Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.12.14

Micol Perfigli, Indigitamenta: divinità funzionali e funzionalità divina nella religione romana. Anthropoi 2.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2004.  Pp. 308.  ISBN 88-467-0977-2.  €19.00.  

Reviewed by Lindsay Driediger, University of Oxford (
Word count: 1873 words

Table of Contents

From mockery at the hands of early Christian apologists to dismissal as 'primitive' by nineteenth-century classicists, the minor gods of the indigitamenta, the so-called "Sondergötter", have not met much sympathy in attempts to understand Roman religion. Fundamental discussions in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries about the nature of these gods were followed by general etymological debate about the meaning of the terms indigitamenta and indiges, and more recent publications on the topic are simply historiographical surveys of earlier work (most recently Elm 2003).1 This book by Micol Perfigli (P. hereafter) thus represents an overdue and welcome step towards thorough and up-to-date study of the Roman minor gods.

The lengthy Chapter One, 'Un dio per ogni cosa' (pp. 21-179), introduces the reader to most of the minor gods, roughly in the order in which they affected human life. Here we find thematic sections dedicated to the gods of infancy, conception, naming of an infant, parturition, fear, states of mind, actions, agriculture, marriage, women's marital status, and sexual relations. In each section P. cites and discusses the extant ancient references to each god, and expands where possible on the etymological and conceptual significance of the god's name. P.'s organisation of the evidence (including occasional cross-cultural comparisons from anthropology) is at times idiosyncratic to the point of disrupting the flow of the text, but his assembling of sources, related not just to each god by name but to related verbs and concepts, goes usefully beyond previous scholarship. This trove of primary source material can be conveniently searched by deity using the book's index. P.'s main point in this section is that the concepts represented by these divine beings reflect culturally-important elements and moments in the lives of individual and community, and thus that this aspect of Roman religion can be defined as a 'taxonomy of reality' (una sorta di tassonomia della realtà) (pp. 176-7). She also mounts a stimulating challenge to the common view that only the twelve agricultural deities of the Sacrum Ceriale and the minor deities of the Arval Brothers were 'real' recipients of Roman attention, by noting possible indications of rituals involving other minor gods,2 though she does not explicitly enter into the vexed question of how often and how much the average, non-expert Roman worshipped such gods. In keeping with her argument that the minor gods can be used as reflections of Roman currents of thought, she argues that in many cases the gender of a divine name seems to have been determined not simply by grammar but by its associations with the male or female sphere of activity in real life (104f.). Although there are multiple names for some of these deities, presumably reflecting the variants known to different ancient authors, P. chooses for the most part not to conflate one name with another, but rather to allot each author's testimony equal weight. While she criticizes the ancient etymologies on linguistic grounds where relevant, she postpones serious discussion of the relative historical merits and deficiencies of her ancient sources until the very end of the chapter (173f.).

Chapter Two, 'Per una storia degli indigitamenta' (pp. 183-217), traces modern study of the minor deities from the nineteenth-century work of Marquardt and Bouché-Leclercq, through to Usener, Wissowa, Otto, and Rose. While her survey is broadly accurate, it is curious that when (briefly) alluding to Wissowa's views P. fails to cite his fundamental article3 on the topic. With most scholars P. rejects the earlier definition of these minor gods as 'gods of the indigitamenta', noting that the indigitamenta as texts seem to have included other, major gods as well, and following the consensus view that the minor gods are better defined as 'dei certi' or 'dei minuti' (183f.). P. sensibly rejects the earlier view of animism as an explanation for the creation of the minor gods, noting that they generally represent moments of life and actions rather than power-imbued objects (p. 211). P. also dismisses the nineteenth-century view that the minor deities reflect the 'primitive' anxieties and innumerable fears of Rome's archaic period, arguing instead that these deities reflect an attempt at the systematization and organizing of human experience (215f.). Yet she argues against the Wissowan line that this systematization is largely attributable to Varro, and rejects also Rose's suggestion that the names of these gods were invented and invoked on a flexible, situational basis, arguing that such a view allows 'un'eccezionale libertà' to a religious system as structured and formal as Rome's (p. 206). P. does not rule out the possibility that some of the divine names date from the archaic period, but overall she considers it impossible to historicize the development of the minor gods, who may indeed have originated in different periods and places (p. 204; cf. 179). P. prefers to regard these gods as reflections of Roman thinking (of indeterminate date), and to this extent she expresses sympathy with Usener's view that the names of the minor gods, determined by their function, shed light on religious and cultural conceptions. While dismissing Usener's opinion that the "Sondergötter" can be reliably used as indicators of Roman attitudes in the archaic period and rejecting that scholar's oft-criticised theory that the development of the minor deities reflects a tendency towards monotheism, P. notes that Usener's philological approach to religion, which has clearly influenced her book, can be a fruitful one (p. 204).

Chapter Three, 'Gli antichi e i loro indigitamenta' (pp. 219-65), discusses the character of the indigitamenta as libri listing the names of deities and the rationes for their names, including invocations. P. surveys some earlier work on the possible meaning of the sparsely-attested indigitare and indiges, accepting possible etymological linkages to the notions of speaking (aio); of designating with the finger (in-digitus);4 and of invocation (incantamenta) (222f.). P. breaks interesting ground in suggesting that the term indigitare is a technical term not simply for prayer or invocation but for designating precisely the divine name appropriate to the function the worshipper required (241f.). She observes that Roman recording of divine names and their significance reveals the necessity in Roman prayer of addressing a god with full ritual correctness in order for the prayer to be effective. P. thus accepts the practical reality of the indigitamenta, envisioning multiple lists of gods, perhaps modified over time as new deities were added to the pantheon, for the use of ritual experts like the pontifices (pp. 222-3, 240). Finally, P. suggests that the existence of such lists is evidence for the early importance of written texts as well as orality in the development of Roman religion (p. 259).

There is much here that will be useful to scholars of Roman religion. The book also has certain weaknesses. Given the philological and linguistic intricacies of P.'s etymological arguments, it is unfortunate that all source quotations in the body text are given in Italian, with only key words in Latin or Greek (citations of other sources in the footnotes do use the original languages). P. defends this in her introduction as consideration for readers unacquainted with these ancient languages (p. 17), but this raises questions of audience, for P.'s sparse source criticism (see below) is hardly sufficient for the inexperienced or even the expert reader. Experts may well find P.'s citation of secondary literature, especially scholarship in English, too thin to satisfy. In her comments on the suppression of the Bacchanalia in 186 BC, for example, P. relies almost exclusively on Gallini (1970), overlooking criticisms and discussions of that work by Turcan (1972), North (1979), the monumental study by Pailler (1988), and Gruen (1990).5 P.'s remarks on the Bacchanalian affair are prompted by her study of the minor goddess Stimula, and thus, one might argue, tangential to this point; but De Cazanove's lengthy article6 on Stimula herself, never cited by P., should at least have made an appearance. The absence from the bibliography of items central to the topic of the indigitamenta (Wissowa's 1904 article as noted above, Schilling's 1979 piece7 on the meaning of indiges), is also worrisome.

P.'s efforts to include comparative anthropological material from other cultures are laudable, but sometimes less than successful. For example, her comparison (58f.) of the Roman ritual of placing a newborn temporarily at the father's feet, with the ancient Chinese practice of secluding newborns on a bed (males) or the ground (females) for three days (P. interprets both rituals as demonstrating that an infant needs to be in contact with the life-giving earth) is strained at best, and her citations of Chinese texts without providing any indication of their date or social context unwisely assume the reader's familiarity with such material. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the book is P.'s unconcern for context, for her cursory source criticism skims over questions that should surely have been of great importance to her work, even if they were unanswerable. The issue of whether the minor deities listed by Tertullian, Arnobius, and Augustine represented anything more than book learning for those authors receives only brief notice.8 More seriously, while she recognizes that the minor deities known to us were probably of diverse temporal and geographical origin, P. never properly discusses whether it is methodologically sound to use, as she does, Varro, Macrobius, Ovid, and Festus together to build up a complex of meanings surrounding a given deity, rather than considering them as potentially unrelated reflections of different times or sources. This has the effect of placing most of her reconstructions in a timeless realm of cults practised by 'i Romani,' a result perhaps unavoidable given the state of our evidence, but which should have been more explicitly acknowledged.

Despite these deficiencies, P.'s book raises interesting issues, which will hopefully generate further discussion in future. P.'s allusion to the possible regionalism of these minor deities, suggesting briefly that North Africa may have preserved a variety of deities atypical of other parts of the Roman Empire, and thus have influenced (African) Christian writing about the minor gods (p. 177 n. 550), is intriguing. Closer to Rome, I note that Cicero's description of Natio states that she receives worship in the territory of Ardea: 'Natio quoque dea putanda est, cui, cum fana circumimus in agro Ardeati, rem divinam facere solemus'.9 One wonders whether we can safely assume, as P. does, that this goddess linked to a certain territory was simply one more minor Roman deity (p. 93). Scholars have raised other possibilities, not noted by P.: Natio may have been a local deity10 or received public attention from the Roman state (during worship ad omnia pulvinaria?).11 Perhaps Cicero's reference to territory implies that this goddess did not simply receive sacrifice whenever a woman gave birth. If that is true of Natio, future studies may need to consider the possibility that some of the deities now known to us for their function in human life actually received cult at times and places not strictly dictated by that function.

In sum, P.'s book provides a useful collection of primary sources, a thoughtful definition of the term indigitare, and a refreshing determination to take the minor deities seriously as objects of worship and to document the conceptual field of each one. Used with caution this book will provide scholars of Roman religion with interesting food for thought.


1.   D. Elm (2003), 'Die Kontroverse über die Sondergötter', Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 5.1: 67-79.
2.   At times this search for rituals is taken to improbable lengths, however (see for example P.'s suggestion of a speech ritual for newborns at p. 57, where none of the cited texts necessarily suggests a ritual distinct from the deposition of the infant at the father's feet).
3.   G. Wissowa (1904), 'Echte und falsche "Sondergötter" in der römischen Religion', Gesammelte Abhandlungen zur römischen Religions- und Stadtgeschichte (Munich).
4.   250. P. here discusses only the interpretation of Kretschmer, that the gods were so numerous they evoked notions of counting on one's fingers. He omits Bevilacqua's suggestion, which might have added to her case for the technical meaning of indigitare, that the notion is one of 'pointing out', ie. designating with precision (M. Bevilacqua (1988), 'Gli indigitamenta', Invigilata Lucernis 10: 21-33.
5.   R. Turcan (1972), 'Religion et politique dans l'affaire des Bacchanales', RHR 181: 3-28; J. North (1979), 'Religious Toleration in Republican Rome', PCPhS 25: 85-103; J.-M. Pailler (1988), Bacchanalia. La répression de 186 av. J.-C. à Rome et en Italie: Vestiges, images, tradition (Rome); E. Gruen (1990), Studies in Greek Culture and Roman Policy (Leiden), ch. 2.
6.   O. De Cazanove (1983), 'Lucus Stimulae. Les aiguillons des Bacchanales', MEFRA 95: 55-113.
7.   R. Schilling (1979), 'Le culte de l'Indiges à Lavinium', Revue des Études latines 57: 49-68.
8.   P. recognizes the possibility that these authors exaggerate for polemical reasons (p. 173), or preserve anachronistic information (p. 177), or reflect regional religious idiosyncrasies (p. 177 and n. 155), but considers them essentially 'faithful witnesses' (p. 176).
9.   Cicero, De Natura Deorum 3.47.
10.   G. Wissowa (1912), Religion und Kultus der Römer, second edition (Munich), p. 50 n. 2; F. Melis and S. Quilici Gigli (1982), 'Luoghi di culto nel territoria di Ardea', Archeologia Classica 34: p. 29.
11.   J. B. Mayor (1885), M. Tullii Ciceronis De natura deorum libri tres (Cambridge), vol. 3: p. 131.

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