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The Spread of Religious Ideas in the Roman World: Recent Book

October 6, 2015

This summer I noticed a recent book on the spread of religious ideas in the Roman world:  Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2013).  As the topic addresses some projects of my own, and it promised methodological innovation, I even shelled out the rather costly price (£60).  Overall, it’s very much worth the reading (although the price remains steep, to my mind).  Though she mentions early Christianity only briefly, for anyone interested in the religious scene of the Roman period this is an interesting study.  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

The methodological innovation involves the use of “network theory,” a topic on which I knew nothing prior to this book.  The initial chapter takes readers through the varied ways that this concept (or ganglia of concepts) is used in various disciplines.  Frankly, I don’t think that the chapter should have been published as it stands.  It’s not necessary, for example, to note how “network theory” functions in scientific disciplines, involving the computerized use of large volumes of data.  A simple and brief statement about this sort of thing would suffice.  For as Collar uses “network theory,” it’s much simpler.

In three case studies that form the heart of the book, she focuses on inscriptional evidence of the distribution and spread of the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, what she proposes as evidence of the spread of rabbinic reforms in Judaism, and inscriptions referring to a “theos hypsistos” (“most high god”).  I’m not an epigrapher myself, but I appreciate the importance of the evidence and those expert in it.  (I’ve passed the book now to my colleague here, Dr. Margaret Williams, an accomplished Greek/Latin epigrapher, for her comments, and I may be able to report on them later.)

Basically, Collar logs on a map where inscriptions mentioning, for example, Jupiter Dolichenus, were found.  Then, she tries to identify geographical clusters and possible linkages, also taking into account the dates of the inscriptions.  This allows her to plot where the cult seems to have been practiced, and the interesting thing here is that it is more heavily attested along the Rhine frontier and in Britain, not in the East from whence the god likely originated.  She also notes the people mentioned in the inscriptions (which are mainly dedicatory inscriptions to the god), and is thus able to show that the social network through which this cult spread seems to have been officer ranks of the Roman army.

This combination of geographical plotting, dating of evidence, and a kind of prosopography of the people mentioned gives an impressive analysis.  It’s not clear that it’s really “network theory” as practiced in the sciences, but it’s still a valuable study, and opens up a body of data unfamiliar to non-epigraphers such as me.

I found the analysis of the Jupiter Dolichenus data persuasive.  I wasn’t quite so persuaded, however, by her argument from the Jewish inscriptions that they show specifically the influence of rabbinic reform efforts.  Nor was I satisfied with her endorsement of Stephen Mitchell’s position that the “theos/Zeus hypsistos” inscriptions reflect a particular cult.  I remain suspicious that the term was applied to a variety of gods in various locations (including, of course, the use of “theos hypsistos” as the Greek translation of the Hebrew “El elyon” in the Septuagint).  So, I’ll be keen to learn what Williams thinks.

My final observation is something that Collar doesn’t note at all.  In the same period that she studies in the book (essentially the first three/four centuries CE), there are these numerous inscriptions reflecting the Jupiter Dolichenus cult, for example.  Now, in the same period we have scant epigraphical evidence of early Christianity (our earliest identifiable Christian inscriptions dated to the early to mid 3rd century CE, and then still very few).  But we have a torrent of Christian literary evidence (e.g., by my count, at least some 250 books written by Christians in the first three centuries), but the Jupiter Dolichenus cult left scant literary evidence.

It’s yet another example of how unusual early Christianity was among the many and varied religious groups of the Roman period.

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  1. Larry, with a book title Religious Networks in the Roman Empire I have to wonder why Collar didn’t write much about early Christianity.

  2. Deane permalink

    Interesting summary, thank you. Your comments about the comparison with the literary output of Christianity are interesting to me too (and apply very similarly to Mithraism, which had a similar demographic spread, and I can’t think of a document that survives before about AD 300 – the apothanatismos in the Paris magical codex).

    Much of this must surely be due to the difference in secrecy requirements, no? Secrecy and mysteries are not absent from early Christianity, of course, but the pertinent difference here is that the content of Christianity is much more like an ‘open secret’ or a ‘mystery now unveiled’ to those who accept it, and therefore a secret which can and should be proclaimed in public. (And if it sounds paradoxical that a secret remains so when shared within a group, it at least accords with the dynamics of secrecy explored by Georg Simmel.) If Christianity can be usefully viewed (at least in some respects) as a kind of mystery religion, exporting an eastern god into the Greco-Roman world in new dress, it has a twist not seen until about the time of the Emperor Julian (who was in part responding to the phenomenon of Christianity): it wants to share its secret widely.

    But I’m just pondering. I’d be interested in others’ takes on this.

    • Deane,
      It’s not so clear that the so-called “mystery cults” were really all that mysterious or secretive. E.g., the rites of Isis involved public performances. No, I think that there are more profound reasons for the differences in extant evidence, as I’ll indicate in my posting today.

      • Deane permalink

        Yes, I see that Christianity is at the forefront of the shift of “religion” from a focus on cult to what might be termed “philosophy” and “ethics” – and that this is a primary factor in the new form and quantity of its literature. Although, I observe that the mystery cults and middle and late platonisms share this increased philosophical-ethical focus, but with a substantial secrecy component not seen in Christianity outside Gnosticism. I look forward to seeing your book on this.

  3. “ganglia”?
    How rude!

    What was the major difference between Christianity and the other roman cults?
    Other than a real-life figure, early devotion and worshipping one God?

    • “thinkright5”: First, We use real names on this site. You know mine, so what’s yours? Simple social politeness. Second, “ganglia” isn’t a rude term (check your dictionary). Finally, in addition to the major difference you mention, there were others. Await my forthcoming book if you like!

  4. Joseph Porter permalink

    Professor Hurtado,

    Thanks so much for your blog; I learn a lot from it!

    If you had to guess, why would you say early Christians wrote so much and inscribed so little?

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