Urban Religion in Augustan Poetry

In the face of accelerating urbanisation and a return of religion to cities, a panel at the quinquennial world congress of the Féderation internationale des Études Classiques (London 2019) had taken a new look at urban and religious experiences and discourses in the Augustan period. Several texts from this age of rapid growth and change of Rome concern the city, as has been shown by Catharine Edwards and Tara Welch. Edwards starts from a notion of a mutual dependency and reinforcement of Roman space, Roman identity and Roman religion. While she stresses how Augustan writers (and their audiences) were aware of the contingent character of this nexus and hence its precarious state (Edwards 1996; Edwards 2007), research on Roman religion has shown the existence of multiple discourses about and practices related to space and religion also outside of a discourse about political identity and central administrative action (Rüpke 2007, 2018). Two contributions now published explore the traces of such practices and discourses related to the many different groups and residential subdivisions of the city. They also trace the individual projects of appropriating or crafting urban space through the lens of “urban religion”, as developed in a substantial introduction.

Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser (Classics Department, Göttingen) analyses “Helpful gods, preaching Stoics, and Gossip form the Crossroads” as “Urban religion in Horace’s Satires and Epistles”. Unlike the city of Rome, religion does not seem to play a central role in Horace’s Satires and Epistles. But what may seem disappointing at first glance, actually makes these texts attractive documents for an analysis of how urban religion was perceived. Religious sites do not appear to the reader as demarcated sites, distinct from the bustling city, but rather as commonplace and nothing spectacular, as a market place or a meeting point, as an intermediate stop or occasional obstacle. It does not matter here, whether the text focuses on prominent sanctuaries and superior gods or ordinary religious rituals. It is religion at the crossroads that sets the tone (DOI 10.1628/rre-2020-0020).

Jörg Rüpke (Max Weber Centre, Erfurt) investigates “Propertius’ book 4 and urban religion of the Augustan period” under the title of “Grasping urbanity”. Propertius’ last book of elegies (publ. c. 16 BCE) has been read as a staged conflict between antiquarianism and love elegy. Now, he is arguing that the book as a whole is above all a reflection on the spatial and temporal boundaries of the city and the internal impact of their permanent crossing and breaking down. Then and now, imperial expedition and internal treason, permanent and temporary absence, burying outside and loving inside, admission to and exclusion from sacralised and gendered space and finally the vertical dimension of life’s above and death’s below explore these limits and transfers and constitute the urbanity of the city as well as the urbanity of religion (DOI 10.1628/rre-2020-0019).

A further paper by a fellow of the KFG, Cecilia Ames from Cordoba (Argentina), on Religion, antiquarism and Roman urban development in book 8 of Vergil’s Aeneid is in preparation.

Further Reading

Edwards, Catherine 1996. Writing Rome. Textual Approaches to the City (Roman Literature and Its Contexts), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rüpke, Jörg 2007. Religion of the Romans, trans. Trsl. and ed. by Richard Gordon, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Rüpke, Jörg 2018. Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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