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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

The paradigmatic act of Roman religious practice, the ritual of sacrifice, can provide a basis for a more general approach to the study and understanding of Roman religion. By situating sacrificial ritual in a temporal, geographic, material and topographic space, the social and religious aspects of the ritual itself can be better explored and explicated in a broader sense. The sacrifice, when viewed as bound in a nexus of times, places and materials can reveal not only hierarchies of ritual, of spaces and of individuals, but also the relation of the setting of ritual –what is acted upon--both to action and actor. While the overall outlines and patterns of Roman sacrifice may vary little from site to site during the same time period, the particular details and circumstances of sacrificial ritual--- the nuances of procedure, criteria for inclusion of participants, role of the officiating priest, and the putative intentions of the sacrifice--- are specific to a particular sacred space, to a designated altar and to the presence of a specific deity. Sacrifice needs to be considered as a site-specific ritual; and for as much as sacrifice is affected by and conforms to a specific place, the sacred area itself acquires the character and shape of the ritual to which it plays host. Approaching performance of sacrifice through its material imprint, through sacrificial deposits (ash, bone, sacrificial utensils) found in-situ, epigraphic evidence, literary descriptions, the remains of foundations of altars, and sacred topographical and architectural spatiality, allows for a more comprehensive exploration of the question of exactly what is accomplished by ritual action.

In my paper I will survey the scholarly attention to 'place' and to ritual theory and attempt to apply it to the sacred sites of the archaeological past rather than to those of ethnographic present. In this analysis, new and complex questions arise. How can we reconstruct the ways in which ritual inscribes itself on the landscape? How do material remains, which may differ from site to site, correlate with variations in the types of ritual being performed at the sites? To begin to answer these questions, one must consider what type of archaeological imprint sacrifice could potentially leave, what the key components of the mythological landscape of sacrifice might be. From the actual, demarcated sacred enclosure, to the architecture, alignment, materials and decoration of the altar, to the organic remains of sacrifice excavated in the area sacra, to the votive or cult deposits, the archaeology of a ritual site offers alternative approaches and methods for the exploration of the practice of sacrifice.

The material and architectural details of the area sacra, when viewed from its focal center, the altar, create a sacred landscape, a sort of “topography of ancient belief,” the material setting in which a ritual sacrifice occurs. My paper will investigate the Temple of Mater Matuta in Rome, a case study of the material imprint of ritual that will address the archaeological remains of sacrificial practice during the Roman Republican period. During the late Republic in Rome, before the religious reforms of the Augustan Principate, religious authority was shared widely among the politically empowered classes. Various laws passed throughout the late Republic extended the political enfranchisement of the plebians into the religious sphere, gradually admitting them to the patricians’ monopoly of religious offices. For example, in 300 B.C. the lex ogulnia granted the right to plebians to become members in the pontificate or in the augurate; in 250 B.C., the pontifex maximus was elected by a special assembly; in 104/103 the lex domitia made all priesthoods subject to election by a special assembly. In line with his program for the reconfiguration of post-Republican institutions, Augustus assumed membership in all the priestly colleges, consolidating political and religious authority around the person of the princeps. The official religion of the Roman Republic in the Augustan period loses much of its collaborative nature and becomes “a kind of culmination of authorial intentionality.” Therefore, perhaps the fundamental character of Roman sacrificial ritual is best revealed by limiting one’s study to the city of Rome itself during the Republican period, a time when religion was not as strictly a top-down or extra-urban enterprise, a period before the centralization and amalgamation of religious and political control that began with Augustus and spread throughout the Empire.


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