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The Altars of Republican Rome and Latium: Sacrifice and the Materiality of Roman Religion

The Altars of Republican Rome and Latium: Sacrifice and the Materiality of Roman Religion

By Claudia Moser. Pp. xvi + 209. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2019. $105. ISBN 978-1-108-42885-9 (cloth).

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Roman altars, apart from special ones such as the Ara Pacis, are rarely the focus of a book-length study. They were the subject of Helen Cox Bowerman’s 1913 dissertation “Roman Sacrificial Altars: An Archaeological Study of Monuments in Rome” (Bryn Mawr; not cited by Moser), a descriptive catalogue and analysis of the altars known at that time and a snapshot of the state of the question in American scholarship in the early 20th century. So much has changed in the intervening 106 years. Rather than an “archaeological” approach that isolates each single altar in time and space, Moser provides a spatio-chronological analysis of the numerous altars from five sanctuary areas in Latium (at Ostia, Ardea, Lavinium, and Rome) dating from the Archaic period to the last century of the republic. Moser’s empiricism combines new interdisciplinary and contextual methodologies that are in part a product of the technology and information-gathering that a modern archaeologist can bring to bear on ancient remains and in part a liberation from the strictures of male-dominated Altertumswissenschaft and its focus on literary texts for understanding Roman sacrificial practices. The significance of Moser’s study resides in her embrace of “materiality,” a theoretical approach that she applies to the sacred architecture of the sanctuary area, deposited artifacts, and the surrounding landscape as an embodiment of the evanescent and malleable religious practices embedded in them. She concludes that the rites performed at these altars are both conservative and dynamic over time and are subject to individual interpretation. Her results align nicely with recent work on the idiosyncratic nature of Roman religion as a whole, such as Rüpke’s On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome (Cornell 2016), and they provide a template for future studies at other sacred sites in Italy.

The first chapter reworks Moser’s study of the republican temples at Ostia (“Differential Preservation: The Changing Religious Landscape at the Sacred Area of the Republican Temples at Ostia,” in C. Moser and J. Knust, eds., Ritual Matters: Material Remains and Ancient Religion [Ann Arbor 2017] 57–72; not acknowledged or cited) and expands it to include a similar sanctuary at Ardea. She amasses and analyzes the evidence for the stratigraphy of the altars and their orientations, revealing an underlying awareness of and respect for ritual boundaries and earlier structures. One of her most important conclusions concerns altar orientation at these sites as a consistent feature of Roman republican religion: sometimes other altars in the sanctuary area are aligned with or respect the space of the earliest altar, and remarkably, even when an earlier altar is no longer visible, its memory is preserved and its function perpetuated by an identical orientation of the new altar atop it (142–45).

The next chapter adds a layer of votive artifacts—especially the arulae (small terracotta altars) from the Largo Argentina—to the assemblages of sacred architecture in chapter 1. Moser argues that many of the arulae deposited as votives model the local monumental altar types and, further, that this mimicry correlates to the meaning of the rituals for the dedicator. She notes a similar correspondence in Campania and Sicily but not in Etruria; in addition, their deposition appears to be an Italic, but not a romanizing, phenomenon. This accords well with recent studies on the romanization of Italy that continue to overturn the old idea that all things proceeded from Rome.

Chapter 3 makes significant use of the evidence from Latin agricultural writers in light of faunal (and some floral) remains at the St. Omobono sanctuary in Rome, which constitute an important group of artifacts because of their potential for determining seasonality of rites. It must be noted, however, that the first citation (83) from Cato’s De agricultura (131–32) is not quite accurate: this does not describe a “sacrifice of oxen” but refers to the same kind of celebration of draft animals Cato has discussed previously (50), and the suckling suovetaurilia for field lustration that this author described (141) has been confused with the state rite that sacrifices full-grown animals. In this chapter, Moser argues against the generally accepted “Matralia hypothesis” for annual sacrifice at St. Omobono in favor of a “festival celebrating the start of the winter agricultural season” (108). Apropos of the remains of fetal piglets, she builds on a brief suggestion by Bouma that these were miscarriages (Religio Votiva: The Archaeology of Latial Votive Religion [doctoral diss., Groningen 1996] 235). Her convincing argument would have been a home run had she cited modern scientific research on autumn abortion syndrome in sows that absolutely supports this hypothesis (e.g., A. Wrathall et al., “Seasonal Variations in Serum Progesterone Levels in Pregnant Sows,” Veterinary Record 118 [1986] 685–87). That the lamb remains also point to a fall date seems less convincing, as it requires subscribing to a lambing season unusual for Italy. This chapter also provides first steps toward an ecology of the Latin sanctuary, which has long been lacking in the scholarship. Moser’s suggestion for the disposal of the blood—a topic generally ignored by scholars of Roman religion since we have little textual evidence about it—via drains on the altar is quite interesting and should be investigated further.

The final chapter argues the case for persistence of archaeological memory at the Sanctuary of the Thirteen Altars at Lavinium with additional comparanda from other sites, including an intriguing study of the Etruscan port at Gravisca, capitalizing on recent studies of Roman cultural memory and anthropological approaches to religion. In sum, this study provides a long-overdue counterpart to studies in Greek religion that focus on the specifics of the sanctuary experience.

Moser’s brilliant and original study should be incorporated into future studies of Roman religion and the teaching of Roman religion at the university level. In the epilogue, she candidly acknowledges some limitations to her approach and usefully provides suggestions for additional methods and incorporation of other types of evidence that could build on or supplement her conclusions. Her scaffolded path to the ancient altar assumes considerable knowledge of the archaeological sites, which may make it a difficult read for those who lack an archaeological background and need more detail on the maps and images, especially the location of the streets and landscape features that are discussed in the text. The readership for the book, consequently, may be less broad than it deserves.

Lora Holland Goldthwaite
Department of Classics
University of North Carolina at Asheville

Book Review of The Altars of Republican Rome and Latium: Sacrifice and the Materiality of Roman Religion, by Claudia Moser
Reviewed by Lora Holland Goldthwaite
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.HollandGoldthwaite

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