Monday, December 14, 2015


Clifford Ando, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), Public and Private in Ancient Mediterranean Law and Religion. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten vol. 65. Berlin, Munich, Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. viii, 255. ISBN 9783110371024. €99.95.

Reviewed by Anders Klostergaard Petersen, University of Aarhus (

Version at BMCR home site


Most contributions in this collection of essays originate from a conference held at the Max Weber Center of Erfurt. The collection arises from the cooperation between two internationally esteemed centers for the study of antiquity: the Center for the Study of Ancient Religion at the University of Chicago and the research group "Religious Individualization in Historical Perspective" under the auspices of the Max Weber Center. It is reasonable to have great expectations to a volume edited by two prolific scholars in the field, Clifford Ando and Jörg Rüpke, all the more so since the book is targeted on truly moot questions. The papers focus on the private-public binary in the context of Mediterranean antiquity in two correspondingly contested realms: law and religion.

In their introduction, the editors are keen to point out two a priori principles on which the book rests. First, they take the ideologically contingent nature pertaining to the private-public dualism, its definition and its salience, as an axiomatic point of departure. Second, they give emphasis to the fact that the concepts examined interact with equally charged notions of family, household, and the people as a political collective entity. These are lexemes with corollary phenomenological substantiation, an intrinsic part of the field under scrutiny, and, therefore, likely to exert influence on the manner in which the discussion is conducted at the third order level of analysis. To tackle these issues, the participants endeavor to create a historical comparative project meant to avoid the dangers of presentism. In the ancient context, the notions of public and private were, from the etic perspective, deeply ingrained, whereas in contemporary Western societies they have increasingly come to denote (semi-)autonomous realms.

Despite the disparity between the ancient Mediterranean world and current Western societies, it would be wrong to imagine two homogeneous entities in confrontation with each other. Already in the ancient Mediterranean world, the public-private continuum played out in the domains of law and religion in varying ways among individual cultures and societies, as well as within the history of each of those cultures and societies. Scholars should exercise methodological caution when oscillating between second and third order levels of analysis, especially when the categories are seemingly identical, as in the case of the private-public/privatus-publicus-distinction. Similar care is needed with respect to the theoretical perspectives and models applied to encapsulate and filter the empirical material.

Apart from a brief introduction, the book consists of eleven articles that encompass the period from Classical Greece to formative Islam and which cover a geographical area extending from Rome across Greece to Syria and Palestine. The volume includes a scanty index of key terms and, unfortunately, no indices of authors or ancient sources.

Historians, scholars of the study of religion, classicists and archaeologists have contributed to the book, making it a genuinely interdisciplinary enterprise.

Among the best contributions is Edward M. Harris' on "The Family, the Community and Murder. The Role of Pollution in Athenian Homicide Law." He rightly warns against the widespread tendency to see notions of pollution as atavistic elements of fifth and fourth century Athenian homicide law dating back to a distant Homeric past. Following Mary Douglas, Harris shows how notions of pollution in conjunction with homicide represent the most cherished and sacred values of society. They serve to protect the state's monopoly on the exercise of legitimate force. Paradoxically, it is only by virtue of falling victim to the fallacy of the panda's thumb that one might identify such notions with primordialism. However, it takes a Durkheimian perspective to acknowledge this problem.

Similarly, Adriaan Lanni writes on legal enforcement in classical Athenian society, but she focuses on the private-public dualism. She shows how the informal means of social control and the formal court system were so interdependent that it remains difficult to uphold a clear-cut distinction between private and public, informal and formal with regard to mechanisms of norm-enforcement. In this essay (as in a number of the other essays), a more lucid distinction between statements at the second and the third order levels of discourse would have been advantageous. Applied concepts such as the private-public distinction may not necessarily reveal what is problematic in the cases examined, but rather the lack of finer gradation between their uses at the emic and the etic levels of analysis.

Another challenging paper is Esther Eidinow's "φανερὰν ποιήσει τὴν αὑτοῦ διάνοιαν τοῖς θεοῖς: Some Ancient Greek Theories of (Divine and Mortal) Mind." She moves smoothly back and forth among ancient, historical and contemporary views pertaining to privacy, publicity, individuality, and collectivity. In terms of theoretical bearing and awareness of models used, this essay is the most well-informed in the volume. Eidinow provocatively proposes that much of the trouble pertaining to the use of the private-public scheme in Ancient Greece may stem from a reverberation of the prevalent polis-model. Such a perceptual filter does not leave room for anything genuinely private when the self is understood to reflect a series of demarcated public realms comprising the formal structure of the polis. When the individual is conceived of as a societal micro-cosmos, no room is left for privacy; but is this a mirroring of the applied model or a plausible rendering of the available sources? Basing her analysis on network theory, Eidinow proceeds to theories of mind in order to regain an appreciation of the private individual dimension of Greek religion. She shows how, in fact, it is meaningful to speak of the self in the Greek context independent of the public, since the minds of the selves were seen as porous and permeable to supernatural influences and, possibly, visible to divine perceptions.

Elisabeth Begemann brings the reader into the realm of Cicero's court-case against his neighbour, Clodius, who during Cicero's brief period of exile cunningly used the opportunity to deprive his opponent of his property by having it dedicated to the deity libertas. Cicero strove, as seen in De domo sua, to regain it by arguing that Clodius had improperly turned his property into a private rather than public cult; hence neither the goddess nor the public could possibly be offended by returning the land to its proper owner. As Begemann succinctly points out, things were more complex, given that Cicero had purchased access to one of the most attractive grounds in the city on the Palatine with a gorgeous view over the Forum and that he was also considered a nouveau riche. Envy and resentment played an important part in this dramatic incident, and Begemann shows clearly how appeals to the welfare of the state, as well as allegations against Clodius for being preoccupied with matters of self-interest, could serve as forceful rhetorical strategies.

William Andringa's contribution on private foundation and public cult with respect to the temple of Fortuna Augusta in Pompeii is the first of two archaeological essays. It focuses on the epigraphic formula solo et pequnia sua in the context of privately erected temples by benefactors during the Augustan era. Judith Grubbs looks at the status of illegitimate children in Roman law from Augustus to Diocletian with special attention on the private-public distinction. She notes that the adultery laws passed during Augustus' reign entered into the 'private' realm of the family, since control over such matters was no longer restricted to the jurisdiction of the paterfamilias, but had become a state affair of the pater patriae. Apart from the historical development of law, Grubbs points to the importance of regional differences between East and West, Rome and Egypt. Both are interesting essays, but there is disappointingly little in terms of general reflections.

In "Public and Private in Emergent Christian Discourse," Harry O. Maier discusses the pervasive use of the private-public continuum in the Pastorals, Irenaeus' Adv. Haereses, and the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. He shows how the distinction is drawn across the different texts as part of a strategy aimed at castigating opponents for being involved in shady business. Although he does not have recourse to Weber's notion of institutional authority, the embracement of public space as corollary with truth appears as a prevalent means of regulation in religious discourses reflecting institutionalised social formations.

In the second archaeological contribution, Rubina Raja on the basis of 1500 found tesserae at Palmyra discusses 'private' religion in the context of dining traditions centering the investigation on the public-private axis. She argues that this material has not before been taken into consideration in the reconstruction of the religious life of Roman Palmyra. Although it is important to remedy this deficiency, to assert that "one may dare to say these tiny objects present the richest source for the city's religious life" (p. 166) requires further qualification, since no definition is provided for the type of religion under scrutiny. Similarly surprising is the lack of comparanda in the examination. Although a few elusive references are given to religious associations, there is no thorough discussion of dining practices and banquet halls in conjunction with temples, despite ample pertinent evidence from all parts of the Roman Empire.

Two particularly well-written and erudite essays by Nathalie Dohrmann and Catherine Hezser widen the field to include rabbinic evidence. Dohrman discusses to what extent 'Law' can really be private. Importantly, she makes a plea for including the Roman imperial legal context for understanding the rabbinic concept of the oral law (later technically designated torah she-be-'al-peh) rather than limiting the explanation of its emergence to influence from Greek philosophical paideia or to a polemical Jewish stance enabling the rabbis to assert control over the Torah. Challenging the traditional and still prevalent view of rabbinic Judaism as genuine heir of Judaism, Dohrmann decisively acknowledges its remarkably novel nature as a phenomenon emerging in the Roman Eastern Empire of the second and, perhaps more importantly, the third and fourth centuries. She sees it as a "recusal from Roman legal life and the normative order proffered by the Empire" (p. 201). Hezser discusses the public (reshut harabim) private (reshut hayaḥad) distinction relating to the enigmatic term carmelit used in (particularly Palestinian) Talmudic literature with regard to Shabbat Halacha to designate a neither private nor public space. The concept functioned to make scriptural Shabbat laws more lenient; whether in practice or confined to imagination is an open question dependent upon one's overall assessment of the practicability of Talmudic law and its status as playground for utopian legal exegesis.

In the final essay Ahmed El Shamsy takes the reader to the end of late Antiquity with the rise of Islam. He examines Islamic concepts of privacy by directing attention to notions of shame, sin, and virtue. The inclusion of cultural- evolutionary thinking would have enabled Shamsy in this interesting paper to highlight with even greater nuance the transition from an indigenous (pre-Islamic) to a post-axial type of religion (formative Islam) (cf. his reference to Dodd's underscoring of the transition from Homeric to classical Greece as a transformation from a culture of shame to one of guilt, p. 240).

In sum, the book consists of a fine collection of essays from which I have learned a great deal. Yet, I cannot avoid in conclusion expressing one general point of criticism. As much as I appreciate the comparative approach, I regret that hardly any of the essays bear evidence of their origin in a joint conference. The contributions lack cross-references and show no evidence of the fact that they have learned from the other papers. The introductory panegyric of a comparative enterprise appears in a rather dim light.

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