BMCR 2007.08.50

The Impact of Imperial Rome on Religions, Ritual and Religious Life in the Roman Empire

, , , The Impact of Imperial Rome on Religions, Ritual and Religious Life in the Roman Empire: Proceedings of the Fifth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Roman Empire, 200 B.C.-A.D. 476) Münster, June 30-July 4, 2004. Leiden: Brill, 2006. xi, 287. €103.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Under the direction of Lukas de Blois, Olivier Hekster, and Gerda de Kleijn at the Radboud University Nijmegen, the international network ‘Impact of Empire’ has since the year 2000 been organizing a series of annual workshops. The proceedings of the first four workshops were published by J. C. Gieben.1 Brill, which has recently taken over the Gieben catalogue, has now published the proceedings of the fifth workshop, which the editors, appropriately enough, have dedicated to the memory of their late friend and former publisher Han Gieben. We may look forward to future volumes containing the proceedings of later workshops, the most recent of which, on ‘the Impact of the Roman Empire on the Dynamics of Ritual,’ took place in Heidelberg in July 2007, and which will no doubt provide a valuable complement to the volume under review.2 In the case of this volume, at least, the subtitle ‘Proceedings of the Workshop’ conveys a very accurate impression of the volume’s contents. The twenty papers are all relatively short, ranging in length from six to eighteen pages, with most in the ten- to fourteen-page range, and the majority are reports on or extracts from larger projects. In focus and approach they range widely, although virtually all of them deal with the period of the first to third centuries CE. In short, the volume reads very much like the proceedings of a workshop, rather than a tightly coordinated collection of essays, and as such it provides a nice sampling of current research projects that are related more or less directly to the topic indicated by the title.

The editors have grouped the papers, somewhat arbitrarily, into various categories, and Hahn contributes an introduction in which he sketches the general framework and provides a brief overview of the contributions. But, as is frequently the case in volumes of this sort, most of the work of making connections between papers is left to the reader. Since there has been no attempt to represent this book as a ‘Handbook’ or ‘Companion,’ however, from which one might rightly expect a greater degree of coherence, I am not at all sure that this is a bad thing. People who read more than one or two papers in this volume will do so presumably because they are interested in the overall topic indicated by the title. For such readers the lack of a more strictly regimented coordination of papers is actually a good thing, since the volume encourages or even requires them to identify connections of their own and so, in a sense, to take part themselves in the workshop experience. This, at least, was my experience, and I have accordingly organized my review around the connections that struck me.

One key issue that emerges repeatedly, as one would expect from the title, is the nature of the relationship between Roman religious traditions and those of the provinces. Much earlier scholarship tended to assume fairly straightforward models of this relationship that privileged unidirectional lines of influence, either from Rome to the provinces, as in the traditional model of ‘Romanization,’ or from the provinces to Rome, as in Franz Cumont’s thesis of the ‘orientalization’ of Roman religion. In recent decades, however, scholars have tended to criticize such models as overly simplistic and have instead argued for a much more complex interrelationship between the various components of the Roman empire. Two of the most interesting papers in the collection explicitly confront this issue.

Günther Schörner frames his contribution as an inquiry into the applicability of the center-periphery model to the Roman empire, taking as a test case representations of sacrifice from Asia Minor. As he points out, this model has in recent decades been widely employed in the study of the ancient world. Schörner concludes, however, that at least in the area he has chosen for his test case, it does not actually fit the evidence very well. The model, as developed in the study of the early modern world, would lead us to expect the imposition of stylistic and iconographic forms by the center on the periphery; what we find instead is a much freer and selective adaptation of particular Roman motifs to make particular points. Even in the area of imperial cult, which we would expect to be a major focus for the construction of a center-periphery relationship, representations of sacrifice reflect local traditions much more than Roman models; Schörner cites in particular a relief from an altar in the temple of Domitian at Ephesus, the iconography of which has more in common with dedications to the god Men at Pisidian Antioch than with anything in Rome itself. He concludes by turning to the rivalry between the leading cities of Asia Minor in the imperial period and points out that the framework for this rivalry (provincial boundaries, the award of the title ‘neokorate,’ etc.) are all matters set by authorities in Rome. In this test case, then, we find that the center does not impose particular models on the periphery so much as construct the framework within which communities in the periphery define themselves. Given that Schörner’s argument is based entirely on iconographic evidence, the absence of any illustrations means that to a large extent one has to accept his analyses simply on faith. But his overall argument is clear-cut and well presented, and it throws a number of key issues into high relief.

Frits Naerebout’s paper provides an excellent complement to Schörner’s. Naerebout is also explicitly concerned with the notion of direct Roman/Italian influence on provincial traditions and takes as his test case a small Egyptian temple in Ras el-Soda east of Alexandria. This building, a small Ionic tetrastyle temple on a high podium, is usually seen as reflecting Italian influence. Naerebout carefully works through various comparanda (other ‘Roman’-style temples in Egypt, other non-peripteral Hellenistic temples) and demonstrates that the closest parallels to the Ras el-Soda temple are found not in Italy, but in the Roman Near East. In contrast, building projects in Egypt that are known to have been directly sponsored by emperors typically employ a traditional Pharaonic Egyptian idiom; as Naerebout points out, “This would make what we consider to be Egyptian Roman, and what we consider Roman ‘Eastern.’ In fact, the impact of empire is better illustrated by Romans building Egyptian temples and by a Syrian temple representing Roman architecture in Egypt, than by some temple imported lock, stock and barrel from the capital of the Empire to the mouths of the Nile” (137). Naerebout’s paper, especially when read in tandem with Schörner’s, provides a powerful demonstration that the unidirectional lines of influence posited by earlier models of religious interaction in the Roman empire are indeed overly simplistic and tend to blind us to the complexity of the cultural interactions that the empire facilitated.

A number of papers in the collection explore the related theme of the relative influence of imperial power and local concerns in shaping local religious practices. Two of these focus on what we might describe as structural issues in the organization and control of public religion. Jörg Rüpke, in a paper that develops a topic that he addresses elsewhere,3 considers the evidence of the Lex Ursonensis, the partially-extant colonial charter from Spain, for the organization of public priesthoods. He identifies two ‘layers’ of religion in Urso: one layer that is organized and above all financed by the local elite, and another that is “implicitly or even negatively formulated’ and ‘does not form an integral part of the political structure and public religion of the colony”; “The regulations concerning pontiffs and augurs attempt to transfer a traditional element of the first layer to the second layer, acknowledging and isolating this time-honored institution of public religion at Rome” (p. 22). Rüpke concludes that Roman authorities were concerned with importing not so much the contents of their religion as their concept of religion, i.e., “a highly visible, public religion controlled by local political elites and a tolerance of other forms of religion and religious authority as long as these did not interfere with the procedural principle and power of the ruling elite” (pp. 22-23). This, I think, is an important point, and its corollary, that identifying Roman influence on religion is not always a simple matter, is equally important. Unfortunately, the details of his specific argument about the place of pontiffs and augurs in Urso, as well as the relationship between this specific example and his more general point, were not always clear to me.

Marietta Horster’s paper, on changes in civic priesthoods in the Greek east, provides an interesting companion piece, insofar as she too directs our attention to structural factors rather than more superficial Roman trappings. By looking at the evidence in aggregate, she argues, we can detect diachronic shifts in the ways that people obtain priesthoods and the length of time they hold them; most striking is the fact that the practice of selling priesthoods, common enough in earlier times, disappears in the imperial period. A decree of a Roman governor indicating disapproval of this practice suggests that we might interpret this shift, and others like it, as the result of direct Roman pressure, but Horster demonstrates that matters are not so simple. But her diffuse and somewhat repetitive presentation does not really do justice to the importance of these issues, and at the end I was left feeling very unsure what conclusions she had actually reached.

Two other papers deal specifically with the role of civic elites in shaping the religious identities of local communities. John Nicols surveys the role of municipal patrons as public benefactors. He argues that the lack of extensive epigraphic evidence for patrons acting as benefactors does not necessarily mean that they did not do so; instead, it was simply not the convention for communities to record specific benefactions in their honorific monuments to patrons. Nicols’ real interest here is the role of municipal patrons, and his concern with religious issues is at best intermittent; the relevance of his paper to the main themes of the collection is thus limited. But it does direct our attention to the impact of local elites on public religion, an issue addressed much more effectively by Ted Kaizer in his interesting paper on the temple of Bel at Palmyra. Earlier scholars interpreted the size and importance of this temple as evidence that it was sponsored and financed by an emperor. Kaizer makes a strong case that it instead grew through a series of individual benefactions by members of the local elite, whose interests also determined which deities were worshipped there; it was thus probably the original donor (and not, as earlier scholars proposed, the priests of Bel) who was responsible for the initial joint dedication to Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol, and a later donor who added Astarte to the deities worshipped there. Kaizer’s careful analysis provides an excellent case-study of the way that significant religious developments could have resulted not from large-scale imperial policy but from a multitude of individual preferences and decisions.

Arbia Hilali explores a similar dynamic, but in the context of military rather than municipal religion. Hilali examines the evidence for the worship of Syrian and Palmyrene deities in the Roman army in Africa, which she sees as falling into two main categories. On the one hand, individual soldiers reaffirmed their ethnic identity by public demonstrations of devotion to their ancestral deities; on the other hand, entire units made collective offerings to these gods. The latter reflects neither a new interest in the afterlife nor the ‘orientalization’ of the army, but instead an increasing feeling that these deities were in some sense Roman gods; they were consequently invoked in the same contexts, and for the same reasons, as traditional Roman deities like Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Although I found her analysis of the evidence persuasive, I was somewhat disappointed that she says so little about how and why these eastern deities came to be adopted as Roman gods.

All these papers, in different ways, urge us to avoid simplistic dichotomies of ‘Roman’ versus ‘local’ or ‘provincial’ in the analysis of particular religious phenomena; to that extent, they all pick up on particular aspects of the key problem examined by Schörner and Naerebout. To them may be added Nicole Belayche’s fascinating essay on the so-called ‘confession stelae’ from Anatolia. Belayche argues, convincingly to my mind, that the emphasis of these monuments is not so much on the confession of a fault as on the praise of the deity’s power with which they all end. They are in fact a variation of well-known genre of the aretalogy, and as such we may locate them in the mainstream of religious development in the imperial period, rather than isolating them as some peculiar regional phenomenon. The paper is elegantly presented and has an obvious thematic interrelation with many of the papers discussed above; like that of Nicols, however, its relevance to the topic at hand, the impact of empire, seems rather loose.

Not surprisingly, several papers deal with what we may broadly call emperor worship. Emily A. Hemelrijk contributes a useful paper on imperial priestesses that summarizes a few points from what is obviously a larger research project.4 She demonstrates that the title flaminica was much more common than that of sacerdos for imperial priestesses and argues that flaminicae were not necessarily, as sometimes thought, the wives of flamines. The two positions were complementary (male priests for emperors, females for imperial women), although the greater number of flamines reflects the greater importance of the (male) emperors. Two iconographic elements in portraits of imperial priestesses assimilated them visually to the empresses whose cult they tended, thus lending them an unusual local distinction. Hemelrijk also engages with the wider methodological issues already noted by arguing that we should not “take the religious practice of Rome as the standard to judge the cities of Italy and the provinces” (p. 180); what she has in mind in particular is the tendency of earlier scholars to interpret the role of provincial flaminicae on the basis of evidence for the flaminica Dialis in Rome. Her arguments in this specific case are to my mind quite convincing, but in asserting that the term ‘Roman religion’ encompasses the religious practices of the other cities in Italy as well as the provinces as well as of Rome itself she raises a more complex issue. If we take this assertion at face value, we must conclude that the religious practices of the Greek cities of the eastern empire are also part of ‘Roman religion,’ even though most people would regard them as ‘Greek.’ Hemelrijk is of course dealing only with Latin-speaking cities of the western empire, but the same terminological problem exists there as well: if we casually extend the term ‘Roman religion’ too far, it quickly loses its specific meaning and thus its heuristic value. As many of the papers in this volume demonstrate, we need to be cautious in determining what is ‘Roman,’ and in what way.

The interaction of central and local influences in the worship of imperial women is also the subject of Claudia Salz’s study of the symbol of the crescent moon on local coins depicting empresses. She argues in general that this practice not only reflects precedents on imperial coins, which in the third century come to use the crescent moon for empresses as an analogue to the emperors’ radiate crown, but also a tendency to associate empresses with local moon goddesses. She then focuses on coins from Tralles depicting Livia with attributes that assimilate her to the local goddesses Demeter, Selene, and Hekate, as a way of demonstrating the city’s gratitude for imperial benefactions. Her case is well made, but does not seem to take us very far. Why, for example, did the Trallians’ gratitude take this particular form? And why did they combine Selene-Hekate with Demeter? We may hope that some answers may be forthcoming in Salz’s larger study of the assimilation of imperial women to local goddesses.

Two other papers also deal with emperor worship. Johan H. M. Strubbe discusses the temple-complex of the imperial cult at Pessinous, which he dates to 31-2 CE rather than 35 CE and which he identifies as a temple of the municipal rather than the provincial cult. Janneke de Jong surveys what we can learn from third-century papyri about the imperial cult in Egypt, concluding that “the Roman imperial cult in Egypt was acceptable for the Egyptians, because it made the Roman emperor visible in a visual programme that was understandable for them and in which they could participate actively” (p. 252). Both papers are useful, if not particularly revelatory.

Several contributions examine imperial power not as it was experienced in the periphery, but as it was constructed in the center; somewhat strikingly, the later Severan emperors take center stage here. Inge Mennen looks at the strategies employed by Caracalla to legitimate his position; like Septimius Severus, he emphasized military aspects, but unlike him downplayed dynastic elements, emphasizing instead religious elements, especially the worship of eastern deities. Martijn Icks considers the reign of Elagabalus, noting that the more traditional Roman religious themes of the first part of his reign give way c. 220 CE to a new emphasis on the god of Emesa; this probably reflects the policy of his advisors, who were attempting to construct a distinctive profile for him, although the fact that he persisted with it even when it was clearly not succeeding demonstrates that personal piety also played an important part. Lastly, Lukas de Blois considers the changes in the construction of imperial power during the crisis of the third century; he argues that a decline in traditional forms of imperial cult were connected with a shift from an emphasis on the personal successes of individual emperors “toward a view of the Roman empire as an organic, hierarchical structure with emperorship at the top” (p. 268). This analysis is both intriguing and attractive, although it is clear that de Blois has much more to say on the topic than he could put into a workshop paper. One could perhaps also include in this category Olivier Hekster’s paper on the practice of tracing the lineage of a distinguished family to a god: common enough in the republican period, it seems to have disappeared in imperial times, when the emperors were the only gods who mattered.

Finally, a few papers deal with topics that one might have expected to see more of in a collection with this title: which themes are underrepresented tells us perhaps as much about current scholarly trends as which are amply represented. Perhaps most notable is the absence of papers dealing with the restriction or prohibition of particular religious practices or institutions by the central authorities: there is nothing on the repression of the Druids, on the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, on the regulation of the Egyptian priesthood, or even on the persecution of Christians. The latter is addressed only by Eva Hirschmann, in a not altogether satisfying paper on Montanism. In the first part she provides a cursory report on recent archaeological work, which has resulted in the identification of the Montanist Pepuza; in the second, essentially unconnected part, she argues that the Montanists present a model of a Christianity that was integrated into its cultural context, and hence were perceived more as an ordinary religious association rather than a particular group of Christians. In support of this thesis she notes, without much discussion, an emphasis on ecstatic prophecy similar to that in the cult of Cybele, and a structure of fees such as is found in other voluntary associations. But since she provides no positive evidence that imperial authorities actually did perceive Montanists differently from other Christians and fails to address the well known Montanist emphasis on martyrdom, her argument, although suggestive, is not fully convincing. Danielle Slootjes also deals with Christianity, but as a recognized institution rather than a persecuted minority. In her paper she advances the thesis that bishops eventually took over the role and responsibilities of imperial governors, and analyzes the differences in the two roles that gave bishops the advantage. Her argument is persuasive, but her paper, the only one to deal with the Christian empire, seems quite remote from the others in the collection.

Then there is the issue of interpretatio Romana, which tends to loom large in many discussions of the religious impact of the Roman empire on the provinces. Here it is represented only by Clifford Ando’s paper, which has been previously published elsewhere.5 Ando analyzes the phenomenon of interpretatio in the context of the Roman understanding of the divine world, and makes the important point that “if some names are more appropriate than others, and if naming normally proceeds from the perception of an exercise of power on the god’s part, then both naming and identification must remain subject to the uncertainties inherent in any religious system that relies upon an empiricist epistemology” (p. 62). This resulted in “an extraordinarily perilous way of being in the world,” “perilous, that is, because the processes of recognizing a god on the basis of some exercise of its power and then naming it properly were so fraught with difficulty and simultaneously so essential” (p. 52 with n. 4). Ando’s paper is an important contribution to our understanding of interpretatio Romana, but one that is rather oddly out of place in this volume, since its value lies precisely in its focus on Roman conceptions rather than provincial developments.

I have saved my favorite paper for last. Rudolf Haensch reconstructs a significant development in the religion of the Roman army, in which the role of intermediary between the soldiers and the gods passes over the course of the third century CE from officers (whose role corresponds to that of magistrates in civilian contexts) to priests. Haensch assigns the original initiative behind this development to Elagabalus (those later Severans again!), who apparently attempted to develop a large-scale priestly hierarchy with himself at its head. Although Haensch is working with rather scanty epigraphic evidence, his argument is both crystal clear and highly cogent. Moreover, it engages with an issue of crucial importance: the transformation of religion in the third century CE. As Haensch points out, it was the norm in the Roman tradition (and Greek too, I would add) for religious authority to be largely coterminous with civic (or in this case, military) authority, a phenomenon that Richard Gordon has memorably described as the “civic compromise.”6 As Rüpke rightly notes in his contribution to this volume, this type of religious authority was a key part of the Roman conception of religion. According to Haensch, in the context of the Roman army, at least, this association gradually dissolved, with a distinct priestly hierarchy over time assuming religious authority and leaving only military authority to the officers. The resulting situation was thus one not unlike that of the Christian empire, when we find separate hierarchies of secular and religious (i.e., ecclesiastical) officials. This phenomenon is usually thought to be a distinctive by-product of Christian development. But if Haensch is right (and I think he is), the structural shift in the army actually precedes official acceptance of Christianity, so that we should not regard the split between religious and secular authority as necessarily a distinctively Christian development. Here we can identify one of the long-term results of the impact of the Roman empire as the gradual crystallization of a new conception of religion.

Although some of the papers in this volume are more directly related to its stated theme than others, they all contain something of interest, and the challenge of identifying common themes and recurring issues can be stimulating and fruitful. I look forward to the volume from this year’s workshop.


Johannes Hahn, “Einleitung: Römische Herrschaft und Religion—Aspekte und Fragestellungen” (1-10)

Part 1: Empire, Expansion and Religion

Jörg Rüpke, “Urban Religion and Imperial Expansion: Priesthoods in the Lex Ursonensis” (11-23)

Olivier Hekster, “Descendants of Gods: Legendary Genealogies in the Roman Empire” (24-35)

John Nicols, “The Civic Religion and Civic Patronage” (36-50)

Clifford Ando, “Interpretatio Romana” (51-65)

Part 2: Centre and Periphery, Local Cults and Imperial Impact

Nicole Belayche, “Les stèles dites de confession: une religiosité originale dans l’Anatolie impériale?” (66-81)

Vera E. Hirschmann, “Der Montanismus und der römische Staat” (82-94)

Ted Kaizer, “Reflections on the Dedication of the Temple of Bel at Palmyra in AD 32” (95-105)

Johan H. M. Strubbe, “The Imperial Cult at Pessinous” (106-121)

Frits G. Naerebout, “After the High Roman Fashion? The Temple at Ras el-Soda Seen in Context” (122-137)

Günther Schörner, “Opferritual und Opferdarstellung im römischen Kleinasien—Ein Testfall für das Zentrum-Peripherie-Modell” (138-149)

Arbia Hilali, “La mentalité religieuse des soldats de l’armée romaine d’Afrique: l’exemple des dieux syriens et palmyréniens” (150-168)

Martijn Icks, “Priesthood and Imperial Power: The Religious Reforms of Heliogabalus, 220-222 AD” (169-178)

Part 3: Priests, Priestesses and Bishops

Emily A. Hemelrijk, “Imperial Priestesses, a Preliminary Survey” (179-193)

Marietta Horster, “(Weibliche) Priesterämter in griechischen Städten—Bemerkungen zum Wandel in der Überlieferung” (194-207)

Rudolf Haensch, “Pagane Priester des römischen Heeres im 3. Jahrhundert nach Christus” (208-218)

Danielle Slootjes, “Governor Trumped by Bishop: Shifting Boundaries in Roman Religion and Public Life” (219-231)

Part 4: Imperial Divinity

Claudia Salz, “Die Mondsichel der Kaiserin” (232-237)

Janneke de Jong, “Egyptian Papyri and ‘Divinity’ of the Roman Emperor” (239-252)

Inge Mennen, “The Image of an Emperor in Trouble (Legitimation and Representation of Power by Caracalla)” (253-267)

Lukas de Blois, “Emperorship in a Period of Crises: Changes in Emperor Worship, Imperial Ideology and Perceptions of Imperial Authority in the Roman Empire in the Third Century A.D.” (268-278).


1. L. de Blois, ed., Administration, Prosopography and Appointment Policies in the Roman Empire (2001); L. de Blois and J. Rich, eds., The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (2002); L. de Blois, P. Erdkamp, O. Hekster, G. de Kleijn, and S. Mols, eds., The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power (2003); L. de Ligt, E. A. Hemelrijk, and H. W. Singor, eds., Roman Rule and Civic Life: Local and Regional Perspectives (2004).

2. The proceedings of the sixth workshop have just appeared: L. de Blois and E. Lo Cascio, with O. Hekster and G. de Kleijn, The Impact of the Roman Army (200 B.C.-A.D. 476): Economic, Social, Political, Religious and Cultural Aspects (Leiden 2007).

3. “Religion in lex Ursonensis,” in C. Ando and J. Rüpke, eds., Religion and Law in Classical and Christian Rome (Stuttgart 2006) 34-46.

4. See also “Priestesses of the Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Titles and Function,” L’Antiquité Classique 74 (2005) 137-70.

5. Classical Philology 100 (1995) 41-51.

6. “Religion in the Roman Empire: the civic compromise and its limits,” in M. Beard and J. North, eds., Pagan Priests (Ithaca, NY 1990) 235-55.