Superstitiones and religiones. The Construction of Religious Deviance in Rome (2nd Century BC – 2nd Century AD)

Project description: Roman discourse on religion can mostly be read as a negotiation of normative boundaries: In a religion without textual authoritative fixations, societal processes had to take their place. Those processes comprise efforts to construct, dispute and affirm definitions of religious norms and deviance without necessarily relying on religious specialists. It was a singular characteristic of the Roman Republic that these so-called ‘construction- processes of deviance’ were extensively tied to the social standing of those participating in them, namely members of the senatorial elite. For them, taking part in those processes not only required a firm grasp of the often complicated and even conflicting mental outlooks on religious normativity. Furthermore, they were expected to a certain degree to ‘live up to expectations’ by embodying their idealized community’s values.

The project is centred around these agents who as ‘moral entrepreneurs’ (Howard Becker) try to assert individual or group interests and claim authority over definitions of right and wrong. Focusing on them allows for further insights into the society: Who formulates norms, who may formulate norms and what conditions were necessary in an elite keen to ensure its idea of consensus?

Building upon the central assumption of the ‘Sociology of Deviance’ that the normative boundaries of a society can change without correlation to effective behaviour of deviants, the deviant agents themselves will only play a subordinate role. Instead the focus lies on processes of social stratification, identifying strategies and the appropriation of religious motives.

In a first approach the question will be raised whether the emergence of discourses on individual religious deviance can be linked to the Middle Republican phenomenon of an increase in acuteness of inner-senatorial competition and the resulting appropriation of religious self-profiling modes. Historical agents who at that time lead the way could as exempla become later generation’s fuel for arguments as well as authoritative references within them. Said Late Republican successors (e.g. Cicero) used the reference to those earlier discourses, their content and established results as a medium for anchoring an (imagined) senatorial normative cosmos. These well attested Late Republican discourses represent the central sources which can be used to track operative modes of deviance and their relatedness to many of those ‘moral entrepreneurs’ who as political authorities also controlled the fate of the res publica.

The second part of the project concerns Rome in Imperial times when the domestic political and external changes wrought by the Principate resulted in a shift of debates as well as a change of rules in the game of deviance construction. The original fronts of normative religious definitions blurred increasingly, allowing for new handlers and application areas for the definitions of deviance. By including further exemplary cases a more comprehensive picture will be drawn which can be linked to the detectable change and changeability of Imperial Roman religion.