Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.19


John Scheid, Romulus et ses Frères: Le College des Frères arvales. Modèle du Culte public dans la Rome des Empereurs = BEFAR 275. Paris: De Boccard, 1990. Pp. 806.


Reviewed by William Slater, McMaster University.

The thump of another weighty BEFAR hitting the desk fills with apprehension -- often justified -- the hearts of most classical scholars. But this is a volume that scholars should try to get to know, at the same time as they may hope that there is truth in rumour that the French educational system has finally abandoned metric volume as a criterion for the thèse d'état. This seems to me a better book than J.M. Paillier's equally massive BEFAR on the Bacchanalia (1988), but even this one could have done with substantial pruning. Nonetheless this reviewer welcomes the chance to bring to the notice of a wider audience such an important work, despite his relative inexperience of latin epigraphy and Roman cult practice.

Those who speed down the autostrada to Fiumico along the Tiber or take the railroad alongside it will both pass through the centre of the grounds of the Arval Brothers. On the river side to the south are the remains of their baths and attached papiliones -- like the Greek stoa and oikoi -- in a curved portico whose wings extended up the hill to the north. Near the top of the hill was the temple of Dia in her sacred grove. The site has been plundered ever since it was closed down or abandoned about the time of Constantine, and excavation of its marble continued in the renaissance. The French School is now actively engaged in further excavations, the first volume of which is about to appear; and Scheid points out that there is a good chance that his conclusions will be expanded or modified by further finds. This being so, this volume does not treat the site in detail -- there are only three small maps -- save where the epigraphy requires explanation.

For the epigraphy is what gives the Arvals their importance. From Augustus to 304 A.D. at least their protocols were recorded in ever increasing detail on stone, not just on slabs but even on tables. Often carved negligently, these came to cover an immense area. Though only a tiny proportion survive, the sheer repetition allows Scheid to put together a reasonably comprehensive description of their proceedings, and, since the protocols are dated, give an account of the development of the rituals. Most of us will have used the selection in ILS 5026-50 + 5922, knowing that it was also lacking some later discoveries; now we have a book that updates all the texts and makes coherent sense of them. We do not have such detail for any cult in the ancient world save perhaps Christianity and Judaism, and the many scholars who are interested in understanding the religious life of antiquity could scarcely do better than follow Scheid as he moves through those of Arvals, section by section.

The book starts with a survey of the problems and previous work, a discussion of the topography, and a review of the literary references in relation to Roman religion. Pages 282-435 discuss the yearly rituals of the Brethren and their organization, as recorded in the protocols, and this is followed on pp.441-647 by the detailed survey of the central three day festival to Dia. Scheid closes with a series of general reflexions on the meaning of the rituals in relation to the policy of Augustus and his "restoration" -- if that is the proper word -- of the cult; this entails consideration of the Georgics and the politics of some Arval Brethern. Scheid also considers the significance of the site of the grove commanding the route of the annona to Rome. The Arvals met also in the Temple of Concord, and Scheid shows how this too was part of the significance given by Augustus to these meetings of powerful aristocrats, who were the successors to an archaic agrarian cult group.

But what will strike readers is the obsessive details of the epigraphical record of ritual. "Devant les autels, les prêtres exécutaient des enchaînements rituels avec une rigueur qui a fait sourire les observateurs modernes" (p.752). That is putting it mildly. I confess to succumbing to laughter more than once: for instance, at the picture of these distinguished Romans girding up their skirts and doing their two-step (tripodatio) while holding their hymn-books (libelli) and intoning their barely comprehensible carmen. This was done not surprisingly privately in the temple in the woods. Before that, pots containing some doubtless disgusting porridge are the object of prayer and ritual "touching" in the temple; then the promagister, the flamen, the public servants and two priests accept the pots, the door is opened, and they throw the whole lot over the cliff as dinner to the Mother of the Lares, whoever she is. And so it goes. Ritual gestures and words, ritual manipulation of vegetables, fruit, pots , all are listed with an obsessive attention to detail that is itself ritualistic.

It becomes clear that the obsessive detail and the order of the detail and the regular maintaining of that detail in print are all part of "religion". Order is a pattern imposed, and the desire for a pattern is derived from the celebration of an agricultural cycle as it was for Hesiod, as Scheid rightly says. The greater the detail, the greater the order required, and the greater the necessity for order. Laughter must give way to wonderment. We all knew that ritual was important in the ancient world; but was it important at this level? Evidently. Going in or coming out, putting on a white dining dress, or sandals, standing up, sitting, lying down, going up the hill, coming down the hill, and on and on, all in the correct order as it had been done for hundreds of years by distinguished Romans, all this is an affirmation of right order as well as piety. We all knew about instauratio, but here is the proof.

"Touching" (contingere) and manipulation are frequent and important. So are pots, for different kinds are named for different parts of the rituals. Those who wonder at the stamnoi on Lenaean vases might well take note of the importance attached to simply touching a certain kind of vase: not any vase, but only a specific kind, which regrettably we could not now recognize, if we found it. But most important is banqueting. In the three days of rituals for Dea Dia, there are five epula, and one sacrifice; sometimes they sit, sometimes lie, sometimes in one place, then in another, sometimes in one dress, but also in another, sometimes on special fabrics, sometimes on marble seats. On all three days there are rituals involving vegetables and fruit, again all differing. On the second day after much ritual and a banquet in the precinct, the arvals hold circus games, and then return to Rome, where they hold another banquet: it had been a long day, but it was followed by another long banquet the next day in which the rituals were accomplished between the first and second courses.

Scheid's method is to give a section of text, as it can be established from the fragments in the greatest detail, and then comment on it. This is perhaps correct, but readers will often lose themselves in detail, when an introductory overall text would have helped us to grasp where we are in which day; likewise the useful chart of the sacrifices for Dia is on p.656, when it should be on p.442, while the twenty pages of charts at 485-505 I did not find particularly helpful. The epigraphic indexes are fine, so too the index nominum but the index rerum is very deficient, though it acts as an index to the commentary. It is impossible e.g. to trace discussion of religious ideas, if they are not the subject of philological comment. For instance, commensuality figures large in the discussion, but the index will not enable the reader to get hold of the idea.

Of course much remains unexplained. In the absence of archaeological confirmation, we are uncertain of the relation between the buildings called Caesareum and the tetrastylum, or if they were the same. Banquets were held in both, and their details are often unparalleled and puzzling. Just why at the banquet before the circus games the Brethern got one each of the urnalia (and campanae) of sweet wine, when each vessel normally held 13 litres, is a puzzle. Oddly one can wish that Scheid had given us more detail about some things; e.g. the Brethren from 105 A.D. at least lie down super toralibus segmentatis; after 239 there is only one torale and apparently only for the (pro) magister. But these fabrics are in Petronius 40.1 in front of the couches. My guess would be that this is a tapestry with sacred symbols, as Scheid argues, but was not on the couch(es), but hung down from the front of the three sided sofa, which could be seen after the table with the first course was removed. But perhaps the ritual was modified in this aspect. Does this mean that there were more tables? If so, that a new dining pattern had been established? There is plenty here for further investigation.

Scheid has now given us a solid text and commentary on this most interesting group. He is always sane and pragmatic -- a desirable virtue when dealing with the baffling Realia of the protocols -- and keeps a good balance between theoretical framework and text; indeed more intimidating French theoretical gymnastics come as a sort of optional extra, since he cheerfully refers us to them in the footnotes as further reading -- perhaps to occupy us in the brief space before the next Befar strikes.