Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.40

Zsuzsanna Várhelyi, The Religion of Senators in the Roman Empire: Power and the Beyond.   New York:  Cambridge, 2010.  Pp. xii, 267.  ISBN 9780521897242.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Carlos F. Noreña, University of California, Berkeley (

This book examines the religious life of senators in the Roman empire from Augustus to Severus Alexander. Focusing on the nexus between social status, political authority, and what she calls “imperial religion,” Várhelyi shows that senators during this period were active participants in the construction of a new imperial order that was defined, at least in part, in religious terms, and suggests that it was largely through religious practice and its attendant discourses that senators forged a strong identity (both corporate and individual),expressed their own public power and authority, and engaged with problems of symbolic order and the meanings of life and death. Despite some analytical imprecision and the absence of a central thesis, this study makes a valuable contribution to the history of the senatorial order, religious practice and thought, and the political culture of the early Roman empire.

An introductory chapter (1-19) places the work in context and defines some key concepts, including status (following R. Stark), power (following M. Foucault, but leavened with practice theory), and, especially, Roman religion, understood in “culturalist” terms to encompass not just practice but also belief, and to rest on both orthopraxy and a conceptual footing that was almost, but not quite, a “theology.” Emphasis throughout is placed on senatorial agency in the shaping of imperial religion (14).

The two chapters in Part I consider collective expressions of senatorial religion, with reference first to the senatorial order as a whole (ch. 1, “The new senate of the empire and religion,” 23-55), and then to smaller groupings within the senate (ch. 2, “Religious groups among senators,” 56-90). Várhelyi demonstrates that new senators rarely sought to proselytize on behalf of their native deities, tending instead towards the conventional in their religious practices, a behavioral pattern that reinforced the corporate identity, and collective religious authority, of the entire senate (ch. 1). A more personalized religious identity was facilitated by participation in smaller senatorial groups, whether formal, such as priesthoods, which offered various opportunities for “social networking” (especially banqueting), or informal, such as those ephemeral groups that formed around the bedsides of the ill (ch. 2).

In Part II, Várhelyi turns to the intersection of religion and political power at the center (ch. 3, “The dynamics of senatorial religion in Rome and Italy,” 93-121) and in the periphery (ch. 4, “Representing imperial religion: the provinces,” 122-50). In the city of Rome, she argues, it was not priestly colleges, but rather civic magistracies through which senators could most effectively convey their individual religious authority, while in Italy they could not only assert their power through sacrifice and benefaction, but could also address more personal religious concerns through their ostensibly apolitical participation in local cults and dedications to local deities (ch. 3). And in the provinces, senators often assumed high-profile roles in the management of ritual celebrations and public cults, especially to the emperor, which underlined the religious dimension of their public authority (ch. 4).

The focus in Part III is on the conceptual side of religious experience, with chapters on the nature and application of religious knowledge (ch. 5, “Towards a ‘theology’ of Roman religion,” 153-85) and on the appropriation of imperial religion for senatorial purposes (ch. 6, “Innovations and aspirations,” 186-208). Different forms of religious knowledge are assessed through a range of discourses, including those organized around myth, magic, prophecy, astrology, and philosophy, all of which may be seen, according to Várhelyi, as contributing to something like a “theology” (always in scare quotes), and which also informed the logic of religious practice, such as funerary commemoration (ch. 5). In the final substantive chapter, evidence for genius worship, the deployment of the empty sella curulis on senatorial funerary monuments, and dedications pro salute of senators, is used to show that senatorial religion drew constructively and dynamically on imperial models (ch. 6).

Following a short concluding chapter (209-14) that restates the main themes, the book is rounded out with a set of appendices, mostly prosopographical, a bibliography, an index nominum, and a general index. The volume itself is attractive and very well produced.

The strength of this book lies in its careful gathering of evidence, most of it epigraphic, for religious activities associated with Roman senators. I give three examples of important conclusions or suggestive insights derived from this empirical foundation.

In tracing the record of religious dedications offered by first-generation senators from all over the empire, Várhelyi is able to demonstrate the largely conformist nature of this empire-wide aristocracy (3-4, 29-47, 147-50). This provides an important corrective to the current orthodoxy of a “religious marketplace” in the Roman empire, canonized by M. Beard, J. North, and S. Price (cf. Religions of Rome vol. 1 [1998], esp. 245-312), in which individuals could freely choose from an endless variety of religious options. Social status, as these data confirm, remained a crucial determinant of one’s religious experience, at least for those in the highest stratum. This is fundamental for our understanding of religion in the Roman empire.

In her discussion of priesthoods and political power, she also documents the frequency with which the descendants of provincial flamines of the imperial cult gained entry into the senatorial order (38-41; the evidence for all 52 known cases is presented in Appendix A [215-18]). In his discussion of the provincial priesthood, D. Fishwick had concluded that “advancement to high society in Rome was an impossible goal for past provincial priests,” and that “in the vast majority of cases the provincial priesthood was the summit of a man’s career” (The Imperial Cult in the Latin West vol. 3.2 [2002], 306), but we now have the necessary evidence to qualify this counterintuitive conclusion. The provincial priesthood was, in fact, a channel of upward social mobility, but only, as we now see, in subsequent generations. As a final example of some refractory evidence put to good use by Várhelyi, consider her discussion of the worship of the genii, lares, and penates of senators (189-92). Analysis is based on the specific titles of those involved in such worship. Most intriguing are the four sacerdotes associated with the Volusius family, two of them styled as sacerdotes deum Penatium (CIL 6.2266-67 = 7283-83a), presumably of the Volusii (the inscriptions come from the family columbarium at Lucus Feroniae), the other two as sacerdotes genii Lucii nostri (CIL 6.1967 = 7366, 6.1833a), referring to L. Volusius Saturninus, consul in 12 B.C. (PIR V 660). These titles, all unparalleled in the epigraphic record, imply the existence of a formal, organized cult offered to a Roman senator, not so different from the worship of an emperor. The discussion effectively illustrates the dynamism of early imperial religion that is one of the book’s leitmotifs.

Noteworthy findings of this sort are woven throughout the book. If read as a collection of such insights, then the book may be declared a success. The analytical framework in which these and other findings are presented, however, is less compelling. In writing on “the religion of senators,” the author has taken on two big topics, religion and status, that can be difficult to pin down as discrete categories of analysis. Most readers, I suspect, will find the treatment of religion sensible and uncontroversial. Though chapter six could have benefited from more discussion on the relationship between religion, on the one hand, and mythopoesis and philosophy, on the other, in general the “culturalist” interpretation of religion adopted here works well.

More problematic is the reluctance to define the place of the senatorial order within Roman imperial society in general, and with respect to the wider elite in particular -- a surprising shortcoming in a book that so insistently declares its sociological credentials (Introduction, passim; cf. 25-29). The trouble begins with her characterization of modern scholarship on the imperial senate, which, she says, “depicts an outdated and dying institution” (23; cf. 2-3, 11, etc.). There is more than a shadow of the straw man here, as recent decades have witnessed a proliferation of high-quality studies both on the continuing institutional centrality of the imperial senate, and (even more to the point) on the emergence, in the face of monarchic power, of new cultural forms, new strategies of public self-representation, and new contours of identity amongst individual senators.1

But the real problem stems from the repeated implication that the senatorial order may be treated, unproblematically, as a discrete social group. In their official roles as priests, magistrates, and provincial governors, senators were in fact distinct from everyone else and may be analyzed as such. When it comes to the far more expansive world of religious practice, discourse, and experience, however, their place was rather more ambiguous. And so when Várhelyi discusses attitudes towards illness and the cultivation of the self (78-90), or the nature of private dedications to Fortuna (110-11), or the growing interest in astrology (162), or the rise of the consolatio as a strategy for coming to terms with death (171-73), or changing imagery on sarcophagi (181-84), it is unclear whether any of the practices or beliefs under consideration were distinctively senatorial. In one symptomatic case, we are offered an extended interpretation of a fresco from Dura-Europos, purporting to provide “visual evidence for how senatorial military officials took on the role of the main sacrificer” in military contexts (148), only to be told, at the end of the discussion, that the sacrificing figure is actually an equestrian (149). Várhelyi is of course aware of the porous boundaries of the senate as a social group (23), and sometimes acknowledges that her material in fact pertains to the elite (e.g. 90, 166). But the terms “senatorial” and “elite” do not map the same social terrain. More systematic attention to the particularly senatorial elements of elite religion in the Roman empire would have sharpened the book’s conclusions.

Finally, it should be noted that this study is not really addressed to a central question, and that the discussion is not driven by a sustained argument. There are, to be sure, recurring claims, especially in terms of the overlap of religion and power, the dynamism of early imperial religion, and the agency of senators in shaping it. These claims give the book coherence, but they do not add up to a thesis. Indeed, the various sections of the book are not always well articulated with one another, and there is nothing like the testing of hypotheses about the significance of religion or status (which the introduction’s repeated gestures towards sociological method might lead readers to expect). The origins of this study may be relevant in this connection. As Várhelyi states, “This book has itself grown out of the primarily empirical project of establishing a prosopographical database, tracing evidence for the religion of senators in the first two and a half centuries of the Roman empire through the literary, epigraphical, and material evidence” (8). Though she backs away from this methodological orientation (8-9), the book is best read precisely as a tracing of evidence—and it is at its most effective when it is doing just that.

It is, in sum, mainly on the basis of its strong empirical foundation that this book makes its most important contributions, and it is the reason, ultimately, that historians of the Roman empire and students of Roman religion will want it on their shelves.


1.   I refer in particular to M. Roller, Constructing Autocracy (2001); G. Rowe, Princes and Political Cultures (2002); and P. Veyne, “L’empereur, ses concitoyens et ses sujets,” in H. Ingelbert (ed.), Ideologies et valeurs civiques dans le monde romaine (2002), 49-74 (and, of course, to the seminal articles by W. Eck, duly cited by the author). Furthermore, to say that E. Flaig’s Den Kaiser herausfordern (1992) “leaves us with a perception that the imperial senate was largely inactive, and its survival incidental to a political tradition that was increasingly sidetracked” (11), seems to me a serious misreading of his theory of the “Akzeptanzsystem” upon which imperial legitimacy reposed, and to which the senate, as a collectivity, was a crucial contributor.

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