Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.06.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.03

Jeffrey Brodd, Jonathan L. Reed (ed.), Rome and Religion: a Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult. Writings from the Greco-Roman world supplement series, 5.   Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 261.  ISBN 9781589836129.  $37.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gwynaeth McIntyre, University of Manitoba (

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

This volume has its origins in a series of sessions presented at conferences associated with the Society of Biblical Literature (2008 Annual Meeting in Boston; 2009 International Meeting in Rome; 2009 Annual Meeting in New Orleans). Their purpose was to focus on the theory, method, archaeology, epigraphy, and art associated with the study of the imperial cult, bringing together scholars from a variety of disciplines to discuss religion in a Roman context. Each session had a different focus (for example, the New Orleans session focused on the relationship of Christianity and Judaism to a discussion of imperial cult) and the volume appears to be organized thematically and by the sessions in which the original papers were given.

The whole project (and the volume itself) grew out of a paper by Karl Galinsky, “The Cult of the Roman Emperor: Uniter or Divider?” given at the meeting in Boston. He establishes the background for the study and the framework for its pursuit, which is accompanied by four papers reacting to and expanding on his methodology. Galinsky discusses what imperial cult is and what it is not: it is mostly not centrally steered (besides the four examples of provincial cult) and there is no official dogma. It is instead a series of local practices, manifested in material evidence, which highlight how different communities negotiated their position within the Roman Empire. However, what religious practices constitute “imperial cult” is never clearly defined. This is an underlying weakness of the volume as a whole. For example, McLaren suggests that acts such as the minting of coins, the founding of cities in honour of the imperial family, and aspects of civic life such as the construction of public buildings and the holding of public events should all be included under the heading of “imperial cult” (p. 113). 1 If this definition holds true, then every action by every individual could ultimately be defined as “imperial cult”. Not every statue was a cult statue and, although the lines between religious practice and civic life are not always clear and the ways in which communities worshipped the emperor and members of his family varied both geographically and chronologically, it is worth attempting some restrictions on what can be considered as religious practice. Brodd’s contribution does address this problem in his presentation of issues related to defining “religion” (p. 35) and further problematizes the discussion by stressing that many of the distinctions made by modern scholars are modern constructions that should not necessarily be interpreted as reflecting a lived reality.

Galinsky stresses the religious pluralism of the Roman empire and that the imperial cult was also linked to the many other gods and religious rituals being practiced throughout the empire. He establishes the framework for the later sections of the volume by addressing questions of how Christians and other religious groups sought to negotiate the religious landscape. What is most apparent in this chapter (and throughout the volume) is that there is no such thing as the imperial cult. It is a multi-varied, localized series of religious practices associated with the worship of the emperor better termed, according to Friesen’s contribution, as “imperial cults”(p. 24) Evans uses the term “emperor worship” as a replacement term in Chapter 7 and Schowalter (Chapter 8) hopes to get away from the use of “imperial cult” altogether, but does not present an alternate term for discussing the cult practices associated with the worship of the emperor and members of his family.2

The methodology presented in the two responses to Galinsky’s contribution in the first section clearly demonstrate the problems of terminology towards the study of religious rituals. In the case of imperial cult, the audiences for practices associated with the worship of the emperor and his family members were spread throughout the empire and all had different approaches to the adoption and practice of religious rituals. Hanges’ contribution focuses on the analysis of the imperial cult through a post-colonial lens, stressing the importance of a dialogue between the centre and periphery rather than the expression of uni- directional power. The final contribution in the first section (Orlin) expands on the methodological discussion by tracing the development of religious practices under Augustus, focusing specifically on religion of a geographical and social place (locative) and religion of transcendence (utopian). He argues that the imperial cult practices shift the focus of Roman religion from a particular place to the person of the emperor. He concludes that this trend is mirrored in the shift of other locative cults based in the city of Rome (such as the worship of the Capitoline Triad or the Penates) to their inclusion in the religious landscape of provincial communities.

The second part of the volume focuses on a series of geographical case studies reflecting imperial cult practices within specific communities. Spaeth’s contribution examines the provincial and municipal cults in Roman Corinth. She addresses the embeddedness of imperial cult (as discussed by Galinsky) and also the interaction between cult at the provincial and municipal levels, both of which are found within this community. Her contribution includes discussions of the worship of deified individuals and evidence for their temples and priests. She is also the only contributor that expresses the importance of including cult around members of the emperor’s family, specifically their wives, a group crucial to the construction and representation of the imperial family who is commonly overlooked in New Testament scholarship (p. 71). Throughout her contribution, Spaeth highlights the ways in which religious practices interacted and were expressed within Corinth as well as the importance of imperial cult not only as part of the patronage system but also a means of social and political advancement (through priesthoods, building programs, etc.).

Evans’ contribution looks at how one community (Athens) adopted religious practices in a way that reflects the religious landscape to which they were already accustomed. Although Athens underwent the addition of “Roman touches” such as a new Roman market, the adoption of emperor worship fit with the tradition of the Hellenistic ruler cult and served as another way in which the community of Athens as a community experienced and negotiated external authority (p. 90). Schowalter’s contribution focuses on temple of Trajan at Pergamum as a case study for how rituals and power interacted as part of the honours offered to the emperor.3 He further discusses the neokoroiin the Greek East to help explain the interactions between communities with regards to honours associated with the imperial cult. McLaren assesses the early history of Roman-Galilean relations, examining the actual Roman presence in the region and whether the imperial cult played a role in these relations rather than focusing on a particular community. He examines the Galilean involvement in the war of 66-70 CE and presents a summary of Roman administrative, military, economic and cultural involvement in the area in an attempt to explain the Galilean reaction to the Romans at the beginning of the war.

Part Three focuses on the relations between imperial cult, Christianity and Judaism. The three contributions focus on expressions of power (Carter), iconography (Jensen), and how communities negotiated the religious landscape of the Roman Empire (White). In each case, the focus is on the spectrum of practice: nothing was ever black or white. The imperial cult played an important role within these communities but one must take into consideration the economic, political and social landscapes as well. These contributions also stress that one must keep in mind that just as the volume as a whole focuses on the varied nature of imperial cults, the plural should also be used for discussions of Christianity and Judaism which also exhibit a range of practices and ideologies. For example, using Matthew’s gospel and the book of Revelation, Carter argues that the followers of Jesus did not negotiate the empire and its cults in a monolithic manner. Jensen demonstrates the power of images and questions how certain images were interpreted by the individuals who viewed them, using a 2007 BBC television special Art of Eternity: Painting Paradise as a launching pad for her discussion. She addresses key symbols (such as the chi rho and various cross types) in order to examine connections drawn between the emperor and the Christian God and questions the different ways in which images could be interpreted by viewers. White focuses on inscriptions in order to examine the ways in which a variety of Jewish communities within cities throughout the empire (Akmoneia, Phrygia; Sardis, Lydia; Berenike, Cyrenaika; and Ostia, Italy) brokered relationships with their local elite in attempts to increase their own social status. In each case, their interactions were subject to local customs and practices.

The final part begins with another contribution by Galinsky, which along with two responses, served to conclude the series of conference sessions. Galinsky’s contribution is open ended and suggests where this dialogue can go in the future. He stresses the importance of turning away from the scholarly tendencies to use the imperial cult as a litmus test for loyalty throughout the entire period and to conflate the nature of these practices. The two short responses which conclude the volume expand on Galinsky’s vision of the future for this discussion and warn against discussing imperial cult (as well as Christianity and Judaism) in monolithic ways. Snyder ponders the ways of discussing the allegedly anti-imperial nature of Paul’s gospel (p. 228) and the different ways in which individuals throughout the empire sought to negotiate their relationship with imperial power. Evans stresses the importance of continuing the inter- disciplinary dialogue and ties together many of the themes presented within the volume. No province, group of communities, individual community, or even particular section of the population negotiated their relationship to imperial power in the same way as any other.

This volume addresses and highlights many of the problems associated with the modern reconstruction of religious practices in communities throughout the Roman Empire. The authors of papers in this volume reference and engage with each other’s arguments, but the contributions retain the feel of conference papers, with paragraph of “thanks” found at the beginning of each paper, and references to the sessions themselves (e.g., “today’s presentation”). Although this format was done on purpose (as explained in the Preface) in order to invite the reader into the dialogue, it can be distracting. Nevertheless, the cross- disciplinary approach and format of this volume opens a dialogue that advances the study of the imperial cult and contextualizes discussions of religious practices in the Roman world.

Table of Contents

PART 1: Methodological and Theoretical Issues
1. The Cult of the Roman Emperor: Uniter or Divider? – Karl Galinsky
2. Normal Religion, or, Words Fail Us: A Response to Karl Galinsky’s “The Cult of the Roman Emperor: Uniter or Divider?” – Steven J. Friesen
3. To Complicate Encounters: A Response to Karl Galinsky’s “The Cult of the Roman Emperor: Uniter or Divider?” – James Constantine Hanges
4. Religion, Roman Religion, Emperor Worship – Jeffrey Brodd
5. Augustan Religion: From Locative to Utopian – Eric M. Orlin

PART 2: The Imperial Cult at Specific Sites
6. Imperial Cult in Roman Corinth: A Response to Karl Galinsky’s “The Cult of the Roman Emperor: Uniter or Divider?” – Barbette Stanley Spaeth
7. Embedding Rome in Athens – Nancy Evans
8. Honoring Trajan in Pergamum: Imperial Temples in the “Second City” – Daniel N. Schowalter
9. Searching for Rome and the Imperial Cult in Galilee: Reassessing Galilee-Rome relations (63 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) – James S. McLaren

PART 3: Christian and Jewish Engagement
10. Roman Imperial Power: A Perspective from the New Testament – Warren Carter
11. The Emperor as Christ and Christian Iconography – Robin M. Jensen
12. Capitalizing on the Imperial Cult: Some Jewish Perspectives – L. Michael White

PART 4: Prospects and Responses
13. In the Shadow (or not) or the Imperial Cult: A Cooperative Agenda – Karl Galinsky
14. Response to Karl Galinsky, “In the Shadow (or not) of the Imperial Cult: A Cooperative Agenda” – H. Gregory Snyder
15. Response to Galinsky, White, and Carter – Nancy Evans


1.   The “Maximalist” approach used by McLaren comes from Bernett, M. 2007. “Roman Imperial Cult in the Galilee: Structures, Functions, and Dynamics Affiliation”. in Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity in Ancient Galilee: A Region in Transition. Zangenberg, J., Attridge, H.W., Martin, D.B. (eds). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 337-56.
2.   Beth Severy has warned against focusing entirely on cult paid to the emperor and stresses the importance of including the members of his house in any discussion of imperial cult (Severy, B. 2003. Augustus and the Family at the Birth of the Roman Empire. London: Routledge).
3.   He takes his cue from Price’s influential study. Price, S.R.F. 1984. Rituals and Power. The Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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