BMCR 1995.12.23

1995.12.23, Rives, Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage

, Religion and authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. xiii, 334 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198140832. $55.00.

Due to the complex diversity of gods and cult practices existing in the Imperial period, “religion in the Roman World” is a subject that is resistant to systematic study and synoptic interpretations. One productive strategy for overcoming the disorder is to recreate a coherent picture of religious life in a specific local context, on the basis of which one might then formulate more general hypotheses. Accordingly, by focusing his study on the religious milieu in one particular city, J. B. Rives hopes to provide a “framework” within which to organize his examination of the “significant patterns” of religious development under the Roman empire which culminated in the state’s adoption of Christianity.

It should perhaps be noted that the more precise geographical locus of R.’s book is the territory of Roman Carthage; for the author does not limit himself to the urban centre, but relies heavily on the epigraphic and archaeological remains from a civitas (Thugga) and its neighboring pagus which lie within the Carthaginian territory. In addition, the author depends upon relevant material from other Roman coloniae (most significantly the Lex Ursonensis from Spain).

In what is an elaboration of his doctoral dissertation, R. is predominantly concerned with the relationship between religious identity and socio-political authority in the Roman world. He assumes that religious identity has both a collective and an individual form, and acts as a “linking device whereby individuals more or less consciously align themselves, or allow themselves to be aligned, with particular groups” (4). The premise of R.’s thesis may be summarized as follows.

At the inception of the Roman empire, virtually the only existing model for religious identity was the “civic model”, which linked an individual to a particular city. Consequently, it was a city’s sacra publica, its public cults, which embodied and defined the religious identity of civic residents. Moreover, because the city council maintained the sacra publica and oversaw any modifications, it played a decisive role in shaping the collective religious norm in a city. R. cites the situation in Republican Rome as an ideal example. The Roman sacra publica were subject to ongoing transformation and definition during the Republic, but in all cases it was the senate who made decisions regarding the changes, and who consequently, defined the religious identity of the Romans. Likewise, if anyone strayed too far from this religious norm, the Senate was willing to use its power to enforce conformity (e.g., suppression of the Bacchic cult in 186 B.C.). In Republican Rome then, like other sovereign city-states in the ancient Mediterranean, there were clear connections between religious identity and socio-political authority. As they acquired an empire, the Romans—ignorant of any alternative model—supported and maintained the civic model of religion among their subjects. Cities were allowed to retain and control their own sacra publica. However, R. claims that in the new political context of the Roman empire, this civic model of religion was inadequate and increasingly out of place.

In his first three chapters, R. documents this situation in Carthage and evaluates its effects on religious identity and authority in the imperial period. In chapter one (“Public Religion in Roman Carthage”), R. focuses on the nature of formal authority in religious matters in a Roman colony like Carthage. He concludes that its charter included some minor provisions which touched upon religion (e.g., limits on the amount of public funds that could be spent on games for the Capitoline Triad and Venus, and a minimum requirement on the amount that magistrates had to contribute to these games); but ultimately authority in religion was held by the ordo decurionum. It was responsible for selecting, organizing, and financing the sacra publica of the new colony, and in that process, for defining its collective religious identity. Any intervention on the part of the Emperor was normally as a result of a council’s request for imperial benefactions for a local cult while Roman governors rarely took the initiative in civic religious matters. As for the provincial councils, R. points to the lack of evidence that they acted with any authority in civic religion, despite the religious nature of their existence as institutions of the imperial cult.

R. notices two significant consequences of this policy. On the one hand, local control of the sacra publica meant that there could never be such a thing as an official religion of the Roman empire, or even particular official cults of the empire. On the other hand, although the ordo exercised formal control over religion in a structural sense, some of the common public cults that cities such as Carthage adopted in the imperial period (e.g., the Imperial cult, Capitoline Triad) linked the participants not with their city, but with Rome and the empire as a whole. Thus, the civic model was modified on the symbolic level in a way that could potentially foster some sense of a collective religious identity in the empire. Any such development, however, was dependent upon the cooperation of the local elite.

In his second chapter (“Agenda of the Local Elite”), R. aims to show that the character of such cooperation in Carthage was not sufficient for the propagation of a widespread Roman religious identity. By the second century, many of the Carthaginian elite had a strong identity with Africa through either descent or adoption, which meant that the religious interests of this Romano-African elite was strongly influenced by local deities (e.g., Saturn and Caelestis). Consequently, while the local elite’s religious agenda might coincide to a large extent with that of the central power, their dual sense of pride prevented the development of a truly “Roman” religious identity.

In chapter three (“The Failure of the Civic Model”), R. turns to what he calls the “more serious consequence” of maintaining the civic model of religion in the context of the empire: the removal of genuine political significance from public religion. Because Carthage was not a sovereign and independent city there was no need for a sharp distinction between its public cults and those of other cities. Likewise, the local ordo did not and could not exercise true political power, or make decisions of real political importance. As a result, the administration of the sacra publica was carried out in an “apolitical” context in which the maintenance of collective control over religious identity became less important. Selecting new additions to the public cult became a somewhat haphazard process that was often determined by a cult’s financial feasibility and individual interests. In this climate, R. claims that the distinction between public and private cults deteriorated, the collective religious identity of Carthage was only loosely defined, and individuals were generally free to define their own religious identity as they pleased. This situation led to a state of religious pluralism in which an “almost incredible variety” of beliefs and activities emerged as popular religious options (e.g., magic, astrology, widespread speculation about the nature of the gods, cult associations, Judaism, Christianity). Except in cases where it seemed to threaten public order or stability, neither local nor imperial officials did much to prevent this situation of “religious anarchy” (234). Thus, R. concludes that Rome’s maintenance of the civic model of religion led ultimately to a radical separation of religious identity and political authority.

In his final chapter (“Religious Authority and The Roman State”), R. concentrates on what he sees as the third-century developments in religious authority which ultimately led to the displacement of the civic model of religion by one more compatible to the empire (i.e., the organization of Christianity). According to R., since the empire had become so politically and culturally unified by the Severan period, religious pluralism was an increasingly incongruous phenomenon, and the lack of a collective religious identity became a matter of growing concern to the imperial government. This concern resulted in a “radical change” in imperial policy over the course of the third century as Roman emperors, for the first time, made large scale attempts to enforce conformity to a religious norm (250f). “Groping in the dark” for an answer to the “problem of religion in the empire,” the emperors Decius, Valerian, and the Tetrarchs tried to create a new model of religion and began, “whether consciously or not,” to adopt ideas from some of the new religious groups that had appeared in the empire. Christianity, more than any other cult, had within its community a strong and extensive system of authority that provided an “ideal” model for a new type of official religion; for it encompassed the empire as a whole, and its hierarchy defined its group norm in detail. R. argues that these virtues must have caused some members of the ruling class to admire the power and organization of the church, and “perhaps realize that it offered a model for a new type of official religion” (309). Finally, with Constantine’s adoption of Christianity the stage was set for the “truly unified empire of late antiquity, in which religious identity, closely defined and controlled by the central powers, once again played a central part in linking individuals to the state” (310).

Although he uses Carthage as a test case, R.’s study is ultimately, of course, a sweeping interpretation of religious developments under the Roman empire. His thesis is argued with a degree of logic and precision which helps to shed new light on familiar religious phenomena. R.’s emphasis on the evolving relationship between civic religious identity and socio-political authority allows him to make sense of religious attitudes in the Roman world without having to rely upon tired appeals to psychological explanations. Unfortunately, however, while the present study avoids the pitfalls of what we might call an “age of anxiety” approach to religion in the empire, R.’s sociological treatment occasionally suffers from an equally inappropriate one-sidedness. At times, in his eagerness to develop his sociological model of religion and authority, the author both imposes a rigidly theoretical ideal on his subject and ascribes to ancient political authorities a functionalist view of religion that suits his argument, but fails to grasp the complexity of their motives. Three examples shall suffice.

Firstly, in using the religious milieu of Republican Rome as a criterion by which to judge the later deterioration of collective religious identity in the cities of the empire, R. postulates a uniformity in republican religious belief that is questionable. The popularity of Silvanus in Rome (a god who never received any official status, public temples, festivals, or priests), and the abundant evidence for unofficial cults and sanctuaries related to the alleviation of disease (see J. A. North, Cambridge Ancient History, VII [1989], 580), are but two reminders that “Roman religious identity” under the republic was by no means limited to the sacra publica. Moreover, it is far from clear that the republican senate “actively” enforced conformity to a well-defined religious norm. The famous account of the suppression of the Bacchic cult, which R. enlists in support of his argument, actually reveals a policy that is quite similar to that of the later imperial government. It is suggested by Livy’s narrative that the cult had been flourishing for a number of years without any state opposition. Indeed, Livy claims that Rome had “abundant room and tolerance for such evils” (XXXIX.9). It was not the mere existence of the “non-Roman” cult, then, that prompted the senate to take notice, but the advent of shocking rumours. Ultimately, the senate’s actions were motivated by its concern for public order and security, not by its desire to preserve the collective religious identity of Rome. Thus, while there were clear connections between religious identity and socio-political authority in Republican Rome, R.’s view of this connection is far too systematic.

Secondly, R.’s assertion that religious pluralism in the empire had become a “problem” and “a matter of growing concern to the imperial government” by the third century, is a tenuous speculation based upon the author’s own sociological presumptions. R. never quite convinces this reader that a more coherent empire-wide religious consensus was necessary for successful Roman rule in the third century. On the one hand, in speaking of the “religious anarchy” of the empire, R. neglects the common features which existed among most of the “pagan” cults. In such cults piety was regularly expressed through the erection of stone temples and statues, a communal system of sacrifice, and sacred festivals that included feasting, entertainment, and good-humour; while religious sensibilities were dominated by an eager acceptance of polytheism, a mostly anthropomorphic conception of the gods, a respect for traditional deities, a concern to propitiate the divine world in order to avoid disaster and attain benefits, and a willingness to adopt additional patron deities. Such common characteristics made “paganism” explicable to worshippers throughout an empire in which Jews and Christians were a small minority. On the other hand, the pervasiveness of the imperial cult served to integrate the unique position of the emperor into local religious expressions in a way that both reinforced the emperor’s power and enlisted the support of the plurality of gods on his behalf.

Moreover, even if we allow R.’s debatable assumption that religious pluralism had become a real problem, to claim that Decius, Valerius, and the Tetrarchs recognized this fact and attempted to create a new model of official religion more suited to the needs of the empire, is to credit such emperors with a level of objective detachment from religious belief improbable in the ancient world. In addition, although the rhetoric of these emperors often invoked traditional Roman deities, R. himself admits that there is no clear evidence for a well-defined Roman religious norm in their imperial policies. It is unnecessary then to conclude that these emperors were motivated by anything other than an immediate desire to conciliate “the gods” as part of their effort to restore peace and prosperity to their realm. In other words, it was not the “incongruous” structure of religion in the empire and its inadequacy for “linking individuals to the state” that concerned the imperial authorities, but rather their own awareness of the anger of the gods.

Finally, the reductionistic tendency of R.’s functionalist approach to religion is perhaps most evident in his treatment of the rise of Christianity to official status. The organization of Christianity is seen as the logical solution to the “problem of religion in the empire” that R. has been developing during the course of his study. When considering Maximin’s apparent attempt to imitate the structure of the church, R. poses a rhetorical question that reveals a great deal about his preconceptions: “But since Christianity had already developed and almost perfected such a structure, would it not have been easier for the imperial government to co-opt the church itself rather than recreate its structure in another form?” (309) The author assures the reader that he will not attempt to argue that Constantine converted to Christianity because it provided a practical answer to the religious problems of the empire, but the functional approach to religion that proceeds and follows this statement belies his assurances. And in the end, he concludes that Constantine did “to a certain extent … co-opt” Christianity for the “needs of the empire” (310).

R. may be correct in assuming that the nature of Christian organization was advantageous to the administration of imperial authority (though in the light of the theological disputes which continued to divide the church, it is worth asking what criteria the author is using when he claims a “truly unified empire of late antiquity”). Nonetheless, his sociological emphasis again fails to account sufficiently for the more complex role of inherent religious sensibilities; and yet, in an age in which the immediate participation of the divine realm in human affairs was universally taken for granted, accounting for such a role in the Christian conversion of Constantine is essential.

In spite of these shortcomings, R.’s study has much to commend it to students of religion in the Roman empire. His reconstruction of the religious milieu in Carthage is brilliant; as is his insightful sketch of the religious developments in the pagus and civitas at Thugga. Likewise, R.’s discussion of Tertullian and Cyprian’s differing views on authority in the church, and his appraisal of the development of Christian organization are both very helpful. Lastly, considering the disproportionate number of religious studies which have concentrated on the Greek East, perhaps R. should be applauded most of all for writing a book on religion in the Roman world that focuses on evidence from the western half of the empire.