BMCR 2020.08.09

Gods and goddesses in ancient Italy

, , Gods and goddesses in ancient Italy. London; New York: Routledge, 2019. 164 p.. ISBN 9781138697553. $155.00.

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

Gods and goddesses of ancient Italy, whether Latin, Etruscan, or Italic, existed in a dynamic landscape with identities, cult places, worshippers, and rituals determined by both the location of worship and the community of worshippers. While we might classify a certain deity as associated with, for example, healing, fertility, agriculture, salvation, or honor, such functions or conceptual categories would necessarily vary over place and time depending on how, and where, and by which economically and demographically changing community the deity was worshipped. If rituals and their corresponding interpretations appear differently in different settings, what can we say that is actually useful about each deity? That is exactly the kind of problem the essays in the volume Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Italy, edited by Edward Bispham and Daniele Miano, set out to resolve.

Moving away from the conventional cherry picking of evidence from wide chronological and geographic spans and focusing instead on local or more limited data bases, the studies in this volume lay the groundwork for beginning to think through some of the more challenging issues arising from the great range in character and function of Italic deities. While several individual authors admit to having raised more questions than they have answered, perhaps this very acknowledgment can be seen to reflect the pioneering nature of this work. Taken together, the papers in the collection provide a much-needed illustration of the ways in which we as classicists, archaeologists, art historians, and epigraphers can usefully approach the study of individual deities and their diverse aspects. The essays give new perspectives and readings to extant epigraphic or literary evidence, analyze archaeological sites anew, or usefully collect scattered evidence from sites throughout Italy to present more cohesive observations.

The compact volume consists of nine chapters, each with a focus on a particular deity: Ceres, Feronia, Diana, Vesta, Castor, Loufir/Liber, Suri, Honos, and Salus. Each essay takes a distinct scholarly approach to the portrayal of its divine protagonist: from examining fairly recently discovered dedications to Honos at sites such as Gabii or Pietrabbondante, to exploring how a conceptual approach can help us understand the worship and presence of Salus, to analyzing the visual representation of Loufir/Liber from a temple outside Pompeii. The selection of deities examined is a nicely varied assortment, enlarging our picture of the demography of Italic gods and goddesses beyond the usual group of traditionally-studied deities. In addition, extending the regional range of the gods beyond the vicinity of Rome to the wider worlds of central and southern Italy offers a forward-looking move away from more traditionally-minded studies.

John North’s Introduction firmly and artfully establishes the goals for the volume and pinpoints three of its central questions: (1) should one study a deity’s function? (and how would one go about doing that?); (2) why did ancient Italians look for connections and identifications between various gods and goddesses?; and (3) how can we talk about deities and the process of cross-communal “translation”(4)? For the sake of brevity, I will not discuss each essay in depth, but rather present a few studies that seem to typify the different research strategies of the volume’s essays, with each approach in one way or another tied to North’s central questions: the role of (local) religious landscape; gods that function both as deities and as linguistic concepts; and the multiplicity and adaptability of deities and their characteristics.

In its focus on religious landscape, Massimiliano Di Fazio’s In the Name of Diana. Feronia and other Italic goddesses in their sacred landscape examines the specific character of cult places of the goddess Feronia, categorizing different locales as “primary” and “secondary” in order to present a more comprehensive understanding of the character the deity. For Di Fazio, the classification of “secondary” refers to data (or landscapes) that have undergone some form of alteration or modification from a pre-Roman to Roman phase and those that are often in “peripheral” areas; “primary” concerns the more ancient, persistent, and “central” data (24). The term “landscape” in this essay is not used to convey approaches or methodologies of landscape studies but rather is employed in a classificatory sense, a covering notion for kinds of natural locations—the mountains, woods, groves, springs and nearby other water sources of Rome, Pisaurum, Aquileia, Terracina, Lucus Feroniae, Trebula Mutuesca, and Loreto Aprutino—where evidence relating to Feronia cults such as calendars, inscriptions, or statuary, has been found. More broadly, Di Fazio asks what such data might tell us about the character, consort, and worshippers of the goddess. The scarcity of evidence at each site and the near lack of concrete archaeological remains of cult places to the goddess constrain Di Fazio to an admittedly brief survey of both the primary and secondary cult places—a useful overview rather than a detailed analysis of the religious landscape of the goddess. The patterns of connections that emerge in even this limited survey in fact have led our author to offer the useful and inviting inference that both primary and secondary cult places to Feronia can be characterized as sacred groves located along communication and contact routes, placed in some connection to springs, and often in some way linked to a youthful male deity. Through examining different landscapes and by comparisons to other deities, Di Fazio offers readers a sampling of effective ways of approaching the various manifestations of Feronia, a trove of questions and hypotheses that proves essential to subsequent investigations that we, as scholars, can look forward to taking up whenever we find ourselves needing to understand the character of this or any other deity.

Examining the character of deities from a different methodological lens, two essays (Clark and Miano) present ways to explore the kinds of gods and goddesses who not only interact with the natural world in the conventional way of the gods but who also, at the same time, act as abstract concepts: honos and salus. By focusing on the duality inherent in such deities, the authors argue we can direct our attention away from looking primarily at the personal agency of the deity and begin to explore how concepts such as honos or salus may have been fundamental to the social formation and functioning of a community. As concepts and as performative divinities, honos and salus in Clark’s and Miano’s essays interact with and travel between different localities in different ways. For example, Anna J. Clark in Honouring Honos investigates issues of exchange in representation and in interpretation, exploring how different iterations or understandings of honosmay vary, whether or not the deity’s basic character remains the same; she asks how closely a “verbal translation” is linked to a “theological translation” (122). Through looking at epigraphic testimony outside of Rome—two fairly recent finds from Gabii and Pietrabbondante—Clark questions the extent to which we can see a process principally of translation from Rome (where cults to the deity are known through literary, numismatic, or epigraphic testimony) to other locations throughout Italy, or whether influences were not necessarily unidirectional and should instead be seen more as exchanges. (This is one of the essays in the volume that directly engages with more recent data.) It is with her particularly careful, close analysis of two fragmentary inscriptions in Oscan from Pietrabbondante that the author successfully pushes back on the idea that Rome provided the ultimate model for honos, and conceives instead of multiple interactions, of exchanges and communications between communities, of ideas and concepts, as well as of deity character and function.

In a similar emphasis on the local, Fay Glinister’s Getting to Know Diana focuses on issues underlying concepts such as syncretism, originality, and nativity, and instead argues that we see a Diana who was a “multi-functional” deity (49). Glinister contends that studies seeking to find Diana’s original function or those that focus on her connection with the Greek goddess Artemis serve to misrepresent the goddess, overlook a variety of local iterations, and ignore the adaptability of the deity and of her worshippers from a range of communities. Glinister surveys the evidence for local instances of Diana within Latium, relying on the literary, epigraphic, and archaeological record, and notes that much of this evidence casts Diana as the presiding deity of a number of Latin federal shrines, highlighting Diana’s role as a political or civilizing goddess in shrines such as those at Lake Nemi, on the Aventine Hill in Rome, at the Compitum Anagninum, and at Mount Algidus in Tusculum. Glinister considers not only the personal character of Diana herself but also, through Republican inscriptions, the social makeup of her worshippers, categorizing her followers as coming from a wide spectrum of social classes (she discusses, for example, a wetnurse, an elite woman, and a slave) and as consisting of both women and men (women in Diana’s connection to the moon and childbirth; men in Diana’s popularity with soldiers and in her associations with political sovereignty). Glinister concludes her interesting, careful study of Diana by noting that just as there are multiple, local iterations of the goddess herself, so too is there no typical worshipper. Diana and her dedicants are adaptable, “constructed and reconstructed,” and the reduction of her character to a single attribute or of her worshippers to a single class greatly detracts from our understanding of the goddess’ and her community’s expansive influence (55).

As a whole, the collection of essays in Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Italy does much to advance the scope and quality of our knowledge of the deities of the Italic world. Authors explore the character of different gods and goddesses relying on different types of evidence (literary, epigraphic, numismatic, archaeological); however, the emphasis on literary and epigraphic evidence predominates throughout, a preferential treatment that can perhaps explain the near absence of images in the essays (with just nine images in the entirety of the volume).

While the above are summaries of three essays out of the nine, the integrative thematic approach of these studies to questions concerning local deities, translation, location, and identification is representative of all the essays in the volume. In fact, it is these shared ways of examining deities that unite what could be taken at first view as a more disparate set of papers on the correspondingly seemingly disconnected, catch-all subject of Italic deities. Viewed from different methodological and disciplinary lenses, the volume’s studies nonetheless converge on a number of important questions both about the ways in which we as scholars can usefully study lesser known deities and about how we can reformulate tradition-bound interpretations of the Italic pantheon. The open-ended influx of questions in these essays along with the disproportionate lack of answers has the potential to, at times, leave the reader a bit frustrated or unsatisfied; however, the extensive up-to-date bibliographies and in-depth endnotes of each contribution provide rich resources for further study and will certainly encourage researchers in the field of Italic religions to pursue some of these thought-provoking lines of inquiry in future investigations.

Authors and Titles

1. Preface, Edward H. Bispham, Daniele Miano
2. Introduction, John North
3. Italic Ceres? Federico Santangelo
4. In the name of Diana. Feronia and other Italic Goddesses in their Sacred Landscape, Massimiliano Di Fazio
5. Getting to Know Diana, Fay Glinister
6. Beyond Rome: the Cult of Vesta in Latium, Elisabeth Buchet
7. The God Castor at Rome: Form, Function and Cult, Claudia Santi
8. Loufir / Liber at the Crossroads of Religious Cultures in Pompeii (third-second centuries BCE), Stéphanie Wyler
9. Śuri et al: A “Chthonic” Etruscan face of Apollon? Karolina Sekita
10. Honouring Honos, Anna J. Clark
11. From Saviours to Salvation: Salus in Republican Italy, Daniele Miano