In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Associations in the Greco-Roman World

  • Introduction
  • Major Studies
  • History of Scholarship
  • Collections of Primary Texts
  • Essay Collections

Biblical Studies Associations in the Greco-Roman World
John S. Kloppenborg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0064


Life in the cities and towns of the Hellenistic and Roman periods was organized around two poles: the polis or town, and the family, each with its distinctive structure, organization, membership, and cultic practices. Between these two poles there existed a large number of more or less permanent private associations, guilds, and clubs. Some were extensions or expansions of the family; others were organized around a common cult or diasporic identity; others were formed around a common occupation (silverworkers, rag dealers, woodsmen, etc.), and still others were neighborhood associations consisting of the trades that congregated in a particular area of the town. Almost all associations engaged in cultic activities; most held monthly (or more frequent) banquets and meetings; many took an active role in the funerals of members; and many had formal rules governing admission, dues, and the behavior of members. Early Christ-groups were certainly regarded by external observers as varieties of associations, and Judean synagogai (one of the common terms for associations) are easily seen as one form of diasporic association, formed around a common ethnic identity and a common cult. The study of ancient associations is important for understanding the structure, organization, and functions of early Christ-groups and Judean synagogues.

General Overviews

Several of these works, including Ascough 2002, Kloppenborg 1996, and Kloppenborg 2006, focus on articulating a typology of private associations. Foucart 1873, though now somewhat dated, is still an outstanding discussion of private associations, based on what was known in the 19th century. Fisher 1988a and Fisher 1988b focus on the functions of associations in providing opportunities for sociability; Perry 2011 concentrates on the political role of Roman associations. MacMullen 1974 provides a vivid picture of how associations fit into the life of a Roman town or city.

  • Ascough, Richard S. “Greco-Roman Philosophic, Religious, and Voluntary Associations.” In Community Formation in the Early Church and the Church Today. Edited by Richard N. Longenecker, 3–24. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

    A survey of philosophical associations, public mysteries, and private associations, including cult groups and occupational guilds, with a discussion of membership, leadership structures, finances, and honorific activities.

  • Fisher, Nicholas R. E. “Greek Associations, Symposia, and Clubs.” In Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, 1167–1197. New York: Scribner’s, 1988a.

    “Cult and Social Associations” (pp. 1185–1189) provides a brief account of private associations in Classical Athens, and “Benefactions, Social Life and Associations” (pp. 1191–1195) offers a general account of associations in the Hellenistic period.

  • Fisher, Nicholas R. E. “Roman Associations, Dinner Parties, and Clubs.” In Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger, 1199–1225. New York: Scribner’s, 1988b.

    A companion piece to the previous entry, this essay explores the complex relation between associations and the state: on the one hand, occupational associations were encouraged and were patronized, but, on the other, associations were sometimes implicated in political unrest and were often suspected of subversive or antisocial activities.

  • Foucart, Paul. Des associations religieuses chez les Grecs: Thiases, éranes, orgéons, avec le texte des inscriptions rélatives à ces associations. Paris: Klincksieck, 1873.

    A classic work, with chapters on the membership profiles; laws and decrees; cultic and civil functions; internal regulation; finances; and legal standing, and with a brief history of associations from the 4th century BCE to the imperial period. Foucart prints the Greek text of sixty-eight Greek association inscriptions.

  • Kloppenborg, John S. “Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership.” In Voluntary Associations in the Graeco-Roman World. Edited by John S. Kloppenborg and Stephen G. Wilson, 16–30. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

    Rather than dividing private associations into “funerary associations,” “religious associations,” and “professional associations,” it is preferable to base a (partly overlapping) taxonomy on membership profiles: family-based associations, occupational guilds, neighborhood associations, and cult associations. “Funerary collegia” is a misleading category and was a legal fiction established only after Hadrian.

  • Kloppenborg, John S. “Associations in the Ancient World.” In The Historical Jesus in Context. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, and John Dominic Crossan, 323–338. Princeton Readings in Religions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    The article begins with a three-part typology of associations (family-based groups, cultic groups; ethnic, neighborhood groups; and occupational guilds), each with cultic aspects. A discussion of the similarities between private associations and Christ-groups, followed by an English translation of ten association inscriptions.

  • MacMullen, Ramsay. Roman Social Relations, 50 B.C. to A.D. 284. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.

    “Urban” (pp. 57–87) discusses the typical Roman cityscape, in which occupational and cultic associations play important roles in civic and social life (e.g., voting, festivals, and burial).

  • Perry, Jonathan S. “Organized Societies: Collegia.” In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. Edited by Michael Peachin, 499–515. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195188004.001.0001

    After a survey of scholarly approaches to Roman associations, Perry emphasizes that collegia sometimes functioned as a tool wielded by the elite to organize the urban population and to create political loyalties. They became the targets for suppression when they engaged in overtly disruptive actions.

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