Dialectics of Religion in the Roman Period

Organisers: Francesca Mazzilli (University of Cambridge), Dies van der Linde (Koç University)

Recent accounts on religious history of the Roman Empire have emphasized the vital role of competition and rivalries among cults, gods and their followers. With the concept of ‘the religious market model’ in mind, scholars, like John North, Andreas Bendlin and Angelos Chaniotis, have argued that the plurality of deities gave people – often identified as members of elite- a choice to pick the god or goddess best fitting for their own values and circumstances and, moreover, compete with the choices of others. Additionally, religious competition is apparent by elite figures rivaling for prestigious priesthoods and other cultic offices or by associations devoted to the worship of a particular deity. Yet, the interactive relation between these rivalries in the religious sphere and conflicts between, for example, different cultures, communities, political figures, social groups and artists has received hardly any attention.

This session aims to foreground the relations between the oppositions in the political and social life in the Roman Empire and their impact on religious change by using a ‘dialectical’ approach. As Randall McGuire defines, dialectic ‘views society as a whole, as a complex interconnected web with which any given entity is defined by its relationship to other entities unable to exist in isolation’. Considering this concept, contributions to the session are invited to problematise these relations of opposites, contradictions and rivalries and to shed light on their impact on religious transformations and developments. How did competition in one sphere (religious, political, social) impact the dynamics in another? Can we, for instance, relate the construction and monumentalisation of sanctuaries, the transformation of architecture, religious iconography or the names of gods and festivals as well as the varied statuary of elite members in religious contexts, to social and political oppositions and rivalries? Does competition truly play such an important role in triggering religious change? By bringing together different case studies across the Roman Empire, this session aims to stimulate discussions about oppositions in the religious sphere, in relation to socio-political tension and rivalries, and the reasons behind similar or different patterns of change across the Empire.

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