Continuity of Pagan Cult: The Shrine of Liber Pater at Cosa

Last week, I was discussing the work of Richard Rothaus and the question of continuity of pagan cult in the early Christian period. In Corinth, most of the sites that show continuity are extraurban, and at many rural sites in Greece (especially caves) non-Christians continue to give votives. An example of urban continuity of pagan cult comes from Cosa, where the shrine of Liber Pater was excavated as part of the American project in this Italian town. The shrine, that has been interpreted as the meeting place of a Bacchic cult association (for more on late antique associations, see the excellent website by Philip Harland, assistant professor of religion at Concordia University), was constructed in the fourth century directly facing the city’s forum, where there also was a Mithraeum. Part of the old basilica was at the same time converted to a church. In general the fourth and fifth centuries CE seem to be a period of renewed prosperity in Cosa after a couple of centuries of decline.

Cosa lamps
African lamps from the excavations of the shrine of Liber Pater, Cosa. Hayes Type IB, dated to the fourth/early fifth century CE. Photo source: Collins-Clinton 1977, fig. 34.

Discussions of the degree of pagan continuity in the early Christian period are important to the study of iconoclasm, particularly because it would be nice to know whether Christians, as many have presumed, were targeting sites, where pagans were still active or rather attacking deserted sites. In short, it is a debate about chronology: when did paganism finally come to an end? Sites, such as the Fountain of the Lamps in Corinth and the shrine of Liber Pater at Cosa, are therefore particularly interesting.

As in Corinth, a large amount of lamps from the late antique period were unearthed by the excavators of the Cosa shrine. The many other ceramic finds (kraters, cups and jugs) strongly suggest that the shrine was used for ritual dining. Along with a number of coins from the fourth and fifth centuries CE (ranging from types struck by the emperors Licinius II (minted 317) to Honorius (minted 410-423)), the ceramic finds give the chronological framework of the monument and indicate that the cult was relatively shortlived. The site was abandoned suddenly, and many objects were left behind. This would fit well with one of Eberhard Sauer’s archaeological criteria for detecting iconoclasm, that include “temples in which items of value, notably coins or other metal items, were deliberately left behind” (2002: 38). Jacquelyn Collins-Clinton has indeed suggested that the shrine was “deliberately destroyed by zealous Christians, as is indicated by certain finds, which were broken or smashed to bits” (1977: 5). Indeed the fact that the heads and arms of a statue of Bacchus were never found could indicate that the shrine met a violent end at the hands of Christians.

Jacquelyn Collins-Clinton. 1977. A Late Antique Shrine of Liber Pater at Cosa. Leiden.
Eberhard Sauer. 2002. The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and early Medieval World. Stroud.

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