Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.11.07

Hans-Friedrich Mueller, Roman Religion in Valerius Maximus.   London:  Routledge, 2002.  Pp. 266.  ISBN 0-415-27108-8.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Frances Hickson Hahn, University of California, Santa Barbara (
Word count: 1830 words

In this revised and expanded version of his dissertation, Mueller argues that in Facta et Dicta Memorabilia Valerius Maximus uses anecdotes with religious elements to promote a moral program consistent with the ideology of Augustus and Tiberius. In response to the persistent scholarly dictum that morality played no part in Roman religion, this monograph examines in detail the work of one author of the early principate and in so doing expands the cogent arguments of Liebeschuetz and Tatum for the association of religion and morality based on evidence from the republican period.1 At the same time, M. is eager to dispel another misunderstanding of Roman religion, especially of the late republic and empire, as empty ritual, devoid of emotion. He thus reflects recent scholarly work, such as that of Price, demonstrating the vitality of Roman cult, even in the imperial period.2 Accepting the premise that the ruler cult was not a political sham but a genuine form of religious expression, M. thinks that many citizens of the early principate, even in Rome, actually considered Tiberius a living god. He goes further and argues that Valerius expresses his personal "faith" in the new gods, the Caesars. Following a suggestion by Agnes Michels, M. describes his efforts as an "experiment" that takes ancient authors seriously.3 In this case, M. takes seriously Valerius' references to the divinity of Tiberius, for example, in the preface, where Valerius like orators and poet-prophets opens his work with the invocation of a deity, here Tiberius. Rejecting the opinio communis that an author's statements are not proof of his personal opinions or faith, M. finds numerous statements that point to Valerius' religious enthusiasm. The argumentation of this position accompanies the analysis of Valerius' moral program throughout the monograph.

Readers attracted by the title's reference to Roman religion and expecting a systematic description of religious practices and beliefs in Valerius Maximus may be disappointed. M., like Valerius, is not so much interested in religion per se as in human behavior sanctioned by religion. In M.'s view, Valerius' frequent use of religious vocabulary and numerous references to gods and religious practices are intended to strengthen his rhetoric of moral didacticism. While not setting out explicit rules of morality, Valerius establishes a code of behavior through historical exempla illustrating behavior to be imitated or avoided. Through their support or punishment of particular conduct in these exempla, the gods sanction morality.

M. approaches his investigation of religion and morality through a close reading of all anecdotes that make reference to three major state deities (Jupiter, Juno, Vesta), examining each anecdote in turn for indications of approved or disapproved human conduct. In addition to moral concerns, M. considers the evidence for more explicitly religious ideas, such as the belief in divine communication. Following three chapters organized around these deities, chapter four examines a select group of anecdotes using religious vocabulary to dramatize moral conduct, while the fifth chapter considers more general references to religion and morality. Throughout, M. sets Valerius' anecdotes against the socio-political background of the early principate.

The first chapter is devoted to Juno's appearances in ten anecdotes, in which M. sees a goddess who rewards piety and punishes impiety, favors traditional female behavior, and supports Roman aspirations for freedom and power. The most prominent of Juno's concerns is chastity, a goddess in her own right, who dwells on the ritual couches of Juno. In addition, M. notes the association of Pudicitia with the imperial household: "the peak of the Palatine, the household gods of Augustus, and the most holy marriage bed of Julia," whom he identifies as Livia. The moral lens through which M. regularly views Valerius' anecdotes produces some convincing insights. For example, it was her concern for chastity that led to Juno's vengeance against Varro, the commander at Cannae, because he had placed an attractive actor in the wagon (not triumphal chariot) holding Jupiter's insignia at circus games. While Valerius provides no motive for the goddess' behavior, M. is likely correct that the issue here was the actor's infamia. On other occasions, M.'s moral scheme yields less happy results, as in the anecdote of Aemilius Paullus, who lost his two youngest sons just before and after his Macedonian triumph. Linking Paullus' divorce of his fecund first wife and his invocation of Juno prior to the triumph, M. speculates that Juno was punishing Paullus for his violation of chastity through divorce. It is only in a footnote and the later chapter on Jupiter that M. reveals fully the addressees and contents of Paullus' prayer. He had, in fact, addressed his prayer to the Capitoline triad, Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Minerva as well as Juno, and had requested that any invidia be directed against him rather than the state. That Juno's defense of chastity becomes the explanation of the anecdote in this chapter results in part from the rigidity of a framework devoted to individual deities, but also from the focus on morality.

In his chapter on Vesta, M. examines ten anecdotes, half of which mention the goddess herself, the other half concerning her priestesses. As is to be expected, chastity is an important emphasis of this analysis, but the goddess and her priestesses are also associated with the virtues of discipline, piety, reverence, and personal sacrifice. The Valerian exhortation to virtue, especially in the area of sexuality, is viewed against the backdrop of moral legislation under Augustus and Tiberius. In addition, M. sets Valerius' preference for anecdotes about Vestals who presented positive models in the context of the close association between women of the imperial family and the priestesses of Vesta. According to Cassius Dio, Tiberius allowed Livia and other female members of the family to sit with the Vestals at the theater and to offer prayers for priests and officials of the state. M. also views Vesta as a power inspiring political reconciliation in Valerius' account of the civility shown by Clodius Pulcher to his enemy Lentulus. Although Clodius had been accused of incestum by the three Lentuli, he defended one on a charge of bribery and did so while "gazing upon the shrine of Vesta." Surprisingly, M. rejects the idea that Valerius may intend a note of irony here: "such a reading would . . . ignore the power of religion" (62). Instead, M. discerns a divine force working through the medium of sight. It is not only Clodius' view of the sacred building that motivates him but perhaps even Vesta's own omnipresent gaze, as described by Ovid (Fasti 6.437).

The chapter on Jupiter considers 32 anecdotes involving Jupiter, his priest, and the feast of Jupiter, with primary attention to the Roman Jupiter. In addition, there are a number of anecdotes about non-Romans and Jupiter's foreign counterparts. Jupiter appears, in M.'s view, as a force of reconciliation and prophecy; he rewards virtue and provides foresight and fortitude. M.'s interest in the contemporary relevance and political correctness of Valerius' exempla comes to the fore in this chapter. In references to Jupiter Feretrius, Valerius not only names the three generals who dedicated spolia opima, but also those who did not because they fought under another's auspices, anecdotes consistent with contemporary imperial restrictions. Valerius' conclusion that silence might be a more honorable and judicious path than defending a fated friendship with an enemy of the state is set in the context of Tiberian treason trials. In his account of Scipio Africanus' nocturnal visits to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, M. tackles the old question of religio simulata, the rubric, likely post-Valerian, under which the anecdote appears, and concludes that Valerius intended no negative connotation but rather praise of Scipio's leadership skills and of the close relationship between Jupiter and leaders of the state. Moreover, as a man of virtue who deserved divine honors but whose moderation led him to decline them, Scipio provided a historical prototype for Tiberius' rejection of divine cult.

In chapter four, M. selects for commentary anecdotes in which Valerius uses religious vocabulary to foster his rhetorical campaign for morality. While M. may occasionally over-interpret the lexical choices (e.g. fides), there is no question that the text abounds in references, direct and indirect, to religious rituals and concepts. In some cases, the connections are inherent in the stories themselves, for example, the account of Papirius Cursor and the auspices falsely reported by the pullarius, whose subsequent death demonstrates, in M.'s view, the gods' dislike of falsehood. In other cases, M. shows how Valerius introduces a religious dimension into moral conduct. Thus the rhetorician refers to the severe discipline of military leaders and invokes the god Mars, whose divinity was propitiated through "sin-offerings" for failures of courage or obedience. The moral lessons to be learned are many: the gods seek moral as well as ritual purity, oaths should be honored in spirit rather than in letter, public religion takes precedence over personal grief, to name only a few. Repeatedly, Valerius uses the rhetoric of religion both to magnify the scandal of immoral behavior and to dramatize the value of moral behavior.

M.'s fifth chapter, entitled "Sanctitas morum, or the general intersections of religion and morality," is the least successful. By "trawl[ing], as it were, the surface of Valerian waters" (148), M. overwhelms the reader with his inclusivity. In Valerius' chapter on defendants, M. finds a third of the 23 anecdotes involve religious elements, if one counts a fire on the "Sacred Way," a crime "not committed in a godless manner" and the violation of chastity, since she is a divinity (156). Some divinities such as Justice and Faith, are confirmed by contemporary religious honors, but M. also classifies Invidia as a divinity, based on ancient concerns with the evil eye and Valerius' phrase invidia laborantes to describe judicial defendants (8.1.init.). The Caesars too are prominent as gods who practice kindness and modesty. Other gods appear as promoters of a variety of virtues including kindness and mercy. In addition to considering the divine sanction of morality, M. repeatedly calls attention to the emotional quality of Valerius' religiosity and to the emotional basis for virtue in shame, reverence, and devotion.

M's inclusivity, in fact, presents the greatest difficulty for this monograph. The shifting emphases on morality, religious beliefs, Tiberius' divinity and Valerius' personal faith serve at times to diminish the force of individual arguments about the intersection of religion and morality. Similarly, the attempt to analyze every anecdote mentioning the three state gods sometimes forces M.'s interpretations. At the same time, M.'s broadening of his topic to include the literary, historical, and political context of Valerius' anecdotes is a real strength. The comparison of Valerius' version to both predecessors and successors, especially Cicero, Livy, and the Christian apologists, often clarifies Valerius' particular perspective. Just as the ancient authors brought quite varied interpretations to these stories, modern scholars too continue to find them fertile ground for speculation. M.'s contribution will certainly provoke further scholarly debate concerning Roman religion in the early principate, especially on the topic of the ruler cult.


1.   J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford 1979) 39-54; W.J. Tatum, "Ritual and Morality in Roman Religion," Syllecta Classica 4 (1993) 13-20.
2.   See, for example, S.R.F. Price, Rituals and Power: the Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge 1984); J. Scheid, "Polytheism impossible; or the empty gods: reasons behind a void in the history of Roman religion," History and Anthropology 3 (1987) 303-25; D. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome (Cambridge 1988) 2-6.
3.   Mueller 3; A.K. Michels, "Review of Kurt Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte," AJP 83 (1962) 441.

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:16, Friday, 03 April 2009