SBL Paper: ‘Mithraic Noise’

I presented a paper this morning in the Session of Archaeology of Religion in the Roman World with the panel title, ‘Ritual and Religion on the City Streets of the Empire’. I post the draft of the paper below. I have references to my forthcoming work, which are all listed on the second slide for the bibliographic details. With any further intro, here is the paper.

Mithraic Noise: Negotiating Sound and Vision in the Ostian Streets


[Intro] Thank you to the organisers of this panel, as well as fellow speakers for fascinating discussion. My own contribution comes from my ongoing research into the role of noise in the production of Roman space at Ostia. [Senses of the Empire] In a recent edited volume and a forthcoming chapter, I have outlined my methodology for modelling the acoustics of fragmentary Roman buildings and urban space, which lies in the background of my paper today. I will touch on general and necessary elements of that methodology as needed, but will for the most part avoid the technical physics involved in the process of modelling. This is good for you, as I will not subject you to complex mathematical equations in auditory form, and instead will draw out the key properties of Roman construction, urban layouts and acoustics that relate to noise, Mithraic cult sites and the street network of Ostia.

[Defining NOISE] To begin with, a quick functional definition of noise is useful in conceptualising the interactions between streets and Mithraic sites, as well as between different forms of evidence. Barry Truax (2001) provides a definition that centres on the concept of auditory communication, or the ability to interpret meaningful sounds in the environment.

Noise therefore can refer to three different forms of diminished auditory clarity: first, noise can be conceived as sound, which elicits a negative response. Evidence for this form of noise comes primarily from literary sources (Horace, Martial, Juvenal or Seneca being the most cited). This is a reactive response to sound and categorical in definition (like/dislike). Second, noise can be conceived as sound that obscures auditory clarity, such as an AC unit in an office. This form of noise is referred to as background noise and functions as an agent within the environment. Evidence for these types of noise can come from material remains, including wheels, shoes, or hooves, as well as construction materials or forms of paving. This is not a reactive response to sounds, but noise as an active agent. Acoustics, in this context of noise, becomes important as the measure of potential influence of architecture on noise. Finally, noise can be conceived of as unknown or unrecognised sound, as not-yet-meaningful sound. This is noise in a non-pejorative sense, or noise as the periphery of knowledgeable sound.

Using these definitions of noise, Mithraic activities and sites can be conceptualised as progressing through these moments of noise. That is, outsiders to Mithraism interact with Mithraic activity within the space of negative response the street (type 1), in which architecture obstructs auditory clarity (type 2), and then through initiation pass from unknown noise and meaningful sounds (type 3).

[Type 1] Reactive responses to noise were made through literary conceptions of space. Certain terms used to describe noise were associated with movement, especially animal movements, as well as being associated with the spaces of movement. Strepo (confused noise, din, or clash), fremo (rushing or resounding loud noise), and murmur (roaring, growling, or humming) being the key terms; these terms that indicate the character of the noise, rather than indicating who or what created the noise (Veitch forthcoming). In these cases, the particularities of the sound are kept at the general level of animal like sounds. Without a quantifiable measure of sound intensity of noise, the literary authors resort to language of strepitus, fremitus or murmur, which were both associated with animal sounds, roars or buzzes, and busy activity, which provide insights into the mental image of the noise and associated spaces.

 [Noise/Silence refs] There are over 5,000 references in Latin sources to noise and silence, while the majority of spatial references to noise were to streets and public space (Veitch forthcoming). For simplicity, I do not differentiate public squares or spaces from the street space, unless architectural defined as separate (doors, walls, etc.). Within the Latin literary sources (those within the PHI), the forum is associated with noise and silence more than any other space (29.1%), followed by via and vicus (16.4% and 15.9%).

[Network Graph] If we graph the connections we see son– and clam– words associated with forum, while via and vicus have a more even spread across all the terms. Clamo and sono, as well as their associated words, are the most specific form of noise, indicating to shout, call out, or to make a sound. In the adjectival form, clamosus, it indicates loud resounding or full of noise, suggesting undifferentiated sounds. The emphasis of sono and clamo is on who or what makes a noise in comparison to the other three noise terms, which characterise the type of sound. These terms suggest a particular urban image, in this case not a visual image, but a mental conception of space, which relates to moral and social judgements. Thus, the street was a space of noise, which elicited negative responses and moral judgements (Veitch handbook). Street space, in literary conceptions, was part of the relative perceptions of topography from the immoral angiportus (Wallace-Hadrill 2003) to the famed or renowned locus celeberrimus (Newsome 2011).

 [Type 2] Noise can also be conceived as an obstruction to auditory clarity. In this context, architectural acoustics plays a significant role in providing the framework understanding the potential thresholds for obstruction.

[Construction TL] Ostia has a limited range of construction techniques all using mortar and reticulate with brick-facing. In general, these construction techniques have a limited range of transmission loss measurements, which indicates the sound power level that pass through the material (Veitch forthcoming). The differences in TL between opus incertum, opus reticulatum and so-called brick-faced concrete are minimally experienced differences, but centre on the average sound level for a conversation between two people (65 dB). I say ‘minimally experienced’ as a change of less than 2 dB is inaudible to the human ear. So, the difference between opus incertum and opus reticulatum would not be heard, while the difference between opus incertum and brick-faced concrete could be experienced.

[Street dissipation] In the context of the street, acoustics are best represented in the sound dissipation, or the drop in sound intensity as you move away from the sound source. The three widest streets were modelled and are shown here. Building height was found not to influence the sound dissipation across the street widths at Ostia (Veitch forthcoming). Architectural features, in particular porticoes, did, however, dramatically alter the acoustics of the street space., as indicated by the uneven dissipation along the Via Epagathiana and the increased drop along the N Cardo Maximus.

[Augustus] Of central importance to my argument here is 1) the low minimum threshold of noise (65 dB) above which architectural boundaries obstruct sounds, making them harder to interpret, but do not isolate sounds. In the context of Mithraea, noise made inside would pass through the walls into neighbouring space. 2) Noise from the street had a distance of around 35 m before it dropped below audible levels. [VGA Analysis] From the perspective of the street, this auditory distance boundary was distinctively different from the visual axis of streets. The combination of audible noise beyond the street boundary and the geographical spread of noise created perceived auditory boundary that were experienced through movement. [Augustus] As someone moved through Ostia they would reshape the auditory boundaries based on their location. Audible distinctions were produced through different construction materials, architectural features and social/spatial practices.

[Type 3] Within the context of the street, Mithraic activities are usually conceived as separated. Jonas Bjornebye, in his chapter of The Moving City, categorises all the Ostian Mithraea as small neighbourhood groups in terms of movement (Bjornebye 2015). However, this categorisation is based on size and dimension of the Mithraic space, not patterns of movement, despite his insistence that size and movement patterns correspond. As we have seen, the street space was conceived and experienced as a space of noise and movement. Interactions were mediated by personal choices of speed, direction and use of porticoes, sidewalks or the carriageway.

Michael White has recently re-evaluated the dating, finds and spatial distribution of Ostian Mithraea (2012). [White Map] I follow his dating of the development of Mithraea at Ostia, as well as his capacity figures for the Mithraic podia.

[Rose Map] I want to finish by analysing the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti (3.1.6), which was installed in the back portion of a house along the Via della Foce, just off the intersection with the east and west Decumanus. [White Plan] The earliest Mithraea, the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti is dated to 162 CE by a dedicatory inscription (CIL 14.58, 59). In it’s final phase the Mithraea could accommodate around 21-28 people, which would produce around 76-8 dB of conversation noise. This is roughly 10-12 dB higher than the ‘conversation threshold’ of transmission loss. In practical terms, sounds associated with Mithraic activities would be heard through the walls so long as it was louder than a single conversation.

The neighbouring buildings included a roofed market space and an open street with shops lining the sides. The Mithraea was located at the back of the house, which placed it audibly closer to the neighbouring shops and market space, while making it visibly separate from the those spaces. Specific Mithraic activities are only generally known, such as initiation and dinning, but some specific features of the acoustics and sensory experience can be summarised based on the analysis here.

Iconographic representations of initiation, such as the ones from Capua (CIMRM 187, 188, 191, 193-5), often display the initiates blindfolded; suggesting sensory deprivation in the initiation rites. The experience of initiation would entail a partial knowledge of the process as the full sensory faculties were not in use. In this sense, the initiation itself should be conceived as noise, an experience of an unknown that will later be fully realised. However, sensory deprivation adds another layer to the initiation as noise: by depriving vision the initiate has to rely on other sensory faculties to interpret the gestures, sounds, smells and haptic experiences, as well as drawing on previous expectations of what the initiation entails. In this way, the initiation is not an experience of mental comprehension, but an embodied experience of partial knowledge. Likely, only once the initiate moved further up the Mithraic grades would complete comprehension be possible.

If we return to the experience of a Mithraic outsider, who overhears the initiation, an interesting comparison can be made. Both the outsider and initiate are deprived of some sensory aspect, which would help to interpret the activities; both, also, experience portions of the process mediated by the senses and architecture. While the outsider was excluded from all but the noise of the activity, the initiate through the noise was brought into the process of embodied knowledge acquisition. The same could be said for the activities associated with dinning, although in that activity other senses would play a more prominent role.

[Conclusions] In conclusion, I would like to make three points that I have hopefully made clear in this presentation. First, noise as a concept is a useful tool for interpreting the different experiential qualities of streets, religious and social activities. The street was imagined as a space of noise, which included sounds, movements and increased activities. The experience of the street extended beyond it’s architectural boundaries, as well as the spaces just off the street extended into the street. Second, auditory boundaries were constructed in different terms to visual boundaries. Noise as an obstruction to auditory clarity can thus be reformulated as boundaries to audible space. In this way, acoustic measurements, such as transmission loss discussed here, become measurements of the field of social participation. Third, and finally, knowledge formation was intertwined with the experience of space, including the experience of auditory space. Movement and sound were both processes of interpreting space, a process founded on the bodily experience. Embodied forms of knowledge were gained through the experience, and the repeated experience, of certain places or activities, as shown through the Mitreo delle Parenti Dipinti. Both adherents and outsiders experienced Mithraic activities, although to varying degrees. These experiences formed part of the framework for interpreting other spatial experiences; a framework that included sensory perceptions, movements and mental expectations. In this way, noise as unknown or potentially meaningful sound indicates the central role of the body in the production of urban, religious, social, or any other type of space.

[Final] Thank you.

Overplaying the Senses

I have been working on a chapter discussing sensory approaches to Roman cities and urbanism using Pompeii as a case study. In the final section, I decided to tackle a topic I keep running into, which constantly bothers me. There is a distinctive approach to ancient cities that empahise the dirt, disease and waste as simple ways of distancing the ancient from the modern. This approach brings with it an emphasis on the ‘sordid nature’ and, if you take literary sources at face value, the smelliness of the ancient world. Now, I do not think that the ancient and modern can be directly correlated, but I also do not think we need to overplay certain senses, in this case most often smell, to makesuch claims. I have continually argued that the Romans lacked the ability to sound proof their buildings. However, this argument does not suggest that Romans were unable to acoustically differentiate space or that they were simply loud or thatthey did not care about sound and noise. That is to say, we need to be more nuanced and careful in treating the ancient world, or we risk implicitly reinforcing a view of the ancients as ‘not as smart as me’ (an implicit academic egotism, for sure). Anyways, below is that section of the chapter…

Overplaying the Senses

The discussion above has produced a city that has different geographical sensory features, but as indicated at the start, these do not correspond to generalities across the city. While individual sensory characteristics were experienced more regularly in certain areas, this does not extend beyond a certain distinct area. This is a picture of differentiation; certain senses are peaked in certain areas of the city, like the area around the Via degli Augustali. This interpretation of the sensory geography derives from the approach taken, which emphasises the kinaesethic experience of city-dwellers. Movement and mobility are at the base of such an approach and mark the city at different scales, whether the city and countryside, local neighbourhoods, or specific street segments.

However there is another line of thought that sees the city itself, especially Rome, in terms of filth and disease. This is a reading of the city founded on a lack of efficient sanitation, breeding disease, which produces nauseous smells and general detritus across the city. Drawn primarily from ancient satirical sources, especially Horace, Juvenal and Martial, mixed with anecdotal stories from the likes of Lanciani, this tradition is not new (Morley 2015, p. 112). The reading of Roman cities as unhealthy continues through the classic works of Yavetz (1958) and Scobie (1986; cf. Laurence 1997). For Scobie, in particular, a contemporary U.K. poverty survey forms the standard by which to asses Rome (1986). Rome is as the satirists describe it, filled with noise, crowds and dirt, which correspond to contemporary urban problems. In this interpretation, ancient urbanism was the carrier of contemporary urban problems and maladies, and to some scholars, therefore, loud and malodorous. This line of thought overplays the sensory impact of literary descriptions, especially in terms of sound and smell, and reads those impacts back into the archaeology. Unsurprisingly, Scobie comes to a Hobbesian conclusion that life in Rome was short and often violent (1986, p. 433). This view of Roman life has been extended to the sensory realm, suggesting that Roman cities stank with waste, dead bodies and putrid diseases (Koloski-Ostrow 2015; cf. Veitch 2017). Difference is highlighted in this interpretation, over and against the ways in which a plurality of stimuli are experienced continually by the body (Morley 2015, pp. 112-3).

In contrast, the Roman city was more than just waste, dirt and disease. The movement of goods, people and ideas went hand-in-hand with the movement of waste and disease. Mobility was central to the experience of Roman cities and what is needed is a focus on the ways these various elements (dirt, disease, waste, water, people, animals, etc.) moved through the urbanism of the Roman empire. Critical engagement with the archaeological remains enables the politics of literary moral judgements to surface without recourse to anecdotal overemphasising the sensory characteristics. Yes, Rome was loud, but that simple notion does little to help us understand the ways in which the city was experienced. In the case mentioned above, smell is used as a ‘common sense’ argument over and against nuanced interpretations. This line of reasoning brings with it limitations. The question ‘did the ancient world smell worse, than today?’ hides the more important questions of cultural, social and political judgements about everyday existence in the Roman world, paralleling the work of Bourdieu on judgements of taste (1979).

In short, Roman cities were filled with places of sensory experiences that elicited social, economic and political responses to that stimulation, which were part of the reproduction of Roman society. To be a proper Roman was to smell, sound, move, gesture and dress in a particular way that fluidly changed over time; while deviations from this were the source of literary criticism or moral degradation (see Corbiell 2004, O’Sullivan 2011, Harlow 2013, Laurence 2015). Overemphasising the senses risks limiting our understanding of ancient social relationships, reducing the complexity to straightforward readings of the literary sources. Like so many other topics, the material remains evoke complex relationships between inhabitants, environments, urban structures, which further complicate Roman, or any other, social and cultural relationships (see Urry 2003). Therefore, we need to be cautious and nuanced in applying sensory methodologies, as well as in interpreting the various forms evidence available for any given period.



Corbiell, A. (2004) Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Harlow, M. (2013) ‘Dressed Women on the Streets of the Ancient City: What to Wear?’ in Hemelrijk and Woolf (eds.) Women and the Roman City in the Latin West (Leiden: Brill), 225-242.

Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. (2015) ‘Roman Urban Smells: The Archaeological Evidence’ in M. Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 90-109.

Laurence, R. (2015) ‘Towards a History of Mobility in Ancient Rome (300 BCE – 100 CE)’ in I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, and J. Bjørnebye (eds.) The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (London: Bloomsbury), 175-86.

Laurence, R. (1997) ‘Writing the Roman Metropolis’, in Parkins (ed.) Roman Urbanism: Beyond the Consumer City (London: Routledge), 1-20.

Morley, N. (2015) ‘Urban Smells and Roman Noses’, in Bradley (ed.) Smell and the Ancient Senses (Abingdon: Routledge), 110-119.

O’Sullivan, T. (2011) Walking in Roman Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Scobie, A. (1986) ‘Slums, Sanitation and Mortality in the Roman World’ Kilo 68: 399-433.

Urry, J. (2003) Mobilities (London: Polity).

Veitch, J. (2017) ‘Making Sense of Antiquity’, The Senses and Society 12: 103-108.

Yavetz, Z. (1958) ‘The living conditions of the urban plebs in republican Rome’, Latomus 17: 500-517.

Senses of the Empire is out!

Image: Senses of the Empire book cover (Routledge 2017)

Available here Table of Contents Introduction: Senses of Empire Eleanor Betts Chapter 1 The Sounds of the City: from Noise to Silence in Ancient Rome Ray Laurence Chapter 2 The Multivalency of Sensory Artefacts in the City of Rome Eleanor Betts Chapter 3 Beyond Smell: the Sensory Landscape of the Roman fullonica Miko Flohr Chapter 4 […]

via New publication: Senses of the Empire Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture — Sensory Studies in Antiquity

I have a chapter in Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture, edited by Eleanor Betts. It is an exciting volume covering a aspects of methods, theories and historical insights into sensory studies of antiquity. My chpater outlines my own methodology for assessing acoustic properties in an archaeological context. The conference in which this volume comes out of was my first foray into sensory studies approaches and it is great to see the final result (although I have not yet received my copy of the book…).

Making sense of antiquity: Review of The Senses in Antiquity series (Routledge) in The Senses & Society 12.1

Image: The Forum Romanum (Jeff Veitch)

My review of Mark Bradley and Shane Bulter’s The Senses in Antiquity book series was published in the journal The Senses and Society. I review the three books out so far (Synaesthesia, Smell, and Sight). The issue is available here (you will need institutional access). I have posted a preprint here.