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The Cognitive Structure of Roman Ritual Practice

Jacob Mackey

I aim to expose some aspects of the cognitive structure of orthoprax, collective Roman ritual. I focus on rituals in which Roman children participated in order to show how cognition synchronically structured discrete ritual performances, and to suggest that the cognitive structure of collective ritual facilitated the diachronic transmission of Roman religion. I hope to demonstrate that practice is itself dependent on and structured by belief and other intentional states shared by ritual agents, such as attention, goals, and norms.

Scholarship on ancient religion often considers cognition and action (to use the broadest terms) as opposites. Simon Price gave vivid expression to a scholarly commonplace when he asserted that belief formed no part of ancient religiosity because it is not “a distinct and natural capacity [...] shared by all human beings.” Instead, “ritual is what there was” (Price 1984: 10-11). This dichotomy between belief and practice, or cognition and action, may be found stated again and again over the last three decades. But opinion is shifting, and scholars of ancient religion have joined cautious talk of belief to talk of practice (e.g., Linder & Scheid 1993; Scheid 2007). But an explicitly cognitive inquiry into how beliefs and other intentional states might structure and underlie orthoprax ritual is lacking.

We have ample evidence for children’s participation in Roman rituals. Ovid depicts the religious practice of a Roman family during the Terminalia (Fasti 2.645-52):

An altar is made. Here the country wife herself brings / in a potsherd fire taken from the warm hearth. / The old man chops wood and arranges the pieces with skill / and struggles to fix branches in the hard ground. / Then he encourages the first flames with dry bark. / His son stands and holds a wide basket in his hands, / then, when he has tossed grain thrice into the flames, / his little daughter offers sliced honeycombs.

A host of cognitive faculties underlie the performance of collective rituals such as this: research on the cognitive underpinnings of cooperative activities suggests that a capacity for sharing intentionality is fundamental (Tomasello, et al. 2005). Shared intentionality is the sharing of mental states such as emotions, attention, beliefs, or goals with mutual knowledge that the mental state is shared. Experiments show that by 24 months, children are capable of (1) cooperating in games, (2) taking complementary roles to solve a shared task, and (3) reciprocal imitation, i.e., assuming another’s role in a cooperative activity. By three years, children jointly commit to shared tasks, and understand such joint commitments to carry obligations, as evidenced by their attempts to re-engage derelict partners and by their leave-taking behavior when disengaging. Three-year-olds also comprehend and actively enforce the norms of conventional activities such as games (Tomasello & Hamann 2012).

Ovid’s Terminalia ritual implicitly presupposes all of these shared-intentionality-related cognitive capabilities. Participants must share (1) joint attention to the task, (2) the goal of performing the task together (i.e., joint commitment), (3) norms regarding the task’s performance (4) representations of one another’s complementary roles. We must imagine Roman children with skills for shared intentionality gradually learning the goals, norms, and complementary roles of religious rituals through sharing agency in ritual performance with family members. Through sharing intentions and agency in ritual performance, Roman children will also have come to share beliefs related to the ritual, for example, beliefs about the deities involved (Terminus: Fasti 2.641-2), beliefs about the ritual’s nature (a sacrifice to Terminus: Fasti 2.639) and beliefs about the ritual’s purpose (to praise Terminus: Fasti 2.657-8: laudes, Termine sancte, tuas). Ovid’s simple act of rural pietas thus depends on and is underlain by a complex cognitive network of joint attentional engagement, collective goals and norms, and shared beliefs. As such, the ritual represents for Roman children a rich acculturative context for the transmission and acquisition of the shared practices, norms, goals, and beliefs that constitute Roman religious culture.

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Cognitive Classics: New Theoretical Models for Approaching the Ancient World

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