Thesis: The Public Lives of Private Cults

For many persons in a Master’s degree program, the final task to getting the degree is the production of a thesis. For those of you not in academia, the thesis is a research project of anywhere from 50-150 pages. In the thesis, the student is expected to demonstrate their knowledge of their chosen field as well as produce some new insight into their chosen topic. For those who go on in academia, the MA thesis is good preparation for the PhD dissertation in that you begin to hone the skills required to produce long-form, original research.

For my MA thesis, I chose the topic of Dionysiac associations in the Roman Empire (religious groups devoted to the god Dionysus). Dionysiac associations were particularly appealing to me as they are one of our chief examples of mystery cults (thus fitting into the more esoteric ends of my research agenda). In addition, we have significant material evidence for these groups which has not been fully contextualized, so there was some new ground to be broken.

Dionysiac cults also provide a particularly useful lens to study scholarly constructions of religion in antiquity, especially Roman antiquity. The question of where they fit in has preoccupied me for the past few years, especially since second-order scholarship is often at odds with the material record. Long story short: Dionysiac cults (and other mystery cults) are often placed on the periphery of religious models. This is due in part to the so-called “private” nature of these organizations, as well as the wild stories that circulated about these groups and their practices (for example, the Bacchanalia affair of 186 BCE). The evidence, however, suggests much more public integration for these groups than is normally allowed. In other words, our main models of conceptualizing Roman religion are insufficient to the task at hand, at least when we look at the evidence.

My paper works on two levels. The first focuses on theoretical approaches to Roman religion/religions in antiquity. At this point it should come as no surprise that I argue against many of our dominant constructions of religion in antiquity, such as juridical definitions of Roman religion or civic-centric models that place city (or polis) religion first. In this paper, I put forward my own model of Roman religion, that of “religious systems within a religious system.” Moreover, I argue for a pluralistic religious landscape in which the religious individual was able to choose religious services accordingly based on need.

Having established the plural nature of religion in antiquity and the importance of the religious individual, the second level of the paper focuses on these issues through the lens of Dionysiac cults in the Roman east. Here, I examine epigraphic evidence (i.e. inscriptions) and argue that Dionysiac cults were not on the periphery on religious life in the Roman east, rather they were a visible and important part of the religious and social life of the polis. I argue also that these groups overlapped with public life in several ways in the Roman empire and that it was the religious individual who was the mechanism that enabled these connections between the association and the wider public sphere.

The goal of my thesis was thus two-fold: to provide a re-evaluation of how we conceptualize Roman religion and to establish the normativity of Dionysiac associations. I think I accomplished these goals. You can find out for yourself as my thesis is up for reading at If you aren’t ready to read 100+ pages on Dionysiac cult, you can peruse the abstract below.

The Public Lives of Private Cults:
Dionysiac Associations in the Roman East

Stained with the scandal of the Bacchanalia and the mythology of a rabid god, scholarship on Dionysiac cult often characterizes these associations, especially those devoted to the Dionysiac mysteries, as being in opposition to the city. This paper, however, argues from epigraphic evidence that Dionysiac mystery cults were not marginalized in the Roman Empire, especially in the Roman east. Although Dionysiac mystery cults were fundamentally oriented towards the religious needs of their individual members, epigraphic evidence suggests that Dionysiac religious associations interacted with the public sphere in several significant ways. Moreover, these interactions suggest that being a member of the Dionysiac mysteries was viewed positively, not only by those who self-identified as initiates, but by the wider communities with which they interacted. Dionysiac mystery associations did not exist on the margins of acceptable society, rather they were visibly important contributors to the public good.

The first half of this paper concerns itself with methodological, analytical, and metacritical issues which inform this study of Dionysiac associations. My study importantly breaks with three dominant assumptions of Roman religion: the centrality of civic cult (or polis religion), the emphasis on communal religious expression (i.e. that there was no religious individual in antiquity), and embedded religion. In this respect, I make three important arguments. First, I argue that the Romans were able to distinguish between religious and non-religious phenomena and that religion was not embedded in antiquity. Moreover, I argue that we need to distinguish between religious and non-religious phenomena at a second-order level as a necessary prerequisite for the study of religion in antiquity. Second, I argue for a decentralized approach to Roman religion. Drawing off of Niklas Luhmann’s Systems Theory, I put forward a “systems within a system” model of Roman religion. This model premises an overarching system of religious communication patterns in which multiple expressions of those patterns co-existed with varying degrees of accommodation or exclusion. Third, I argue for the existence of the religious individual in antiquity. This religious individual was able to strategize and make religious choices based on individual needs in specific contexts. Importantly for this study, I engage modern sociological theory to argue that it is the religious individual who, through the adoption and display of a Dionysiac religious identity, acted as the link between the private Dionysiac associations and the public sphere.

The second half of this paper concerns itself with the epigraphic evidence for Dionysiac associations. Here I argue that private Dionysiac cults did not exist in contradistinction with the public sphere, but rather overlapped with the public sphere in significant ways. I identify three dimensions of overlap: locative, civic, and imperial. Each of these areas suggests that Dionysiac associations, especially those oriented towards the mysteries, led vibrant public lives. This can be seen in the monumentalization of Dionysiac identities on epitaphs, the public honours given to fellow members, dedications made by Dionysiac associations on behalf of the city, and the bestowal of honours on emperors, to name but a few of the ways that these groups and their members gained a foothold in the public sphere.

Although my main argument pertains to the status of Dionysiac groups in the Roman east, I make an additional sub-argument about the status of the Dionysiac individual. I argue here that Dionysiac cults were a positive locus for the fashioning of individual religious identity and that Dionysiac identities were valued outside of internal cultic boundaries in wider society. Building off of modern sociological identity theory, I demonstrate the ways in which an individual in the Roman Empire held multiple religious and social identities. Moreover, I demonstrate how the expression of a particular identity in a specific context reveals an individual’s expectations of that specific identity to be accepted in that particular circumstance. That an individual was able to negotiate social hierarchies using a Dionsyaic identity at all, I argue, is indicative of the relative acceptance and esteem accorded to Dionysiac mystery cults in the Roman east.

This study argues that being a Dionysiac in the Roman Empire was not marginalizing, but rather socially acceptable and even esteemed. Those who identified as Dionysiacs did so in the contexts of public honours and social projects that extended up to the highest reaches of social life. It is time that we stop seeing Dionysiac cults as the outsiders of Roman religion and recognize them for what they really were—important players in Roman society.

Read the full paper here!

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