Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.48

Maria Grazia Lancellotti, Dea Caelestis: studi e materiali per la storia di una divinità dell'Africa romana. Collezione di studi fenici 44.   Pisa/ Roma:  Fabrizio Serra editore, 2010.  Pp. 143.  ISBN 9788862273176.  €295.00.  

Reviewed by Luca Grillo, Amherst College (

“Whether you are a god or a goddess, under whose protection rests the city of Carthage, and especially you who took this city under your protection… I ask and pray and beg that you abandon the people and city of Carthage.” These words, reported by Macrobius (Sat. 3.9.7), describe the evocatio of the dea Caelestis and the Romans’ attempt at appropriating her goodwill and protection. Thus the goddess who once marked the identity of Carthaginians (as opposed to Romans) became a symbol of Romans from Africa (as opposed to other Romans) and later a bulwark of pagans (as opposed to Christians). The mutable history, cult and personality of this goddess are the subject of the volume under review.

The introduction (chapter 1) successfully makes a case for the work, stressing that the importance of the goddess and the relative abundance of sources call for reconsidering “not only the historical and religious aspects preceding the triumph of the cult of Caelestis,… but also its independent developments… and its interaction with cults and representations of other Roman and non-Roman gods” (13). Specifically, the work sets out to “reconstruct a complete and coherent picture of Caelestis’ personality, cult, and role in the context of the relationship between the Roman province of Africa and the imperial power” (13). In this respect, the volume represents a most worthwhile project; in particular, the complete and mostly balanced treatment of the scholarship and the clear list and analysis of the sources constitute an excellent resource, which hopefully will stimulate further work on the subject.

A review of scholarship (chapter 2) identifies two main lines of inquiry, bringing out their limits: those who have studied Caelestis within the broader context of religions of ancient Africa “fall victim to generalizations and, as a consequence, reconstruct a goddess which does not always adhere to the historical sources;” while those who have carefully analyzed the sources “have produced only scattered results.”

The complicated relationship between the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the Punic Tinnit (or Tanit) and the Roman Iuno Caelestis informs the discussion of chapter three, where Lancellotti analyzes a wide range of epigraphic, iconographic and literary sources and, following Sznycer, shows how “Caelestis finds her own place in the African- Roman pantheon, taking up functions which coincide completely with neither Tinnit nor Astarte” (22). Here, and in general throughout the volume, one might expect that a little more attention be given to archaeology, even if archaeology does not always provide much evidence for the building, transformation and destruction of temples related to Caelestis. For instance, the location of the temple of Tinnit/Caelestis in Carthage, which is highly relevant for grasping the Punic and/or Roman character of the goddess, has been at the center of an interesting debate, which remains open even after the most recent excavations. Hurst places it on the hilltop, like many other Roman temples, but according to Wilson (JRS, 2001: 199-200, not in the bibliography) the temple was located at the bottom of the hill, like many other temples of Tinnit found in Africa. As for the African (Libyan-Berberic) traits of Caelestis, Lancellotti carefully analyzes the scanty evidence (chapter 4), and suggests that some of the most peculiar traits of Caelestis, such as her connection with rain and agriculture and her representation with a lion, seem to reflect her African background.

The next four chapters are concerned with Caelestis and the encounter between African and Roman culture. Having criticized a simplistic approach, which polarizes “Romanization” of Africa and “resistance to Rome” (chapter 5), Lancellotti sketches the spreading of the cult from Africa to the rest of the empire (chapter 6, one of the best in the volume), considering how Caelestis, whom the Romans saw as an African goddess, became “a primary tool for the dialogue between the imperial power and a Romanized African elite” (41-2). The evocatio of Caelestis established “a permanent link between Rome and the goddess, who became for the Romans a symbol of Africa itself” (43); and in turn this symbol was turned into the patroness of re-founded Carthage. As attested by coins and inscriptions, local African elites made Caelestis a sign of their loyalty and belonging to the empire. Her cult thus spread throughout the province of Africa (chapter 7) taking various shapes but mostly preserving the link between Caelestis and African cities and her connection with rain and fertility. The cult spread also from Africa to Italy and the provinces (chapter 8), although the evidence, which is analyzed province by province, shows that it remained mostly private and linked to pockets of African communities throughout the empire.

The last two chapters are dedicated to illustrating the main traits of Caelestis’ cult (chapter 9) and personality (chapter 10). Temples and votive chapels have been found especially (but not only) in Africa, both in cities and in rural areas, with a great variety of typologies and dimensions, but often “the builders must have had good means… and operated within a social milieu wherein the choice of Latin as official instrument of communication was broadly accepted” (77). The worship of the goddess was well organized, with the personnel of priests and priestesses? structured in hierarchical colleges, under the leadership of two high-priests who often, judging by the inscriptions, enjoyed some prestige within local communities. After the priests came the canistrati, men and women who carried a basket for ritual functions, and last the sacrati, who simply attended the ceremonies. The rituals included offerings (mainly wine and honey but also silver statues) and special feasts, possibly accompanied by processions. Less is known about the oracle, the alleged process of initiation, as is typical of mystery cults, and the identification of the Caelicolae, mentioned by Augustine (Ep. 44.13) and by the Codex Theodosianus (16.5.43), with the followers of the dea Caelestis. A thorough examination of the epigraphic, literary and iconographic sources introduces the analysis of the personality of Caelestis, with her variegated attributes and representations. Like her cult, the personality of Caelestis displays a wide array of characteristics, which manifest the goddess’ aptness at renewing her attributes while keeping her traditional traits.

A short conclusion recaps the main points of each chapter, restates the methodological importance of the collection and examination of the sources and suggests another outcome of the volume. The sources (especially epigraphic, literary and iconographic) concur? in reconstructing a picture of the goddess as a lively and protean figure who, while being constantly related to fertility or to the protection of cities, resists “systematizing epithets, associations and identifications with a unique and coherent picture” (108-9).

Two appendices list the literary and the epigraphic sources: the former are given in the original and accompanied by good translations, although the decision to order them alphabetically, rather than chronologically, is debatable. The second appendix lists the epigraphic sources and gathers more than 150 inscriptions, which are ordered geographically and accompanied by their collection numbers (mostly CIL and ILAfr. ) and by references to modern discussions. This list itself constitutes a precious tool for scholars.

Thanks both to its collection and critical analysis of the sources and to the discussion of modern scholarship, the volume offers a valid contribution to the field and, despite its prohibitive price, will remain a handy starting point for further research on the subject. Overall, Lancellotti offers a lucid, thorough and balanced interpretation of the evidence, often resisting the temptation of suppressing some data and drawing broad and simplistic conclusions. This laudable attitude has its pitfalls, as it tends to present the reader with tedious lists and, more importantly, it runs the risk of giving equal weight to data of unequal importance (e.g. page 79 and 103-6). For instance, in the chapter about the cult of Caelestis, Lancellotti summarizes some evidence from Firmicus Maternus, whose tirade against pagans has such rhetorical verve that it can hardly provide reliable information on the cult (79-80). In fairness, the author repeatedly reminds the readers that the sources are not “neutral” (e.g. 99), but at times the juxtaposition remains misleading. Perhaps the author should not be blamed, but the reader should take advantage of the appendices and find the sources, whose different tone and point of view are immediately evident.

The updated bibliography makes another valuable contribution, but one laments the lack of indices. The absence of a general index is partially compensated for by the “sommario,” which opens the book with a list of chapter and section titles, thus providing the readers with a plain means for navigating the volume. The lack of an index locorum and of a list of the images, however, remains disappointing, and one has no way of moving from the sources listed in the appendices to the relevant discussion contained in the volume. These downsides do not detract from the value of the book, which lays out the evidence very clearly and often advances original and convincing hypotheses. It is a most welcome contribution.

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