Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.05.17

James H. Richardson, Federico Santangelo (ed.), Priests and State in the Roman World. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, Bd 33.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011.  Pp. 643.  ISBN 9783515098175.  €88.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Linda Zollschan (

Table of Contents.

The volume under review is the result of a conference at the University of Wales, Lampeter from 28-30 August 2008. The collection of twenty-four papers is divided into two sections – Priests and Priesthoods and Regional Contexts. Due to the large number of papers, this reviewer will provide an overview of the scope of material contained in the volume but will discuss five papers in greater detail. The essays are all of a uniformly high standard. The selection should not be taken to reflect negatively on those not discussed, as the choices were inevitably guided and influenced by the reviewer’s own research interests.

In ‘Different Colleges – Never mind?’ Jörg Rüpke studies the traditional collegia in the empire, the creation of new colleges and their membership. He suggests that priests were not recruited for their knowledge or intellect. As proof he has tabulated the literary activity of the holders of ten priesthoods (plus bishops) according to the quantity of their publication of speeches or books. It may have been, however, that brilliant administrators and military leaders, for example, who happened to hold priesthoods have been excluded from consideration by using only writers as his examples. Rüpke also finds that the more prestigious priesthoods were conferred early in life and were thus held for a longer period, whereas second priesthoods were conferred late in life. Some priesthoods died out, but it was the social cohesion of the colleges with their lavish meals that enabled their survival until the end of the fourth century AD. Some of Rüpke’s statements are likely to provoke dissent, for example, that amplissimus was not a technical term (p.29) or that we do not know what cooptatio in omnia collegia means (p.30).

James Richardson contributes a paper ‘The Vestal Virgins and the Use of the Annales Maximi’ in which he challenges a prevalent view that notices of trials of Vestal Virgins for unchastity are derived from pontifical records. The ritual entombment of Vestals has been the subject of considerable study. Richardson concludes that the purpose of the ritual was to remove the unchaste Vestal from existence as her crime could not be expiated. Keeping a record of the crime would then only have restored the existence of the offence, and for this reason he suggests that it would not have been set down in the annales maximi. Nonetheless, accounts of the trial and entombing of Vestals entered the historical record. His suggestion that these episodes were annalistic fictions is not fully explored, and the reader is left wondering which annalist would have fabricated such incidents and what would have been the motive.

In ‘The fetiales and Roman International Relations’ John Rich revisits the subject of Roman declarations of war and turns his attention to the fetial priesthood and all its functions, not just that of res repetere. After a brief discussion of the origin of the fetial law and the etymology of the adjective ‘fetialis’, he moves to a discussion of each of the fetial rituals – the treaty ceremony, deditio noxae, the preliminaries of war, the spear rite and res repetere. Here Rich presents a sober, balanced treatment with a cautious approach to the literary evidence. A thread runs through this section that the fetial priesthood did not die out only to be revived in order to hand Mancinus over to the Numantines in 136 BCE.1 In a similar vein, he rejects Saulnier’s view that a body known as the fetial college was only constituted for the first time in the Principate (p.190 n.17).2

Of particular interest is Rich’s discussion of Roman pre-war preliminaries in the early Republic down to 298 BCE, which extends the subject of his 1976 monograph back into the earlier period. His conclusions, broadly speaking, are firstly, that down to the third century the Romans did not routinely use the fetial procedure to demand satisfaction and secondly, that the reports in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus of pre-war missions by legati and by fetiales have ‘no strong claims to historicity’. Livy stands accused of relying on late annalistic sources (Rich suggests Valerias Antias) who sought to paint all Roman wars as just. Dionysius stands accused of having ‘inserted fetial activity by his own conjecture’(p. 222). After 298 BCE, the fetial priests ceased to be used in the preliminaries of war, the reason being, according to Rich, a certain incompatibility between their position as priests with their attendant ritual functions and the requirements of diplomacy (p. 224). Rich takes care to distinguish the decline in the use of fetial priests for pre-war missions with their continued use in the striking of treaties.

In the section ‘Roman Preliminaries in the period of Overseas Expansion’ Rich returns to the subject of his 1976 monograph where he concluded that, in this period, while the need for some kind of formal announcement of war was required, there was no standard procedure for the preliminaries of war.3 In 2000 Giovannini challenged this thesis and maintained that a three stage process of fetial embassy (later replaced by legati) seeking res repetere, followed by a war vote and an embassy sent from Rome to make a declaration of war formed the standard procedure.4 Rich remains committed to his original position and rejects the passages in Livy that mention res repetere as inventions from late annalistic sources, probably Valerius Anitas (pp. 226-227). In the case of the Second Macedonian War he concludes that the declaration of war was made at the Macedonian border post. A good case can be made for a declaration of war in this manner in 200 BCE. For the war against Antiochus, the consultation of the fetial priests in 191 BCE as recorded in Livy 36.3.7-12 is considered by Rich an ‘embroidered or invented’ response of the fetial priests probably derived from Valerias Antias (p. 228). For the war with Perseus, the embassy reported by Livy (42.25.1-12) is likewise considered by Rich as an invention of Valerias Antias, while Giovannini considers it historical. Only the declaration of war against Carthage in 218 BCE follows the fetial model, having been revived, Rich suggests, uniquely for this war (p. 232). The extent to which annalists, and in particular Valerias Antias, invented episodes is difficult to estimate, and the reviewer much prefers the position Rich took in 2005.5

Just a few quibbles. The statement that the fetial commentarii ‘documented ritual procedures and provided a record of ceremonies performed’ (p. 192) may in the end be correct but is pure conjecture. The dismissal of the names M. Valerius and Sp. Fusius from Livy 1.24.6 as unhistorical (p. 189) needs to be balanced by reference to Wikander’s 1993 study.6 To the bibliography can be added the 2010 study by Ando.7 On the subject of the fetial priesthood there is a great deal of current interest, and Rich’s paper is a significant contribution to the debate. New studies are appearing, and there is more that remains to be said on the subject.8

David Wardle writes on ‘Augustus and the Priesthoods of Rome: The Evidence of Suetonius’. His thesis is that chapters 30-31 of the Life concerning Augustus’ measures on behalf of state religion should be interpeted as falling within the subject of urbs and res urbanae, and the information therein should not be considered reflective of Augustus’ private religious preferences. He discusses the programme of the restoration of religious buildings begun in 28 BCE, but no mention is made of the restoration of the Temple of Juppiter Feretrius in 32 BCE. Dio’s report (51.20.3) on the senatorial decree that in 29 BCE gave Augustus the power to nominate as many priests as he wanted beyond the regular number is interpreted by Wardle as the increase in the overall number of priests in consequence of his creation of two new colleges, namely, the fratres Aruales and the sodales Titii. His paper also provides an interesting discussion of the five religious practices that had fallen into disuse but which Augustus restored: the augurium salutis, the flamonium Diale, the rite of the Lupercals , the ludi saeculares and the ludi Compitalicii. Wardle rejects the idea that Suetonius’ account of Augustus’ religious reforms was influenced by the contemporary measures of Hadrian.

The second section of the volume covers the condition of priests and priesthoods in Italy, Southern Gaul, Britain, Spain, North Africa, the Danubian provinces, Athens and Egypt .

Livia Capponi presents a new perspective on the condition of priests in Egyptian temples under Augustus in her paper, ‘Priests in Augustan Egypt’. She challenges the consensus that the Roman conquest of Egypt marked the beginning of the decline of the temples as the priests lost most of their privileges. Using papyrological evidence, Capponi convincingly shows that priests continued to farm their land but paid taxes on it, with the result that there was little or no decline in the first two and a half centuries CE.

All the papers provide much food for thought and deal with mainstream issues, sometimes re-evaluating long entrenched assumptions and forcing us to think afresh. This work is an extremely valuable contribution for those who specialise in Roman religion and will be read with profit by Roman historians as well. These essays will engender more research, and the book is a welcome contribution to the study of Roman religion.


1.   For new evidence for the continued functioning of the fetial college throughout the Republic based on numismatic evidence for the Games of Juppiter Feretrius see L. Zollschan (2012) ‘The Longevity of the Fetial College’, in O. Tellegen-Couperus, Law and Religion in the Roman Republic, Leiden-Boston, pp. 119-144, esp. pp. 125-131.
2.   C. Saulnier, ‘Le Rôle des prêtres fétiaux et l’application du “ius fetiale” à Rome’, RHD 58 (1980), 171-199.
3.   J. W. Rich, Declaring War in the Roman Republic in the Period of Transmarine Expansion, Brussels 1976.
4.   A. Giovannini, ‘Le Droit fécial et la déclaration de guerre de Rome à Carthage en 218 avant J.-C.’, Athenaeum 88 (2000), 69-116.
5.   J. Rich (2005) ‘Valerius Antias and the Construction of the Roman Past’BICS 48, pp. 137-161, esp. p. 155 ‘Thus the contribution which his [Valerius Antias’] inventions and distortions made to the construction and expansion of the Roman past is less easy to determine and may be less extensive than has commonly been supposed.’
6.   That the invention of names by late annalists was not common for the Regal period see O. Wikander, 'Senators and Equites V. Ancestral Pride and Genealogical Studies in Late Republican Rome,' Opuscula Romana 19 (1993), pp. 77-90, esp. p. 89.
7.   C. Ando (2010) 'Empire and the Laws of War: A Roman Archaeology' in B. Kingsbury and B. Straumann (edd.) The Roman Foundations of the Law of Nations: Alberico Gentili and the Justice of Empire, Oxford-New York, pp. 30-52.
8.   See now G. Turelli (2011) 'Audi Iuppiter'. Il collegio dei feziali nell’esperienza giuridica romana,' Milano and L. Zollschan (forthcoming) The Fetial Priests: New Perspectives.

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