Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.06

Francesca Prescendi, Décrire et comprendre le sacrifice. Les réflexions des Romains sur leur propre religion à partir de la littérature antiquaire. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge (PAwB), 19.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 978-3-515-08888-6.  €59.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, University of St Andrews (
Word count: 1235 words

This is a useful and intelligent addition to the growing literature on ancient sacrifice, characterised predominantly by a careful attention to the ancient sources. Prescendi makes clear from the outset that the object of her study is not to produce a single account of the true significance of sacrifice in the Roman world, but to take account of a multiplicity of interpretations, with a particular emphasis on the antiquarian literature. This is the strength of the volume; if it has a flaw, it is that the concept of antiquarian literature is insufficiently explored and the mechanism whereby the Romans produced a multiplicity of views is not fully developed at a methodological level.

The introduction is short and makes reference to some modern literature, but it is not a full account of the current state of the question. Prescendi follows mainly Scheid's approaches to sacrifice, and she is surely correct that we need to develop a nuanced and source-based interpretation of this crucial aspect of Roman religious life. However, if the basis for this exercise is a concept of a technical literature developed by antiquarians, then we need to investigate more carefully than here the way that this literature developed and the extent to which it is truly a technical literature. Prescendi comments that many of the authors of the list of relevant works (p16) are jurists, but that concept itself deserves to be opened up; why are jurists interested in sacrifice, and are they indeed writing as jurists or as priests themselves? Moreover, given the fact that there is such lability in the interpretation of sacrifice, to what extent are these definitive accounts which produced accurate versions of what a sacrifice was like?

Prescendi works with an interpretation of sacrifice as an act of communication between men and gods, and argues that even the etymology of the key terms moves us away from a concept of sacrifice as essentially an act of destruction. This communicative model might lead one into a rather more articulated version of the grammar of ancient religion. What are the rules of this particular communication? Towards the end Prescendi develops some interesting comments about the power relations within this relationship, but this is under-represented in the theoretical section.

The first main part of the book is a description of a model sacrifice. This is a sound and helpful account, well-researched and presented, but it does leave one with a question of what the nature of this model is, especially since it is inevitably drawn from sources across a broad chronological sweep, and although Prescendi is alive to the biases which later sources introduce, as well as the problem of conflation of Greek and Roman concepts, the presentation to an extent suggests that there was a uniform and clear mechanism for sacrifice, which is on the other hand excluded by consideration of the extended account of sacrifice presented at the end of the chapter from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (7.72). One characteristic of anthropological observations of ancient sacrifice is that there is a substantial gap between the participants' belief in the stability of rituals, and the observed variation in the actual rites. We should perhaps assume that the reality was more chaotic and less fixed, for even the concern with the due performance of a ritual, exemplified by accounts of occasions where things went wrong, needs to be read against the variety of interpretation. What opportunity was there for varying interpretations to impact upon performance?

The second part of the book takes a more thematic approach to the constituent elements of the sacrifice, especially on the actions preceding the sacrifice, the consecration, and the contrasts between the objects of sacrifice. One theme which runs effectively through the whole of the section, which concludes with an extended digression on the exta, is the role of the sacrifice in bringing the Roman people together and giving them a sense of identity. Prescendi does not consider what role sacrifice has in the spread of empire, and this allows again a sense that there is a stable concept of sacrifice, something which discussion of the wider imperial context might have usefully problematised. There are also problems with the introduction of mythical discourses into the interpretative framework, as for instance with the use of the myths of Orion's birth or Philemon and Baucis to answer the question of whether the gods should be thought to concretely enjoy the offerings made to them. The underlying assumption would be that there is no necessary difference between what Ovid says about sacrifice and what a grammarian says, that there is a unified discourse, and that might be questioned, particularly at the level of the conception of the gods. Did the Romans always hold a conception of the gods as mythological actors when they sacrificed? The answer is surely not, at least in regard to deities which do not have an effective mythological existence, but maybe more generally. This is a problem for the communicative model because the nature of the deity to whom one was communicating is perhaps open to debate, and certainly capable of being influenced over time -- Apollo would be a good example of a deity whose significance varied. The effective illustration that all the accounts of the exta in fact in one way or another indicate the importance and supremacy of the gods is therefore helpful, since it provides for Prescendi's account a point of security. Another area which might have helped would have been consideration of artistic representations of sacrifice, which also to a degree provide conformity and order.

The last part of the book considers the sacrifice in the context of the death of the victim, and raises issues about the relationship between animal sacrifice and the Roman view on human sacrifice. This is an awkward transition, and illustrates the problems presented by the sources; at what point did the Romans develop some kind of argument that animal sacrifice was a kind of substitution for human sacrifice? Prescendi believes that the key period was the later second and early first century BC, and adduces the unusual sacrifice of Greek and Gauls, the senatus consultum of 97 BC banning human sacrifice, the ban on sacrifice amongst the Bletonesioi (interpreted, as Cichorius did, as an event in Spain in the mid-90s BC) and the more or less contemporary account by Manilius of the sacrifice of the Argei as a substitute for human sacrifice. (The Manilius referred to is a modern construct, put together from the fragment mani at Festus p450L, and Pliny's reference to the first person who wrote about the phoenix (NH 10.4) in the 90s BC.) Not all of this account will be persuasive, but here, and in the subsequent accounts of episodes such as the sacrifice of prisoners after Perugia or the interment of the Vestals, Prescendi proves a careful reader, and alive to the distortions of contemporary normative discourses in times of social or military stress.

In conclusion this is a careful, well-written and useful book, which perhaps assumes a little too much on the methodological level, and could be more adventurous in the development of its main ideas. Prescendi is to my mind absolutely correct to see the ancients as anthropologists of their own religion, but that might have led to a more venturesome account of the contingent and unstable nature of Roman ritual, which is hinted at, rather than developed, here.

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