The conference opened with a first plenary session which featured informative lectures by two prominent experts in the fields of Greek and Roman religion respectively.
Robert Parker (New College, University of Oxford) offered an overview of the value of inscriptions, especially sacred laws, for the study of Greek religion. He noted that these texts for the most part yield only chance fragments of useful ritual information, since they were often inscribed for other purposes (e.g. accounting, which appears to be the main purpose of cultic calendars like that of the Attic genos of the Salaminioi: F. Sokolowski, Lois sacrées des cités grecques, Supplément no.19). Assuming that most sacred laws were not written as blueprints for rituals, unlike the books used by marginal groups such as the Orphics, Parker offered two alternative reasons why sacred laws were inscribed: 1) to draw the attention of worshippers to details which were unexpected in normal ritual practice; and 2) to record innovations in ritual practice (traditional practices could thus remain unwritten). As a unique exception, he drew attention to the issue of pollution and purification, which appears to have required special exegesis. The salient examples are two famous cathartic laws: M. Jameson, D. Jordan and R. Kotansky, A Lex Sacra from Selinous (GRBM 11, 1993), and the sacred law from Cyrene, P. Rhodes and R. Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions no.97.
Parker’s presentation usefully presented a collection of interesting sacred laws to a wide audience yet it also raised at least a few concerns about this approach to the subject of epigraphy and Greek religion. First, detailed sacred laws like the cathartic laws of Selinous and Cyrene, not to mention other extensively detailed inscriptions like the regulation of the mysteries at Andania (F. Sokolowski, Lois sacrées des cités grecques no.65), seem to prove that epigraphic blueprints for rituals were not uncommon in the Greek world. Second, whether one can convincingly distinguish between innovations, exceptions, and traditional practice in Greek rituals is problematic and certainly warrants more caution in future research on the subject.
John Scheid (Collège de France, Paris) presented a discussion of Latin epigraphy and religion that neatly paralleled Robert Parker’s paper. He surveyed the genres of inscriptions that particularly illuminate the study of Roman religion: sacerdotal commentaries such as those of the Arval Brethren, regulations, fasti, defixiones, and votive inscriptions. This was followed by a brief history of the growing importance of epigraphy in scholarship from Mommsen and Wissowa to Degrassi and Panciera, culminating in an appraisal of Ittai Gradel’s, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford 2002). Scheid further noted that the epigraphic sources for Roman religion are comparable with those for Greek religion, since the inscriptions are often ambiguous and laconic as far as details of rituals are concerned. He emphasised that religious texts were intended to be read by a limited audience, if not simply as dedicatory monuments addressed to a deity. In conclusion, Scheid praised the value of inscriptions for the study of graeco ritu festivals at Rome, notably the ludi saeculares (the relevant texts are collected in B. Schnegg-Koehler, Die Augusteischen Saekularspiele, Leipzig and Munich 2002).