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Roman Cult Images: The Lives and Worship of Idols from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity

April 2021 (125.2)

Book Review

Roman Cult Images: The Lives and Worship of Idols from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity

By Philip Kiernan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020. Pp. 358. $120. ISBN 978-1-108-48734-4 (cloth).

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When imagining a world of Roman gods, cult statues in marble, bronze, and chryselephantine spring easily to mind. Thus, it can be surprising to learn how little archaeological attention has been paid to Roman cult images, a state of affairs that Kiernan sets out to redress in this book by bringing archaeological evidence from the western provinces into dialogue with more well-known examples of cult images from Italy and elsewhere, including those mentioned in ancient texts. Critical thinking abounds for Greek cult statues and the nuances of ancient terms for cult images but, as Kiernan argues, for areas beyond the Mediterranean heartland the role of idols within Roman religious ritual remains “greatly downplayed” (2). Perhaps their existence is simply too unremarkable to deserve more attention? Kiernan suggests that the issue is deeper and more political, betraying a wider “reluctance to ascribe to the founding cultures of Western civilization a practice that is now considered repugnant and illogical by the modern Western mind” (2). Although Kiernan certainly does not claim that Roman cult statues have been entirely overlooked, he explains in his opening chapter how they have tended to feature disproportionately in studies driven by art historical concerns or questions about whether a statue represented, contained, or embodied the divine, rather than being foregrounded within work on the ritual aspects of provincial Roman life. In choosing to recenter these objects within a fully realized ritual context, Kiernan’s book not only rescues them from the “museum effect” of former approaches, it also demonstrates how essential it is to incorporate into those analyses extensive archaeological evidence stemming from the provinces of Gaul and Germany.

As a result, this book is resolutely not an art historical study. Instead, it is Kiernan’s intent to approach cult images and idols “as a religious and archaeological phenomenon” (1), by which he means “treating them as objects endowed with social agency and possessing biographies, and not just as artworks to be classified by stylistic attributes” (1–2). He structures his study along biographical lines, beginning in chapters 2 and 3 with the birth of cult images, or how they “found their forms” (2), followed by their functional lives in relation to temple space (ch. 4) and worshippers (ch. 5). He then turns to their destruction or death (ch. 6) and the extent to which this should be attributed to a complex intermingling of factors featuring “barbarians, Christian iconoclasts, and even pagans themselves” (2). Along the way, Kiernan reviews textual and archaeological evidence for cult images in Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean.

However, it is the evidence from the provincial settings of Gaul and Germany that remains his primary focus and that enables him to significantly expand our current understanding of cult images. In one of the most persuasive parts of his study, Kiernan employs relatively recent excavation data to skillfully demonstrate that persistent ideas concerning a shift from pre-Roman aniconism to fully anthropomorphic cult images under Roman influence are deeply flawed. Drawing attention to a wealth of evidence for pre-Roman idols in areas that would become part of the so-called Romano-Celtic world, Kiernan not only reveals the chronological and cultural complexities of divine image-making in these regions, but also spotlights material that until now has been largely confined to non-Anglophone scholarship. Indeed, one of his secondary aims is to make “extensive and unexploited evidence for cult images . . . accessible to a much wider audience” (23). This is without doubt another one of the most successful elements of the book, even though Kiernan notes openly in the acknowledgments that the circumstances of its production mean that the bibliography effectively ends in autumn 2015 (xiii). Despite that, the book significantly expands the contexts and examples that must be considered in any future scrutinizing of cult images across the empire, making it necessary reading for anyone working on lived religion (cf. V. Gasparini et al., eds., Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics, Walter de Gruyter 2020), temples, votive offerings, and other material aspects of ancient religion. Crucially, it also disrupts our neat mental image of perfect godly bodies in gleaming marble or bronze, juxtaposing them with Jupiter columns, wooden postlike figures (Holzidole), and cross-legged seated Celtic gods such as the Rheims Cernunnos. As a consequence, the thoughtful reader will undoubtedly be prompted to question the status of cult images recovered from sanctuaries across the ancient world, including whether they were even idols at all.

In this respect, Kiernan’s specific choice of terminology represents both a strength and potential limitation of the project. He is frank about tackling what he sees as an unwillingness among scholars to take the concept of “idols” seriously, presenting this aversion as the legacy of Christian iconoclasm and a reluctance to tarnish a persistent colonialist perception of antiquity with supposedly primitive and superstitious practices. “I suspect,” he writes, “that the modern hesitation to employ the term idol lies as much in our own difficulty in admitting that the Romans were ‘idolaters’ as it does with any sense of political incorrectness of the term” (4). He intentionally chooses to reinstate the term “idol,” arguing that it allows him to distinguish more accurately between cult images that actively received worship (idols) and those that were given to the divine as part of that worship (including votive offerings). It is therefore curious that the decision was made to retain “cult images” for the book’s title, relegating to a subtitle what is, in the context of his arguments, the much more accurate term “idols.” Even in this context, “idol” may still be too loaded with associations to risk placing it front and center. This is nonetheless what Kiernan does, both figuratively, in his emphasis on striving to understand idols on their own terms as something distinguishable from other images, and literally, in relation to his proposed definition. Idols, he states, were “the focal point of worship in a temple” and had three distinguishing attributes: “they were stored in the most prominent place, . . . they received regular worship, . . . and, perhaps most importantly, they were perceived to possess agency” (4). Thus, he distinguishes idols from other images that adopt similar iconography by suggesting that the acquisition of social agency through ritual relationships is integral to their identification, not their iconographic or aesthetic qualities, or for that matter the use of costly materials. This is a crucial and important observation, but its apparently sharp edges are often blunted in the discussions of the particular examples that follow, such as the examination of the very concept of creating images of gods (ch. 3). Here the language neither consistently nor rigorously discriminates between images depicting gods that can be considered idols, and other types of cult images illustrating gods, frequently leaving the reader to wonder about their status. Subsequent chapters occasionally resort to other nonspecific terms such as “artworks.” Kiernan’s strict definition, therefore, proves difficult for him to sustain in practice.

Some readers may also wonder at the value of a definition that sometimes risks being undermined by its own inherent circularity. According to Kiernan, idols can be recognized in the archaeological record because they were always positioned as the focus of attention, and this attention was how they acquired and maintained their social agency as idols. Yet other objects could also take on a central position as idols over and above other cult images because they were already considered to possess social agency despite not being centrally placed. This tension is particularly acute in the discussion of temple structures in chapter 4, where it is purely placement that defines which items Kiernan pays close attention to and which he subsequently characterizes as idols. This “chicken and egg” problem (which came first: the agency or the position of the image?) demonstrates how difficult it can be to reconstruct the complexities of ancient experiences using a categorization of material things into recognizable types, even if we permit the boundaries to remain fuzzy as Kiernan sometimes does. In the longer term, building on his arguments and the wealth of evidence he has accumulated, while also adopting a more fluid approach to ritual focalization, may prove profitable. In other words, we might allow ourselves to consider whether all of the objects that Kiernan shows people interacting with during religious rituals within temples also had the potential to become connected with the sort of idol-like affects he describes. We might then find ourselves even better positioned to interrogate the precise temporal and ritual conditions under which this was possible, removing the need to identify one object as the primary or dominant idol for each ritual setting. This is a possibility Kiernan acknowledges when he comments on the transformation of other images and offerings into idols (e.g., a Mercury statue in a small temple at Trier-Altbachtal).

These points aside, this is a book that firmly puts to bed some problematic assumptions concerning the role of images in the religious life of the western Roman provinces, and revitalizes the archaeological and contextual study of cult images by shifting perspectives away from the visual and stylistic. It prompts the reader to ask new questions about a more geographically and chronologically diverse set of material than has previously been considered in this context, contributing to ongoing debates concerning ritualized experience, religious materiality, and lived religion.

Emma-Jayne Graham
The Open University

Book Review of Roman Cult Images: The Lives and Worship of Idols from the Iron Age to Late Antiquity, by Philip Kiernan
Reviewed by Emma-Jayne Graham
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 2 (April 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1252.Graham

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