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Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia: Materiality and Religious Experience

Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia: Materiality and Religious Experience

By Csaba Szabó (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 49). Oxford: Archaeopress 2018. Pp. viii + 242. £40.00. ISBN 978-1-78969-081-1 (paper).

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Szabó’s study was carried out within the framework of the research project Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning “Cults” and “Polis Religion” that was hosted by the Max Weber Center at Erfurt University between 2012 and 2017. This project proposes a radical redefinition of well-established concepts and topics in the field of ancient religion. In short, the Lived Ancient Religion (LAR) approach conceives of religion as a group of flexible practices and interactions rather than as a fixed doctrine or a monolithic system of norms and values (see J. Albrecht et al., “Religion in the Making: The Lived Ancient Religion Approach,” Religion 48.4, 2018, 568–93). It seeks to abandon the study of individual cults, divinities, or religions in favor of a general archaeology of the sacred. It comprises a series of subprojects that deal with a heterogenous body of evidence pertaining to particular regions of the Roman empire but uniting different religious traditions. 

The book under review presents the results of one of these subprojects. Its principal goal is to demonstrate the usefulness and potential of the LAR paradigm on the example of a little known and somewhat specific corner of the Roman empire: the province of Dacia. Obviously, these types of studies cannot be fully appreciated unless the reader has at least a basic understanding of their theoretical guidelines but, in a short review, it is possible only to consider their methodological and practical implications.

The introductory chapter (1–10) elaborates the theoretical positions of the author (i.e., the LAR approach) and briefly surveys the history of research on religion in Roman Dacia and the source material for this study. The author has attempted to provide a concise summary of the main points of the new approach, but a few pages (3–5) cannot do justice to a project that has adopted a whole suite of new concepts and “aims to create new narratives of religious change in the Roman empire” (Albrecht et al. 2018, 570). An alternative way of showcasing the LAR perspective would have been to concentrate on the main points of departure from earlier studies of ancient Dacian religion (e.g., the subject of religious syncretism in Roman Dacia).

The new approach is tested on about 30 case studies from sites scattered unevenly across the province. Approximately two-thirds are from Apulum while the rest come from a variety of contexts: military, mining, and rural. This selection seems to include cases from all major sectors of Dacian society although, as the author admits, it was guided chiefly by the availability of data of adequate quality. Nevertheless, a large proportion of the case studies discuss sculpture, reliefs, or inscriptions—religious instantiations in the new conceptual framework—whose contexts are unknown or uncertain. Sarmizegetusa is not included, on the pretext that it is well known in the Western literature. That may be the case, but Sarmizegetusa’s sacred topography is preserved far better than that of any other Dacian town, and the first Dacian colony would have provided a number of illustrative cases from the civilian urban context, represented only by the civilian town of Apulum.

Chapter 2 (11–127) is almost entirely devoted to the sacral topography of Apulum. A large volume of data pertinent to the religious life in the Dacian capital, otherwise scattered in publications that are not easily accessible, has been usefully collected in one place. This material is organized into a large number of subsections, each illuminating a different segment of religious life in Apulum: the sacralization of space in the legionary fort, the cults of Jupiter and Nemesis, the healing sanctuary or the Asklepeion, the small group religions, and the social profile of the principal categories of religious agents. Not all data considered are of equal quality, and, concomitantly, the individual analyses lack a uniform structure. They vary from detailed readings of votive inscriptions to informal analyses of excavation reports or scatters of epigraphic monuments. The cases are too diverse to warrant an overarching summary. A few observations deserve a separate mention. The author has proposed an interesting hypothetical reconstruction of the extramural area of the civilian town of Apulum, drawing on a parallel from Sarmizegetusa. It calls attention to the ubiquity of sanctuary precincts, located on the main thoroughfares leading to and from the town but beyond the pomerium. Another stimulating topic concerns the possible interactions—collaboration or competition—between different religious groups and divinities in urban contexts. These can be partly grasped from the distribution of sacred spaces, invocations on votive monuments, or the co-occurrence of cultic statues of different deities in shrines and temples. 

Chapter 3 (128–40) focuses on two sanctuaries set in a military context: the Dolichena near the auxiliary forts of Porolissum and Praetorium. Both sites have been subjected to systematic excavations, but apparently the data recorded at the two sites are incongruent. Whereas in the case of Porolissum the basic source is the plan of the temple, the cult of Dolichenus in Praetorium is mostly discussed in light of the iconography of the sculptural monuments discovered in the Dolichenum. However, in both case studies, the principal conclusions about the founding of the cult or the composition of the religious groups are inferred from the iconographic and epigraphic evidence. In a study concerned with the materiality of religion, one would expect to see a comparison between the layout of the two buildings or the character of the associated finds. The fact that traces of Mithraism are rare or nonexistent in both settlements is also worth close attention. 

Chapter 4 (141–74) brings together a number of case studies from the countryside of Roman Dacia, with long subchapters on the thermal resorts of Ad Mediam and Germisara. The brief account of the topography of Ampelum, one of the few mining municipia in the Balkan and Danube provinces, is most welcomed. Sadly, most of these sites have been destroyed by modern construction, and the only source for the religious practices are the epigraphic texts. The author has done an excellent job in elucidating the socioeconomic profile of the dedicators, their social network, and personal fears and motivations. The strong link between the provincial government and local elite, and the natural riches of Dacia—thermal springs, minerals, and pastures—is rightly stressed.

The book also contains a table of epigraphically attested priests and religious specialists from Apulum, including bibliographic, chronological, and locational information (table 2, 60–62) and an annexed chapter (ch. 6, 180–89) listing the archaeologically and epigraphically attested sanctuaries in Roman Dacia. 

The concluding chapter 5 (174–79) is a brief summary of the book. There is a hint of critical engagement with the LAR perspective in the claim that “the case-studies analyzed in this book have shown certain limits to a theoretical approach,” (175) but this is reduced to the remark that individual religious communication and experience are inaccessible unless reflected in the written record.

At the very least, Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia is a great source book for the religions of Roman Dacia. Unfortunately, some of the plans and maps—unlike the excellent photographs—have done a poor service to this monograph. Legends and scales are often missing and modern toponyms or streets mentioned in the main text are not shown on the maps. Because of this technical omission, it will be very difficult for the uninitiated reader to follow the author through the complicated topography of Apulum. 

Perhaps the underlying message of this book would have been conveyed more effectively by focusing the analysis on a few well-documented case studies rather than by studying a large, but unrepresentative, sample. Nevertheless, Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia opens a fresh insight into the materiality of religious practices in Roman Dacia and, on a more general level, highlights the value of sacral monuments as sources for the social and economic history of the Roman provinces. 

Damjan Donev
Department of Settlement Archaeology
Middle East Technical University

Book Review of Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia: Materiality and Religious Experience, by Csaba Szabó
Reviewed by Damjan Donev
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 4 (October 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1244.Donev

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