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A new paradigm for Roman imperial priesthoods? Reconsidering the religious elements in associative life in early imperial Italy

Zsuzsanna Varhelyi

The paradigm of public priesthoods in the Roman Empire is generally recognized to follow the example set forth by Augustus (following Gordon 1990: 209-217). On this reading, the figure of the togate emperor sacrificing, capite velato, serves as the main model that individuals of means would seek to enact in various settings, when undertaking religious duties and benefactions in civic life or when any paterfamilias led his household in celebration of the family cult. In this paper I offer a hypothesis for a parallel, but different model for religious participation in this period. I argue that in addition to the individual figure of the emperor as a “prime sacrificer,” there was also a parallel example in the form of ensembles of priests, in the new or “renewed” priestly groups that gained prominence with the same tidal wave of religious “renewal” embraced and advertised by Augustan politics. These priesthoods offered a model for group participation in an active way, most visibly in the empire-wide imperial cult celebrated by various groups of priests, such as flamines, (sexviri) Augustales (with some caveats as to the nature of this group), sodales, sacerdotes and cultores domus Augustae. However politicized certain aspects of these imperial rituals may have been, the priests’ role in public cult, in sacred physical settings, on religious occasions following a specific calendar, and their often exclusive membership would have been recognized as a standard feature of religious life in imperial Rome.

In this paper presentation I explore the similarity of these characteristics of “priestly” experience in the imperial cult to the relatively rich epigraphic evidence for the religious life of groups in early imperial Italy, in particular those that self-identified as priests or worshippers (cultores, sacerdotes, vel sim.) of a relatively mainstream deity, such as Silvanus, Hercules, Fortuna, or the various collegia or familiae that self-identified with the name of a divinity (e.g. a collegium Herculis in Rome, or a familia Silvani in Trebula Mutuesca, and even the Venerii and the Isiaci in Pompeii). Our evidence allows some insight into the associative life of these groups, which often suggests complex motivations for religious participation, mixed in with social, political and civic interests. Tracing these groups’ religious events, in sacred physical settings, on religious occasions following a specific calendar, and their often exclusive membership, I propose that the experience of group members, whenever they participated in a regularly scheduled sacrifice, followed by a dinner, in a religious physical setting, can be likely best described in religious terms,—even if individuals may have had other investments in being part of these groups, such as the promise of a proper burial. Even though the social and legal standing of these association members in the towns of Italy could be vastly different from that of the priests in the imperial cult, the similarities in religious experience at association events are striking. The chronology of our evidence and the propensity of these private groups to establish schedules incorporating both their own festive days (related to foundation dates, the birthday of a donor etc.) and festival days of the imperial cult suggests a likely connection between the imperial cult and the religious events created by these groups. In fact, some groups arranged private celebrations on public festival days of the imperial cult, suggesting a conscious link between the two forms.

I conclude that this new paradigm of ‘priestly’ experience may offer the best explanation as to why at least some voluntary, private religious associations in imperial Italy pursued group celebrations similar to those of the imperial cult. Ultimately, this line of argumentation may also explain some connections of associative life with other, specifically religious groups, such as the worshippers of Mithras or early Christians.

Session/Panel Title

Religion, Ritual, and Identity

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