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The Beforelives of Votives: Prospective Memory and Religious Experience in the Roman Empire

Maggie L. Popkin

Case Western Reserve University

The afterlives of ancient objects have fascinated scholars, promising to offer a view into how later generations interacted with the past by manipulating statues and monuments after their initial dedication. Although statues and monuments have drawn the most attention (e.g., Brilliant and Kinney; Swetnam-Burland; Kousser), scholars are increasingly exploring the afterlives of votive offerings in antiquity, such as objects’ complex impacts on people’s experiences in sanctuaries after the objects have been deposited (Rieger). Yet many Roman votive objects served various functions before their dedication in sanctuaries (Hughes), and these “beforelives” and their impact on memory and imagination in the Roman world merit deeper consideration.

Starting from the cognitive theory of prospective memorythat human memory directs how people remember to do things in the future and how they imagine the future (Kliegel et al.; Cohen and Hicks)—I argue that votives that served other functions prior to being dedicated in a sanctuary shaped how Romans individually remembered to perform appropriate ritual actions in sanctuaries and how they collectively imagined religious experiences and religious sites. I support this claim through case studies of several metal vessels from Roman Italy and Britain, all eventually deposited in sacred springs: four silver beakers in the shape of Roman milestones, from Aquae Apollinares (modern Vicarello); the so-called Cleveland goblet, a silver drinking vessel with scenes of a rural sanctuary, also deposited at Vicarello; and the so-called Bath Pan, a bronze pan with a motif representing Hadrian’s Wall, dedicated at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath). Although these objects have often been treated as souvenirs (Künzl and Koeppel; Breeze), they were not objects taken home to commemorate a place visited. Instead, their primary impact on individual and social memory took place before their owners arrived at the destinations and cast the objects into the springs, whereupon they remained invisible to human eyes.

All these objects adumbrated future actions of their owners and thus aided prospective memory—that is, a recollection of actions to be performed in the future—as well the social construction of the future. The milestone beakers are each inscribed with an itinerary leading from Gades in Spain to Rome and were likely used for social drinking along the route they depict, where they would have embodied not only where travelers’ past progress but also their future movements. The use of the milestone beakers and the Cleveland goblet as drinking vessels foretold the consumption of healing waters at the heart of ritual activity in the spring sanctuary of Aquae Apollinares. The Cleveland goblet’s iconography, which actually depicts ritual consumption of water and votive offerings, operates proleptically, representing the owner’s future actions at Vicarello as though they had already occurred. The Bath pan, for its part, demonstrates a complex enmeshing of retrospective and prospective memory. Purchased originally as a souvenir of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, its subsequent functional use, for ladling and consuming water, foreshadowed its subsequent dedication at Bath. It thus commemorated a place visited in the past while generating a conception of ritual activity to take place in the future.

These vessels impacted individuals’ prospective memory, recalling through their iconography and/or function actions to be performed in the future at sanctuaries. Yet the lives of these objects before their deposit as votives also shaped collective memories of religious sites and rituals, enabling people who might never visit Vicarello or Bath to imagine nonetheless the sanctuaries and the actions that took place within them. If the future is socially and culturally constructed (Seligmann et al.), it is objects such as these votives that enabled Romans to construct religious experience as something not only remembered in the past and perceived in the present, but also imagined in the future. The “beforelives” of these votives are critical to understanding how Romans materialized, remembered, and therefore imagined religious experiences and religious sites beyond the geographic and temporal bounds of visits to sanctuaries.

Session/Panel Title

Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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