Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.13

Duncan MacRae, Legible Religion. Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2016.  Pp. 259.  ISBN 9780674088719.  $49.95.  

Reviewed by Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy, University of Calgary (


This is an excellent and important book. Duncan MacRae’s aim is to illuminate the centrality of Late Republican writings about religion (especially those lost and fragmentary texts usually described as ‘antiquarian’ or ‘technical’) to both Roman and modern understandings of what constituted ‘Roman religion’. This work encourages a re-evaluation of the place and significance of texts in Roman religion, and is sure to generate further progress in this field.

The book consists of an introduction, six chapters (divided into three parts), and a brief conclusion. The introduction outlines MacRae’s approach, focusing on the appropriateness and definition of the term ‘religion’, and advocating a sensibly cautious handling of fragments. Rather than dividing Roman texts on religion by genre (legal, philosophical, grammatical, antiquarian, and so on), MacRae proposes to view them all as exemplars of ‘civil theology’, which he defines as writings that focused on ‘the intellectual discussion of the gods and their worship’ in the specific context of what their authors ‘perceived as particularly Roman religious culture’.1

The three chapters of Part 1, ‘Writing Roman Religion’, elucidate the content, strategies, and context of the production of these texts. Chapter 1 draws on recent critiques of the polis-religion/‘civic religion’ model to sketch a view of the lived religion of Romans as diverse and extending far beyond civic cult. This sets up MacRae’s argument in succeeding chapters that the Late Republican writers on religion overrepresented the role of the state and the priestly colleges in shaping and mediating Roman religious experience. Chapter 2 turns to the texts themselves, to identify the style and strategies common to their writers. MacRae identifies their key shared features as the use of etymology, description, invocations of ethnography and the material remains of the city, and the adoption of the pose of the expert, unveiling to his readers what would otherwise have been lost or mysterious. Chapter 3 turns to the question of why there was a boom of such works in the Late Republic. MacRae sees them as the product of the competitive intellectual culture of the elite, a means by which priests and statesmen could enact (what they saw as) their own primacy in Rome’s religious system.

Part 2, ‘Comparison’, comprises one of the most innovative chapters of the book, a comparison between the Roman civil theological writings and the Mishnah. Whilst acknowledging the significant differences between Roman and Jewish religious priorities and theologies, MacRae argues convincingly that we see in both Late Republican Rome and the writings of the rabbis the desire to textualize religion, and to present this textual instantiation as the definitive or normative version of each religion.

The two chapters of Part 3, ‘Reading Roman Religion’, consider the influence of the civil theological texts on later centuries. Chapter 5 discusses their reception under the Empire, arguing that Augustus and his successors adopted and promoted the civil theological understanding of Roman religion. Chapter 6 moves to Christian reception, focusing on the responses to Varro’s Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum in Tertullian and Augustine. Finally, the Conclusion addresses the broader place of writings on religion in Roman culture, arguing that our interpretations must move beyond a dichotomy between ‘Scripture’ and ‘literature’: though not canonized or considered sacred in the way promoted by more obvious ‘Religions of the Book’, these writings played a part in shaping Roman religion and made the religion itself ‘an object of writing and reading’.2

The most important and original contribution of MacRae’s book is to illuminate the vitality of the Late Republican writings on religion, and their importance to their readers and writers. By looking past generic classifications of these writings, MacRae adds a new dimension to our understanding of their effects on Roman knowledge. To Wallace-Hadrill’s perception of this writing as a shift in power from the elite to the specialist,3 and to Moatti's and Rüpke’s view of the process as one of rationalization,4 MacRae rightly adds that because many of the Late Republican writers were themselves priests and ritual experts, their work must also be read as an outworking of their own religious mastery and commitment. Using the surviving evidence for the dedicatees of these works, as well as for their implied readers, MacRae demonstrates masterfully that these texts were not mere exercises in academic speculation, or abstruse enquiries into the arcane, but had contemporary relevance and a wide elite readership. MacRae also provides an interesting, if difficult to prove, alternative perspective on the significance of such writing in the early Empire and even into Late Antiquity. He sees Varro’s ARD, for example, not so much as an unusual and abortive experiment in differentiating the religious as a distinct sphere of Roman life, nor as a text invoked but seldom read in later centuries, but rather as a construction of Roman religion that was not just accepted but actively realized and propagated by pagan readers before it was challenged by Christian ones.

In such a rich discussion there is always room for further debate. The characterization of opposing views sometimes reads as being a little too extreme. In Chapter 1 on the variety of Roman religious experience, for example, MacRae criticizes Scheid as well as Beard, North, and Price for holding that ‘citizenship (according to a juridical understanding of that term) entirely constituted religious identity for Romans and carried a set of obligations about forms of worship’.5 This may be a fair summary of the impression created by Scheid’s early work, where ‘la communauté cultuelle romaine comprend donc avant tout et presque exclusivement les citoyens’,[6]] but I am not sure that it does justice to the more cautious position of Beard, North, and Price, who argue not that public rites were the only way Romans experienced religion, but rather that these are best documented in the evidence we have.7 Similarly, Chapter 2 reproaches ‘the use of modernity (…) whether in the guise of Enlightenment or Weberian rationalization’ as ‘an explicit or implicit comparison’ for Roman rationalization; MacRae objects that this ‘begs fundamental questions about how appropriately “modernity” describes the culture of late Republican Rome’, citing as culprits Moatti, Wallace-Hadrill, and Rüpke. I am not certain that modernity is a fair target here: the word is not a touchstone for Wallace- Hadrill, and Moatti seems to me to use it purely to denote the products of her ‘esprit critique’, explicitly disavowing the issue of ‘whether the Romans were rational in the modern sense of the word’.8 Rüpke does draw on Weber’s theories of rationalization, but whether this is inherently inappropriate requires demonstration. Further discussion of what MacRae means by modernity and the role he sees it playing in the scholarship would have been useful.

Taking up MacRae’s invitation to take Late Republican writings on religion seriously, I offer two further thoughts, less in the spirit of critique than in tribute to the engagement his work deserves. One key issue, it seems to me, is the relationship between the civil theological texts and actual practice. MacRae walks an interesting and unusual line, holding in essence that there was little overlap between the two in the Late Republican period, but more under the Empire, when Augustus, his successors, and those intellectuals in his orbit sought to implement in practice the civil theologians’ textual construction of Roman religion. This argument works well for the Empire, where MacRae supports it with such examples as Augustus’ revival (invention?) of the fetial spear-throwing ritual and reinvention of the Secular Games. There seems to be more room for debate when we turn to the Late Republican period. For example, MacRae rightly notes that the technical treatises whose fragments have come down to us cannot be viewed as ‘authoritative legal handbooks’, but perhaps accepts too readily the view that there were no other books used to guide ritual practice and considered authoritative amongst the priestly colleges. Given the mentions in our surviving sources of books ‘of’ the various priests, I am less comfortable than MacRae with saying that ‘On the whole (…) the pontifical and augural law were the creations of the theologians’, or even with concluding that ‘there is no evidence for a “real” set of secret pontifical books in Rome’.9 This view has become popular in the last few decades, and may be right, but it remains an assumption so long as we lack access to whatever priestly archives may once have existed. It would have been interesting to see more discussion of why, if there was no pre-existing body of ritual and religious law, the civil theologians considered it appropriate to speak as if there were.

The issue of the relationship between texts and practice is raised on a broader level by MacRae’s argument that the civil theologians ‘created, for the first time’ the concept of ‘Roman’ religion. MacRae must be right that the vision presented by the civil theologians was a selective one, which may have overstated the significance of the priestly colleges and the state religious apparatus, because the writers were themselves members of these. What seems less certain is whether the civil theological texts not only drastically narrowed the definition of what counted as Roman religion, but also created that concept itself. MacRae’s argument is that prior to these writers there was no ‘Roman state religion’, because ‘most interactions with the gods at Rome existed beyond the reach of the state and were not (…) the object of surveillance or legal regulation’10; even our texts’ focus on the city of Rome as defining ‘Roman’ religion was ‘an arbitrary delimitation, one that fit awkwardly with the complex realities of the religious landscape’.11 I wonder whether we need go as far as this. That the Roman state tended to leave its citizens to get on with their religion(s) so long as these did not threaten the authorities or lead to the abandonment of public rites is well known, but even these boundaries seem to me to testify to a sense that there were some rituals that were appropriate, and others that were not, for the Roman citizen qua citizen. Nor was the emphasis upon Rome and its priests restricted to the Late Republican civil theological texts: as early as Ennius, Rome is founded augusto augurio, the unique site where, in the words of Livy’s Camillus, the rites of ‘all public and private gods’ have ‘their appointed places no less than they have their appointed days.’12 MacRae does not use Livy in his study save to assert that he, too, embraced the view of Roman religion crafted by the civil theologians, but there is a slight risk of circular argument here. Is nearly everything that now survives for us civil theology? And if so, on what basis can we safely claim that civil theology misrepresented the realities of Roman religious life?

These questions do not detract from what is a fascinating and thought-provoking work. Duncan MacRae has given Late Republican texts on religion an exciting new lease on life. We are indebted to him for a book which is sure to encourage further exploration of Rome’s ‘legible religion’.


1.   MacRae 2016: 3.
2.   MacRae 2016: 141-146.
3.   Wallace-Hadrill, A. 2008. Rome’s Cultural Revolution. Cambridge.
4.   Moatti, C. 1997. La raison de Rome. Naissance de l’esprit critique à la fin de la République. Paris; Rüpke, J. 2012. Religion in Republican Rome. Rationalization and Ritual Change. Philadelphia, PA.
5.   MacRae 2016: 16.
6.   Scheid, J. 2001. Religion et piété à Rome. Paris. 34. Note however a more nuanced approach to polis-religion and its limits in Scheid, J. 2013. Les Dieux, l’État et l’individu: Réflexions sur la religion civique à Rome. Paris (and the English edition with forward by Clifford Ando: Scheid, J. 2016. The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome. Philadelphia.)
7.   Beard, M., North, J., and Price, S. R. F. 1998. Religions of Rome. Cambridge. E.g. vol. 1: ch. 1.
8.   Moatti 1997 with additions to the English edition, Moatti 2015 (Cambridge): 1.
9.   E.g. Cicero, Rep.2.54; Div. 1.72; Varro, Ling. Lat.5.21; cf. MacRae 2016: 43, 66-8, 179 n. 76.
10.   MacRae 2016: 18.
11.   MacRae 2016: 35.
12.   Ennius, Ann. 245 M = 494 V; Livy, AUC 5.52.

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