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Guiding Individual Appropriation of Religious Roles

An even closer interdependence between the textual representation of ritual and the performance of ritual was possible. In the sanctuary complex of the priesthood of the Fratres Arvales, a few miles outside of Rome, the members of the priesthood performed their rituals alongside walls that were inscribed with the acta, the chronicles of these very rituals in previous years. As I will argue, such an enormous epigraphical effort was pursued in this remote place in an attempt to guide individual appropriation of the priestly role.

We know almost nothing about the activities or composition of the Arvales during the republican period, except that they must have existed. From this total obscuritas they emerge in the Augustan era as a high-ranking priestly group that typically seems to have counted the Augusti and their designated successors among its members.[1] Nevertheless, with respect to ritual, their activities in Rome were limited to a brief sequence of games that were held annually in the city, while their regular cult was concentrated in an area outside the town, in the grove of Dea Dia. Even today, La Magliana is the outermost border of the urban area.

The complex, in operation for over three hundred years, was by no means attractive to a wider public, neither in terms of cult nor architecture. It was, perhaps, even intentionally closed to the public. The construction of baths in Severan times marked the largest architectonic expansion.[2] But all this is secondary to the epigraphical fact. The transcriptions of the records of this priesthood onto stone provide what is possibly the largest coherent complex of inscriptions of the ancient Roman world.[3]

The following extract is representative of the material found in the shrine area itself:

|Is|dem co(n)s(ulibus) nonis Aprilib(us) |L. Calpurnius L. f(ilius)| Piso magister collegii fratrum arualium nomine immolauit [in Capitolio ex] s(enatus) c(onsulto) ob supplicationes indictas pro salute Neronis Claudi Caesar(is) !Aug(usti) Germ(anici) I|oui bouem marem, Iunoni uaccam, Mineruae uaccam, Saluti [publicae uaccam,] Prouidentiae uaccam, Genio ipsius taurum, diuo Aug(usto) bouem marem. !In co|llegio adfuerunt C. Vipstan|i|us Apronianus co(n)s(ul), P. Memmiu(s) |Regulus, L. Sal|uius Otho Titianus, Sulpicius Camerinus.

Under the same consuls, on the Nones of April [April 5], Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the son of Lucius, the magister of the college, sacrificed in the name of the Arval brethren on the Capitol on the basis of a senatus consultum because of the supplications announced on behalf of the health of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus named Germanicus: a male cow to Jupiter, a female cow to Juno, a female cow to Minerva, a female cow to Public Health, a female cow to Providence, a bull to his Genius, a male cow for the divine Augustus. Present in the college were the consul C. Vipstanius Apronianus, P. Mem- mius Regulus, L. Salvius Otho Titianus, Sulpicius Camerinus.[4]

The excerpt is a part of the records for AD 60. It demonstrates the attention to details of the ritual performance (location, participants, text of the prayer) that is typical of the acta as a whole. The text was produced or edited directly after the event by a slave who was in charge of the records.[5] At the end of each year, the entire annual record would then be transcribed onto stone. The fixing of the ritual in writing gained ritual character itself: the use of stone tools in the sanctuary—essential for producing inscriptions on marble slabs—was cause for an expiation ritual.[6] Piece by piece, these texts embellished the walls of the buildings.

What purpose did this serve? The texts could hardly be intended to instruct new priests: rituals were typically recorded in summary fashion. Indeed, the famous carmen Arvale, a song text that is difficult, if not impossible, to understand, was entrusted to the record literally for the first time at the beginning of the third century AD.[7] Thus, the epi- graphical texts were present during the ritual, but were not suitable as scripts, as guidance for performing the ritual. Since a wide public was not expected, the necessity for a symbolic interpretation of the texts is widely agreed on.[8]

John Scheid seeks an explanation in the ownership of the location and its architecture by the deity Dea Dia, ritually underlined by the expiation rituals (piacula), which acknowledged the presence and attention of the deity. Accordingly, Scheid regards the texts as documentation, composed for the deity’s benefit, of dutiful fulfillment of her cult.[9] As such, these acta would parallel dedicatory inscriptions in other sanctuaries. However, any formula or note to this purpose is lacking. There is no documentation of success or gratitude, no praise of the goddess, no vaunting her power to new visitors as in other sanctuaries. The placement of the epigraphs, making them not part of an inner sanctuary, but a constitutive element of the ensemble, does not support this thesis either.[10] The richness of detail and the exceptional abundance of the epigraphic corpus would, furthermore, remain unexplained. I would maintain, rather, that the epigraphs found not only their authors but also their primary public within the members of the priesthood itself.

But to what effect would the Arvals read the inscription? From the Augustan period onward—we have no traces of earlier epigraphic culture from this site—the performance of rituals, the whole activity of the priesthood, took place in an environment that was emphatically marked by the documentation, the scriptuality, of former performances of this ritual. The readers of the inscriptions were exactly the persons who also performed the documented acts. One cannot separate the one from the other. Once more: the records themselves are too brief to secure the invariability of ritual details. What they did secure was the ritual quality of new acts. These acta must have been viewed by the participants in each new ritual act, and the new act was thus defined as a repetition of strict sequences of previous acts. That is, it attained the character of ritual. Thus the mere presence of the acta guaranteed a high degree of ritualization.

“Repetition,” however, is valid only in a restricted way. The term needs two qualifications. First, the Acta arvalia documented different types of rituals. Each particular ritual became more narrowly defined by its differences relative to other performances and became a distinct part of a complex and therefore demanding ritual system. Even the production of the inscription was addressed through a ritual that offered to the goddess of the grove an expiatory sacrifice to atone for the iron tools that had been brought into her domain for the purpose of chiseling letters.[11]

The second qualification concerns exactitude of repetition. The text of the epigraph offered records of actual performances, not a timeless liturgical form. Differentiation was produced by lists of names of all the participants and by exact dating. Typically, it was the Arval brothers themselves that were named, but we also occasionally find minor officials listed: senatorial boys (pueri), freedmen (kalatores) or public slaves (servi publici) of various functions, e.g., the record taker (a commentariis). It was not “the priesthood of the Arvals,” but single Arvals (or assistants) that performed the religious duties entrusted to this sodalitas. Only writing could preserve these distinctions over time. This interpretation is supported by the results of Mary Beard, who investigated the correlation between a decline (albeit slight) in the priesthood’s prestige and an increase in the number of ritual details supplied; this correlation is most clearly visible in texts from the early third century.[12]

The underlying text of the inscriptions, the commentarii of the Arvals, corresponds approximately, both in form and in institutional status, to the commentarius of the Pontifex Maximus treated above. Publication did not alter the form or content of the text, but it did have a decisive influence on its pragmatics. The formulation of individual or gentilician demands, the repetitive—that is, ritual—character of acts was not merely potentially visible, but was present in the ritual space itself. No menu lists can be found in the Acta arvalia. The documentation was restricted to the presence of individuals at routine rituals and special occasions (vota) that demonstrated loyalty to the imperial dynasty. Why?

Chapter 6


Modern research has often characterized the cult of the Arvals with reference to its archaic elements: the prohibition against iron, the incomprehensible and archaic language of the carmen Arvale.[13] The epigraphic embellishment of the complex, visibly no older than the Augustan era[14] and including dates only of the most recent past (i.e., the previous year), does not fit this image. What is apparent instead is the affiliation with a tradition, the growth of which is measurable in terms of marble slabs covered with protocols. It is striking that over time the focus of documentation (excepting the constant details of dates and attendance) even shifts from the variable to the fixed elements of rituals. Increasingly, the extensive citation of the prayers offered on various occasions (along with the corresponding combinations of gods invoked and sacrificial animals) that we find from the first century gives way to the extensive and stereotypical description of ritual details of the third century AD. We can even detect more specific interests in later inscriptions. A close investigation cannot ignore, for example, the extensive treatment of purification rites in the third century, an interest that might very well have been related to other contemporary religious devel- opments.[15] Despite the fact that the rituals remained constant, the written documentation reveals a shift from expressions of imperial loyalty to theur- gic concerns—and, presumably, a corresponding shift in how the participants perceived their role. The quality of the performance was altered by its public documentation. Here, the slow shift in religious traditions interacted with the individual Arval’s appropriation of his religious role, while the marble letters documenting his activities guaranteed the dignity of this role. It is not fortuitous that a newly refounded, topographically marginalized priesthood produced the most extensive of all records of priestly activities.

  • [1] Not only has John Schcid presented a new edition of the inscriptions (Scheid 1998b), buthe has also made them accessible as a central source for the reconstruction of Roman religion inhis monographs, prosopographies, and articles: Scheid 1990a, 1975, 1990b. Also, cf. Beard 1985.
  • [2] See Broise and Scheid 1987; Scheid 1990a, 69-70, 95-172.
  • [3] New edition and French translation by Scheid 1998a.
  • [4] Acta arvalia 28 a—c, 10—16 Scheid.
  • [5] Scheid quite rightly points out that, for pragmatic reasons, a codex must be assumed tohave preceded the inscriptions (Scheid 1990a, 69).
  • [6] See ibid., 56—57, 86—88 for details.
  • [7] AA 100a. 32-38 Scheid.
  • [8] Scheid 1990a, 67, with reference to Beard 1985, 137-44.
  • [9] Scheid 1990a, 70.
  • [10] Thus Scheid 1990a.
  • [11] E.g., AA 59.2, 36—41; 94.3, 19—25; 95c Scheid and passim: obferrum inlatum et elatum scalp-turae et scripturae. . . (or similar expressions).
  • [12] Beard 1985, 131-35.
  • [13] Latte I960, 65—66; more detailed, Scheid 1997.
  • [14] The oldest inscription contains fragments of the protocol of 21 BC: AA 1.1—4 Scheid = CIL6.32338.
  • [15] See P. Brown 1988.
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