BMCR 2002.06.30

Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience

, , Religion in archaic and republican Rome and Italy : evidence and experience. New perspectives on the ancient world ; 2. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. xiv, 199 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0748614303. £16.95.

Most of the essays included in Edward Bispham and Christopher Smith’s Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience originated as papers given at a conference at the University of Edinburgh in the spring of 1997, the goal of which was to introduce recent work on early Roman religion by Italian, French, and German scholars to the English-speaking community. The result is a group of interesting articles on disparate topics, utilizing various methodologies and categories of evidence: literary, epigraphic, archaeological, and numismatic material are mined for what they may reveal. The essays are united in their effort to stimulate debate on the development of religion in the Italian peninsula over time. One very laudable aspect of this collection is that nearly all the individual contributions strive to integrate developments in Rome within a wider Italian context and, in some cases, to relate those changes even more broadly to events in the Greek world. As with many compilations, the contributions are of varying quality. Yet, despite this unevenness and some egregious editorial gaffes and factual errors (see below), this book remains, on the whole, a useful volume.

The collection is prefaced with a lengthy introduction by Edward Bispham in which he lays out the two main objectives of the volume. The first is to contextualize early Roman religion within the religious milieux of central Italy, including Latium and Etruria, and the Greek world. This approach necessarily undermines the usefulness of (or ‘deconstructs,’ as Bispham would have it) the term “Roman.” Where does “Roman” end, and where does “non-Roman” begin? The second objective of the collection is to trace the historical development of religious practice within the temporal parameters of the volume. This is a very tricky thing since, as Bispham acknowledges, the student of early Roman religion is forced to rely in large part on literary sources that date to a much later period. In addition, the rituals described in those sources are often fossilized archaic rites whose original context had been lost over time. This second goal is achieved with far less success than the first.

Nicole Bourque’s “An anthropologist’s view of ritual” opens the volume with a discussion of the influence of anthropological methods on theoretical considerations of ritual. Anthropologists no longer treat rituals as simple reflections of the social and political categories they reinforce. Instead rituals and social structures are now recognized to influence each other: rituals can be occasions for protest and change, or vehicles for the communication of ideas or the establishment of identities. In addition, the multiplicity of meanings attributed to a rite by participants and observers is an essential aspect of ritual itself. Bourque illustrates these various approaches through a close consideration of the rite of Corpus Christi as it is observed in the Ecuadorian town of Sucre. The application to ancient Roman ritual of the anthropological models laid out by Bourque is left to other contributors, though the connection between her theoretical explication and the studies that put it into practice are not made as clear as one would like.

Recent scholarship on ritual in general has been informed by the belief that rituals must be understood within a wider societal context, be it civic, economic, political (a favorite of students of Roman religion) or cosmological. Vedia Izzet (“Tuscan order: the development of Etruscan sanctuary architecture”) considers the meaning of temple decorations, especially architectural terracottas, from the monumental sanctuaries that began to appear in Etruria in the late 6th century BC. She finds an answer in the cosmological and the political. Izzet reads the elements of temple decoration as marking boundaries between the sacred and the profane, between cities and territories, and between urban and non-urban areas.

Paired with Izzet’s treatment of the meaning of temple decorations is Fay Glinister’s discussion of their meaning when those items no longer adorn a sanctuary (“Sacred rubbish”). After they had been damaged through purposeful or accidental events, or simply by the passage of time, the Etruscans buried the architectural terracottas or used them as fill. The practice was widespread, so much so in fact that Glinister enticingly proposes that the uncovering of an anthropomorphic terracotta prompted the story of the Caput Oli, the human head supposedly discovered by workmen digging the foundations of the Capitoline temple of Juppiter Optimus Maximus. Glinister argues that the intentional burial of terracottas, especially when they were interred within the sanctuary itself, is indicative of their continued sacred status. Burial would have kept the items relatively intact and separate from the secular realm.

Olivier de Cazanove’s “Some thoughts on the ‘religious romanisation’ of Italy before the Social War” is the least satisfactory essay in the collection. While the other essays in the volume are careful to consider Roman religion within a wider geographical and cultural context, de Cazanove offers an isolationist view of Roman public cult which, he argues, had meaning only for the Romans themselves and which was entirely sufficient for them: while the Romans occasionally absorbed foreign gods, Roman public cult did not need the aid of strange deities. In response to this, one might point to the rite of evocatio, or to occasional Roman embassies to foreign oracles, or to Roman reliance on Etruscan diviners and foreign prophetic texts1 — just to name a few counter-examples.

De Cazanove is on stronger ground with his assertion that colonization was the mechanism through which Roman religion spread throughout the Italian peninsula: this has long been advocated by several prominent archaeologists, beginning with Annamaria Comella (whose seminal 1981 article in MEFRA is missing from p. 76, n. 33 and who is misidentified as ‘he’ at n. 34). As de Cazanove points out, the link between colonization and the spread of Roman religious practice is amply demonstrated by the concomitant appearance of Roman colonies and votive deposits comprising a distinctive type of offering: stamped terracotta ex-votos, many of which represent parts of the human body. De Cazanove’s explanation of the phenomenon is problematic, however. He posits that the ubiquity of anatomical votives at Roman religious sites is a by-product of the introduction of Aesculapius at Rome in 293 BC. Such an explanation ignores the existence of an Etruscan and northern Italic tradition of (bronze) anatomical votives documented as far back as the early sixth century and of a Sicilian tradition that can be traced to the eighth century.2 Many Latin votive types are descended from the Etruscan examples, strongly suggesting that the Roman practice is tied to that of other Italian communities and was not inherited directly from the Greeks. Furthermore, while the cult of Aesculapius is documented conclusively only at Rome and Fregellae, anatomical votives are found at sanctuaries devoted to many other gods who are not specifically “healing deities.” A stronger interpretation of Roman use of anatomical votives is that, for the Romans, all gods were healing gods. Any deity was thought to be capable of addressing the health concerns of the faithful.

Emmanuele Curti’s “From Concordia to the Quirinal: notes on religion and politics in mid-republican/hellenistic Rome” returns to the wider view of Roman religion laid out in Bispham’s introduction. Curti investigates the influence on fourth-century Rome of the contemporary Greek debate about the role and form of the city-state. The establishment of a temple to Concordia in the Roman Forum in 304 BCE directly parallels the setting up in Syracuse of an altar to Homonoia, a goddess whose popularity Curti attributes to the democratic reforms being instituted in Magna Graecia. At this same time, of course, access to political power in Rome was increasingly available to a greater number of individuals: political transformation is reflected in religious innovation. Curti sees another reflection of the emergence of a new political class in Rome in the reorganization of the Quirinal hill into a religious center in the late fourth and early third centuries. Curti argues that the plebeian families behind the new construction projects were interested in promoting Rome’s Sabine heritage (with which the Quirinal was inextricably linked) as a reminder that patrician political power at Rome had already been shared with one other rival group.

In 213 BCE, in the midst of a public religious panic, the praetor M. Aemilius decreed that all prophetic books and written instructions for sacrifice should be turned over to him (Livy 25.1.12). Among these writings were the two prophecies of Marcius, one of which led to the establishment of annual games to Apollo (25.12.3-15). In his article, “Prophet and text in the third century BC,” John North asks if the events of 213 were unusual, or if the episode offers a glimpse into an aspect of Roman religious life that is disregarded by our sources. North’s examination leads decisively to the latter conclusion. Through a consideration of epigraphic and literary evidence, North makes a strong case for the production of prophetic texts in third century Rome, with those that received official sanction being placed under the control of the decimviri sacris faciundis, and in the case of the prophecies of Vegoia and Marcius, being kept with the Sibylline books (which were themselves occasionally mined for prophetic statements).

T. P. Wiseman (“The games of Hercules”) offers a new interpretation of a series of denarii issued by the moneyer M. Volteius in 78 BCE. The coins were recognized by Mommsen as representing a series of games, and later scholars have followed this line of thinking, though there is disagreement about which games are depicted. Particularly problematic is the appearance of Hercules on one of the issues. Literary sources do not record Herculean games on par with those of Ceres, Apollo and the Magna Mater, who also appear on the coins, although there is epigraphic evidence of smaller scale, local games in honor of Hercules (CIL 1 2.984 and 985) in the late republic. Wiseman’s solution is that, at the time of the issue, there were games in honor of Hercules celebrated under the direction of the aediles, probably at the instigation of Sulla. Wiseman proposes, furthermore, that the games were demoted to the local level as part of the Sullan backlash of the early 60s, hence their absence from the literary sources.

Andreas Bendlin (“Looking beyond the civic compromise: religious pluralism in late republican Rome”) takes on several methodological assumptions underlying much modern scholarship on early Roman religion. The most fundamental of these is the idea that, for the Romans, private religion was always subordinate to, or dependent upon, public religion and similarly, that religion in general was always at the mercy of events in the civic domain. This is the “civic compromise” of Bendlin’s title. A result of the public/civic focus of this orthodox approach is the widespread notion that discussion of such topics as belief and private religious motivation is often considered inappropriate to the study of Roman religion. Bendlin argues that the traditional dichotomy of civic religion and private cult must be set aside as it too rigidly categorizes actions that may in fact fall somewhere in between. This is a perfectly valid point, though one is left to wonder how Bendlin would respond to the fact that it is the Romans themselves who clearly distinguish between sacra publica and sacra privata (see, for example, Festus 284L, s.v. “publica”).

Bendlin proposes a new marketplace model for Roman religion down through the period of the late Republic. The almost universal typological similarity of votive deposits found throughout Roman Italy suggests that a range of gods could respond to the same concerns. Thus there was competition among cults to attract worshippers. Bendlin does not think the cults competed for a worshipper’s exclusive attentions but rather believes that it was assumed that worshippers, all of whom had largely the same needs, would avail themselves of a number of places of worship. The survival of an individual cult would depend on its ability to attract the faithful. Thus the disappearance of some cults over time no longer needs to be attributed to a breakdown in religious sentiment or religious practice. This analogy is very attractive. Though Bendlin does not offer much ancient evidence to support the validity of such a model, one need only look at the Roman religious landscape as it is portrayed in the works of, say, Apuleius or Josephus to see that such competition did exist in the imperial period. There are sufficient hints in the writings of Lucretius and Livy to suggest republican precedent.

The final essay in the collection, Christopher Smith’s “Worshipping Mater Matuta: ritual and context,” is the only contribution which was not part of the original conference. It is not intended as a tidy conclusion to the volume but rather offers yet another approach to Roman ritual. Smith borrows from literary criticism the idea of intertext, proposing to look at the cult of Mater Matuta within the context of the other cults with which it is associated. Work in this vein has already been done by several scholars, including Champeaux and Boëls-Janssen (1993) with regard to female deities, and Torelli on the spring cycle of festivals.3 Smith finds masculine balance to Mater Matuta’s feminine concerns in the possibility that the twin temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta were located along the Roman triumphal route and in the existence of the Lapis Satricanus, a dedication to Mars that must predate its reuse in the refurbishment of the temple of Mater Matuta at Satricum in the very late sixth century BCE.

Smith argues that “women’s worship cannot be dissociated from issues more usually associated with men and the state — war, triumph, political leadership and so forth (145).” Yet Smith’s persistence in treating Mater Matuta and Juno Lucina (who also figures prominently in this article) as gods with interests almost completely relegated to the feminine sphere helps to reinforce this very dissociation. There is evidence that the spheres of influence4 of many “feminine” deities included concerns traditionally considered masculine. The votive deposits belonging to Mater Matuta include some weaponry (admittedly in small amounts)5 alongside anatomical votives and kourotrophic statuettes. The temple of Juno Lucina was not only the site of an exclusively female festival (the Matronalia) but also a stop along the procession of the Argei and was under the care of the aediles, suggesting that this “feminine” deity was an intrinsic part of the civic religion of early Rome.6 Considering the intertext among cults is a valuable project, but first we should read all of the available “text” of the individual cults themselves.

The quality of Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy is diminished by a number of technical problems. Misspellings and grammatical errors occur with embarrassing frequency.7 Roman nomenclature is not always rendered correctly, e.g. the consul of 293 BCE, L. Papirius Cursor, is incorrectly identified as L. Papirius Crassus (84). There are occasional historical inaccuracies, such as the identification of the curule aedile of 304, Cn. Flavius, as a libertus of Appius Claudius (80). This is doubly incorrect. The ancient sources are unanimous that Flavius was the son of a freedman and not a freedman (or grandson of a freedman) himself.8 Furthermore, there is no reason to think that either Flavius or his father had served in the house of Claudius, which the families’ nomina make clear immediately.

To sum up, this is a book that students of early Roman religion should read thoroughly and carefully. There is much here that is exciting, some that is frustrating. The articles in this volume will surely spark dialogue and further research.


1. As discussed in North’s contribution to this very volume.

2. A much fuller discussion of this topic is forthcoming in J. M. Turfa’s article on anatomical votives in the Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (ThesCRA).

3. J. Champeaux, Fortuna: Recherches sur le Culte de la Fortuna à Rome et dans le Monde Romaine des Origines à la Mort de César, ξεφῤα) 64, Rome: École Française de Rome, 1982. N. Boëls-Janssen, La Vie Religieuse des Matrones dans la Rome Archaïque, ξεφῤα) 176, Rome: École Française de Rome, 1993. M. Torelli, Lavinio e Roma: Riti Iniziatici e Matrimonio tra Archelogia e Storia Roma: Edizioni Quasar, 1984.

4. To borrow a phrase from A. Comella, “Tipologia e Diffusione dei Complessi Votivi in Italia in Epoca Medio- e Tardo-Repubblicana,” MEFRA 93 (1981), 762.

5. J. W. Bouma, Religio Votiva: The Archaeology of Latial Votive Religion (Drachten: Donkel and Donkel, 1996), 1.140-6.

6. R. E. A. Palmer, Roman Religion and Roman Empire: Five Essays (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), 20.

7. E.g, “Terminus’ shrine had to be included within into the new temple …” (66); “The same situation can be observed, thought with less clarity …” (75); “Wiseman has conincingly proven …” (91).

8. See S. Treggiari, Roman Freedmen During the Late Republic (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 56-58.