Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Beate Dignas, R. R. R. Smith (ed.), Historical and Religious Memory in the Ancient World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xix, 338. ISBN 9780199572069. $135.00.

Reviewed by Julia L. Shear, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (

Version at BMCR home site


In the words of the editors Beate Dignas and R. R. R. Smith, this collection of essays 'is inspired by and celebrates the work of Simon Price, and his wide-ranging interest in the role of religious and historical memory in ancient societies has shaped its theme' (1). Deriving from a day-long conference held in 2008 to mark the honorand's retirement from Oxford, the volume constitutes a memorial both to the late Simon Price and to his friendship with and generosity to his colleagues and students, who are the authors of the individual papers. As such, it admirably fulfils the editors' desire to celebrate the work of the honorand. With the exception of chapters 2 and 6, the essays focus in various ways on historical and religious memory in the Roman empire and the late antique east. True to its purpose of honouring a well-known scholar, the collection does not provide an introduction to memory studies in the Greek and Roman world.

As is to be expected in such a volume, the opening pages include a short biography of the honorand and a list of his publications: memorialised in this way, he will not be forgotten by later generations. There follows an introduction by the two editors who summarise the essays which follow. The remaining twelve chapters are divided into three parts: religious pasts and religious present (chapters 2-5); defining religious identity (chapters 6-9); and commemorating and erasing the past (chapters 10-13). The first part opens with a previously published essay by Simon Price on memory in ancient Greece.1 Focusing on social or collective remembering, Price is particularly interested in elucidating the contexts in which memory networks, as he puts it, were constructed. Four are crucial: objects and representations; places; ritual behaviour and associated myths; and textual narratives. He illustrates these contexts with brief case-studies. Strikingly, all discussion concerns the deep past; the recent past is relegated to the section on forgetting, which inevitably begins with the Athenian reconciliation agreement of 403 B.C. Price rightly stresses the importance of ritual in creating collective remembrance, a medium downplayed by scholars of memory in more recent periods. Many different kinds of texts, however, are involved in processes of remembering and they should not be limited to Panhellenic narratives, i.e. epic. In chapter 3, J. A. North looks at the decorative programme of the Underground Basilica outside the Porte Maggiore in Rome, a structure which was probably a large family tomb.2 He concludes that it should be connected with 'some group of people developing religious ideas on human life and its relationship to the gods, to time, and to futurity' (64). In so doing, they were moving away from traditional ways of expressing their ideas, but they were using contemporary (pagan) myth and literature to present their beliefs. Next, Martin Goodman examines the uses of memory in Judaism and Christianity during the early Roman empire. He shows that, in contrast to Jews, Christians knew relatively little about Abraham, but they were much better informed about Moses. Consequently, when Paul invoked Abraham in his letter to the Galatians, he could (and did) say what he wanted. The section is rounded off by William Van Andringa's chapter on statues in temples in Pompeii. This very descriptive essay focuses particularly on the meaning of ensembles of divine representations in the sanctuaries of this Campanian town and it seeks to explicate their contribution to the city's memory. Understanding the intersections between monuments and memories is an important area for research, but, as we investigate, we need to remember that memorials are amnesiac and that viewers create memory through their interactions with the structures.3

Part two, defining religious identity, begins with Beate Dignas' chapter on rituals and identity at Pergamon. She seeks to elucidate the religious memory and religious infrastructure which existed before the Attalid period. She concludes that 'merely because our knowledge of the pre-Attalid city is poor, we should not deny Pergamon a past that created religious memory and a religious infrastructure with which the Attalids had to live and on the basis of which they could undertake their own identity-building strategies' (139). Since our evidence is extremely meagre, however, a certain amount of speculation is inevitable. In fact, both Dignas and scholars working on the Attalid city are concerned with the creation of tradition; consideration of these processes and the circumstances in which they take place would provide a new approach to the problems of Pergamene traditions and the role of the Attalids.4 In the following chapter, Richard Gordon examines memory and authority in the magical papyri. After a helpful introduction to these texts, he looks at three strategies of memorialisation: evocations of the Egyptian temple, the reproduction of older magical modes in new forms, and what he calls '"reverse" translation' (163). He shows clearly that, under the empire, magical practices in Egypt were developing in response to changes in society. Lurking in this material is a very interesting, but untold, story about the intersections between individual and collective remembrances. John Scheid in the next essay focuses on the restoration of a fragmentary graffito from the temple of Hercules Curinus at Sulmo. This brief study is followed by Lucia Nixon's chapter on the role of sacred structures in creating memory in a landscape. Drawing on the Sphakia Survey, she asks about the relationship between the number of sacred structures in a landscape and the 'scale of memory' (the number of people in an area who know about the monument and are involved with it). She argues that the number of permanent structures in a landscape correlates inversely with the scale of memory associated with these structures and that Sphakia is not exceptional. As part of her discussion, she introduces the phrase 'chronology of desire', 'a culturally produced/adjusted timeline based on what must be remembered and what must be forgotten' (189). I take her phrase to be the equivalent of Jeffrey Olick's profile or memory profile,5 a term which I find more helpful because of its greater clarity and its origin in memory studies and in a project to theorise them better.

The volume then moves to part three, commemorating and erasing the past. This section begins with D. S. Levene's chapter about Roman historians on remembering to forget. Drawing his examples from Livy and Tacitus, he focuses on the paradoxes in historiography which result from deliberately forgetting the past. He shows that 'more often than not historians handle their narrative of memory sanctions in a way that self-consciously explores the ramifications of memory for their own work and more broadly for Rome as a whole' (219). In chapter 11, we move into late antiquity with Aude Busine's essay on the use of inscriptions and oracles to legitimise new cults and cult foundations. Her focus is on 'forged' and 'faked' oracles which were 'discovered' in order to provide divine sanction for Christian foundations in old pagan temples. The discussion centres on examples connected with Kyzikos, Ikaria, and Athens and it links the texts with similar pre-Christian oracles and other such documents. The repeated use of the terms 'false', 'fake', and 'forged' is not especially helpful in understanding the dynamics involved here, in fact, the invention of tradition.6 Chapter 12 is Peter Thonemann's case-study of the process of Christianising Asia Minor as seen through the lens of Abercius of Hierapolis. He shows that the apocryphal Life of St. Abercius includes parts of genuine documents of the second century A.D. He concludes by emphasising that this Life created a Christian history for this city which was still very visibly pagan. As such, it 'is a uniquely valuable document of the processes by which the Christians of late antique Asia Minor refashioned their (pagan) Roman past in their own image' (277). These concluding statements open up questions about who the readers of the Life were and under what circumstances they read it, as well as what the document's relationship was to other efforts to remake Hierapolis as a Christian city. The Life would also serve as a very interesting case-study of the intersections of individual and collective remembering. How a city might be recreated as Christian is also at issue in the volume's final essay by R. R. R. Smith who discusses defacing the gods at Aphrodisias, specifically on the sculpted reliefs of the Julio-Claudian Sebasteion. On nine of the eighty extant reliefs, figures were carefully hacked off in such a way that their absence would have been extremely clear and the rest of the relief was left intact. Selection seems to have focused on 'iconic' figures which might be petitioned and on scenes of sacrifice; Smith stresses that such treatment is, in fact, very rare in our surviving evidence. On thirty of the surviving reliefs, the figures' genitals were also mutilated. Lurking in this discussion are some of the same issues which Thonemann raised at the end of his essay. There is also the question of how one can reuse the past when it is always finite. Smith describes these actions as the result of decisions and consensus, but how this consensus was reached is not discussed, although it is clearly a crucial element in how this monument was (re)incorporated into the Christian city.

As this review has made clear, the essays in this volume reflect the honorand's various scholarly interests. They also provide us with a 'snapshot', as it were, of the study of memory in the Graeco-Roman world and they perform the important service of showing where such work needs to go. With some honourable exceptions, there is relatively little engagement with the scholarship in memory studies and, in some cases, remembrance seems to be doing relatively little work as an interpretative strategy. If scholars working on the Graeco-Roman world are to have any impact on the larger field of memory studies, then they will need to start reading more broadly and to engage with studies on the creation of remembrance in more recent periods, particularly the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in geographic areas beyond the Mediterranean. One of memory's great benefits as a subject is its lack of conformation with the traditional subdivisions of the field: we need to approach it holistically and not to allow the traditional boundaries to limit our discussions and the questions which we ask. By taking up these challenges, scholars of the Graeco-Roman world will truly create a lasting memorial for Simon Price.


1.   In A. Holm Rasmussen and S. William Rasmussen, eds., Religion and Society: Rituals, Resources, and Identity in the Ancient Greco-Roman World, Rome, 2008.
2.   Also previously published in the Papers of the Tokyo University Research Programme on Death and Life Studies (in Japanese).
3.   J. E. Young, 'The art of memory: Holocaust memorials in history', in The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, ed. J. E. Young, Munich, 1994, p. 38; J. E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, New Haven, 1993, pp. 7-8.
4.   See especially E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, 1983, a collection relevant to a number of chapters in this volume.
5.   J. K. Olick, The Politics of Regret: On Collective Memory and Historical Responsibility, New York, 2007: 107-115.
6.   Above note 4.

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