Thursday, August 30, 2012

Who Ran the Temples?

All right Mr. Smarty Pants, you think you know all the answers--here's one for you. It's about temples, specifically Greek temples, the ones in Greece.

Here's the deal: faithful readers will recall that I reported on how much I enjoyed Finnerty's and Maarcus' The Creation of Inequality, about how communities/tribes/clans/families--okay, "states"--generate "elites."    What I learned: well--I think I already said that the best way to turn a transitory inequality into a hereditary elite is to get yourself associated with the neighborhood god.  You don't have to be a god, but once folks come to believe that you pal around with the god, they treat you with deference.

Corollary: sure sign that an elite is getting traction, the growth of temples.  A temple means that god has gone bureaucratic which is always good for someone who wants to create hereditary power.  When we were young, we all learned about "priestly castes," and "temple aristocracies."    And I think there is great merit in this view: the priest (or at least the bishop) always seems to show up in time for lunch.

But here's one to savor: the classical Greeks.  Was there ever a society more fraught with temples than these Athenians and their kin?  We have the Parthenon, Olympus, Bassae, the temples at Agrigento, and fo forth and so on In this context, I was amusing myself with a notion about the Athenians of the Parthenon: they're a temple society in a democracy.  The very idea seems to undercut all the points I was just making about priestly castes.

And go further: unless I am missing something, it seems to me that the classical Greeks in general did not have a priestly caste.   You want to make a sacrifice, you make a sacrifice.  Maybe you do it for fun, maybe  you are shamed into it: still,  as far as the temple is concerned, it's all amateur hour.

So we have a temple society without a priestly caste, nor even priests.  And here is a step further who maintained the temples?  Grant that maybe anybody could do a ceremony, still somebody had to molp the grease off the floor, or fix the leaky roof tiles.  If there isn't a priestly caste, shouldn't there at least be a class of sextons?


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty close to ignorant here, but in honor of the GOP I'll hazard a guess anyway: the secular authorities were also responsible for the temples. My hunch is based on something I remember from Latin class about ancient Rome, namely that Augustus named himself "Pontifex Maximus", ie the highest priest, as part of his program of cementing political power. His power to do this, like all his powers, came from the "Imperium" that was bestowed on him (and never removed) by the Senate. And I think the Romans modelled themselves on the Greeks in this as in so many other ways.

But I'd be interested to hear about this from someone who, unlike me, actually knows something about it.

Buce said...

I knowe even less about the Romans than the Greeks, but Mrs. B was just telling me that when Julian the Apostate tried to restore paganism after Constantine, he ran aground on the fact that he couldn't identify any cadre of priests.

mike shupp said...

Memory suggests that in Republican Rome the Republic itself paid for the college of augers, the upkeep of the vestal virgins, etc. Later, the emperors and the wealthy paid for public buildings and their upkeep -- think of it as form of political advertising (remember quite a few Romans went into politics with the intent of becoming very very rich).

Elsewhere and elsewhen, it was assumed that "civic virtue" would induce wealthy men to pay for public services in most cities.If the necessary number of virtuous men didn't appear voluntarily, then the city authorities would arbitrarily select some rich men and inform them of the obligations that had just befallen them. By say 300 AD or so this was ceasing to work very effectively -- not everybody named Rockefeller really is a Rockefeller, as you might imagine. So all sorts of officially "upper class" Roman citizens started petitioning the Emperor to be lowered to plebian status to avoid this sort of taxation. Of course, some of the new plebians weren't exactly plebians, as you might imagine...

Bottom line, through the Empire period (and perhaps earlier) Roman government was largely financed and carried out by aristocrats, nobility, and the very wealthy. And it always caused problems.

Of course echoes of this lasted for a very long time -- I suspect that in say 1600 it would have been very hard to distinguish much of Elizabeth Tudor's "private" possessions and land holdings from her "royal" property or from "state" property. Things were intertwined, and I doubt it really occured to political thinkers that something else was possible until the 18th century. -- Hobbes, Locke, Montesque -- those people, and then of course the American revolutionaries. said...

The finance of ancient Greek religion necessarily varied from place to place, and of course it changed over the years.

You're chiefly interested, I think, in 5th century Athens. There, we have a complex mixture of public and private maintenance. Some roles which had once been either hereditary or co-opted were opened to broad participation, either through election or by lot. Others, doubtless, remained what we would call "private".

In many cases, temples in Greece act like private foundations, set up by individuals for one reason or another and largely funded and staffed at that scale. Of course, sometimes states or civic organizations
or professional groups endowed temples, and this generated different kinds of public accountability. (The published ledgers of one Athenian temple are a crucial resource for our knowledge of taxation and the Delian League.)

But remember that, throughout antiquity, the lines between public and private, and between state and religion, fell in places we don't always expect. In many respects, the officiant at key ceremonies is there not because of ordination or vocation, but rather as a symbol of the community. Also, posts that sound consequential might not always be so (think of the Sergeant At Arms of the US Congress), and others that seemed menial (head of inventory for the Temple of Saturn at Rome) could end up running crucial bureaucracies.

I think, though, that your base intuition is right. Neither Athens nor Rome wound up with powerful religious bureaucracies of the sort that flourished in the Middle East and Egypt, although late Rome did pattern itself after the Eastern monarchies.

Anonymous said...

When touring the temples at Agrigento, we were told that the walled-off interior of the temple was reserved for "secret" rites. Surely this implies a prietly caste?