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Home arrow Religion arrow On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome

Introduction

Ancient Mediterranean religion is traditionally viewed through the lens of public religion. It is regarded, that is, as the religions of political units (usually city-states) that are part and parcel of civic identity. Given the local roots and immobility of such public political religion, the movable elements were conceptualized on the patterns of modern religions, but termed “cult” for their organizational deficits and openness to pluralism. These cults were centered on a deity, whose “essence” (in German, Wesen), “nature,” or “personality” defined the character and function of the cult on a transregional scale. Much of twentieth-century scholarship on ancient religion was invested in locating, identifying, and classifying the evidence for such cults, and there was a clear focus on the supposed distinguishing mark of many “other” religions, that is, the plurality of venerated gods. “Idolatry” and, more recently, “polytheism” were terms central to this procedure.[1] These cults were seen as being coordinated within a pantheon,[2] an organized system of gods of different “powers” or “fields of competence.”[3] That which, in the writings of intellectuals such as Hesiod or Marcus Terentius Varro, was probably above all an attempt to order a world of competing images and narratives and to transform religion into knowledge[4] became the dominant framework of late ancient, premodern, and even contemporary interpretations of ancient Mediterranean religion. Within this framework, individual religious competence would be the ability to address the most relevant deity in the most appropriate way, to properly formulate names and epithets.[5] [6] Modern historians of religion carefully distinguished between gods and goddesses that were venerated in proper cults and those that were merely the inventions of poets. This may make use of Varro’s distinction between theologia poetarum and theologia civilis,b but it certainly distorts it.

The ontological model implied in such analyses gives priority to the gods, and it is still gods that form the grammatical and logical subject of many statements about the history of religion. They develop, move, arrive, demand cult, and reveal themselves. Monographs on individual gods or their veneration are still a genre current in the historical study of religion—presupposing that there is a coherent “idea” or “experience” (to enlarge the list given above) behind the use of a single specific name to address a divine entity in different contexts. Where names are not attested, iconographical identifications made by the modern observer easily fill the gap.

A growing strand in scholarship has resisted this framework without opting to describe ancient religion as a belief system on the blueprint of Christian dogmatics; that is, these works are not mustering theology, anthropology, cosmology, eschatology, and eliminating “religious practices” (those that were official as well as those deemed “popular” as an indication that they do not conform to dogmatic definitions and are therefore to be rightly regarded as marginal, if not irrelevant). Instead, ritual has been established as a cornerstone of religion, if not a synonym for it, at least for antiquity. Sacrifices and festivals are regarded as the religious grid that was superimposed on urban and rural reality, establishing sacred time and space, religious calendars, and religious landscapes.[7] [8] Architecture (even if minimal) and fixed religious roles, frequently taking the form of priesthoods, gave permanent visibility to these ritual structures. Time-honored traditions, occasionally even in written form (or sometimes supposed to have existed in written form), as in the case of the Roman libri sacerdotum,8 shape and preserve this type of “cold” religion. Following the lead of the introductory account of John Scheid and the two volumes of Mary Beard, John North, and the late Simon Price, I have myself published a medium-sized account of “Religion of the Romans.”[9] [10] [11] [12]

I invoke this model only to discard it along with other trends in early twenty-first-century scholarship. We have learned to see the authorial agenda and discursive quality of our literary sources as part of religion proper and to detect the situational and expressive, that is, performative, character of many rituals.10 Though it may be predominantly practice, ancient religion is practice that is reflected in discourse, and discourse itself frequently assumes the form of religious practices. It is on that basis that Robert Parker held his Townsend lectures in 2008 “On Greek Religion,” and that I myself had edited a Companion to Roman Religion not much earlier.11 In 2012 I was able to publish a monograph that demonstrated how processes of rationalization shaped and modified religious, and above all ritual, practices in the period of the Roman Republic.12

The invitation to the Townsend lectures in fall 2013 gave me the opportunity, for which I am deeply grateful, to advance my previous work on ancient religion. On Roman Religion will add the perspectives of lived ancient religion and individual appropriation to the study of Roman religious institutions and ritual. The concept of appropriation, fundamental to my interpretation of lived religion, is taken from Michel de Certeau and refers to individual, everyday action.[13] The individual is not seen as somebody who simply acquires and reproduces established or normative ways of thinking or acting; instead, hegemonic as well as alternative options are evaluated, selected, and transformed for the individual’s purposes. Hence, the individual’s actions are strategic, even subversive. These individual ways of living are not merely petty variations of societal norms. It is only through manifold individual appropriations that norms and traditions are reproduced, hence continued and modified at the same time.[14] I do not mean to deny the limited range of options available to many, in particular the nonelite people in ancient (and contemporary) societies, but this change of perspective invites us to pay more attention to individual variations in religious behavior, resistance to and rejection of certain practices, and the consequences of these over time. Our interest is not in the immutability—claimed rather than proved in most historical cases—but in the fluidity of ritual and other religious traditions.

Lived religiosity, “lived religion,” as reformulated by urban anthropologist Meredith McGuire,[15] is a concept helpful for further developing the notion of individual appropriation and reformulating it as a new paradigm in the analysis of Roman religion. Instead of inquiring into how individuals reproduce a set of religious practices and the intellectual tenets of a faith,[16] religion is to be reconstructed as everyday experiences, practices, expressions, and interactions; these in turn constantly redefine religion as practice, idea, and community. The very different, strategic, and (if necessary) even subversive forms of individual appropriation are analytically confronted with traditions, their normative claims, and their institutional protections. Thus the precarious state of institutions and traditions comes to the fore. These are as much means of expression and creativity for their inventors and patrons as they are the spaces and material of experience and innovation for their users and clients. Lived ancient religion thus offers a framework within which we can address the whole range of religious practices and conceptions, not as sets of fixed rules or beliefs, but as a permanently changing field of individual actions, inceptive traditions, monumental examples, and incoherent assumptions. Lived ancient religion is as much about variation or even outright deviance[17] as it is about the attempts and failures to establish or change rules and roles and to communicate these via public authorities or literary discourse. It is such roles and rules, their variations and limits, and their establishment and communication to oneself and others that constitute the material under consideration in On Roman Religion.

I am quite aware that a decision to foreground “individuals” in a study of premodern religion might encounter immediate criticism. The general image of religion, Roman religion in particular, as a rigid ritual system seems not to allow for significant individual variance and even less, to stress my point, for systemic individual variance. Furthermore, the framework of civic religion has been reaffirmed by its principal advocate, John Scheid,[18] who has greatly shaped and advanced my own thinking. Hence, in my first chapter, “Individual Appropriation of Religion,” I concentrate in a rather elementary manner on the question of individuality in religious matters. Is this a concept that is applicable to ancient societies at all? Or do I base my whole enterprise on a mistaken anachronism? I must, first of all, ensure that I have not been led to implausible historical claims by the hegemonic character of present day individualism: We ought to be individuals!

Roles shape the possibilities for individual appropriation as a strategy for action.[19] Thus, special attention must be paid to the appropriation of roles and role variation among religious specialists, a general term that I prefer to “priest” and “priesthoods,” which denote a much smaller range of religious roles.[20] “Religious specialist” encompasses: short-term religious roles such as dedicators; annual roles such as the magistrates that were frequently responsible for the performance of the most important public rituals and the elected heads of religious colleges; and unlimited or even permanent roles such as magicians, public priests, prophets, interpreters of dreams, healers, and writers of religious texts. Chapter 2, “Individual Decision and Social Order,” focuses on the roles of religious specialists, in particular on priestly roles in the late republican period. These are typically determined by career patterns and family prestige; individual proclivities are scarcely evidenced within the numerous different Roman priesthoods. At the same time, we do occasionally observe strange, highly individual behavior. This chapter traces these late republican cases and balances them against the social expectations—both the more and the less obvious—that informed individual actions.

The following chapters will concentrate on individual ritual practice. Chapter 3, “Appropriating Images—Embodying Gods,” proposes reading a text of the Augustan poet Propertius as a reflection on dedicatory practices and individual appropriations of images. The enormous malleability of the resulting divine figure is among the most interesting results of this analysis. This chapter fundamentally questions the usual understanding of dedications as primarily a means of establishing and continuing specific “cults.”

Chapter 4, “Testing the Limits of Ritual Choices,” once again turns to the Propertian oeuvre, with attention to its imagination of individual magic practices and how this is informed by contemporary discourse and practice. Magic is imagined in the poems as a traditional and widely available technique, a legitimate option within certain limits. At the same time, the role of the user of magic is shaped by technical considerations and the agency of objects in magical procedures.

Can the practices and experiences of lived ancient religion be identified beyond those that are described and imagined in a discourse that sought to denounce certain practices as extreme? This is the opening question of chapter 5, “Reconstructing Religious Experience.” Again, I take a text from the early empire as a point of departure: in this chapter it is Ovid’s commentary on the Roman fasti. I search this text for traces of individual appropriation and the spaces within which this was possible. Ovid construed a reader who was interested not only in religious knowledge but also in the emotional registers appropriate to participation in religious performances.

Evidently, writing was an important part of many Roman ritual practices from the late republic onward. It offered new spaces and media for the individual appropriation of ritual, in performance and in later more reflective contexts. Chapter 6, “Dynamics of Individual Appropriation,” reviews this relationship within a number of ritual settings. Contexts for the interplay of reading and ritual performance in the late republican and early imperial periods include the taking of auspices, ritual banquets, the festivals of the Arval Brethren, and domestic rituals. The invention of rituals—fictitious rituals, that is—is also discussed.

Against this background, in chapter 7 I explore the notion of “Religious Communication” more systematically, before it concentrates on the role of inscriptions accompanying dedications in communicating individual situations and interests both to the gods and to a wider audience. Religious communication is special in its insistence on its vertical dimension, which at the same time allows for very specific and often highly visible horizontal, interhuman communication. Against the background of the enormous growth of the epigraphic habit until the early third century, this chapter treats lived religion in the imperial period.

More narrowly focused, chapter 8, “Instructing Literary Practice in The Shepherd of Hermas,” considers the interplay of supply and demand in religious writing as it relates to an early second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas. It is the growth of the text itself and particular features of its contents and style that suggest an interest both in communal reception and in individual reading. This is confirmed by findings that illustrate the history of the text’s transmission and reception. Taken together, these observations suggest that we read this as a process of long-term, reflective religious individualization.

The brief conclusion concentrates on the basic agenda of this book: Roman religion not as a set of cults, one of many localized “religions,” but as a regional and temporal segment of lived religion in antiquity, serving individuals who employed religion as a resource for many a purpose, who tried to find their places in and beyond traditions, or who tried to define those very traditions for successful communication with the divine as well as with their unquestionably relevant human contemporaries.

  • [1] See Schmidt 1987; Ahn 1993; Gladigow 2002; Rupke 2012d.
  • [2] Rupke 2003c; more generally Rupke 2007a, 16—17; cf. Athanassiadi and Frede 1999; Rupke2003c; Pongratz-Leisten 2011.
  • [3] See Rupke 2005b for the Roman use of such metaphors.
  • [4] See Rupke 2005c, 2009b, 2014b on Varro.
  • [5] Belayche et al. 2005b.
  • [6] See Rupke 2005c.
  • [7] See Cancik 1985; see also J. P. Brown 1986; Alcock and Osbourne 1994; Steinsapir 2005 forthe concept of “sacred landscape”; Salzman 1999; Wescoat and Ousterhout 2012; cf. Rupke 1995,Feeney 2007b, Rupke 2011b for calendars.
  • [8] Sini 1983; Scheid 1994; Beard 1998. See Rupke 2003b for the role of this postulate in thehistory of scholarship.
  • [9] Scheid 1998c, 2003; Beard, North, and Price 1998; Rupke 2007a.
  • [10] For literature, see Feeney 1998; Beard 1986, 1991; Rupke 2012e, 2012i. On performance,see, e.g., Anonymous 1999; Bierl 2001; Hofman 2004; Pelikan-Pittenger 2008; Rodriguez-Mayorgas 2011. Beard 2007 combines both aspects.
  • [11] Parker 2011; Rupke 2009a (1st ed. 2007).
  • [12] Rupke 2012a.
  • [13] In general, Certeau 2007; for the term “appropriation,” see Fussel 2006.
  • [14] Ludtke 2009.
  • [15] McGuire 2008; for the adaptation to ancient religions, see Rupke 2012c. For the preferenceof “religion” over “religiosity,” see Rupke 2015b.
  • [16] Stausberg 2001.
  • [17] See Rupke 2016a.
  • [18] Scheid 2013.
  • [19] For the concept of role, see Emmet 1966; Sundcn 1975; Sterbenc Erker 2013.
  • [20] For the concept of religious specialist, see Rupke 1996b; see Rupke 2008 for anapplication.
 
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