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Success and Decline

In the Roman Empire—and I am thinking particularly of those parts that did not have a long-standing Greek tradition of putting up inscriptions—the frequency of inscriptions increased consistently until the second half of the second century and the beginning of the third, reaching its height in the late Antonine and Severan epoch, and thereafter began a long decline. These patterns are discussed under the heading “epigraphic habit.”[1] Thus, epigraphic habit has become a factor in the history of religion. But is it a religious factor?

Certainly, a predilection to use text was a religious factor in the period of increasing inscriptional frequency.[2] For cultures lacking in widespread monumentalization or for those whose religious monumentalization was simply limited to centralized or even monopolistic structures, visible offerings accompanied by permanent inscriptions offered the possibility of an inexpensive communication with the gods. Rome’s republican polytheism burgeoned with the dedications of new temples by victorious generals, while the polytheism of Germania inferior and superior spread through the deployment of cheap sandstone slabs on the margins of military and civilian settlements.[3] On the basis of my earlier hypothesis, permanently visible gifts indicated religious competence, and religion claimed an important share in visible public culture. “Being Roman”—I will vary an already proverbial opening[4]—meant to possess the religious competence to identify one’s divine addressee among the group of those known to one’s peers, or even to plausibly address one that was new.

Ancient theoreticians elaborated on this competence. In the Hermetic treatise “Asclepius” (the transmitted Latin text of which might go back to a third-century composite Greek original and even earlier parts), Hermes Trismegisthos praises human beings:

“Nec inmerito miraculo dignus est, qui est omnium maximus. deorum genus omnium confessione manifestum est de mundissima parte natuare esse prog- natum signaque eorum sola quasi capita pro omnibus esse. species uero deorum, quas conformat humanitas, ex utraque natura conformatae sunt; ex diuina, quae est purior multoque diuinior, et ex ea, quae intra homines est, id est ex materia, qua fuerint fabricatae, et non solum capitibus solis sed mem- bris omnibus totoque corpore figurantur. ita humanitas semper memor naturae et originis suae in illa diuinitatis imitatione perseuerat, ut, sicuti pater ac dominus, ut sui similes essent, deos fecit aeternos, ita humanitas deos suos ex sui uultus similitudine figuraret.” “Statuas dicis, o Trismegiste?”—“Statuas, o Asclepi. uidesne, quatenus tu ipse diffidas? statuas animatas sensu et spir- itu plenas tantaque facientes et talia, statuas futurorum praescias eaque sorte; uate, somniis multisque aliis rebus praedicentes, inbecillitates hominibus fa- cientes easque curantes, tristitam laetitiamque pro meritis.” (23—24)

“Mankind certainly deserves admiration, as the greatest of all beings. All plainly admit that the race of gods sprang from the cleanest part of nature and that their |celestial| signs are like heads that stand for the whole being. But the figures of gods that humans form have been formed of both natures—from the divine, which is purer and more divine by far, and from the material of which they are built, whose nature falls short of the human—and they represent not only the heads but all the limbs and the whole body. Always mindful of its nature and origin, humanity persists in imitating divinity, representing its gods in semblance of its own features, just as the father and master made his gods eternal to resemble him.”—“Are you talking about statues, Tris- megistus?” |Asclepius asks.]—“Statues, Asclepius, yes. See how little trust you have. I mean statues ensouled and conscious, filled with spirit and doing great deeds; statues that foreknow the future and predict it by lots, by prophecy, by dreams and by many other means; statues that make people ill and cure them, bringing them pain and pleasure as each deserves.”[5]

Such anthropological statements about all mankind are found only among the few who understand. The growing public importance of religion in the imperial period caused reflection on religion, an intellectual discourse[6] among these “few” as well as a growing demand for religious specialists. Certainly, Egypt went much further in both respects, and it is probably significant that I must turn to Greek or originally Greek texts to find elaborate examples of a phenomenon that otherwise does not appear before the development of a Latin, largely Christian, theology.

These reflections, even if implicit and less elaborate, in turn demanded representation. The relationships between the deity and the human protagonist needed explanations or intermediators. Who put up the additional and explanatory note ex visu for Aelius’s tripod? We do not know. As far as the main epigram is concerned, Aelius Aristides discussed matters with the specialists but features as the sole agent (apart from Asclepius) in his text. This was not a matter of course. A text from Lugudunum of the year AD 197 complicates our view:

|Pro| salute Imp(eratoris) L(uci) Septimi / |Seve|ri Pii Pertinacis Aug(usti) /

|et| M(arci) Aureli Antonini Caes(aris) / Imp(eratoris) destinati et / Iuliae Aug(ustae) matris castror(um) / totiusque domus divinae /eorum et statu c(oloniae) C(opiae) C(laudiae) Aug(ustae) Lug(udunum) / taurobolium

Scptimius Scvcrus and his wife Iulia Domna depicted on the Arco degli Argentari, a private dedication by the money changers of AD 204 in Rome leading onto the Foro Boario. Photo courtesy of A. Hupfloher.

fecerunt / Septicia Valeriana et / Optatia Siora ex voto / [the text might stop here, but the inscription continues:] praeeunte Aelio Antho sa/cerdote sacer- dotia Aemi/lia Secundilla tibicine Fl(avio) Restituto apparatore Vire/io Her- metione / inchoatum est sacrum IIII / Nonas Maias consumma/tum Nonis eisdem / T(ito) Sex(tio) Laterano L(ucio) Cuspio / Ru|f|ino co(n)s(ulibus) / l(ocus) d(atus) d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).[7]

For the well-being of Imperator Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus and of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar and Imperator to be and of Julia Augusta, mother of the camp, and of all their divine household and for the state of the Colonia Copia Claudia Augusta Lugdunum, Septicia Valeriana and Optatia Siora performed a taurobolium on account of a vow—led by the priest Aelius Anthus, [accompanied by] the priestess Aemilia Secundilla, the flute-player Flavius Restitutus, and the servant Vireius Hermetio. The ritual was begun on May 4 and finished on the seventh of the same month, when Titus Sextius Lateranus and Lucius Cuspio Rufinus were consuls. The place [for the dedication! was given by decree of the city council.

Little discursive space remains for Septicia and Optatia to advertise their religious competence in this ceremony that is sponsored and organized by the decurions mentioned at the end of the text.[8] Specialists dominate the religious communication, standardizing both the constructions of addressees and the modes of access. The growing importance of organization and intellectualization of religion[9] exacted a price: dedicators were increasingly less willing to act on behalf of others, while specialists proved to have a specific and lasting relationship with the divine in the form of permanent religious roles as prophets, teachers, or monks. With the increase of organized religion, documentation of isolated acts of religious communication by epigraphic texts might have seemed less relevant.

A second factor must be addressed: monumentally written communication was a matter of societies that conceived of themselves as stable. The costs of the production must have been (perceived to be) offset by the expected duration of the religious and social configuration. Hence, the spread of inscriptions took a long time to permeate provincial societies, and socially volatile societies preferred short-term investments, performances for instance. Intensification and repetition of ritual, daily cult in the extreme, might even replace action that was “perpetuated,” but also frozen. The popularity of religious narrative accompanied ritual but did not replace it.[10]

A third factor can be adduced: permanently visible offerings individualized acts of successful religious communication against a backdrop of continuous practice of religious communication by means of prayers, perishable offerings, sacrificial meals, and participation in festivals (the frequency and intensity of which might have varied considerably).[11] The gods involved in this type of religious communication need not be the same as those singled out for votive address. The developments of the third and fourth centuries might rightly be described as an intensification and extension of religion within society and its different “publics,” and even as simultaneously increased differentiation between and concentrated coherence within religious options—a sort of “confessionalization.”[12] In this case, the costly act of spelling out religious communications on stone might have lost its appeal, even if thousands of objects deposited in sanctuaries and on the tombs of martyrs continued to materialize individual appropriations of shared places. Stressing the continuous relationship with a god while denying the importance of a mere partial form of the divine would lead to the preference for other types of religious communication and its documentation, for example membership, participation, moral conduct, a whole way of life. The famous dedications of the fourth-century pagans in the city of Rome[13] or the inscribed objects commemorating taurobolia and concentrating on priestly offices[14] announced multiple memberships and compe- tences.[15] And yet, even if the focus of the writing shifted and its quantity decreased, the communicative technique itself remained important and powerful. It was Bishop Damasus’s epigrams and the litterae Filocalianae (or semifilocalianae) that announced the rise of Christian epigraphy.

  • [1] Mrozek 1973; MacMullen 1982; Alfoldy 1991; Eck 1995.
  • [2] For the importance of a chronological approach toward provincial religion, see Woolf1998 and 1994.
  • [3] See Spickermann 2003, 2008.
  • [4] Rupke 2006b.
  • [5] Translated by Brian P. Copenhaver, 1992.
  • [6] See Bendlin 2006.
  • [7] CIL 13.1754 = ILS 4134.
  • [8] I am grateful to Wolfgang Spickermann for this example.
  • [9] See Cameron 1991.
  • [10] For the role of narrative in lived ancient religion, see RRE 1.3 (2015).
  • [11] See Apul. Apol. 56, on which Fowden 2005, here 540.
  • [12] Rupke 2009c, 2010a, 2011d.
  • [13] E.g., CIL 6.504 (with 6.30779) = ILS 4153 (Ulpius Egnatius Faventinus); CIL 6.500 = ILS4148 (Caelius Hilarianus); CIL 6.1779 = ILS 1259 (P. Vettius Agorius Praetextatus).
  • [14] E.g., CMRDM 23 = CIL 6.499 = ILS 4147; CMRDM 27 = CCCA 241b = AE 1953, 238; CIL6.510 = ILS 4152 = CIMRM 520 = CCCA 242.
  • [15] Rupke 2011a.
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