Mysteries, philosophy, and self-representation in imperial Rome : Plutarch, Apuleius, and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus
In my dissertation, I explore the use of mystery cults in three separate authors -- Plutarch of Chaeronea, Apuleius of Madauros, and Vettius Agorius Praetextatus -- and analyze how these writers use mystery cults to self-referential ends. This study is not primarily concerned with the actual rituals and the objects used in mystery cults, but rather explores how these writers present these elements in their works. Through writing about mystery cults, I argue, these authors intentionally construct significant facets of their public iamges built around claims to erudition and the possession of a paideia that includes knowledge of Greek philosophy (often explicitly Platonic). Further, these constructed images are colored by traditionalism and antiquarianism. I argue that these texts are (auto)biographical in nature because each author shapes his personal experience and his ideas about religious practice in calculated ways that aims for a particular type of self-presentation. Through discussion of mystery cults, that is, these three authors present themselves in a way that address both reading and listening audiences. I chart the elements consistent between each author and also explore how specific historical contexts and contemporary intellectual currents shaped what it meant to write about mystery cults over a span of nearly three hundred years. Plutarch's On Superstition and On Isis and Osiris, Apuleius' Apology and Golden Ass, and Praetextatus' funerary monument in conjunction with Macrobius' Saturnalia all show that elite authors intimately connect participation in mystery cults with erudition and the possession of philosophical knowledge, which is Greek and Platonic in nature. More particularly, Plutarch and Apuleius make strong connections between themselves and the Greek past, emphasizing their connections to Platonic thought. Although Praetextatus' funerary monument contains some vague Platonic resonances, it primarily emphasizes his connection with traditional religion practices of the Roman senatorial aristocracy that consciously separate the senator from the Christian element in Roman high society. Ultimately, philosophy and religion are nearly synonymous in these texts. In short, each author intellectualizes popular religious forms in order to highlight in some manner the difference between the social elite and the common people. Writing about mysteries is also self-writing.
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