Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.08.05

Corinne Bonnet, Jörg Rüpke, Paolo Scarpi, Religions orientales - culti misterici: Neue Perspektiven - nouvelles perspectives - prospettive nuove. Im Rahmen des trilateralen Projektes "Les religions orientales dans le monde greco-romain"; unter Mitarbeit von Nicole Hartmann und Franca Fabricius, Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge 16.   Stuttgart:  Steiner, 2006.  Pp. 269.  ISBN 3-515-08871-7.  €56.00.  

Reviewed by Tommaso Gnoli, Università di Bologna (
Word count: 2033 words

As Corinne Bonnet clearly explains (7-10), this volume represents the results of a wide-ranging project involving scholars of the History of Religions from Germany, France and Italy on the theme of the 'oriental religions' in the Roman world. This volume comes as the second publication of this vast and qualified work group following the publication in Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 8, 2006, 151-272 of the results of a one-day meeting dedicated to the historiographical approaches to this theme during the last hundred and fifty years of scientific research (contributions by Bonnet, Bendlin, Bourgeaud, Payen, Auffarth, Lanfranchi). Another volume containing the proceedings of a conference held at the Belgian Academy in Rome is forthcoming during this year.

The volume under discussion is subdivided into three sections, each preceded by an introduction:

1. Pratiques, agents (11-63), centred on the cultual practice and thus on the officiants of the cults and their possible organizations (Einführung, by Philippe Bourgeaud and Jörg Rüpke, 11-12);
2. Une 'théologie' en images? Isis et les autres (65-158) (Introduction, by Pierre Cordier and Valérie Huet, 65-73) centred on the concept of sacred image and on the utilization of iconography as a source for the reconstruction of religious creeds and on the relationship between written and iconographical sources;
3. Les cultes à mystères (159-246) centred on the concept of mysteries and on the suitability to go on using this conceptual category for non-Greek cults, just as Cumont and Petazzoni did (Introduzione, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge, Paolo Scarpi, 159-162).

The prosopographical analysis of the priests attested in Rome between 300 B.C. and 499 A.D., based on his monumental work, Fasti sacerdotum, Stuttgart 2005, leads Rüpke (13-26) to conclude that the priestly groups pertaining to various cults used to choose their members on the basis of familiar relationships. Inside each organization true careers over the various functions and ritual roles were very rare, as each priest tried to reach and keep the position in the cult that was appropriate to his social level. From this point of view it is not possible to distinguish the various existing cults starting from a typological point of view on the basis of the organization schemes of their clergies.

Steimle (27-38) has studied the Egyptian sanctuary in Thessalonike, in which, thanks to its 70 texts dated between the 3rd century B. C. and the 2nd century A. D., the richest lot of epigraphical documentation in the city was found. The ἱεραφόροι συνκλίται seem to have been a very coherent social group, to judge from their mostly Roman names, as attested in IG X 2. 1, 58, and they also came from the upper social classes, just like the other associations attested in the sanctuary. To belong to Egyptian cults represented for the Romans their most important means of integration system with the Greek environment around them. People belonging to the various associations tended to gather in coherent groups regulated on the basis of their social positions or clientele relationships. From this point of view it is interesting how they were distributed among the various divinities worshipped in the sanctuary. The divine figure of Zeus Dionysios Gongylos that does not fit very well with the Egyptian cults is particularly enigmatic. The presence of this deity and of some other ones that are less well represented in the sanctuary such as Anubis and Hermanubis shows that the choice of the deities was justified by the aim of each association to distinguish itself from the other associations.

Van Haepern (39-51) has analysed the oriental cults that were officially introduced in Rome, like that of Cybele, and some others that never received public endorsement, like the Egyptian ones, or the cult of Mithra or of Sol in Trastevere, and he reveals how the role of public authorities was different in each case.

Schäfer (53-63) has studied the Dionysian associations in Ephesus and in the Danubian area. In Ephesus many remains related to the Dionysian cults show that the latter assumed an official character during some periods of the imperial era, certainly under Commodus. At last a report on the excavations at the Sanctuary of Liber Pater in Apulum (Alba Iulia) is presented too.

The second section is opened by a complex contribution by Bricault (75-95), who emphasises the direct relationship between the iconographic and onomastic changes pertaining Isis and the wide diffusion of this divinity in the Greek world, an approach which allows a polysemic interpretation of the cult representations of the deity.

Sanzi (97-112) has investigated the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus through the deities associated with him in votive dedications, in particular Asclepius and Hygieia, the healer deities, the Castors and Juno Regina. The diffusion of this cult, which experienced its peak in the first half of the 3rd century, is attested not only in the military environment but also among the civilians. The cosmic importance of this cult, in which Jupiter Dolichenus played the role of savior, is well attested in the votive triangles visually representing the relationships between the central deity and the 'hosted' gods.

Prescendi (113-122) has challenged the idea that the Mithraic tauroctony could have ever been understood by a Roman as a scene of sacrifice. The characteristics of this representation rather hint at a hunting scene, i.e. a violent action that is typical for a "sitiogonic myth". She argues that it represent an "ancestor" of ritual sacrifice.

Belayche (123-133) resumes the theme that has been already treated elsewhere, that Mithraism had an alleged western derivation and more generally that the oriental cults in the Roman empire did not exist, an hypothesis that she interprets as mistaken.

From the same perspective, Wyler (135-145) proposes the study of a fresco from the Augustan period discovered in Lanuvium that has been recently published (2002). The Dionysian scene it presents allows a comparison with the Villa della Farnesina in Rome.

Estienne (147-158) deals with the wider concept of the role of cult images in Roman religion, which was originally aniconic according to Varro, and with the essence of "oriental religions", considered here rather as alterities with respect to the models that were felt to be elements in identity formation. Those ritual actions, moreover, that were considered typically "oriental", like the lavatio of a goddess, were capable of contributing to identity-building as the cases of the Magna Mater and of Venus Verticordia show.

In the third section Chirassi (163-179) adopts a clearly anthropological method to study the terms magos and pharmakis. This approach stresses the 'gender' differences, but she exaggerates these owing to an excessive abstraction that does not take the Persian origin of the term magos into sufficient consideration (with only a brief allusion (171) to the semantic shift that the term underwent between antiquity and late antiquity).

Sfameni Gasparro (181-210) is the author of the longest and most dense essay in this volume, and she gives a positive answer to the question of whether the category 'oriental cults' can still be considered relevant. She particularly investigates the mystery-cult aspects, paying attention to the Eleusinian and Mithraic cults. The first part of her contribution concerns methodological questions, then the Greek essence of the mysteria is underlined and then she discusses the possibility of framing those experiences within the typology of a "dio in vicenda", following the classification proposed by U. Bianchi. In the second part of this contribution, "Examples of 'oriental mysteria'" are taken into consideration (the mysteries of Isis and the cults of Cybele and Attis), above all on the basis of the literary sources.

Coppola (211-218) studies Ptolemaic religious policy during the 3rd century B.C. The new Greek sovereigns linked the mystery cults to the celebration of royalty by means of the control over the "auto-referential" ceremonies of death and rebirth. The interest in Eleusis emphasizes the privileged relationship with Athens, while the rite of Isis was connected to the agricultural life that played such an important role in the Egyptian collective imagination.

Jaccottet (219-230) is particularly interested in Dionysiac religion and in the polymorphism of the cults dedicated to that god. The great number of associations and cults shows the existence of a plurality of Dionysiac mysteries, which was possible, or better probable, thanks to the high number of sanctuaries, where different and mostly independent initiation rites and cult practices took place. The definition of the Dionysiac cults as mystery cults is considered a mistake, as actually only teletai and orgia pertain to the cult of Dionysus.

Lanfranchi (231-246) studies the 'forced circulation of deities' in the ancient Near East starting from the birth of the Assyrian empire. The abduction of divine statues, the assumption of divinities from annexed countries into the imperial official pantheon, and the imposition of Assyrian deities in the occupied territories represented the means of that circulation, producing either collaboration or resistance phenomena, which are exemplified by the diffusion of the cult of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, an ambiguous deity who is both pure and impure, virgin and whore. This twofold aspect with its strong sexual component encouraged the cult among groups of initiated people belonging to the highest social classes (specialized priests) or in oppressed groups of poor people who stressed its eschatological aspects.

This volume as a whole represents the current opinion shared by many scholars of the religious history in the classical world, that the widely diffused mystery cults in the Roman world should be considered as internal developments of Graeco-Roman religion and that the oriental derivation of cults such as the mysteries of Cybele, Isis, and Mithra is nothing but a far-fetched echo with no actual importance. This trend is well attested also by the alteration of the title of the famous series "Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l'empire romain" by Brill into "Religions in the Graeco-Roman World". This position, which is shared by the majority of the authors contributing to this volume, is not supported by the reviewer. Nevertheless, the value of this volume lies in the excellent scholarly level of all contributions and above all in the presence of more balanced positions that are also bound to more traditional views on the oriental cults.

I would like to conclude my review of this volume, which I recommend to all scholars of history of religions and more generally to scholars of the ancient world, with a thought by Giulia Sfameni Gasparro when she talked about the so-called 'third era' in the studies of the 'oriental religions'. She said that it is not necessary "che questo processo di rivisitazione di una problematica storica quale quella proposta dalle ricerche cumontiane e perseguita da studiosi di grande statura scientifica possa essere condotta solamente attraverso una programmatica critica o un vero e proprio ribaltamento delle posizioni tradizionali. Il progresso della conoscenza storica, in questo come in tutti i campi, non ha bisogno di battaglie iconoclaste, ma di indagini pazienti intese a verificare le ipotesi di lavoro sul terreno della documentazione" (181).


Corinne Bonnet: Repenser les religions orientales: un chantier interdisciplinaire et international

Philippe Borgeaud and Jörg Rüpke: Einführung

Jörg Rüpke: Organisationsmuster religiöser Spezialisten im kultischen Spektrum Roms

Christopher Steimle: Das Heiligtum der ägyptischen Götter in Thessaloniki und die Vereine in seinem Umfeld

Françoise Van Haeperen: Fonctions des autorités politiques et religieuses romaines en matière de "cultes orientaux"

Alfred Schäfer: L'associazionismo dionisiaco come fenomeno urbano dell'epoca imperiale romana

Pierre Cordier and Valérie Huet: Introduction

Laurent Bricault: Du nom des images d'Isis polymorphe

Ennio Sanzi: Dèi ospitanti e dèi ospitati nel patrimonio iconografico dei culti orientali: Ancora riflessioni storico-religiose sul sincretismo religioso del secondo ellenismo

Francesca Prescendi: Riflessioni e ipotesi sulla tauroctonia mitraica e il sacrificio romano

Nicole Belayche: Note sur l'imagerie des divinités 'orientales' dans le Proche-Orient romain

Stéphanie Wyler: Images dionysiaques à Rome: à propos d'une fresque augustéenne de Lanuvium

Sylvia Estienne: Images et culte: pratiques 'romaines' / influences 'orientales'

Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Paolo Scarpi: Introduzione

Ileana Chirassi: Il Magos e la Pharmakis. Excursus attraverso il lessico storico in ottica di genere

Giulia Sfameni Gasparro: Misteri e culti orientali: un problema storico-religioso

Alessandra Coppola: I misteri e la politica dei primi Tolemei

Anne-Françoise Jaccottet : Un dieu, plusieurs mystères? Les différents visages des mystères dionysiaques

Giovanni Lanfranchi: Nuove prospettive sulla teologia e sul culto di Inanna/Ishtar: la pervasività del modello mesopotamico nel I millennio a.C.

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