The widespread view that Greek and Roman slaves had no autonomous religious lives and harbored no private spirituality has a long pedigree, having first been postulated in the mid 19th c., and subsequently reaffirmed by Franz Bömer in the 1960s, in the only full-scale study to date of the religion of slaves in ancient Greece and Rome, and then again by P. Herz in a revised edition of part of Bömer’s work in 1980 and 1991. More recently J. Scheid has responded vigorously to challenges to this view put forth by A. Bendlin and K. Vlassopoulos, who argued that religious plurality and individual choice worked against the grain of the dominant civic-centered religion, particularly through the private voluntary associations that pervaded civic life in the Greco-Roman world. These arguments founder, according to Scheid, on the assumption that there existed in antiquity any concept of personal religiosity outside of the sphere of the collectively organized structures of the state cult and the numerous private communities—familial, neighborhood, or in private voluntary associations—that were modeled on the communal worship of the state.
This paper sets out to challenge Scheid’s (and Bömer’s) uncompromising denial to ancient slaves of any personal spirituality by examining the epigraphic evidence for individual private religiosity. It starts from the observations of ancient slave owners, who clearly recognized and feared the exotic religious practices they believed that foreign slaves nurtured within their households, and goes on to consider how such practices might have been instantiated and reflected in epigraphic practice.
Tacitus, for example, puts into the mouth of the Neronian jurist Cassius Severus the view that contemporary households were teeming with seditious religious beliefs (Tac. Ann. 14.44.4-5): “. . . vero nationes in familiis habemus, quibus diversi ritus, externa sacra aut nulla sunt” “(now) we have nations (of foreigners) within our households, who have different rites, foreign religious practices or none”. In Roman contexts inscribed dedications “to the Lares of the household” (Laribus familaribus) or “to the Lares and household” (Laribus et familiae) set up by slave stewards (dispensatores) and other officers (magistri) of associations of household slaves provide plenty of evidence of slave agency within domestic contexts, but it is an agency directed toward preserving the master’s property, enacted within prescribed settings, and constrained by the conventions of representative religious action—that is, on the model of the state cult.
Individual personal dedications, on the other hand, especially those that explicitly record the religious act as resulting from direct divine inspiration in the form of a vision or apparition, are less easy to dismiss as mere corporate posturing. It is on evidence of this nature that the present paper focuses. Dedications such as the following, for example, show private slaves acting outside of the household to fulfill perceived religious obligations imposed on them directly and individually:
CIL 14.2251 = ILS 3503 (Albanum): Ex visu iussu Bonae Deae / sacr(um) / Callistus Rufinae n(ostrae) act(or).
Aquae Flaviae 151 (Aquae Flaviae, Terraconensis): [Matri(?)] / I(daeae) Ma[gnae(?)] / Hector Cornelio(rum) p(osuit) / ex visu.
AE 1962, 67 (Emerita, Lusitania): Petrae / Genetrici / Felix / Prudentis Antoni / Rufi p(ublici) p(ortorii) vil(ici) vic(arius) / ex viso.
The evidence to be considered includes not only dedications erected ex visu but also those recorded as having been commanded by a god (κατ᾿ ἐπιταγήν / ex iussu), or directly inspired (κατ᾿ ἐπίνοιαν / instinctu), or enjoined by an oracle (κατα μαντείαν / ex oraculo) or a dream ( κατ᾿ ὄνειρον / in somno).
Epigraphy and Religion Revisited