The Associations of the Graeco-Roman World

Vol. 2 No. 4 (1958): 148-53

The Associations of the Graeco-Roman World

R. L. Johnston, Jr.

The church came into being in a climate of clubs and associations. "Probably no age, not even our own," writes Samuel Dill concerning the early Roman Empire, "ever felt a greater craving for some form of social life, wider than the family, and narrower than the State."l This feeling had been developing among the Greeks and Romans and even in the Hellenistic. kingdoms, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia, over a long period of time. The beginning among the Greeks was very early. Gaius in his Digesta (XLVII. 22.4) quotes a law of Solon which recognized voluntary associations as legal and made their regulations binding upon their members where there was no violation of the laws of the State. Thucydides writes of political associations, apparently vicious, self-seeking and violent, in connection with revolutionary activities during the Peloponnesian Wars (111.82). Later he mentions similar organizations as instruments in the overthrow of the Athenian democracy (VIII. 54.4, 65). The records, almost entirely epigraphical, of societies of the Greeks date from the fourth century B.C. when inscriptions of associations of orgeones restricted to citizens appeal' in Athens.2 The name suggests an urgency or excitement which must be associated here with religious feeling. Later in the same century, associations of thiasotai, members of a religious guild, are seen. These were mainly for aliens, at times becoming national clubs for the worship of national deities. Although they were primarily religious in character, they were secondarily social organizations as well.3 In the middle of the third century, an increased emphasis on the social and economic aspects of life led to the formation of clubs of eranistai. The term denotes the participants in a common meal to which each person contributed his share. The association is still of a religious nature, but worship is subordinate to social and economic interests.4 At length the religious element is virtually dropped and synodoi or synods, according to Tod "purely secular" in character, are found in Athens.5 It is generally felt that the religious character of the societies remained at least incidentally a part of their make-up.

Among the Romans the sodalitia , associations for religious and social comradeship, and collegia , colleagueships, are reported to have existed at least as early as Numa. Plutarch attributes the formation of the trade guilds to that legendary king:

Of his other political measures, that which is most admired is his division of the populace according to their trades. . . . His division was according to their trades, and consisted of the [149] musicians, the goldsmiths, the builders, the dyers, the shoemakers, the carriers, the coppersmiths, and the potters.6

The evidence for the associations among the Romans as among the Greeks is to be found in inscriptions of which there are many. "The bulk of the evidence belongs to times later than Caesar, Cicero, and Virgil, but conditions," according to Showerman, "were different only in degree, and not greatly different in that."7 Societies under the early Republic enjoyed complete freedom. They could be limited, of course, but the only early example of such limitation is the outlawing of the associations of the Bacchanals, worshippers of Dionysus, in 186 B.C. on grounds of immorality. Even then the worship of Dionysus under official supervision was permitted.8 In the later Republic the societies, now considered to be dangerous to public peace, were repressed by law in 64 B.C., but were revived again for political reasons in 58 B.C.9 Julius and Augustus abolished the right of association except for societies of ancient standing and those of religious character, together with the burial societies.10 The latter became a cover under which many kinds of associations existed. Generally, however, in the period of the Empire associations were regarded as politically dangerous. For example, Trajan denied a request of Pliny that an association of firemen be formed to guard Nicomedia against fire, writing, "Whatever title we give them, and whatever our object in giving it, men who are banded together for a common cold will all the same become a political association before long."l1 Mary Johnston observes that "Government opposition to Christianity was due in large part to the fear that Christian organizations were, or might become, political in character."12

The tendency toward the formation of associations in the Hellenistic kingdoms is most marked in Egypt. They existed among foreigners in Pre-Ptolemaic times but attained prominence and importance under the Ptolemies. Self-governing poleis , cities, were organized "by the will and decision of the king" for the foreigners where they lived in groups. Those not so organized were encouraged to form koina , private associations, possessing a certain degree of self-government. There were also gymnasia or schools with gymnasial associations privileged by the king to own property such as money, buildings, furniture and land. For these, Rostovtzeff observes, "the gymnasia were not only schools. They were also the' centre of their own intellectual and creative activities, which were essentially Greek. The gymnasium played in their lives the part of a permanent clubhouse: it was their main social centre."13 "In the chora the Greeks lived, not in cities, but scattered over native towns and villages. It was natural, in these circumstances, that they should create for themselves various substitutes for city life, among which were the private religious and social associations."14 There is less information about such organizations in the kingdoms of Syria, [149] Mesopotamia and Palestine. Only the gymnasia are known to have existed there. In these lands, however, the Greeks lived in cities with full rights of citizenship.15

These ancient associations extended throughout the entire Greek and Roman world and cover a period of seven centuries from the fourth century B.C. to the third century A.D. Yet they were almost entirely local.16 A few extended over an island or a province: only one, the Dionysiac Artists of which the actor members were continually moving about, became a culture-wide organization with headquarters in Rome and affiliated branches throughout the Empire.17 "The Christian communities were exceptional in the closeness of their interrelation with each other. The membership of the majority of the collegia, even of those which were primarily religious, was purely local."18

The development of the associations is attributed to religious, social and economic needs. Tod points out that during the classical period a man belonged to a phratry, a deme, a tribe, and a state. Each of these had its meetings and festivals which satisfied his religious aspirations to a certain extent and gave him opportunity for fellowship. Inasmuch as he had a sense of belonging, there was no need for voluntary associations. With the growth of the empires, however, and the cosmopolitanism which accompanied it, men lost their political ideals and their civic enthusiasm: there was created a need for the fellowship and sense of mutuality which the clubs could offer.19 Of the Roman Empire Dill observes, "In the blank wilderness, created by a universal despotism, the craving for sympathy and mutual succor inspired a great social movement, which legislation was powerless to check."20 But the desire for religious fellowship and common worship contributed even more to the development of voluntary societies.21 Illustrative of the fulfillment of this need are the mystery religions, especially the Eleusinia. "The assurance of the hope of the Eleusinian votary was obtained by the feeling of friendship and mystic sympathy, established by the mystic contact, with. . . the power of life after death," says one author.22 Another writer asserts that "the whole system of mysteries endured to the very end of pagan times, for the deeper meaning of its symbolism offered a certain satisfaction even to the religious requirements of the educated, which they failed to find in the empty forms of ordinary worship."23 A third aspect of the development of societies, at least in the case of the guilds, was that of economic need. Tod believes that the guilds developed when the head of the family began to accept apprentices and teach them the secrets of his trade for money.24 Of these factors the latter is the least significant and the weightiest is the matter of religious need.

Just as the societies developed as the result of religious and social need, so were their purposes and their functions religious and social. [151] Nor were the two sharply distinguished. Even the trade guilds existed primarily for religious and social purposes. "The trade guilds of antiquity were primarily, or even exclusively, religious and social, and did not normally seek to regulate or modify the conditions under which industry was carried on."25 The unions of tradesmen, in which nearly every trade was represented, did not have purposes which characterize modern labor organizations. Though some societies were named after their localities and others were named after some per son prominent in connection with them, many had names which indicate their prevailing religious character, for example the Apolloniastai , the Dionysiastai or the Heracleiastai . Still others showed a religious nature by prefixing the epithet "holy" or "most holy" to the name of the association.26 Some associations existed for the purpose, whether it was primary or an additional advantage, of providing proper burial and commemoration for their members. In this connection Halliday writes:

Characteristic are the burial clubs, the primary function of which was to provide members at death with a decent funeral, rescuing them from the common pit into which the bodies of the destitute were cast, and at the same time to afford the living members periodic opportunities for social reunion. At these meetings of the living the memory of the dead was kept alive, a form of vicarious immortality to which pagan sentiment attached a pathetic importance.27

But most important in the daily lives of the members was the social aspect of the clubs. "In truth, the great object of association among these humble people appears to have been. . . the cheerfulness of intercourse, the promotion of fellowship and good will, the relief of the dullness of humdrum lives."28 The chief function of all guilds was the common dinner, and Reid observes that "the 'calendar of dinners' (ordo cenarum ) was a serious document in every college."29

The benefits which the societies offered to their members were very real ones. First of all there was the experience of common worship ranging from the libations before the common meal to participation in the secret rituals of the mysteries. Next, and perhaps most satisfying, was the occasion for social intercourse. The monthly dinners, the holy days observed and the various anniversaries kept by the society were occasions of fellowship and mutuality very important to its members. Moreover, social distinctions were forgotten for the most part, and a man might attain prominence and hold office in his association. "Thus the socially down-trodden might experience a certain social importance, and this, however lowly might be the company in which it was exercised, gratified a need of self-respect. Here was the real social merit of these institutions."30 Many associations provided burial benefits for their members. These might consist in cash payments to defer funeral expenses, in conducting the details of the funeral through a committee appointed for that purpose, or in actually providing the place of burial in an as-[152]sociation columbarium. In addition to these, certain societies enjoyed specific privileges. The Association of Worshippers of the Muses in Alexandria enjoyed exemption from public burdens, board and lodging at public expense and a certain stipend.31 Military clubs were strictly forbidden, but the restrictions were relaxed in the cases of officers and of highly skilled corps. These were burial clubs, but their primary benefit was insurance against the principal risks and occasions of expenditure for soldiers.32 The Koinon of Greeks in Asia was granted military exemption, freedom from public burdens and other immunities at the request of Anthony.33 Benevolences appear to have been rare. The tailors at Thyatira, however, provided lodging places for strangers in the name of the Caesars.34 Halliday notes that "Charitable funds of this kind were a creation of the Christian communities and as Tertullian rightly claims, a real difference distinguishes the common funds of Christian from those of pagan societies."35

Into such an environment, then, came the new church, not so much a stranger as one might suppose. Its meetings were called by a name used by other religious associations to designate their meetings. The custom of mutual contribution to the treasuries of societies had prepared the people for a similar contribution to the church. It is possible that the institution of patronage, one of the chief sources of support for the various associations, found its expression among the wealthy of the church as well. This would not have been intended to purchase the regard and support of members of the church as the patronage of the associations sought to buy their influence, but a Philemon would find in the custom a suggestion for liberality and open his home to a church and his resources to the poor. The common meal corresponded to the agape or love feast of Christians. The organization of a church was not greatly different from that of an association. In fact, Hatch believes that the concentration of the power of the eldership into the hands of a single bishop grew out of the management of the funds of the church in very much the same way that the funds of the associations were managed.36 As a religious association, therefore, the church was acceptable to men throughout the Empire.

Several factors influenced its acceptance among those who had manifested in their history a readiness to receive new religions through their associations before they were accepted officially by the state. First of all the church offered men an Opportunity to give expression to their religious instincts in a highly moral way and with a hope superior even to that of the mysteries. Secondly, there was the social aspect: the church was open, as the associations had been, to all classes of society. The faith alone was the basis for association, however, and the church was broader in this respect than the Greek and Roman societies before it had been. Men [153] found fellowship, sympathy and mutuality within the church regardless of their social stations. But most important is the awareness of significance which came to men through Christianity. This was not a significance gained through office holding and the recognition of one's fellows, but a significance in the eyes of God, a reason for being that gave purpose to life. In these ways the needs which caused men to band themselves together in associations found their fulfillment in the new church.

1 Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1919), p. 267.

2 Marcus N. Tod, Sidelights on Greek History (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1932), p. 74.


4Ibid., p. 75.


6Life of Numa, XVII.

7 Grant Showerman, Rome and the Romans (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1931), p. 245.

8 A. E. R. Boak, A History of Rome to 565 A.D. (fourth edition;New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), p. 167.

9 Dill, op. cit., p. 254.

10Ibid., pp. 254-255.

11 Pliny, Letters, X.34.

12 Mary Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans, (New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1932), p. 346, footnote 1.

13 M. Rostovtzeff, The Social & Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1941), II, 1059.

14Ibid., p. 1064.

15Ibid., passim.

16 Tod, op. cit., passim.

17 W. R. Halliday, The Pagan Background of Early Christianity (Liverpool: The University Press of Liverpool, Ltd., 1925), p. 59.

18Ibid., pp. 58-59.

19 Tod, op. cit., pp. 73-74.

20 Dill, op. cit., p. 255.

2l Tod, op. cit., p. 74.

22 L. R. Farnell and H. J. Rose, "Mystery," The Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed.) , XVI, 48.

23 Oskar Seyffert, "Mysteries," Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (Revised and edited by Henry Nettleship and J. E. Sandys; New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1956), p. 410.

24 Tod, op. cit., pp. 78-79.

25Ibid., p. 82.

26Ibid., pp. 75-77.

27 Halliday, op. cit., p. 60.

28 Dill, op. cit., pp. 266-267.

29 James S. Reid, The Municipalities of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: The University Press, 1913), pp. 517-518.

30 Halliday, op. cit., pp. 61-62.

31 Rostovtzeff, op. cit., III, 1596.

32 Dill, op. cit., pp. 283-284.

33 Rostovtzeff, op. cit., II, 1005-1006.

34 Reid, op. cit., p. 518.

35 Halliday, op. cit., p. 57.

36 Edwin Hatch, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches (London: Rivingtons, 1882), pp. 36ff.

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