Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.01.11

Eric M. Orlin, Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic.   Leiden:  E. J. Brill, 1997.  Pp. ix, 227.  ISBN 90-04-10708-8.  

Reviewed by Jason Davies, University College London (
Word count: 1789 words

It does not seem too long ago that the discussions of religion were broadly restricted to a general accumulation of material or inconclusive analyses of 'faith' that left many issues untouched. Now that the climate is more sympathetic towards ancient religion, all sorts of possibilities have opened up: most usefully, specific topic areas are considered worth isolating for investigation. The fact that it is still early in the day complicates, and at time weakens, Orlin's (heareafter 'O.') position. His organisation is useful and accessible but his coverage of the three topics of the title is uneven: in short, O.'s strength is his temples and politics in Republican Rome but the fact that religion ends up as a poor relation is as much due to the persistent weakness of that field in secondary scholarship as to his oversights.

A neutral survey of the book seems a useful place to start: chapter one is a generally effective location of the argument, with a good balance of obvious but necessary background and context. The various issues are satisfactorily introduced and problematised. Chapter two deals with vows of various kinds and makes central what is a long-standing problem: namely, what was the exact relationship between a general making a vow of a temple and the executive Senate back in Rome? Issues such as whether the general was acting on instructions or his own initiative are explored with close attention to what limited material we have. It is at this point that O. introduces a theme that runs throughout the book: he challenges the traditional interpretation that generals dedicated temples in order to gain sufficient prestige to gain office. Rather, as O. demonstrates here and elsewhere, the more diffuse theme of gloria is at stake. His third chapter is a study of the Sibylline Books: their origins, their general role and, more specifically, their connection with the founding of new temples. Here he efficiently disposes of the supposedly close connection between the Books and the introduction of Greek cult: the fact that the decemuiri could introduce a Greek cult is no more than one option amongst many. His comments about Roman mastery of the foreign material are also welcome in promoting Roman religion as a system in itself, rather than a derivative and rather awestruck imitation of Greek practices.

Chapter four deals with the construction of temples and here again O.'s diligent research pays off when he explores the relationship between vower and dedicator. The authority of the senate over individuals is once again a pertinent theme. The terms manubiae and praeda are also explored with understandably inconclusive results; what does emerge is that it was usually the Senate who paid for temples dedicated by generals on campaign though the latter might well use their booty to decorate the temple. In his conclusions, O. contrasts the various monumental efforts of Caesar and Pompey with those of the earlier periods: his results conform with the expectation that, as with prodigy notices and omens, religious phenomena began to be associated with individuals where once they had concerned the state. The conclusion that temple foundation was a route to gloria is rehearsed and confirmed, with the added factor that in the earlier Republic, to vow a temple was to ally, even subordinate, oneself to the interests of the state.

Overall O.'s diligence pays off: the appendices listing temple foundations of the Republic, Sibylline Consultations, Phlegon's Sibylline Oracle and known duumuiri aedi dedicandae are useful. He has enough detailed material to debate principles, preferring (rightly) to refer to the mos maiorum rather than any constitutional guidelines in the various stages of temple foundation. The following criticisms should be read with this general approval in mind.

Essentially O. performs well on two of his three themes but while temples and politics receive appropriate and often detailed discussion, religion remains the poor cousin throughout. The only foray into any interpretation of the religious situation is the almost platitudinous statement that to honour a god strengthens the pax deum. If this methodology were transplanted to the political sphere it would correspond to repeating that 'founding a temple gave a Roman general prestige' and no more; thus it begs the question rather than answering it. In these circumstances it is not enough to dismiss suggestions that the pontiffs or decemvirs may have suggested deities appropriate for temple vowing to a departing general on the grounds that we have no evidence of this (45 n.36). If the hypothesis seems somewhat naive, it does at least highlight a crucial issue that is never really tackled in any depth here. When it was frequently the practice in Rome to consult experts on religious matters and for these experts to honour a whole array of gods, the act of choosing to honour a particular deity in the heat of battle is an extraordinarily bold act. What was at stake when a general arrogated such spectacular authority to himself? O.'s answer is almost entirely in political terms, but we cannot realistically overlook the fact that there were religious factors involved here. Even if we cannot investigate the precise dynamics of the religious system at Rome at the point of a dedication, we should not so quickly dismiss the subtle constraints that surely rested on a general. If the image of the pontiffs having a quiet word with a new consul is not attested we should not reduce the question to purely political terms: indeed since the Senate retained supreme authority over all things religious, as O. states repeatedly, any experienced senator would surely have been steeped in religious lore and one so senior as to be on campaign would not necessarily have needed much advice from the pontiffs. It seems virtually impossible that the decision to vow a temple was not influenced by a close familiarity with the religious situation back in Rome.

Similarly one might expect some discussion of issues connected with the political implications of specifically religious authority: why is it that a number of those vowing temples (in Livy's account, at least) are also portrayed as overbearing or arrogant, such as Fulvius Flaccus? There is much material in Livy to suggest that vowing a temple is an act of supreme authority that is not entirely unproblematic: Marcellus died on campaign after problems dedicating temples to Honos and Virtus (27.25.9 & 27.27.13). Even to claim that a particular god has assisted the Roman cause can be intensely awkward: it is done by such characters as Manlius Torquatus according to Livy (8.5.8-10), who was lingua impromptus (Livy 7.4.6) and the religious maverick Scipio Africanus (26.45.9). Why should Livy have problematised the specification of a particular deity? O.'s answers, which depend so much on the reputation of a general, do not touch on these issues. Similarly, when discussing why a temple would not be vowed, O.'s answer is purely in terms of gloria and contemporary politics. It seems very unlikely that a Roman would not have considered religious reasons and to imply that there was no attention paid to this sphere can only misrepresent the evidence.

Where O. does explicitly broach religious matters there are other problems: his discussion of the Sibylline Books betrays a lack of sympathy for religion. For instance, on p. 86f, he quotes Dionysius of Halicarnassus to the effect that the Books were consulted "when the state is in the grip of party strife or some other great misfortune has happened to them in war, or some important prodigies and apparitions have been seen which are difficult of interpretation" then needlessly reduces these contingencies down to one single statement: "consultation of the Sibylline Books followed the announcement of prodigies."1 O.'s methods are suspect here: he claims that prodigies were used as a "pretext" or that "consultations were usually justified (sic) by reference to prodigies". Firstly, overlooking the unnecessarily pejorative language which is rather too frequent in this chapter, if we allow Dionysius' statement that political problems could qualify as a religious problem then one would expect prodigies to accompany stasis. Secondly, he misses a perfect example from Livy that supports Dionysius at 22.9.8 where Fabius Maximus persuades the Senate to consult the Books after a run of bad luck: there are no prodigies here to 'justify' the consultation. This example alone refutes O.'s reduction, as do the two 'exceptions' which he lists. More importantly his conclusions do nothing for our understanding of religion: at a stroke, and in direct opposition to the sources to which he is normally so faithful, O. has dismissed an entire domain explicitly linked to religion.

Though he has read his Liebeschuetz, North, Beard and Price, one feels that O. is still in a tradition that finds Roman religion rather uncomfortable. This is confirmed by a series of comments that, however plausible in isolation, create an image of incompetence. He speaks of the priests "scurrying" to the Books (89): would we read of the Senate "scurrying" to the curia? Having dismissed Dionysius' explicit reasons he is forced to "face the question of why the Senate felt that the participation of the Books was necessary to correct the flaw in the pax deum in some instances but not in others" (90) and suggests that "one role for the Sibylline Books may thus have been to function as an outlet for fear and a means of boosting morale in times of stress". The reasons are given clearly by the sources, if only we will accept them at face value: consultation of the Books meant an effective solution to a problem that was perceived as serious. Why should we be surprised that morale improved? The disjunction between stated aims and 'real' intentions is not so far from the image of religion as an "opiate for the masses" that O. claims, rather unconvincingly, to forsake. We do not read that Rome raised an army to 'improve morale' when Hannibal was ravaging Italy: we assume that this was done as an effective solution to a real problem. To muddle motivations in the religious sphere does not help us understand the workings of the cultus deorum.2

None of this is to deny that political factors were at play in Roman religion: but neither should we deny that religion was a factor in Roman religion, whether explicitly or by omission. O.'s careful argumentation and attention to detail means that this book has much to commend it in its exploration of law and custom, the relationship between the Senate and its mighty individual members and its documentation of temple foundations: it is a disappointment that he did not contemplate the religious aspects of these questions with the same spirit of dedication and innovation as he did for temples and politics. But two out of three ain't bad.


1.   The redundancy of this hypothesis is evident from the number of times that O. has to speak of situations being "regarded as prodigies unto themselves" (e.g. 87): for this interpretative strategy there are two Latin phrases found throughout Livy (variations on loco prodigii creditum and uersum in prodigium), neither of which is mentioned. While this is puzzling, it is a rare omission of detail. What is more important is the rather awkward handling of religious issues.
2.   There are further repeated examples where we are left unnecessarily with an image of incompetence or incoherence: the decision on whether to consult the Books during plagues (88f) is rather muddled though the evidence is perfectly consistent with the statements of Livy and Dionysius that the Books were consulted in particularly difficult situations.

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