Reflecting on dealing with religious change
When coupled with claims about identity, religious change is frequently narrated as a history of competition, victories, and annihilations of ‘religions’. This is not the history of changes in religious practices, ideas, forms of groupings, and institutions that has been identified as ‘religion in the making’ throughout this book. This final chapter will start by discussing the fundamental question of why it is possible and important to speak about religious change, that is, why religions do have a history. 1 will then go on to take up my argument for a conceptualization of religion that focuses on religious agency. This allows one to speak about religious change and invites one to speak of this change in the form of a narrative. In opting to provide a historical narrative, one must decide the object of that narrative, the locus of change, and its driving forces. 1 discuss these decisions in the following section, in which the question of historical agents and the relationship between ‘lived religion' and ‘urban’ religion takes centre stage.
History of ancient Mediterranean religion
In relation to current scholarship it still does not seem to be self-evident that ancient religion had a history. In many instances, ancient religious practices and beliefs were, and still are, treated as essentially timeless cultural facts. In the 19th century, they were seen as part and parcel of peoples, of ethnicities with a specific language and character. A religion was subject to external influences, and possibly to weakening and dissolution, but was fundamentally an enduring characteristic of the people who ‘had' this religion. Within this framework, it was already a decisive advance to move beyond treating ‘the ancients’ as the basic unit of description and to turn instead to smaller linguistic groups. The result of this development for the history of ancient Mediterranean religion, which 1 will take in this final chapter as my exemplar, was the identification of those ’Greek', ‘Roman', or ‘Etruscan’ religions (and less prominently other groups, such as the Umbrians) with which we have, until recently, been stuck. Contemporary research has tried to come to grips with more fine-grained analyses by differentiating regions (the Sabine territories, the North lonians, Palestine, the Decapolis) or even cities and their
Dealing with religious change 135 territories (Athens, Sparta, Alexandria, Pompeii). In this imagined world of ethnic religions, change is bound up with continuity or discontinuity of cultural autonomy and the ups and downs of military confrontations - expansion of territory, development in the form of an empire, recess, domination, submission.
To remove later accretions and distortions when reconstruing the ‘original form’ of such ethnic religions, historical research was necessary, and here historicism offered all its tools of ‘source criticism' to those who pursued the endeavour. The aim, however, was to go back to the ‘original’ religion, the essential version, that was untouched by later developments and pure in its expression of a people’s proper character. Following on from ancient observations, Hellenic culture was seen as an invasive force that impinged on nearly all cultures it encountered. For Rome, Roman religion before Hellenization (and later ‘oriental’ and ‘Christian’ influences) thus offered itself as the aim of historical research. Judaism was similarly established as a historical category of its own (Wyrwa 2003).
However, the historicist interest in details was not without alternatives (Kippenberg 1994). Evolutionary perspectives on religion took their departure from Giambattista Vico and began to flourish by the end of the 19th century. Magic, religion, and reason, or animism, polytheism, and monotheism offered historical sequences that were hardly fine-grained but at least allowed the researcher to look for large-scale developments and ‘survivals’. With regard to religion, the evident existence and self-understanding of universalizing bodies of beliefs led to the notion of ‘world religions’ that were inherently superior to ‘ethnic religions’ and inevitably pushed them back into the strongholds of traditionalism and the backyards of geographical isolation. Here, another type of competition would account for religious change.
How, then, was one to write a history of ancient religion when pursuing it through such frameworks? National and confessional definitions of the objects went together with the establishment of disciplines and the pragmatic shaping of fields of research, concealed rather than challenged by the continuous use of the collectives ‘Classics’, ‘Classical Philology’, ‘Classical Archaeology’, and ‘Ancient History’, conceptions supported by the high esteem for and role given to the study and quotation of ‘the Ancients’. For Rome, Georg Wissowa’s Religion und Kultus der Romer (Religion and Ritual of the Romans) ( 1912) was a systematic account, modelled on Varro’s Divine Antiquities (Rüpke 2003). However, this did not take account of the latter’s historical introduction (Rüpke 2014b). The acknowledgment of change was driven by Wissowa’s historical interpretation of the Roman calendar (Wissowa 1902, 2; on which Rüpke 2011, 21-2), which seemed to offer the possibility of a reconstruction of an early historical stage that would allow for the differentiation of the truly Roman from other influences. Despite the fact that the treatment of individual ‘gods’ was the backbone of the manual, the author time and again focused on rituals and places of cult rather than on theologies. The massive third part of the work, which dealt with ritual and offered a reconstruction of Roman ‘Sacralrecht’ (‘sacral law’, a term first used by Ernst Pernice 1885), underlined this double turn against a Protestant, or more precisely Schleiermacherian, concept of ‘belief’ as fundamental for religion (Scheid 1987), and also against evolutionary thinking. Roman religion had to be treated as a religion sui generis, to be described in terms of its own self-description (fully restated by Scheid 2016, 48). It was, fundamentally, what Roman authors described as the religio (‘practices based on awe’, and not, for instance, superstitio, or superstition) of Roman citizens (thus Scheid 2001, 174), or to put it in other terms, it was Rome’s ‘civic religion’. As the development of the latter concept at the end of the 20th century has demonstrated, the notion of civic religion asks for detailed historical contextualization and does not exclude historicization. And yet, as changes in civic religion are normally just reflection of political change, it is not particularly interesting to map in its own right.
Kurt Latte’s Römische Religionsgeschichte (History of Roman Religion} (1960), which replaced Wissowa’s handbook, was based on evolutionary thinking on religion. Latte’s own model builds on the idea that the ‘religion of the farmer’ was taken up by the ‘religion of the community’, but for more than 350 pages his table of contents largely corresponds with that of Wissowa’s first 90 pages: Italian and Greek influences, Roman systematization and Hellenistic transformation, and finally monarchy and new cults are the steps and ingredients in the changes that he maps. Evolutionary thinking was not only applied to Rome. The two massive volumes of Martin Per Nilsson’s Geschichte der griechischen Religion (History of Greek Religion), published in 1941 and again in 1951, devote some 150 introductory pages to comparative mythology and ethnological approaches. A systematic approach provides a foundation with the 200 subsequent pages given over to the ‘fundamentals of Greek religion’, with concepts such as power, the sacred, sorcery and animism. and gifts and masks receiving not much less attention than do the gods (Nilsson 1988a, 1988b). In this work, comparison leads to an evolutionistic reconstruction of survivals, in clear contrast to Wissowa’s approach to Roman religious practices. On this basis historical change is traced through the ages, from the Minoan period, through Hellenism with its ‘religion serving the kings’ and ‘personal religion and religious worldview’, to the Roman period with its focus on belief and syncretism. Running to nearly 400 pages, this is perhaps still the most detailed account of the history of the religion of the Imperial period. It reconstructs many sometimes conflicting lines of development and ends by identifying an excessive intellectualization and rationalization, and a Christianization the intrusion of which into the individual sphere was mitigated only by the traditionalism of the rural population.
Just a few years later, Jean Bayet wrote a Histoire politique et psychologique de la religion romaine (Political and Psychological History of Roman Religion) (Bayet 1957). Here, the search for the specifically Roman character is continued, with Bayet identifying it in a peculiar mix of conservatism, demythologization, pragmatism, and a focus on politics, all characterized by
Dealing with religious change 137 ritualism.1 Factors leading to historical change include inter-cultural contact (not least that caused by Roman expansion), changes in mentality stimulated by these contacts, and political crises. In both the Republican and Imperial periods, change came in the form of emotional reactions against ritualism, irrationalism against rationality, and individualization against the political use of religion. This reflection on factors causing large-scale changes clearly differs from the way in which historical change is narrated by Wissowa and Latte. In their histories, the subjects of a basically linear development are quasi-natural processes of change, either inseparably connected with political developments such as expansion or internal to those processes like the decomposition of an initial unified idea or the mutual permeation of ideas. This is not bad history but a narrative decision. Wissowa does not shrink from adding unrelated additional observations, for instance on the growing participation of people in public ritual (thus obscuring the dividing line between public and private) or on the incremental character of Hellenization, prepared for by a growing number of literary metaphors (Wissowa 1912, 58-9 and 65).
After Bayet, there were no new attempts at a full-scale history of Roman religion until the 1990s, when the first volume of Religions of Rome, by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, appeared (Beard, North, and Price 1998). Meanwhile, historiography of Greek religion had not only begun to look more closely at regional differences (e.g. Graf 1985) but also theoretically elaborated the pre-existing, albeit not very prominent, concept of 'polis religion’. In doing so, it took up to a significant degree functionalist theories on religion.2 This notion was constructed around the observation that the features that we see as characteristic of Greek religion - Homeric gods, stylobate temples, and many rituals and festivals - co-originated with the classical polis and have clear functions within the city-and-country-unit to which we give this name. Drawing on the archaeological evidence, François de Polignac pointed to the geographical dimension of the role of religion in Greek urbanization (de Polignac 1984; see also Chapter 5 in this volume). Monographs on subjects such as Athenian religion (Parker 1996) were a consequence of this development. Accordingly, it was no longer ‘Roman religion’ but Religions of Rome that Beard, North, and Price selected as their title, reflecting both a sensibility for the spatial conditions of religious change as well as an eye for what rested beyond public control and financing - even if the term Roman religion is used time and again throughout the book and prominently in many section titles. Culturalist assumptions coalesce here with the tradition of speaking about religion in terms of separately identifiable units. And, indeed, it becomes necessary - once the analysis moves beyond the limits of the city and into the empire - to talk about what is being taken along, diffused, and taken over in distant places.
Proceeding in a way that goes against the notion of religious conservatism, the book explores religious change, considering not only how rituals and institutions altered under the impact of political and cultural developments but also identifying change in new interpretations of seemingly stable practices (Beard, North, and Price 1998, xi). After a detailed inquiry into religious changes in the context of late-Republican social and political developments and of religious phenomena judged to be deviant by the political elite, the book maps out the (selective) diffusion into, and the use of religion for, the empire. The impact of the empire on the continuous enlarging of the range of ‘elective cults’ shows movement in the opposite direction. A chapter on Christian emperors and the dramatic changes in political, legal, and social conditions that followed from the adoption of Christian terms concludes the volume (the second volume is a sourcebook). And yet ritual practices that have their roots at least as far back as Wissowa’s Numan period were continued by people who probably classified themselves, at least on occasion, as Christians (ibid., 387-8). There is a substance of Romanness that endures even through this most fundamental of changes. Thus, change should be understood as situational. Showing a strong consciousness of the problematic character of the sources, the narration frequently employs the passive voice and it is only very occasionally, in clear cases of deviance (such as the Bacchanalian meetings of the early 2nd century все seem to offer), that agents and their motives are discussed (ibid., 95).
In my short introduction to Religion of the Romans, I have already criticized the reduction of historical narratives of the ancient history of religion to a history of Orientalization. Hellenization, and Christianization (Riipke 2001, 2007c, 236-8). Instead, 1 invoked various other models. For myself, I prefer a model of local religion and of the changing use of religion by local (or translocal) elites (Riipke 2007c, 254-79), that is, an approach grounded in a functional framework focused on a competitive elite. This use of religion was, however, not simply a given. ‘Politicization’, the appropriation of religious practices in order to gain in power, was a process that characterized the middle and late republic and that changed enormously with the establishment of monarchical rule. ‘Urbanization’ and cultural contacts in a grossly enlarged political space were other processes taken into account without structuring the narrative.
However, not long after completing that volume, the chapters on different epochs in A Companion to Roman Religion (Riipke 2007a) made me aware of just how enormous the change that took place in the transition from republic to empire had been. On closer inspection, even the implicit and explicit rules governing, or created in, Roman ritual underwent historical change. The literary and legal sources that form the core of our ‘evidence’ are the contingent results of social and cultural change, as 1 sought to show in a subsequent monograph (Riipke 2012b). As Beard, North, and Price rightly emphasize, a history of Roman religion can only be written in the context of the empire dominated by Rome, as the histories of local religious practices and beliefs were entangled with the history of Mediterranean religion (Riipke 2014a). But how to come to grips with all these changes? The basic problem is that ancient narratives about religion were almost non-existent. Roman historiography
Dealing with religious change 139 offered hundreds of pieces of information about religious events but did not integrate these into the history of something - ‘religion’ - that was only conceived of as a coherent field of practices towards the very end of the republic. Does the lack of narratives on the ground necessitate giving up our attempts to provide narration, as has been suggested by some critics of the concept of religion as presented at the very beginning of this book (e.g. Nongbri 2013)?