BMCR 2006.09.18

The Imperial Cult in the Latin West. Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. Volume III (Provincial Cult), Part 2: The Provincial Priesthood

Duncan Fishwick, The imperial cult in the Latin West : studies in the ruler cult of the western provinces of the Roman Empire. Religions in the Graeco-Roman world ; v. 145-148. Brill: E.J. Brill, 1987-2005. 3 volumes in 8 parts : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9004071792 €101.00.

The book under review is the second part of Volume III of Duncan Fishwick’s major oeuvre (3 volumes, 8 books) on the Imperial Cult in the Latin West. Since 1987, Fishwick has steadily produced studies of all facets of ruler cult in the western provinces of the Roman Empire and in 2005 achieved his goal of completing the final part, the bibliography, indices and addenda, of the quadripartite Volume III.1 The present work is a detailed study of the provincial priesthood from Augustan times until the third century. It consists of eighteen chapters with the first chapter setting up his interpretative reference in the form of the Lex de flamonio Provinciae Narbonensis (CIL 12, 6038 = ILS 6964), the surviving charter for setting up the cult in Gallia Narbonensis. The last chapter of the book is a synthetic summary of the material discussed. Each of the remaining sixteen chapters is devoted to a province, with the provinces organized in the chronological order of their institution. Fishwick presents the evidence in a methodical manner, and analyzes and interprets it using the same meticulous approach in each chapter. At the end of each chapter Fishwick provides a useful chronological listing of the inscriptions discussed with a brief overview of provenance, dating and references. The book provides a generous number of plates with many clear photographs.

In Chapter 1, Fishwick sets out the full text of the much discussed inscription known as the Lex de flamonio Provinciae Narbonensis (CIL 12,6038 = ILS 6964). Like most inscriptions, the Lex has a number of lacunae that are open to interpretation. Fishwick opts for a cautious approach, remaining close to the conservative interpretations of C.H. Williamson and M. Crawford, even though he does not agree with their every point.2 He also brings the discussion of the charter’s interpretation up to date. Fishwick considers the Lex Narbonensis an important reference because he believes that it is representative of other similar laws, now lost, that were promulgated within the empire to organize the imperial cult (p. 15). In his study, Fishwick continues an argumentative thread present in his work since the mid-sixties, a theme that evolved from his earlier study of the Lex Narbonensis.3 Fishwick has argued in the past and continues to believe that the Lex Narbonensis reveals that the imperial cult was an entirely political phenomenon whose character changed with Vespasian’s reforms from a relatively loose, almost ad hoc system to a more centrally organized one, governed by regulations established by the imperial administration. Fishwick’s basic thesis is that Vespasian had broadened and standardized the imperial cult in the west in order to legitimate his power and consolidate provincial support through the institution of cult organized under such laws as the Lex Narbonensis.4 Although this particular series of books began more than twenty years after he first argued this thesis, Fishwick continues with this interpretation, steadfastly maintaining and refining it through the incorporation of new evidence.

Fishwick’s evidence for the provincial priesthood is derived from inscriptions, most of which are on statue bases. The statues are no longer extant but were essentially of two types: single togate figures in most of the provinces, and family groups of eastern type in Tres Galliae. Commemorative statues for members of the provincial priesthood that were set up in precincts of provincial sanctuaries generally had to be approved by the council, but were paid for by the priest himself after he had served his term. Other statues that were set up in the priest’s home town were dedicated and paid for by the retired priest or members of his family. These provide more evidence about the careers of provincial priests and their social context, as do other local forms of evidence from statues dedicated to the gods or the emperor, where the dedication mentions the priestly office of the benefactor. Among the evidence from statue bases, Fishwick includes a small number of funerary inscriptions.

Fishwick does find considerable variety in the evidence, in spite of his main thesis that the commemoration of provincial priesthoods was regulated by the imperial government. Thus, the custom of the provincial council’s setting up statues to retiring priests is restricted to Tres Galliae, Hispania Citerior and Baetica but Fishwick still thinks that the custom is important because of the relative number of inscriptions from those provinces. In a similar vein, while only the inscribed bases in Baetica conform closely to the Narbonese prescription, Fishwick thinks there are sufficient similarities among the dedications to confirm that the stipulations in the Lex Narbonensis were widespread, were imperial in nature, and followed from the very foundations of the provincial cult under Vespasian.

The length and depth of each of the sixteen chapters pertaining to the provinces is determined by the quantity of epigraphical evidence. The chapters are thus necessarily uneven in length, a reflection of the bounty or paucity of extant material. Although the inscriptions are his primary evidence, Fishwick does begin most chapters with a review of the literary evidence for the priesthood. This type of evidence ranges from sparse to non-existent. He then arranges the chapters into sections with subheadings that include the Epigraphical Record, Honorific Statues, the Priestly Title and the Priestly Office. Other categories, such as Provincial Priestesses or Administrative Office appear less frequently, as dictated by the available evidence. The chapter on Hispania Citerior has the largest number of subheadings (twelve), for the epigraphical record in that case provides information about a total of 76 priests. In descending order, the remaining provinces can be organized in the following sequence: Baetica (eleven sub-headings derived from evidence of 23 priests and one priestess); Tres Galliae (ten subheadings derived from information about 40 priesthoods); Lusitania (nine subheadings, 11 priests); Gallia Narbonensis (eight subheadings, 7/8 priests, one priestess); Africa Proconsularis (seven subheadings, 15 priests); Dacia (six subheadings, 9/10 priests); Pannonia Superior (six subheadings, 6 priests); Pannonia Inferior (five subheadings, 4 priests); Sardinia (four subheadings, 4 priests); Alpes Maritimae (three subheadings, 4 priests); Mauretania Caesariensis (1 priest and 1 priestess); Mauretania Tingitana (2 priestesses); Moesia Inferior (2 priests); Alpes Cottiae and Dalmatia (1 priest each). In this sense, the organization of the book is definitely determined by the material record.

Fishwick’s meticulous research, rigorous analysis and detailed argumentation have been described as revisionist or theoretically conservative by some scholars.5 However, although he does approach the material in a solid methodical old-school manner, in each chapter Fishwick also tackles pertinent controversial issues that have concerned scholars over the years. For example, the problem with the nomenclature of priests who are referred to epigraphically in some cases as sacerdos and in other cases as flamen. Fishwick engages in a detailed analysis of the titles and argues that there seems to be no cultic difference in the use of the differing terms. Rather, the preferred title was a matter of prestige and local precedence with no evidence of any mandatory formula (pp. 25-36, 294-5)

Finally, Fishwick provides a comprehensive look at the social status of the provincial priests with a convenient synopsis of the book’s arguments in his final chapter. Using the same format as in the rest of the book, Fishwick briefly discusses the literary and epigraphic evidence. From this evidence arise the issues of title, qualifications and origin and social background of the provincial priests. The cursus prior to and following the provincial priesthood is examined, as are the offices and duties. A section is devoted to provincial priestesses and another to the administrative officials to whom statues were dedicated in the provincial sanctuaries. Two of Fishwick’s conclusions are that citizenship was a prerequisite for the priesthood and that the minimum age was 25. However,a careful examination of the cursus shows that most provincial priests were closer to 40 or 50.6 The priests were drawn from the province of their residence but the legal status of the patria itself does not seem to have played a role. The only advantage may have been that a resident of the provincial capital, perhaps as a result of closer contact with Roman authorities, had a greater chance of achieving the provincial priesthood. Personal merit was a requirement, as also was an affinity with a distinguished well-to-do family. Thus priests belonged to the affluent elite because they paid for the games that formed part of the annual imperial celebrations. Priests and priestesses were recruited from the local elite just below upper equestrian and senatorial rank. Yet, surprisingly, although the office was highly respected and often capped a distinguished municipal career, the provincial priesthood did not lead to a senatorial position. Nevertheless, Fishwick finds that while the priesthood was not a springboard to higher office it was not an impediment to further positions, for some cases exist of a career beyond the provincial priesthood. Service was for one year but once a priest one became a permanent member of the ordo. The priest was elected from among the members of the provincial council, which was composed of delegates who represented individual cities. A provincial priestess was often called a flaminica and the priest was called a flamen. The priestess may or may not have been the wife of the provincial priest; the evidence is unclear. What is clear is that the priestess tended to the cult of the deified females and was drawn from the same families as the priests. Dedications were set up privately, often by the husband.

Fishwick’s oeuvre is of such a consistently high quality that it is destined to join the ranks of the standard works on Roman social history. Its traditional approach and format are consistent with its function as an important reference. It will be an invaluable mine of ideas and information for future scholars. This volume, together with the whole series, is a very useful resource on the imperial cult that should be accessible to students of Roman history, especially graduate students. This raises the one major problem with the book: the absence of a map, which would hardly have been a costly addition and would have served the reader well, especially graduate students just embarking on provincial studies. The author and publishers presumably assumed a knowledgeable audience and easy access to the other books in the series. Unfortunately, neither of these assumptions may be taken for granted because, shockingly, few university libraries have the whole series. More often libraries own only one part of a volume, while many have none.


1. D. Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West, Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, Vol. III, Provincial Cult, Part 4: Bibliography, Indices, Addenda (Brill, 2005).

2. C.H. Williamson, “A Roman Law from Narbonne,” Athenaeum 65 (1987) 173-89.

3. D. Fishwick, “Vae Puto Deus Fio,” CQ n.s. 15.1 (1965) 155-57.

4. Ibid.

5. S. R. F. Price, Review of Fishwick The Imperial Cult in the Latin West, Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, Phoenix, 42.4 (1988) 371-74; R. Mellor, Review of Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West, Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire, Vol. V, Part 1, AJP 112.3 (1991) 424-27.

6. See also J.F. Drinkwater, “A Note on Local Careers in the Three Gauls under the Early Empire,” Britannia 10 (1979) 89-100.