Sunday, October 13, 2019


Claudia Moser, The Altars of Republican Rome and Latium: Sacrifice and the Materiality of Roman Religion. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xvi, 209. ISBN 9781108428859. $99.75.

Reviewed by Celia E. Schultz, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


As the study of ancient Greece and Rome has been influenced by work in Ritual Studies, we have become increasingly attuned to the variety of ancient ritual experience as it was shaped by numerous factors, including gender, social status, and geographical locatio— and by the intersection of these. Claudia Moser's excellent new book offers a fine-grained reading of geographical variation in ritual form by examining in great detail the physical remains of sanctuaries in Rome (S. Omobono and Largo Argentina) and in towns close by (the site of the 13 altars at Lavinium, the Sanctuary at Fosso dell'Incastro at Ardea, and the Area of the Republican Temples at Ostia), all of which preserve the remains of multiple altars that were in use over several centuries. She demonstrates how the physical form of each sanctuary uniquely shaped the sacrifices performed at its altars. While acknowledging that there were some universal, or at least regional, aspects of sacrifice—indeed, the stock images of the ritual appearing especially in the imperial period make clear that the ritual was thought to have some essential core—Moser makes a persuasive case that sacrifice was in reality a "highly particularized, locally mapped practice," (p. 13).

Before proceeding, I should make clear that, unlike Moser, I am not an archaeologist. I am a student of religion in the Roman Republic, and I have a strong interest in refining how we perceive ancient ritual. Moser's work complicates and enriches this particular issue, so I will focus on the larger conclusions of her work rather than on the details of her archaeological analysis.

Following a brief introduction, each of the four chapters focuses on an aspect of the material evidence for sacrifice in the context of one or two of the sites selected for examination. An epilogue summarizes the major findings. Chapter One ("The Organization and Boundaries of Sacred Places") takes up sanctuary complexes at Ostia and Ardea as examples of how sanctuaries were distinguished from the landscape around them, how the rituals performed in a sanctuary organized the space within it, and how architecture can preserve the memory of specific ritual patterns over the course of centuries. Moser takes her reader through the development of both sites, phase by phase. The result is a kinetic image of sacred spaces where conservation and innovation exist alongside one another. A podium expands; walls move; a road that had formed a boundary is absorbed into the sanctuary itself; new temples and shrines are added; altars are buried, replaced, or allowed to remain untouched. It is clear that the division between sacred and profane landscapes, which we often treat as stable and permanent, was in fact often reconfigured by communities of worshippers.

The varying treatment of the altars in these two sanctuaries highlights the tension between preservation and innovation that, one suspects, permeated Roman religious thought. For example, at Ostia, the earliest feature of the sanctuary is a group of altars dated to the third century BCE. They remained in place and visible for the entire life-span of the sanctuary, even as new architectural structures, including temples and other altars, rose up around them. Their placement, orientation, and form must have been critical to rituals performed at them. In contrast, the placement, orientation, and form of the altars associated the Temple of the Round Altar in the same sanctuary changed with each new phase of construction. Moser sees this as a reflection of the changing nature of the religious community at Ostia. Yet even here, each new altar preserved some aspect of its predecessor—an indication of the need to maintain a sense of continuity with the past. "Here, the altar is oriented in time, and not just in space," (p. 32, emphasis original).

The altars sitting in front of Temple B at Fosso dell'Incastro at Ardea offer another perspective on the ritual organization of space. The altars pertain to the third-century BCE reconstruction of the temple. Although placed close together and made of the same material, the two altars appear to have been treated distinctly from one another. They are of different forms (one U-shaped, one rectangular) and they are pointedly not aligned with one another. Moser wisely notes that this odd arrangement "requires some explanation and certainly would have entailed some eccentricity in the performance of sacrifice," (p.41). Torelli proposed that the altars aligned with sunrise and sunset on the winter solstice, which appears to be correct for the U-shaped altar but not for its rectangular companion. Moser remains agnostic about other possible explanations.

Moser's analysis makes clear that the demands of specific rituals have shaped the places where they were performed. In reciprocal fashion, the physical form of sacred spaces stabilized some elements of the ritual performance over centuries. To explain the motivation for these processes, Moser appeals to the notion of the cognitive optimum used by cognitive scientists to explain why certain kinds of concepts can be retained more easily than others: things are more memorable when they both meet intuitive assumptions and violate some of those assumptions. The physical sanctuary allows sacrifices to follow an expected pattern but at the same time distinguishes some elements of the local form from similar performances elsewhere.

Chapter Two ("The Economy of Ritual") examines one class of miniature items that are commonly found in votive deposits: small altars (arulae). These are most familiar from funerary contexts in central Italy and Magna Graecia in the sixth to the second centuries BCE, but they are also found in significant numbers in votive deposits, including at Largo Argentina and at Lavinium. Moser posits that votive arulae fall off in popularity when they do because of the simultaneous rise of Roman coinage as votive material (p. 66-67), but it is difficult to see any connection between these two types of offering.

This chapter raises more questions than it answers, beginning with what purpose the miniature altars fulfill. Moser demonstrates that they replicate the monumental altars at the sites where they are found; she posits that they allow "an individual offerer to access and experience, in part, the communal sacrifice that occurred at the monumental altar," (p. 69). If an arula is intended to recall a sacrifice, does that mean that this type of offering shares a purpose with figurines of animals (especially species common in sacrifice) that are sometimes found in votive deposits? What does it mean to give a god a miniature altar as a gift?

"The Economics of Ritual" lays bare several methodological assumptions that require interrogation: (1) the presence of an altar indicates the performance of a sacrifice and only of a sacrifice; (2) a monumental altar indicates a communal ritual while the offering of an object is the act of a single individual; (3) arulae were created for the explicit purpose of being offered to the gods, i.e., they were never used as ritual implements. Moser may well be right on each of these points, but the argument has not been made. How do we know that groups of impoverished worshippers did not pool their resources to purchase an arula to dedicate at the temple where they preferred to worship? How do we know that these miniature altars are not, in fact, retired ritual implements like balsamari, small jars that eventually become votive material once they can no longer serve their original, ritual function (p. 74-6)? How exactly does dedicating a miniature altar relate to performance of sacrifice, if dedication and sacrifice are two different rituals?

Chapter Three ("The Seasonality of Ritual") sets a detailed analysis of material from the S. Omobono sanctuary in Rome against the literary evidence for ritual at the twin temples of Mater Matuta and Fortuna that dominate the site. Moser is right to highlight how critical seasonality must have been to the performance of sacrifice: animal victims needed to be the right age, appropriate vegetal material needed to be available, and possibly the stars needed to appear in the right part of the sky. Moser concludes that the zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence from the site, in combination with the orientation of the altars, points to a ritual observed between the autumn equinox and winter solstice. This is a rather different picture from that provided by the literary sources about the site, which foreground the springtime festival of the Matralia in June. Moser's analysis demonstrates how much can be gained by integrating all available material and reinforces how imperfect our written evidence is.

The final chapter ("Material Memory") draws again on cognitive approaches to the study of religion to reflect on how the physicality of sacred spaces preserves the memory of ritual performance over centuries. Moser argues that the repetition of a site-specific form of sacrifice can preserve details of a ritual over a long period: the heightened sense of particular emplacement that she has advocated from the beginning of the book contributes to a community's desire to meticulously replicate actions over generations, even as the meaning of those actions continues to evolve. At a basic level, altars preserve visible signs of earlier ritual performances in the blood stains and scorch marks on their surfaces and in the worn edges of the steps leading to them. Yet the altars can also, as part of a larger assemblage of structures, reinforce connections between past and present. Moser distinguishes "horizontal assemblages", where earlier elements of a sacred site are incorporated and accommodated by newer structures. The old lives alongside the new, and the connection is plain to see. Rather different are "vertical assemblages," such as the placement of a new altar directly above an older one that has been buried as at Lavinium, or covering over of an altar in the Roman Forum with black marble pavement marked off by a white marble balustrade (the Lapis Niger). Both monumentalize, albeit in very different ways, earlier ritual performances.

In sum, this is a valuable book that has much to offer on its own and that also points the way forward for future investigations. Moser amply makes the case for the multiform, flexible, site-specific nature of sacrifice in ancient Italy, and she enhances the way we understand the relationship between place and religious experience. She has also demonstrated the value of treating ritual as timeless. Through repetition, a sacrificial performance in the present can connect a community to its past and, at the same time, reinforce for future generations the material memory of the site.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.