Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.17

Jörg Rüpke, Religion of the Romans. (Translation of 2001 edition by Richard Gordon).   Cambridge, UK/Malden, MA:  Polity Press, 2007.  Pp. 368.  ISBN 9780745630151.  $26.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jan Nelis, University of Ghent (
Word count: 1261 words

Religion of the Romans: the title in itself indicates the author's intention to offer an 'inner' look on the way in which the ancient Romans supposedly lived and experienced their religion(s). In all, we have found Rüpke's to be a fruitful contribution to the understanding of how both elite and lower class Roman citizens behaved in a religious context. The book's highly original approach is based on a variety of source materials, apart from which the author also displays a thorough knowledge of the relevant secondary literature, which he uses, when necessary, in a critical, sensible manner. In other words, this is a very solid treatment of Roman religion, or rather of 'religion of the Romans'. In the following, we will provide a brief summary of the book's contents.

The introductory part, which consists of two chapters (pp. 1-61), initially offers some general reflections on the concept of religion, and on the limits attached to the latter term's application to antiquity. From the outset, the very existence of ancient 'religion', or at least its scarce resemblance to what it nowadays is commonly considered to be, is questioned. Apart from this aspect, the reader is also warned against the anachronistic dangers contained by the study of religion in ancient Rome. In this way, important issues such as ancient religion's public versus its private face, polytheism versus monotheism, elite versus popular religion, as well as the issue of controlling religious practice, are treated in a very deliberate manner, reconstructing as much as possible the viewpoint of ancient Romans. The second part of the prolegomena focuses on problems such as, first and foremost, the use and often difficult interpretation of source material (cf. supra). As in the study of history in general, the latter indeed is a particularly fundamental aspect in scholarship on religion in antiquity, and Rüpke seems to be very well aware of this. Furthermore, he also points out how historical research is not only determined by the scholar's own ideology, but also by the very nature of the available source material. Indeed, not without reason, he states that every "society creates an image of its own history. This image is configured by certain current or contemporary pre-occupations and interests, and is directed far more towards these than by a concern for how things really were." (p. 43) The prolegomena are concluded by a discussion of the possible periodizations of the religion of the Romans.

Part 1, entitled Structures (p. 63-134), starts with a philosophical discussion of the concept of religion, after which we get a treatment of various aspects related to people's relationship to the dead, as well as to gods, most importantly in the shape of cult-images, as well as their respective, and evolving, attributes. This is followed by a discussion of the polytheistic nature of the Romans' religion, and, more importantly, by an elaborate illustration of the various conceptions of divinity which one would have been able to observe in ancient Rome. All this is connected to an already mentioned aspect, namely the fact that the religion of the Romans is not only a quite heterogeneous object of study, but that it is also something which should best be taken on its own terms, a situation which inevitably leads to considerable distance between the researcher and the object of his study. In so far as possible Rüpke tries to bridge this distance, mainly through a discussion of various rituals performed by ancient Romans and of their possible interpretations. Pointing at the fact that the nature and original intention of most rituals was not even clear in antiquity itself, the author points at the difficulty of interpreting them, both in themselves and in relationship to one another, in other words 'semantically' as well as 'syntactically'. This part of the book finishes with a closer look at the possibilities and limitations of conceptualizing religion, a discussion which is all the more interesting as it can apply both to ancient and present religious traditions.

The second part, Religion in Action (p. 135-201), first of all presents a discussion of the social function of sacrifice and feasting, in which the author analyzes, among other things, the various ways in which rituals, i.e. sacrificial rituals, create, reproduce and produce hierarchy, hierarchy between man and god, but also, on a lower level, between human and animal. Rüpke proceeds with an illustration of the various ways in which sacrifices could be interpreted ('gifts: do ut des'), which types of sacrifice were needed for different intentions and different contexts ('system'), and how the practice of sacrifice could also be manipulated according to specific needs. Finally, and most interestingly, the economic factor is taken into account, as well as the influence it could have had on the act of sacrifice itself. Subsequently, the subject of votives is introduced. Paying special attention to animal votives, Rüpke here points at the difficulty in interpreting these objects, especially anatomic ones, to conclude with an extensive treatment of the role and importance of vow pledging, as well as of the place of the concepts of 'space' and 'time' in the Romans' religious life.

The most interesting section of the third part of the book, entitled Social Reality (pp. 203-57), can be found at the beginning, where Rüpke comments on the existence, organization and role of the so-called collegia, as well as their specific religious functions. From this analysis, it once again emerges that the 'religion of the Romans' was both a private and a public activity, with specific social functions which can only to a very limited extent be compared to Christian religious patterns. The book then contains a treatment of religious personnel, in which we particularly appreciated the long, systematic list provided on pages 223-8, as well as some additional considerations, which in a way serve as conclusion. Here the author makes some final remarks on the way in which he has analyzed religion in ancient Rome, i.e. through basically an 'inner approach', which, as we have highlighted, tries to grasp the 'otherness' of the ancient past, and of its religion, viewpoints which do not only count for the study of ancient religion, but for the whole of antiquity and its culture. Therefore, we would like to end this brief summary with a short citation (p. 257): "That [the complexity of urban society during the Principate] is what makes the models, conclusions, hypotheses and questions that arise out of an engagement with the ancient world so interesting for the present day. At the same time, these contemporary implications are bound also to call attention to the otherness of ancient society: if we want to use the ancient world in order to draw lessons for today, we must also accept that otherness. The inverse is also true: even if we are interested in the otherness of antiquity, in its exoticism, we cannot avoid seeing its contemporary relevance. We would do well not to relinquish our grasp of either term of the paradox."

Religion of the Romans is without a doubt a very valuable source for the study of ancient religion, both for a specialized and for a student public. Combined with the continuous and consistent use of primary source material, the specific approach makes this study a very lively and well sustained analytical treatment of a subject whose 'otherness' can easily lead to simplistic, and anachronistic, interpretation. This is nowhere the case in Rüpke, and for this reason alone his book is highly recommendable. The only, minor, flaws are the quite numerous typographical errors, which we hope will disappear in future reprints.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:20, Friday, 03 April 2009