BMCR 2003.04.27

Roman Religion: A Sourcebook

, Roman religion : a sourcebook. The Focus classical sources. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2002. viii, 215 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 1585100307 $14.95 (pb).

This book is a collection of sources for the study of Roman religion, compiled for use by non-specialists. In fifteen chapters covering everything from stories of early Roman religion to the rise of Christianity, Warrior (W.) offers original English translations of an impressive range of Latin and Greek literary, documentary, and epigraphical texts. W. connects her translations with a brief running commentary, and she illuminates the more difficult aspects of the texts in footnotes. A handful of illustrations, varying in quality from poor (e.g., p. 18) to good (e.g., p. 36), accompanies most of the chapters. She has also included several appendices that her readers will find useful: a list of major gods and goddesses, a glossary of terms, a chronology (from 753 BCE to 392 ξἐ, several maps, brief descriptions of the ancient sources, and a select bibliography of works in English. Rounding off the book are an index of texts cited and a general index.

W.’s book is not intended to be a replacement of the sourcebook that accompanies Beard, North, and Price’s (BNP) Roman Religions, although there is some overlap in the selections. In fact, W. refers to BNP often in her notes, and she quotes directly from volume 1 of their book in her running commentary. However, unlike BNP, who examine both textual and archeological evidence, W. focuses almost exclusively on textual evidence, but this should be perceived as a strength, not a weakness. Because the two volumes of BNP complement each other, it can be difficult to use one volume as a textbook in a class without its companion volume. W.’s book, however, can stand on its own, since it has not been offered in support of a larger analysis of Roman religious beliefs. For this reason, her book would be a good choice for a course on Roman religion, provided that future editions are free of the errors that plague this one (see below).

In her prologue, W. stresses the importance of studying Roman religion ” via the ancient sources” (vii). Arguing that “modern interpretations are secondary, an aid to learning,” she enjoins her reader to view the primary sources “with utmost respect as the primary means by which an accurate understanding of the past can be gained” (viii). W. invites us to compare and contrast the literary texts, most of which were written “looking back” (vii), with inscriptions and other kinds of testimony that are “more or less contemporaneous with the event that is described” (vii). By evaluating the merits of the individual sources, she writes, “we can hope to learn from double contrasts in time and perspective” (viii). These are important lessons for students of the ancient world, for whom it is crucial to understand the dangers of accepting a source uncritically. To that end, W. warns her readers that “any modern reconstruction of Roman religion is necessarily incomplete,” and she proposes a general rule to follow throughout the readings: “consider the source.” Any reinforcement of this golden rule of research is welcome in this information age, and one wishes that Warrior had gone to greater lengths to emphasize this point and to provide more examples of the critical evaluation of sources before leaving her readers to judge for themselves.

On the other hand, W. does not leave her readers entirely alone. Her running commentary provides some context for the passages and it helps the reader to make connections between sources that might otherwise have been missed. In many places, she does an admirable job of condensing complicated subjects into concise, understandable summaries (e.g., the excellent description of the college of pontiffs on pp. 48-49, or the summary of events after Julius Caesar’s deification on pp. 133-134). Occasionally, however, one suspects that her brevity will leave many of her readers in the dark. For example, many readers will not know what she means when she refers to “agonistic spells” on page 144, though the meaning will become clear eventually through context. When introducing a passage from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (28.45, on page 141), W. tells the reader to “note that Pliny carefully disassociates himself from the sources” that advocated magical cures, but she does not tell the reader what specifically marks that disassociation. To be fair, W. does a good job of providing this information elsewhere when she discusses Livy’s use of the same technique in his account of Romulus’ deification (130-131), but since this is a sourcebook, not every reader will have read that passage before coming to Pliny. For the most part, however, the commentary informs the reader about the context of a passage without offering an interpretation of the passage itself. W. leaves her readers, quite rightly, to form conclusions on their own.

For points that are ancillary to the text and commentary, W. has provided succinct footnotes that do not burden the reader with arcana. Relevant passages that appear elsewhere in the volume are cross-referenced in the notes, and readers are directed to the various appendices that will provide more information. As is the case with the running commentary, the brevity of some of the notes will puzzle some readers. For example, in note 11 on page 141 (on Ovid’s description of the Feralia), W. informs us that “the mouse is a liminal creature often referred to in folklore.” Although liminality is an important concept in Roman religious life, W. has not discussed it elsewhere in the text, so such a reference will probably send some readers to their dictionaries. The same could be said about her uses of the words “apotropaic” and “chthonic” in notes 9 and 12 on the same page. While it is certainly not bad to elevate a reader’s vocabulary, terms such as these that are central to Roman religion should probably have been included in the glossary.

W.’s selection of sources is impressive, given the size of the book. She has assembled a wide range of literary, documentary, and epigraphical texts, and she has done so in a way that gives a clear picture of her subject. Major authors such as Cicero, Livy, and Ovid are well represented, but not to the exclusion of authors who will not be as familiar to non-specialist readers (e.g., Festus, Minucius Felix, Zonaras). The variety of the non-literary texts that she translates is also noteworthy. W. has selected material from many different collections, ranging from the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum to Vermaseren and van Essen’s The Excavations in the Mithraeum of the Church of Santa Prisca in Rome. More important than the selection of sources, however, is W.’s arrangement of them. She has marshaled the passages in a logical manner that makes the most eclectic sources complement each other.

The quality of W.’s translations matches the breadth of her selections. W. has rendered her sources into smooth, idiomatic English. She has been judicious in translating the very word that is the subject of her collection: religio, a translator’s bugbear if ever there was one. She often includes the word’s original form in parentheses after translating it to give her readers a sense of the word’s complexity. For example, in her translation of Livy 27.23.1-4 (p. 78), religio becomes “religious difficulties”. In her translation of Livy 27.37.3-15 (p. 79), religiones becomes “religious fears”. W. treats other nebulous words (e.g., nefas) with similar caution.

My only complaint concerns editorial matters, a few of which have bearing on the accuracy of the information that W. presents. Unfortunately, the book does not have an auspicious beginning. An unfortunate typo in the second paragraph appears to limit the scope of the book to the study of archaic Roman religion: “This book presents the religion of ancient Rome through to the fourth century BCE ….” Most readers, of course, will understand that W. intended to write “CE”, and I would not have pointed out this particular typo if it had not actually foretold the many editorial errors that plague this book. Most of the errors are the result of inconsistency and are innocuous enough. For example, in the footnotes W. consistently refers readers to the glossary entry ‘quindecimviri’, but the entry is actually ‘quindecimvirs’ (though the fact that it is in italics leads me to believe that ‘quindecimviri’ was intended). Also, in some instances W. has translated the title of one source in two different ways (e.g., she translates Cicero’s work de Haruspicum responso as “On the reply of the haruspices” in footnote 1 of chapter 10, but in footnote 23 of the same chapter she translates it as “On the response of the haruspices”). Although most readers will be able to sort out these problems with little difficulty, the sheer number of typos in almost every chapter is irritating.

I must also point out a few inaccuracies of fact. When explaining what Ovid means when he says that “there are left as many days in the month as there are feet in my verses” ( Fasti 2.567-568), W. writes “Eleven feet, since Ovid was writing in elegaic (sic) couplets, one line of hexameter verse, followed by an iambic pentameter” (p. 32, n. 30). W.’s book is about religion, not poetry, but it would be nice if she had accurately described the pentameter line as dactylic, not iambic. On page 69, we are told that Statius lived in the “late first century BCE” when in fact he lived in the late first century CE; and in the glossary entry on “haruspices,” we are told that Claudius became emperor in 42, not 41 CE.

Numerous though they may be, these editorial errors are not enough to detract from the value of W.’s book. Roman Religion: A Sourcebook is a good choice for a textbook in a course on Roman religion, and it will provide non-specialist readers with an excellent survey of Roman attitudes and religious beliefs.