Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.25

Tesse Dieder Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society after the Roman Conquest. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 14.   Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2009.  Pp. x, 263.  ISBN 9789089641779.  $69.50.  

Reviewed by Nicola Terrenato, University of Michigan (


The debate concerning the implications of the Roman conquest for local, non-urban religion has taken a more important role in recent studies on the western provinces. By comparison, the work on Italy is much less prominent and less clearly theorized, in spite of the extremely rich archaeological and epigraphical record. Scholars like Mario Torelli are among the few to have engaged in a serious global reflection on the phenomenon, offering overarching interpretations and insightful case studies. Tesse Stek’s book explicitly sets out to help advance a comprehensive analysis of the Roman impact on rural religion, by linking together a number of interrelated issues and reviewing expertly the most recent archaeological evidence. The result is a valuable excursus across the multifarious range of relevant data in an attempt to present a coherent, integrated model.

One of the major challenges in a project of this kind is the definition of a clear research scope, especially when the aim is to take, as the subtitle announces, a “contextual approach” to religious manifestations that are culturally and socially embedded. Stek boldly tackles issues of disparate nature and scale, from the subtler points of ritual to the macro-political entanglements between Rome and other central Italian communities. Perhaps inevitably, the succession of chapters feels a bit choppy, as it involves sharp transitions in topic and tone. The book naturally opens with a review of the intellectual history of Romanization in Italy and the role that rural sanctuaries have had in it (chapters 1, 2). The specific relevance of Samnium is considered next (chapter 3), together with the three standard frameworks commonly used to explain the function of rural sanctuaries, i.e. their connection with transhumance routes, their marking political boundaries between polities and their catering to the religious needs of pagi and vici (chapter 4). A quick zoom-in takes us to a specific case study, the sanctuary of S. Giovanni in Galdo. Stek and collaborators intensively surveyed the immediate surroundings of the shrine to place it in a broader perspective of settlement patterns (chapter 5). The book then cuts away from religion altogether to a wide shot, reviewing the complex political questions surrounding the vici and pagi in the reconstructions of various modern Roman historians (chapter 6). Building on this, a close analysis follows the interconnections between the vici and pagi on the one hand and the rural sanctuaries on the other. Examples are brought in from locales as far afield as the lands of the Paelignians and of the Praetuttians, the Fucine lake and even Ariminum (chapter 7). The last two chapters pan to pure history of ancient religions, discussing in depth the festival of the Paganalia and Compitalia almost exclusively on the basis of textual evidence (chapters 8, 9). By the time the ride ends in the Conclusions, some readers may have experienced a little motion sickness…

The peculiar structure and scope of Stek’s book is clearly a response to the challenge of dealing with the many different implications of rural religion in Republican Italy. This does not really detract from the value of the book, which consists primarily of its comprehensive review of the relationship between the so-called ‘pagus-vicus system’ (modeled after the Italian “sistema pagano-vicanico”) and the rural sanctuaries that dot the landscapes of Central Italy, and especially of the Samnite regions. The function of these cult places has been traditionally explained in connection with frontiers and especially with the archaeologically attested pre-Roman nucleated settlements. The latter were typically identified with pagi, and even more with vici, and would have represented the main central places that the Romans encountered when they ventured up the Apennine range in the mid-Republic. Stek argues at length that certainly the pagi and probably also the vici were instead administrative units created by the expanding empire especially in those areas (like Samnium) where the urban density was so scarce that secondary centers were an absolute necessity. The topic is complex and could easily have filled an entire monograph by itself. Stek’s innovative reconstruction will undoubtedly reenergize the debate amongst ancient historians, Roman legal scholars and archaeologists.

What in the end remains a bit overshadowed in the discussion is the actual context of pre-Roman sanctuaries. Even if they were not called pagi or vici, there were village settlements before the conquest and they must have had some connection with the cult places that existed near them. While Stek acknowledges that the terminological issue is distinct from the substantive problem, in the end his book is much more about the religion of Roman pagi and vici after the conquest than about the impact of the conquest itself on local religion. This is not a bad thing, since studies of late Republican religion in rural central Italy certainly do not abound and Stek does a remarkable job of integrating (indeed contextualizing) archaeological remains with the relevant epigraphic and literary evidence. His conclusion is that the creation of these new administrative centers by Rome had tangible repercussions on local religion through the creation of new cult places, the reorganization of existing ones, the introduction of new deities (“divine qualities”, like Valetudo), of new rituals (Paganalia, Compitalia) and possibly of new forms of votives. For this to be completely convincing, however, the book should have included a more extensive review of pre-Roman religion and of how it was transformed after the conquest and the Social War.

Stek’s assessment is in any case nuanced by his deconstruction in Chapter 2 of parts of the received wisdom on the “Romanization of religion”, especially with regard to colonial settlements. He points out that most Capitolia date to the end of the Republic or later, that the anatomical ex voto do not necessarily spread as a result of Roman colonization and, most importantly, that sharing cultural and religious elements that originate in Rome does not imply acceptance of Roman rule. This last point is very convincingly argued by looking at Pietrabbondante, where the ‘Capitoline’ tripartite cella is adopted in a context that is notorious for being virulently anti-Roman. These are all crucial points in the ongoing revision of traditional views about Roman impact on religion.

Only individual points occasionally fail to persuade, as when it is summarily taken for granted that evocatio was a straightforward form of “captivity” for foreign gods (30 and passim). No mention is made of the possibility that the ritual could also be used to transfer loyalty from the conquered cities to Rome, exhibiting at the same time the cultural inclusiveness that has often been indicated as key to Rome’s long term success (e.g. E. Dench, Romulus' asylum: Roman identities from the age of Alexander to the age of Hadrian, Oxford, 2005). Similarly, in the very first page of his book, Stek extrapolates from the slaughter of the sacred albino deer of Capua a Roman agenda of attacking the religion of those who resisted its advance. But it must be remembered that Capua, just like Veii, is a complete outlier in the range of Roman treatment of enemy cities. This is a city that apparently seriously conceived the idea of becoming the administrative capital of the Carthaginian province of Italy, a far cry from your run-of-the-mill recalcitrant Italian community. The ritual destruction of its totemic animal is an extreme measure that cannot be taken as representative of the usual Roman approach to alien poliadic cults.

In conclusion, Cult places and cultural change in Republican Italy is more about Roman cult places (and their relationship to vici and pagi) than it is about cultural change. It presents a cogent picture of late Republican rural religion and village life that significantly adds to the limited amount of scholarship on the subject. There is still much to investigate and say about the complex interconnections between Roman expansion and local religion (a series of interesting contributions on this topic will soon appear in the proceedings of a conference held in Dresden in 2007: M. Jehne et al, eds., Religiöse Vielfalt und soziale Integration. Die Bedeutung der Religion für die kulturelle Identität und die politische Stabilität im republikanischen Italien, forthcoming; another important conference was organized in 2010 by Stek and others at the Dutch Institute in Rome: ). Stek’s book represents measurable progress and will undoubtedly spur more research and debate in this important area of study.

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