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"Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning ""cults"" and ""polis religion"""

Final Report Summary - LAR (Lived Ancient Religion: Questioning "cults" and "polis religion")

The initial formulation of the Lived Ancient Religion project (Rüpke in Mythos 2011) was about rethinking the conceptualisation of the heterogeneous body of material known as ‘the religion of the Roman Empire’. This was grounded in three specific challenges to existing approaches by questioning the implicit assumption that all inhabitants of the Empire were equally religious, the focus upon civic, i.e. collective, institutionalised religious practices, producing a series of sub-categories (‘oriental cults’, ‘votive religion’, ‘funerary rites’) in order to save phenomena, whose relation to civic practice is indeterminate, and the practice of treating ‘pagan’ religion, Judaism and Christianity as though they had existed historically in separate worlds.
The main thrust of LAR was to resist the easy reification of ‘religion’ in order to emphasise its ceaseless construction through individual action within the loose parameters provided by traditions and institutions – now summarised as a new introduction to Roman religion (Rüpke, On Roman Religion 2016). That is, to view religion as a precarious practice, whose referents (‘gods’) and communicative strategies are constantly in need of investment-labour of different kinds in order to maintain their plausibility. The paradigm of ‘Lived Ancient Religion’ provides the stimulus to integrate ‘the’ evidence on a new basis, invoke new types of evidence, challenge existing classifications of material, focus on neglected types of religious action. The long-term aim was from the beginning to provide new narratives of religious change in the Roman Empire. A massive account, relating change to religious innovation across social groups and individuals is summarizing these results for a broad audience (Rüpke, Pantheon 2016, Ital. 2017, Engl. 2018).
The expertise of team members in literary sources, in material culture studies, in theoretical approaches to history and religious studies allowed not only for the creation of these new narrative, but also for paradigmatic case studies (e.g. articles by L. Weiss, Female figurines at Karanis: An agentive approach 2015, G. Petridou, Becoming a doctor, becoming a god, Aelius Aristides as informed patient, 2016; J. Rüpke Knowledge of Religion in Valerius Maximus exempla: Roman historiography and Tiberian memory culture 2015). All in all, more than 100 publications and nearly 150 presentations for diverse audiences, civil society included, resulted out of the research project or were shaped by it. With eight programmatic conferences and invited speakers from disciplines outside Mediterranean Antiquity - from Sociology, Asian Studies, Jewish Studies, Religious Studies, South American Archaeology - the LAR-approach was tested and discussed within a large interdisciplinary horizon.
While invoking ‘lived religion’ as understood in modern contexts (R. Orsi; M. McGuire), LAR was neither restricted to ‘everyday religion’ nor focused on subjective experience. Instead it flagged four key terms aimed at straddling the dichotomy between subjectivity and communicative action within a general model of the historically contingent establishment of ‘religion’ as a socially-recognised field of action within the Empire (Rüpke, From Jupiter to Christ 2013): appropriation, agency, situational meaning and mediality (Raja, Rüpke in RRE 2015).
Appropriation denotes the situational adaptation and deployment of practices, institutions, norms and media to suit contingent individual or group needs and aims. ‘Agency’ underlines the priority of personal engagement, knowledge and skill in the provision of religious services, including public and private performance, teaching, networking (Rüpke in Religion 2015). In speaking of the situational construction of meaning, we assumed that religious meanings were not generated by worldviews but by the complex interplay of interests, beliefs and satisfactions in specific situations (Raja, Weiss in RRE 2015). Finally, the focus on communication required specific concern with the roles of material culture, embodiment and group-styles in the construction of religious experience, in short: mediality.
Thus LAR attended to communicated experience, to space in its various forms, to materiality, to ritual occasions, to imagery. Insofar as communication requires materiality, this demands for a new type of archaeology of religion (Raja, Rüpke, Companion 2015) as well as appropriations from the sociology of space. Inspired by phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty), we deliberately focused upon the role of bodily movements, actions and gestures in conveying culturally-coded meanings and emotions. Lived Ancient Religion emphasises the social context of religious action, and specifically the group-styles in specific cultural contexts, such as the family, neighbourhoods and associations (Lichterman. Raja, Rieger, Rüpke in RRE 2017). From this perspective, public cult appears less as a set of ideals, but more as a scheme of ordering priorities and distinctions whose effect is to outline (rather than define) an imagined community. Religious change starts from domestic and individual practices, not from competition of groups and cities.
Among many achievements, objects like terracotta heads in Italy and dolls in Egypt has been demonstrated to be much more and much more ambivalent than ‘votives’, reports on epiphanies could be interpreted as enlarging agency in the case of Aelius Aristeides, confession-inscriptions as negotiation between women and temple professionals. Entrance tickets to priestly banquets at Palmyra opened a window into the role of religion in the dynamics of an urban society. All in all, LAR opened a window into the day-to-day working as long-term changes of religion that never is a fixed tradition but always religion in the making.