Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.04.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.04.33

Tesse D. Stek, Gert-Jan Burgers (ed.), The Impact of Rome on Cult Places and Religious Practices in Ancient Italy. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 132.   London:  Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 2015.  Pp. viii, 331.  ISBN 9781905670581.  £48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Celia E. Schultz, University of Michigan (

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[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The received wisdom about the effect of Roman expansion on sacred places throughout Italy is that the Romans largely left the locals to their own devices. The only significant exception to this rule is the establishment of colonies, which brought Roman cults and religious habits to new regions and that made a dramatic impact on the local landscape, both civic and religious. The Romans are thought to have been generally uninterested in the gods of those they had conquered, although the tradition preserves occasional responses to specific threats (e.g., the Bacchic crisis of 186 BCE) and engagement with the chief civic deities of subject peoples. Roman attention to local urban cult sites, so the story goes, prompted the decline and eventual abandonment of extra-urban and rural sanctuaries: this is what Stek calls the "confrontational" model (p. 15).

The volume under review presents twelve contributions in English, Italian, and German, most stemming from a conference at the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome in 2010, that challenge this narrative on several fronts from the perspectives of art history, history, and archaeology. While collections like this are rarely unified in their conclusions, it is, in my experience, almost as unusual to encounter a group of essays that do not, for the most part, talk to each other. Despite this, one comes away from Stek’s and Burgers' volume with a clear idea that there was no single effect of Rome on the cult sites of other Italic communities nor was there much consistency in Rome’s attitude toward important cults around the Mediterranean. A unitary history of the cultural effects of Roman expansion is no longer possible. This impression is due to, among other things, the range of methodologies represented and to the fact that many of the contributions discuss phenomena at specific locations each of which had its own distinct history and status with respect to Rome. It is also an indication of the vigorously unsettled nature of the debate about the impact of Rome’s growing power and presence on Italy in the fourth century BCE. The collection is well written and well edited, with only a handful of typographical errors; the images are generally clear, although some maps are too small to be helpful.

After laying out the state of the question, Stek’s opening essay articulates three themes for the volume—setting Italic cults and cult places into the context of settlement patterns in wider landscape; examining Roman strategies of engagement with cult practices; and analyzing physical changes to religious ritual and cult places. He offers no synthesis, leaving the reader to trace these themes through, and to make connections among, the other contributions on her own. This I have done, and thus in what follows my treatment of individual contributions does not follow the arrangement of the volume.

Stek’s essay challenges the confrontational model of Roman impact on indigenous communities that, he argues, rests largely on evidence from the second, post-Hannibalic phase of Roman colonization. While the evidence from the first phase of colonization in the fourth and third centuries BCE is more limited, what remains suggests that these early colonies were not primarily centers of habitation, but rather were "service centers" for communities, most of whose members lived outside the city walls. That suggests that the stark contrast presumed by the model between Roman and indigenous settlement patterns is in fact illusory. One of the major services these centers provided was access to the divine: the preponderance of evidence pertains to cult sites. In a complementary fashion, Fay Glinister’s piece highlights the role that colonists, whom recent research has demonstrated were frequently from multiple ethnic groups, will have had in selecting the deities to be honored in their new settlements. She argues that after the initial foundation of a colony, when Rome established certain religious structures (e.g., priesthoods) that mirrored those of Rome itself, Roman intervention in the religious life of the new political entity was only occasional. Mario Torelli’s concluding essay, which contrasts the fortunes of cult sites at Veii and Caere, makes clear that there was no single Roman response to the question of how to handle the gods of conquered peoples.

One of the more valuable aspects of this volume is its treatment of religious practices (as evidenced by votive material) alongside consideration of cult sites. Olivier de Cazanove fires the latest volley in the ongoing battle about the extent to which the presence of terracotta anatomical votives is a hallmark of "religious Romanization." De Cazanove has long been an advocate for a model that links anatomical votives directly to Roman cultural influence and that pinpoints the introduction of the cult of Aesculapius to Rome in the early third century BCE as the moment the Romans took up this religious practice.1 Here he recapitulates this argument and attempts to counter—primarily through down-dating early Italic bronze votives—the arguments of Fay Glinister that the increased popularity of anatomical votives is a development of an indigenous habit that predates the Roman presence in many areas.2 Although some essays in the collection follow de Cazanove’s argument and others refuse to take a stand on this issue even though they raise it, it seems to me that Glinister’s argument has not yet been undercut.

The myth of Rome's Trojan origins figures prominently in articles by John N. Dillon and Rudolf Känel. Känel refines an earlier proposal by Lippolis that the highly fragmentary relief from the gable of the temple of Aesculapius at Fregellae represented a scene from the story of the Trojan War. Känel offers the hypothesis that it portrayed a scene from the Ilioupersis in particular; in support he points to the dating of the relief to around 180 BCE, when the Romans were actively engaged in the Greek East and when they would have been particularly interested in stories that portrayed their heroic origins and their ancestral cause for exacting revenge on the Greeks in Asia Minor. Through a survey of official Roman actions toward foreign sanctuaries between the first and third Carthaginian Wars, Dillon demonstrates that the Romans did not operate with anything that might be called a policy. Instead, the Senate seems to have worked with a rule of what Dillon calls "religious exclusivity" (p. 114)—an insistence on Roman cults as superior to others and thus the only acceptable religious resources for the Roman state—that was applied inconsistently. The Romans’ promotion of their own Trojan origins helped to facilitate official Roman interaction with prominent shrines in the Greek world. A growing disparity in status between Rome and its Italian allies precluded the possibility that the Romans would treat Italic sites, even those as prestigious as that of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, on a par with their own.

The remaining essays tackle the question of religious continuity and change at individual sites, each offering a analysis of architectural and, where possible, votive material. Detailing the arguments of each one would make this review twice as long as it already is, so I shall treat them together. The impression given by these articles in the aggregate is that Roman entry into a region had a less significant impact on local settlement and worship patterns than is generally conceived. Recent surveys, including Stek’s own work in central and southern Italy,3 have shown that in many areas, the countryside was better populated than has been previously recognized and that in some areas settlement patterns were already shifting before the Romans arrived. While some rural sanctuaries did fall into desuetude in the third and second centuries, there is significant evidence that other countryside cult places associated with rural settlements continued to flourish. Continuity in cult practice can be demonstrated in individual locations across the peninsula.

This is a rather different picture of the Italic countryside in the first period of the Roman conquest than that which has long been the scholarly consensus. It is supported by studies of rather disparate locations: Helena Fracchia on Roccagloriosa in Lucania; Gert-Jan Burgers’ look at sites in the Pontine region, the Salento isthmus, and northern Calabria that were examined in the Regional Pathways to Complexity project sponsored by the Groningen Institute for Archaeology and the University of Amsterdam; Francesco Sirano’s analysis of votive material from several different ethnic groups in Campania; Gianluca Tagliamonte’s survey of evidence from southern Campania; and Bruno Sardella’s consideration of the evidence for minor cult sites situated along travel routes in Samnite territory. The outlier in the collection is the study by Ilaria Battiloro and Massimo Osanna of Lucania that sees an "invasive restructuring of the settlement pattern" sparked by Rome’s arrival and matched by significant changes in Lucanian society, with the sanctuary at Rossano di Vaglio standing as a significant exception. Their conclusions appear to be in direct conflict with Fracchia in specific and do not mesh with the rest of the volume as a whole. It is here that absence of some kind of synthesis is most keenly felt.

This volume of Stek and Burgers is a very useful series of pointillist studies of individual locations and specific questions about the interactions between the Romans and others in the context of sacred spaces. Although the focus of the volume is restricted to three areas on the Italian peninsula (Lucania, Campania, and Salento), the volume makes clear that our understanding of Rome’s impact its neighbors across Italy is shifting, a process that will only accelerate as archaeologists turn their attention to an ever-expanding range of urban settlements and rural areas. Early and mid-republican Italy is not what it used to be.

Table of Contents

1. Cult, conquest, and 'religious Romanization'. The impact of Rome on cult places and religious practices in Italy (Tesse D. Stek)
2. Per la datazione degli ex voto anatomici d’Italia (Olivier de Cazanove)
3. Das Aesculapius-Heiligtum in Fregellae und sein Bauschmuck aus Terrakotta (Rudolf Känel)
4. Cult places in the ancient landscape of Roccagloriosa (Western Lucania), third to first centuries BC: aspects of change and continuity (Helena Fracchia)
5. Trojan religion: foreign sanctuaries and the limits of Roman religious exclusivity (John Noel Dillon)
6. Colonies and religious dynamism in mid-Republican Italy (Fay Glinister)
7. Sanctuaries and rural expansion in mid-Republican Italy: a landscape archaeological approach (Gert-Jan Burgers)
8. Continuity and change in Lucanian cult places between the third and first centuries BC: new insights into the 'Romanization' issue (Ilaria Battiloro and Massimo Ossana)
9. La 'romanizzazione' dei luoghi di culto della Campania settentrionale. Proposte di lettura del dato archeologico tra ager Falernus, area aurunca e sidicina (Francesco Sirano)
10. La 'romanizzazione' dei luoghi di culto della Campania settentrionale: la media valle del Volturno (Gianluca Tagliamonte)
11. Luoghi di culto rurali nel Sannio pentro e frentano: rapporti con territorio, viabilità e insediamento (Bruno Sardella)
12. Municipalia sacra (Fest. 146L). Romanizzazione e religione: riflessioni preliminari (Mario Torelli)


1.   O. de Cazanove, "Some thoughts on the 'religious Romanization' of Italy before the Social War," in Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience, edited by E. Bispham and C. Smith (Edinburgh, 2000) 71-76.
2.   F. Glinister, "Reconsidering 'religious Romanization'," in Religion in Republican Italy, edited by C. Schultz and P. B. Harvey, Jr., YCS 33 (Cambridge, 2006), 9-33.
3.   T. D. Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society, Amsterdam Archaeological Series 14. Amsterdam, 2010.

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