BMCR 2021.12.40

Reassembling religion in Roman Italy

, Reassembling religion in Roman Italy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 268. ISBN 9781138282711 $128.00.


Recent monographs focused on the analysis of the materiality of religion in antiquity, such as Claudia Moser’s 2019 The Altars of Republican Rome and Latium: Sacrifice and the Materiality of Roman Religion, show that this is an expanding line of research. As a subject of inquiry, it is still developing theoretically, which has motivated the recent rise of the so-called new materialism. The scholars identified with new materialism “insist that the materiality of material things themselves must be carefully considered, not merely interpreted for their implications on human concerns”.[1] This book is a good example of the application of that approach in archaeology. It is composed of eight chapters in which theoretical reflection and analysis of the evidence go hand-in-hand under the premise that religion can be understood as a materially lived experience. In doing so, Graham´s aim is “to demonstrate that it is possible to break away from the tyranny of the written text and to identify ways in which to access the real and varied experiences of a much wider range of ancient people who participated in ritualised activities on differing scales” (p. 9).

The first pages of the introductory chapter are devoted to revisiting the rite of the Argei with the aim of discussing the central question of the book: the relationship between humans and material elements as a key to understanding Roman religious experience. This case study shows how traditional approaches have privileged the search for the meaning of rituals and ignored the importance of the material elements. The primacy of literary sources in the study of Roman religion is questioned, and then a general outline is given of the neo-materialist relational approach employed, characterised as not anthropocentric, but focused on the relations between human and more-than-human things conceived without ontological hierarchies. This approach sheds new light on classic questions such as what was understood by religion or how religious experience was configured in the ritual.

The second chapter (“Reassembling religion”) is perhaps the most innovative and complex, since it discusses the conceptual tools that define the eclectic approach, pursuing new ways of understanding religion. The key hypothesis is “that ancient individuals and communities rationalised as ‘religious’ the agency that resulted from their lived experiences of particular types of assemblages of things” (p. 18). To validate this claim, Graham shapes an approach that links the concept of lived religion, useful for describing ritual experience, with certain notions that emerged under the umbrella of new materialism (agency, affordances, and assemblage), used to analyse how the relationships between things produced religion. Lived religion is also useful for studying such relationships because it is the result of individually embodied experiences and dynamic, diverse practices of material engagement produced in the framework of rituals. Two concepts used to describe the production of religion are adopted: distal and proximal religious knowledge. Religious knowledge is a product of the lived experience of religion, and it determined what individuals understood religion to mean and its role in the world. The distal form is based on shared ways of acting and related to the dominant view of religion. The proximal form is shifting, autobiographical, derived from embodied experience resulting from the body’s engagement with other things in the ritual. They function simultaneously, sometimes in constant relation. This relational set of things imbricated in ritualised action is called assemblage, and agency results from it, which is only possible thanks to the potential affordances of the material things. Graham therefore adopts a relational ontology of material things, since their properties only make sense if they are in relation to each other, thus making agency situationally specific. If material things can influence, it is because of their affordances, that is, because of their potentialities to afford action, which are determined by the qualities of their material properties. Such affordances provide “thingliness,” that is, make them “things.” This helps to reduce anthropocentrism and avoids limiting things to what they reflect according to the uses attributed to them by human beings. Some assemblages can be defined as religious when they include not indisputably plausible things. Rituals are actions that incorporate things into an assemblage with the potential to produce religious agency, and they are defined by their contextual, spatial, temporal specificity.

Given that the value of the concept of ritualisation for Graham is that it results in the production of religious knowledge, it would have been useful to refine the approach, for example by discussing the idea of risk in religious action and, therefore, the efficacy of rituals. Although many were focused on producing change in the world (agency), not every ritual succeeded: a sacrifice seeking the favour of a particular god did not always have the expected outcome; the possibility that a god would ignore the request was real, and that would have consequences in terms of the production of religious knowledge.

Each of the following six chapters focuses on a material aspect of lived religion based on evidence from Rome, Latium and some immediately surrounding areas. Most are dated between the middle Republic and the early imperial period.

The range of places that could have served to set the ritual in motion is discussed in the third chapter (“Place”). The author prefers to use “place” instead of “space”, as place refers to a dynamic kind of site that has been transformed by a series of significant (ritualised) experiences. Using sensory experience as a lens of analysis, Graham studies the experience of monumental sanctuaries in late-Republican Latium: climbing the stairs of the sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia (Praeneste), waiting for the turn of the oracular consultation in the gloomy portico of the Tempio Grande at Tarracina, or crossing the grove of the sanctuary of Juno Gabina (Gabii). It concludes by questioning the idea that these are mere reflections of political and religious power, but rather true locations constituted by the lived experience of individuals, often highly personalised, through the material world in which they move.

In chapter four (“Objects”) Graham discusses the role of instrumenta sacra in sacrificial rituals, often overlooked in iconographic analyses. Taking as case studies the objects depicted on reliefs of monuments such as the Arch of the Argentarii, the Temple of Divus Vespasian and Divus Titus in the Forum Romanum, and the Ara Pacis, it is concluded that the experience of the participants, in this case the flamines carrying a galerus with an apex and the camillus holding the acerra with one hand throughout the sacrificial ritual, may have been highly personal due to the properties of such objects (thus producing proximal religious knowledge), even in the case of well-attended official events.

The votive offerings representing the human body are the focus of the fifth chapter (“Bodies”), especially those found in the cave at Pantanacci, dated to the middle Republic. In doing so, it discusses the boundaries between the natural and artificial human body and the reasons why it may have been blurred during rituals. For Graham, the senses and their proper functioning may have been closely connected to the elaboration of these figurines, but touch is essential because at the same time it allowed them to be felt. Their ontological status was at the same time diffuse, as they must have acted both as a representation or extension of the participants’ bodies and at the same time as external objects, producing unusual sensations. The forced interaction with or displacement of votive offerings to make place for new ones implied the connection of different ritualised assemblages of individual experiences, making them somehow communal, but distally experienced.

The sixth chapter (“Divinity”) questions the concept of divinity and its intangibility through the material representations of the gods in the form of sculptures, which are the dominant perception of scholarship. Cult statues from Italy, such as the Demeter and Kore from Ariccia, are used to support an understanding of the gods and their thingliness as part of an assemblage that allowed them to embody themselves in anthropomorphic material forms. Divinity, immaterial in its conception, was not always materialised in the same way; other forms offered different possibilities for interaction, as natural things untouched by humans. Anatomical votive offerings are a good example, as they denoted the effective divine presence materialising its capacity to affect the human body. On the other hand, trees and water in the thermal sanctuaries of Italy materialise divine properties and thus new ways of relating materially to divinity. This should lead us to abandon the oculocentrism of our conception of perception and relationship with the gods in antiquity, based on the observation of cult images, and to think of the divine nature as fluid and non-anthropocentric.

The finds from the Anna Perenna fountain in Rome serve as an example to reconsider the relationship between magic and religion in chapter seven (“Magic”). The various points considered in the previous chapters are again examined from the perspective of the magical practices evidenced. Place (the fountain itself), objects (lead pots), bodies (poppets made from wax), and divinity (water-Anna Perenna) are studied in the form of an assemblage that evidences that “just like religion, magic did not involve, and could never offer, a consistent experience or indeed exist as a single form of agency.” (p. 198). Magic would rather be a proximal experience of religion lived as ritualised in a particular way.

The last chapter concludes that religion is “something that people and things do together, something which is performed into existence by the changes that are made when things engage with one another under particular circumstances, in this case, those involved in ritual action.” (p. 204). Thereby Graham rightly suggests that it is necessary to embark on future studies that pay attention to the affective properties of material things in the way religion is experienced rather than focusing solely on the written text, which tends to emphasise its static, hierarchical, and structural aspects. Finally, she argues for the viability of assemblage theory in the study of the religious change, as it allows us to emphasise the role of the anonymous individual who sustains and experiences these changes but not necessarily because of human intentionality or individuation. The last section is devoted to the production of complex individual identity as a result of ritualised assemblages, in this case focusing on the 2nd cent. BCE terracotta votive figurines of infants in swaddling bands from Etruria. Ritual experiences with the materiality of these figurines that resembled infants in sight but not in hearing, touch, or smell may have contributed to constructing gender identities of new parents, wet-nurses, women who had miscarried, etc. This material experience of gender goes beyond and intertwines with the production of religion and suggests that gender did contribute to and was a product of ritualised action.

This is a valuable book for introducing neo-materialist concepts that have been applied to other historical periods. Graham convincingly demonstrates that posthumanist principles help to make the case for how the more-than-human things formed an equally important part of religious experience as the human presence. However, her approach, acknowledging the inherent anthropocentrism of religion, focuses on explaining its social construction through a materiality understood more as social relations from which human knowledge emerges. But it is not clear to what extent and in what way more-than-human things may have conditioned, for example, the material preparation of ritual (is it also a religious activity?). Religious knowledge is ultimately something that affects people’s minds and explains religious behaviour, so that the approach does not question the dichotomies rejected by the new materialism such as subject-object, society-nature, or immanence-transcendence.

In short, it is an important, easy read for both the student, who can be introduced clearly to some of the complex concepts involved in the new materialism, and the expert reader, who will find the content excellently structured, also with abundant basic and specialised bibliography. The numerous images are generally of sufficient quality to make it possible to distinguish the details referred to in the text, although it would have been desirable for them to be in colour, especially considering the price of the book.


[1] Hazard, S. 2013 “The Material Turn in the Study of Religion”, Religion and Society: Advances in Research 4: 58–78, p. 64.