BMCR 2021.11.03

Roman cult images: the lives and worship of idols, from the Iron Age to late antiquity

, Roman cult images: the lives and worship of idols, from the Iron Age to late antiquity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xvi, 358. ISBN 9781108487344 $120.00.


Kiernan presents an exploration of idol worship in the Gallic and Germanic (mainly) portions of the Roman Empire, including some Italian, Spanish and British remains as well.  Although idol worship extended throughout the ancient Mediterranean, limiting analysis to this region allows the author, first, to contend with an enormous amount of recent archaeological evidence, and, second, to support a regionally specific argument with the potential to spur further study of idol worship in any context. The regionally specific argument is that historical reconstructions of pre-Roman religious practice are too heavily reliant on modern suppositions about aniconism, and that the Celtic and Germanic peoples were always invested in representational idols. In the introduction he states that scholars find it remarkably easy to ignore the material record on this subject, and that idols functioned in more than the merely aesthetic or illustrative modes we are more comfortable with. Kiernan’s book takes advantage of recent archaeology (of sacred spaces and their ornamentation), and pairs it with an engaging analysis of earlier finds long known to the field. The result is a persuasive reconstruction of idol worship in what became the northwestern Roman provinces, and even if Kiernan is limited by available evidence to frame his reconstruction in terms of probabilities, the exercise demonstrates beyond a doubt that this ritual world was almost more complex than social theories of religion have allowed thus far.

Kiernan chooses his terms carefully, and this review follows his lead without litigating his decisions. Among the choices, which some will find congenial and others will resist, are to prefer ‘pagan’ over ‘polytheistic’; to define ‘idols’ separately from ‘cult images’; to engage Alfred Gell’s concept of ‘agency’; to critique modern ‘museum effect’ interpretation; to employ ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ as short-hand for complex social and ethnic reality; and to structure the study using a biographical metaphor. Regarding this last, he argues (p. 20) that biography provides him with a satisfying way to treat the evolution of idol usage, allowing for change before and until its permanent discontinuation. Kiernan also leans intermittently on anthropological comparison, particularly referencing modern Hindu practices (most fully, pp. 218-21). He is aware of the limitations that these choices entail – avoiding cultural determinism with a light touch, for example, or accepting that relevant ancient vocabulary is incapable of building a consistent language expected from modern analysis. He also ‘reads through’ Pagan historic or Christian polemical texts to determine how reality may have informed them, using, as always, archaeological finds as his touchstone. Most of these issues are introduced in the first chapter: “Idols and Other Cult Images.”

Chapters 2 and 3 collect evidence for what Kiernan calls the ‘birth’ of idols: the former looking at Iron Age practices in Italia, Germania and the Gauls, the latter following these practices into and through the imperial period. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the ‘lives’ of idols: the former thinking of the ways that idols were installed, displayed, and architecturally framed, and the latter considering interactivity, such as receiving offering, being fed or dressed, or being moved about. Chapter 6 presents the ‘deaths’ of idols, especially focused on what archaeology can tell us about the various disposals (re-use, disfiguration, deposition, destruction, and/or consignment to oblivion) and what motivated these outcomes. The concluding chapter summarizes the collected evidence to support the central argument, and demonstrate the effectiveness of the analytical method.

Kiernan is a strong writer, and masters efficient formal analysis. His descriptions are stimulating, conjuring both the material realities of modern conditions and the (likely) original effects. Reconstructions of ancient ritual practice are juggled with reconstructions of archaeological activity, and inevitably there are awkward moments as the reader is shifted from one to the other – shifts that can create an impression that Kiernan is willing to tilt the scale in favor of his argument. Does his assertion that Celtic/Germanic stone idols derive primarily from earlier wooden traditions, and with an iconography of long standing, contradict influence from Greek models (p. 79)? And what to make of the Gundestrup Cauldron (p. 67ff), which floats without context and is allowed to reflect “both global and local trends” without being assigned in creation and use to a single culture group? Perhaps the discomfort with deciding where a thing was ‘born’ partly results from the biological metaphor itself, the main sin of which is its slippage into essentialism, its naturalizing of social processes as organic. Many of the arguments, after all, must remain no more than assertions of probability (p. 108, for example, on the origin of the Pillar of the Sailors). As a reader, I incline toward agreement with the author, and wonder, since inevitably the proposal will remain arguable, if Kiernan might have taken his stand less cautiously.

Chapter 2 (“The Birth of Cult Images”) wages the chief battle of the book – that we must break free from the false narrative that aniconism is an essential precursor to idol worship, and that the cultures under study here were aniconic until they came in contact with Rome (esp. p. 45ff).[1] The material record tells us that, although aniconism was always a minority phenomenon throughout the ancient Mediterranean, the Celts and Germans created idols from early times, often using wood or other perishable materials. Two strategies support this effort: 1) a critique of how ancient texts have been used tendentiously to reconstruct a Roman aniconic past; and 2) a layout of how recent archaeological discoveries dismantle this same idea in the provinces. One of the chief glories of Kiernan’s work is the collection of wooden images from ritual contexts. He makes the case for how much has been lost by surprising us with how much actually survives. Even readers familiar with the provincial archaeology of temples and sanctuaries will find marvels herein.

Kiernan generously embraces the ideas of scholars who came before, not only to reaffirm or refute them, but in a methodological spirit of inclusion. If there is no way to recapture authentically the ancient diversity of idol worship, then divergent interpretations might at least suggest the texture of that complexity. Nor has he treated all precursors as equally valid, signaling problems or contrary explanations as he goes. A few times, when the reader adopts a skeptical mindset, the inclusions seem random – for instance, I was dizzied by thinking about a Jupiter column thrown down a well, taken out later and restored, only to be thrown in the well again (p. 224ff.) – but in the end, Kiernan’s scholarly generosity strengthens the study, reminding his reader that his argument is the best one among probabilities and preferences.

Kiernan’s turn to Gell is direct, taking up his insistence that we can only read artworks if we monitor (eliminate?) our own aesthetic responses to them, and his claim that artworks create a fascination that cultivates a ‘living presence’ with the viewer. Gell’s approach is comfortable when the analysis focuses on ritual activity, installation, or architectural framing. But some readers may find it problematic as a way to explain cultural phenomena historically. I wonder if there is a better way to locate a work’s ‘agency’ onto the users rather than the objects, something Gell is reluctant to do. Perhaps phenomenological readings would serve better? Or a turn to ‘entanglement’ or other sorts of social networks? I give away my training and age by wondering if a Kublerian ‘shape of time’ might serve as the connective tissue between Kiernan’s archaeological analyses, or, if and how a Focillonic metaphor of ‘life’ might characterize morphological effects through time. ‘Agency’ stakes a debatable claim, and is better for describing what ancients experienced in the face of their idols than for advancing our understanding of what they were experiencing. Obviously, these thoughts are the grumbles of a scholar who simply doesn’t cotton to Gell, to be taken or left, but I want to thank Kiernan for writing a book that stimulates me to this sort of grumbling, a rare luxury in the context of the non-elite Roman provinces.

Throughout the work Kiernan relies on well-excavated, well-contextualized examples, and thereby avoids the problems that ungrounded objects entail.[2] Such objects appear infrequently (mainly where lists are provided for known examples of a particular iconography or medium) and when they do, they are appropriately identified. Kiernan might have added to his discussion of the modern ‘museum effect’ more exacting references to the problems caused by art markets and looting. Not only does a museum effect frame objects aesthetically, and as self-evident facts alienated from original contexts, but museum effects also mask the damage that commercial markets continue to wreak on historical knowledge. Kiernan edges uncomfortably close to normalizing ungrounded works (p. 47) when he presents the discovery of the Hirschlanden Warrior as adding “strength to the dating of several monuments without proper find contexts.” In a field that suffers the effects of centuries-old forgery markets this may be a deeply problematic assertion. Fortunately, the finds from lowly provincial sanctuaries have not generated sufficient economic interest to make forgeries. But we are perhaps in a moment – with fine work like Kiernan’s changing the conversation – where that problem could emerge. Better, perhaps, to avoid objects like the Saint-Maur Warrior (fig. 2.16), stolen by looters and deprived of anything but a hearsay description of its find location. It is stunning with its inlaid eyes, its very survival as a bronze, but can it do the work now that Kiernan would like it to?  In this case, as he relates, subsequent excavations have shed valuable light, but it remains an unmoored object, and its inclusion, if necessary, should be more mournful.

Finally, for those seeking more detail about the ancient theology of material, Clifford Ando’s study (whose work informs Kiernan’s) would be beneficial.[3] In his second chapter Ando calls for someone to take up the question on why and how ancients ‘confused’ their gods with the representations of their gods. I hope that Ando would be happy to read Kiernan’s work as an answer to that call, one that reveals how important it is to engage with archaeological evidence to assess ritual and belief in the Roman world. Also, for those wondering how ethnicity might intersect with idol worship, the recent study by Andrew Johnston makes an ideal companion text.[4] Kiernan reasonably leaves the subject alone, knowing that archaeological sites are capable of speaking mainly of large trends or quirky variations, neither well suited to reconstruct ethnic social complexity (p. 88). But Johnston’s study, of the same geographical region and during the same time, catalogues overwhelming evidence for continuation of pre-Roman ethnicities throughout the Roman period, and that those identities were regularly asserted in social life. Johnson and Kiernan collectively present the dynamism of a provincial world that moderns have sometimes claimed was forgotten.[5]

Despite any quibble in this review, Kiernan’s work is an outstanding and welcome addition to fields dealing with provincial material cultures. His argument for distinguishing between idols and other sorts of cult image matters greatly if we are to study how those idols had a particular agency. Though the material remains cannot always verify which image was which (or which agency was which!), through careful archaeological investigation we begin to understand what really mattered.


[1] Kiernan references Auguste Comte and Edmund Tyler as key early proponents of primitive aniconism, applied to Roman and Gallic contexts by Joseph Déchelette, Camille Jullian, Albert Grenier, and Salomon Reinach, among others. The argument, Kiernan asserts, became so engrained that it crops up in later 20th century studies such as those by M. J. T. Lewis and Harald von Petrikovitz, despite contradictory indications from archaeology. More recently, explicit advocacy for the idea has waned, but without a corresponding turn to iconism.

[2] Marlowe, E. (2013) Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Debates in archaeology, Bloomsbury. (Reviewed BMCR 2014.07.45.)

[3] Ando, C. (2009). The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. U.C. Press (Reviewed BMCR 2008.09.36.)

[4] Johnston, A. C.  (2017) Sons of Remus: Identity in Roman Gaul and Spain. Harvard. (Reviewed BMCR 2017.11.57.)

[5] Woolf, G. (1996). “The Uses of Forgetfulness in Roman Gaul,” in Gehrke, H.-J. and A. Moller (eds.) Vergangenheit und Lebenswelt. Gunter Narr.