Rome and the Western Greeks, 350 BC-AD 200: Conquest and Acculturation in Southern Italy

By Kathryn Lomas | Go to book overview

8

Ritual and Society: Cults and Cultural Transition

Cults and religious activities occupied a central position in the life of all ancient cities, and those of Magna Graecia were no exception to this. In addition, there is particular reason to examine the cults, priesthoods, festivals and forms of worship which continued into the Roman period. The cities of southern Italy were societies in a state of cultural transition, caught between their native Greek culture, the Oscan elements which had been absorbed to a greater or lesser degree, and the increasing cultural dominance of Rome. The centrality of religious activities to the life of these cities allows us to observe the process of this cultural transition and the ways in which these cities adapted both to Roman influences and to non-Italian influences in an area vital to their existence.

There are a number of reasons why priesthoods, cults and religious activities are useful indicators of a city's social and cultural life, and of the processes of cultural change. At the most fundamental level, these are areas of life which are very conservative and slow to change, with an emphasis on tradition and continuity. This is true in many primitive societies, 1 but is particularly true of Greece and even more so of Rome, with its predominant emphasis on ritual. Having said this, evolution did take place in ancient religion, although at a rather slower rate than other aspects of urban life, but the long time-scale of the process and the conservative nature of religious institutions means that any change is a reflector of fundamental changes taking place in the fabric of society. Given that cults and ritual were a highly politicised area of ancient life and were frequently manipulated as part of the mechanisms of power and legitimation, religion is also very important for our understanding of Roman control and acculturation.

Religion in the Roman world was not as circumscribed a field of activity as it is in most modern Western societies. It was an all-pervasive

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