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  • Roman Festivals in the Greek East from the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era by Fritz Graf
  • Raymond Van Dam
Fritz Graf. Roman Festivals in the Greek East from the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era. Greek Culture in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 363. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-107-09211-2.

In the Roman Empire ceremonies originally associated with pagan gods continued to flourish even after the appearance of Christian emperors and the rise of bishops. One notable achievement of Fritz Graf’s excellent book is to highlight the abiding importance of traditional religious festivals for the vitality of civic [End Page 577] life in the Greek East during the first millennium a.d. Another is to analyze the continued celebration of festivals and the observance of a calendar organized around Roman holidays in terms of practices rather than beliefs. Even in a Christian society these festivals and their associated etiologies remained important for articulating the identities of urban communities.

Already in the early empire Greek cities adopted festivals closely associated with the city of Rome. In Palestine, for instance, Jewish rabbis mentioned the Kalends at the beginning of the Roman year, imperial birthdays and accession days, and the Saturnalia at the end of the year. Some Greek cities also celebrated the foundation of Rome and the Capitolian games. Although cities certainly continued to promote their own civic festivals and athletic contests, “these local festivals that defined a single city went together with the festivals that marked the unity of the empire” (78). The adoption of Roman cults had political significance for Greek cities, since “the establishment of the festival [of the Kalends] in an autonomous city was a bottom-up affair in which the periphery responded to the center” (101).

In 389 a law of Theodosius I defined the calendar for available court days in terms of both Christian holidays, such as Easter and Sundays in general, and traditional festivals, such as the Kalends and imperial anniversaries. The emperor may have been reaching out for the support of prominent senators at Rome, and at Antioch the orator Libanius praised his endorsement for the popular festival of the Kalends. Christian preachers, however, were upset. John Chrysostom recommended civil disobedience against participation in the lewd dances and songs; Asterius of Amaseia censured his congregation for choosing the merriment of the festival over attendance at church; Augustine of Hippo argued that fasting was preferable to feasting. But even after the canons of ecclesiastical councils condemned traditional festivals, Graf argues, emperors were inclined to push back. Emperors and bishops were playing to the same audiences: “underneath was also a question of power and influence, to be gained through the gratitude of the urban crowds” (162).

Festivals imported from Rome therefore long survived in Greek cities, even if in modified formats. By the tenth century the Lupercalia at Constantinople ended with the charioteers racing . . . on foot! The household festival of the Roman Bruma developed into a winter festival that replaced the Saturnalia and its association with pagan deities. January remained the month of the Kalends during most of the Byzantine period. In fact, some aspects of the celebration of the Christian liturgy came to resemble the old pagan ceremonies. Christian festivals were extended, and they featured extensive processions.

Surveys of long periods are always vulnerable to critiques of both the big themes and the small details. The ancient documentation for religious festivals is of course fragmentary, including inscriptions, sermons, law codes, conciliar canons, and hagiography. Sometimes the texts do require the sort of nuanced analysis that resembles conventional antiquarianism. But Graf’s arguments also tend to jumble the chronological particularity of this evidence and frequently link the stray data points into extended continuities, survivals, and even “Mediterranean constants” (294) that in turn challenge the possibility of understanding “people firmly embedded in their time and society” (8).

The final chapters discuss the transition from pagan ideas about dreaming and magic to Christian attitudes. Despite the opposition of Christian clerics, ordinary believers still benefitted from dreams of healing, and the use of amulets and spells remained omnipresent. Graf suggests that this continued reliance on [End...


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