which are detailed below:

1. Social Construction of Priests and Priestesses

Dr Lambert asked what similarities the roles of Priest and Priestess shared with other official roles in the state. Both priests and officials performed a religious service in the city, yet the priests and priestesses also had ‘clients’ other than the city. Lambert stressed that it is not always clear from these decrees whether those being honoured are γενος priests, or those who have been democratically elected. He rationalised that this was likely due to Pericles’ Citizen Law, which gave all Athenians equal birth status – it would be somewhat contentious in an honorific decree to emphasise any difference of birth right.

The motivation for the honorific decrees for the priests and priestesses, whatever their social background, appears to be the good performance of sacrifice, and the success of its outcome. Honours are also given – as shown in IG II³ 976 (SEG XVIII 28) – for recurring services such as the ‘all-night revel’, and for specific services, such as supplying sacrificial victims, robes, invitations to the council, and monetary donations.

2. Articulation of Gender

Are priestesses honoured differently from priests? They often execute identical practices as their male counterparts, performing sacrifices, and making donations, all for the wellbeing of Athens. Dr Lambert noted however that there are some differences in the details of these honours, especially regarding the donations. The male relations of the priestesses are frequently referred to – the husbands or sons may have their own report within the honours given to the priestess eg. SEG XXXIII 115, and are honoured themselves for their own contributions or for supporting those made by their wives eg. IG II³ 776.

3. Diachronic Development

Dr Lambert showed that those inscriptions dating to the Classical Period show a greater distinction between the priests and the officials in the city. Priests are praised for their performance of religious function, whereas the Officials are praised for the performance of their duties and councils.

In the Hellenistic period, this distinction becomes more blurred, with both the Priests and Priestesses and the Officials praised for what appears to be a very similar religious function. Lambert stressed that this may be due to an attempt to avoid any contention between the religious and secular groups.

The Hellenistic period can also be categorised as showing greater emphasis on the private contributions made by Priests and Priestesses, perhaps owing to the changed perception of the role – the level of wealth of the period meant that disposal of it was necessary to obtain and hold on to the position.

The only inscription to date to the Augustan period – SEG XXX 93 – highlights a completely different ideological world. Those concerned are shown to be aristocrats, with long ancestral connections. Such a blatant reference to birth right was wholly inappropriate during earlier periods due to its divisive nature. Lambert closed his presentation with the suggestion that not only is this inscription indicative of the change in socio-political behaviour in 1st century BC Athens, but that it also represents the archaising reform of 21 BC in which the original state of Athens was ideologically renewed, with all citizens organised in γένη and all γένη were made up of citizens.

This was another stimulating and thought provoking seminar, in which the epigraphic sources have yet again proven invaluable.

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