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D7 Oriental Cults

From the Orient to Rome and back again. Religious flows and the expansion of oriental cults in the Roman Empire  

Coordination: Joachim Friedrich Quack, Christian Witschel  

The spread of so-called oriental cults within the Roman Empire is a singular phenomenon in the religious history of the ancient world that finds parallels in modern forms of religious flow from East to West. The way in which the Roman Empire took over foreign cults from the East and adapted them to its own religious needs formed a counter-current to the general direction of cultural influence in the Empire, from the politically stronger (i.e. Rome) to the East (i.e. Asia minor, Syria and Egypt), the process somewhat misleadingly termed ‘Romanization’. Should the success of these cults be seen in the context of a more general ‘orientalising’ trend throughout the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD? Does it represent a profound change or merely a new ‘fashion’? Our aim is to approach this phenomenon holistically and to evaluate it by applying to the ancient world recent insights about cultural flow in other eras. For this reason we have decided to pursue case studies of diverse regions. We will ask how ‘oriental’ these popular cults in the Roman Empire really were, how they related to their homelands, and how their original meaning was transformed (or not) during the transfer from East to West. We will try to reconstruct this transfer by looking to the agents responsible for it, but also to the changing linguistic and visual culture of the cults, both on their way west and during the process of their reimportation into the regions where they originated. 

Relief Isis im Tempel des Seti I. in Abydos, Photo by Svenja Nagel

We intend to study religious flow from the Eastern periphery of the Roman Empire to its centre and the transformations of the cults on five different levels:

1. Linguistic flows will be analyzed on the basis of the rich textual material (especially concerning the cult of Isis).
2. Visual flows will be analyzed on the basis of the pictorial documentation (many cultic and mythological scenes survive).
3. A closer look at the architecture and equipment of the many excavated sanctuaries will allow a reconstruction of cult practices and rituals.
4. At a more theoretical level, we will concern ourselves with reconstructing the process of transferring, adapting, or even ‘constructing’ oriental cults in the Roman world.
5. Further studies shall concern the regional or local setting of cultural contacts in which the transfer of cults took place.