Norbert Dörner. Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar: Kommunikationsprozesse im Rahmen des Kaiserkultes im römischen Ägypten der julisch-claudischen Zeit (30 v. Chr. – 68 n. Chr.). Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2014. 551 S. (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-86757-258-3.
Reviewed by Ditte Aria Damsgaard Hiort
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (August, 2016)
N. Dörner: Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar
The present monograph, Norbert Dörner’s reviewed dissertation from 2013, deals with the early stages of the imperial cult in Augustan Egypt and its development during the Julio-Claudian rule. In Dörner’s own words, he attempts to investigate: “[…] was in Ägypten von den verschiedenen Akteuren unter dem Begriff ‚Kaiserkult‘ verstanden wurde und in welchem Verhältnis dazu der ägyptische Tempelkult steht.” (p. 26) These agents comprise the Egyptian population and its priests, Greeks, Jews, private associations and various Roman officials. To examine the nature of the Julio-Claudian emperor cult in Egypt, Dörner applies various approaches touching on both communication and motivation in the context of local communities. His geographic focus includes Alexandria and a few of the more dominant localities. He investigates the attitudes of the various agents toward the emperor and the agents’ relations to one another. Dörner does this by analysing and discussing a wide range of written sources, and, to some extent, numismatic and archaeological remains. The literary evidence comprises sources from both Greek and Latin literature, some hieroglyphic accounts, and papyri. Especially chapter four demonstrates Dörner’s use of archaeological evidence, as he investigates the emperor cult in the public sphere.
The study is divided into nine chapters, which are followed by indices. The first three chapters summarize the parameters of the work, providing a composite backdrop. Dörner meticulously examines the complex historical background of Egypt from various viewpoints. In the first chapter, Dörner positions himself in critical opposition to earlier research. One of his focal points is to demonstrate how cultic practice did not necessarily continue unaltered from the age of the Pharaonic monarchy to the time of the Roman emperors. Furthermore, Dörner firmly disagrees with the prevalent scholarly opinion that the Roman emperor entered Egypt’s political and religious scene as yet another Pharaoh (pp. 13–26). Dörner aims to demonstrate how facets of Egypt’s religious and political systems can widen our perception of continuities and discontinuities of content and performative utterance in the time of Augustus and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In accordance with the studies by Jon E. Lendon and Clifford Ando Jon E. Lendon, Empire of Honour. The Art of Government in the Roman World, Oxford 1997; Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, Berkeley 2000. , who both deal with the processes of communication and ideology between empire and province (pp. 27–29), Dörner denotes the Egyptian emperor cult “[…] als ein kommunikatives Phänomen” (p. 29). For example, he emphasizes Lendon’s recognition that social prestige was a consolidated component in a complex communicational network, which involved both the emperor and his subjects. In chapters two and three, Dörner focuses on introducing characteristics pertaining to the nature and development of a ruler cult in Egypt against the background of Greek, Hellenistic, Pharaonic, and Roman socio-religious history. This examination provides the basis for the entire study.
Chapter four, the longest chapter, details the organization and appearance of the public emperor cult. Dörner examines how the ruler cult was implemented in Roman society at the various provincial and local levels. Especially part B, paragraph 1–2 (pp. 202–257), shows the multifaceted and complex nature of the Roman emperor cult, on the one hand, and on the other, why Dörner’s communication-approach proves relevant. Throughout the chapter, it becomes increasingly clear just how sophisticated and finely masked the different political and social systems were. Indeed, unless one takes all involved parties and relations into consideration, it is difficult to understand the underlying processes.
In chapter five, the theme of celebration on behalf of the emperor is treated alongside a thorough discussion of the extensive practice of renaming the months according to the ruling emperor. Dörner attempts to clarify a wide range of matters and examines the cultic practice connected to, for example, monthly religious ceremonies held in honour of the imperial house. One of the most interesting conclusions is that the local community was positively affected by the frequent and intensive repetition of emperor cult rituals. The rituals became an integrated part of people’s lives as they grew accustomed to them (pp. 313–316).
Chapter six focuses on the role that the emperor cult played in the social advancement of certain individuals. Dörner gives some examples and analyses the accompanying sources to understand how these people constructed their social identity. From there the text flows seamlessly into chapter seven, which deals with opposing parties and the topic of competition. Among other things, Dörner looks at the relationship between the emperor and the praefectus Aegypti (pp. 365–374).
The implications of motivation are under scrutiny in chapter eight, which serves as the natural conclusion to the long analysis. There can be no doubt that motivational factors had an impact on the processes of communication. It is important to note that the Roman administration never imposed the forceful organization of the emperor cult upon the local communities. Thus, the organization depended on the initiative of the place in question (p. 460).
Dörner dedicates the final chapter of the work to a short overview of his results. He lists the most significant points, and in a concise manner sums up how these results may be contextualized in our attempt to define the communication processes of the Julio-Claudian emperor cult in Egypt. In “Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar”, Dörner presents us with a well-composed study. He delivers a skilful study, which takes a new approach, analysing mainly “old” sources from new perspectives, and attacking some of scholarship’s previous, unchallenged theses. Dörner’s work is an altogether solid, well-formulated study, which has been stringently composed. This stringent composition is evidently a matter of taste. Though it works well, and Dörner’s mission is flawlessly accomplished, the work is demanding on its reader, and unfortunately does little to open up to a wider audience within the Classics. Against this backdrop of relevancy presented by the study, it is a pity that Dörner has chosen not to reproduce even a single map, illustration, or a general list of temples/sacred structures pertaining to the emperor cult. No matter how valid the discussion of the written sources may be, one cannot argue against the importance of archaeological evidence and its visual representation. Dörner defiantly gives a fresh view on the existing research and brings into play an impressive portion of the source material. Nonetheless, the work would certainly have gained an extra dimension had he paid closer attention to an examination of the sacred structures in their spatial and visual contexts. See e.g. Judith McKenzie, The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, c. 300 BC to AD 700, New Haven 2007. See Also Stefan Pfeiffer, The Imperial Cult in Egypt, in: Christina Riggs (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, Oxford 2012, pp. 83–102. Despite the brevity of the article and the fact that Pfeiffer is an ancient historian rather than a trained archaeologist, he demonstrates perfectly well how archaeological evidence can be included and analysed in the context of its visual value as well. The power of communication and motivation through the architecture and monumental buildings seems to be of secondary importance to Dörner as he gives preference to literary evidence. But, in his defence, Dörner is no archaeologist, which of course has to be taken into account. To end on a positive note, I can only recommend this work. The readership will undoubtedly gain many a new insight. Dörner’s meticulous discussions about communication processes and motivation in ancient Egypt’s emperor cults are both original and invaluable to future research.
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Ditte Aria Damsgaard Hiort. Review of Dörner, Norbert, Feste und Opfer für den Gott Caesar: Kommunikationsprozesse im Rahmen des Kaiserkultes im römischen Ägypten der julisch-claudischen Zeit (30 v. Chr. – 68 n. Chr.).
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