In the terminology of another recent analysis, there existed in this period an ongoing visual and verbal discourse between these diverse interests that was articulated through a wide array of symbolically charged signifiers, such as monumental architecture, statuary, coins, written propaganda, and through visual displays and spectacles. They expressed a “symbolics of power” that mediated the intersection between religion, society, and politics.42 The significance of this “symbolics of power” for understanding the social and cultural history of the Roman world is fundamental. In recent years, scholars have begun to focus particular attention on the influence that these symbols made on people in this complex, changing world. These symbols could, and did,
take a tremendous variety of forms in the daily struggle to influence public opinion and personal beliefs. Public life was sometimes vigorously contested and symbols and spectacles were utilized to communicate many messages.
The use of visual displays and spectacles by the Roman government, which came to hold dominion over the entire region and needed to maintain political stability and social order over this diverse mixture of peoples, has been the subject of several important scholarly investigations in recent years. Simon Price, for example, who examined the role of the imperial cult in Asia Minor, argued that its rituals presented a  way of conceptualizing the political world to participants and witnesses.43 According to Price, the processions, sacrifices, and other ceremonies associated with the imperial cult accommodated the ruler to traditional religious ceremonial and evoked an impression of the emperor as an important mediator between the gods and humanity.44 Works on individual rulers, like Augustus, have also made clear that the emperors, and the government more generally, made conscious use of a vast range of symbols, spectacles, and visual cues to affirm their right to rule and their central role in ensuring harmony and prosperity among their diverse subjects.45
The Roman government also used public displays of force and violence to maintain order and stability. A study of crucifixion by Martin Hengel, for example, suggested that this notorious form of public execution functioned as a deterrent through its manipulation of religious and political symbols and spectacle.46 As Hengel explained, crucifixion was one of three summa supplicia, or supreme penalties, along with crematio (burning) and decollatio (decapitation), which were inflicted by the Roman government on slaves, foreigners, violent criminals, and others as exemplary punishment.47 Likewise,K.M. Coleman’s recent study of ‘fatal charades’ in the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire suggested that the presentation of ritualized reenactments of mythological and historical deaths in the arena, with criminals sentenced to death playing in the leading roles, served to assert the crucial role of the emperor in dispensing punishment and also served to reflect and affirm the existing social order.48

Following Hengel, Coleman, and others, Donald G. Kyle has explained that such public, ritualized executions began to be employed by the Romans in the third century B.C.E. and over the following centuries their forms proliferated and their function changed from simply necessary punishments to a variety of public entertainments held throughout the empire by which misbehavior was deterred and order and security affirmed. “Roman blood sports legitimized, dramatically communicated, and reinforced the social and political order of the community.”49 The disposal of the dead, a primary concern of Kyle’s investigation, most clearly revealed the significance of notions of pollution and purification. Victims of the arena and other public executions were routinely denied proper burial rites and their remains were removed from the community in order to prevent religious pollution.50 These scholarly  discussions have pointed to public space as a venue in which the Roman government transmitted and affirmed ideological messages about the nature of the state, its rulers and gods, and about the place of the individual in society. Violent, destructive acts, like public torture, execution, and burning, were a regular part of the Roman state’s idiom for expressing these messages.
That the emperors, or the Roman government more generally, made use of symbols of all sorts in its effort to maintain the existing status quo is not surprising, but imperial Rome was conspicuous for the tremendously important role that verbal and visual displays and spectacles played in society at large. So significant, in fact, was the role of spectacle that we should not be surprised to find that not only did the agents of government utilize displays, but that many private groups engaged in this public discourse, groups representing diverse philosophical creeds, religious orientations and traditions, esoteric doctrines, as well as political, economic, and ethnic interests, who sought to make an impact on their communities by public displays that exhibited their influence and opinions. As Charlotte Roueché has demonstrated, for example, the chanting of slogans, or acclamations, by the masses, played an important role in expressing consensus and in conveying sentiments to other parties within the community.51

Aspects of the use of violence in antiquity by parties outside of the government have also received a number of recent, illuminating treatments. Timothy E. Gregory explored the issue of urban riots in relation to religious controversies in the fifth century C.E. and found that the people who participated in these popular disturbances did so because they believed that their personal salvation was at stake in the proper resolution of the particular conflict.52 More recently, David Frankfurter examined a local conflict between Christian monks and practitioners of traditional cult in Egyptian Panopolis in the late-fifth century.53 As Frankfurter explained, the traditionalists performed rites and ceremonies to protect their temple and way of life. In turn, the monks perpetrated several acts of iconoclastic violence in their struggle to overcome their religious rivals, desecrating private shrines, smashing religious statues, and destroying prohibited books. These acts were meant to cleanse the “pagans” who were regarded as a threat to the new religious situation and to local prosperity and to expose their weakness to public view. It is in the spirit of these investigations and in the context of the pluralistic, richly symbolic, and sometimes violent world they have helped to bring to light, that this examination of ancient bookburning is situated.

A debt is likewise owed to specialists from other fields, whose contributions to the study of religion, ritual, culture, and violence have provided much-needed insights for the contemporary understanding of ancient society. Foremost among them is anthropologist Clifford Geertz, whose theoretical analyses of religion and culture have helped to shaped the contemporary understanding of how these forces influence a society’s worldview and how individuals and groups interact and respond to them.54 As Geertz explained in his study of religion as a cultural system, culture itself is a system of symbols and meanings that work on people to establish powerful and pervasive patterns of belief and action. As this system of meanings acts upon people, it also is acted upon by individuals in a dialectical fashion.55 His semiotic approach to culture, which Geertz calls “thick description,” seeks to isolate and inspect events and actions in order to illuminate the symbol systems and conceptual worlds they express.56 His methodological and interpretive influence is acknowledged by almost all the Roman historians discussed above as well as specialists in contemporary religious violence who will be discussed below.

Many of these scholars also cite the seminal work of the cultural critic Michel Foucault, which is also significant for the issues under investigation here. As Foucault’s work demonstrated, punishment in the pre-modern world was frequently a spectacle where torture, the application of pain to the body, was theatricalized.57 Such punishments were expressions of power on the part of the parties who authorized them and carried them out.
Studies of ritual—and bookburning is surely to be understood as a ritual—also inform this analysis. Gerd Baumann, an anthropologist studying rituals in modern plural societies, found that such rituals were concerned as much with “Others” as with perpetuating the social values and self-knowledge of the actors.58 Equally, they spoke of cultural change. Jan Platvoet, who also examined the place of rituals in contemporary plural societies, found that in situations of cultural and/or religious plurality rituals allow  groups “to express their separate identities, boundaries, strife with, indifference to, or respect for, each other.”59 In his work and others, an awareness of the place of rituals in the struggle between hostile parties has begun to take shape.60

Lastly, studies of contemporary manifestations of religious violence provide substantial food for thought to those wishing to delve into the violent side of religion and culture.61 Among the most noted specialists in this field, Mark Juergensmeyer has attempted to understand contemporary episodes of religious strife from the point of view of those involved in these struggles.62 As he observed, most perpetrators of religious violence do not give political, economic, or social explanations for their actions, but rather, they see them as part of a mythic, cosmic struggle, a battle between good and evil.63 “By identifying a temporal social struggle with the cosmic struggle of order and disorder, truth and evil, political actors are able to avail themselves of a way of thinking  that justifies the use of violent means.”64 In such situations, according to Juergensmeyer, where violent acts take on a cosmic significance, it is not the rules of ordinary morality and behavior that apply, but the rules of war. Such observations, drawn from recent events whose documentary evidence is abundantly rich, echo many aspects of the findings of scholars who have examined ancient religious conflicts, like Gregory, Gaddis, and Frankfurter, mentioned above, and suggest that a careful study of bookburning in the ancient world is a valuable contribution to the study of religion and violence in ancient society, but also to the study of religious violence more generally.
Although this investigation is informed by these many works, it will attempt to offer something new to this ongoing discourse on religion and violence in the western tradition. Bookburning, as will become abundantly clear from the following discussion, was from its earliest beginnings a kind of religious ritual and a spectacle of power. I will try to ascertain of what it meant to participants, victims, and witnesses. Sometimes these events were violent public purges of texts in the marketplace, while at other times they were highly ceremonialized actions taken by the Senate, the emperors, their representatives, religious officials, or private individuals. They were always expressions of a complex and symbolic visual language. The Roman government and many groups within the empire drew on the symbolic power of bookburning in negotiating relationships with parties espousing differing religious, theological, or philosophical  orientations. Burning books served to express messages about identity in seas of difference, about the nature of society in times of crisis and change, and cosmic aspirations about the future of society and human fate.


Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Daniel Christopher Sarefield, M.A.


42 Douglas R. Edwards, Religion and Power: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greek East (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7. On the “symbolics of power,” see Clifford Geertz, “Centers, Kings, and Charisma: Reflections on the Symbolics of Power,” in Culture and Its Creators: Essays in Honor of E. Shils, ed. Joseph Ben-David and Terry Nichols Clark (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977): 150–71.

43 Simon R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 7.
44 Simon R.F. Price, Rituals and Power, 233–48.
45 See, for example, Paul Zanker’s compelling study of the use of symbols during the reign of the first emperor, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. A. Shapiro (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1988).
46 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, trans. John Bowden. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1977), passim.
47 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World, 33–38.

48 K.M. Coleman, “Fatal Charades: Executions Staged as Mythological Reenactments,” JRS 80 (1990): 44–73. Coleman emphasizes that these displays were complex, presenting an opportunity to exact punishment in a manner that served as deterrents to others. At the same time the underlying religious motivations and the need to provide entertainment are involved in the development and elaboration of these public displays under the Empire. See also Erik Gunderson, “The Ideology of the Arena,” CA 15.1 (1996): 113–51; and David S. Potter, “Martyrdom as Spectacle,” in Theater and Society in the Classical World, ed. Ruth Scodel. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993): 53–88.
49 Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London: Routledge, 1998), 265, and 269–71.
50 See Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, 155–83, 213–53.

51 Charlotte Roueché, “Acclamations in the Later Roman Empire: New Evidence from Aphrodisias,” JRS 74 (1984): 181–99. Roueché highlights the increased tendency to use chanted slogans as a form of political and theological decision making into the fifth century C.E. The crowd expressed a corporate parrhésia when chants were performed en masse. Acclamations were recorded and formally sent to the emperor, in this way, the groups expressed their will in a public forum. Peter Brown also discusses the role of   parrhésia in Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).
52 Timothy E. Gregory, Vox Populi: Popular Opinion and Violence in the Religious Controversies of the Fifth Century A.D. (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1979). See also Michael Gaddis, “There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ: Religious Violence in the Christian Roman Empire,” (Ph.D. Dissertation: Princeton University, 1999).
53 David Frankfurter, ““Things Unbefitting Christians”: Violence and Christianization in Fifth-Century Panopolis,” JECS 8.2 (2000): 273–95.

54 See Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton. (New York: F.A. Praeger, 1966): 1–46.
55 “Culture can be defined as a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” See Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” 89.
56 Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973): 3–30.

57 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), and The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).
58 Gerd Baumann, “Ritual Implicates ‘Others’: Rereading Durkheim in a Plural Society,” in Understanding Rituals, ed. Daniel de Coppet. (London: Routledge, 1992): 97–116, at 99.
59 Jan Platvoet, “Ritual in Plural and Pluralist Societies,” in Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, ed. Jan Platvoet and Karel Van Der Toorn. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995): 25–51.

60 See, for example, Jan Platvoet, “Ritual as Confrontation: The Ayodhya Conflict,” in Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour, ed. Jan Platvoet and Karel Van Der Toorn. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995): 187–226; and David I. Kertzer, Rituals, Politics, and Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988).
61 Among the most insightful and detailed examinations of a contemporary example of this phenomenon is Stanley Tambiah’s study of twentieth-century conflicts in South Asia. See Stanley J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). For discussions of the terrorist attacks against the United States that occurred on 11 September 2001 from this same general perspective, see Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2003), and Suman Gupta, The Replication of Violence: Thoughts on International Terrorism after September 11th 2001 (London: Pluto Press, 2002). On the connection between religion and violence in general, see David C. Rapoport, “Some General Observations on Religion and Violence,” in Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer. (London: Frank Cass, 1992), 118–40.
62 See, for example, Mark Juergensmeyer, “The Logic of Religious Violence,” in Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rapoport. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988): 172–93.
63 Mark Juergensmeyer, “The Logic of Religious Violence,” 174–5.

64 Mark Juergensmeyer, “The Logic of Religious Violence,”182. For more on this notion of a cosmic war, see also by the same author, The New Cold War?: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), particularly 153–70; and Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 145–63.

About sooteris kyritsis

Job title: (f)PHELLOW OF SOPHIA Profession: RESEARCHER Company: ANTHROOPISMOS Favorite quote: "ITS TIME FOR KOSMOPOLITANS(=HELLINES) TO FLY IN SPACE." Interested in: Activity Partners, Friends Fashion: Classic Humor: Friendly Places lived: EN THE HIGHLANDS OF KOSMOS THROUGH THE DARKNESS OF AMENTHE
This entry was posted in PHILOSOPHICAL THEMES and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s