Social Rituals in the Roman World

The first three years of the Roman Society Research Centre have been very succesful and have provided the institutional context for a succesful application for a Scientific Network about the structural determinants of economic growth in the Roman Empire. This network and its activities allow us to explore new territory within the Roman Society Research Centre for the coming three years and to focus on the social history of the Roman Empire, in particular on social rituals in the Roman World.

Since the so-called cultural turn, historians have started to pay much more attention to the role played by rituals in past societies. At the same time, a fundamental shift in interpretation has occured: rather than seeing rituals as relics of an archaic past, emphasis is put on the crucial function of rituals in establishing and maintaining society, and on their malleable and multi-interpretative nature. Hence rituals can be understood as moments when central meanings for a society are elaborated, contested, and re-affirmed (Buc 2001, Althoff 2003).As a consequence, rituals are not static, nor always set apart from everyday life. Rather, virtually every form of human behaviour has its ritual aspects, even if ritual is more markedly present in some forms of behaviour than in others. Ritual practice, moreover, is subject to continuous re-interpretation and re-evaluation by participants and observers.

In the study of the Roman world, the concept of ritual has been most often used in the context of religion and that of politics. A. Chaniotis, for example, has argued that inscriptions bear witness to and are part of complex ritualised forms of religious communication, which could spur religious change (Chaniotis 2009). The Roman imperial cult has since long been understood as a set of rituals designed to integrate the emperor in the local pantheon and to foster provincial loyalty (Price 1981). The imperial cult, but also other forms of imperial ceremony, have often been studied as ritualised behaviour striking a balance between the traditional ideal of equality of all citizens and the new imperial quality of distance and elevation (Flaig 2003). In political history, it is habitual to suggest that an increased ritualisation of power was a consequence of the slow demise of the ideal of the princeps civilis. Political participation of citizens through the assemblies has been re-interpreted as aiming at symbolic representation and as the ritual affirmation of the unity of a fundamentally hierarchical society (Jehne 2001).

There is, however, scope for a fruitful wider application of the concept of ritual to the Roman Empire, beyond religion and politics.Inspired by recent developments in the social scientific study of rituals, we aim to focus on the ritualisation of a number of different aspects of social life. For, arguably, many social spheres or social phenomena (e.g. the economy, social hierarchies, political communities) could hardly function properly without the trust, legitimation or sense of collective identity provided and reinforced by public rituals.In addition to exploring ritual in a wider section of social phenomena than usual in Classics, the breadth of expertise within the centre (archaeology, social, economic, and cultural history) will allow us to expand the range of sources usually adduced. Specific attention will also be dedicated to comparative studies: the Roman Empire was a multicultural and multireligious society, and rituals in one part of the empire or among adherents of one religion should not be presumed to be identical.

Given the expertise of the members of the RSRC, the following specific topics have been selected, which aim at covering the theme on different levels of society. They will be explored through specific workshops, publication projects and will provide the basis for shared UGent and VUB project applications.

Civic life and space. The city was the point of reference in the Roman empire. It was marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals that were not just religious in nature (eg. the adventus of the governor; the entry in function of a new eponymous magistrate; festivals and games; the public honouring of elite benefactors). Moreover, cities and the surrounding countryside were not neutral areas but charged with meaning: certain buildings are frequented by specific social or religious groups, processions follow certain routes, and the Roman military presence was often specifically marked off and re-established in specific ceremonies. Can we trace the elaboration of a ritualised local civic life in literature, inscriptions, coinage and material remains? What was its importance? How did cities compete with one another for the richest and most attractive ceremonies? What costs were they willing to bear for this? Can we trace the changing of rituals and how is this justified?Are rituals used to re-appropriate space, as Christian processions could do in late antiquity? How, in short, did ritual(s) become ‘materialised’ in civic space, and how can we best explore the material (archaeologically visible) dimension of ritual (DeMarrais et al. 1996)?

Memory and identity. Public rituals can serve as ‘mnemonic devices’, stressing the connections between a community’s present and its historical and/or legendary past. It has been stressed, for example, that Greek poleis under Roman rule often developed civic rituals by which they sought to (re)connect with their (legendary) pre-Roman history, celebrating foundation legends and famous events in their Classical or Hellenistic past, in an attempt to integrate these into their present, Roman-era sense of identity (e.g. Rogers 1991). Public ritual can thus serve to emphasise a comforting sense of continuity with the past, especially in times of radical social, political and cultural transformation, e.g. the process of incorporation of non-Roman communities. How did provincial communities deal with ‘the Roman present’, in ritual terms? And how did the Romans’ own rituals related to, and visions of, their past change with the development of empire?

Social stratification. The outcome of economic processes in antiquity was generally a (highly) unequal distribution of wealth. As in all societies, the essentially arbitrary character of this stratification needed to be veiled by means of legitimating rituals and symbols that served to ‘naturalise’ inequality through the creation, maintenance and periodic reinforcement of a social hierarchy (Bourdieu 1977; Gordon 1990). What ritual strategies did individuals and groups employ to justify (or contest) their place in the pecking order? How were superiority or deference (publicly) demonstrated and emphasised, and what role (if any) did collective (civic, imperial) rituals play in creating and reinforcing public consent? At the same time, social hierarchies were also often determined by outward signs, such as clothing and jewellery. Can we trace the social functions performed by clothing and wealth? Was their distribution and display subject to  ritualised behaviour?

Economy.Trust is a key quality of social life, enabling the functioning of a society. In an empire where distances were great and, for example, trade had to rely heavily on trust, rituals could help to sustain trust. What role was played by, e.g., oaths in social and economic life? Were religious sanctions and rituals put to use to guarantee the fulfilment of promises? How were breaches of trust dealt with?

Life-course. Man’s life is punctuated by rituals that mark the transition to another phase. As in any society, and a fortiori in a pre-modern one, these are marked by rituals. Can we trace different rituals in various parts of the empire? What moments of life were marked by rite de passages? How do we explain cultural differences between Greeks, Romans, and others such as Egyptians, and how were these perceived by contemporaries? How was burial performed and perceived?

We aim to explore these various dimensions of social ritual in the Roman World in four ways.

(1)we will continue our practice of organising biannual workshops, at which internal and external speakers give papers. These workshops also provide a forum for our PhD students.

(2) we aim at producing an edited volume that brings together contributions by internal and external scholars and which focuses on one of the themes above. In the light of current interest for memory studies on Antiquity, it may be interesting to focus on the roles played by rituals in memory practices, as this is marginal in current research. Besides contacting individual contributors, we will launch an open Call for chapters. One year afterwars, we will organise a colloquium at which preliminary versions of the chapters will be presented and discussed.

(3) We aim at applying for shared research projects (in particular FWO) and hope to be as succesful as in the previous three years.

(3) Every individual researcher will obviously also contributed articles and chapters on the theme, to be published in high-ranking scholarly journals.


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  • Chaniotis, A. (2009), ‘The Dynamics of Rituals in the Roman Empire’, in: O. Hekster, S. Schmidt-Hofner, and C.Witschel (eds.), Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire. Leiden, 3-29.
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  • Rogers 1991