Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.04.03

Dorothee Elm von der Osten, Jörg Rüpke, Katharina Waldner, Texte als Medium und Reflexion von Religion im römischen Reich. Potsdamer altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge 14.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 260.  ISBN 3-515-08641-2.  €49.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, University of Exeter (p.e.r.van-nuffelen@ex.ac.uk)
Word count: 2285 words

This collection of essays is part of the large output generated by the German research program "Römische Reichsreligion und Provinzialreligion," led by Jörg Rüpke (Erfurt). It asks how religion has been constructed in and spread through literature. This question has been neglected, the editors argue in the introduction (7-11), because Christianity as a religion of the book is too often taken as the paradigm for how religion and literature interact. Ancient literature should be read as actively constructing and spreading Greco-Roman religion, rather than simply as a source of evidence. In that way, this volume is the successor to Rituals in Ink, published by A. Barchiesi, J. Rüpke and S. Stephens in 2004.

The contributions all focus on texts from the Augustan age to the third century A.D., with most attention going to traditional "paganism", although Christianity is represented by a few papers. The papers vary in breadth and depth (see the titles listed at the end of this review), but in general the volume raises central issues about the way modern scholars have read, can read, and should read ancients texts on religious topics. For that reason I can recommend it to all scholars interested in Roman religion.

A. Barchiesi ("Mobilità e religione nell' Eneide. Diaspora, culto, spazio, identità locali", pp. 13-30) reads the Aeneis as a metaphor used by Virgil for religious transmission in his own time and space (i.e. the Roman Empire). Just as Trojan religion is formed during the travels of Aeneas, Roman religion is reformed after a moment of crisis by the "brave new" Augustan world. Equally, the Trojans transcend their local cultural identity in the move to Italy. He suggests that this can be read as referring to the process of "cultural homologisation" going on in Virgil's time. He also argues that Virgil reduces the role of religious mediators (priests, diviners, etc.) in his poem as a mirror image of their reduced role in the reformed empire of Augustus. The diaspora of the Trojans is, in the end, also that of the Romans throughout the empire.

H. Cancik ("Götter einführen: ein myth-historisches Modell für die Diffusion von Religion in Vergils Aeneis", pp. 31-40), briefly analyses the process of diffusion of Trojan religion as told by Vergil. He presents it as a mythical model for historical events, characterised, on the one hand, by the fact that the Trojan immigrants carry their gods with them and, on the other, by the diffusion and integration of Trojan religion into local cults at the moment of the foundation of a new city. He concludes with general remarks on the "mobility" of religion, both pagan and Christian.

In "Der triumphierende Leser: Die Siegesfeier von Amphipolis in der Geschichtserzählung des Livius" (pp. 41-61), U. Egelhaaf-Gaiser uses the concept of "mental map" to analyse Livy's description of the Roman victory over Perseus. His description of Macedonia is not geographically accurate, but focuses on symbolically important (often religious) places for the Macedonians. This mental map is then overwritten by the victorious Romans, who invest these places with new meanings. In a second part, she argues that Livy's description of Aemilius Paullus' victory celebrations in Amphipolis must be read at a threefold level. It is the triumph of the Roman empire, that of Roman concordia over Greek strife, and, finally, also the triumph of Livy as a historian over the past and over Thucydides, to whom E.-G. finds various references. I must admit that I found the last contention, though possible, rather speculative, and not really illuminating for Livy's text.

Chr. Auffarth criticises the dominant Protestant way (at least in Germany) of understanding Paul, and early Christianity in general, through its Jewish environment, rather than situating them in Hellenistic culture ("Euer Leib sei der Tempel des Herrn! Religiöse Sprache bei Paulus", pp. 63-80). Such a reading also stresses Christianity as a spiritual religion which does away with traditional ritual. A. argues that the contrary is the case, adducing two examples. The metaphor of man as a temple is shown to be rooted in Greek religious discourse, as is the metaphor of constructing or destroying a house or a temple to indicate the faith of the worshipper. He argues that Paul, just like contemporary philosophers as Seneca or Apuleius, does not want to abolish ritual but rather aspires to instil it with new meaning: cult and sanctity should not be restricted to a specific location, but fill one's entire life.

In "Early Christianity, textual representation and ritual extension" (pp. 81-100), I. Henderson stresses texts as a ritual interface in Early Christianity: texts not only inform us about Christian ritual but are rituals themselves. As rituals, early Christian texts are also responsible for constituting early communities. In the same way as Chr. Auffarth, he argues against the reduction of Christianity to a post-Jewish, mainly spiritual religion, and points to parallels with Greco-Roman religion. He shows that one should understand the New Testament as "performative texts supporting individual and group identity" (p. 90). He also makes the important point that the apparent plurality of formulations of basic early Christian rituals should not be taken to imply a theological variety. Rather, it may be a sign of performative flexibility.

K. Waldner surveys the Greek novel for its representation of religion, and in particular for instances where divine justice and punishment is depicted ("Die poetische Gerechtigkeit der Götter. Recht und Religion im griechischen Roman", pp. 101-123). She shows that in the novels justice and truth are victorious in the end, but through divine intervention, not because of human action. She argues that considerations of genre explain the stress on the ultimate return of justice: the story can only end when justice has been re-established. Attempting to situate this mentality in a wider context, she makes a link with the so-called confession inscriptions in which individuals confess their mistakes and obtain divine dispensation. Although one can see parallels, I am not sure it is methodologically sound to explain characteristics of novels through a habit only attested in a corner of Lydia. It should be demonstrated first that the confession inscriptions are representative of the religious mentality of the Roman Empire and of the social context from which the novels stem.

S. Goldhill rightly points to the relative neglect of religion in work done on the Second Sophistic ("Religion, Wissenschaftlichkeit und griechische Identität im römischen Kaiserreich", pp. 125-140). For this he blames not only the fact that triumphant Christianity tends to direct our attention away from the still vital Greco-Roman religion of this period, or that the Roman empire seems to have a religious focus on the emperor which obscures other religious forms. He also stresses that Foucault neglected religion in his history of sexuality, and, Foucault's work is a foundational text for modern scholarship on the Second Sophistic, many modern scholars follow the example of the French philosopher. G. wants to take polytheism seriously, by studying how religion plays a role in constructing Greek identity in the Roman Empire. He does so by analysing passages from Pausanias, Plutarch, and Aelius Aristides.

The next essay by D. Elm von der Osten also focuses on the Second Sophistic ("Die Inszenierung des Betruges und seiner Entlarvung. Divination und ihre Kritiker in Lukians Schrift 'Alexandros oder der Lügenprofet'", pp. 141-157). She shows that one cannot use Lucian's Alexander as a source for the history of religion without fully understanding its literary nature. It is not a real eye-witness account, but a carefully crafted piece of literature. It must be situated in the context of widespread critique on oracles found in this period, and represents an Epicurean point of view, which regarded oracles as human inventions. This explains the stress on the person of Alexander in Lucian's work. At the same time, the 'Alexander' is a highly theatrical work, which in the end subverts itself. Lucian continuously presents himself as the sober Epicurean, who sees through the charlatan's actions. But the text shows that he is far from having reached the ἀταραξία the school advocates. Given the importance the 'Alexander' has in accounts of religion in the Roman empire, E. has made a capital contribution, by rightly underscoring that one should try to understand its literary identity before attempting to use it as a source.

In a lengthy, ambitious paper A. Bendlin goes even a step further ("Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Mantik. Orakel im Medium von Handlung und Literatur in der Zeit der Zweiten Sophistik", pp. 159-207). He brings together, on the one hand, epigraphical testimonies of the increased interest in oracles in the Roman Empire and, on the other, literary and philosophical texts that debate the nature and truth of oracles. Rather than seeing the latter as a critique of the former, he argues that both stem from the same local elites and that they must be understood in the context of the Second Sophistic. These texts are not simply testimonies to a certain form of religion nor mere expositions of well-worn philosophical arguments: they participate in the debate on social and cultural authority that characterises this period. In the literary texts one senses the presence of multiple discourses: for example, in Plutarch's Delphic dialogues there is a tension between Plutarch the priest and Plutarch the philosopher. B. offers an attractive explanation for the proliferation of interest in oracles in this time, without postulating a change in religious mentality - the usual refuge of scholars who want to explain a new interest in a certain phenomenon. A summary cannot do justice to the wealth of interesting considerations, but those who work through B.'s not always lucid prose will be amply rewarded.

The three preceding essays rightly strive to give religion its due place in the identity debates of the Second Sophistic. They remain, however, fully within the ruling paradigm: religion is just added to literature or philosophy as an additional way in which Greek identity was constructed. As noted, this raises important questions as to the value of Lucian and Plutarch as sources for religion. One wonders, however, if these texts should only be read as constructing identity and power. Goldhill's admission that the focus of scholarship is still very much dominated by Foucault indeed makes one think whether the time has not yet come to question the paradigm itself and look for other possible issues raised by the literature of the Second Sophistic.

In "Literarische Darstellungen römischer Religion in christlicher Apologetik. Universal- und Lokalreligion bei Tertullian und Minucius Felix" (pp. 209-223), J. Rüpke shows how Tertullian and Minucius Felix appropriate the central Roman texts on religion, Cicero's De natura deorum and Varro's Antiquitates rerum divinarum. Not only do they invert the positive arguments proposed in the latter, the apologists also stress the local variety of religion in the Roman Empire. By doing so, they turned the Roman gods, to which for example Varro attributed a universal quality, into minor local gods.

Hubert Cancik contributes another, brief paper ("Wahrnehmung, Vermeidung, Entheiligung, Aneignung: Fremde Religionen bei Tertullian, im Talmud (AZ) und bei Eusebius", pp. 227-232). It surveys different ways in which Jews and Christians understood and construed pagan religion as it surrounded them. The briefness of the paper, in combination with its broad scope, hardly allows the author to go beyond general and apodictic assessments of potentially interesting material. The last author, Eusebius, is for example dealt with in slightly over a two thirds of a page.

R. Haensch contributes the last paper to the volume: "Religion und Kulte im juristischen Schrifttum und in rechtsverbindlichen Verlautbarungen der Hohen Kaiserzeit" (pp. 233-247). Starting out from the fact that the extant legal texts offer little evidence for attitudes towards religion -- even if religion was considered a central part of society --, he surveys the legal evidence found in legal texts, inscriptions and papyri, and this in different areas: imperial cult, foreign cults, the characteristics of cults that are stressed in the sources, the limits of Roman tolerance for foreign cults, and the question if legal protection of Roman cults could be extended to foreign cults. He concludes that there is a clear respect for religion in all its forms, but that the sources only make general statements without going into detail. This conclusion suggested to me that the absence of detailed evidence for religious legislation in the Early Empire may not only be due to the Christian compilers of the different codes. It may also reflect a general attitude towards religion in this period, when little need was felt to go into great detail.

Table of Contents

A. Barchiesi, Mobilità e religione nell' Eneide. Diaspora, culto, spazio, identità locali, pp. 13-30

H. Cancik, Götter einführen: ein myth-historisches Modell für die Diffusion von Religion in Vergils Aeneis, pp. 31-40

U. Egelhaaf-Gaiser, Der triumphierende Leser: Die Siegesfeier von Amphipolis in der Geschichtserzählung des Livius, pp. 41-61

Chr. Auffarth, Euer Leib sei der Tempel des Herrn! Religiöse Sprache bei Paulus, pp. 63-80

I. Henderson, Early Christianity, textual Representation and Ritual Extension, pp. 81-100

K. Waldner, Die poetische Gerechtigkeit der Götter. Recht und Religion im griechischen Roman, pp. 101-123

S. Goldhill, Religion, Wissenschaftlichkeit und griechische Identität im römischen Kaiserreich, pp. 125-140

D. Elm von der Osten, Die Inszenierung des Betruges und seiner Entlarvung. Divination und ihre Kritiker in Lukians Schrift 'Alexandros oder der Lügenprofet', pp. 141-157

A. Bendlin, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Mantik. Orakel im Medium von Handlung und Literatur in der Zeit der Zweiten Sophistik, pp. 159-207

J. Rüpke, Literarische Darstellungen römischer Religion in christlicher Apologetik. Universal- und Lokalreligion bei Tertullian und Minucius Felix, pp. 209-223

H. Cancik, Wahrnehmung, Vermeidung, Entheiligung, Aneignung: Fremde Religionen bei Tertullian, im Talmud (AZ) und bei Eusebius, pp. 227-232

R. Haensch, Religion und Kulte im juristischen Schrifttum und in rechtsverbindlichen Verlautbarungen der Hohen Kaiserzeit, pp. 233-247.

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