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Divining data: temples, votives, and quantitative sensibilities

Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Princeton University

Ancient history’s recent quantitative and social-scientific turn reflects a renewed and rising interest in adapting models from the “soft”—and occasionally the “hard”—sciences for the study of Greco-Roman antiquity. The turn is on full display in ancient religion, where interpretations of the material evidence for cultic observance and ritual practice have of late grappled with quantifying models and techniques. Informed by this turn but conscious of the need to critique it, this paper will put forward a series of quantitative and statistical procedures for recreating the religious world of middle Republican Rome (c. 400-200 BCE). Although the application of these procedures helps clarify Rome’s evolving religious dynamics in the course of its ascent to Mediterranean empire, I will argue that one of the most important takeaways from the application of these procedures is the possibility of ranging beyond Rome (or any discrete case study) so as to situate the conclusions derived from the application of these procedures within a comparative framework. Perhaps the core virtue of quantitatively focused work on religious practice is that it facilitates certain forms of regional and supra-regional comparison—indispensable to the project of identifying and tracking patterns of globalization and “glocalization” in the ancient Mediterranean (for the second term see Rüpke 2014: 23-24).

The paper’s argument will proceed in two steps. Opening with a section on temple-building in the middle Republic, I will outline and explain how a model of the labor parameters of monumental religious construction can yield a more richly textured understanding of the rhythms of cultic and social life in fourth- and third-century BCE Rome. To the end of demonstrating how such an understanding becomes possible through the praxis of model-building itself, I will document and justify why my specific framework for middle Republican temple-building exploits not only classical and Hellenistic Greek comparanda for public construction (Migeotte 1995; Davies 2001; Salmon 2001; Migeotte 2014) but evidence for pre-modern monumental activity taken from well outside the Greco-Roman Mediterranean (e.g., Mesoamerican economic specialization, architectural energetics, and urbanization: Abrams 1987; Abrams and Bolland 1999; Carballo 2015). Without presupposing some transhistorical constant in the human experience of building sacred structures, this section will contend that it is not sufficient to formulate a local model of temple construction: a conceptual framework erected on the bedrock of comparative praxis is most fruitful when re-tested through systematic comparison. In an effort to illustrate some of the heuristic rewards of calibrated contrast, I will briefly sketch how middle republican construction patterns stack up against those of its Hellenistic contemporaries and how they measure up against monumental activity during other periods of Rome’s history—comparisons that in themselves spawn new models.

The second (and shorter) part of this paper moves away from monumental construction to model a different kind of religious activity: the deposition of votives at Rome and throughout Latium during the fourth and third centuries. As the pace of temple construction at Rome quickened, more and more individuals began to make dedications—both inscribed and anepigraphic—at these new temples. These dedications occurred within a central Italic votive regime nowadays termed the ELC (short for “Etrusco-Latial-Campanian”: Fenelli 1975a and 1976b; Comella 1981; de Cazanove 1991 and 2015). While elementary quantification is a staple of published votive deposits, I will argue in this section that the application of statistical methods (stochastic and Bayesian modeling) enables us not only to make sense of the scale and extent of this votive habit but to compare the ELC to votive complexes from other periods of Mediterranean history.

To conclude, the paper will explore how self-reflexive and self-critical quantitative modeling of temple construction and votive deposition can open the door not only to comparison but to theorizing comparison in the study of ancient religion—provided, of course, one is explicit at every step in the model’s formulation about the methodological building-blocks and suppositions underpinning quantification and statistical analysis.

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God the Anthropologist: Text, Material and Theory in the Study of Ancient Religion

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