Although the social life of the ancient Greeks and Romans revolved around dinner and drinking parties, associations and clubs organized around religion and occupation were also important. While the members of these groups felt a close sense of community and comradeship, governmental officials often regarded associations and clubs with suspicion.
Greek Clubs and Associations. Voluntary associations played an important role in the social lives of the Greeks, especially for those who lived in cities. The importance of these organizations increased over time. These groups were based on shared religious beliefs, professional and occupational concerns, and the social class of a group’s members. Although most were dominated by adult men, in certain places and times both women and boys had groups of their own. Around 600 B.C. the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos had organizations for women as well as for men. Sparta and the island of Crete had organizations for boys that separated them from their parents and provided them with intense military and athletic training.
The social organizations during the Greek Dark Age, which lasted from about 1100 b.c to about 800 B.C., were based primarily on common religious beliefs. The gatherings of these early groups were associated with festivals and usually involved banquets and wine. The poet Homer described some of these feasts in his epics* the Iliad and the Odyssey. Later, membership in social clubs was based on ancestry, religion, and occupation (including piracy).
During the Archaic* and classical* periods, some groups were formed for political as well as social purposes. Called hetaireiai, these social groups usually consisted of aristocrats* who spent much of their time at drinking parties. Some Athenians believed that these groups organized to plot the overthrow of the government. Some hetaireiai ridiculed the more traditional activities of cults*.
During the Hellenistic* period, memberships in religious and social groups increased. Most religious groups centered around a shrine or other place sacred to a cult where members met to worship and share a meal. Women were both participants and priestesses in religious cults. Lavish banquets, festivals, processions, feasts, and games were common during the Hellenistic period. The number of private associations also increased, including groups for artists, poets, philosophers*, merchants, traders, and shipowners. Although tradesmen and craftspeople formed their own organizations, these usually were for social purposes rather than for economic reasons, and they often guaranteed a decent burial for their members.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* Archaic in Greek history, refers to the period between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* aristocrat person of the highest social class
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Philosophical schools served as meeting places for groups of scholars and students. The two best-known Athenian schools were the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle. Each of these schools had an altar and a shrine to the Muses, the goddesses of the arts and sciences, and held regular scholarly meetings for their members.
Roman Clubs and Associations. Voluntary associations—called collegia— played an important role in Roman social life, especially in the cities. These associations included religious groups, occupational groups, and social clubs, drinking clubs, and burial clubs. Romans joined organizations for a variety of reasons, including a sense of group identity, recreation, and protection. Associations existed for a range of occupations, including artisan*, shopkeeper, metalsmith, rag trader, timber cutter, and firefighter. There were also collegia for priests and poets. Some Roman organizations provided young men with military, athletic, and horseback riding skills.
Not surprisingly, government officials generally were suspicious of foreign groups. One cult that provoked the Roman government was the secret cult of Bacchus, which had originated in the Greek colonies of southern Italy. Cults of Bacchus required that new members swear an oath to live a life that separated them from their families. A major scandal arose in 186 B.C., when it was discovered that the secret initiation rite of the cult involved wild drunkenness, the abuse of children, and even human sacrifice*. Roman officials believed that such foreign cults posed a serious threat to the Roman way of life and acted swiftly to suppress them. During the Roman Empire, government suspicion of private groups increased. When Christian groups—hostile to the traditional Roman religions—emerged, the government began a vigorous campaign of persecution against them.
As in Greece, the numerous clubs and associations had varying degrees of political power. Unlike the Athenians, however, the Romans were more fearful of collegia that consisted of members of the lower classes. Ambitious politicians during the Roman Republic* frequently requested and received the support of such clubs. Rioting during the 60s B.C. and the 50s B.C. resulted in laws that banned all collegia that were believed not to be in the public interest. (See also Cults; Social Life, Greek; Social Life, Roman.)
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* artisan skilled craftsperson
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Several ambitious Roman aristocrats used clubs and associations to further their political careers. The politician Publius Clodius was elected tribune in 58 B.C. with the support of members of the lower classes, and he in turn passed laws to legalize the collegia. Members of the clubs that supported Clodius frequently fought in the streets with the supporters of his political rivals. Clodius himself was killed in 52 B.C. by a gang that supported the Roman politician Milo.