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Narrative

Religion is, thus, a conscious choice. So is narrative, as stressed throughout the second part of this volume. There are alternatives. It may be that analytical presentations of case studies or systematic elucidation of models or concepts are the most fitting ways of applying the new, and certainly provocative, methodology that lived ancient religion claims to offer. But even if these approaches might undermine larger narratives and reduce them in their plausibility, they cannot replace them.

As thematized in Chapter 7 in this volume, narratives are powerful media of communication. Within the framework of a narrative, many details of all sorts can be integrated with one another and transmitted. Neither Livy’s bracketing of earlier untrustworthy narratives of the early history of Rome nor Niebuhr’s bracketing of Livy’s narrative (Niebuhr and Isler 1846) have replaced the story of ‘753 все’. The ideas of a Romulean foundation and a Numan systematization still haunt the narration of early religion in Rome, while centuries of church history have established the narration of Rome’s initial violent rejection of Christianity and the latter’s final success, encapsulating the victory of universal religions (Weltreligionen) over ethnic religions (Volks- or Stammesreligionen). This simple storyline was successfully modified by Cumont’s intermediary stage of ‘oriental religions’ (Bonnet, Rfipke, and Scarpi 2006; Bonnet and Riipke 2009; Cumont and Bonnet 2006). It was further differentiated by attempts to trace a decline of the classical Greek polis during the Hellenistic period, resulting in new religious concepts and practices. Ancient narratives by late Republican authors writing on moral degeneration and crisis have been used to fill in details for Rome. Evidently, ancient historical narratives - in History of Religion as much as in general History - are powerful narratives that modern (and sometimes also ancient) scholarship claims to evaluate critically as ‘sources’. Yet such old narratives in fact account for many of the later narrative frames that have persisted right through to the present, as we saw earlier in this chapter.

Narrative is, as we have seen, a very ancient and very widespread way of producing ‘history’, of treating particular past events as slotting into a past that is fundamentally ordered in a chronological manner. The study of narrative historiography has shown how much fictionalization is involved in such narratives (Ricoeur 1984-5; White 1987; White and Doran 2010). It produces ‘sense’ in the same way that we make sense of our own lives and dealings, by narrating them to ourselves or others. For History of Religion (and, again, history in general and even academic History), narrative does not offer any ’higher truth'. What it does offer is understanding in a competitive mode, supporting claims of a better understanding, of making better sense of the data and stories available, and thus necessarily questioning those stories and earlier histories - without forgetting that it, too, is to be questioned by subsequent narratives (see Ankersmit 2001, 2005). Narrative is the form of choice for not only questioning existing narratives but also for demonstrating that alternative, and hopefully more convincing, narratives do exist. This is done not to uncover some hidden truth or inherent meaning, but to bring into histories of religion new perspectives, new data, and, above all, new agents.

Narrative offers powerful tools. Choosing where to start and when to end gives meaning to much of what happens in between. To take just one example, a decision not to start in Rome but to start ‘before temples’, that is, before the rise of what is thought to be typical of ancient religion, is an implicit, but no less important, statement about the inadequacy of the concept of Roman religion and the inadequacy of our usual notion of what it is that is characteristic of ancient religion. To end on the eve of the accession of Julian and to choose not to call him ’Apostata’ (as in a narrative telling of an earlier, Constantinian, victory of Christianity made secure by the ending of all alternatives with Julian’s death) replaces a teleological narrative with an open end.

Narrative used in this way does not imply a moving forward of events in a uni-linear manner. There is space for different voices, for different strands, for dead ends and new beginnings. At the same time, the number of threads that can be handled is limited: the higher the complexity, the smaller is the memorability and impact of the narrative. In narrating change, 1 have tried to focus on those developments that I consider to be the most important for a certain period. At the same time, it is necessary to follow such processes of transformation for substantial stretches of time once they are under way. Elaborate tombs and images (media), fixing and monumentalizing places for religious practices, writing religion, medially representing religious action, professionalization, building religious communities and drawing boundaries between them, are such processes that can (of course) be identified earlier and later, but are nevertheless more prominent in certain periods than in others. This makes for overlapping periods, focusing the narrative on such processes rather than on a strict chronological sequence. Thus, at times, subsequent stretches of the narrative have an earlier starting point in time than the one already reached in narrating the previous process. Some other topics cannot be assigned so easily to a certain period. New religious practices appear at any time; appropriation of established forms of belief and institutions in religious communication by agents of diverse social locations (the upper echelons and the political elite in particular) and lived religion are perspectives that are important at any period. In this context, focusing on a certain, even if wider, period makes the sequence awkward. As prominence is also a matter of

Dealing with religious change 143 sources, shifting one’s focus proves much easier for thinly attested periods than it does for well-documented ones. The indication of overlapping timelines in the chapter headings of Pantheon was my way of giving at least some transparency to the procedure selected.

The form of historical narrative entails making decisions about the object of that narrative, the locus of change, and its driving forces. First, object. As indicated above, the present author comes from a tradition shaped by thinking and writing in terms of ’Greek religion and ‘Roman religion' - with researchers working on each rarely quoting or perhaps not even reading each other. This tendency has not been shaken by recent reflections on the connectivity established by the Mediterranean Sea in antiquity.3 The reason is not the lack of coherence and specific differences in comparison to adjacent areas (Woolf 2003; cf. Riipke 2009). It is, rather, because established concepts of closed and coherent cultures built on language and territory ask, above all, for internal differentiation rather than for more encompassing perspectives. The tenacity of academic disciplines as social institutions is a further factor to be taken into account. With regard to religion, barriers are even higher. Venerators of Jupiter or Zeus are few and do not protest loudly against histories involving their gods. This is very different once the subject moves into the fields of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (Feldmeier et al. 2015.).

The classical solution was for research to move in step with the geographical expansion of the political agent in question. In the case of Rome, that meant starting from the seven hills in the early Iron Age (down to Augustus, in many cases) and ending at the limites in the 4th century ce (starting with Augustus, see the discussion in Riipke 2007b), or elsewhere to start at Kaifeng and end with today’s China, or to start at Aachen and end with Imperial Germany. Issues of diffusion and theoretical ambition had to be balanced by readers’ expectations and the competence of the author. The solution in the case of my own study was to start from the western and northeast Mediterranean and then to slowly narrow the focus down first to Italy and then to central Italy. Thus, a continuous focus on the city of Rome is not reached until the fifth chapter and a period when the prominence of Rome in our sources is due to the mass of contemporary documentation rather than to the prominence of the early city in much later narratives. This focus is enriched by page-long side glances at topics such as Etruscan intellectuals, warfare in the provinces, and the representation of urban rituals on coins that circulated far and wide. After the Augustan period, developments within the established cultural space of the ancient Mediterranean are taken into account, without denying a certain priority to Roman examples and alongside inquiries into the specific role of the capital within that space. The end of the book seeks to reminds us of how small the Mediterranean world was when viewed from a global perspective. The negotiating of the ambitions, possibilities, expectations, and narrative traditions to be used and questioned is reflected in the subtitles. ‘History of ancient religions’ (German) stresses the expansive side of the treatment, A new history of Roman religion' (English) points to the questioning of the concept of ’Roman religion' while also stressing, first and foremost, the geographical centre.

Second, locus of change. A narrative of religious change is neither about the individual versus society nor public religion versus the individual. Religious agency as developed from the first chapter onwards is not about the whimsical decisions of lonely individual actors, but rather the insight that traditional action is kept alive by individuals repeating it, that even written instructions are powerless if not enacted by individuals, and that almost every repetition, re-enactment, or even copying is an act of appropriation that modifies its models. This might be strategic at the highest political level and subversive even on the level of every-day action (Certeau 1984), or it may just be a result of a lack of care or of the impossibility of precise repetition. Individuals act within often dense structures that do not leave a lot of space for alternatives; Emirbayer, on whom 1 draw for my concept of agency, has even been criticized for leaving too small a place for the individual in individual agency (Emirbayer and Mische 1998, see Chapter 3 in this volume). The agents that typically feature in History of Religion are agents who are deeply socialized and raised in societies that often do not entertain any ideal of individualism but value, rather, conformity and obligations to families and friends. The individuality that we find occasionally has moral (or even legal) responsibility might wish to serve as an example for others or compete with them in bringing its own distinction to bear on the commonwealth. Occasionally, people are simply left alone and at a loss while facing the unknown and unexpected, as Chapter 2 in this volume has shown. It is these (in a very basic sense) individual agents who act in changes of mentality, state formation, and the forming of traditions. And it is by putting their actions into focus that innovation and change can be narrated, not by making processes, rules, traditions, insights, or gods the grammatical and logical subject of changes. From such a perspective, religious architecture does not develop but is commissioned and built by people, gods do not migrate but are carried around by word of mouth or in the form of statues by human carriers -sometimes of humble background, sometimes even female.

Likewise, it is not a city or empire that acts, as the grammar of sentences used in many narratives suggests. It is people, emperors, consuls, mayors, majorities in city councils, rich aristocrats, perhaps grouping together in councils, priestly colleges, or voluntary associations. In Rome (as in many other places), even the public is not an objective fact, but an ideological and legal construct, used by people in specific roles and for specific purposes, in no way enforced like public property today but talked of in very much the same way as public interest is today.4 Here, this includes the dramatic differences in wealth and power between members of the elites and simple people as much as it does the former’s attempts to create a shared (even if sharply hierarchical) ‘political’ identity as ‘citizens’ (e.g. Jehne 2006, 2010, 2013; Jehne and Lundgreen 2013).

Third, driving forces. I admit that the combination of the focus on individuals and the use of narrative seems to present agents not only as meaningDealing with religious change 145 making agents but as ‘rational choice actors’ who calculate every move (Riipke 2007d). This is not mitigated by the occasional use of the adjectives ‘strategic’ or ‘tactical’ (in Michel de Certeau’s sense) in my own work, a polemic against accounts that focus on collective agents and abstracts acting. Rational calculation is only rarely a model I would advance. Competition, on the other hand, is one of the driving forces that 1 positively admit underlies descriptions of even the earliest actors in the history of religion. The same holds true for distinction, as what is at stake is a life lived in health and security, a ‘good life’ on the level of social bonds, material culture, and the technology available. Religion itself - or even religious experience - need not be treated as any sort of driving force except in very individual cases. It is just one bundle of cultural tools that was available and henceforth used and reshaped - and grossly enlarged and ever more present as a toolkit in many subsequent historical periods. Religious experiences and aspirations could certainly become driving forces on their own.

 
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