Universität Erfurt


Dr. Georgia Petridou: Assoziierter Fellow/Mitglied der Betreuergruppe (Faculty) der International Graduate School (IGS)

Universität Erfurt
Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien
Postfach 900221
99105 Erfurt


Anchoring innovation in the cultic cosmos of the imperial era: Alexandros and Aristeides as religious moderators and modernisers

It is via dreams (somnia), mysteries (mysteria), medicine (medicina), and finally via oracles (oracula) that the immortals help and demonstrate their power to the mortals, or so the eminent emperor and body-conscious philosopher Marcus Aurelius has to believe (Marcus Aurelius in Fronto 3.10, p. 43,15 Hout; Cf. also Meditations 1.17.9). Healing and oracular cults (especially those endowed with distinct mysteric aspects; on divination as inextricably intertwined with healing, see, e.g. Nutton 1969) enjoyed enormous popularity in the vast Roman empire of the first and the second centuries of our era. (Gager 1975; van Nuffelen 2007 and 2011). These cults were also faced with fierce competition with each other to win over new devotees not only from the pious majority, but also from the period’s socio-political and intellectual elite (Chaniotis 2002).

This project examines some of the most popular and time-resistant healing cults of the imperial period, namely the multitude of the rising new cults of Asclepius. My main hypothesis is that these cults owe their popularity, highly elevated status and ability for constant evolution and innovation to few charismatic and ambitious individuals who succeeded in anchoring religious innovation to pre-existing religious identity and tradition. These individuals recourse repeatedly to preluding ritual grammar and paradigms, whilst simultaneously innovate the cultic universe of their respective communities by introducing new combinations of ritual elements, schemas, and ritual and cultural performance. The results of these pioneering cultic enterprises range from establishing wholly new and unprecedented cults to selectively reformatting older cults by retaining successful ritual schemata and abolishing others.

The main focus of my study is two (in)famous religious innovators: Alexander of Abonouteichos, who established the previously unattested Asclepian cult of Glykon, the neos Asklepios (Lucian, Alexander the Pseudo-prophet); and P. Aelius Aristides Theodoros, the famous second century AD orator from Mysia and his radical innovations of the Pergamene cult of Asclepius. But while Alexander, the prophet of the new theriomorphic cult of neos Asklepios Glykon has been discussed as a cultic reformer (Victor 1997, Sfameni Gasparro 1999, Chaniotis 2002 and 2007), Aristides is not traditionally thought of as a religious innovator. However, as this study argues, Aelius Aristides ‘lived’, i.e. conceptualised and experienced the Pergamene healing cult of Asclepius as somewhat different—if not darker than, let us say, the Koan or the Epidaurian cults of Asclepius—perhaps very similar to the cult of Sarapis, and certainly as a healing and oracular cult with a distinct mysteric ambiance. In fact, Aristides’ Asclepius seems far more similar to Alexandros’ neos Asklepios Glykon, in that they both employ explicit mysteric language and imagery and they both ‘anchor’ their cultic innovations on the familiar and well-established ritual grammar of spatial and emotional proximity with the divine as articulated in well-known and popular in the imperial era mystery cults such as the Great Mysteria of Eleusis (Burkert 1987, Clinton 2007, Bowden 2010, Bremer 2014).

Nonetheless, modelling their respective healing cults on prevalent and time-resistant mystery cults of the classical and post-classical world, such as the Great Mysteria of Eleusis, is not the only similarity between the ritual innovations conferred upon by Alexandros and Aristides. An ad fontes analysis of Lucian’s Alexander the Pseudo-prophet and Aristides’ Hieroi Logoi reveals that there are several more religious ‘trends’, which mark out both Asclepian cults: a) in both cases, the cultic innovation is said to have been instigated by the divine epiphany of Asclepius; b) and in both cases there are unmistakeable henotheistic tendencies; c) in either case, the body of the innovator becomes the locus of communication with the divine; d) both Alexandros and Aristides addressed with their religious innovations deeper needs of the individual, who in a period of increased uniformity longs for privacy and exclusivity and answers to question of eschatological nature; e) they both transform their respective sacred places to popular pilgrimage destinations; f) and, finally, in either case the ritual and conceptual modernisations involve extensive use, and in Alexander’s case perhaps even abuse, of oneiric divination.

I have borrowed the concept of ‘anchoring innovation’ from Prof. Ineke Sluiter (Leiden). This new project is thought of as a natural progression from both my previous work on divine epiphany in Graeco-Roman religions and my current research on the close correlations between healing, oracular and mystery cults with the ‘Medicine of the Mind—Philosophy of the Body’ research programme at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.


Ausgewählte Publikationen

  • Divine Epiphany in Ancient Greek Literature and Culture, Oxford University Press (Dec. 2015; ISBN 978-0-19-872392-9).
  • Homo Patiens: Approaches to the Patient in the Ancient world, Brill, Studies in Ancient Medicine 45 (with Ch. Thumiger; Nov. 2015; ISBN 9789004305557).
  • (2015) ‘Aelius Aristides as Informed Patient and Physician’, in G. Petridou and Ch. Thumiger (eds.), Homo Patiens: Approaches to Patient in the Ancient World, 451-470.
  • (2015) ‘Emplotting the Divine: Epiphanic Narratives as Means of Enhancing Agency’, Religion in the Roman Empire 1.3, 321-342.
  • (2016) ‘Demeter as an ophthalmologist? Eye-shaped votives and the cults of Demeter and Kore’, in J. Draycott and E.-J. Graham (eds.), Bodies of evidence: re-defining approaches to the anatomical votive, Ashgate, Medicine and the Body in Antiquity series. (in press)
  • (2014) ‘Asclepius the Physician, Asclepius theos soter: Epiphanies as diagnostic and therapeutic tools’, in D. Michaelides (ed.) Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean, Oxbow, 297-308.
  • (2013) ‘Blessed is he, who has seen... the power of ritual viewing and ritual framing in Eleusis’, in S. Blundell, D. Cairns and N. Rabinowitz (eds.), Helios 40.1-2, 309-341.
  • (2013) ‘Initiation in Greek Tragedy/ Transition into Adulthood’, in H. Roisman (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Greek Tragedy, Wiley - Blackwell.
  • (2009) ‘Artemidi to ichnos: Divine Feet and Hereditary Priesthood in Pisidian  Pogla’, Anatolian Studies 59, 81-93.
  • (2004) ‘Adopted by Persephone: Adoption and Initiation Ritual in Zuntz A1-3 and Pelinna 1-2’ , in D. Naoum, G. Muskett, and M. Georgiades (eds.) Cult and Death, Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, Liverpool Interdisciplinary Symposium in Antiquity 2002, BAR 1282, 69-75.




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