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Babett Edelmann: Religiöse Herrschaftslegitimation in der Antike. Die religiöse Legitimation orientalisch-ägyptischer und griechisch-hellenistischer Herrscher im Vergleich (= Pharos. Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike; Bd. XX), St. Katharinen: Scripta Mercaturae Verlag 2007, 385 S., ISBN 978-3-89590-178-2, EUR 36,00
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Rezension von:
Peter van Nuffelen
Department of Classics & Ancient History, University of Exeter
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Peter van Nuffelen: Rezension von: Babett Edelmann: Religiöse Herrschaftslegitimation in der Antike. Die religiöse Legitimation orientalisch-ägyptischer und griechisch-hellenistischer Herrscher im Vergleich, St. Katharinen: Scripta Mercaturae Verlag 2007, in: sehepunkte 8 (2008), Nr. 11 [15.11.2008], URL:

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Babett Edelmann: Religiöse Herrschaftslegitimation in der Antike

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This book, the reworked version of a doctoral thesis, argues that religious legitimization is key to kingship in the Mediterranean and that it happened in the same ways in Greece as it did in the ancient Near East and Egypt. The emphasis is on the Hellenistic period, with the chapters becoming longer and longer as the book progresses to that period (from 8 pages for the first to 150 for the fifth and last).

The first chapter (13-20) takes us through some major sociological concepts of legitimacy, including those of M. Weber, N. Luhmann, and J. Habermas, and draws attention to the idea of a crisis of legitimacy (as arguably found at the end of the Roman Republic) and the difference between the legitimization of a ruler and that of a constitution. The latter never occurs in the Near East, as monarchy itself is never questioned.

Chapter 2 (21-53) summarizes religious legitimization in Egypt, the different empires of Mesopotamia, the Hettites, Iran, and Judaism. It prepares chapter 3 (55-61), which lays out G. Ahn's [1] tripartite scheme of religious legitimization: 1. legitimacy from the gods; 2. through dynastic and genealogical links; 3. through appeal to one's own qualities. Various subcategories are then introduced for each of these three forms. The author then introduces her main thesis: religious legitimization in Greece has been underestimated until now and should be seen in parallel to what one notices in the ancient Near East (61). The tripartite scheme will be the guide for the rest of the book.

Chapter 4 (62-172) applies the scheme to classical and pre-classical Greece. The author proposes that the Minoan kings represented themselves as representatives of the gods on earth (69). In the Homeric poems one encounters the idea of a genealogical link with the gods and divine support for them. Even in the classical period, Greeks were acquainted with the idea of kings elected by the divine. Apart from the classic cases such as the Spartan and Cypriot kings, she argues that tyranny was strongly influenced by eastern prototypes and thus also imported its strategies of religious legitimization. B. Edelmann proposes to see the earliest rise of divine cults (for Spartan kings and Sicilian tyrants) as reflecting the fact that these were in particular need of legitimization. In the second section of the chapter, she argues that hero-cult is the root of many ideas of religious legitimization in Greece and the Hellenistic Period: heroes also mediated between man and gods and acquired their status because of their deeds. The author seems to suggest that the rise of divine cults in the fourth century is due to an attempt by rulers to acquire more religious legitimacy than could be offered by heroic honours. The third section discusses theoretical conceptions of the ruler and the state, in order to show that also monarchy as a constitution was religiously legitimized by being depicted as the reflection of the divine rule. For this the author finds proof in the Pseudo-Pythagorean texts on kingship.

Chapter 5 (173-327) detects the various elements of religious legitimization in the Hellenistic Kingdoms. B. Edelmann notices its importance in Macedonia under Philip II, and emphasizes that its remarkable increase, including divine cult, under Alexander the Great, must be interpreted as the result of an increased need of legitimization in new and unseen circumstances. The diadochs emphasized in the first place genealogical links (with Alexander and his dynasty), but also their own qualities. The last section of the chapter argues at length that we find all elements of Ahn's scheme of religious legitimization in the Hellenistic kingdoms. The author emphasizes in particular the idea that Hellenistic kings present themselves as 'images' of divine kingship. She analyses all levels of divine cult (dynastic cults, cults in the cities, and cults among the 'indigenous' people) and argues that on all levels and in the different cultural realms we encounter the same pattern of religious legitimization as was found in the Near East. These parallels can be taken to explain how Hellenistic rulers could expand their cults not just among the Greeks but also among the Egyptian and Persian populations.

The conclusion (328-330) sums up the results of the study in 11 theses. One finds Edelmann's conclusion that one cannot show that there was a transfer of ideas from Persia to Greece, strangely coy, as the book is littered with topical arguments for precisely the adoption of Persian ideas by the Greeks (starting with the pre-classical tyrants and Macedonian kingship down to the Hellenistic kings).

This is a bold book that asks scholars to take a different view on familiar matters. Rather than seeing Greece and the Hellenistic Period in isolation, Edelmann's longue durée approach puts things in a different, occasionally refreshing perspective. In her model, Alexander the Great appears as less of an innovator than often thought (183), and the parallels between Greek and Near Eastern conceptions may indeed explain why the Ptolemies and other Hellenistic dynasties could easily insert themselves in local cults.

Yet, overall this is a disappointing book. It is too reliable on older scholarship and ignorant of recent arguments and debates, the sources are neither fully nor thoroughly worked through, and it is prone to schematic reasoning.

Its flaws can be well illustrated regarding the author's uncritical use of the Pseudo-Pythagorean works on kingship. Edelmann takes little note of the controversy that has raged regarding the date of these works, preferring to see them as early Hellenistic in line with older scholarship. Actually, most scholars now tend to date these texts to the Post-Hellenistic Period. This knocks the bottom out of Goodenough's famous 1928 article, which interpreted the Pseudo-Pythagorean texts as the theoretical underpinnings of the Hellenistic concept of kingship. Goodenough went on to detect many Near Eastern influences in these works. [2] Edelmann follows Goodenough in all these aspects. Aside from a sizeable body of scholarship in Italian that is ignored by the author, a crucial paper by M. Haake has explicitly challenged such a reading and has argued that Hellenistic treatises on kingship did not include this extended cosmological reflection that Goodenough ascribes to it. [3] In the light of this recent work, one has to accept that Goodenough's 'hellenistic concept of kingship' is largely a fiction. Edelmann is entitled to prefer Goodenough over recent scholarship, but one would at least expect a discussion of more recent positions.

This is not a minor quibble: Edelmann's entire reading of Hellenistic legitimization is built on the Pseudo-Pythagorean texts (half of the book). Ascribing a 'political theology of cosmological universal kingship' (241) to Hellenistic kings, she interprets identifications of these kings with gods as an expression of the fact that they are images of the divine king. She does not engage with the alternative view that such associations indicate the king's adoption of characteristics of a particular god. Too often did this reviewer notice such a rather superficial and one-sided use of the evidence in this book, which tends to ignore much of what is written on Hellenistic ruler cult in recent years. [4]

The book tends to press everything in the Procrustean bed of religious legitimization and often forgets much of the context in which legitimization took place. For Edelmann ruler cult is merely a reflection of religious legitimization (177). This is not unproblematic, as divine honours were awarded not only to kings but also to private citizens who showed euergesia, especially in the later Hellenistic Period. Divine honours can thus not be a mere expression of a religious concept of kingship. Equally problematic is the fact that the author sees cults for kings in cities as part of the royal legitimization strategy. The spontaneous nature of cults in cities has often been asserted against this older and rather cynical view. Again Edelmann does not engage with this more recent, alternative opinion. But there is another problem, as the author ignores the local character of cults in city-states. If Samos decrees divine honours for Lysander, this establishes primarily a certain relationship between him and that island. Reading this as a straightforward attempt by Lysander to accumulate religious legitimization in order to become king in Sparta at least ignores that primary level.

Examples of such one-dimensional arguments based on limited reading of literature and sources are sadly too easy to find in this book. There surely is merit in Edelmann's ideas, but I am afraid that they fail to convince because of the numerous flaws in the argument. This is wine bottled before fermentation.


[1] Gregor Ahn: Religiöse Herrscherlegitimation im achämenidischen Iran, Leiden 1992.

[2] Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough: The Political Philosophy of Hellenistic Kingship, in: YClS 1 (1928), 55-102.

[3] Matthias Haake: Warum und zu welchem Ende schreibt man Peri basileias? Überlegungen zum historischen Kontext einer literarischen Gattung im Hellenismus, in: Karen Piepenbrink (Hg.): Philosophie und Lebenswelt in der Antike, Darmstadt 2003, 83-138. See now also Oswyn Murray: Philosophy and Monarchy in the Hellenistic Period, in: Tessa Rajak e.a. (Hg.): Jewish Perspectives on Hellenistic Rulers, Berkeley 2008, 13-28.

[4] The essential book by John Ma: Antiochus III and the Cities of Asia Minor, Oxford 1999, is one example.

Peter van Nuffelen