Monday, August 24, 2020

Syncretistic religions of the Roman Imperial Period

Many religions of the ancient world were syncretistic, meaning that as they grew and came into contact with other religions, they adopted new beliefs and modified their practices to reflect their changing environment. Both Greek and Roman religious beliefs were deeply influenced by the so-called mystery religions of the East, including the Egyptian cult of Isis, which revealed beliefs and practices to the initiated that remained unexplained, or mysterious, to the uninitiated. Most popular Roman cults had associations with these mystery religions and included the prospect of an afterlife. Zeus Labraundos was a local version of Zeus from Mylasa in Caria (southwestern Asia Minor), of whom very few representations exist except on Roman coins. The front of his apron-like garment is decorated with images of divinities and astral symbols. On his head, he wears a tall headdress with lotus elements reflecting Egyptian influences and the eagle of Zeus at the front. - Walters Art Museum

Remains of the sanctuary of Zeus Labraundos still exist today.  The site in Mylasa was rediscovered in the 19th century.  Frenchman A. Laumonier carried out initial surveys in 1932 but the first archaeological excavations did not begin until 1948, under the direction of the Swedish archaeologist A.W. Persson.  Dedications inscribed on the architraves of the monuments reveal the structure was built by Mausolus (of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus fame) and his brother Idrieus.  Although the building was organized like a typical Greek sanctuary, it also contained banquet halls in the Persian fashion.  These banquet halls, by their size, location and use were central to the political and religious functioning of Labraunda. The satraps held council and received ambassadors from foreign cities there.  An Achaemenid sphinx and the head of a second were found nearby and thought to have symbolized the authority and protection of the Persian Empire.  

The ancient geographer Strabo described the sanctuary as "connected to the city by a causeway of nearly 60 stadia, which is called the sacred way and which is used for pumps or processions. The High Priest is invariably chosen from among the most illustrious citizens of Mylasa and always appointed for life." 

Image: Zeus Labraundos, bronze, 1st century CE Roman Imperial Period that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  

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