The Priests of Jupiter

Collegium septemviri epulones

in Roman public religion

Academic aims of the project:

  • analysis of the activities of the septemviri epulones college in the Roman public religion;
  • redefinition of the role of sacrifices in Roman religion;
  • preparation of a dictionary of ritual terms in Roman religion;
  • preparation of a prosoprographic list of the members of the college septemviri epulones;
  • analysis of the function of Jupiter in the public aspect of Roman religion.

Significance of the project:

The project is one of the newest pieces of research on Roman religion in its citizenship and public aspects. It presents a contemporary approach to the analysed subject, based on an emic reading of the source materials in accordance with the principles of close reading. This approach aims to note the originality of the religious experience of Ancient Romans using the example of the activities of the college septemviri epulones. In order to correctly carry out this task it is vitally necessary to analyse the role of Jupiter in public religion, because the college was directly connected with the god in its ritual dimension. From this point of view the work is of essential significance for the further development of research on Roman religion, since up until now the figure of Jupiter has rarely been analysed outside the categories of political religion, that is, in its political aspect. This task is joined by two others. Firstly it is necessary to undertake research on the ritual vocabulary of Ancient Romans, entailing the verification of previous assertions. Secondly the role of sacrifices in Roman religion should be investigated.
These elements make up a complete analysis of the activities of septemviri epulones, which is the only one of the great priestly colleges in Rome to not yet have a monograph dedicated to them. This undertaking represents a significant filling of a gap in research on Roman religion, and the realisation of the project according to the above-presented principles opens new research perspectives and through the revision of the assertions so far presented in the literature will cause the opening of new research perspectives.

Over the last few years we have witnessed changes in perception of the Ancient Romans. Until this point, research on Roman religion has mainly concerned its political nature, often treating it quite superficially as one of the tools used in political wars or emphasising the aspect which legitimised power in a contemporary sense.
Research on Roman religion has stood in the shadow of the great sacrificial theories connected with Greek religion, particularly what is known as the French school. The ideas of J.-P. Vernant deeply inspired J. Scheid, who over the last few years has dedicated much space to the analysis of the ritual customs of the Romans and indeed has come the closest to creating a theory which structures the material connected with the sacrificial aspect of Roman religion. He placed it at the centre of citizens’ religion, in its orthopraxic framework. Taking as a model W. Burkert, K. Meuli, and also J.-P. Vernant and to a certain extent R. Girard, blood sacrifice became a basic reference point for later researchers.
This does not mean however that researchers of Roman religion completely rejected other approaches, e.g. the interpretation based on economic metaphors filtered by methods characteristic for social studies. It seems to us that the most interesting propositions were put forward by researchers who took a critical stance towards the almost obligatory model of Roman religion as a social religion (’polis religion’), whose main task was to maintain a state of balance between the gods and the Roman people. It is worth however paying attention to names such as A. Bendlin, G. Woolf, R. Gordon or finally J. Rüpke. The group of researchers concentrated around prof. Rüpke, over the past few years have undertaken investigations of the religions of the Imperium (above all analysing the religious life of the provinces), taking as their starting point the concepts of 'individualism’ and 'lived religion’. The latter term moves beyond the concept of 'everyday religion’ understood as the sphere of individual engagement, in opposition to the official, state religion. Hence the necessity to analyse the social framework of activities considered to be religious was emphasised, along with the associated symbolic interactions of relationships within particular social groups. Roman religion played out on three levels: that of the citizen, the family and the popular level. The latter should not however be limited to the so called lower class, or the Roman proletariat. Apart from the obvious lack of clarity around those concepts, using them as binding terms carries a structural danger – the transference of political stratification into the religious reality, which was much more fluid and penetrating. This resulted from the fact that on the family level every pater familias possessed an identical degree of ritual competence, independently of his political position, Also the binary opposition of free man – slave did not play much of a part, because in the context of the family the border was to be found elsewhere, and this was conditioned by the fact of being a member of it, free or not free. More important was the opposition citizen – not citizen, but also in a sphere practically limited to ceremonies celebrated pro saluto populi. In today’s literature a distinct tendency can be seen towards valuing individualisation of religious experience among the inhabitants of the Imperium Romanum. The greatest fault of this approach is the extraction of the 'individual’ experience from the social experience within which it was played out. This creates a necessity for their results to be verified.
A shift within the currently reigning paradigm in research on Roman religion may also be seen in changes in understanding of the role of ritual sacrifice. As mentioned above, since at least the 1970s blood sacrifice has been placed into the centre of Roman religion and treated as the culmination of the religious experience of the Romans, However over the past few years a shift around this issue has become ever more distinctly visible. The central place of blood sacrifice has been taken by sacrifice in itself. An apparently small reorientation carries with it large changes in perception of the role of sacrifice. Firstly it values bloodless sacrifice, and this does not limit the individual religious experience only to ex vota (although that kind of artefact is for obvious reasons the most popular archeological piece of evidence of personal faith). Secondly it does not lift individual religious experience out of the social context, which enables it to be placed within one of the three above-mentioned levels and renders its clinical extraction from Ancient reality impossible.
Derived from the above principles, the basic thesis of the project is that sacrifice itself, not blood sacrifice, stood at the heart of the ritual experience of the Ancient Romans. In other words it was the fact of making an offering that counted, not the type of offering.
The second thesis is the association of the Roman experience with the most important god in the pantheon – Jupiter. In the literature the issue of the gods in the context of the citizen’s religion as it was realised on the above-mentioned three levels has been almost completely weeded out, most visibly in the most current synthesising approaches. The gods are analysed in the context of the citizens’ religion, e.g. Isis, which we consider is intended to confirm previously held assumptions connected with the concepts according to the theory of 'lived religion’.
The next important issue is the role of the gods in Roman religion, recently limited to a minimum in research. Particular cults are still investigated, but these are partial analyses, and, as in the case of 'lived religion’ the extraction of the gods under discussion from the social religious experience leads to points hanging somewhat in the air. This is clear to see in the case of Jupiter, who was the most important god of the Roman pantheon, influencing the everyday life of the Romans through the ritual of the auspices. Analysing the syntheses published over the last 20 years it is obvious that Jupiter has lost his main position in religion.
Meanwhile Jupiter always remained in the centre of the citizens’ religion, and consequently the ritual activities of the Romans were concentrated around him. Roman religion was a religion of social experiences. Recently an attempt has been made to return Jupiter’s religious significance to him. Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy has done so in relation to the auspices. Driediger- Murphy’s work is an excellent example of the emic analysis of sources, that is, her point of departure was analysis of the sources from the Roman point of view. This is associated with an attempt to move beyond the conceptual framework that results from our culture. Concentrating on the rituals and the role of the gods, however, the active agent was omitted, that is the cult functionaries, in this case the college of the augurs. Maybe for these same reasons the associations with Jupiter of the four largest of the colleges (the pontiffs, augurs, quindecemiviri and epulones) were not articulated strongly enough. The aim of our work is to fill some significant gaps in research on the priestly colleges and the position of Jupiter and sacrifices in Roman religion, through analysis of the college of septemviri epulones.
The septemviri epulones college has not so far received a monographic investigation. In Georg Wissowa’s classic work it is mentioned in the part dedicated to the pontiffs. Detailed pieces of research are also very modest. Apart from a short introduction of the issues connected with epulum Iovis the key issues associated with the college appear only at the margins of discussions on the other priestly bodies (colleges and associations), even those which are less significant from a ritual point of view, or in mentions contained in textbook concepts aimed at introducing the reader to religious studies. This lack is distinctly visible in the latest collections of studies on the subject of the Roman priesthood. Our research is aimed at filling this gap in the academic literature, particularly as the remaining summa collegia and the more important sodalitates all possess such works dedicated to them. F. Van Haeperen published a monograph concerning the activities and significance of the pontiffs college. J. Linderski in the work entitled 'The Augural Law’ included the issues of the whole college in a monograph. The history and activities of the college viri sacris faciundis has recently also recieved a thorough examination. It is also worth mentioning the work of J. Scheid concerning the Fratres Arvales.
Our work aims to present the fullest possible picture of the activities of the college. Hence we consider it vital to research the causes of the founding of a new priestly body, In the literature usually the main, if not only, cause of this decision is given as the necessity of lightening the load of the pontiffs from the obligation to organise sacred feasts in honour of Jupiter, which took place on the occasions of the ludi Romani and ludi Plebeii. This is why a new priestly body was created, initially composed of three, and then seven, then ten members. This however gives rise to many questions. The technical nature of the new college seems obvious, it was also one of the last priestly bodies to be founded in the republican religion. Why then should an organ of a nature, it would seem, purely utilitarian, be quickly recognised as one of the four amplissima lub summa collegia? The second question concerns the technical nature of the college. It appears clearly expressed in the name – septemviri epulones (comp. decemviri sacris faciundis), but was the role of the newly founded priestly body limited only to 'ludorum epulare sacrificium fecerunt’ [Cic., de orat., 3, 73]? The date of founding, 196 BC, that is at the turn of the III and II centuries, suggests that it could have been different. This was a time of great social tensions provoked by the Second Punic wars, which also caused the outbreak of various religious emotions. Justified in the situation in which the Romans were losing the war, they were not extinguished after its victorious end. It would seem that they even grew stronger. The beginning of the II century was a time of uncontrolled social tensions, and the activities of various fortune tellers and sacrifice givers (sacrificuli ac vates, Liv. 25, 1, 6-7). We might regard the Bacchanalia affair as the culmination of these tensions, as well as the discovery of the so called books of Numa. We think that the calling into being of a priestly body for the exclusive purpose of organising cult ceremonies in the honour of Jupiter Capitolinus, Juno and Minerva could have a threefold meaning. Firstly this fits with the desire of the Roman rulers to control religious activities, particularly on the terrain of the Urbs. Secondly, the binding of new cult functionaries within the centre of the citizens’ religion, was to attempt to return a proper attitude to members of the community. Thirdly, epulum Iovis belonged to the bloodless rituals and bears overlooked witness to the central role of sacrifice in itself (and not blood) in Roman religion. This approach is one of the most contemporary methological achievements in research on Roman religion and constitutes a pioneering development.
In order to realise these intentions, it is vital to research the legal context of the functioning of the college.
The most important part of the proposed project is the analysis of the activities of septemviri epulones, particularly with regard to ludi Romani and Plebeii. The subsequent stage will be researching the accessible sources, literary, numismatic and epigraphic, concerning epulum Iovis. This analysis will form a starting point for researching two subsequent problems: the potential dependency of the epulum on the daps and lectisternium, and the issue of sacrifice in Roman religion. The first problem is usually pushed aside by a statement on the genetic associations between the feasts of Jupiter and the Greek lectisternium and its verification is necessary, the result of which we do not prejudge. In order to realise this, the analysis of Latin ritual vocabulary will be necessary, and also a list of the places within the sources in which they appear, in historical literature, literary sources or epigraphics .The second issue, regarding blood(less) sacrifices in Roman religion, should be compared with the newest conclusions, which greatly change a picture of the issue which has remained static for years The next subject of my analysis will be the ritual activities of septemviri epulones in their public aspect. This enables us to move beyond the dualistic concept of citizen – outsider, taken from the structuralist tradition, in favour of a complementary approach, which I judge more appropriate for the Roman reality, covering the 'social’ and 'public’ categories more widely than that of the citizen, without leading to unnecessary antagonism between those concepts. In the system I propose, the activities of the priests would have taken place on two levels. The first, ritual in sensu stricto, by its very nature would be limited to the framework of the citizens’ religion. The second, connected with placing ritual activities within the framework of ludi, would have a wider dimension, public, more than citizenship. This dual level analysis would enable presentation of a full picture of the significance of the activities of the college, not only in their ritual aspect but also as a part of a new, cultural identity, which was then being built, common to the whole imperium.
The final part of the work will be dedicated to the presentation of the cult functionaries using a prosopographical approach. This enables an analysis of changes in the composition of the college and thanks to this will help us to ascertain the true significance of the epuli, particlarly in the period of the empire.
The result of the project will be a monograph discussing the activities of the college septemviri epulones in Roman public religion, which will work on three levels. Firstly from the perspective of the role of sacrifices in the social dimension of Roman religion. Secondly through the analysis of the activities of the epulones we draw attention to their direct connection with Jupiter, most clearly expressed by the organisation of games. Thirdly, we would like to present a history of the college and its evolution over the period of over 500 years of its existence.
The second publication resulting from the grant will be an album sacerdotum. The production of a collection like this is significant in order to define the role of the college within the social life of Ancient Rome, and could serve as a reference book for other researchers of the Imperium Romanum.
The third publication is a ritual dictionary, including collocations. Up until now there has not been a complete collection like this in the literature.