Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.34

Ton Derks, Gods, Temples and Religious Practices: The Transformation of Religious Ideas and Values in Roman Gaul. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 2.   Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 1998.  Pp. x, 325.  ISBN 90-5356-254-0.  F85/$39.50.  

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, History/Religious Studies, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 1797 words

In this bold and important book (originally a University of Amsterdam dissertation in Environmental Studies), Ton Derks provides not only a subtle analysis of the archaeology of Romanization in Gaul, but also some articulate theories of religion in society and landscape, ritual performance and space, and religious transformation. If the book's propositions rely ultimately on the meager archaeological data of Roman Gaul, their theoretical integrity -- drawing on historical and regional comparisons, structural analysis, socio-economic considerations, and even landscape theory -- makes the book a sensitive and altogether convincing picture of religious development in the early Roman period.

Derks' fundamental observation is that there was a difference between the southern and northern cultures in Gaul up to and during Romanization. The south had a predominantly agricultural economy with substantial urban centers and established elites, whereas the north had a pastoral economy and significantly less centralization. Gods, Temples, and Ritual Practices largely concerns the ways that these cultural and economic differences translated into both religious differences and differences in the means and process of Romanization. That these regional cultures were apparently preserved through -- not despite -- the Romanization process indicates that Romanization served indigenous interests and traditions rather than obliterating them -- giving them new architectural, iconographic, cultic, and hierarchical expression. Thus, much as we see in the eastern empire with Hellenization, regional cultures and their elites would appropriate these new imperial ideologies to affirm traditional values and social structure.

Gods, Temples, and Ritual Practices is organized thematically, approaching the issue of cultural appropriation from different angles. The first chapter, "Religion and the Study of the Romanization Process," provides the obligatory review of past scholarship on the Romanization process and then proceeds to outline an approach to religion that is neither a romanticized worship of mythological beings nor a simplistic means of sacralizing political power. Rather, Derks argues, religion involves communication with a sacred -- otherworldly -- sphere; it establishes codes of action and thought relating to social facts; and it takes place across -- and according to the ecological dictates of -- the landscape.

Chapter Two, "Rome and the Indigenous Societies of Northern Gaul," describes the appeal of Roman culture to indigenous elites from the time of the late Republic. Derks outlines the varying approaches of the Roman military to the northern and southern Gallic cultures. Archaeological evidence from the northern regions suggests that Rome sought to exploit the martial values and prestige systems of this area, preserving them in Roman form by setting them under Roman deities and military hierarchy. Derks is careful here to point out that Rome's invigoration of the north's martial ideology involved much cultural transformation, not just continuity of indigenous traditions.

The northern environment as well as archaeological evidence also indicates a predominantly pastoral -- stock-breeding -- economy from well before the Roman conquest. The villas and urban centers excavated in the south, by contrast, reflect an agricultural economy and its concomitant world of social values. Thus a different process of Romanization gave meaning and organization to that world. Cities organized along Roman models posed a central attraction for southern elites -- so Derks infers from urban layouts and building structures -- while in the north cities seem to have been inhabited mostly by Roman expatriates, posing less interest to the indigenous people.

Chapter Three, "Indigenous Cosmologies and Their Transformations," covers the assimilation of Roman gods in the north and south, according to the epigraphic remains. The religious epigraphy in Roman Gaul, Derks points out, is very uneven both regionally and chronologically, concentrated near military encampments and over the late second and early third centuries, a period (he proposes) of an increasingly democratic use of inscriptions. And yet Derks offers some intriguing observations about the choice and distribution of Roman gods. Those gods primarily invoked in Roman Gaul were Mars, Hercules, Mercury, Silvanus, and Apollo. Mercury, Silvanus, and Apollo seem to have been the objects of local cults and thus stood primarily as counterparts to indigenous gods. Mars and Hercules, however, seem to have been revered on their own terms throughout Gaul; and it is in explaining their appeal -- to the south and the north, respectively -- that Derks offers one of his most ingenious contributions in the book.

Both Mars and Hercules, military gods, entered Gaul on the heels of the Roman conquest. Yet each deity carried attributes that associated him with one or the other of the two Gallic cultures. Mars' associations with borders and the protection of fields linked him with the southern economy. Hercules, on the other hand, was imagined as a returning hero and seems thus to have been linked with cattle-herding even in his cult in Rome. Both Gallic cultures therefore assimilated Roman military gods for their links with distinctive economic pursuits as well as for their most obvious protective spheres. Derks describes some links between Mars and the indigenous Gallic deity Loucetius and between Hercules and Magusanus, but it is clear that the assimilation of the Roman deities was not simply a process of renaming Gallic ones.

The chapter on deities concludes with a discussion of the cults of matronae that seem, in their diversity and their archaeological association with villas, to have been of local character and a development of ancestral "mother" cults widespread in pre-Roman Gaul, perhaps under the influence of a northern Italian "mother" cult. (Derks disputes previous scholarly arguments that these cults were aniconic before the coming of Roman anthropomorphism).

Chapter Four, "Cult Places and Temple Complexes," brings the contemporary consideration of landscape and cult-community to bear on the placement and function of Gallo-Roman sanctuaries. Derks describes a religion firmly anchored in the features of the landscape and the layout of habitation rather than in mystical ideas. The Romanization of Gallic religion essentially extends and elaborates this religion of "place," producing shrine structures of several different forms: a classical type, a more synthetic "Gallo-Roman" style, or simply the addition of Roman elements to existing natural sanctuaries -- springs or hill-tops. Generally (and admitting multiple problems in regional sampling), southern Gaul shows a greater propensity to adopt Roman sanctuary forms, apparently in consonance with this culture's adoption of the villa and other Roman architectural styles, while the cultures of northern Gaul seem to have found Roman models less appealing. In a section on the historical development of sanctuaries over the course of the Roman period, Derks suggests that an increasing complexity in northern sanctuaries would correspond to an increasing hierarchization in Gallic society even before the Roman conquest: authority would be dramatized in ritual, requiring a more elaborate ritual stage for the articulation of social hierarchy. The subsequent integration of southern Gallic culture with the Roman empire and its social hierarchy similarly required ever more elaborate sanctuaries according to Roman models, in which indigenous elites could promote themselves through Roman styles of patronage.

Derks concludes this chapter with two theoretical discussions. The first addresses sanctuaries' "catchment areas" -- that is, their functional relationship to communities, clusters of communities, or simply villas or private guilds -- as reflected in form (open-air, Gallo-Roman) or accoutrements (baths). The second, on "the spatial and symbolic order of Gallo-Roman sanctuaries," involves a structural analysis of a typical sanctuary and its relationship to calendar and priesthood. Derks walks the reader through a sanctuary, from outer perimeter to altar and votive monuments, posing helpful questions about the effect of each structure in demarcating zones of holiness and social position. The intrinsic hierarchy laid out in these sanctuaries became, he argues, all the more formalized with the adoption of Roman culture.

Chapter Five, "Votive Offerings and the Ritual of the Vow," addresses the major form of communication with gods reflected in the sanctuary archaeology. Derks approaches the vow ritual as a system of exchange between the sphere of humans and the sphere of gods as well as a public occasion for the reaffirmation of hierarchy and prestige. Yet, with only commemorative altars as evidence of vow rites, it is difficult to perceive the full extent of these rituals: the altars commemorate only a vow fulfilled, not the initial request to the god. Derks thus appeals to the extensive documentation on votive rites among the Fratres Arvales of Rome, which extend from initial vows through rites of reaffirmation to rites of completion, to demonstrate the complexity and successive stages of votive rites. Those commemorated in Gaul seem to have concerned private matters, in contrast to the high civic purposes of the Fratres Arvales. And yet the comparison impels Derks to seek evidence for an initial vow rite (nuncupatio) that might have been recorded just like the fulfillment rite. The nuncupatio, he argues, seems in Gaul to have been preserved on sealed tablets of wood and wax, perishable materials from which only the bronze seals remain.

Derks points out that the votive offering is a virtually perennial aspect of private religion, especially in later, Christian Gaul; and so a concentration of Gallic votive evidence in the late second and early third centuries cannot mean that the ritual itself functioned only in this period. Rather, this preeminent ritual opportunity for showing status and proving one's acquisition of Roman culture would naturally reflect historical developments in acculturation: first the decking of a traditional Gallic rite in Roman guise and the prestige associated with it; then the democratization of Roman citizenship and its accoutrements after 212 CE, following which the expense of endowing votive altars would have seemed unnecessary.

Following a helpful conclusion, Gods, Temples, and Ritual Practices adds lists of major archaeological sites organized by gods and by archaeologically and epigraphically documented sanctuaries, plus an extensive bibliography and index. Clearly written and voluminously documented with maps and charts, Derks' monograph clearly demonstrates the importance of theory -- of structural analysis, of asking thematic questions, of developing models for interpretation of religious artifacts -- for making sense of archaeological materials and of ancient religions more generally. While the book offers a nuanced picture of Romanization and acculturation, it also lays essential groundwork for understanding subsequent religious developments. How, for example, would our picture of the Christianization of Gaul change if we were to consider it not as a revolutionary rejection of indigenous cult but as a sequel to what Derks describes -- i.e., in terms of landscape, shrine layout, catchment area, prestige opportunities for local elites, and the social and religious proclivities of regional cultures, especially for particular saint-cults? Some of these questions have, admittedly, been tackled in Raymond Van Dam's Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul (Berkeley 1985) and Valerie Flint's Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton 1991); but the literary sources analyzed for these books could not offer the same vantage on Gaul's ongoing religious transformations in their physical and cultural dimensions as Derks' materials and theoretical lenses.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:33, Friday, 03 April 2009