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Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy

Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy

By Emma-Jayne Graham. London: Routledge 2021. Pp. 268. $128. ISBN 9781138282711 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Graham’s first book, a self-described New Materialist approach to ritual assemblage in Roman religion, revolves around several central questions: What kinds of agency do material things possess, and under what circumstances do they acquire it? What is the effect of interacting with embodiment that is both like and unlike one’s own body? Is it possible for the “more-than-human” (often used in reference to divinity, e.g., 7) to have a material manifestation that does not require human manipulation or participation? Graham situates her approach carefully and parses out in detail how her notion of the “thingliness” of objects differs from previous studies of materiality, as well as from earlier studies from posthumanism, sensory studies, various approaches to lived religion, and more traditional approaches to material culture. Her arguments are often nuanced and incremental and her vocabulary often technical, which makes for slow reading at times. For example, she first defines “religious agency” as what is “produced when humans and things act together” (2–3), but later adds that something considered to be supernatural is also a necessary element for religious agency (146). Other terms, such as “affordances,” which she seems to define primarily as idiosyncratic characteristics that are brought to relational assemblages (7), are also expanded in later discussions (e.g., 147–48, 154). On the other hand, her writing is engaging and becomes repetitive only when she is trying to elicit a deeper understanding or trying to clarify how her stance differs from previous studies. This helps make her book accessible to advanced students and scholars alike, and her overview of many modern studies of religion that may not be familiar to scholars of Roman religion is quite useful.

Graham builds her argument around a series of case studies. Her geographical focus goes beyond Rome to include other sites in central Italy (and occasionally even farther afield), usefully plotted on a map (15), and the chronology spans from the fifth century BCE to the fifth century CE, with an emphasis on the mid Republican period and imperial Rome. Detailed studies include the architecture of the grove of Kerres (Ceres) at Agnone in Samnium and the monumental sanctuaries at Praeneste, Terracina, and Gabii in Latium (ch. 3); ritual objects, especially the incense box (acerra) and flamen’s cap (galerus and apex) depicted on the Arch of the Argentarii and the Ara Pacis in Rome (ch. 4); anatomical votives from the cave sanctuary at Pantanacci near Lanuvium (ch. 5); the mid Republican terracotta statues of seated females from localitá Casaletto near Aricia (ch. 6); and the Late Antique ritual assemblage from the fountain of Anna Perenna near Rome (ch. 7). She acknowledges and defends the gaps in her coverage (14–15).

Another of Graham’s central concerns is the very definition of religion. The lived experience of individuals is her framework—even though ascertaining exactly what that was in the ancient world is difficult—rather than a reliance on cognitive or representational meanings. For Graham, “Roman religion was a form of agency produced by ritualized assemblages of humans and other things” (18). She distinguishes the practitioner’s religious knowledge into types derived from the study of anatomy: proximal, defined as turned inward and experienced as personal lived religion; and distal, defined as turned outward and experienced communally or in deference to the expert knowledge of priests and the patterns of ritual articulated by architectural structures of a characteristic form. She rightly argues that this distinction is preferable to dividing lived religion into public vs. private (25–28). However, in looking to define Roman religion through the individual experience, considering James Rives’ distinction between “what is defined by human authority” vs. what is “more or less spontaneously perceived” (“Control of the Sacred in Roman Law,” in O. Tellegen-Couperus, ed., Law and Religion in the Roman Republic, Brill 2012, 165) could better inform Graham’s analysis of man-made (e.g., monumental sanctuaries) and human-enhanced (e.g., the paving stones in the Pantanacci cave) ritual spaces in chapter 3. To what extent can proximal religious knowledge be independent from distal knowledge in ritual spaces created by the male elite?

Graham’s assertion in chapter 7 that a close examination of the “thingliness” of objects used in ancient ritual assemblages collapses the modern distinction between religion and magic is sure to be controversial. Her premise seems to be that all human interactions with the divine should be bundled together since all are made for the purpose of effecting some change in the world. However, a Late Antique assemblage of organic poppets in bronze containers from the well of Anna Perenna is not the same as an assemblage of terracotta anatomical votives from third-century BCE Etruria. A useful distinction between them is intent: offering the gods a votive that represents one’s own body embeds a very different experience from offering a poppet to bind someone else’s. Ancient references to the artes magicae (e.g., Servius ad Vergil, Ecl. 8.99) likewise support a perceived distinction between religion and magic. One may also take issue with Graham’s decision not to differentiate between practitioners from republican Latium and nearby cultures, such as the Etruscans, and those of imperial Rome and late antiquity—she does not argue, however, for continuity of experience, but for a fundamental consistency of the types of religious knowledge that ritualized assemblages produced over time in central Italy (14).

Graham aligns her work with Meredith McGuire’s original development of the idea that all religious experience is embodied and individual (19–20). It is no accident that the primacy of the body has emerged in studies of religions along with the increased number of female scholars over the past half century. Graham cites the work of women whose scholarship has made fundamental differences in the perception of gender in Roman religion, from Louise Adams Holland in the 1960s to Celia Schultz, Meghan DiLuzio, and others in more recent years. However, her case studies in chapter 4 focus on the male experience (the camillus and flamen). She might have explored the Vestals beyond the rites for the Argei in her introductory chapter. Vesta’s status as a largely aniconic goddess, what Graham calls a “dividual deity” (160–61), could support arguments for decentering the importance of anthropomorphic cult images in Roman religion (149-153). The Vestals’ embodied experience of carrying and using a sieve—an implement that is otherwise completely ubiquitous and ordinary—while engaged in ritual activity, and wearing special clothing and headgear, would have endowed these priestesses with the same type of tactile knowledge that Graham outlines for the flamen (108). Literary accounts of the miracle of the Vestal Tuccia’s sieve (cf. A. Richlin, Arguments with Silence: Writing the History of Roman Women, University of Michigan Press 2014, 197–240) raise further questions about the distinction between religion and magic (ch. 7). A regrettable omission in the chapter on divinity (ch. 6) is a discussion of ancestor cult, a topic with which Graham has considerable experience.

We can probably all agree, however, that her study does indeed shed new light on the nature of Roman religion from the practitioners’ point of view, especially its sensory components, and that expanding this sort of inquiry to other aspects of Roman religion may be fruitful, for example as I suggested above for the Vestals. We might also think about how a meteorite is not always just a stone from outer space that has landed on Earth: in ancient Rome a black stone was brought from Asia Minor and installed in a temple as a divinity under the name of Magna Mater, a name that surely emphasizes the idea of divine care of and love for humanity. Although Magna Mater does not figure in this book, her status as an inanimate object that was often represented in anthropomorphic form in Roman art coupled with her ambiguously gendered priests is a subject ripe for further study, consistent with Graham’s plea for a reinspection of “the truly vibrant relationships that existed between multiple places, objects, bodies, and divinities when ritualization bundled them together” (209). All in all, this is a book I recommend to those interested in the religions of ancient Italy. Its price may restrict many readers to library copies, but libraries will definitely want to acquire this volume.

Lora Holland Goldthwaite
Classics Department
University of North Carolina at Asheville

Book Review of Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy, by Emma-Jayne Graham
Reviewed by Lora Holland Goldthwaite
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Goldthwaite

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