BMCR 2006.10.40

Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic

, Women's religious activity in the Roman Republic. Studies in the history of Greece and Rome. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 234 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780807877258 $39.95.

In Women’s Religious Activity in the Roman Republic, Celia E. Schultz argues that women’s involvement in Roman religious life was far less circumscribed than previous scholars would have us think. Schultz presents a series of case studies that support this premise; her book is not (and is not meant to be) a history of female religious activity during the period of the Roman Republic. Drawing on literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence, the author presents a strong argument, and her book is an important addition to the literature on Roman social and religious life. The introductory nature of some parts of the text suggests that the book is intended for a broad audience, but it will be read most profitably by those who already have a good knowledge of Roman history and religious practices.

The book, a revised version of the author’s doctoral dissertation written at Bryn Mawr College, follows the standard format of academic theses. An unnumbered introductory chapter summarizes the content and main arguments of the book. Five numbered chapters follow, with one each on literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence for Roman women’s religious activities; a chapter on female roles in domestic Roman religion; and a chapter on the relationship between social status and religious participation in republican Rome. A brief conclusion rounds out the main text. A limited selection of relevant black-and-white images appears interspersed throughout the book. End matter includes ample notes, references cited, a concordance of inscriptions, and an index.

In her introduction (pp. 1-18), Schultz makes the case that there is a need for a broad study of women’s religious activity in ancient Rome, since the role of women is not generally treated in the standard manuals on Roman religion, and those studies that do address female religious participation tend to focus on individual cults and, in particular, the so-called “women’s cults” directed at ensuring fertility and successful childbirth. Schultz contends that such cults were not the only entry that females had into the Roman religious experience, nor were women limited to participating in domestic or household religion. Roman women, she says, often participated in public religious rites, and they often worshipped the same gods and goddesses as did their male counterparts.

In Chapter One (pp. 19-45), entitled “Literary Evidence,” Schultz uses the writings of a range of ancient authors to begin her examination of female roles in religious activity in Rome. She draws on the work of authors from both the republican period and after, with an emphasis on information given by Livy, but she is always careful to consider the historical context of her sources. At the outset, she makes a useful distinction between rites and cults: a rite is a single act of worship, whereas a cult is the sum total of such rites. This distinction is valuable because, as Schultz shows, Roman religious requirements or restrictions—pertaining, for instance, to women—often applied to particular rites rather than to a cult as a whole. Confusion of the two categories of religious activity has in the past led to the improper conclusion that certain cults were open only to men or only to women, when in fact the restrictions in question often pertained to individual rites, not the entire cult of a particular god or goddess.

The nucleus of Chapter One consists of three separate case studies, one each on: the cult of Juno Sospita; the role of women in the expiation of prodigies; and the temple of Fortuna Muliebris. Schultz uses these examples to demonstrate specific ways in which women were (or were not) involved in public religious life in Rome. For instance, she uses the case of Juno Sospita to support her contention that some deities have been too hastily identified as the object of “women’s cults” simply because some rites directed at them involve women. Although Juno Sospita was quite evidently important in military affairs, she has been identified as fertility goddess, largely on the grounds that one of her rituals described by Propertius (4.8.1-16) involved a virgo. As Schultz points out, Propertius’ lines are, in fact, laced with military metaphors rather than references to a fertility cult, despite the presence of a maiden. In her other case studies, Schultz shows that women had the ability to affect public religious policy of the highest order and that there was nothing unusual about women participating—often alongside men—in rituals that were central to Roman public religious life, even if women were not ever treated as equals to their male counterparts.

In Chapter Two (pp. 47-93), “Women in the Epigraphic Record,” Schultz considers the information about Roman female religious activity that can be gleaned from dedicatory or votive inscriptions; inscriptions that mention religious offices held by women; and the well-known bronze plaque bearing a paraphrased text of the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus from Bruttium (modern Calabria) in southern Italy. Schultz pursues these various lines of inquiry to reinforce her argument that the connection between women and fertility cults is not a necessary one. She also shows that it was not unusual or anomalous for women to be involved in official Roman religious activity: females were regular participants in all levels of public religious life in republican Rome.

In her discussion of dedicatory inscriptions, Schultz argues that the republican epigraphic evidence does not fit the commonly followed model in which men honored a range of gods (primarily those who brought success to the Roman state and military affairs), while female worshipers limited their devotion to “women’s deities” who had tutelage over fertility and childbirth. She shows that, although these “women’s deities” were in fact commonly honored by female devotees, many other divinities were also the object of religious inscriptions sponsored by women. Giving an especially effective defense of the oft-rejected idea that women were involved in the worship of Hercules, she argues, convincingly, that females were probably excluded from particular rites of Hercules but not from the cult of the god as a whole. In addition, she shows that some “traditionally female” deities—Carmenta, for example—received rather fewer inscriptions from women than we might expect, while men are known to have made offerings to goddesses, such as Juno Lucina, whom modern scholars have generally assigned to the female realm. On the basis of such evidence, Schultz concludes that the number of Roman cults that were followed by devotees of only one sex has almost certainly been overstated by current historians of Roman religion.

Schultz then turns to an examination of inscriptions that record religious titles held by women. She uses these titles to support her contention that women were involved in a range of cultic activities beyond those of simple worshiper: while female sacerdotes and other priestesses officiated at religious ceremonies, including public rites performed on behalf of the Roman people, magistrae and ministrae were women who helped to maintain the day-to-day functioning of the cults and cult places with which they were associated. Some positions, such as that of the regina sacrorum, required the woman to be married (in this case to the rex sacrorum), and Schultz proposes that Roman priesthoods and religious offices should be divided into three categories: positions held by men, those held by women, and those held jointly by married couples. In this context, Schultz argues that Roman priestesses and female religious officials should not be seen as aberrations that are in need of explanation within a male paradigm, inasmuch as there was nothing notably unusual about women fulfilling religious roles in ancient Rome.

The third part of the chapter is concerned with the famous Bacchic scandal of 186 BCE. Here, Schultz considers specifically the role that gender played in the unfolding of events. Livy reports that one of the Roman Senate’s prime motivations for suppressing the Bacchic cult was the shameless intermingling of men and women under the guise of religious activities. Schultz concludes, on the basis of the stipulations listed in the Bruttian inscription, that the Senate was less concerned about intermixing of the sexes or the inclusion of women than it was about the participation of members of Rome’s political class—male citizens and allies—in a cult that was not otherwise controlled by the Roman state.

Chapter Three (pp. 95-120), “The Evidence of Votive Deposits,” delves into the archaeology of female religious activity in early Italy. Schultz focuses on the many terracotta representations of body parts that have been found in ancient caches of buried votive material throughout central Italy in the middle to late republican period. The anatomical representations, which include a full range from eyes to internal organs to feet, were probably presented to the gods either as a request for healing or as an offering of thanks for a successful cure of the body part in question. They were given to a variety of deities, not just those traditionally associated with healing.

Schultz uses the anatomical representations as a basis for identifying the gender—or, perhaps more correctly, the sex—of worshipers who participated in cult activities. Working from the reasonable assumption that there was usually a correspondence between the sex of the fictile body part (female breast, uterus, phallus) and the sex of the donor, Schultz concludes that cults that drew followers of a single sex were no more common than those that had worshipers of both sexes. The largest category in her study, however, was by far that of votive deposits in which the sex of the donors could not be determined (58.8 to 70.4% depending on the sample used). Although Schultz’s statistical analysis is not refined, and Schultz perhaps makes larger claims than the data warrant, she does succeed in convincing the reader that, like the literary and epigraphical evidence, archaeological remains indicate that Roman cults and cult places were less segregated along gender lines than previous scholars have thought them to be.

Schultz moves away from analyzing different categories of evidence for female religious activity in Chapter Four (“Household Ritual,” pp. 121-137), and she focuses instead on religion in the domestic realm, since the Roman house was traditionally the preserve of women. Schultz is interested specifically in the level of female participation in household rituals and the extent to which women were responsible for ensuring that the house was properly equipped with supplies for religious activities. In a brief discussion of the various rituals and festivals (such as the Compitalia) in which women were clearly included, she points out the religious paraphernalia that the females of the household probably provided on these occasions (woolen dolls and balls in the case of the Compitalia). She also reviews the evidence for the disputed question of whether or not women could be involved in sacrifice, arguing persuasively that women could both initiate and participate in sacrifice, including blood offerings, in both public and private settings. Thus, in this chapter, Schultz shows the ways in which women were regularly and actively involved participants in the religious rituals of Roman daily life.

In the final numbered chapter of the book, Chapter Five (pp. 139-150), entitled “Social Status and Religious Participation,” Schultz examines the different religious roles that were available to Roman females depending on their social position and marital status. On the basis largely of literary evidence, Schultz concludes, not surprisingly, that although women were important and active participants in Roman religious life, not all religious activities were open to all Roman females. The level and kind of involvement that was accorded to a particular woman depended on a variety of factors, from the woman’s own behavior and reputation to the social and economic standing of her family. Schultz notes that the restrictions placed on female religious activity have been interpreted as attempts by Roman leaders to control and manage the women of ancient Rome, but, as she cogently argues, Rome’s leaders did not single out women: the Roman religious system served to reinforce the larger Roman social hierarchy, of which women were only a part. The last chapter (pp. 151-152) of the book consists of two pages of concluding remarks, which reiterate the main points made throughout the book: women were active and involved participants in both the public and private sides of Roman religion, and they venerated many of the same gods as men, at times even taking part in ritual activities alongside men.

The shortcomings of this book are few. The one over-arching concern I have is with the book’s geographical scope. Schultz is careful to articulate and justify the time frame of her study (p. 4), yet she offers no parallel explanation of its geographical extent (which, in practice, seems to comprise native Italic, Roman-ruled Italy). Schultz is aware that geography and cultural variation matter—for instance, she mentions that the ill-understood Paelignian goddess Anaceta Cerria is disproportionately represented in the Latin epigraphic record because of the number of inscriptions dedicated to her at Sulmo, in what is now Abruzzo (p. 51), and when she includes non-Roman votive deposits in her examination of fictile body parts, she sees the need to contend that Rome was part of a greater “religious koine of west central Italy” (97-98)—but no larger, explicit consideration is given to the possibility that variation existed within the Italian peninsula during Roman rule or that people living outside of Rome did anything other than adopt Roman religious practices. Some explanation of the geographical scope of the book would add further strength to the larger arguments that Schultz makes. An accompanying map would help the reader to grasp this scope and also to follow Schultz’s discussions throughout the book, since she mentions the names—sometimes ancient, sometimes modern—of dozens of small communities in Italy without any reference to their geographical locations.

This objection aside, Schultz’s book is notable chiefly for its virtues. Schultz’s well-supported contention that women were actively involved in mainstream Roman religious life is an important and useful corrective to the tendency to ghettoize Roman women into exclusively female “women’s cults.” Furthermore, Schultz’s use of a combination of literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence to support her argument is a model of the type of interdisciplinary integration that is much needed in Classical Studies today. Scholarly readers of the book may find small bones to pick within their own particular areas of specialization, whether literary, epigraphical, or archaeological, but, taken as a whole, Schultz’s treatment of a broad range of different kinds of evidence is informed, convincing, and ultimately, for this reader, quite rewarding.