Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.04.13


Erika Simon, Die Götter der Römer. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1990. Pp. 319. ISBN 3-7774-5310-2.


Reviewed by Daniel P. Harmon, University of Washington

This book is in many ways the most up-to-date reference work in the field. The author is thoroughly acquainted with the most recent bibliography. The footnotes, and the text itself, refer constantly to the latest scholarly developments. There are references to entries in such recent works as the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, the Enciclopedia Virgiliana and ANRW, as well as periodicals and monograph literature. The volume is without equal in the richness of its illustrations. Unlike Wissowa (whose handbook appeared too early to include much of this material) and unlike Latte (who tended to avoid it), Simon takes full account of archaeological data; and she makes much of this available through a generous quantity of photographs and drawings of the highest quality. Some readers will perhaps find less emphasis upon comparative religion and mythology than they would like; and the discussion of linguistic evidence, which is generally sound, receives only occasional attention. But the text is learned, reliable and exceptionally well-written.

It would be impossible to write a book on Roman religion with which all specialists would completely agree. My criticisms of the book, which I find excellent overall, are of a minor nature.

Simon's discussions are centered around the twenty-six most important divinities in the Roman pantheon. Several others are discussed in passing with one or more of these twenty-six major gods. For example, Quirinus appears within the chapters devoted to Jupiter and Mars. Key subjects which inevitably occur in a general work on Roman religion (the priesthoods, festivals, calendar, etc.) are taken up at various points throughout the text. There are times, it seems to me, when the treatment of these issues, which are subordinated to Simon's concern with the divinities themselves, might well have been expanded.

The 'priests' or cult officials of the gods, and the particular nature of their priesthoods, tend to define the character of the divinity to which they belong. Simon gives much attention to the Vestal Virgins, and to the rite of captio by which they were inducted into office. But it does not emerge from her discussion that the Vestals' cultic role, including the partnership between the Virgo Maxima and the Pontifex Maximus, serves to define their goddess as the eternal priestess. The Vestals, that is to say, make the goddess present in this world and enact her role within the human sphere. She, and her Vestals, are concerned with everything (the mola salsa, the fire, the water, ritual cleansing, etc.) that has to do with the effective offering of sacrifice. It is this feature of her cult that gives it unity.

In a similar way, the flamen dialis assured the beneficent presence of Jupiter in Rome. His marriage to the flaminica as an indispensable qualification for his holding of priestly office, together with his function as the presider over marriages by confarreatio, help to define the nature of Jupiter, the divinity that the flamen dialis served. Through his priest, Jupiter functioned as the guarantor who sanctioned marriage, much as the marital bond between Zeus and Hera, which is such an important feature in Greek myth, did for the Greeks. The ritual of the Salii, too, ex-pressed fundamental characteristics of Mars; and it would have been helpful if Simon had explored the evidence from this point of view.

Etymological material is treated somewhat unevenly. Though difficult, and at times open to dispute, such evidence is of basic importance in a study of the Roman gods, whose names and festivals admit of explanation more often than is the case with Greek religion and myth. The name Vesta, it is observed, is usually brought into relationship with the Greek word Hestia; but Simon does not specify the nature of the difficulties which we confront in comparing the two words.

The full import of the derivation of Janus from ia 'to go, to proceed' (Janus is a god who presides over passage from one condition of being to another; e.g., from that of warrior to peaceful citizen and vice versa) is never fully explored so that we are left with the unsatisfactory explanation of Janus as a numen of doorways in general. (Ianua is not the exact equivalent to porta.) An explanation of the Janiculum must (it seems to me) take etymological concerns into consideration (in particular the function of the suffix -culum). Simon defines the Janiculum as a sort of secured doorway to Rome, and this is not really satisfying.

The author's discussion of the Lares is on the whole excellent. She convincingly argues that their identification with the heroic dead is a very late development. Simon concludes, however, that because a Mater Larum belonged to their cult, they must have been pre-Italic, native Mediterranean gods. (For Simon, it seems clear that such familial relationships were utterly foreign to early Italic conceptions of divinity.) We do not know when or under what circumstances the Mater Larum made her entry into the rites of these gods. But an attractive and quite plausible etymology for the name Lares ( < archaic Lases) does exist, and it relates the noun to las 'playful, lustful, spirited' (cf. the extended form in lascivius < *las-ko). The Roman Lares, often described as the lares ludentes (as Simon herself stresses), are habitually depicted as dancing, joyful and robust youths. The etymology from las, which has much in its favor, goes against the conclusion which Simon has drawn, that the Lares are pre-Italic in origin. Indeed, it is hard to imagine anything in Roman custom which is more thoroughly Roman than the Lares.

Simon mentions but places little emphasis upon the generally accepted view that the name Ceres is derived from a root meaning 'growth or increase.' But this linguistic evidence is essential in defining the specialized role of Ceres in the larger process of the sowing, cultivating, growth and harvesting of the crops, which includes a number of other divinities (e.g., Tellus, Flora and Consus) devoted to particular phases of the whole. The cycle of the festivals expressing this process, which is one of the most basic features of Roman religion, is in fact never considered as a unity.

In her discussion of the goddess, Simon locates the temple of Ceres, Liber and Libera on the site now occupied by the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which is shown in an illustration accompanying the text. While there was once some agreement among topographers that the massive structure under the sanctuary of the church might be the podium of the Ceres temple, this view has long ago given way to the assumption that her temple (of which no traces have been found) must have been situated on the slopes of the Aventine. (The podium of tufa and travertine blocks under Santa Maria in Cosmedin belongs to the second or perhaps first century B.C.) The testimonia are not conclusive but do seem to place the temple of Ceres near that of Flora, which was in all probability on the Clivus Publicius, ascending the Aventine Hill. Dionysius of Halicarnassus seems to put the temple of Ceres at a higher level than the Circus Maximus (hence, again, probably on the slope of the Aventine). One would suppose that the temple of Ceres, because of its special association with the plebs, was outside the pomerium, whereas Santa Maria in Cosmedin (see Coarelli, Il Foro Boario [1988], p. 68-69) was almost certainly inside this boundary. Simon's identification of the temple of Ceres with the site of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is, then, 'discutibile.'

As I have noted, these points of disagreement should not detract from the overall excellence of the volume. It is a most attractive and welcome contribution to the study of Roman history and religion.