Reconstructing Religious Experience

Can the practices and experiences of lived ancient religion be identified beyond those that are described and imagined in a discourse that sought to denounce certain procedures as extreme? Working with the paradigm of civic religion, scholars have been content to identify the traces of religious tradition, shared social meaning, and ritual precepts—all well-researched areas of religious practices and beliefs in the ancient circum-Mediterranean world. However, new tools in dealing with evidence of a past culture are needed if we are to investigate individual appropriation of tradition, personal experiences and responses, the incoherencies of situational interpretation, isolated performances, and local and group-specific styles. If our interest extends beyond listing the myriad documents of individual performance consisting of votives, inscriptions, anonymous depositional remains (all of which are deeply shaped by their usually formulaic and stereotypical character), the question of evidence becomes crucial. How can we identify individual appropriation and transformation, or the creative reassembling and consequent individual selections of elements of a tradition? How can we evaluate the impact of such individual modifications on the resulting shape of seemingly stable “traditions”? How can we elucidate the interdependencies of the individual and the social in specific situations?[1]

Individual religious practice is contingent on both the intellectual and the embodied availability of traditions, and on their situational salience. Religious traditions include complex belief systems as well as simple sequences of ritual action, and it is, therefore, necessarily the case that learning and memory are involved in processes of individual appropriation. These are processes of acquiring knowledge through formal training or repetition, through casual exchange, and through need-driven inquiry.[2] Attention to these modes of acquisition is a necessary element of any historic reconstruction.

By the late republican and early Augustan period, a small minority of Romans were literate and had access to private copies of texts and the first public libraries, or were of such means and/or status that they were invited to recitals. To these individuals there were available, from the mid-first century onward, texts on religion, rich in ritual and theological detail.[3] These texts, when extant, have for centuries been used as the principal sources for the reconstruction of “Roman religion.” Occasionally (and more intensively in recent years) they have been identified as offering a glimpse into the intellectual concerns and the cognitive dimension of late republican and early imperial religion. They have come to be regarded as theological enterprises in their own right, establishing their authors as figures of religio-historical importance equal to that of the holders of public priesthoods.[4] Following on my analyses of Propertius’s poetic texts in the two previous chapters, I will again demonstrate that analysis of such texts can also yield solutions to the methodological problems associated with the investigation of lived ancient religion. Here, I am specifically interested in how these texts might illuminate their users rather than their producers, their usage rather than their production.

  • [1] For case studies addressing the problem of religious individuality, see Rupke and Spicker-mann 2012; Rebillard 2012; Rupke 2013c; Rupke and Woolf 2013. This chapter draws extensivelyon Rupke 2015c.
  • [2] On memory, see Halbwachs 1992; Connerton 1989; Le Goff 1992; Flower 2003; Oesterle2005; Cubitt 2007; Benoist et al. 2009; Erll 2011; Dignas and Smith 2012; Cusamano et al. 2013;Rupke 2012i.
  • [3] See Rawson 1985 (for the period as a whole); briefly Ledentu 2004, 329—37.
  • [4] Beard 1986, 1987, 1991; Feeney 1998; Rupke 2012e.
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