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Material religion

In dealing with the vast amount of material evidence available for the study of ancient religion, an approach that is interested in religion in the making can

Lived religion 77 draw on several recent developments in archaeology in addition to religious studies (Raja and Riipke 2015; Chidester 2018). ‘Visible’ and 'material religion’ take the aesthetic side far beyond (reconstructed) ritual performances or literary texts (Kippenberg 1990; Estienne 2008; Boivin 2009; Belayche and Pirenne-Delforge 2015). Fundamental to these approaches is the notion that the very construction of gods as super-symbols, as well as communication with them in a whole range of related religious practices, not only involves using but is also shaped by the very material and sensory basis of these activities. In the course of thinking about the social conditions of individual agency and the networks in which individuals act, the analogical concept of ‘the agency of things’ has been developed and then introduced into the study of religion (Latour 1993, 2005; Droogan 2013, 151). The architecture of a sacralized site must now be seen from many perspectives: as a material thing with all its constructive and economic details; as a social agent inviting people to visit or make a detour (and having been entangled with various people right from its first moment); as a prop for ideological claims to the primacy of a certain deity (or its pious followers); and as an object figuring in very different biographical, historical, or mythical narratives (see Droogan 2013, 166; also Hodder 2011). Consequently, things are no longer seen as being determined by stable meaning (even if it is perhaps unavailable to the researcher) but as elements which are culturally and situationally activated: by being visible they elicit response (Morgan 2010, 2011; Gaskell 2011, 40).

Graffiti serve as a clear example of the latter. If graffiti were welcome in the ancient home, as representative of an emphatic reaction on the part of invited guests, then this minimalized but durable form of linguistic communication may also have played a role within the precincts of temples. This was demonstrably the case at Dura-Europos in the east of the Roman Empire. There, in the temples and assembly buildings of Jews, as well as worshippers of Christ and Mithras, creators of graffiti endeavoured to perpetuate themselves by placing their requests to be remembered or blessed as close as possible to the focus of religious communication, either close to the cult image, on mural paintings, or in corridors leading to these focal points (Stern 2014, esp. 146; on houses see Scheibelreiter-Gail 2012, 161). In this way they also appropriated the great two- or three-dimensional signifiers of religious communication that belonged to others.

The architecture itself was a more visible and more effective factor for the multiplication of religion. If the lived religion perspective concurs in asking for the ongoing use and appropriation even of public sanctuaries by means of visiting, singing, picnicking, depositing, and engraving graffiti, then attention must also be paid to the process of building (instead of just classifying a site according to the principal deity addressed there). By collaborating with the architect, those who commissioned temples could express and communicate their desires as to external size and shape and the internal design in terms of spatial effect and decoration, as well as specifying details concerning the image of the god, its size, and its positioning in the inner room (e.g. Davies

2012). In Rome, this is especially evident in the choice of unusual forms, such as the round temple.

A few years after 146 все (the confirmed date of the first marble temple to be built in Rome), a merchant named Marcus Octavius Herennus, who had once been employed as a flautist, built a round temple on the Tiber and dedicated it to Hercules Victor after the successful foiling of a pirate attack. In so doing, and as confirmed by Masurius Sabinus in the early 1st century ce, he linked Hercules’ general association with successful commerce with his personal interpretation of his own specific experience (Macrobius, Saturnalia 3.6.11; for details see Arnhold and Riipke 2016). It is possible that he was supported by the prominent architect Hermodorus, who was active during this period. The structure, which 1 take to be the round temple still visible on the Forum Boarium, was unusual in many ways. It had neither a podium nor a clearly defined frontal aspect. The twenty columns stood so close together that they entirely obstructed the view of the core structure, the cella, and from a distance also obscured the entrance with its two flanking windows. It was only from close up, with the door and windows open, that the statue standing at the centre would have been well lit and visible. The foundations were built out of the widely used Grotta Oscura tufa stone, but the structure above it emphasized innovation and high aesthetics. The interior walls were built out of the new but local travertine, and the almost ten-and-a-half-metres-high slender columns were fashioned from Pentelic marble from Attica. This was surely a demonstration of superior wealth and appreciation of Greek culture, as was visible at multiple locations around the city, in cultural contexts, in the form of plunder, in its institutions, and in its theatre.

It was probably a few decades later that Quintus Lutatius Catulus continued the experiment with round temples by building a temple of ‘Fortuna of the present day’ (Fortuna huiusce diei) on the Field of Mars, today to be admired as Temple В on the Largo Argentina. The importance that the consul of 102 все assigned to religious communication is shown not only by this temple, built in the following year, but also by the fact that, the consul himself probably being without priestly office, he succeeded in having his son co-opted by the pontiffs in the following decade. This son in his own turn became celebrated for completing in lavish fashion the restoration begun by Sulla of the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter. Quite unlike Herennus, Catulus set his round structure on a podium two-and-a-half metres high, and surrounded it with eighteen more substantial pillars, also on Attic bases and with Corinthian capitals, to an overall height approaching eleven metres. The builder gave this structure, one of the series of temples on this square on the Field of Mars, a clear orientation and frontal aspect. A broad stairway leads onto the podium, and the entrance lies on the same axis behind a widened inter-columnium. Catulus had the cult image placed in such a way that it faced the visitor, standing on a colossal scale and in living colour at the opposite side of the internal space, its visible body parts carved from white marble (perhaps with a painted surface) while the rest may have consisted of bronze body

Lived religion 79 armour. With the entrance open, at a height of some eight metres this spacefilling deity was visible from a great distance. Catulus also refers back to the tradition of ‘Fortuna’, the force of fate, linking her with a radically personal twist of fate as a visible, even insistent presence: she is the power who helped him at a particular moment. His purpose is entirely polemical. Here, Catulus is celebrating as his own victory the defeat over the Cimbri at Vercellae (June, 101 BCE) won by him together with Gaius Marius, the already celebrated commander: an assertion to which the construction of the temple gives monumental relevance. We must not forget that he is doing this in a context in which the presentation of votive objects was still a widespread form of popular ritual practice. The marble structure gleams in contrast to the clay objects left on benches and in pits.4 But this itself makes it clear that the temple is not just a building: it is a representation and perpetuation of a specific religious communication aimed at higher authorities, at special agents.

We have to consider that such enormous architectural (and, of course, financial) investments were not the entrepreneurial actions of religious organizations. Rather, as a rule they relied on the initiative of individuals wishing through the initiation of such projects to give proof of their exceptional gratitude to and intimacy with a deity. For all the wrangling over building sites, and the support required from such authorities as city councils, it was the decisions of individuals to donate their no less exceptional war plunder or other gains in this way, their decisions in favour of a particular architectural form and a particular deity, that thus established the religious infrastructure, and defined both the ease of accessibility of particular gods and the form to be taken by the cult. As in other cases, of course we must wonder about the social rules that, in the flux of history, drove the use of particular forms of communication: to whom were these available? Even from a lived ancient religion perspective it is clear that the broad range of religious practices reviewed offered a field of action in which individuals could obtain success, authority, respect, or even simply a living that was not available to them in other areas of social, political, or merely domestic activity.

Just as lived religion as a new research perspective started off on the streets, so too does ancient lived religion need to be looked for in the same place. For many living in the great imperial era cities and metropolises, the street as a ‘house’ comprising different rooms constituted the primary living space. However, the few home occupiers, the owners of villas, who were able actively to configure the architectural features and furniture of their homes created an ‘infrastructure’, that is, walls which could also be used by others in a multitude of ways. Graffiti abounded, lamps could be kindled, deities engraved, statuettes set in place. These were activities beyond any central form of control. but they were not without perceptions of and influence on the prominent shrines and images and practices in the large spaces and houses, because they were permanently appropriating and changing a tradition that was reproduced in new forms by these very acts. These activities were religion in the making.

80 Lived religion


  • 1 Briefly, Barton (1994); Cramer (1954); in general, Gordon (2010, 2013b).
  • 2 Classic analyses include Halbwachs (1992) and Benoist et al. (2009); Connerton (1989); Cubitt (2007); Cusamano et al. (2013); Dignas and Smith (2012); Erll (2011); Flower (2003); Le Goff (1992); Oesterle (2005).
  • 3 Beard (1986. 1987, 1991); Feeney (1998); Riipke (2012a).
  • 4 See Andreani, Moro, and Nuccio (2005).


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