Thursday, February 23, 2017


Alexandra Sofroniew, Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. Pp. ix, 142. ISBN 9781606064566. $25.00.

Reviewed by Bill Gladhill, McGill University (

Version at BMCR home site


Alexandra Sofroniew's Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome is a slick and glossy publication by the J. Paul Getty Museum, which attempts to bridge the gap between the material objects of religious practice located in domestic spaces and the belief systems that underlie Greco-Roman society. The book contains 69 high quality images of statuettes, wall paintings, and reliefs preserved primarily in the Getty collection, with the inclusion of material from a handful of other collections in North America and Europe that all speak to the lived religious experiences of worshipers in domestic and private contexts. The ideal readership of Household Gods has little or no familiarity with ancient Greek and Roman history and culture. To this end, Sofroniew does a smart job enhancing her discussion of objects and images with brief summaries of domestic life, myth, history, and culture that allow the reader to engage thoughtfully with material culture and to imagine vividly acts of domestic devotion in Greece and Rome.

The first chapter, "Communicating with the Divine," sets up the basic premise of the book, "to give a sense of the original purpose and use of" votive offerings, which are implicitly multi-functional religious objects that could be given as "gifts to the gods at sanctuaries, buried in tombs, and used in the home for worship or just for decoration" (12). Sofroniew outlines the range of spiritual acts of communication between a human being and a god (prayer, votive, sacrifice). She gives a broad description of wet and dry sacrifices, and, in particular, focuses on terracotta, wood, bronze, and marble offerings, which she rightly suggests "became part of a longer conversation, a continual engagement between an individual and a deity that could stretch over a lifetime" (10). Essentially, the reader will view Greco-Roman religious experience through statuettes of the gods and other votive offerings, following their various incarnations and instantiations of an individual's religious life.

"Early Household Worship in Greece" reconstructs the various life-events one might experience around the hearth (hestia). Sofroniew begins with Hestia's marked presence in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite as the oldest and youngest Olympian god and the recipient of the richest portion of sacrificial victims. She then describes in detail the ritual of the amphidromia and the rites of marriage (accompanied by images of well-known artifacts ). The chapter then shifts to a brief summary of the rise of the city-state from the fall of the Mycenaean palaces to the rise of Hellenic identity in which she stresses that among the many tutelary deities worshipped from polis to polis "Hestia occupied a central place in many cities as guardian of a public hearth" (21). While she stresses a certain degree of similarity between domestic and public hearths, Sofroniew emphasizes that there are only a few examples of a fixed hearth in the archaeological record, which suggests that "the ancient Greek hearth was moveable" and as a consequence the domestic spaces in which food preparation and consumption took place were also not fixed. She ends the chapter by gesturing to the various domestic activities within the oikos, in addition to the ephemeral religious activities that might take place around the portable hearth.

Sofroniew shifts to Roman domestic religious experiences in "Power and Protection: The Roman Lares, Genii, and Penates." She nicely reconstructs elite domestic spaces and their social and political role in Rome. The real thrust of the chapter, however, centers on the religious activity in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii, where she describes the religious observance of the penates, lares, and genii situated in the lararium. Three times a month Roman families performed acts of private devotion around these domestic shrines. Sofroniew succinctly describes the various contexts in which one might encounter Roman household gods, the sorts of ritual activities devoted to their worship, and the potentiality of spiritual expressions they might articulate using detailed and illustrative images of the household gods in domestic shrines.

Chapter four, "Miniature Masterpieces," argues that the statuettes of domestic gods were often based on famous Greek prototypes, but "these types took on lives of their own, with artists playing with conventional iconography and creating distinct versions" (51). In the course of the chapter, Sofroniew discusses Rome's conquest of Greece and the complex influence of Etruscan and Greek aesthetics on Roman representations of their gods. In addition, she shows links between the styles of Phidias, Polyclitus, and Lysippus and Roman statuette reproductions. Domestic gods in the lararia were extensions of the most iconic and famous forms of divine representation in antiquity, and certain images often had ties to very specific cult statues, such as the Artemis of Ephesus.

The next two chapters offer more focused discussions of penates that embody "Love and Fertility" (chapter five) and "Divine Favor: Luck and Money" (chapter 6). Chapter five discusses the lararium of Petronius' Trimalchio, the House of the Chaste Lovers in Pompeii, Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Cnidus, and various statuette types of Venus, Eros and Priapus. Sofroniew emphasizes that the popular inclusion of Venus in household shrines was part of a much broader discourse, one that extended beyond the worship of Venus in domestic contexts to include various iterations of a naked Venus spurred on by Praxiteles' famous Cnidian Aphrodite. Chapter six covers a broad range of images connected to Tyche, Fortuna, superstition, amulets, and the roles of Hercules and Hermes in acts of private worship. This diffuse material is united by the manifold ways individuals attempted to influence the vicissitudes of their daily lives.

In chapter seven, "Health Matters: Kitchens and Bathrooms," Sofroniew discusses the common placement of household shrines next to kitchens, which were "an attempt to mitigate the health hazards of improperly cooked and stored food and the spread of waste matter" (96). This leads to a detailed summary of the roles of Aesclepius, Hygeia, rites of healing, and anatomical votives in Greece and Rome.

After a brief discussion of evocatio and the development of Roman inclusion of foreign gods, chapter eight, "Isis and Foreign Gods," examines the cults of Isis, Serapis, and Mithras through statuettes, wall paintings, reliefs, and shrines. Sofroniew succinctly recounts the myth of Isis and Osiris, the spread of Isis' cult through Greece into Italy, and the rites honoring her as described by Plutarch and Apuleius, in particular. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of Mithras and the various initiation rituals of the mithraeum. Chapter nine "From Antiquity to Today," spans from Constantine to today, and stresses the continuity of domestic worship in a variety of contexts such as the house-church of Dura-Europos, the miniature church shrines in Crete, shrines to the Virgin Mary in Mexico, the worship of kami in Japan, and Hindu domestic shrines.

Outside of one prominent mistake (calling Leto a mortal woman), the book has no significant editing errors. It includes some end-notes, a short bibliography, and an index. Household Gods has much to offer the uninitiated reader of Greco-Roman culture and religion. The detailed images of the material objects ground the discussions of domestic ritual, daily life, and history in concrete representations and reflections of cultic activity and behavior. In this sense, this short book is a solid introduction to Greco-Roman domestic religion and society. And while the majority of the material covered will be very familiar to the professional academic, there are nuggets of information that may spur new ideas. Most importantly, however, Sofroniew reminds us in many ways and from a variety of perspectives that the key feature of Greek and, particularly, Roman religious ritual, belief and ideology occurred in the private spaces of the house, apart from the public gaze, and it is in these spaces where Greco-Roman notions of spirituality and belief begin and end.

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