You are here

Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society After the Roman Conquest

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society After the Roman Conquest

By Tesse Stek (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 14). Pp. x + 263, figs. 71. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2009. $69.50. ISBN 978-90-8964-177-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Rome, Etruria, and Magna Graecia have long overshadowed the rest of early Italy in Anglophone scholarship. Although Stek’s book concerns the transition to Roman rule, his focus on central Italy and its sanctuaries makes the volume a welcome contribution. Arguing for a contextual approach that draws on literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence, Stek deftly identifies problems in models previously used to understand the sanctuaries, and he uses these issues as a springboard for studying the involvement of cult sites in the controversial process commonly called Romanization (or, for Stek, “romanisation”).

The first chapters are devoted largely to debunking existing theories about religion and society in central Italy in the last centuries B.C.E. In chapter 1, Stek reviews key debates about Romanization, particularly in Italy. He argues that Italy was not already Romanized before the Social War, and he objects to framing the discussion about changes in Italy in terms of local emulation of Roman culture or so-called self-Romanization. While we should not assume Roman cultural superiority, he says, we also should not discount Rome’s role in Romanization. In chapter 2, Stek works to dismantle the currently accepted religious history of Republican-period Italy. The Romans are often thought to have interfered little in local religious matters (the exception is colonies). Instead, religion changed through self-Romanization, as non-Romans voluntarily embraced Roman practices because of their apparent superiority. In turn, Italic sanctuaries supposedly fell into decline. Stek questions whether colonial religious practices now seen as quintessentially Roman were then so perceived, and he also points to evidence that Italic sanctuaries continued to function into the Roman period.

Stek next devotes a chapter to the Pentrian Samnites. He looks especially at the Pietrabbondante sanctuary, where Roman-style architectural features have been cited as evidence of self-Romanization. He argues that these seemingly Roman elements were instead part of a common cultural vocabulary that the Samnites used to express their own identity in terms that others (Romans) would understand. In chapter 4, Stek examines theories about the locations of Italic sanctuaries. He focuses on three models, with sanctuaries as points along transhumant routes, as boundary markers, or as part of the pagus-vicus system, a supposed traditional Italic political hierarchy with three levels: touto (people), pagus (district), and vicus (village). Stek concludes that these models were built mostly on preconceived ideas about Italic society rather than hard evidence. In chapter 5, Stek asks whether most central Italian sanctuaries were, as commonly thought, located in depopulated areas. He focuses on the Samnite sanctuary at San Giovanni in Galdo, where he has himself led a program of intensive pedestrian survey and has access to material from earlier excavations. Stek shows that the seemingly isolated building stood alongside a village throughout its use, from pre-Roman to Imperial times. Thus, Stek deals a blow to the myth of the remote rural Italic sanctuary.

At this point, the author picks up steam not just in dismantling existing formulas but also in building up his own vision of the sanctuaries’ political and religious contexts. In chapter 6, drawing greatly on the work of Capogrossi Colognesi and Tarpin, Stek argues against the idea of a hierarchical pre-Roman pagus-vicus system: pagi and vici were instead nonhierarchical Roman institutions connected with the administration of conquered territory. Stek carries this argument into chapter 7, where he considers its implications for sanctuaries associated with a particular pagus or vicus. He contends that the relevant cults conformed to Roman standards, and he suggests that vici were Roman communities composed of people of diverse origins whom Roman rituals had integrated into a coherent group. In one case, he finds that the cults of vici and pagi were mediated through an urban center—a Latin colony. Finally, in chapters 8 and 9, Stek focuses on festivals in Rome connected with pagi and vici—namely, the Paganalia and Compitalia, respectively. Arguing against conventional wisdom, he says that these were not old-fashioned agricultural celebrations brought to Rome from the countryside. Rather, they were Roman festivals exported to conquered territory in connection with the administration of people living under Roman rule. Stek says that no example of the shrines used in the Compitalia has been identified in rural contexts, and he suggests that Italic sanctuaries may have been the site of Compitalia celebrations. Thus, pre-Roman sanctuaries came to be used for quite Roman rituals.

In the concluding chapter, Stek discusses the implications of his arguments. He notes that religious models of Roman Italy depending on urban-rural distinctions are problematic because the religious activities of rural residents were tied to urban centers. He points out that his work shows that apparent continuity in cult places can mask major political and religious changes. He proposes that generalizations about Romanization cannot be made even at the regional level, as the process unfolded in local contexts that varied greatly from one settlement to the next. Finally, he emphasizes that active Roman influence was probably considerable in Italy, and participation in new Roman rituals was likely not left to choice: being a member of a new Roman community meant, by definition, partaking in the ceremonies of that community.

Although there are occasionally tendentious arguments in the book, and the geographic scope is puzzlingly ill-defined, this is a work rich in ideas and grounded in well-informed, wide-ranging research. The focus is on sanctuaries, but the book will be of interest to anyone studying the history or archaeology of Roman Italy. Stek identifies convincing solutions to many questions, and he combines these ideas to reframe our understanding not just of religion in Italy but of the entire Roman enterprise of administering Italian territory. Some may object that Stek pushes the pendulum of Romanization too forcefully back toward Roman rather than local initiative, and many details of the functioning of the Roman pagus-vicus system as he envisions it are lacking. But the book can be consulted profitably on a range of topics pertaining to Roman Italy, and many will find, as I did, that the main arguments of this work are compelling.

Elizabeth Colantoni
Department of Religion and Classics
University of Rochester
Rochester, New York 14627-0074

Book Review of Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy: A Contextual Approach to Religious Aspects of Rural Society After the Roman Conquest, by Tesse Stek

Reviewed by Elizabeth Colantoni

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Colantoni

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.