Last year a spectacular discovery entered in the Western and Central-East European press: two mysterious tablets (one in gold and one in silver) were found in the world famous cemetery of Viminacium, Serbia. As one of the most well researched cemeteries of the Roman Empire, Viminacium offers indeed a striking example to analyse religious experiences and the dynamics of funerary rites and changes. The two small tablets were discovered in a tomb dated on the 4 th century A.D. in a part of the cemetery used by mixed, Pagan and Christian communities. This “syncretism” and cohabitation of the two groups is well known from others parts of Pannonia and the Empire too.
Despite of the “sensational” news, it is not surprising at all to find pagan burials within Christian communities. The two objects – often presented wrongly in the Western and Serbian press as defixiones, or curse tablets – has nothing to do with cursing. It is certainly gives an interesting glimpse in the magical practices and popular religious culture of the ancient people in the late antique period, when Jewish, Egyptian and Syrian influences were well established in the Roman magical practices.
The two tablets (one in silver, one in gold) are certainly amulets, protecting the soul of the dead. While the silver one is full with charakteres, the golden lamella has an Aramaic text written in Greek. Similar golden lamella was found also in Dierna, Romania and recently in Aquincum. The Serbian golden lamella – after the text presented in the international press – contains 3 mysterious demon names, or voces magicae:Thobarabau, Semeseilam, Sesengenfaranges. The first one, Thobarabau is well known from several magical sources (Supplementum Magicum 1990, 41, 42, 43.1, PGM 7, 977, Kotansky 1994, p. 80, Vannier et al. 2000). Semeseilam appears less frequent, but is is also a well known magical word (Janelli 1831, 220) and it probably derives from the Hebrew word of eternal sun or from a Syrian divinity or demon (Németh 2010, 185). Sesengenfaranges (or more probably, Sesengebarpharanges) is also an Aramaic or Hebrew word, with uncertain origins (probably related to a Hebrew mythical narrative hard to reconstruct today: Németh 2010, 186).
Although, the vox magicae certainly leads to the Jewish magical traditions, would be hard to affirm, that the dead person’s family, who want to protect the soul of their beloved person were Jewish or from the Eastern part of the Empire. These magical words and practices were extremely well spread all over the Empire and rarely can be interpreted as ethnic-cultural agents.
A new Mithraic inscription was reported in March 2015 to have been seized by the police at Timişoara in Romania. The inscription is the second known dedication of Dioscorus, recorded already on a remarkable monument discovered in the 19th century in Apulum (Alba Iulia) in a mithraeum. My publication of the inscription with Imola Boda, Calin Timoc and Victor Bunoiu as co-authors you can read HERE.
A Photo 3D model of the monument was made by Claudiu Toma from the University of Timisoara. See also the: RECONSTRUCTION OF THE MONUMENT.
Roman religion and the archaeology of religion became a popular topic also in Romanian research in the last decade. Due to the internationalisation of the humanities, the accessibility of Western literature and the mobility of Romanian scholars in Europe and beyond positively stimulated the research of Roman religion in Dacia.
With more than 1100 titles published on Roman religion, the research was focusing especially on creating catalogues, analysing individual cults and social aspects of some divinities or the religious “life” of some cities. Some of the topics, such as early Christianity was a priority, even if there is no direct proof of Christian groups in Dacia or even in later periods.
The new tendencies of the research (Lived Ancient Religion approach, new methods and approaches in the archaeology of religion) offered also for the Romanian scholars alternatives to interpret the materiality of Roman religion from Romania in a different way. New excavations opened opportunities to reform our view on archaeology of religion and a newly emerging theoretical discussion on this topic will be hopefully useful for further researches.
Our new edited volume – a special edition of the Studia UBB Historia Journal – is a first step for such an attempt. Many of the articles are trying to introduce a new approach and to interpret the material beyond iconography or typologies, but focusing on use, production, material and the relationship with human and divine agencies.
2016 was again, a very prolific year in the research of Roman religion. More than 40 monographs and volumes were published focusing on general and particular aspects of this topic. The list you can find HERE.
All the 3 “big” names of the discipline, Jörg Rüpke, John Scheid and Clifford Ando published new volumes, expressing at least two or three different methodologies and views on Roman religious communication. Numerous archaeological monographs on sanctuaries were published too. Some of the volumes are still focusing on individual divinities, while others are worth to open mostly because of their amazing photographs. In long term approach, the most important contribution of this year are the books of Jörg Rüpke and John Scheid, although Roman religion, as religion of books, senses and emotions are also open new doors for further researches. Numerous publications were focusing also on medicine and religion and studies on Roman magic are also flourishing.
Conferences and workshops of this year were focusing on new approaches on materiality and Roman religious communication, small group religions (especially Mithras), medicine and Roman religion and finally, the relationship between Roman economy and religion.
The projects of John Scheid on sanctuaries in Italy and the Lived Ancient Religion project are still running, preparing their last stand and big conferences for the next year.
Hopefully, 2017 will produce also new and interesting books and contributions in the study of Roman religion.
Participants of the international conference focusing on the mysteries of Mithras and other mystery cults in ancient world had the opportunity to visit in June, 2016 the famous mithraeum of Marino, recently reopened for the greater public in a modern subterranean museum. Here you find some photos from this truly amazing site. Important to note, that the modern lights within that marvellous space created already a unique environment and religious sensescape, but if one imagine the same space with small Roman lamps and other lighting objects, it would increase the mystical aspect of this tableau vivant, as recently L. Dirven named the sacred cave of Mithras.
Participants of the international conference focusing on the mysteries of Mithras and other mystery cults in ancient world had the opportunity to visit in June, 2016 the famous mithraeum of Vulci. A small booklet presenting the cult of Mithras in Vulci and the newly reopened exhibition focusing on the rich and exquisite finds of the mithraeum were also presented on this occasion. Here you find some photos from the site and the museum:
The international conference organized by Attilio Mastrocinque, Patricia Johnston, Alfonsina Russo and László Takács was one of the largest gatherings focusing on the cult of Mithras in the last decades. It was a collaboration of several institutes from Italy, USA and Hungary and was part of a series of similar workshops and conferences, initiated by the above mentioned organisers few years ago.
With more than half hundred participants, the majority of the papers were focusing on the specific and general patterns of the mysteries of Mithras, presenting new finds, archaeological reports and general discussions on various old or new aspects of the cult. Beside this, several articles were dealing with the Isiac cults, Magna Mater, the Samothraken cults, Adonis, Attis and other divinities too. Although a majority of the scholars were from religious studies and ancient history, archaeology of religion and classical philology were also represented by few contributions. Unfortunately, none of the three, most influential Mithraic scholars were present (R. Gordon, M. Clauss, R. Beck), although the contributions of R. Gordon and R. Turcan were presented in absentia. Several “big” names of Mithraic studies (S. Gasparro, Ch. Faraone, A. Mastrocinque, L. Martin) were present however.
From a historiographic and methodological point of view, the contributions reflected the “crisis” and eclecticism of Mithraic studies, once self-defined as a sub-discipline of Roman religious studies, now struggling to find its position between the cultural-historical approach and the cognitive studies. While in some papers, the long time ago deconstructed and questioned “doctrine” of F. Cumont was highly present, some papers presented new waves of methodological approaches, such as the Lived Ancient Religion or the cognitive studies. The papers reflected also the long term influence and durability of some studies written by D. Ulansey, R. Gordon, R. Beck and M. Clauss. Surprisingly few papers presented new results from recently excavated mithraea, although a Supplement for CIMRM would be essential on an Empire scale. In this sense, the panel focusing on the Danubian provinces offered probably the most numerous case studies with new archaeological sources. Among the recently found mithraea, the sanctuary from Kempraten was the only one presented.
Due to the various schools and theoretical backgrounds, the conference didn’t have a coherent methodological framework and didn’t really offer significantly new results such as happened in some influential Mithraic conferences (Tehran 1975, Tienen 2002). Despite of this, it definitely represents an important step in the historiography of this sub-discipline and was a good example for international collaboration and presented the recent state of research.
The conference was organized in three different places in Tarquinia, Vulci and Marino, which proved a remarkable coordination of various institutions, local authorities and a large number of staff, which need to be acclaimed. The participants of the conference visited the recently recuperated statue of Mithras Tauroctonos from Tarquinia, the mithraeum of Vulci and Marino and the Etruscan necropolis of Tarquinia too.
Above you find some photos from the conference.