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

Dynamics of Individual Appropriation

In the past there existed a general consensus among classicists that it was primarily the practice of rituals over a long period of time that determined what could be described as Roman religion. Mere use of the term “ritualism” conferred on this characterization an evaluative and comparative quality.[1] It was the merit of research in the 1980s and ’90s to enlarge this view by emphasizing the role of religious discourses beyond ritual communication.[2] The work of Mary Beard and John Scheid[3] (who developed their positions partly in direct dialogue) is foundational, and this shift in emphasis obtained further expression in the contributions of the French project

of the “Memoire perdue”[4] and the monograph of Denis Feeney on “Literature and Religion at Rome,”[5] as well as in the handbook of Beard, North, and Price.[6] Previously, ancient evidence had typically been subject to interpretations based on the “evolutionist” anthropology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[7] A decisive step was made in the application of the interpretive framework of cognitive anthropology, especially the thinking of Dan Sperber,[8] to Roman material. The essence of the innovation was the redrawing of conceptual boundaries: those ancient authors that dealt with Roman religion were no longer seen merely as observers of Roman religion, but as participants; ancient exegetics[9] was no longer the first link in a long chain of attempts to find the “correct” interpretation of rituals (a chain that extends to current research).[10] Instead, indigenous exegesis is a feature of the religious system itself, and inconsistency is a permanent trace of that system. According to Beard, North, and Price, the success of so-called Roman ritualism lies precisely in the fact that largely unchanged transmitted rituals were open to ever new and up-to-date interpretations. They were, therefore, equally adequate within very different social situations.[11]

Rather than simply appending literary discourse to the idea of a rather static civic religion and its rituals,[12] the perspective of lived ancient religion developed here is interested in such discourse in terms of its power to produce religious “traditions” and to mediate between traditions and individual appropriation.[13] Thus, the reevaluation of ancient interpretations can lead to a more complex understanding of rituals, overcoming the division between ritual (as traditional, stereotyped, senseless action) on one hand and exegesis (the contextually adjusted, noncommittal, and intellectual attribution of meaning) on the other. Two concepts stemming from ritual theory can be employed to this end.

The first is performance.[14] An individual performance of a ritual was not merely a simple repetition of an eternally fixed formula, but rather the conscious attempt of a historical individual to do the ritual, to repeat a time-honored pattern, to perform it to and for others in a specific situation, in a particular place. Individual feelings and social expectations were communicated. Standard meanings were reproduced or modified. Writing, that is literature, might have been part of the performance. In Rome, as in Greece, it was exactly rituals that were the frame for important types of literary communication. This applies especially to the games (ludi), the number of which exploded in the third and second centuries BC. “Scenic games” (ludi scaenici) supplied a venue for drama, tragedy as well as comedy, and integrated these forms into ongoing societal communication.[15] Insofar as identifiable texts are concerned, this process marked the beginning of a Latin literature;[16] through the evidence of images on vases we are able to discern the long prehistory of dramatic genres in ritual—especially Dionysiac—contexts, reaching at least as far back as the fourth century BC.[17]

Both larger dramatic texts as well as prayer formulations and hymns composed for individual recital are among the most flexible and hence most communicative elements of a ritual’s performance.[18] Texts, however, are not only a part of the actual performance but also a part of its context, part of the performer’s and audience’s knowledge. Communication about ritual performances can be a determining factor in the interpretation and modification of a ritual action, and an individual performance cannot be analyzed in isolation from communication about previous performances or about the norms of the ritual. The existence of a written script for the performance of the ritual is but one possible component in the communicative mechanism. This is not to say that performance is a feature only of rituals; the texts associated with ritual, too, were performed, through public or private recitation.[19]

The second concept, ritualization, further radicalizes this approach. Catherine Bell introduced the concept of ritualization as a means to analyze the relationship between ritual and everyday action: ritualization is conscious modification of everyday action.[20] Humphrey and Laidlaw followed her lead by demonstrating that among the West Indian Jaina, rituals are not inherently rituals but instances of individual action that become rituals only because the agent or the audience ascribes to them the quality of ritual.[21] But this ascription is itself the product of the conceptual framework of the participants, a framework that is not only produced by previous ritual experiences but also by communication, including—even within a semiliterate society—textual communication. However, whereas Humphrey and Laid- law were interested in the contents of the communication, the resulting general attitude toward ritual, and the conceptualization of ritual, I am interested in the different ways tradition is communicated, innovations, and the interplay of these with individual dynamics and appropriations. That is, I am interested in the historical process of change in rituals.

  • [1] See Wissowa 1912, 34; cf. Beard, North, and Price 1998, 11. For this position in the historyof the discipline, see Scheid 1987.
  • [2] For this concept, see Rupke 2001.
  • [3] E.g., Beard 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989. More generally: Beard 1991, 1998; Scheid 1990c,1992, 1993, 1994, 1998b, 1999.
  • [4] Anonymous 1994; Memoire perdue 1998.
  • [5] Feeney 1998.
  • [6] Beard, North, and Price 1998; but cf. James B. Rives's review (1998, 359), which calls for amore intensive analysis of the literary texts.
  • [7] Cf. (within a larger disciplinary framework) Schlesier 1991, 1995.
  • [8] Sperber 1975.
  • [9] The term is programmatically developed in Scheid 1992 and 1993.
  • [10] See Feeney 1998, 117, 127.
  • [11] Beard, North, and Price 1998, 7.
  • [12] See ibid.; Scheid 1999. The “new consensus” was criticized by Bendlin 2000.
  • [13] For the problem, see Belayche 2007.
  • [14] See R. L. Grimes 2006.
  • [15] See, e.g., Bernstein 2007, and for tragedy Lefcvre 2001.
  • [16] See Rupke 2012b, 65—100, for an attempt to contextualize this process within the restructuring of literary communication in Rome in the third and second centuries BC.
  • [17] Wiseman 2000.
  • [18] Succinctly stated by Hickson Hahn 2007; see the forthcoming analysis of Maik Patzelt,Erfurt.
  • [19] See Habinek 1998, 101—21, for Latin literature.
  • [20] Bell 1992.
  • [21] Cf. Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994, where the term “ritualization” is substituted for “ritual,” and “ritual” is identified as a specific type of unintentional action, one for which success isdefined as the realization of a supposed model for the action (Humphrey and Laidlaw 1994, 88).
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