BMCR 2008.04.18

Divine Qualities. Cult and Community in Republican Rome

Anna Clark, Divine qualities : cult and community in Republican Rome. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xiv, 376 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0199226822 $120.00.

This is a very important book. Anna Clark (henceforth C.) sets out to do justice to the so-called ‘abstract deities’ of the Roman pantheon by looking at them as “divine qualities,”, and as very concrete and visible centres of interest and religious activity. The outcome is not simply a full reconsideration of concepts like Salus, Pudicitia or Concordia, but a brilliant contribution to the study of rituals and cult in Republican Rome, and one of the best attempts to date to make sense of Roman religion as a field of diversity, interaction, and reappropriation. C.’s case, that divine qualities are a crucial presence in the Roman religious landscape and are the best symptom of its pluralism, is clear and convicing. It is constantly corroborated by the detailed and patient analysis of a vast body of evidence and by the choice to go for a thematic discussion, rather than for a study of the individual divine qualities, or for chronological survey. The only important exception is the last chapter, which deals with late Republican matters — a choice justified by the unparalleled wealth of the evidence for the period and by the drastic change in the relationship between politics and religion that intervened in that period.

The first chapter lays the foundations of the whole book. C. makes a persuasive case for the necessity of a comprehensive study of this problem and stresses how important it is not to view the Roman mentality as an unproblematic, self-evident construction. Divine qualities meant different things to different people and different groups; on the other hand, their role in the Roman religious landscape was much more significant than has often been recognised. There is no such thing as a ‘typically Roman’ cult or religious practice. Any meaningful insight into what may be termed “Roman” must be the outcome of the study of a network of social and religious processes and of different interpretations of the same rituals. The point has been made quite often over the last couple of decades, especially in the English-speaking scholarship; what makes C.’s reproposition of it so remarkable is that she is prepared to use this basic assumption as the cornerstone of a reconsideration of a broad and difficult problem like that of divine qualities. C. takes her topic very seriously and her orthographical choices are revealing. Following up on an insight of Denis Feeney, she deliberately avoids choosing between, say, pax and Pax, and decides to print the names of every single divine quality she refers to in the book in small capitals, attempting to reflect the indeterminacy between the two possible traditional spellings. By the end of the book, one is left feeling that most occurrences of the divine qualities would have normally required the capital letter and the effect of so many words in small capitals might remind some readers of certain missionary literature, where the name of God, or indeed that of a political leader, is always written in capitals. But the main point was worth making, especially in a book where many of the underlying concerns are about the conceptual aspects of what gods are and do: the study of divine qualities has a lot to do with the study of the so-called functional gods, those of the indigitamenta, Hermann Usener’s Sondergötter, who have long been thought to be right at the other end of the scale.

The second chapter focuses precisely on the problem of how new gods and goddesses could be introduced. C. successfully disposes of the old stereotype that relegates “abstract deities” to the realm of ‘truly Roman’ cults (esp. 30-31). Rome is part of the Hellenistic world, and external influences are as possible as Roman influences of other parts of that world: homonoia or demokratia are cases in point. I suppose that the personifications of Rome or provinces are instructive as a symptom as this. As far as the core of the oldest Roman cults of divine qualities is concerned, C. takes the sensible stand of surveying the literary tradition on their origins, without trying to seek their “true” origin: since the main concern of her study is to discuss the perception of these divine qualities, studying what was being said about them is equally important. This factual, healthily learned attitude is perhaps the best asset of C.’s study. What makes her study so innovative is the blend of a careful discussion of the literary tradition with a careful scrutiny of the presence of these cults in the topography of Republican Rome. C. shows that there is clear literary evidence for the foundation of cults of a number of divine qualities, from Salus to Concordia to Victoria, Fides, or Fortuna, between the end of the fourth and the early second century BC. She is thoroughly at home with both kinds of evidence, and her discussion in this chapter will be a blessing not just for the student of Roman religion, but for anyone who is interested in the struggle of the orders. It is almost unnecessary to note how congenial the discussion of patrician and plebeian cult is to C.’s emphasis on the importance of interaction and reappropriation in Roman cultic activity. Much useful material from the age of the Punic wars and, to a lesser extent, from the Hellenistic period is discussed in the following section of the chapter.

The third chapter is surely one of the most original, quite genuinely ground-breaking sections of this work. C. pursues her point about the importance of collective engagement with cults and religious ideas by looking at the wealthy, and yet consistently overlooked, body of evidence provided by Plautus. Again, the problem of what is typically (or actually!) Roman is very significant, but C. firmly argues that a play that was written to be staged in Rome had to be ‘topical’ (77); since Plautus’ comedies were written in a period when a number of divine qualities were given a temple in Rome, their featuring in Plautus can hardly be surprising. C. seems to think that any invocation of a divine quality, such as ut vos Salus seruassit, must refer to the state cult of Salus, and may not be read as personification of the good health of an individual. Even if not everyone may be prepared to accept this point, the importance of certain divine qualities in Plautus is beyond dispute. The role of pietas, for instance, is very significant in the Poenulus, as well as that of fides, and C. is right in saying that the light-hearted references to religious realities in Plautus’ comedies were not simply a portrait of the reflection on religion within Roman society: it was a contribution to the public debate on religion and cult that was so important in the religious experience of the Republic. That the audience of these plays was inevitably heterogeneous is but a restatement of the importance of the starting assumption of the book. The evidence of the Roman praetextae is much less abundant, and ultimately less instructive. C. is nonetheless correct in saying that the distinction between politics and religion is unhelpful for the study of these texts, despite what some interpreters have recently assumed; she also provides some interesting guesswork on the possible presence of virtus in Naevius’ Clastidium, and the play’s likely connection with the Marcelli.

The title of chapter 4, ‘Capitolizing on Divine Qualities’, features a captivating neologism and preannounces a shift of attention to a specific area of the city. The main point of the chapter is that the second century witnessed a growing presence of cults of the divine qualities on the Capitol and of competing monumental structures; the argument builds on the insights provided by Meadows and Williams in their study of Juno Moneta’s temple1 and on recent archaeological work on the sacred hill, which gives a growing sense of its importance in the Republican period. The late second century was a critical time: the hotly contested temple of Concord built by L. Opimius in 121 BC was a significant architectural innovation, besides being a sign of the importance of the political message; Marius’ temple of Honos and Virtus, dedicated in 102 or 101 BC, was a sign of a reaction to the impact of Greek architecture at Rome and was a complex political statement of Marius’ political status as a new man. That the emergence of these new cults is a sign of a significant historical change is confirmed by Catulus’ competing foundation of a temple to Fortuna huiusce dei, in deliberate contrast to Marius’ cult of Virtus: Catulus was the other Roman commander at the battle of Vercellae and in the Cimbric campaign. The student of the late Republic will easily see in this duplication of cults a premonition of the implosion of the State that marks the last decades of the Republic. The monumentalization of the Capitol is very much a Hellenistic phenomenon in many ways. On the other hand, the proliferation of iconographic motifs on coinage in this period is quite unparalleled. C. sensibly argues that the representation of divine qualities in coinage was influenced by the contemporary cult statues, which are almost all lost to us. There is a striking concentration of examples in the late 40s: most examples are firmly attested in cults existing in the city of Rome, but there was room for some creativity too, as the attestation of coin types devoted to Valetudo and Pax suggests. This section on coinage is very informed, and it will provide future students of the topic with safe guidance, in conjunction with the catalogue provided in Appendix 3; its link with the preceding section of the chapter is intriguing, if not always as strong as it should be.

The fifth chapter is concerned with matters of ritual, and the discussion is again informed by a constant emphasis on the importance of pluralism, and on the heterogeneous nature of any Roman audience. Rituals were widely known and understood and were the objects of different, even openly conflicting, interpretations: the cases of the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC, led by Scipio Nasica from the temple of Fides, or the numerous references to the cult of Concordia in Cicero’s Philippics; some temples of divine qualities could be visited even when rituals were not performed. The increasing importance of this kind of cults finds an important confirmation in the considerable number of attested mid-Republican prodigies featuring divine qualities, which of course prompted expiatory rituals and interpretive attempts. The narrative of Livy 21.62, refering to a list of prodigies that took place in 218 BC, is an especially significant case, as well as the prodigies involving Fortuna and Victoria reported from Capua in this period. There is little evidence on the cult of divine qualities from outside Rome, and the last part of the chapter gives an interesting inventory of the discussion.

The sixth chapter is devoted to a specific period, the last decades of the Republic, for which the evidence is unusually rich and exceptionally fascinating. The structure of the chapter, though, seems to betray the origin of this book from a D.Phil dissertation: the discussion is consistently thorough and competent, but less coherent than is usually the case. The first section is about the use of libertas in Cicero, with a clear emphasis on Clodius’s attempt to consecrate a temple to libertas on the site of the great man’s home. C. cleverly notes that the worship of divine qualities had a strong performative quality in this period and that the little we know of late Republican theatre performances strongly suggests the importance of this aspect; in this framework, it is not surprising that Pompey decided to merge the four altars of Honos, Virtus, Felicitas, and Venus Victrix within his brand new stone theatre. The rest of the chapter has again a topographical focus and provides plenty of useful information on the proliferation of private gardens in late Republican Rome, from Lucullus to Pompey and Caesar, which appear to have been home to a number of temples of Fortuna. The evidence is not compelling. The focus then shifts back to textual evidence, with a discussion of the role of literary evidence in the polemic between Caesar and Pompey, with some useful considerations on the use of the third person in Caesar’s Commentarii, and Cicero’s evidence for the god-like qualities of Pompey and Caesar. The change of focus may be puzzling at first, but it is perfectly justified by the need to do justice, if briefly, to what follows after the end of the Republic. The example of the horti is a convenient reminder of the economic and financial implications of the Roman revolution, which led to a growing concentration of resources in the hands of a few individuals, and made possible the exploitation of and the control over the polysemy of divine qualities.

The conclusions include a brief attempt to follow up the destiny of divine qualities in the relationship between emperors and cult. In fact, divine qualities did feature in the self-representation of the imperial family, and even in the representation of some commoners like Claudia Semne, the wife of the freedman M. Ulpius Crotonensis, who was represented as Fortuna, Spes, and Venus on her tomb (277-280; some discussion of the dating would have been helpful). But the study of this problem is beyond the scope of this book, and no attempt is made to follow their development until late Antiquity. The main purpose of the discussion is to prove how deeply influential divine qualities were in the various ways of thinking about the relationship with the divine; the case is certainly successful. The book ends with five appendices; the fourth one is an interesting account of the Capitoline temple of ops, and the fifth is an inventory of the occurrences of feliciter in Campanian graffiti.

Against such an exciting background, quibbles are reduced to a minimum and they involve omissions, rather than alleged errors of judgement or interpretation. There is the odd slip of interpretation or phrasing, of course, as one would expect in such a long and detailed discussion, but they are limited to very marginal issues. At 132 n. 47, C. accepts the possibility that the Victoria celebrated by Sulla in the ludi created in 81 BC was called Victoria Sullana since its foundation: there are good reasons to doubt it, but C. should have listed the parallels for the sort of references she briefly refers to, or at least confronted the opposite case made in S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford 1971, 102). At 239, there is a brief reference to Sulla’s ‘mantle felix or epaphroditus‘; it is more accurate to speak of two different mantles, which were meant to be worn before different audiences, in Italy and in the Greek East. The two epithets had very different meanings. Pointing out these omissions is no indictment of C.’s excellent discussion, which is as perceptive and comprehensive as one can hope to get.. I was surprised not to find a reference to Georg Wissowa in the critical discussion of what ‘truly Roman gods’ are, or indeed are not;2 and a similar point may be made about Hermann Usener, who simply does not feature in the bibliography. The discussion of the so-called Bocchus monument would have benefited from the insightful analysis of T. Schaefner, Imperii insignia, sella curulis und fasces. Zur Repräsentation römischer Magistrate, Mainz 1989, 74-83, not mentioned in the bibliography. C. is aware that some aspects of the iconography of the monument point to a dating after Sulla’s victory at Chaeronea in 86 BC (the presence of two crowns and — one could add — the palm-branch with two wreaths in the eagle on the relief), but does not discuss it in detail and overlooks the problem of the material the monument is made of. It is likely that it is made of Numidian stone, which would make the Bocchus connection inevitable, but it is not certain yet and a full examination of the stone would be necessary. These problems needed to be confronted, especially because C. seems to accept the point, made by Ann Kuttner in a recent unpublished paper, that the so-called Bocchus monument dates in fact to the second century BC; to her credit, we will have to wait for the publication of Kuttner’s study to fully assess the viability of her argument. The discussion of Nasica’s itinerary from the temple of fides to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, in the moments preceding the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus, is very interesting (169-171) and it is possible that a pro-Gracchan interpretation of that ritual might have been put forward by stressing the reversal of the rites usually connected to Fides. However, Velleius and Valerius Maximus are not the most obvious sources of pro-Gracchan insight; a fuller development of the argument may have been desirable.3 At 197-198, there is an important discussion of the Oscan calque of Victoria, víkturraí, attested at Pietrabbondante (Poccetti 16 = Rix, Sabellische Texte Sa 24); I would have been interested to see what C. makes of the five vaamunim inscriptions from the Forum of Pompeii, which almost certainly have something to do with Victoria too.4 To remain in the Italic environment, it is regrettable that C. never develops the intriguing point made at 38-39 on the importance of a few fragments of Sisenna for the study of divine qualities in the age of the Social War. The brilliant study of Pompey’s monumental theatre uncharacteristically fails to address the issue of the precedents and the connections of the cults that found a home there: while a silence on Venus Victrix could be expected, given the scope of this book, there is nothing on the boldness of combining Honos, Virtus, and Felicitas, Marian cults and Sullan associations, within the monument in honour of the conqueror of the East and the new Alexander, both a friend of the Senate and an entirely new political animal.

The book is beautifully produced, and the editing is very thorough. I have noticed only one typo in the text (133: ‘it should be no means by assumed’), and a few Italian titles in the bibliography are mispelled — but insisting on this would be truly impertinent, since C.’s coverage of the Italian bibliography, especially archaeological, is exceptionally broad and thoughtful, in the best style of a certain Oxford tradition. Micol Perfigli, whose important work on indigitamenta is deservedly praised at 24-25, is not a man. The indexes are very accurate and comprehensive.

We must be grateful to the author of this invaluable book, which puts the study of an important aspect of Roman religion on a new footing. It is intellectually ambitious, academically solid, and theoretically robust. It has a clear and persuasive structure and it manages to show how and why this topic truly has a general importance for the study of Roman history. Any serious Classics library should have it on its shelves and any student of the Roman Republic should be familiar with it — both with the thrust of its argument and with the wealth of evidence that C. discusses and does justice to so competently.


1. A. Meadows and J. Williams, ‘Moneta and the Monumenta: Coinage and Politics in Republican Rome’ JRS 91 (2001), 27-49.

2. See F. Prescendi, ‘Les dieux ‘vraiment’ romains de Wissowa’ Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 5 (2003), 4-15.

3. To be fair, C. does address the problem in her paper ‘Nasica and fidesCQ 57 (2007), 125-131, at 129, and seems to think that both authors did not fully understand the implications of the narrative they provided. I am not sure that this point is tenable, but her wider argument on the existence of rival religious traditions on the Gracchan age is definitely correct. A reference to the important contribution on this problem by E. Badian, ‘The Pig and the Priest’ in H. Heftner-K. Tomaschitz (eds.), Ad Fontes! Festschrift für Gerhard Dobesch zum fünfundsechzigsten Geburtstag am 15. September 2004, Vienna 2004, 263-272, and an engagement with its argument, would have been useful.

4. Vetter 33 = Rix, Sabellische Texte Po 80, Po 81, Po 82, Po 83, Po 84; see T. Sironen, ‘Oscan VAAMUNIM’ Arctos n.s. 24 (1990), 113-120.