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Identity

The notion of collective identity has rightly come under considerable scrutiny. Criticism has been levelled at the idea that the term ascribes a permanent state of belonging to a particular community, which also, necessarily, implies a steady and exclusive sense of belonging in the mind of its members, rather than situational, ‘salient’ identities (Rebillard 2012, 2-5). In other words, the problematic assumption is that he or she who is a Roman must constantly think about being Roman and nothing else. This assumption is just as misleading as the idea that particular collective identities must necessarily point towards membership of a specific group. The reference point for collective identities can be both real and imaginary associations of people. Nevertheless, such imagined belongings can influence individual behaviour, as social identity theory has demonstrated (Tajfel 1974). From the point of view of individual agents, it is important to conceptualize collective identity as something entertained by individuals and not in terms of ready-made and externally defined roles. Collective identity can have very different facets of varying importance in individual cases, and it might not be out of place to repeat here the items listed in Chapter 3 in this volume. They include self-classification; the individual’s own assessment of his or her own group affiliation and - as far as is perceptible - his or her classification by others; the meaning awarded to the individual’s group affiliation; the felt emotional connectedness to, and dependence on, the coinciding of personal and collective identities up to the point at which they completely overlap; the degree to which group members are embedded in everyday group routines; the level of impact the aforementioned embeddedness has on personal behaviour; and, finally, the cognitive dimension, or in other words the ways in which stories and imaginaries reveal the values, characteristics, and history of a group (Ashmore, Deaux, and McLaughlin-Volpe 2004. 83).

Religion came into play in a variety of ways in antiquity. It played an important part in the familial identities of primary social groups, as articulated in the family tomb, for instance. It also offered a language through which to define shared interests among individuals and to develop activities that could result in the formation of secondary groups. Religion pertains to the different relative positions of local, regional, and supra-regional identities, and to the shifts that occur between them. Here it is crucial to abstain from reifying or essentializing these groups or communities.

The so-called cult of Isis offers a good example. To put it bluntly, Isis was not a goddess but a strategy, a situational (even if perhaps repeated) choice in invoking agents beyond the immediately plausible context and in ascribing agency to them (Riipke 2018, 264 71 for further details). To give a name to such an agent was to invest it with a face, a history, a gender, at once relating one’s own religious act to the religious communications of others and conceptualizing the horizon addressed as beyond the immediate situation in a more durable manner. Methodologically, we must not presuppose the existence of some divine actor who shapes such actions and the experiences associated with them. An individual’s (or a group’s) appropriation of certain names or symbols was informed by their willingness to identify with other human actors, to take over sets of assumptions and sequences of acting in a partial manner, and it was limited by the hinderances involved in doing so or by the intention of seeking distinction.

In Italy, to invoke a deity such as Isis was to configure a divine addressee who was known to be widely invoked in Egypt. Her veneration had generated an attractive female figure devoid of the animal elements which were otherwise regarded as typical of Egypt. In narratives, she was ascribed the role of mother (of Horus), with child at breast, and devoted wife (of Osiris), and was endowed with great power. Isis had enjoyed a particular following in the 3rd century все in Ptolemaic Egypt. She had quickly been exported as a religious sign into the Greek world, often associated with the figure of Aphrodite, and from the first half of the 3rd century все onwards also as a patron goddess of seafaring. She was present in Sicily as an image on coins from the end of the 3rd century. Temples dedicated to Isis were built in Campania, at Puteoli and Pompeii, from the end of the 2nd century onwards. In the same period, a space in the sanctuary of the Fortuna complex at Praeneste was provided with a mosaic depicting a Nile landscape.

In Rome, the first institutional evidence of the worship of Isis appears under Sulla, in the first quarter of the 1st century все at the latest. By this

Lived religion 73 time a number of individuals were engaged in long-term or even lifelong worship of these ‘Egyptian gods’, and patrons financed dedicated cult sites, or at least one such site, i.e. the Iseum Metellinum that was funded by the pon-tifex maximus Publius Caecilius Metellus Pius. Ports - including Rome - had close links not only with Egypt but with the entire Mediterranean region. These circumstances may have engendered the presence of a great variety of images of Isis in these cities: as a powerful goddess widely revered within the Mediterranean region (the name was the same in Egyptian, Greek, and Latin); as an attractive representative of exotic Egyptian culture; and as the female deity associated with Serapis, that divine combination of Osiris and Apis invented by Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers.

In the Rome of the late Republic, the invocation of Serapis and Isis formed part of a religious strategy pursued by groups that were critical of the Senate. At the beginning of the 50s все at the latest, these groups countered the aristocratic usurpation of Jupiter (as the god of the polity) and Venus (as personal patron of many aristocrats, including Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar) by attempting to install the ruling partnership of Serapis and Isis on the Capitol, more precisely on the Arx. In so doing, they incurred not only the opposition of the Senate but also the hostility of members of the Etruscan nobility operating in Rome as haruspices, specialists in the inspection of entrails (Varro, Ant. rer. div. fr. 46 Cardauns; Cass. Dio 42.26.1).

The cult site was evidently used above all as an oracular centre. This is suggested by the significant oracular function of Isis and Serapis in Alexandria, Canopus, and Menouthis. Divination is not just some obscure ritual but a religious practice that provides justification for future (and sometimes past) actions. This is how specifically religious agency is conferred to actors and how it spills over into other realms. No wonder, then, that this cult site was heavily contested. Literary and archaeological sources speak of a bitter struggle surrounding the cult site, in terms of its development, destruction, and redevelopment by supporters and opponents. Some of the latter went so far as to ‘decontaminate’ the site by removing buried traces of sacrifices. It was, however, precisely the exoticism of this oracular cult, which embraced even dog-headed Anubis, that legitimated it as foreign knowledge in a Latinspeaking world which, following in the footsteps of the ‘Etruscan discipline’ and Pythagorean speculation on numbers, was just beginning to cherish the ‘Chaldean’ lore of astrology.1 The various actors concerned must have judged that communication with the more alien gods, albeit that it was beset with risks, held advantages in matters of political confrontation. The rapid appropriation of these religious practices by Antonius and later Augustus shows how highly prized was this potential. That the construction plans of the triumvirs were not realized, and followers of Isis were again expelled in 19 ce, demonstrates the risk entailed by such communication. It was only with the Flavian Augusti, and especially Vespasian, whose ascent to power was founded not least on Alexandrine oracles, that Serapis and Isis in their exotic variants became a mainstream phenomenon of the city of Rome, with a monumental sanctuary being built to honour them. For the Emperor Hadrian or the Severan dynasty, with their roots in Africa, it was possible to formulate a geographically extensive claim to hegemony and an ecumenical identity by presenting the phenomenon as more exotic, more Egyptian, in subsequent phases. Egyptian motifs, from hieroglyphs to coloured stones, water installations to obelisks, were executed here in monumental style.

Such a context prepared individual visitors for those mysteries that constituted the main attraction of many shrines of Isis, especially in Rome, with their professional priesthoods residing in the sanctuary. An initiation ritual, potentially enhanced by repetition, involved an epiphany that was experienced at an emotionally intense level. Such elements also marked high points of membership in Mithraic groups and characterized their own cult sites. With respect to Isis, however, the most intensive form of membership might also be perceptibly and lastingly manifested at a physical level, through the donning of special clothing and the sporting of a shaved head. ‘The exotic’ in these circumstances was, of course, always a question of standpoint. For the follower of Isis described by Apuleius and for Lucian, the ‘Syrian deity’ was the extraordinary attraction. But only a fraction of those who included Isis in their religious portfolio submitted themselves to the mysteries. In many places, the spectacular possibilities offered in temples by enactments of such spectacles as the Nile floods notwithstanding, the attraction beyond the mysteries was the presence of a theatre that could offer dramatizations of the experiences of Isis and Osiris to a wider audience.

In many of these contexts, Isis, Osiris, and Serapis were no more or less useful than other religious ‘signs’ or addressees. The conditions under which actors chose them in particular frequently depended not on narratives that were doing the rounds or the successes of this or that goddess as documented in inscriptions, but rather on the situation or the context at hand for the individual. In many respects, the persons and concerns involved in the invocation of one or another deity were similar. Even Marcus Terentius Varro, having spent the fifteen books of his Antiquitates rerum divinarum clarifying the historical and systemic differences between the gods, ultimately emphasizes that all these factors amount to no more than secondary variants of the one divine principle. He shared this opinion with most other philosophers. Yet this insight did not apply in the appropriation of religion by many others. Options were restricted on the basis of situation and biography, or were strongly associative in character. When religious specialists, either male or female, were building group and cult structures - and here the reference to both sexes is important - distinctions based on knowledge, which were a factor in both kinds of undertaking, and differences in practices and the use of signs were all the more important: they created recognizability. Whether or not visitors from the next town shared the same perceptions is another matter. Here, a lived ancient religion approach is faced with the problems of generalizing individual cases. It suffices to say that religious identity in a given situation rested above all on locations that gave rise to experiences of identity

Lived religion 75 formation, on motives and metaphors that played a role in individual reflexions on identity, and on the social and communicative settings in which identities were debated and represented.

 
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