Skip to content

Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia – a book between classical archaeology and religious studies

In few weeks my book on Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia will be out. It’s the result of 5 years of research carried on in the Max Weber Kolleg and the University of Pécs, trying to find a bridge between classical archaeology, religious studies and archaeology of religion. Following the paradigmatic works of Mihai Barbulescu on “Spiritual interferences in Roman Dacia (1984 in Romanian language)” and Sorin Nemeti’s “Religious syncretism in Roman Dacia” (2005, also in Romanian), this volume tried to present the archaeological material through the eye of religious studies, focusing on religious experiences in sacralised spaces, commonly known today as Roman sanctuaries. The research was part of the Sanctuary Project of prof. Greg Woolf (ICS London) in collaboration with the Lived Ancient Religion project of prof. Jörg Rüpke. The publication of the book was financed by the Foundation of the Heritage of Transylvania  from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Contents of the book you can find HERE.

Short abstract of the book:

“This book is the first comprehensive work focusing on lived ancient religious communication in Roman Dacia. Testing for the first time the ‘Lived Ancient Religion’ approach in terms of a peripheral province from the Danubian area, this work looks at the role of ‘sacralised’ spaces, known commonly as sanctuaries in the religious communication of the province. The author analyses the role of space sacralisation, religious appropriation, embodiment and the social impact of religious communication in urban contexts (Apulum), military contexts (Porolissum and Mehadia), and numerous examples from rural (non-urban) environments (Ampelum, Germisara, Ad Mediam, and many 9781789690811others). The book concentrates not only on the creation and maintenance of sacralised spaces in public and secondary locations, but also on their role at the micro-level of objects, semi-micro level of spaces (settlements), and the macro-level of the province and the Danubian region as a whole. Innovatively as regards provincial archaeological research, this book emphasises the spatial aspects of lived ancient religion by analysing for the first time the sanctuaries as spaces of religious communication in Dacia. The work also contains a significant chapter on the so-called ‘small-group’ religions (the Bacchic, Mithraic and Dolichenian groups of the province), which are approached for the first time in detail. The study also gives the first comprehensive list of archaeologically-epigraphically- attested, and The book can be ordered  on the page of Archaeopress Publishing Ltd.



Reconstructed Mithraea in modern museums and archaeological parks

Ancient people of the Roman Empire created hundreds of spaces dedicated to Mithras, known commonly as sanctuaries of Mithras (the modern notion of mithraeum was never used by ancients, instead they labeled their spaces as templum, aedes, spelaea). Although the archaeological material from these spaces are extremely rich and due to the recent discoveries in the last decades we know much more about the archaeology of mithraea and their interior (mosaics, frescos, ceramic material, soundscape, position of statues and altars, repetitive or non-repetitive actions within the naos or outside of it), there are still big questions how a mithraeum looked like in antiquity. How dark was it? What kind of sounds they tried to immitate? Where the food was prepared for the banquets? How they sit on the benches? How many people participated and how often in such events? How often did they meet and how widespread were the acts of initiation in provincial contexts?

Some modern reconstructions of mithraea tries to anwer on these big questions of classical archaeology and religious studies by re-creating the interior of the sanctuaries. Some of them are from the early 20th century, others are from the 21st century. In any case, it is good to compare them and to find an aurea mediocritas, a solution which might be the closest to ancient realities.

The Symphorus mithraeum from Aquincum

The Symphorus mithraeum (known also as Mithraeum IV) was discovered in Aquincum (Óbuda, Budapest, Hungary) in 1941 by Tibor Nagy. It was listed also by M. J. Vermaseren in his monumental corpus (CIMRM 1767). His important excavation from that period was just recently reinterpreted by the excavations of Paula Zsidi (1999-2000) and Orsolya Láng (2017). The sanctuary was discovered in the vicinity of the south-wall of the civilian town, around 150 meters south from the Victorinus mithraeum (known also as Mithraeum II). It was the fourth sanctuary dedicated to Mithras, today there are 5 known in the conurbation of Aquincum.

The archaeological material of the sanctuary is one of the richest in Aquincum: frescoes, terracotta Mithras tauroctony, interesting globe-shaped stones, altars, rich pottery and glass material was discovered here. The sanctuary was recently reconstructed, the archaeological material is well preserved and presented in a nice manner. It is one of the best reconstructed sanctuaries in Hungary, together with the Fertőrákos mithraeum and the Iseum of Savaria. A booklet presenting the sanctuary is in preparation by the excavators.

Photos from the reconstructed building and its rich material (Szabó Cs. 2018)

Maps and Roman religion

Maps are the best tools for visualising big data, especially in the age of Google Maps and modern network studies. Numerous big projects focusing on Roman history are using already this surface to present their database also in form of maps, which help us to understand many specific details and local particularities of provinces or larger entities within the Roman Empire and beyond. There are fantastic maps focusing on global maps of the Graeco-Roman worldepigraphic material of the empire, the Roman cities and settlements, a map which compares ancient and medieval Europe,  the terra sigillata production sites, the amphorae and other pottery production sites, Roman economy and their sites and the Roman roads and networks. 

When it comes to Roman religion however, we are in a pretty bad situation. Although there are monumental projects focusing on mapping Roman sanctuaries and religious sites in Gallia, Italy or Germaniae,  none of these projects has a digital map yet. Some projects are focusing on individual divinities or religious groups, such as the Isiac cults,  Mithras or early Christian communities. These new projects tries to visualise the monumental work and heritage of M. J. Vermaseren and the EPRO series, where numerous maps were also published focusing on individual divinities or small group religions.

A new project will focus on mapping all the Roman sacralised spaces (known commonly as sanctuaries) in the Danubian provinces. Stay tuned!

Photo_Mithorig Project 2

Mithras sanctuaries and groups in the Roman Empire (source:

Monographs on Roman religion: the big books of our field

There is no systematic history of Roman religious studies. Most of the studies were focusing on the 19th century or the 20th century and their dominant personalities, biographies, correspondances. Important to highlight the contributions of Corinne Bonnet, C. Robert Phillips III and  James B. Rives.

9783406034060-usDuring the 20th century there were at least 20 big books on Roman religion, each of them presenting original methods and approaches on the same topic, however few of these became paradigmatic. The first big book – and one of the most influential one – was the monumental work of Georg Wissowa from 1902 (second edition n 1912). His work was followed by important monographs by Vsevolod Basanoff[1], Albert Grenier[2], Herbert J. Rose[3], Franz Altheim[4], Jean Bayet[5], Kurt Latte[6], Georges Dumezil[7], John Fergusson[8], Robert Schilling[9], Robert Turcan[10] , Mary Beard-John North-Simon Price, John North and John Scheid[11]. From these 41P6jka-blL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_books, the most popular and paradigmatic work was that of Beard-North-Price from 1998, which is still one of the best manuals on Roman religion. Since the early 2000′ Jörg Rüpke and Clifford Ando produced numerous important works on Roman religion. Jörg Rüpke’s introduction on Roman religion from 2007 and the companion edited by him from the same year was also a paradigmatic work. His most recent synthesis on Roman religion presents a radically new approach on the topic, in slight contrast with Scheid’s  new work.




[1] V. Basanoff: Les dieux des Romains, Paris, 1942.

[2] A. Grenier: La religion romaine. In: Les religions de l’Europe ancienne III, Paris, 1948, 81-233.

[3] H. J. Rose: Ancient Roman religion, New York, 1948.

[4] F. Altheim: Römische Religionsgeschichte, Baden-Baden, 1951-3.

[5] J. Bayet: Histoire politique et psychologique de la religion romaine, Paris, 1957.

[6] K. Latte: Römische Religionsgeschichte, München, 1961.

[7] G. Dumezil: La religion romaine archaïque, Paris, 1966.

[8] J. Fergusson: The Religions of the Roman Empire, London, 1970.

[9] R. Schilling: Rites, cultes, Dieux de Rome, Paris, 1979.

[10] R. Turcan: The cults of the Roman Empire, New York, 1997.

[11] J. Scheid: La religion des Romains. Paris, 1998.


Actualities 2017 – the study of Roman religion in this year

Since I’m following the major publications on Roman religion (2013-2017), more than 120 monographs and major books were published on this topic. This shows clearly, how 9780198792536abundant became this scholarship, it is hard even to follow the speed of “production”. The publish or perish phenomenon invaded Roman religious studies too, which has positive and negative aspects too: lot of books were focusing in this year on brand new topics too, while others tried to reinterpret old questions or to give new, paradigmatic approaches. Another positive aspect, that numerous books from Central-East Europe were published too, integrating this part of the EU in the international scholarship. This year was marked by numerous imortant works on Celtic religion, a new wave of Mithraic studies and as the ending year of the paradigmatic Lived Ancient Religion project, it produced some programmatic works (and more will be followed next year). The list of the major works in 2013-2017 you can find HERE.




Mithraic studies: why is it so popular?

Studying the Roman cult of Mithras is still a “fashion” among the scholars of Roman religious studies and Roman archaeologists. Although since the seminal work of Franz V. Cumont, the literary sources didn’t really increase, the archaeological material of the cult is much more significant since Cumont’s or Vermaseren’s  monumental corpora were published. The “Mithraic studies”, as John Hinnells named it, is flourishing since the 1970’s, having a renaissance in the last years again.

After Roger Beck’s published his great book in 2006 where he introduced the notion of startalk, a series of new studies and books were published on the Roman cult of Mithras.  First, an entire volume was dedicated for the detailed analysis of Beck’s book in 2012.  In 9780198792536the same year, Manfred Clauss published a second edition of his seminal work on Mithras. Then, a largely debated article was published by C. Faraone in 2013, which contextualized the visual language of the Mithraic reliefs in a much larger picture of Roman art and religion. Following this idea, A. Mastrocinque published a book on the mysteries of Mithras, where he tries to argue, that the cult is originated in the Augustean religious reform and visual language of that age.

10964_00_detailIn 2014, M. Luther published a book on the Mind of the Mithraists, focusing on the cognitive aspects of this religion. A very similar book was published in this year by Roger Beck and Olympia Panagiotidou. A new project focusing on the network of “Mithraic” groups is run by A. Chalupa and his team, while I. Elsner and his team has another project focusing on the Images of Mithra(s) in a historical perspective. A recent book was just pubished in this year by Elsner’s students. A conference focusing on the cult of Mithras in the Danubian provinces was organized in 2016, while another focusing on the archaeology of the mithraea in 2017. In 2018, David Walsh will publish his PhD on the sanctuaries of Mithras in late antiquity at BRILL. As far as I know, Jaan Lahe is also working now on a new book on the evolution of Mithras from Iranian to Roman periods and professor R. L. Gordon is also preparing to publish his Kleine Schriften, which even if won’t have new articles on this topic, will be certainly an important collection of the most influential Mithraic studies of the second half of the 20th century.

The big question is: why is this topic still, so popular? Hard to answer this question. 52111044Perhaps, the large amount of archaeological material, the numerous unanswered questions related to this cult, the increased number of scholars in classics and Roman religious studies? An interesting and very important review however can highlight some of the mistakes of this “sub-discipline”. Worth to read it to avoid notions as “Mithraists” or to analyze this cult as a separate entity within the large variety of Roman religious communication.