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The Capitol and the long religious history of Rome

The CEU Campus
Thursday, May 30, 2019, 6:30 pm

Roman religion (which is a methodologically problematic category anyway) has been seen as a notably pluralistic and uncentered system in the Republican period. Authority and propriety were constantly re-negotiated, even as lip-service was paid to immutable continuity and ritual exactitude. Religious expertise was predicated of the whole Roman people; and the system was - even in what survives for us to analyze - bewilderingly complicated, by historical accident, but also through consent and even, arguably, design. Parallels are drawn or implied between the religious system and the functioning of the social and political structures of Rome, in which super eminent authority was constantly regulated and neutralized by decentered regulatory practice, preserving stability through the sheer complexity and variety of community organization.

Without wholly rejecting this orthodoxy, the first point which I explore is the possibility that Roman religion had, in the gods of the Capitoline Temple, Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, Juno Regina, and Minerva, much more of a conceptual focus than is usually admitted. The place of this cult in the Republican system was arguably surprisingly centralized and predominant, rather than being counterbalanced and evened out or homogenized with other religious behaviors. My thought-experiment therefore consists in exploring what the Roman system, socio-political as well as ‘religious’, might look like if we restore to it this conceptual central emphasis. Instead of a distributed, dispersed, equipollent matrix of numerous more or equivalent possibilities, suppose that the dominion of Jupiter was constantly present to the Roman thought-world. What would follow?

One important area in which this observation might make a considerable difference is the acceptability, towards the end of the Republican period, of more explicit forms of personal self-promotion on the part of Roman leaders, culminating in the age of Sulla, Pompeius and Caesar. The association of the first emperors with focal aspects of the religious and political system might look different if we accept the long history of pre-eminence of the Capitoline cult for which I am arguing. More generally, there might, as we move towards the early centuries of our era, also be implications for the development of larger centralizing and focal religious and theological ideas, of the kind usually associated with ‘henotheism’. In turn, this long legacy of negotiating and nuancing Capitoline supremacy may turn out to be of considerable importance for understanding the dialogue between polytheisms and Jewish and Christian religion, and for the nature of the accommodation between the Roman imperial state and the doctrinal framework of the latter.

Nicholas Purcell was Tutor in Ancient History at St John's College, Oxford, from 1979 to 2011, when he was elected Camden Professor of Ancient History, which meant moving to Brasenose College. He is the author of numerous articles on ancient (and especially Roman) social, economic and cultural history, and is also interested in the long-term history of the Mediterranean basin and its place in global history. In 2000 he published The Corrupting Sea, a study in Mediterranean history, co-authored with Peregrine Horden. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2012 he gave the Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley.