PRIESTS AND INITIATES
Much of our evidence for the religious affiliations of pagan aristocrats comes from inscribed dedications—more indeed than most people probably realize. In simpler times it was taken for granted that inscriptions provided a peculiarly uncomplicated sort of evidence, bare facts not mediated by human art or bias. We have now come to realize that few facts are bare. We need to know what sort of monuments these dedications were inscribed on, where they were erected, by whom, and with what purpose. After all, if it is their honorands’ private religious beliefs they are supposed to be attesting, why was it considered appropriate to record this sort of information on public dedications? And which dedications were in fact public?
Let us begin with the largest category, priesthoods of the Roman state cults. Much has been made of the priesthoods held by the last few generations of Roman aristocrats. Since the traditional priesthoods were monopolized by men of noble birth, in modern studies this has often been interpreted as proving that aristocrats were the champions of the traditional cults. The evidence is not quite so straightforward. Herbert Bloch wrote of these men having a “policy” of “advertis[ing]… their various religious activities and achievements” on dedications and epitaphs.1 Many other critics have tacitly followed this approach, taking it for granted that anyone epigraphically attested as a pontifex was a devout pagan. Implying as it does that they were deliberately and defiantly proclaiming their paganism, this is a misleading perspective.
In the first place, by the late fourth century the great majority of these dedications were inscribed on private monuments, erected in cult settings or private houses (§ 4). Without these dedications, in most cases we would not know that these men were pagans at all. More important, listing priesthoods on dedications and epitaphs was by no means an innovation of the fourth century. Already in the first they were regularly included in cursus inscriptions, normally placed conspicuously out of chronological sequence at the beginning or end of a man’s career together with his
1. Bloch 1945, 211.