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  • Festivals in the Greek East: From the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era by Fritz Graf
  • Jacob A. Latham
Fritz Graf Festivals in the Greek East: From the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015 Pp. xvi + 363. $120.00.

Festivals in the Greek East ranges widely geographically (from Palestine and Anatolia to Italy and Gaul), temporally (from Augustus to Constantine Porphyrogennetos), and even topically, with incubation and magic finding a place in a work dedicated to public rituals. The book proceeds more or less chronologically and remains close to the evidence, eschewing theorization, for the most part, in favor of thick description. The depth of coverage, as might be expected, varies considerably, which, in combination with its scope, renders the book as a whole a bit unwieldy. Nonetheless, founded on a rich appreciation of both the festivals themselves and their historiography over the longue durée and grounded in epigraphic and documentary sources, this work demonstrates the malleability and adaptability of public festivals, whose reinvention allowed them to survive greatly changing circumstances.

In two long chapters, Part One looks at festivals in the eastern Mediterranean before Constantine. Chapter One offers a kind of greatest hits of Greek civic festivals during the high empire, drawing on some of the best known epigraphic examples, such as the Salutaris foundation from Ephesus. Despite the relative inattention of both ancient Greek authors and modern scholars of Greek religion, public festivals flourished; they were lavish and long-lasting productions. Chapter Two turns to civic festivals of the city of Rome that were exported by the legions or imported at local initiative. More specifically, this chapter treats rabbinic responses recorded in the Talmud of the Land of Israel to a series of widely celebrated Roman city festivals: the Kalends (of January), the Saturnalia, and others such as the Rosalia, for which at least one Jewish funerary bequest provided funds. Unsurprisingly, the rabbis were a bit anxious about these popular festivals, celebration of which was an important element of imperial social belonging.

Part Two explores the fate of these Roman festivals after Constantine and the development of a Christian public liturgy. Chapter Three examines the legal treatment of traditional cult festivals, most of which were demoted, while Christian holidays were steadily provided monopoly protection. Some festivals, however—the Kalends and the Natalis Urbis of Rome and Constantinople—were explicitly maintained. Chapter Four addresses Christian concerns about the Kalends, beginning with Libanius's reaction (possibly) to John Chrysostom's full throated denunciation of the festival. Christian opposition continued in both East (Asterius of Amaseia and John Lydus) and West (Augustine, Peter Chrysologus, and Caesarius of Arles) and even occupied a number of church councils (Tours, Autun, in Trullo, Braga) into the seventh century. Chapter Five examines the Lupercalia from Augustus to Bishop Gelasius of Rome (ca. 596) in the West and Constantine Porphyrogennetos (tenth century) in the East. After a brief description of the imperial festival, the chapter offers a kind of commentary [End Page 326] on a letter of Gelasius, in which the bishop attempted to dissuade elites from their continuing patronage of the festival—unsuccessfully, as Gelasius admits. The chapter then jumps ahead several centuries to walk the reader through Constantine Porphyrogennetos's Book of Ceremonies, in which a very different, and now moveable, festival was celebrated under its traditional name. Chapter Six is a bit of an outlier that treats John Malalas's etiologies of Roman festivals in order to demonstrate how these festivals were interpreted. Malalas worked out of the classical tradition, but ultimately updated the origin stories to suit better a late imperial socio-political situation.

Chapter Seven returns to public festivals with an analysis of the Brumalia. In the Latin West, the Bruma seems to have been a late fall ritual involving the exchange of gifts, which continued at least into the eighth century. In the Greek East, the Bruma was reinvented as the Brumalia, a twenty-three-day-long festival—a kind of repackaged Saturnalia—that was a festival of social inversion. Chapter Eight revisits the Kalends, a particularly important festival for a very long time. If one expands the rather exiguous...


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