Interpretatio romana/graeca/indigena was an important mechanism to overcome cultural differences in Antiquity. This is a process by which indigenous deities were associated with Graeco-Roman deities (with 'indigenous' meaning all non Graeco-Roman deities in Italy, the Mediterranean and the Roman provinces). Although this is an essential cultural-religious phenomenon in the globalising world of Antiquity, interpretatio has so far only been studied superficially. Instead of long lists of Graeco-Roman theonyms and their indigenous counterparts, it is the aim of this conference to analyse the more profound processes of this phenomenon, such as the complex and often contradictory associations of deities of fundamentally different nature or the motivations and mentalities of the social actors. Due to the enormous cultural and religious differences in the Graeco-Roman world, clear and unambiguous analogies between the deities of various peoples seem unlikely. The use of a Greek or Latin theonym or of a Graeco-Roman representation for a local deity can only be considered the first step that initiated long-term changes, resulting in significant changes to the characteristics of local deities and the development of new cults and divine perceptions.

The focus of this conference will be on the perspective of the indigenous population. Their interpretationes indigenae of Graeco-Roman cults and myths have to be understood in the context of the global world of the Hellenistic period and the Roman empire, especially as a form of particularisation, i.e. the explicit expression of a local identity. This is an interdisciplinary conference which provides a forum for historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, linguists, anthropologists and religion scholars. The comparison between interpretationes in East and West from the 5th century BCE to the 3rd century CE provides disparate data that will allow a profound reorientation of our methodologies.


apud Naharvalos antiquae religionis lucus ostenditur. praesidet sacerdos muliebri ornatu, sed deos interpretatione Romana Castorem Pollucemque memorant. ea vis numini, nomen Alcis. nulla simulacra, nullum peregrinae superstitionis vestigium; ut fratres tamen, ut iuvenes venerantur (Tac. Germ. 43, 4-5).

In his Germania, Tacitus used the term interpretatio romana to identify the Alcis (the divine brothers of the Germanic Naharvali) with the Roman Castor and Pollux. Similarly, Caesar labelled the Gallic deities by their Roman name as Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Apollo and Minerva (B.G. 6, 17). These two examples already reveal some of the problems associated with the term interpretatio which will be at the centre of the interdisciplinary and contextual analyses during the Osnabrück conference. Rather than the translation of a theonynm, interpretatio generally means an "identificatio" between two divine concepts of linguistically, religious and ethnically different origin. Such an identificatio is perhaps more straight forward between the various celestial deities and thunder-gods, like Zeus, Jupiter, Taranis, Tesup and Amun. But the characteristics of many other deities are less clear-cut, resulting in numerous and often contradictory interpretationes for some deities, as in the case of the Celtic Esus and Toutatis which could each be associated with either Mars or Mercury.

Interpretatio is an important cultural-religious phenomenon in the increasingly interdependent global societies of the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire. The growing interaction and migration between culturally different regions created new forms of communication that could be intelligible across the Mediterranean world. In general, interpretatio was no superficial association, like the mere translation of an indigenous theonym into Latin or Greek. For the local worshippers, there were more profound changes regarding the understanding and the functions of an indigenous deity. The single event of adopting a Graeco-Roman name or anthropomorphic representation may have set in motion long-term processes that would, in the long run, profoundly change people's perception of a deity. This process also led to the development of new cults that were different from both Graeco-Roman and pre-Roman/indigenous cults.

An important question concerns the protagonists in this process: Tacitus and Caesar have explained alien deities to a Roman audience, but most interpretationes were initiated by the local population. This is the interpretatio indigena by which a local deity was allocated a Graeco-Roman theonym and/or represented as Graeco-Roman deity in sculpture and iconography. The question arises on the rationale behind such associations: how can we explain, for example, that the indigenous, chthonic hammer god of Southern Gaul - Sucellos 'the good striker' - was interpreted as the Roman rustic deity Silvanus of all things? This is why it is important to aim for a better understanding of the role and motivations of the individual social agents in this process. What motivates local priests, magistrates, land owners, the urban and rural population to initiate new media and new theonyms for their ancestral cults? Is it possible that the local elites' Graeco-Roman education influenced local cults? In this respect, we also need a bottom-up approach that takes into account the mentalities and decisions of the lower and middle classes of provincial society.

The east-west comparison provides important information to improve our understanding of interpretatio. 'Hellenisation' did not only imply the adoption of Greek paideia and Greek way of life, but also the spread of the Greek language as lingua franca. The large number of religious texts, for example from Asia Minor and the rural centres of Ptolemaic Egypt, give the impression that local deities spoke Greek. But behind deities, such as Zeus Alsenos (Phrygia) or Zeus Betylos (Dura-Europos), we can recognise indigenous deities and it has to be our task to detect the changing characteristics and functions of these deities. The use of common expressions and formulas on inscriptions may give the image of homogeneity, but a more meticulous analysis reveals significant differences, making apparent the limits of the term interpretatio. For example, the introduction of Greek (or Latin) was often related to the first use of writing in the religious sphere, leading to the textualization of local rituals and cult activities. This often creates the impression that certain rituals and cults may have been the result of 'Hellenisation' or 'Romanisation', but a contextual analysis often reveals the indigenous origin of many cults. The epigraphic record from the rural sanctuaries in Asia Minor is rich of such examples. For example, the ritual of the public confession in a temple has only been written down in the Principate and is therefore often considered to be the result of "Romanisation" or even the result of contact with Christian communities. But Hittite texts reveal that this specific form of ritual already existed in this region in the Bronze Age, thus providing important indications on the possible origins of this ritual that need to be examined in more detail. Another example is the votive stelae from the Zeus Alsenos sanctuary in Phrygia: the anatomic votive reliefs (depicting hands, legs and eyes) as well as the representations of oxen, horses and family groups point towards the all-encompassing competence of an omnipotent deity. The visual language and the use of epithets may show a certain influence of the centre on the periphery: images and language are Greek, but the conception and character of the deity go back to indigenous concepts.

Geändert am 07.07.2010