Public cults in private hands. The Appropriation of Cult Sites from the 2nd Century BCE to the 2nd Century CE

C. Manetta, Marie Curie Research Fellow, University of Exeter

CULTUS explores the phenomenon of ʻsemi-publicʼ cult situated in private properties, and the ways in which private male and female members of the elite and (in their wake) emperors appropriated traditional cults, and established new ones on their private estates between the 2nd c. BC and the 2nd c. AD. It looks at the cult installations featured in town houses (domus) and extra-urban villas, as documented in primary sources. They were hosted in spaces inside and outside the domestic buildings. In some cases the cult was older than the house, for it was established before the piece of land (then still public) was included in private property. The inclusion of older sacred buildings and cults on private property started between the 3rd and the 2nd c. BC, became popular in the 1st c. BC, when it also caused concern and annoyance, and continued during the imperial period. In other cases, the cult was established during the construction of the house or at some point during its use. CULTUS offers a critical assessment of the nature of these cults and the whole spectrum of the cultic initiatives that a private individual could carry out on private premises, including the scope and the audience of the religious activities, and their management. More importantly, the possibility that some of these sacred buildings, despite being on private grounds, remained public or were made accessible to the public is central to CULTUS’ inquiry. This is an ignored aspect of Roman religion that is essential for our understanding of the role of religion in Roman elite competition, identity creation, and state ideology. It also involves the much-debated dichotomy between public and private at the legal, spatial, social, and religious level.
Conceptually, CULTUS draws on traditional and recent approaches, yet considers them critically, and exploits their mutually supporting and reinforcing aspects. They include the ʻspatial turnʼ, that explores the spatial dimension of social life; an understanding of ʻpublicʼ and ʻprivateʼ spaces as ever-fluid concepts; the application of the topographical approach “mapping social history” set out by Barbara Borg; a link with the concept of ʻLived Ancient Religionʼ (J. Rüpke), and with gender studies, for women’s roles in religious cults were more significant than has been traditionally acknowledged.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 844113”, and it is hosted by the University of Exeter, Department of Classics and Ancient History.

For more information:

Public Cults in Private Hands – The Appropriation of Cult Sites from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE (