BMCR 2004.12.25

“For Salvation’s Sake”: Provincial Loyalty, Personal Religion, and Epigraphic Production in the Roman and Late Antique Near East

, "For salvation's sake" : provincial loyalty, personal religion, and epigraphic production in the Roman and late antique Near East. Studies in classics. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xviii, 244 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 0203485319. $65.00.

This book, ‘a substantially revised version’ of the author’s 2002 doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles (xvii), is a case study of the Greek epigraphic formula ‘hyper soterias’ and its Latin equivalent ‘pro salute’ in the ancient Near East, here defined as the area corresponding to the modern states of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This formula occurs in some 400 inscriptions from this region, ranging in date from the first century BCE to the eighth century CE, and Moralee has to all appearances done an excellent job in gathering and analyzing them. His chief interest lies in the social functions of these inscriptions, the way they worked to structure relationships both within local communities and between local communities and the empire, and his observations on this topic are intelligent and show an admirable sensitivity to nuance. In all these respects the book constitutes a useful contribution to the study of dedicatory inscriptions in the Roman empire. At the same time, however, there is a hesitation in engaging with larger issues that in the end somewhat limits its significance.

The book consists of six chapters, a brief conclusion, and a lengthy appendix of inscriptions (121-182), followed by notes, bibliography, and a general index. In Chapter One, ‘Introduction’ (1-22), Moralee provides an overview of his material, which falls into two main classes: dedications for the salvation of the emperor and dedications for the salvation of the dedicator and/or other private individuals, which he calls dedications for ‘personal salvation’. The former are almost entirely restricted to the first three and a half centuries CE, when they constitute the vast majority of dedications erected ‘for salvation’. The latter begin earlier (the earliest datable example is from 69 BCE) and continue later; in late antiquity, when dedications for the emperor’s salvation come to an end, they become the norm. Here and throughout the book, Moralee provides numerous charts and graphs that analyze his data according to a variety of criteria: geographical location, date, formula, and the like. He concludes the introduction with a brief discussion of earlier research, in which he sees a tendency to focus on dedications for the emperor’s salvation to the neglect of those erected for personal salvation. He argues that an examination of both types together is needed to correct some of the false deductions that follow from this bias.

In Chapter Two, ‘The Salutary Ideology’ (23-38), Moralee examines the assumptions that underlay dedications for the emperor’s salvation: that the empire and its inhabitants depended on the well-being of the emperor, that the emperor in turn depended on the favor of the gods, and that it was consequently important for the inhabitants of the empire to ask the gods for the emperor’s salvation. Moralee terms this nexus of mutual dependence ‘the salutary ideology’, and uses literary evidence to trace its development, spread, and transformation in the imperial period. But in order to understand why people expressed this ideology in the form of permanent inscriptions, he argues, we must examine the inscription themselves.

This he does in the third chapter, ‘The Reception of the Salutary Ideology in the Near East’ (39-58). Here he provides more specific analysis of the data found in dedications for the emperor’s salvation: the names of the dedicators (Greek, Roman, Semitic), their status, the deities invoked, the context, and so forth. As I noted above, Moralee’s chief concern here is with the work these inscriptions did, and his premise is eminently sensible: ‘inscriptions affirming loyalty became a vehicle for elites in the provinces to fashion individual and collective identity’ (40). Because ‘the underlying impetus to affirm the salutary ideology involved obligations that emanated from local affairs’, these inscriptions served both to craft ‘an imperial identity that transcended race, social status, and political clout’ and at the same time ‘to affirm social distinctions at the local level’ (57-8).

Chapter Four provides a succinct discussion of ‘The Demise and Transformation of the Salutary Ideology’ (59-68). Dedications for the emperor’s salvation start to become more scarce in the third century CE, and virtually disappear by the mid-fourth century. Yet the salutary ideology itself did not die out, but came to be expressed orally in the context of the Christian liturgy rather than epigraphically in a civic context. Moralee analyzes a mosaic representation of Salus as an example of this ideological shift ‘from public inscriptions on city gates and theaters to strictly personal and religious contexts in churches and synagogues’ (68).

In the fifth chapter, Moralee examines ‘Pagan, Christian, and Jewish Dedications for Personal Salvation’ (69-94). He again analyzes the number and distribution of these dedications, quantifying the information about the names, deities, and personal relationships attested in them. He also considers their physical context, and provides some evocative sketches of what would have been involved in erecting and reading them. His main thesis here is that Christian dedications for personal salvation did not grow out of dedications for the emperors, as earlier scholars supposed, but derived instead from the pagan tradition of erecting dedications for personal salvation, which as he indicates in Chapter One predated those on behalf of emperors. Among pagans and Christians alike, these dedications served to inscribe the dedicators’ social identity in the public record and to structure their relationships with other people, either demonstrating their loyalty and subservience (in dedications erected by an inferior on behalf of a superior) or their authority and patronage (in those erected by a superior on behalf of an inferior). We find these functions in Jewish dedications as well, indicating that Jews partook of the same social and cultural forms as their Christian neighbors.

The final chapter, ‘Localizing Provincial Loyalty and Personal Religion: Three Case Studies’ (95-114), provides a closer look at the inscriptions from Heliopolis and the Bekaa valley, Dura Europos, and Gerasa. Here Moralee brings together conclusions from the previous chapters in short studies that are both more specific and more synoptic; Gerasa, which has yielded fifty-five dedications for the emperor’s salvation, receives particular attention. The brief Conclusion (115-120) summarizes his findings, especially with regard to dedications on behalf of the emperor.

There is much of value in this book. Moralee clearly worked hard to amass his database, which draws on a wide range of publications and gives every appearance of being comprehensive. His approach is sensible and sensitive to nuance, and he consistently demonstrates good judgment in his discussion of particular questions. To take one example more or less at random, he argues that when Christians erected dedications for personal salvation, they did so for the same reasons as the pagans from whom they inherited the practice: to ask their God for physical well-being in exchange for votive offerings. That is, they did not use the term ‘salvation’ in the specifically Christian sense of the eternal salvation of the soul. At the same time, he suggests that recent arguments to exclude entirely any theological significance go too far: ‘available in homilies, public readings, and liturgical performance, the specifically Christian understanding of sôtêria as a future event would not have been too obscure to readers, especially given that the vast majority of the dedications were made in a specifically Christian context — the church’ (89). As this suggests, Moralee rejects simplistic either/or interpretations and instead highlights the multi-faceted nature of these inscriptions and the complexity of the social and cultural world that they reveal to us.

Inevitably, I have some criticisms. There are a few errors that escaped the notice of the copy-editor, although nothing too serious; the book is on the whole well produced.1 But the complete lack of maps is a little frustrating. Although it was no doubt impractical to chart the location of every site mentioned, one or two maps showing the major regions and more important settlements would have been very helpful; all we get, however, is the suggestion that ‘those interested in locating the places mentioned in the following pages will want to consult The Barrington Atlas‘ (183, n. 5). As excellent a resource as that atlas is, however, it is not terribly convenient to keep at one’s side while reading a book.

More seriously, however, there is a failure to answer or even to ask some key questions that seems to me in part to undermine Moralee’s entire project. First of all, what do the terms ‘soteria’ and ‘salus’ really mean in these inscriptions? Moralee very briefly comments in his introduction that ‘salvation did not last a lifetime, much less for eternity, for this salvation pertained to specific moments of anxiety, sickness, disorder and dislocation’ (1), and he briefly reiterates this view at later points (e.g., 87: ‘the dedicators desired to be snatched from death, cured of terrible illnesses, the restoration, in short, of the wholeness of the body in the present’). Given that the entire book centers on this concept, however, these brief and scattered remarks do not strike me as a sufficient examination of what people meant when they asked the gods for ‘soteria’ or ‘salus’, and why we should regard this request as particularly significant. Moreover, in the absence of any such discussion, the translation of these terms by ‘salvation’ seems to me questionable. The English word ‘salvation’ has strong and specific connotations that are surely to some extent misleading in the context of these inscriptions. Moralee does not explain his choice of translation, which is by no means inevitable: ‘preservation’, ‘safety’, and ‘well-being’ are obvious options. I can imagine various advantages to the translation ‘salvation’: it perhaps was equally appropriate to both the Greek and the Latin words; perhaps its semantic range was wide enough to cover connotations of ‘soteria’ and ‘salus’ in pagan, Christian, and Jewish contexts. It is not so much the translation of ‘soteria’ and ‘salus’ as ‘salvation’ that bothers me, as the complete absence of any attempt to explain or justify it. As I indicated above, Moralee does at times address the question of what these words would have meant to different groups. But the general lack of interest in the meaning of these words gave me the feeling that in a fundamental respect I did not know what the book was actually about.

A closely related question is whether dedications ‘for salvation’ constitute a significant and distinctive category. Moralee notes that he did not include in his database inscriptions ‘that contain words related to sôtêria‘ or ‘dedications in Aramaic that ask for the similar quality of “life”‘ (4). We are apparently meant to assume that this exclusion had no significant effect on his conclusions, but some indication of this would have been welcome. More importantly, it seems to me, there is no discussion of similar dedicatory formulas that happen not to include the specific terms ‘soteria’ and ‘salus’, such as dedications for the health or the safety or simply ‘for’ (‘hyper’ or ‘pro’) someone. Do dedications for ‘salvation’ differ from these in any significant way? Or are they all merely verbal variations on a common idea? If the latter, then the decision to examine only dedications for ‘salvation’ seems somewhat arbitrary, and I cannot help but wonder how different the results might have looked if the net had been cast more widely. Obviously, there are practical limits to the amount of material someone can cover in a study of this sort. But there should be at least an attempt to place this particular selection of material in a wider context so that we can better evaluate its distinctive or typical qualities.

For these reasons it is somewhat difficult to avoid the impression that what we have here is not so much a topic as a database. Moralee tabulates all the dedications from a certain region that employ a certain formula, but never really explains in what way this particular group of inscriptions is significant: the database serves to justify itself. Now, I like a good database as much as the next person, and I find few things more entertaining than trawling through a solid collection of dedicatory inscriptions (I mean this entirely seriously). The thorough presentation of all the inscriptions in Moralee’s database, with text, translation, and annotations, would have been a valuable resource and would on its own have made up for any unresolved questions in the main text. Unfortunately, the appendix of inscriptions is disappointing in this respect. Moralee provides neither texts nor translations of the inscriptions, but simply describes them. Moreover, he has chosen a principle of organization that I found frankly bewildering: first, according to specific formula (so that dedications ‘for the salvation of the Lords, Emperors’, for example, form a separate category from those ‘for the salvation of our Lords, Caesars’), then within formula according to region, and lastly within region according to date or lack thereof. Not only does this organization make the collection difficult to search, but it also seems to insist on the significance of something (i.e., the details of the formula) which, since it receives no discussion in the text, seems not to be significant after all. In fact, as far as I could detect, Moralee never once refers to this appendix either in the body of his book or in the notes. It would have been useful, for example, when reading about a particular inscription, to be able to refer to it in the appendix. But Moralee, ignoring the appendix altogether, refers instead only to the inscription’s main publication. Given that the descriptions in the appendix often add little to the descriptions he provides in the text, this is perhaps not too great a loss. But then what was the purpose of including the appendix at all? It may of course be that for reasons of economy a full presentation of the inscriptions was simply not feasible. In that case, however, it was surely the responsibility of someone from the press to help the author work out a more satisfactory solution.

These problems seem to me to weaken an otherwise valuable study. Yet it would be wrong to end on a negative note, since this book is full of useful material and intelligent analysis. Moralee is clearly a promising scholar, and I look forward to seeing more work from him.


1. The graphs on pp. 12-15 appear to be printed upside down. Very occasionally a sentence seems to be garbled (e.g., in the first line of p. 71: ‘and they continued to do so they the Roman occupation of the city’), and there are a few misspellings (p. 49, ‘Sybilline’; ‘Liebescheutz’ for ‘Liebeschuetz’ throughout).