Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.06.49

Alain Cadotte, La Romanisation des Dieux. L'interpretatio romana en Afrique du Nord sous le Haut-Empire. RGRW 158.   Leiden:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. 750.  ISBN 978-90-04-15258-8.  $195.00.  



Reviewed by Ioana Costa, University of Bucharest (ioanacosta@yahoo.com)
Word count: 1449 words

The homogeneousness of the Roman world was defined by a legal act: the citizenship. The person who was endowed with a double citizenship (of his/her own city and of Rome) had to fulfil the duties toward both cities. As one of the fundamental duties in the ancient world was to recognise and honour the official divinities, the prevailing of the Roman official cult over the local cults resulted in a communal identity and a subtle amalgam of the Roman world. Alain Cadotte's book on 'interpretatio romana' in Northern Africa represents serious research based mostly on the epigraphic resources and offered in a rigorous, precise and attractive form and from a philological perspective. More than one third of the book (pp. 430-750) is devoted to a catalogue that includes all the relevant inscriptions, a highly useful thematic bibliography and indices (geographical, names of divinities, ancient authors, modern authors, epigraphic index). The research deals with northern Africa (except for the Mauritanias, to which Cadotte takes a different approach in light of their connections to the Iberian peninsula), in an arc of time from Augustus to Diocletian (31 BC-284 AD).

The phrase 'interpretatio romana', taken from Tacitus (Germania, XLIII, 4), is used to designate the Roman custom of giving a Latin name to the divinities that did not belong to Roman religion. This transfer is only at the surface a linguistic translation: there is not merely a simple similarity of names, but also a selective equalization of divine attributes and, in time, a two-way path that enriches both pantheons. The cultures are never homogenous, as the societies acknowledged various cultural influences mirroring the amplitude and depth of the contacts with the surrounding populations. The religious syncretism is an inevitable phenomenon: it mostly shows up in ancient societies centered on polytheistic religions extremely open to borrowings and assimilations. Ancient Africa was a perfect place for such mixtures, from both geographical and historical points of view, since it was exposed to Oriental and Occidental influences.

The documents taken into account by Alain Cadotte are numerous and of different origins. The general framework is given by the phrase 'interpretatio romana', originally meant as a short formula of equivalence between two different divinities. Well known examples of such 'interpretationes' are the Roman names used for the Greek gods, a consequence of the strong influences of Magna Graecia. Caesar offers another memorable series of equations, in the De Bello Gallico, where Teutates, Taranis and Belenos are indicated by the names of Mercury, Jupiter, and Apollo. Most of the Roman 'interpretationes' finally affect the personality of the divinity that originally lent the name: the prestige of the Greek myths, for instance, imposed new characteristics on the Roman divinity considered to be the correspondent. On the African ground, the Libyan and Punic divinities and their Roman equivalents transfer the characteristics from one to another, on an onomasiological level, on the level of divine attributes, religious iconography, sacred architecture, or liturgically. The result is a reciprocal enrichment of the divine personalities.

On one hand, the practice of 'interpretatio romana' is justified by the need to assume a Roman appearance, that is to say, to obtain the status of a Roman citizen, on a long or short term. On the other, the symbolic and religious reasons are to be considered, as the person who decides to honour the local god under the name used by the conquerors might want to assimilate the local god to a more powerful divinity.

'Interpretatio romana' is part of the process of Romanisation. Generally speaking, Rome did not impose her cult over the cults of the defeated populations; Rome seldom forbade the religious practices outside her pomoerium (always on a potentially dangerous basis, from a socio-political perspective). In the provinces the Roman governors tended to encourage Roman (and Greek) cults, beyond the indigenous ones, with a general view toward ensuring the annual taxes for the emperor. There was a certain amount of liberty in practicing the traditional cults. Religion and politics were closely related in ancient civilizations, and the corollary was the keen attention paid to the religion of the conqueror. The available way of approaching the Roman gods was offered by the 'interpretatio romana', which could represent a basically onomasiological grafting onto the local divinities; further steps in this transfer are the architectural and artistic level (temples, altars, statues -- inspired by the Graeco-Roman spirit and aesthetics) and a reshaping of liturgical terminology (sacerdos, flamen, rex sacrorum) and customs (especially the ex-uoto in Latin language).

Several elements function as clues. Obviously, the first one is the Greek/Roman name chosen to express the identity of the god or goddess, as a manifest part of the ancient interpretation. For instance, the fact that Saturn had been chosen to correspond to the dominant god of Africa is relevant, although Saturn and Jupiter eventually were assimilated in more than one place in Africa. However, the name is not the only evidence, as the cultural and theological differences cannot be resolved by onomasiology. Epithets and attributes offer a much better view of the divinities; some of them are rather common, such as potens, conseruator, genetrix, dea bona, but others are less neutral; dominus is frequently used to indicate a conception inherent in Semitic populations, for whom God is Lord (Ado^n) and Master (Baal).

The sources used by Cadotte are basically epigraphical. Nevertheless, literary data are also taken into account, as well as numismatic and archaeological evidence. The main corpus of this book is a twelve-chapter ensemble devoted to particular divinities: (1) Baal Hammon/Saturn, (2) Tanit/Caelestis, (3) Baal Addir/Mercury and Silvanus, (4) Eshmoun/Asclepius and Eshmoun/Apollo, (5) Astarte/Venus (and similar divinities), (6) Shadrapha/Liber, (7) Melqart, Milkashart, and Hercules, (8) African Neptune, (9) African Pluto, (10) Ceres, (11) cults of stars, (12) the African pantheon.

A brief survey of the first chapter might offer a sense of the argument. The assimilation Baal Hammon/Saturn was already common before the Roman period, as the Carthaginian god had been identified with Cronos, the Greek equivalent of Roman of Saturn (see Sophocles, Andromeda, fr. 126, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta IV). In Roman times, Baal Hammon naturally corresponded to Saturn, as both gods reigned over agriculture (Baal Hammon was largely represented enthroned, with grains in his hand). A bilingual inscription attests this equivalence: dominus Sapurnus (sic) in the Latin text and Baal in the Punic text. Iconographical elements support the correspondence: stelae devoted to Baal and those devoted to Saturn currently contain the crescent symbol. The common sacrificial victims for both gods are the bull and the ram (or lamb). There are substitute sacrifices for both gods, in molk or molchomor manner. Highly relevant for the equivalence between the two gods is the survey of chronological attestation, in inscriptions (Table 1, pp. 30-37). In the process of Romanisation, as the Latin inscriptions became richer and more numerous, by the end of the first century AD and especially in the second and third centuries, the name Saturn occurs more often, endowed with the traditional titles and epithets in Latin form. The enrichment of Saturn's personality is indicated by the new epithets: during the third century AD there seemed to appear the term inuictus (see CIL VIII 2667 deus inuictus Saturnus), unusual in the Occidental cults, but common in the Oriental world (e.g. Sol and Mithra).

The Romanisation of African gods and goddesses has never before been the subject of an extensive specialized study. There are important books on this matter, such as those of J. Toutain and S. Gsell, published almost one hundred years ago; G. Charles-Picard, Les religions de l'Afrique antique (Paris 1954); M. Le Glay, Saturne africain. Histoire (Paris 1966); M. Bernabou, La résistance africaine à la romanisation (Paris 1976); and E. Lipinski, Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicien et punique (Leuven 1995). Alain Cadotte's book offers a solid analysis of this complex ensemble that is the African religion in Roman times, subject to various influences. This approach is based on the fact that although 'interpretatio romana' generally implies a pure assimilation, the phenomenon is much more complex; the absolute assimilation is virtual and, de facto, the traditional African divinities preserved their original nature even under Roman appearances. The influences they experienced in time came not only from the Libyan and Punic environment, but also from the Greek and Roman cultures. Apart from all the influences and transfers, the religious domain remains fundamentally conservative: in foreign (i.e. Latin) clothes/names, the essence is traditionalist. In certain aspects, the authentic personality of the god or goddess honoured under a Latin name came to the surface in details of the cult, in temples or sanctuaries that were different from the Roman customs, or even in specific types of homage, such as molchomor.

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