“No Dumping”

Recently, as my time in graduate school drew to a merciful conclusion, I had to recall one of my favorite primary sources I studied in the last several years. This one, as they say, is “something completely different.” Bear with me; there is a point.

We have a small inscription found near Luceria, in northern Italy. I stress “found” because the tides of history sometimes move material objects of this sort far from their original context. Meanwhile, the inscription’s highly archaic Latin itself has no clear date; when I was first introduced to it, my instructor suggested the second century BC, but the older, definitive study of the inscription stressed it could be anytime from the founding of the Roman colony in the area (c. 314 BC) to the era of the Gracchi brothers (c. 125 BC).

Here’s the Latin for the philological enthusiasts:

in hoce loucarid stircus

ne [qu]is fundatid neve cadaver

proiecitad neve parentatid.

sei quis arvorsu hac faxit, [in] ium

quis volet pro ioudicatod n(umum)

manum iniect<i>o estod, seive

mac[ i]steratus volet moltare,


So what does this say? Well, one of the snags is that we’re not entirely sure what the archaic Latin intends at every point. Translated very loosely (and politely), the first few lines go something like this, “In this grove, let no one pile dung, nor dump a body, nor perform parental rites.”

John Bodel’s study of the inscription describes it as

a local ordinance prohibiting three activities – dumping dung (or refuse), abandoning corpses, and performing sacrifices in honour of the dead – and prescribes a statutory fine to be exacted from transgressors, either by a private party on behalf of the populus or at a magistrate’s discretion.[2]

Bodel theorizes about what kind of context evoked this ordinance, though much of it remains quite conjectural. In particular, it’s not clear what sort of “grove” we have. Is this supposed to be some sort of cultic space devoted to some god? Or is it some sort of public land, perhaps specifically set aside for burials (Bodel’s own inclination)? In any event, the inscription doesn’t exactly paint a romantic portrait of Republican-era civic infrastructure, social mores, and religious practice. That it forbids (on pain of a mere fine) dumping ordure, corpses, and (a bit more speculatively) rites for the deceased suggests something more reminiscent of the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python than the virtuous austerity we associate with the reign of the high Republic.

Why would any of this be of interest to modern Christians? (For at this point, my longsuffering editor may be feeling the need to sit me down and say, as the Lucerian magistrate once sternly told the pig farmer, “You really need to clean this mess up…”) For the sake of the larger point, let’s just suppose all three activities were happening: piling dung/refuse, depositing corpses, and ancestral rites. The last item is particularly important, because it would illustrates a theme that does crop up routinely in ancient paganism.

If one spends some time studying what survives of actual, day-to-day pagan religion, the mundane/profane and the “spiritual” spheres are hopelessly, sometimes comically bound together. Think Parks and Recreation but with a lot more sacrificed goats, yearly auctions for priesthoods, and bylaws passed by the town council for offering sacred cheeses. Much of the ritual is almost self-consciously ad hoc; financial concerns of running the cults occupy significant attention, and there’s often an implicit expectation that these activities will be positive revenue generators for the polis; impingement of the superlatively profane into the sacred (see above) is expected, if not exactly accepted; the apparent prestige of the polis itself often looms as large as the deity in question. This even applies to the so-called “mystery cults,” which we might expect to have a more ethereal religious flavor.[3] Put simply, scraps of evidence such the Lex Lucerina show us a side of the ancient paganism that we wouldn’t necessarily get from reading Hesiod or Homer. Ancient paganism can, it turns out, look quite petty by our standards. Viewed from this angle, it is highly plausible that someone like Demetrios would indeed mention money and the reputation of Artemis of the Ephesians in the same breath and in that order, as Luke reports in Acts 19.

And in retrospect, it’s not hard to see how a more skeptical Greek philosophy would have attracted elites, such as Cicero, who saw this kind of religio as civically necessary, even if they sometimes had a good laugh up their sleeves at the whole superstitious exercise. By extension, some more recent interpreters have made the case that Christianity had a similar opportunity here, at least on paper: it hit many of the same elevated notes as Greek philosophy (e.g., ethics), but it also targeted an audience much wider than just elite, Hellenized men.

  1. John Bodel, Graveyards and Groves. A Study of the Lex Lucerina (Cambridge, MA: American Journal of Ancient History, 1993), 2. https://www.academia.edu/3778499/Graveyards_and_Groves_A_Study_of_the_Lex_Lucerina_1994.
  2. John Bodel, Graveyards and Groves, 3.
  3. See the regulations for the mystery cult of the city of Andania, perhaps from the first century BC or AD in the version we have: http://cgrn.ulg.ac.be/file/222/


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