Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome

Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome
Jack J. Lennon
Cambridge University Press   235pp   £60

One important reason why human cultures have horrified one another throughout history is that each defines religious pollution differently. The Greeks had one word for it, miasma; the 1983 book of that title by Robert Parker remains a standard work on Hellenic religion. The Romans had no equivalent word, which Lennon sees as one reason why their version has lacked its own book until now. Focusing on what is distinctive to Roman culture, he puts the case that pollution mattered in ancient Roman religion and that it deserves more attention today.

Lennon’s approach to the evidence is sometimes anthropological or principle-based, seeking the symbolic origins of Roman practices and beliefs. At other times it is ideological or effect-based, examining how our sources deploy these beliefs for specific purposes. All Greek and Latin is translated and, despite the technical content, jargon is avoided. Both the principle-based and effect-based approaches are vital since, over centuries of change, Roman religious concepts shifted considerably. Even after Rome became a Greek-influenced cosmopolis, later subject to the dynastic rule of its emperors, ancient Italic traditions remained. By Lennon’s preferred period, the late Republic and early Empire, many measures against pollution had lost their original significance and become mysteries for antiquarians to puzzle over. (Why are 27 straw figurines annually thrown into the Tiber? Why must the Flamen Dialis never touch beans?) Key blasphemy laws endured, but the concept of pollution with its rich repertoire of staining metaphors became an enormously adaptable way to label things and people as wrong. This partly reflects how religious practice was politicised: for example, by the mid-first century bc negative omens could provoke instant filibusters or vetoes.

After laying the groundwork by defining the relevant Latin terms and outlining how spaces, animals and persons were designated as being pure, Lennon proceeds through three chapters on major areas of pollution risk: sex and female bodies, bloodshed and death. The first of these moves among related topics: birth, chastity and depravity, prostitutes, the Vestals and incest. Menstrual blood receives special attention: although it is rarely mentioned outside medical texts, an exceptional list of folk beliefs in Pliny the Elder endows it with amazing and dangerous properties. The next chapter treats human lifeblood. Spilled through warfare, it was not inherently polluting or offensive. However, shed criminally it was highly polluting and as a vivid metaphor it infused many forms of moral outrage, particularly against civil war. Human sacrifice had a murky role in Rome’s own past, which is also discussed. The chapter on death customs and rituals focuses on (elite) domestic mourning practices and the yearly festivals appeasing the shades. Lennon argues that death-pollution dictated cautious treatment of all bodies, even those of gladiators, whose corpses were unceremoniously dragged from the arena with a billhook.

The final chapter, on the importance of pollution as a rhetorical trope, uniquely focuses on one source text: Cicero’s speech ‘On His House’. Lennon amply demonstrates that mud-hurling Roman orators laid hands on every available pollution concept: Cicero intimates that the populist politician Clodius deflowered his own sister, confiscated a temple as a criminal hideout and looted his statue of Freedom from the tomb of a dead prostitute. Pollution concepts had become less mechanical since Rome’s earlier days, when it was decreed that hermaphrodites should be ritually destroyed, or that if any man raped a Vestal, the Pontifex Maximus should personally flog him to death.

Taboos still governed laws and customs, but pollution gained a rich metaphorical dimension long before Christianity. Indeed, Lennon occasionally takes comments from authors such as Livy and Florus as evidence of Roman belief, when in fact they are figurative. The chapter on rhetoric therefore makes a fitting conclusion to a sweeping religious and historical study.

Dunstan Lowe is Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent.

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