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Part IV - Religion, Ritual and Violence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 March 2020

Garrett G. Fagan
Pennsylvania State University
Linda Fibiger
University of Edinburgh
Mark Hudson
Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte, Germany
Matthew Trundle
University of Auckland
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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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Bibliographic Essay

A thoughtful approach to understanding ritualisation is set out in Bradley, Richard Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe (London: Routledge, 2005). The main themes relating to archaeological interpretations of conflict and violence are presented in Keeley, Lawrence H., War before Civilisation: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Armit, Ian, ‘Violence and Society in the Deep Human Past’, British Journal of Criminology 51.3 (2011), 499517; Armit, Ian et al., ‘Warfare and Violence in Prehistoric Europe: An Introduction’, Journal of Conflict Archaeology 2 (2006), 111. A detailed analysis of headhunting is presented in Armit, Ian, Headhunting and the Body in Iron Age Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Background material on the European Iron Age can be found in the following: Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2nd edition, 2018); Farley, Julia and Hunter, Fraser (eds.), Celts: Art and Identity (London: British Museum Press, 2015); Collis, John R., The Celts: Origins, Myths, Inventions (Stroud: Tempus, 2003). Useful classical accounts can be found in Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico; Paulus Orosius, Historia Adversus Paganos; Tacitus, Germania; Strabo, Geographia; and Lucan, Pharsalia.

For Iron Age hill forts see Ralston, Ian, Celtic Fortifications (Stroud: Tempus, 2006). The ‘symbolic’ interpretation of hill forts is best elucidated in Bowden, Mark and McOmish, David, ‘The Required Barrier’, Scottish Archaeological Review 4 (1987), 7684, and their follow-up article ‘ Little Boxes: More About Hillforts’, Scottish Archaeological Review 6 (1989), 1216. An attempt to integrate violence and symbolism in relation to these monuments is presented in Armit, Ian, ‘Hillforts at War: From Maiden Castle to Taniwaha Pá, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 73 (2007), 2538, to which a rejoinder was issued by Lock, Gary in ‘Hillforts, Emotional Metaphors and the Good Life: A Response to Armit’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 77 (2011), 355–62.

Detailed treatments of Iron Age human remains can be found in Redfern, Rebecca C. and Chamberlain, Andrew T., ‘A Demographic Analysis of Maiden Castle Hillfort: Evidence for Conflict in the Late Iron Age and Early Roman period’, Journal of Palaeopathology 1.1 (2011), 6873; and Rebecca, Craig, Christopher, J. Knüsel and Carr, Gillian, ‘Fragmentation, Mutilation and Dismemberment: An Interpretation of Human Remains on Iron Age Sites’, in Pearson, Mike Parker and Thorpe, Nick (eds.), Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory, BAR International Series 1374 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005), pp. 165–80.

A good general account of the Scandinavian weapon deposits is provided in Ilkjær, Jorgen, Illerup Ådal: Archaeology as a Magic Mirror (Moesgård: Moesgård Museum, 2000). The major Gaulish sanctuaries are discussed in detail in Arcelin, P. and Brunaux, J.-L (eds.), Gallia 60, Dossier: Cultes et sanctuaires en France à l’Âge du Fer (2003), 1268.

Current thinking on bog bodies is most accessibly available in Fischer, Christian, Tollund Man: Gift to the Gods (Stroud: History Press, 2012) and Aldhouse-Green, Miranda, Bog Bodies Uncovered (London: Thames & Hudson, 2015). A provocative attempt to interpret bog bodies and other human remains in relation to broader human attitudes to death and the dead is contained in Taylor, Timothy, The Buried Soul (London: Fourth Estate, 2002).

Bibliographic Essay

For a general coverage of the beliefs and practices in Mesopotamian religion see the following: Foster, Benjamin R., ‘Mesopotamia’, in Hinnells, John R. (ed.), A Handbook of Ancient Religions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 161213; Bottéro, Jean, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Theresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); and Lambert, W. G., Ancient Mesopotamian Religion and Mythology, a collection of critical essays edited by George, A. R. and Oshima, T. M., Orientalische Religionen in der Antike 15 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016). For up-to-date discussions of ancient Mesopotamian scholarship, theory and sciences behind the ritual practices discussed here and beyond the scope of this chapter, see Radner, Karen and Eleanor, Robson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Excellent English translations of the mythological texts cited in this chapter can be found in Foster, Benjamin R., Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, 3rd edn (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2005); Dalley, Stephanie M., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, rev. edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); George, A. R., The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999); and Lambert, W. G., Babylonian Creation Myths, Mesopotamian Civilizations 16 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013). The corpus of letters from the Assyrian Empire that provides details about the substitute king ritual can be found in Parpola, Simo, Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars, State Archives of Assyria 10 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1993). Analytical commentaries on these letters, together with a succinct and indispensable account of the substitute king ritual, can be found in Parpola, Simo, Letters from Assyrian Scholars to the Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal. Part II: Commentary and Appendices, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 5.2 (Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon & Bercker, 1983). The most recent assessment of the substitute king ritual is found in Bottéro, Jean, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

The royal graves at Ur have been the focus of a number of studies. The excavations and original interpretations are presented in Woolley, C. Leonard, The Royal Cemetery: A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated between 1926–31, Ur Excavation Reports 2 (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1934). Recommended too is Woolley’s more popular yet still detailed account of the entire excavations at Ur, which included some of the more tendentious conclusions, Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavations (London: Pelican Books, 1938). More recent critical assessments of Woolley’s work with an incorporation of later trends in scholarship are found in Zettler, Richard L. and Horne, Lee (eds.), Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1998).

Recent studies of power, religion and kingship in Mesopotamia and Egypt that have a significant bearing on the topics covered in this chapter can be found in Hill, Jane A., Jones, Philip and Morales, Antonio J. (eds.), Experiencing Power, Generating Authority: Cosmos Politics and the Ideology of Kingship in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2011).

Pongratz-Leisten, Beate, ‘Ritual Killing and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East’, in Finsterbusch, K., Lange, A. and Diethard Römheld, K. F. (eds.), Human Sacrifice in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 333 surveys a wider range of the topic than is covered here, extending to understanding how Near Eastern practices relate to Christianity, while an excellent coverage of the use of animals, including ritual sacrifice and substitution, in Mesopotamian religion is Scurlock, JoAnn, ‘Animals in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion’ and ‘Animal Sacrifice in Ancient Mesopotamian Religion’, in Collins, Billie Jean (ed.), A History of the Animal World in the Ancient Near East, Handbook of Oriental Studies 64 (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 361403.

Bibliographic Essay

The study of violent sacrifice among the Greeks and Romans began once the scholarly subjects of ‘ritual’ and ‘sacrifice’ emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late twentieth century these two subjects became central to general conceptions of Greek religion, and violence became central to understanding sacrifice. In recent years this nexus of ritual, sacrifice and violence has met with criticism, notably by Naiden, F. S. in ‘The Fallacy of the Willing Victim’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 127 (2007), 6173, and Smoke Signals for the Gods: Greek Animal Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Georgoudi, Stella, ‘L’“Occultation de la violence” dans le sacrifice grec: données anciennes, discours modernes’, in Georgoudi, S., Piettre, R. Koch and Schmidt, F (eds.), La Cuisine et l’autel: les sacrifices en questions dans les sociétés de la Méditerranée ancienne (Turnhout: Brepols, 2005), pp. 115–47; and Ekroth, Gunnel, ‘Meat in Ancient Greece: Sacrificial, Sacred or Secular?’, Food and History 5 (2007), 249–72.

For many centuries the first of these two subjects, ‘ritual’, was not studied as such. The term ‘ritual’ meant only ‘training manual’, as it had in Classical Latin. In the late nineteenth century there was a profound change whereby it became understood as a process of worship that influenced social life, on the one hand, and myth, on the other. This new definition informed the work of Robertson Smith, Durkheim and Hubert and Mauss. These writers all regarded sacrifice as the most important ritual, not only in Greek and Roman religion but in religion in general, and in justifying this opinion built on notions of sacrifice found in Hegel and de Maistre. Lincoln’s, Bruce chapter ‘From Bergaigne to Meuli: How Animal Sacrifice became a Hot Topic’, in Faraone, C. A. and Naiden, F. S. (eds.), Greek and Roman Animal Sacrifice: Ancient Victims, Modern Observers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 1332 explores this complex history.

It remained to connect the ritual of sacrifice with violence, which was at most a minor theme in a few writers, notably Robertson Smith. The Swiss scholar Karl Meuli forged this link by associating sacrifice with hunting, especially among Neolithic peoples of northern Europe. Next, one of Meuli’s pupils, Walter Burkert, strengthened the link by associating sacrifice with the inborn violent tendencies posited by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Thus emerged the view that the Greeks and the Romans felt guilty about animal slaughter, and that the ritual of sacrifice redirected or discharged this guilt in socially beneficial fashion. A contemporary of Burkert’s, René Girard, focused on sacrifice of a peculiar kind, the expulsion and death of a scapegoat, and in works such as La Violence et le sacré (Paris: Grasset, 1972), translated as Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). He made this sort of sacrifice an interpretive model for analysing many social practices. Outside of classics, Girard’s views became well known, but within the discipline Burkert’s views were far more influential, partly because he drew a comparison between Greek attitudes towards sacrifice and ancient vegetarian literature, condemning meat-eating in his Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

A rival theory of sacrifice allowed that this ritual was quintessentially violent, and also allowed that the Greeks felt guilty about slaughtering animals, but differed from Burkert on the question of how the ritual of sacrifice redirected or displaced violence. The two proponents of this theory, Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean-Pierre, argued in The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) that the ancient worshipper ignored the violence around him for the sake of achieving social and political unity through communal acts of animal sacrifice. In this view, eating sacrificial meat was the apex of the ritual, not putting innocents to death. For the Teutonic tragedy of guilt imagined by Burkert, this French theory substituted a Gallic comedy of innocence.

Opposition to these two views began with arguments against the proposition that the Greeks commonly believed that sacrificial animals went to their deaths willingly and thus relieved worshippers of feelings of guilt. Next came criticism of the broad assumption that sacrifice was a typically or inherently violent ritual, for example by McClymond, Kathryn in Beyond Sacred Violence: A Comparative Study of Sacrifice (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) and of the related assumption that sacrificial violence was the only, or at least the most important, source of meat (see chapter 6 of Naiden’s Smoke Signals for the Gods). The effect of these criticisms was to reduce Burkert’s fundamental notion of guilty worshippers and victimised animals to its narrow literary and intellectual basis -– vegetarian sympathy for victimised animals in Greek and Latin literature from Empedocles to Porphyry. Since this literature is mostly philosophical, ancient feelings of guilt about animal sacrifice proves to be mostly a topic in intellectual history.

Bibliographic Essay

While the athletic competitions of Greece and Rome are no longer seen as unique in the ancient world, since it is now recognised that other cultures also appreciated or made room for competitive events and various other ‘games’, it nevertheless remains the case that such sports were ubiquitous and in many ways even a defining feature of Greek and Roman society. The most important study of Greek combats sports remains Poliakoff, Michael, Combat Sports in the Ancient World: Competition, Violence, and Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), though Poliakoff specifically excludes Roman gladiatorial events from his study, arguing that they did not constitute a ‘sport’ but were instead a form of ‘warfare for spectators’. Greek combat sports could be equally violent. See, for example, Crowther, Nigel, ‘Reflections on Greek Athletic Events: Violence and Spectator Attitudes’, Nikephoros 7 (1994), 121–33. At the same time scholars have begun to consider more closely the various rules and expectations by which gladiatorial combats were regulated, as can be seen especially in Carter, Michael J., ‘Gladiatorial Combat: The Rules of Engagement’, Classical Journal 102 (2007), 97113. Both Greek combat sports and Roman gladiatorial fights were violent contests bound by rules and regulations, with referees present to oversee them, and so the similarities now mean that the two are often studied together. The best example is the recent Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, edited by Christesen, Paul and Donald, Kyle (Oxford: Blackwell, 2014), which contains forty-three chapters running chronologically from the Greek Bronze Age to the early Byzantine world in the sixth century ce. Kyle had earlier studied Greek sport and Roman spectacle as similar institutions in his 2007 Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Oxford: Blackwell; 2nd edn 2015), and this approach has been followed by Golden, Mark, Greek Sport and Social Status (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008) and Potter, David, The Victor’s Crown: A a History of Sport from Homer to Byzantium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Still, despite the rule-bound nature of gladiatorial combats, it is still this spectacle that has attracted most of the attention for its violent nature and the window it potentially offers on Roman society more broadly. Such shows were typically accompanied by spectacular executions (including at times Christian martyrdoms) and displays and hunts of often exotic wild animals. It was a powerful spectacle and one which even the Christian victims of the arena wanted to appropriate for their own uses, as argued by Bowersock, Glen, Martyrdom and Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Kyle, Donald had in 1998 published Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge), one of number of studies into the bloody spectacle. But the first and most important attempt to account for the violence of the arena is Fagan’s, Garrett The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). As the subtitle indicates, Fagan employs contemporary social psychology to explain human – not simply Roman – willingness to watch the sorts of violent acts found in gladiatorial combats and the other bloody shows in the arena, and indeed other forms of combat sports.

Bibliographic Essay

The following works, more or less indebted to the traditional paradigm, provide good starting points for further reading. Trombley, Frank R., Hellenic Religion and Christianization: c. 370–529 (Leiden: Brill, 1993) explores all the evidence for the survival of paganism, tending to a maximalist interpretation of the evidence. Hahn, Johannes, Gewalt und religiöser Konflikt: Studien zu den Auseinandersetzungen zwischen Christen, Heiden und Juden im Osten des römischen Reiches (von Konstantin bis Theodosius II) (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2004) shows how seemingly religious violence is rooted in local social conflicts. The role of violence in identity formation and affirmation lies at the core of Gaddis, Michael, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), which also discusses the mutual accusations of martyrdom and persecution. Not just concerned with late antiquity is Baslez, Marie-Françoise, Les Persécutions dans l’antiquité: victimes, héros, martyrs (Paris: Fayard, 2007). The entanglement of martyrdom and asceticism and its role in violence from Christian antiquity to early Islam is studied by Sizgorich, Thomas, Violence and Belief in Late Antiquity: Militant Devotion in Christianity and Islam (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), emphasising the role played by militant devotion in patrolling communal boundaries. Kahlos, Maijastina, Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity (London: Duckworth, 2009) inventorises the way late antique Christians discussed toleration. Shaw, Brent, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) is a study of the Donatist schism, setting it in its social and political context. Baslez, Marie-Françoise (ed.), Chrétiens persécuteurs: destructions, exclusions violentes religieuses au IVe siècle (Paris: Albin Michel, 2014) offers a sample of case studies and views on violence perpetrated by Christians.

Criticism of the paradigm can be found in Bremmer, Jan’s ‘Religious Violence and Its Roots: A View from Antiquity’, ASDIWAL. Revue genevoise d’anthropologie et d’histoire des religions 6 (2011), 71–9, and Religious Violence between Greeks, Romans, Christians and Jews’, in Geljon, A. C. and Roukema, R. (eds.), Violence in Ancient Christianity: Victims and Perpetrators (Leiden: Brill, 2014), which highlights the biased reading of the ancient evidence and the deficient theoretical underpinning of identifying monotheism with violence. Mayer, Wendy, ‘Religious Conflict: Definitions, Problems and Theoretical Approaches’, in Mayer, W. and Neil, B. (eds.), Religious Conflict from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), pp. 119 offers an overview of the positions and emphasises the importance of the neurosciences in providing a richer picture of the roles played by emotions and violence in human (and hence also religious) life. Van Nuffelen, Peter, Penser la tolérance dans l’antiquité tardive (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2018), upon which this chapter substantially relies, is an intellectual history of how persuasion and coercion were conceptualised in late antiquity that enters into a dialogue with modern conceptions. For a wide-ranging criticism of the perceived link between religion and violence see Cavanaugh, William T., The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Drake, Harold A., Albu, Emily and Latham, Jacob (eds.), Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006) has a valuable section, with critical perspectives, on religious violence.

Drake, Albu and Latham’s volume is also a good starting point for exploring other types of violence, for which see also Ménard, Hélène, Maintenir l’ordre à Rome: IIe–IVe siècles ap. J.-C (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2004), which is focused on public order, and Pfeilschifter, Rene, Der Kaiser und Konstantinopel. Kommunikation und Konfliktaustrag in einer spätantiken Metropole (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), a study of popular riots in Constantinople with a focus on the emperor but with much material on riots in general. Krause, Jens-Uwe, Gewalt und Kriminalität in der Spätantike (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2014) is the first synthesis of criminal violence in late antiquity, emphasising the state as the prime cause. Hillner, Julia, Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) studies penance and imprisonment against a background of the Christian adoption of classical ideas about reform. For the role of ordinary people in doctrinal disputes and violence, the crucial work is Perrin, Michel-Yves, Civitas confusionis. De la participation des fidèles aux controverses doctrinales dans l’antiquité tardive (IIIe s.–c. 430) (Paris: Éditions Nuvis, 2016), but see also de Oliveira, Júlio César Magalhâes, Potestas populi: participation populaire et action collective dans les villes de l’Afrique romaine tardive (vers 300 – 430 apr. J.-C) (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). Kristensen, Troels M., Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013) studies from a mainly archaeological perspective the destruction of pagan statuary.

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