Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.28 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.28

John Scheid, The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome. Translated and with a foreward by Clifford Ando; first published in French 2013. Empire and after.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  Pp. xxiii, 175.  ISBN 9780812247664.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Andrzej Gillmeister, University of Zielona Góra​ (


John Scheid is one of the most prominent contemporary scholars of ancient Roman religion. He claims allegiance to the French School and uses it as his intellectual base, this work being dedicated to the memory of Jean-Pierre Vernant. Inspiration from scholars of the French school is visible throughout Scheid's work: this is evident in his structuralism (although the author himself questions the validity of the approach, p.7), and is perhaps most prominent in his consistent placing of sacrificial offerings at the centre of the religious experience of ancient Romans, along with his consideration of sacrificial offerings as part of the alimentary sphere.

The work consists of a “Translator’s Foreword” by Clifford Ando and the main body by Scheid, which includes “Preface”, “Introduction” and eleven diverse chapters.

In his foreword, the translator draws attention to a discussion currently taking place within Roman religious studies, which one might loosely describe as a debate over the utility of the model of polis-religion in contrast to other models centered on different sociological categories, such as the individual. Ando outlines this debate in a concise, logical way, and places Scheid's book within it—as a book written in the defence of the concept of polis- or civic-religion.

Scheid incorporates three perspectives: he provides historiographic reflections on research in the field; he reflects on the theoretical and methological commitments of those works; and he outlines the results of his own investigations. This approach produces an original work that summarizes achievements in research on Roman religion up until the present day, on the one hand, and critically engages with various theories functioning in the field of study, on the other. Due to the nature of Scheid's approach, in what follows I will principally speak about the book's main theses rather than summarize particular chapters.

Scheid clearly defines his methodological position. In the Preface he states that his goal is to counter contemporary theories that reject historical and anthropological approaches to Roman religion. He adds that he has no intention of proving the falsity of these theories, intending only to point out their intellectual and ideological commitments, and hence to redefine the area of their applicability. Scheid also calls for a return to sources, claiming that the task he has set before him is the analysis of chosen case studies, not a general discussion of the history of humanity.

Scheid goes on to point out that criticism of the concept of polis-religion, which is particularly prominent in contemporary German and Anglo-Saxon scholarship, is rooted in the assumption that the model omits any concern for personal and emotional attitudes to divinity, and hence does not cover ancient religious experience in its entirety. He claims that this normative concern for individuals and emotions derives from a Christianizing phenomenology and is an inheritance from Hegelian-Romantic philosophy of religion. He also argues that enthusiasts of this approach do not appreciate that the emotional sphere within ancient religions was experienced differently, as it was of a communal nature, and associated with a different conception of divinity. Scheid devotes considerable space to this issue, trying to establish, among other things, a catalogue of discrepancies between the concepts he defends and those his opponents use.

Simplifying the precise arguments that Scheid employs, the differences between him and his interlocutors may be defined as follows. Critics of civic religion claim that the religious system that this term describes is based on the domination of an elite, who imposed a ritual model onto the remaining sectors of society, thereby limiting their access to it. Scheid states that this position is too reductive, since it overlooks the fact that ritual systems in orthopraxic religions are understood by all those who practice them, including families or minority communities, and hence also by the non-elite. The next discrepancy concerns the claim by critics of civic religion, to the effect that cults other than those imposed by the elite, e.g. the cult of healer gods, were popular with the masses. Scheid draws attention to the fact that such theses concerning the richness of folk culture become prominent during the Romantic period and have little to do with the realities of ancient times. He also points out that a considerable majority of cults were introduced by more or less developed state activity and functioned within the framework of official religion. He highlights one more issue. The third century BC is generally considered to be a time of deep and violent religious changes in Rome. Scheid, however, considers this to be an over-interpretation, a result of mistaking changes in the nature and quantity of our documentation for evidence of profound historical evolution in the activities to which this documentation attests.

Scheid's next concern is the widespread theory that the concept of polis-religion fails to take into account new types of divinity, known from the rise and spread of new cults. He is right to ask whether the appropriate framework for assessing the novelty of such cults and divinities is one abstracted from the study of contemporaneous rites or one derived from Protestant Christian conception of divinity. Scheid rightly takes the model of universal religious feeling supposed by such critics of civic religion to be derived from Christianity. Some such model supplies the basis of the thought of many exceptional researchers of Roman religion, notably Franz Cumont and Tadeusz Zieliński. Apart from the obviously ahistorical nature of this way of proceeding, it has also encouraged people to conceive of polytheism as a coherent religious system. However, traditional cults never created any such system; even within the framework of civic religion they were characterised by dependence on social and cultural rather than theological contexts.

The above-stated hypotheses are widely developed by the author in the first chapter, “The Critique of Polis-religion. An Inventory” (5-21), and the remainder of the book is dedicated to discussing them.

Scheid rightly claims that the reinsertion of Roman religion into its historical context demands reflection on the basic terms used to describe that reality. Such reflection means not only defining terms within the framework of historical debate, but above all making an attempt to understand them in relationship to source materials. He points out that no archaeologist seeks to find ancient artefacts in contemporary material culture, yet this is exactly what happens in ancient religious studies. Hence a considerable amount of space is dedicated to analyzing the meaning and evolution of the concept of polis (ch. 2 “Polis and Republic. The Price of Misunderstanding”, 22-31), reminding the reader that the institution of the city-state was doing fine long after the battle of Chaeronea. Over against those who suppose its demise in the Hellenistic period, Scheid counts himself among those who believe that city-states constitute the social and legal framework for the life and functioning of citizens in both parts of the Roman empire. Although one might have thought that the myth of the destruction of the polis had been consigned to dustbin of historiography, Scheid suggests that the myth continues to haunt scholarship on religion in general, and Roman religion in particular.

The appeal made by Scheid for the historicisation of research is clearest in the parts of the text dedicated to the issue of civic religion (ch. 4 “Civic Religion. A Discourse of the Elite?”, 44-53; ch. 5 “Civic Religion and Identity”, 54-72). Above all when writing about the religious identity of the city-state, Scheid uses the term 'political' in its Aristotelean meaning, that is, as referring to community. Analysis of problems and contemporary headaches concerning Roman religion always refer to its communal and citizenship aspects. Taking public sacrificial offerings as an example, he wonders to what extent the number of participants is significant. Scheid states that the emphasis placed by critics of the polis-religion model on the number of participants to ritual action shows a deep lack of understanding of the essence of Roman religion. As in all orthopraxic religions, the quality of a religious rite performed is what counts, not the number of participants.

Scheid also poses the question of what participation in the ceremonies actually meant. He answers it with reference to the issue of public offerings. The epigraphic evidence for the rites of Dea Dia suggests that large amounts of meat remained after the offerings were made. Scheid wonders what happened to it, particularly when the preserved acts do not mention any banquets during which meat in such volume might have been eaten. Scheid gives four possible answers, which he then subjects to criticism. This clearly displays his method, which aims to show that detailed judgements concerning ancient reality are based on a rudimentary source corpus. Conclusions must be placed into a social and communal context, because deprived of context they do not have any particular significance. Analysing the issue of participation in sacrificial offerings by the Roman citizens, he places it into a communal context and claims that eating meat from the sacrificial offerings was understood as a form of participation in the sacrifice. He notes that this is also how the first Christians treated the matter. Regarding the nature and role of offerings, Scheid stakes out a position for the equal value of blood and vegetal sacrificial offerings in the Roman ritual system. In the book he concentrates on blood sacrifices, but in both cases the aim is to value the religious experience of the Romans, who understood them in a different sense.

The next problem, resulting from those mentioned above, is working out for whom the rituals were destined (ch. 6 “For Whom were the Rituals Celebrated?”, 73-95; ch. 7 “Religious Repression”, 97-104; and ch. 8 “Civic Religion, a Modality of Communal Religion”, 105-112). In practice this entails an attempt to investigate the extent to which the political meaning of religion and the inner needs of the followers of public rituals influenced the shape of the citizens' religion. Searching for answers, he calls once more upon the acta of the arval brethren. He also exploits the formula of the consecration of the altar in Salona, the text of a prayer recited publicly on the 3rd of January, and a sacrificial prayer from the acta of saecular games (17 B.C.). He observes that although in theory such rituals were performed for everyone, in practice only citizens took part in them. He further reminds the reader of the fact that in the case of Rome, we cannot speak of a religion of the empire. General religious ceremonies undertaken in the name of all citizens took place only in the city of Rome, and they were carried out by magistrates and priests of the Roman people. All remaining religious obligations were of a local nature. The designation "citizens' religion" might seem to limit the significance of the system. In practice it simply marks out its boundaries and semantic field. Scheid draws attention to the fact, often overlooked by critics of polis-religion, that Rome's religious practices were shared with other social units. He underlines that in the ancient world control over public rituals was in the hands of civil magistrates rather than priests.

Some chapters and parts of chapters (especially ch. 9 “Emotions and Beliefs”, 113-125) leave the reader wanting more, mainly when a problem is treated too hastily. It seems to me that in these areas a reader who is not personally involved in the subject of Roman religion would have to turn to other works, including others by Scheid, in which these issues have been laid out in a more thorough way.

In summary (ch. 11 “The Gods, the State and the Individual”, 139-142), Scheid points out once more that in the case of ancient Rome the use of deconstructionist theories, which place emotions and beliefs at the very centre of religious practices, are groundless. In this case, emotions were necessary neither for the correct performance nor for the feeling of a religious act, although they could of course be elicited. He claims that deconstructionists of the concept of polis-religion are unable to propose a new approach to Roman religion, and it is hard not to agree with this conclusion. However, it is worth emphasizing that the deconstructionist theorists criticized by Scheid have provoked a lively theoretical discussion, which in effect has led to the addition of nuances to the picture we have so far, and will surely lead to more, as the discussion is still ongoing.

Overall, the book can be understood as an introduction to Scheid’s thought on Roman religion, summing up his investigations in the field. At the same time, this excellent work introduces new research perspectives, outlined by one of the most exceptional authorities in the field. He also reflects sagely on the subject of carrying out studies in the humanities, especially in classics, and their role in the contemporary world. In these latter aspects of the book, great value also lies.

The book has been edited conscientiously, without significant typographical or editorial errors. Clifford Ando's excellent translation fully transmits the strengths of the original.

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