Intensification of Religious Practices

Even leaving theoretical atheism as a very rare choice aside,[1] there was more to public rituals than participation or nonparticipation. The space available for participants was quite limited; many altar-bearing platforms in front of Roman temples could accommodate only a few dozen people. Following Krautheimer, Ramsay MacMullen has suggested that there were perhaps only around 4,500 places within titular churches in late fourth-century Rome.[2] As a consequence, decentralized rather than centralized rituals might have mobilized the largest number of participants.

Again, phenomena of intensification can be found in two areas. Complex cults and religious organizations were dependent on a division of labor, including servile butchers and writers, musicians, priests, and children as assistants. Although—as in the case of the magistrate required to lead a procession—many roles were defined by their associated social prestige and political functions, and thus hardly serve as witnesses of specifically religious individuality, yet we also know of a number of very peculiar appropriations of such roles, which led to conspicuous changes in lifestyle. For instance, at Rome in the late third century BC, a higher frequency in the loss of priestly offices is observable. This will be dealt with in detail in the following chapter. Changes in behavior after becoming aflamen or even the suspension of military operations are known from the early second century BC. Given the lack of alternatives, religious roles and honorific positions must have been even more important for women and liberti, and these often comprise the single element of characterization on the tomb inscription of such people.[3] This could be termed expressive individuality. In several cases it is evidenced in the collection of historical exempla composed by Valerius Maximus in the early thirties of the first century AD. Exceptional behavior of the past becomes exemplary behavior of the present.[4]

Bust of a female priest from Antioch, veiled and adorned with jewelry. First half of second century AD. Mainz, Romisch-Germanisches Zcntralmuscum, inv. Q.39017. Courtesy of RGZM.

“Elective cults,” institutionalized options,[5] have been treated under the assumption of standardized behavior in recent scholarship. However, we do not have any statistics about the frequency of their meetings. Occasional dramatic rituals of change of status (such as the sham execution of a mithraicist-to-be in a fresco in a Mithraeum at Santa Maria Capua Vetere)[6] probably did not correspond to a high frequency of interaction within the group. Frequent meetings cannot be excluded, but sequences of votives and remnants of meals[7] do not offer corroborative evidence. Furthermore, as already indicated, the verification of individual choice and subjection to behavioral norms were two sides of the same process of institutionalization.[8] Virtuosi roles, as seen among Christian monks, are scarcely paralleled in other cults, but some diviners and some philosophers prove exceptional, even as religious agents, as illustrated by Apollonius of Tyana.[9]

  • [1] Obbink 1989; Winiarczyk 1990; Auffarth 1997.
  • [2] MacMullen 2010, 597-98.
  • [3] E.g., Rupke 2008, no. 471; P. Aelius Malcus Tector, CIL 6.2256 = ILS 2090; see alsonos. 361, 365, 464, 466 etc.; Rupke 2006b.
  • [4] See Mueller 2002, 148-174; Rupke 2016c.
  • [5] See, e.g., Bonnet, Rupke and Scarpi 2006; Casadio 2006; Bowden 2010; Gordon 2014.
  • [6] Gordon 2015b, 201.
  • [7] See, e.g., Schafer and Diaconescu 1997; Marten 2015, 171—72.
  • [8] See North 1994.
  • [9] Demoen and Praet 2009; Hahn 1989.
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