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Durham University

Durham Centre for Roman Cultural Studies

Cities and Gods Conference Review

The Cities and Gods: Interdisciplinary perspectives conference was held on 6-7th July 2007 at St John’s College, Durham University. The aim of this conference was to explore the impact of religious traditions on the physical and social organization of the Roman and Late Antique city. In particular, it was intended to bring together scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds in order to identify common interests and new approaches. To this end, 14 international speakers were invited to present and discuss their research.

Papers were divided into three sessions. On the first day, participants were welcomed by the director of the Durham Centre for Roman Cultural Studies, Dr Richard Hingley. The chair of the first session, ancient historian Nicholas Purcell (Oxford), then opened the conference with some challenges for the speakers and audience, perhaps most importantly stressing the need to accept the reality of the gods in the lives of ancient people.

Day One 

The first session assessed the influence of religious traditions on architectural design, construction, and decoration. Prof John Stamper (Notre Dame, Indiana), considered the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter in Rome. Often seen as a direct model for other capitolia, Stamper identified architectural and locational innovations at Cosa and Pompeii which suggest a more nuanced process of cultural assimilation. Dr. Louise Revell (Southampton) continued the theme of local variability within a global empire through her examination of architecture and ritual practice at sanctuary sites in Britain and Baetica. Attention then shifted to the eastern empire, with Dr Ted Kaizer’s (Durham) critical examination of the religious complexity of Dura-Europos and its public/private architectural expression. Dr Rubina Raja (Hamburg) then considered the monumentalization of the Temple of Zeus at Gerasa. She argued that new ‘Roman’ architectural forms did not equate with a radical change in cult, but rather symbolised a new diversity of practice and belief. In summary, the first session clearly demonstrated the complex negotiations between imperial power and regional religious beliefs and architectural forms.

The second session, chaired by contemporary religious architect Dr Michael Crosbie (editor, Faith & Form), considered how specific rites or liturgical acts structured urban space and vice versa with particular attention to whether and how colonial powers acted to control existing religious practice and authority. Dr Michael Sommer (Liverpool) considered the dense concentration of sanctuaries in the Beka’a valley and their role in the negotiation of power between farmers and nomads. Prof. Clifford Ando (Chicago) addressed the materiality of civic/imperial religion; using Diana on the Aventine as his focus, he argued that Rome failed to create a Reichsreligion. Dr Martin Bommas (Birmingham) considered the evidence for the worship of Isis. Tracing the cult as it spread from Egypt, to Greece, Italy and finally back to Egypt, he emphasized the evolving locations and architectural forms of these sanctuaries. Finally, Dr Penny Goodman (Leeds) explored the significance of the distinct architectures and locations of classical and Romano-Celtic temples in Gaul. In summary, the second session demonstrated the ability of cults and associated architecture to spread around the empire, but that these beliefs and forms were subject to continual renegotiation. The first day concluded with a wine reception and formal dinner at St John’s College.

Day Two

On day two, the third and final session, chaired by archaeologist Dr Neil Christie (Leciester), addressed the impact made on urban areas by the introduction of new cults or by the conversion from one religion to another, with a specific focus on Christianity. Prof Claire Sotinel (Tours) used the example of Aquileia to explore the process through which the Christian population became synonymous with the civic population. Dott.ssa Isabella Baldini (Bologna) considered the very gradual Christianization of the urban landscape of Gortyn through the transformation of existing buildings and creation of new ones. Dr Wendy Pullan (Cambridge) discussed the Justinian’s Nea church in Jerusalem and the shift from a Christological to a Marian landscape in the fifth century. Prof.ssa Lucrezia Spera (Rome) compared three neighbourhoods of Rome to reveal contrasting developments during Late Antiquity, but stressing the parallel importance of social and economic needs alongside the religious. Prof Ann-Marie Yasin (Southern California) considered the function of churches as new spaces for the commemoration of civic patronage. Using examples from North Africa, Yasin demonstrated the importance of monumental writing in and on church buildings. Finally, Dr Allan Doig (Oxford) considered how Rome’s sacred geography drew on the landscapes and architecture of the Holy Land. In summary, the third session illustrated the profound impact of Christianity on the urban landscape through the emergence of new architectural forms; however, this process was gradual and variable and must be seen alongside the continuity of paganism and other economic developments which shaped the Late Antique city.

On the final afternoon, participants concluded the conference with a round-table debate. Discussion included the problems of defining religious space (when is a building or landscape ‘sacred’ and can this be isolated as a distinct phenomenon?), the affect of architecture, and the difficulties of working with and without texts. Another strong theme was the diversity of Christian (as well as pagan) practice around the empire. Scholars often conceive of the pagan tradition as diverse (an expression of the different identities of individual societies) and the Christian tradition as homogenous (an expression of a single Christian community). Future research might attempt to overcome the marked divide in the study of pagan and later religions by addressing the diversity of both traditions as well as concentrating on specific religious practices (e.g. pilgrimage).

In summary, through its international and interdisciplinary nature, the conference was able to highlight the both the differences and similarities in research questions and methods. Discussions revealed strong overlaps of interest and introduced participants to new theoretical perspectives. The round-table identified some core questions for the study of Roman religion and the city, as well as making some progress towards how these questions might be addressed.

The conference was attended by c.35 participants. Additional funding was provided by the Rosemary Cramp Fund, the Institute of Advanced Study and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Durham University. It is intended to publish the proceedings of the conference as a supplementary volume of BABesch (Bullettin Antike Beschaving). The volume will be edited by the conference organisers: T. Kaizer, A. Leone, E. Thomas and R. Witcher. As well as individual papers, the chairs will also contribute reflections on the papers and discussion following each of the three sessions.