Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.35

Olivier Hekster, Sebastian Schmidt-Hofner, Christian Witschel (ed.), Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Eighth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Heidelberg, July 5-7, 2007). Impact of Empire, 9.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xii, 367.  ISBN 9789004174818.  $179.00.  

Reviewed by Gwynaeth McIntyre, University of St Andrews (
Word count: 2772 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the proceedings of the latest in the series of workshops organized by the international network "Impact of Empire" which took place at the Internationales Wissenschaftsforum Heidelberg in 2007. Details of this Network, including past workshops and publication information, can be found at This workshop was organized in order "to assess the impact of the Roman Empire on the processes of ritual and religious transformation that shaped the public and private lives of the subjects of Roman rule" (Preface). The volume begins with an introduction by Chaniotis, who contextualizes the discussion and presents some of the major themes which will be discussed throughout the volume: agency, transfer, emulation, and competition. The editors have divided the 17 other papers into three categories: Ritualising the Empire, Performing Civic Community in the Empire, and Performing Religion in the Empire. One should approach this volume as a collection of papers reflecting current discussions on this topic which can then promote further discussion as well as encourage the reader to draw their own connections between these specific case studies as these groupings seem somewhat arbitrary. For the purpose of this review, I have grouped papers together which seem to discuss similar themes or use similar methods.

As the title suggests, discussions in the volume are centred around religious change and how it is seen not only by the ancients but by modern scholars as well. The paper by Benoist studies the office of the pontifex maximus from the 1st-5th centuries CE and the continuity of religious authority. During the shift from pagan to Christian practices there was no substantial modification in the power of magistracies and priesthoods, neither in their content nor their formulation (p.39). The article discusses the importance of studying religious practices in Rome over time and argues that we should not describe the Christianization of the empire as a radical shift in the political, social, and religious landscape but rather as a continuation, and in some cases development, of many of the same features found throughout the Imperial period.

Quack's contribution also touches on this theme framing his discussion around the question of "Miniaturization," although he never specifically defines how he is using this term but only gives the context of how Moyer and Dieleman 1 use it (pg. 352). This paper directly responds to two scholarly works, that by Moyer and Dieleman and work by J.Z. Smith,2 and discussion of these works tends to dominate the paper, so I would recommend reading these before reading this contribution.

Two papers, those by Östenburg and Arena, examine marked changes in ritual practice within the city of Rome as a result of the consolidation of power into the hands of one man. The paper by Östenberg examines the end of one type of ritual record: the Fasti Triumpales. It does this by examining why Augustus chose the list of republican Triumphators to end in 19BCE with Cornelius Balbus. She argues that this date was deliberately chosen to signal a new age--where foreign people submitted to Roman power without bloodshed, although this is true only in Augustus' propaganda and not in reality. This new age is also highlighted through Augustus' use of the Signa Recepta, demonstrating that he was capable of achieving things through diplomacy that others had not been able to achieve through war.

Arena's paper compliments Östenberg's discussion on how the commemoration of his family came to dominate the city of Rome during the reign of Augustus. This paper discusses the development of honours granted to members of the imperial family and the adaptation of a republican tradition, the pompa circensis, into a means of promoting and commemorating the imperial family. Similar to Augustus' Mausoleum, the pompa circensis clearly marked out who was to be included in the domus Augusta. The route was changed to include temples which were important for Augustus' dynasty, and later dynasties would also change the route in order to promote their own achievements. Arena's discussion clearly highlights the shift in a particular practice that resulted from Augustus' new position and the position of his family within the city of Rome.

The contribution by Hekster also partly discusses the issue of change in a ritual, or at least the change of one's status within a particular community, using the ritual of deification in the city of Rome as his case study. The consolidation of power into the hands of one man then created a new problem: how that power would be transferred after his death. This power transfer was facilitated through the ritual of deification which played an important role in securing and legitimizing the position of the new emperor and his family within the city of Rome. Hekster presents a tri-partite ritual (separation, transition, and reincorporation) which brought about divine status that is largely based on Price's analysis.3 Curiously, however, it ends "the ritual activities, and hence the dynamics of ritual, are lost to us. One can only guess what the impact of empire may have been" (p.110). This is intriguing since we have not only several accounts of imperial funerals, which he discusses in his paper (although he does not include the account of the deification of Drusilla in Cassius Dio 59.11.1-4), and accounts of temples and priests of these cults (also briefly mentioned), but also a large corpus discussing the sacrifices, sacred days, and other features associated with the worship of the divi/divae in the Acts of the Arval Brethren.4

A number of papers examine the impact of empire by discussing communities' interaction with Rome and other manifestations of Roman power. Icks examines how the emperor Elagabalus attempted to install a local god at the head of the Roman pantheon and how the people throughout the empire responded to this act. Even though the primary sources say that Elagabalus tried to force through some changes, there was no active policy to implement the worship of Elagabal throughout the Empire. Even if there were, the system in place at the time had no way of imposing ideas or ensuring compliance throughout the empire. Instead, Icks rightly argues that cities establishing these cults were not responding to imperial pressure from the centre but acted by their own initiative.

Bruun discusses the interaction between Rome and Ostia, focusing specifically on civic rituals and their role in creating civic identity. He examines the importance of Rome's foundation myth in order to determine how civic identity was created in Ostia as well as the impact of Rome on this community. He concludes that even though there were clear attempts by the Ostians to establish and keep local character, they were not really able to withstand the impact of the capital.

Pont's contribution examines civic rituals associated with the governor in Asia Minor. She divides her study into two parts: Ceremonies for the arrival of the governor and exceptional honours granted to governors by cities. For the first part, she looks at how these ceremonies changed over time, starting with the evidence for kings and conquerors during the Hellenistic period then moving into the Roman period (for which there is significantly less evidence). The second part highlights the motivation behind a community's decision to honour the governor. Similar to what Icks discussed in his contribution discussed above, by honouring the governor, the community hoped to then receive something in return (privileges, benefits, etc.). In some cases, these honours were incorporated into civic memory showing that there were two levels of rituals associated with the governor: those which helped define the community in the present and those which then helped communities remember their past.

Eck frames his discussion through a study of the Roman military and other officeholders and examines the communication between the centre and those who were ruled. Few saw the emperor in person but his image could be found everywhere, mainly in coins and statues. However, Roman power was experienced through those who held it in the provinces: governors, client kings, military generals, etc. Eck examines a couple of specific cases: the client kings in Judaea, the role of Caesarea, building projects, and a brief discussion of Caligula's attempt to put a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem. These buildings and the role of figures who represented Roman power clearly demonstrated one's position in the Roman empire.

Woolf's contribution discusses some of the general themes and problems which arise from a study of religion in the provinces. Here, he compares Roman religion in the provinces to the Jewish Diaspora. He highlights many of the problems associated with studying imperial religion. First, there are a number of literary discussions on Republican religion but very little on religion during the Imperial period. Second, there is a trend in the study of religion to find evidence that fits a preconceived model rather than setting out to challenge a hypothesis. Third, most of the evidence from the provinces relates to priestly titles, but in many cases, the nature of that priesthood is never described so it might be that these communities are adopting a Roman term (like sacerdos) to describe something quite different, a possibility discussed by Gordon.5 Finally, we tend to Romanize provincial religion, mainly by trying to impose a model and a sense that there was a norm. Many of the priesthoods from Rome did not make it to the provinces (one such example is the Flamen Dialis). He concludes by suggesting that many people living in the provinces came to understand Roman religion outside the context of Rome herself.

The rest of the papers tend to either focus on one particular type of ritual or on a case study from one particular province or community. Hemelrijk examines the roles of women in sacrifice in the Roman world and seeks to answer two questions: Did women participate in sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice? Did Empire affect their participation, and, if so, how? Hemelrijk begins by reading between the lines of many literary sources and discusses the ways in which sources have been misused by scholars in the past, arguing that many scholars of Roman religion tend to mine literary works for mentions of religious practice or features and generally take many of these discussions out of context. She then turns to the impact of empire and to more archaeological evidence for women and sacrifice. The depictions of sacrifice during the imperial period are problematic since it is the emperor who is depicted performing the sacrifice to the almost complete exclusion of all others (p.259-260). In addition, the iconography of the popae and victimarii tends to depict these individuals as men, even though the only popa known by name was a woman. Regardless of their absence in iconography, Hemelrijk finds that the number of priestesses increases during the imperial period and that women were full participants in the ritual, not just adjuncts to men.

Naerebout's paper discusses the impact of empire on one particular ritual: dance. He stresses that scholarship tends to argue that dance in the Roman world is either Greek or Etruscan. His contribution examines dance as a Roman phenomenon that was dynamic and an important aspect of identity. This paper highlights the fact that rituals changed over time: "Unchanging traditions are a contradiction: if something manages to persist over longer stretches of time, it is because of its adaptability, the capability to change" (p.143). Even though Rome tended to be influenced by cultures with which it came into contact, rituals and religious practices were not adopted wholesale, but instead were adapted and developed for the community, whether that be Rome, or a community in the empire.

Two papers examine ritual banqueting. Stavrianopoulou continues on Naerebout's theme and examines public feasting as her case study. She states that banquets are usually regarded by scholars as a continuation from Hellenistic times, similar to what Naerebout discussed concerning dancing, and provides a helpful summary table at the end which lays out many of the important features of public banqueting present in Epameinondas of Akraiphia. Hilali examines one specific type of banqueting (the funeral banquet) in one particular area (North Africa, specifically Pupput in Tunisia) in order to trace changes over time, not only in banqueting but also in burial practice more generally. She provides a very helpful catalogue of the inscriptions which she discusses at the end of her paper, and demonstrates that the funeral banquet is a rite of social importance. It conserves and rebuilds the collective memory as well as reflects the ideology and beliefs of the community itself at a given moment in time.

Schörner also discusses North Africa and examines the stele as a cult medium for the cult of Saturn. These stelai in North Africa are an example of a type of monument bound to a certain ritual practice: sacrifice. Through them one can trace not only geographical variation but also variation over time. He compares some of his findings with those related to the cult of Jupiter in the German provinces and shows that even though a particular ritual (sacrifice) is occurring everywhere in the empire, the way in which it is manifested in religious monuments is not consistent but varies considerably both geographical and chronologically.

Auffarth's contribution examines the images of the gods and the shift of Greek religion under Roman rule in Greece. He questions whether the Romans were more interested in the quality of a statue from the Greek world rather than its divinity and states that there is a significant metamorphosis of religion under Roman rule, not only in these cult statues but also in sacrifice and other religious rituals. He then goes on to examine the shift in religious practice after Christianity became the dominant religion in the empire. Even though there was a prohibition against ancient religion, this was not a prohibition against ancient art.

The paper by Belayche discusses cultural transfer by analysing the identity of one god, Luna, in Antioch. She examines not only the temples and the architectural modifications made over time but also traces different titles and dedications examining geographical variation in the language used, whether Greek or Latin, the titles used, and how certain rituals were incorporated into the ritual calendar of the community. This paper provides an excellent discussion on the localized nature of religion and how, contrary to what we might think, the ancients were not concerned with official titles, but adopted and adapted cult as best suited the needs of the community. She concludes by saying that many of the differences associated with this cult derive from social distinctions rather than different conceptions of religion or ritual.

Even though many of the papers stand apart from the stated goals and themes presented in the introduction and it is mostly left up to the reader to draw connections between the papers, the different methods of inquiry and approaches to the stated topic will nevertheless promote fruitful discussion and further inquiry into the interactions between communities in the provinces and the city of Rome.

Table of Contents:


Angelos Chaniotis, "The Dynamics of Rituals in the Roman Empire" (3-29)


Stèphane Benoist, "Du pontifex maximus à l'èlu de Dieu: l'Empereur et les sacra (Ier s.av.n.e.-Ve s. de n.e.)" (33-51)

Ida Östenberg, "From Conquest to pax Romana. The signa recepta and the End of the Triumphal Fasti in 19 BC" (53-75)

Patrizia Arena, "The pompa circensis and the domus Augusta (1st-2nd c. A.D.)" (77-93)

Oliver Hekster, "Honouring Ancestors: the Dynamic of Deification" (95-110)

Martijn Icks, "Empire of the Sun? Civic Responses to the Rise and Fall of Sol Elagabal in the Roman Empire" (111-120)


Christer Brunn, "Civic Rituals in Imperial Ostia" (123-141)

Frits G. Naerebout, "Das Reich tanzt...: Dance in the Roman Empire and its Discontents" (143-158)

Eftychia Stavrianopoulou, "Die Bewirtung des Volkes: Öffentliche Speisungen in der Römischen Kaiserzeit" (159-183)

Anne-Valérie Pont, "Rituels civiques (apantèsis et acclamations) et gouverneurs en Asie Mineure à l'époque romaine (185-211)

Werner Eck, "Kommunikation durch Herrschaftszeichen: Römisches Militär und römische Amtsträger in den Provinzen" (213-235)


Greg Woolf, "Found in Translation: the Religion of the Roman Diaspora" (239-252)

Emily A. Hemelrijk, "Women and Sacrifice in the Roman Empire" (253-267)

Arbia Hilali, "Les repas funéraires: un témoignage d'une dynamique socio-culturelle en Afrique romaine" (269-284)

Günther Schörner, "Neue Bilder für alte Rituale: Die Saturn-Stelen als Kultmedien im römischen Nordaftrika" (285-306)

Christoph Auffarth, "Göttbilder im römischen Griechenland: Vom Tempel zum Museum?" (307-325)

Nicole Belayche, "Luna/ΜΗΝ ΑΣΚΑΗΝΟΣ: un dieu romaine à Antioche (Pisidie)" (327-348)

Joachim Friedrich Quack, "Miniaturisierung als Schlüssel zum Verständnis römerzeitlicher ägyptischer Rituale?" (349-366)


1.   Moyer, I.S. and J. Dieleman. "Miniaturization and the opening of the mouth in a Greek magical text (PGM XII.270-350)," Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 3(2003): 47-72.
2.   Smith, J.Z. "The Temple and the Magician," in Map is not Territory. Studies in the History of Religions (Leiden: 1978) 172-189.
3.   Price, S.R.F. 'From noble funerals to divine cult: the consecration of Roman Emperors,' in D. Cannadine and S.R.F. Price (eds), Rituals of Royalty. Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1987) 56-105.
4.   Scheid, J. Romulus et ses Frères: Le Collège des Frères Arvales, Modèle du Culte Public dans la Rome des Empereurs. (École Française de Rome, 1990).
5.   Gordon, R. 'Religion in the Roman Empire: The Civic Compromise and its Limits,' in M. Beard and J. North (eds), Pagan Priests: Religion and Power in the Ancient World. (London, 1990) 233-255.

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