Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change – a new book

A new book

Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change’ is the title of the book that I have published a few weeks ago (de Gruyter, 2020). It is the attempt to reflect upon the state of the art and develop the recent concept of ‘urban religion’ into an instrument for historical research. Its objective is to demonstrate how important changes in religion can be understood more fully when they are seen cross-culturally as being a result of the reciprocal formation of urban space and urban ways of living, on the one hand, and religion, on the other. Such an approach can shed light on paths of urbanisation, such as those found in the ancient Mediterranean, in India, late ancient Eastern Europe, medieval Central Europe, and early modern Northern Europe. This general claim is developed, conceptualised, and supported in the first group of three chapters.

In the subsequent chapters, I go on to apply this framework specifically to the ancient Mediterranean world from the Hellenistic period to the late Imperial period, and to the city of Rome in particular. Many features of ancient religion can be more plausibly viewed as the outcome of specific effects and uses of space and the social and cognitive bases of such uses, rather than as inherent features of a specific ‘religion’. These features include the development of certain mass-rituals connected to theatre and circus structures, the widespread staging of theatrical processions, the declining role of animal sacrifice, the ‘intellectualisation’ of religion, and the establishment of specifically religious networks and (initially small) group religions. They include also the forms in which gods were tied to specific places and the very structure of a polytheism informed by a plurality of local temples. It is, however, not these well-known changes, which I (and certainly others!) have discussed in earlier books (most recently ‘Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion’, Princeton University Press 2018), that needs to be addressed. Rather, what is at issue is the reflection of this situation in the lives of intellectuals and simple people, that is the lived religion of these individuals and collectives. It was their appropriation and claiming of urban space that changed them from objects to subjects of these processes and that mutually altered and shaped religion, on the one hand, and city-space as well as urban ways of life, on the other.

The recurring focus on Rome and the ancient Mediterranean offers some advantages from a methodological and historiographical perspective. The period from the Hellenistic age through to Late Antiquity was crucial for the establishment of concepts and institutions of ‘religion’ and was also a period of renewed and extended waves of urbanisation. As such, the Mediterranean basin and the Roman Empire in this era offer a rich and comparatively well-documented area within which to investigate the nature of urban religion. By examining this region throughout this period, the present volume also aims to fill significant gaps in the scholarship on urban religion and ancient Mediterranean history. If we take seriously the proposition that space is a condition, medium, and outcome of social relations, then the development of ‘urban religion’ in lived urban spaces offers a lens onto processes of religious change that have been neglected in the study of both the history of religion and ancient urbanism. My key thesis is, thus, first, that city-space – understood as the array of urban spatial and structural forms, forces, processes, and agents – engineered the major changes that revolutionised Mediterranean religions, and, second, that this process is a paradigmatic model against which it is fruitful to compare other processes of urbanisation and their histories of religious practices, ideas, and institutions.

The structure

My argument in this volume is developed over four sections of two or three chapters each. The first section, Religion in urban space: Methodological reflections, addresses major conceptual and historiographical questions. Here, basic notions of religion, religious agency, and the materiality of religious communication are developed and applied to the problems of the entangled development of urban settlements and religion. Urban religion is developed as a two-sided process in which religious practices shape urban space and urban space shapes religion. The second section, Thinking religion in urban space, addresses changes in religious reflection that follow from an engagement with contemporary urban growth. In the first instance, I show how textual analysis can detect the implicit presupposition of an urban frame of reference for the development of religious notions while the analysis in the second instance starts from an indigenous taxonomy of places; both case studies are taken from ancient Rome. The third section, Shaping urban space, turns from the intellectual to the material dimension. Starting from the notions of material religion and urban resilience, I show how practices of writing and implementing material objects allowed the short- and long-term appropriation of urban space. Again, both instances focus on the invention and change of religious practices in urban environments. Both are taken from the city of Rome in longer chronological perspectives. The fourth and final section, Grouping and subjectivisation in urban religion, addresses, in a wider chronological and geographical framework, changes in individual and collective religious identities as consequences of urban settings.

Religion and the city

In the first section, three chapters deepen and develop the initial sketch of the theoretical foundation and conceptual apparatus underpinning my research question. ‘Looking at religion in the city’ (Chapter 1) adds the notion of sacralisation to the concept of the fluidity of religion, which is captured, even in historical contexts, by the concepts of ‘lived religion’ and ‘religion in the making’. This chapter focuses on the inherently dynamic quality of those cultural products that I identify as ‘religion’ in cities. At the same time, the continuing materiality of religion and the undeniable presence of traditions and even canones needs to be conceptualised as something more than a world of individually fragmented religious practices and beliefs, and incipient, ever-changing, and also sometimes dissolving, institutions. However, one should not simply cluster together these phenomena in the form of narrative shorthand terms, such as the ‘Greek Religion’ or ‘Islam’ used by historians or the ‘urban religion’ of social anthropologists. The chapter offers a theoretical reflection on a concept of religion that is useful for asking questions about such fixations and intensifications of ‘sacredness’.

‘Before urban religion: Fustel de Coulanges and narratives of civic religion’ (Chapter 2) takes a fresh look at religion in the cities of the ancient Mediterranean in the light of present-day urbanisation. The models of ‘polis religion’ and ‘civic religion’, a potential legacy of the study of Mediterranean antiquity that might be of use in the study of urban religion in other periods and regions, are considered in the context of their origins in Numa Fustel de Coulange’s 1864 work La cité antique. A re-reading of this text draws attention to a number of deficiencies in the popular model of the coextension of political dominion and identity with religious practices and identity. This critical review will then be extended to interpretations of the relationship between city and religion in other periods and areas. It is only once this background is in place that it will be possible to propose a new concept of ‘urbanised religion’.

The third chapter, ‘Beyond Urban Religion: Urbanising and urbanised religion’, takes as its starting point the brief comparative review of narratives concerning the role of religion in cities throughout history with which Chapter 2 ends. It discusses both sides of the reciprocal formation of religion and urban ways of life using a dual terminology in which religion is an active factor, promoting and acting upon urban settlements (‘urbanising’), and a passive factor, being acted upon by urban factors (‘urbanised religion’). However, my argument starts from an even more fundamental reflection. If what can loosely be termed ‘urban religion’ is able to serve as a lens onto the historical entanglement of cities, or ‘urban settlements’, then it is the specifically spatial character of religion that needs to be understood and theoretically modelled. Is religion more, or better differently, spatial than other cultural practices? ‘Sacred places’ have played a prominent role in the history of research as loci of epiphanic character, above all in phenomenological approaches to religion but also in studies of sacred centres or pilgrimage. The temporal aspects of religion (routine, crisis rituals and rites of passage, conversion, calendar) have been foregrounded in many other approaches to the subject, with place being reduced to a mere setting. This chapter thus attempts to reconstruct religious action as a spatial practice that is sensitive to and creative of the character of settlements. On this basis, it attempts to develop a grid of analytical perspectives for studying the mutual interactions of religious practices and beliefs with urban space that were introduced in the previous chapter.  

Thinking religion in urban space

The second section of the book begins to analyse certain historical material with regard to specific forms of religious practices or discourses and the concomitant results for religious change and religion being ‘urbanised’. The fourth chapter, ‘Presupposing the city: Philosophical piety as urbanised religion’, focuses on literary discourses in mid-1st century BCE Rome. Cicero’s political and philosophical reflections react not only to the social and political conditions of the late Roman Republic and the Imperial expansion, but also specifically to changes in the social and spatial fabric of the city of Rome. I focus on this latter aspect, considering his On the nature of the gods both on the level of its content – arguments, choice of examples – and on the meta-level of the intellectual and communicative enterprise of the dialogue as such. It is astonishing to see that this universalist theological discussion presupposes the city as the best place to live. However, my analysis deals not with Cicero’s participation in a widespread ancient urban ideology but, rather, with his implicit rendering of the specifics of urbanised religion. Thus, the chapter develops perspectives for close reading that might be employed in the study of texts produced in different processes of urbanisation.

Recent evolutionary theories have drawn on cognitive studies to suggest that the forma­tion of large societies and the social coherence necessary for their survival depends on the development of omniscient and moral gods that are able to observe and punish individuals in a way that extends beyond the ordinary mechanisms of social control. In contrast, Chapter 5, ‘Crafting complex place: Religion and urban development’, advances the hypothesis that large urban societies need practices that craft urban places by relating people and space, by disrupting continuous space, and by selectively appropriating space. These three processes are stabilised and furthered when they become reflexive, that is when they are accompanied by mental representations and discourses that are able to interpret urban experiences and to motivate urban development by providing further services. My argument draws on the example of the late Republican city of Rome and, in particular, on the rise of what is usually treated as ‘aetiological myth’ and ‘antiquarian literature’. The textual basis is given by Vitruvius and by book 5 of Marcus Terentius Varro’s On the Latin language, which is dedicated to the treatment of ‘Place’. In Rome, it was ritual and textual religious practices that provided important tools for the creation of the highly complex, shared and divided, space called ‘city’ that was brought to a new level of complexity and coherence in the subsequent period.

Shaping urban space

While the focus of the second section of this volume is on the cognitive appropriation of space, the third section turns to the materiality of this process and considers the long term consequences of this appropriation. Chapter 6, ‘Materiality of religion in urban space: Neighbourhoods of a metropolis’, leads the way. Materiality, which is to say the touchability and visibility of religion, is of particular importance in urban contexts. As systematically developed in Chapter 1, in the multi-layered and over- or under-determined urban space, religious practices use material forms in order to imprint a lasting religious character on spaces and thus appropriate them for temporary or permanent use. How does this work on the spatial level of neighbourhoods and neighbourhood religion? This chapter will explore fundamental mechanisms, focusing on practices in the vici, the small official sub-divisions of the city of Rome. The concept of ‘public’ spaces in Rome as areas for such religious practices is of particular interest, as the category of ‘public’ constitutes a fundamental trait of the contemporary concept of what characterised cities. From this perspective, religion is employed in such a way as to constitute the public character of places. Starting from a brief analysis of ‘quarters’ and the cult of the Lares, I will offer a new view of the institution and institutionalisation of the vicomagistri and of what has been seen as the popularisation of Imperial cult in the city of Rome. The chapter thus argues for a heterarchical view of urbanised, as well as urbanising, religion, from which perspective questions naturally arise concerning the validity of the dichotomy of public and private as an analytical concept.

The seventh chapter, ‘Urban resilience and religion: Attaching time to place’, focuses on the relationship between urban resilience and religion, with resilience providing a lens through which to analyse religion and religion serving the same role with respect to resilience. By focusing on those religious practices that might reasonably be seen as fostering resilience (and hence urbanising religion), I assume that change in ancient Roman religion is related to a constellation of material and social action that can be described as ‘urban resilience’. An important question to ask is how forms of attachment to one’s city and urban space actually changed over time. A rare and important source of historical data that allows us to relate specific religious practices to the ups and downs of urban history (and hence to urbanised religion) is preserved in the material, frequently monumental, form of Roman calendars. This chapter argues that the development of certain features of the calendar offers a glimpse into different forms of practices that might have reflected, and helped foster, urban resilience. In the material form of the fasti and related media, individual and group memories of disasters (defeats, especially those including a massive loss of individual life; outbreaks of disease; floods) and memories of resilience, or the overcoming of disasters, are fixed and communicated on specific dates. This is not an inherent feature of just any calendar but, rather, a specific characteristic of the Republican Roman development of the calendar and its medial representation. The structural and historical continuity of the city are emphasised in these forms, acknowledging that disasters occur but stressing their temporary nature. The actual copies of the Roman calendar from the early Imperial period (the only period for which we can trace the material distribution, due to the fashion of inscribing calendars on stone) indicate a bottom-up interest in the places that made up the city of Rome. Whether this interest and the related practices actually contributed to resilience cannot be proven. However, by examining these religious practices we can shed some light on the peculiar ways in which Romans dealt with the fear of disaster and with its actual manifestation. As far as the study of urbanised religion is concerned, looking for resilience can help historicise religious practices that can be understood better within the framework of such memories and fears and in the context of changing urban and Imperial constellations.

Grouping and subjectivisation in urban religion

The last section of this volume further highlights questions surrounding the religious changes that take place under urban conditions by shifting the focus onto the agents involved. In looking for a social and experiential framework for intellectual reflection on ‘selves’, the eighth chapter, ‘Urban Selves: Individualisation in urban space’, scrutinises not only concepts of the self but, above all, socio-religious practices and experiences related to such self-concepts. The argument here builds on recent research into the processes of religious individualisation in Mediterranean antiquity. In particular, I suggest that specifically urban developments during the Hellenistic and (early) Imperial phases of urbanisation contributed, to a certain extent at least, to the development of notions of ‘selves’. I attempt to show how cities not only conditioned religious actions and reflections in this context but also served as motifs in such reasoning.

The final chapter, ‘Urbanity and multiple religious identities’, builds on this argument. The view of religious identities as collective and publicly affirmed came late to the ancient Mediterranean world, slowly developing in the Hellenistic and Roman empires. Prior to this, people were comfortable engaging with a range of different cults and easily shifted their piety from one local god to the next when they moved from one locale to another. Only in rare situations were self-definitions invoked with regard to religious beliefs or belongings. Family or political belonging might be expressed by reference to religious symbols but only very specific religious roles produced anything like religious identities. This last chapter explores changes in the use of specifically religious identities and the driving forces behind such changes. Building on the concepts developed in the preceding chapters, I pay particular attention to processes related to urbanisation and urban growth as the most important dynamic factors for changes in the degree of institutionalisation of religious identities. Such factors include the kind of urban aspirations that triggered migration, including identification and ethnogenesis, but also the density and diversity of living quarters, and the political interests involved in the administration and domination of urban space. A closer inspection of these combined factors highlights their role in the development of intermittent and multiple religious identities as forms of urbanity that combined, rather than mutually excluded, the enlargement of options and control. Collective religious identities, and hence religious plurality in the sense of a plurality of such imagined or interacting groups, were a phenomenon triggered by migration to and between cities and were furthered by urban conditions of density. The necessary boundary work, performed by urban intellectuals in the role of religious specialists, can, as the second part of the chapter shows, be identified even in the case of ancient Judaism as we find it in the world of Imperial cities.

The volume closes with a short summary of the individual chapters and their integrated results at the end of the book, under the heading of ‘Religion and the City’. Here I critically evaluate the possibility of generalising my broader findings concerning religious change and other related changes in urban fabrics.

An invitation for discussion

As can be imagined, this book is not the final result of the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations’. Rather, it is the invitation to enter into a discussion. A discussion between historians of religion and urban historians, historians of the Mediterranean and the South-Asian Subcontinent, between historians of Classical Antiquity and of the first and second millennia CE. It offers observations and reflections, concepts and data that might trigger such exchanges.

— Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.


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