Wednesday, 6 November 2013


In what concerns on Roman religion, scholars usually consider its political aspects. This approach was developed on a colonial context during the 19th, based upon an idea of the Roman Empire as a political and cultural unit. As it is based on a Roman colonial image derived from literary sources, I believe it tends to obscure differences. The main idea of this paper is to rethink some aspects of Roman religion considering the material culture and Epigraphy. I will focus on the  common people religiosity during the beginning of the Principate to discuss two interrelated topics. First I will focus in some concepts and theory on Roman religion and then I will explore how Epigraphy - the graffiti from Pompeii – can contribute to discuss the common people religiosity. The Epigraphic evidence is used in this paper to help us to rethink social relationships and Roman identity in a less normative experience. 
Since Pompeii was a city with a very active commercial life in the beginning of the Principate, many people have walked down its streets and scratched their messages on its walls. The amount of recorded inscriptions sum nearly eleven thousand, and the urban environment with active daily life provide us with data to understand Roman everyday life from new perspectives, especially those regarding the common people. This reflection is not intended to provoke a split between popular and erudite culture; on the contrary, it seeks ways to explore the diversity of ways to understand Roman religiosity. To consider the contrast and the circularity of perceptions may be an alternative way for us to understand how the different types of worldviews are formed, to explore their meanings may be a way to understand the Roman past in a more plural way. In this sense, the current paper aims to deal with Roman inscriptions, in this case graffiti on walls depicting Venus, from a perspective that considers the material context in which they were found, seeking to create alternative means to interpret the everyday life of common people, as well as their religiosity.

Although most of these inscriptions are concise, through case studies of thoughtfully selected samples it is possible to recover voices otherwise seldom heard by scholars. In this context, the graffiti still direct our attention to a specific type of discourse, one encompassing socially constructed and reinterpreted memories. One may consider the graffiti to be fragmentary, but they still remind us of anonymous men and women who suffered, prayed, loved or argued. In a word, they lived. And as they lived they were not alone, but shared their values and experiences and can become important sources for scholars who seek to understand the Roman diversity.

I also believe that these epigraphic sources are important evidence for capturing religiosity in different spheres: Venus’ presence can be found not only on temples protecting the city, but in different parts of the city closer to any person. The goddess is commemorated or challenged by common people in their search for a better life. In this context, those graffiti challenge us to deconstruct analytical categories based on the idea of the political means of Roman religiosity, allowing us to envision them in a complex social context of interaction with men and women of different social backgrounds and ethnic origins. This perspective should remind us that the purpose of archaeology is to study the historical nature of specific social, cultural, and gender relationships, observing, in this case, the details and complexities of the Roman past, and avoiding universal assumptions. Instead of a uniform, or global, interpretation of what Roman religion should be this epigraphic evidence focuses on local variety, allowing us to avoid approaches based upon western notions of Christian superiority. 

Keywords: Roman common people, religion, graffiti, Epigraphy.

The full paper was originally publish in Spanish at Pablo Oscariz's (ed.) book, cf: GARRAFFONI, R. S. . La religión y el cotidiano romano: el exemplo de las paredes de Pompeya. In: Pablo Ozcáriz Gil. (Ed.). La memoria en la piedra. Estudios sobre grafitos históricos. Navarra: Editora del Gobierno de Navarra, 2012, p. 204-219.

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