Appropriating Images

In most cases, ancient images of gods were artifacts, man-made objects (“fetishes” from Latinfacticius via Portuguesefeitigo).3 Reflections on this fact can be found from early Greek and Greco-Roman antiquity, from the Judaism of the Second Temple, down into late antiquity and Byzantine iconoclasm.[1] [2] The early imperial text analyzed above presupposes such discourses, but it is not primarily interested in the topic of adequate representation. The transition from a roughly worked piece of wood to a bronze statue indicates, in a positive light, civilization and, by a negative view, pure luxury. In Numan Rome, as the introductory poem of the fourth book had already made clear to the reader, a “poor god” was also welcome.[3] But it should be clear by now that 4.2 is not an ekphrasis; we have no idea about what the statue looked like, even after careful, repeated readings. Rather, the text is interested in an antithetical idea: the neutrality of the sign with regard to its usage (usus, 63). This is not derogatory; the statue remains an index of divinity, open to religious usage on a broad scale. Certainly, it is a sign chosen intelligently (docilem, 63).

Propertius addresses the practices that appropriate such an image in individual religious activity. The votives or dedications (or, more broadly speaking, objects)[4] immediately accompanying prayer are the central tools of these practices. The text concentrates on rituals involving a statue in a small, open sanctuary, but Propertius also seems to include other items: movable statuettes or paintings installed elsewhere. All these objects, whether directly placed on the statue, before it, or at another place, are instruments in the ritual communication of individuals with the divine as they actively construe the properties of the divine addressee. The text is not interested in the details of such practices. Unfortunately, we learn no details of how a statuette was used in court (ad lites, 29) (though magical papyri suggest a wide range of possibilities).[5]

The individual ritual dealings with the image are very diverse appropriations of that deity. For an observer (and, in the language of the text, for himself) the god is the result (cf. ab eventu, 48) of such appropriations. Synchronically as well as diachronically these vary widely. In their contradictions and contingencies a unifying concept or “essence” of a god or even a cult is hardly discernible; the sign “Vertumnus” does not resist different construals. There are no—though there should be—limits to sanction transgressions. When Vertumnus is mistaken for Bacchus and Apollo, the language of polytheism, based as it is on the selection and combination of recognizable signs called “gods,” is endangered. But there is nobody to enforce such limits; the conventions of representation and individual appropriation are all that might interfere. If Vertumnus is given a plectrum, he looks like Apollo and evidently is addressed in the terms of Apollo’s field of competence, even if he “is” not Apollo. Individual religious competence is guided, but not effectively limited, by traditional conventions. Propertius offers an image of Roman polytheism as lived ancient religion.[6]

The poem analyzes the identity of god and image. On the one hand, the god claims an identity independent of situational appropriations and even of his image. He implicitly claims an identity within different material shapes, including statuettes and paintings. In the fiction of the speech, the god claims such an identity by remembering other and former images. However, he remains subject to them; he is bound to concrete appropriations. Similarly, Vertumnus’s physical movements are located in the imagination of observers, where the manifestation of the “present” is extended into imagined sequences of actions. This precarious form of existence is not improved by the medium of language and the instrument of names. Clearly the text claims to be an inscription, materially present beyond the act of reading. And yet even the god’s name is open to widely different interpretations. What appears at first to be certain knowledge is later discredited as “lying rumor.” The poem does not invite its readers to search for a hidden factual or historical reference. There is no fixed system of “Etruscan” or “Roman religion” to be discovered in the ruins of fragmentary transmission, which would be able to end the game of interpretation. Instead, the text lays open the rules that bind (or rather, hardly bind) fruitful engagement with religious signs on this side of the horizon of divine. That horizon is referred to only with the phrase “father of the gods.”

Propertius’s poem does not demand that we generalize its observations, but I will. The range of votives found in sanctuaries, the range of attributes and names applied to the “same” gods indicate that being “Vertumnus” was the rule rather than the exception. The text itself, at the very least, permits the following generalization: ritual action is not defined by the essence of the god; rather, ritual action defines that essence.

  • [1] Kohl 2003.
  • [2] An overview can be found in Malik, Rupke, and Wobbe 2007 or Braunlein 2009.
  • [3] This does not, however, mean that the poem deals with a mere second-rank god, as Luisi(2008, 416) claims.
  • [4] For a general treatment, see Latour 2005; for ancient religion, Raja and Weiss 2015a andRaja and Weiss 2015b in particular.
  • [5] See Graf 1996, 124-30.
  • [6] This is not to say that Propertius protests against any reductionist public discourse, asCoutelle (2005, 571—73) claims.
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