BMCR 2001.07.18

The Gods of Ancient Rome: religion in everyday life from archaic to imperial times. Translated by Antonia Neville

, The Gods of Ancient Rome: religion in everyday life from archaic to imperial times. Translated by Antonia Neville. New York: Routledge, 2000. xii, 180. $65.00.

A newcomer to the subject of Roman religion might understandably feel overwhelmed and not a little bewildered by the variety and diversity of modern offerings on the topic.1 Until fairly recently there was a relative dearth of accessible introductions in English for the lay reader. This situation has now been rectified by a handful of valuable volumes and articles.2 Robert Turcan’s contribution, a translation of Les Dieux de Rome (Hachette Littératures, 1998) is intended as a handbook for undergraduate courses in the history of Rome and its religions and for a non-academic audience.

The Introduction (‘ pietas Romana‘) (pp. 1-13) and the Conclusion (‘The impact of Christianity’) (pp. 155-166) frame three main chapters: ‘Religions of the Family and Land’ (pp. 14-50); ‘Religions of the City’ (pp. 51-104); and ‘Religions of the Empire’ (pp. 105-154).

From the outset T. stresses the importance of Roman reverence towards their gods. The reader is introduced to the reciprocal do ut des interaction between humans and divinities and the necessity of the religio Romana to ward off the threats posed by superstitio. For T. Roman piety was utterly pragmatic, inclusive of new practices without rejecting the old, in order to manipulate novel deities who could offer solutions when traditional gods and goddesses were proving ineffective. Alert to signs from heaven, the Roman Senate and people interpreted them according to the strict formalism and legalism laid down by their religious authorities.

My problem is with the conclusion that ‘in Rome people had always steered clear of imagination and the surge of emotion in religious matters, fringe prophesying, and even theology in general’ (p. 11). T. does not appear to accept the possibility that what we know about Roman religious practice may, to a large extent, be a construct of the literary sources. John North has argued recently that Livy’s narrative may have expunged evidence of a richer, more prophetic tradition from the historical account.3 Examples such as the discovery of the carmina Marciana, suggest that prophecy could be part and parcel of religio Romana and that activities on the fringe could be considered seriously enough to be incorporated into the formal religious apparatus of the state. Other examples—the Senate’s treatment of the Bacchanales, the evidence for astrology, the Sibylline oracles reproduced by Phlegon of Tralles for 125 BC—may all point to the conclusion that the formalism which appears to characterise Roman republican religion may be a carefully constructed product of the first century BC. T.’s evidence for the mistrust of ‘fringe devotions’, Cato De Agricultura 5.4.4, is an unfortunate choice. The farmer’s prohibition on his vilicus was not for fear of diversion from his daily toil but, as Columella realised,4 because the vilicus was neither qualified nor of appropriate status to make correct and proper use of the seers mentioned. Rather, the passage offers an insight into a world peopled by different diviners available to the farmer and his vilicus for consultation.5

T.’s point of view is evidently shaped substantially by the prodigy narrative of Livy (p.6) who, he suggests, ‘conscientiously transcribed’ his prodigies from the annals of the priests. Which ‘priests’ are to be inferred is not made explicit. The preceding paragraph discusses the role of the decemviri sacris faciundis but as far as I am aware no one has made a claim that Livy drew his prodigy lists from the Sibylline Books. And if T. means the annals of the pontiffs, there is no clear evidence to suggest that Livy used these at all.6 Furthermore, Levene has argued that even if Livy had made use of the prodigy lists from an authoritative source such as the Annales Maximi he was capable of altering and manipulating that material on a small and a large scale to suit his own historiographical aims.7

In the succeeding chapters T. opens a window on the pervasiveness of religion in every aspect and at all stages of a Roman’s life. ‘Religions of the Family and Land’ is especially successful in this respect. The major contribution of this chapter is in the breadth of the discussion, which ranges from daily rituals (such as the invocation of the Lares at dawn) and rites associated with special occasions (birth, transition to manhood, marriage, death), to monthly and collective ceremonies (for example, the Matralia or the Nonae Capratinae). Cults of the land are afforded only six pages (pp. 37-43) in this chapter. But T.’s discussion is wholly lacking the irony of Roman sources which regarded religions of the countryside as archaic and alien. T. transcends the élitist view to demonstrate how Romans exhibited their fidelity through indigitamenta and gods specific to the special circumstances of the farm and rural living.

This chapter especially gives some sense of the colour and flavour of religious life at Rome. The examples are plentiful and we get some sense of the extent to which a Roman could go to placate the gods without overstepping the boundaries into Theophrastian deisidaimonia. However, T.’s suggestion that a Roman might call on a ‘technical expert—the haruspex’ (p.15) to assist in his morning devotions is at odds with his arguments of the introductory chapter, where he explicitly refuted the importance of ‘fringe’ divinatory activities. Such a haruspex, even if a member of the Etruscan ordo, would undoubtedly have been acting in a private capacity and would, presumably, have been paid for his services in the same way as those diviners whom Cato forbade his farm manager to consult. This chapter highlights one of the strengths of T.’s approach in the range of source material adduced to demonstrate the range of religious activities as, for example, in his description of the patronage of various gods and goddesses connected with childbirth and nurturing (Vaticanus, Nundina, the Carmentes, Rumina, Edulia and so on with references from St. Augustine, Plutarch, Tertullian, Pliny the Elder, Suetonius, p. 20). But this is also a weakness. We gain no sense of whether such practices continued or how they may have changed during the course of Roman history. Presumably too there would have been a great deal of individual choice, and not all Roman families may have adhered religiously to the pattern outlined by T.

‘Religions of the City’ surveys the Roman state cult. This chapter gives a useful overview of the major priesthoods, especially the rex sacrorum, the Roman calendar and the major festivals of the year. In addition, we are given details regarding the quinquennial Taurean Games, the lustrum conditum, and the Secular Games. In the last section of the chapter T. returns to the Roman preoccupation with the maintenance of the pax deorum. The extent to which prayers, offerings, vows and even the Roman triumph, played their part in warding off the ira deorum and honouring the gods is emphasised. Specific details are provided about the ways in which gods and goddesses were worshipped via the yearly festivals. Through the ritual celebrations, individual months are shown to have their own meaning, for example May as the month of the maiores or December a month devoted to a celebration of the preceding agricultural year. Within this the importance of individual ceremonies and the meaning of the festival (agriculture, warfare, climate) are explored. This makes this chapter an extremely useful resource, in essence a summary of Scullard’s Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, conveying the lengths to which the Romans as a populace would go to placate their gods. The elaborate ceremonies accompanied by offerings of animal sacrifice or food stuffs, the supplication of men, women and sometimes children, with ritual chanting and sacred vows is vivid and suggests a world where everyone from all strata of society had a part to play in the performance of the ceremony and where, moreover, there was a ceremony for everyone.8

The final paragraph of the chapter is problematic. Here T. adopts the view that Greek philosophy was largely responsible for the decline of Roman religion in the late Republic. The argument rests uneasily with earlier claims for the pietas Romana. Cicero is used in both cases: once to prove the strength of Roman piety and then to demonstrate the decline of the ‘ancestral religion’ (p.104). In fact, Obsequens’ lists for the 60s through 40s BC do not exhibit a notable decline in the recording or interpretation of prodigies when compared with previous decades. It is true, however, that he records no prodigies for the 30s and 20s, although Dio Cassius does preserve prodigy notices for this period. As for the disuse of rites and ruined temples, there were no doubt some casualties during the Civil Wars, but how we interpret the sources which give us this pessimistic picture, is largely dependent on the extent to which the Augustan religious revival was a matter of fact or of propaganda.

This line of argument leads naturally into the succeeding chapter which considers the influx of foreign cults into Rome. Here, there are useful summaries about gods and goddesses from Greece, Anatolia, Egypt and Syria as well as a section on the imperial cult which conveys a sense of its development along family lines from Marius to Caesar and finally Augustus. T.’s expertise in this field is well-known. The growth of Christianity finds its place under ‘The occult, necromancy and strange devotions’ (pp. 145-154). T. conveys the image of a world overshadowed by the imperial cult but teeming with eastern cultic practices, astrologers, magicians, traditional pagan worshippers and Christianity all rubbing shoulders with one another. T. dispels the notion of a Rome moving inexorably towards Christian monotheism. As he argues, ‘one must not imagine that in Rome orthodox Christians lived on one side and dyed-in-the-wool pagans on the other. Until the end of Antiquity there were intermediate fringes between them, very difficult to pin down, but stronger and more tenacious than was thought’ (p. 152). T. rightly demonstrates that Rome of the High Empire was a multicultural, multinational society with myriad ways of worshipping the gods. As agents of their own free-will Romans could and did choose to adhere to any one or more of a number of different cults or forms of worship.

The pace of the chapter glosses over some problems. A bare reference to Tiberius’ belief in astrology does not do credit to the academic and political importance of Thrasyllus.9 Lucan’s necromancers may have been an exaggeration in much the same way as modern-day satanic cults have been shown to have no basis in reality. Juvenal’s references to the sacrifice of infants by Armenian or Commagenian haruspices is almost certainly an example of satiric hyperbole.

In the concluding chapter T. traces the final success of Christianity. From the repeated legal attempts to regulate pagan worship, which are identified (correctly) as revealing the ineffectiveness of the laws, to eventual physical desecration of pagan temples, T. paints a picture of a dynamic religious struggle in which Christianity finally emerged the victor. His eerie portrait of locked-up temples, pagan statues and mosaics, and other remnants of a worn-out religion haunting a Christian Rome leaves an enduring image.

For T. the manner Roman worship did not change as much as the object of their devotions. He sees in the pietas Romana the same sense of thanksgiving and a sincere belief in divine goodness (p. 165) that, in part, characterises Christian worship. The structure of the book lends weight to this observation and refers us back to the vexed question of how far Roman ritual was a matter of belief. The question is worth asking, and T.’s conclusion is not completely controversial, although some readers may find the relationship of pagan worship in all its various forms hard to equate with the monotheistic, monolithic presence of Christianity.

For the academic reviewer, T.’s book leaves much unanswered or unexplored. T.’s uncritical use of the source material is sometimes awkward. For example, Aeneas’ commemoration of Anchises’ death (p.30) appears to offer a ritual representative of Roman practice at the time of Augustus. That may be the case, of course, but without a fuller discussion of the diverse levels at which such poetic texts operate, such conclusions cannot be immediately drawn.

One of the book’s other failings regards accessible secondary sources. Reeson’s additional bibliography (pp. 175-176) is helpful since it points English readers towards readings which are not listed in T.’s bibliography. The recent articles in the Cambridge Ancient History by Beard, North and Price might have been usefully included,10 and for a background to the role of priests and divination at Rome, Beard and North’s Pagan Priests is excellent.

Before concluding I have a range of relatively minor criticisms. There are occasional errors of fact. For example, Turcan inaccurately translates Cato De Agr. 5.4.4 vilicus as ‘farmer’ not ‘farm manager'(p.11); C. Gracchus did not commit suicide in 123 BC but was killed by his slave in 121 (p. 76); the augurs who recommended the razing of the sacred enclosures of the Egyptian gods (p. 121) should probably be haruspices, the word normally implied by the Greek μάντεις.

I have not had the opportunity to study the French edition and, therefore, cannot compare the extent to which the translation remains faithful to the original. There are, however, one or two clear oddities of expression. For example, the translation of Ovid’s piscis as ‘Picarel’ (p.4). A reader unfamiliar with the story of Numa’s bartering with Jupiter could be forgiven for wondering what this was. Picarel appears neither in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary nor in the Collin’s Robert French Dictionary. At other times too the vocabulary is arcane and requires further explanation. I noted the following examples ‘baetyl’ (pp. 109; 129; 130); aerolith (p.111); dadophoroi (p. 132); dolichaenian; thiasi; cenacle (p. 134); orichalc (p.141); isosephically (164). Occasionally we find the term explained (for example, thiasi at p.119) but such terms serve only to confuse rather than to enlighten the reader.

There seemed to be no rationale behind the adoption of the more unusual spellings Genitrix for Genetrix (p.135, p. 142 and passim) or gentilitial rather than gentilicial (p. iii and passim) and Palilia for Parilia (p.42, 68 and 69). Questions surrounding the association of Pales with the festival of the Parilia are complex and there may be good reasons why Turcan adopts the name Palilia, however, the novice will not find references to a Palilia in the index of a standard reference work such as Scullard’s Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Finally, and maybe this has to be put down to this reviewer’s lack of general knowledge or naiveté, but I have no idea to what the term ‘Taylorism’ on p. 3 refers.

There are certain inconsistencies in style and layout11 but throughout the main text of the book typographical errors are kept to a minimum.12 However, the bibliography escaped the copyeditor’s eagle eye. Here there are several errors from the surnames of the authors (for example, Dumézie for Dumézil p. 167) to basic spelling errors in the titles (for example, religine for religione, p. 167).13

However, the criticisms that I have about this book should not detract unduly from its positive qualities. It should be remembered that this is not intended as a book for an academic audience but for a more general readership and, ultimately, needs to be judged in that light.

The style adopted by T. is accessible and readable. His work covers an immense amount of ground in a very small space. At times his abundance of examples is breathtaking. The reader is given a very real sense of the profusion of rites and rituals that accompanied everyday life in private and in public in the Roman world. Turcan does not permit extensive intellectual debate nor vast reams of footnotes to intrude into his narrative and, thereby, to cloud his portrait of Roman religion. At the forefront of his compositional style is a focus on the primary evidence, allowing his reader to view the gods of ancient Rome through ancient eyes. Despite its shortcomings, the wealth of information contained in this book makes it a most useful introduction to the world of Roman religion.


1. For examples see the bibliographies in CAH 9 2, 871-877; CAH 10 2, 1114-1120.

2. Most recently North, J. (2000) Roman Religion Greece and Rome New Surveys in the Classics 30 Oxford; Feeney, D. (1998) Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, Beliefs Cambridge; Dowden, K. (1992) Religion and the Romans; Beard, M. and J. North (1990) Pagan Priests London.

3. North, J. (2000) ‘Prophet and text in the third century BC’ in E. Bispham and C. Smith (eds.) Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy. Evidence and Experience Edinburgh, pp. 92-107. North had raised the possibility in 1990 in Pagan Priests. Levene, D. (1993) Religion in Livy Leiden examined the extent to which Livy could manipulate religion in his narrative to suit his own historiographical agenda; in particular, to emphasise the importance of piety and its connection to Roman military success or lack of it.

4. Colum.; cf.

5. For other examples see Enn. Tel. 319-323; Plaut. Mil. Gl. 691-694; Plaut. Poen. 460-467; 746-750; 791-793. See Plaut. Amph. 1132; Mil. Gl. 693; Poen. 791; Cato, Agr. 5.4.4; Ter. Phorm. 708, for caricatures of various diviners especially haruspices and harioli. Consultation of a private haruspex by Scipio: Gell. NA 6.1.2 = Hyg. Fr.4P; Opp. Fr. 2P; by Ti. Sempronius Gracchus: Gracch. fr. 1P = Cic. De Div. 1.36; cf. Val. Max. 4.6.1.

6. For example, see Drews, R. (1988) ‘Pontiffs, prodigies and the disappearance of the Annales MaximiCPh 83, 289-299; Frier, B. (1999) Libri Annales Pontificum Maximorum: the Origins of the Annalistic Tradition Ann Arbor; Rawson, E. (1971) ‘Prodigy lists and the use of the Annales MaximiCQ, 21, 158-169.

7. Levene, D. S. (1993) Religion in Livy, Leiden.

8. For a comparative study (although rather different in style) see the entertaining first chapter of Hopkins, K. (1999) A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire London, 7-45.

9. For example see Tarrant, H. (1993) Thrasyllan Platonism Ithaca, NY; Cramer, F. H. (1954) Astrology in Roman Law and Politics, Philadelphia, 99-100; Saddington, D. B. (2001) ‘Paideia, Politeia and hegemonia—a route of social advance in the early Roman Empire’, Festschrift for Prof. W. Henderson, forthcoming.

10. Beard, M. (1994) ‘Religion’ CAH 9 2 Cambridge, pp. 729-768; North, J. (1989) ‘Religion in Republican Rome’ CAH 7.2 2 Cambridge, pp. 573-624; Price, S. (1996)’ The place of religion: Rome in the early Empire’ CAH 10 2, 812-847; Clarke, G. W. (1996) ‘The origins and spread of Christianity’ CAH 10 2, 848-872.

11. For example, there are footnotes in the conclusion (pp. 159. 161, 162) but not in the rest of the work; secondary authors are referred to inconsistently, sometimes with full bibliographical details, often not. Furthermore, there is no consistency with regard to use of Christian name, initial or just the surname (for example, compare p. 31 E. Jobbé Duval no reference with quotation; p. 56 Bossuet, Disc. sur l’hist. univ., 3,6 after quotation; p. 81 Georges Dumézil in brackets but no other reference).

12. Errors at p.10 an extra bracket after Plin., NH, 11,190; p.41 averrunces should probably be averruncens or averruncare; p.47 on the rite of the Tigillum Sororium something seems to have dropped out after Camilla; p.56 eirenodiki should be eirenodikai; p.69 Palialia for Palilia; p.102 vermilion instead of vermillion; there are missing brackets around Io triumphe and an extra ‘s’ after acclamation; p.87 the passage cited is Val. Max. 1.1.4 and 1.1.5 not merely the latter; p.103 epicurism for epicureanism; p.141 a figure ‘7’ has floated into the text after the quotation; p.158 medalliions for medallions; p. 159 an extra comma appears before (Prud., Perist., 2, 526f.).

13. I noted the following: p.167, indo-europèens; LES for Les; étrusuques for étrusques; Alertumswissenschaft for Altertumswissenschaft; Indetià for Identità; des for der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft; p.168 nythologiae classiace for mythologiae classicae; p. 169 Aronobe for Arnobe; p.172 Triumphus. An inquiring into the Origin should read An inquiry; p.174 Actes dur VII E should be Actes du VII E.