BMCR 2004.02.50

Roman Religion

, Roman religion. Edinburgh readings on the ancient world. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. xvii, 393 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0748615652. $36.50.

This most recent volume in the Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World series is a collection of fourteen papers spanning a century of scholarship on Roman religion from some of the most distinguished scholars. All the work presented is superlative and not only explores the stipulated theme but develops several inter-related sub-topics as well. The rather general title, Roman Religion, belies the contents and aims of the book, which might properly be titled “Theory and Practice in Roman Religion.” The selections investigate the nature of Roman religion, as much as possible from a Roman point of view. Each also advances a new approach to or a significant interpretation of the source material, and even the oldest papers make salient points that are not as dated as may first seem. The equal division of papers into seven parts: I. Historiography and Method, II. Religious Institutions and Religious Authority, III. Ritual and Myth, IV. Theology, V. Roman and Alien, VI. Space and Time and VII. Continuity and Change, is by no means rigid. Many of the papers take up issues investigated more closely in other sections. Much of the work is recent: eight of the fourteen papers have been published since 1990 — Ando’s contribution almost simultaneously in 2003 — three between 1979 and 1987, and the remainder between 1912 and 1960. Though styled as an introduction, readers possessing a fundamental knowledge of Roman religion and its sources and familiar with the trends of the last century of scholarship will benefit most from this book.1 It is a demanding volume, although that is by no means intended as criticism.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with this relatively new series from Edinburgh University Press in which well-recognized experts select previously published papers from a range of authors to indicate themes and approaches in (primarily recent) scholarship on topics in ancient history.2 Each volume has a general introduction and shorter introductions to several sub-topics, each consisting of a pair of papers. The volumes are open-ended in that they specify disciplinary trends but do not provide a conclusion. Skeptical readers may wonder whether a book whose individual parts are readily accessible and can be photocopied more cheaply is worth purchasing, or whether this sort of scheme is better suited to internet publication. If the volume under review here is any indication, these are not mere undergraduate course-readers; there is a good deal of substance in the general introduction, and more in the sub-topical introductions, as I shall describe below. Essentially, the editors offer readers an opportunity to (re)read the assembled papers, particularly in relation to each other, and to acquaint themselves with — or reappraise — the state of the discipline. In this sense the series as conceived is largely retrospective.

One hallmark of the series is prodigious editorial effort, described in the “Note to the Reader” (p. x) ( pro forma and nearly identical in the various volumes). All the papers have been typeset anew and are identically formatted. Every effort is made to incorporate general readers into the audience: all papers and quotations are translated into English (the original text of the latter is provided among the footnotes), and Greek characters are transliterated. Technical and ancient terms are either defined within the text (denoted by square brackets), or marked with a dagger and defined at greater length amongst the footnotes or in a glossary (here pp.365-71). Also de rigueur are maps, in this case of the Empire and of Rome (pp. xviii-xxi), a Chronology (pp. 359-62), a Biographical Dictionary (pp. 363-64), and an annotated Guide to Further Reading (pp. 372-77). In this volume, the bibliography at the back covers only Ando’s work, as stated (p. x), and the remaining citations can be found either in bibliographies originally published with the individual papers or in the footnotes to those papers which lack separate bibliographies.

As with other volumes in the series, the contributors to Roman Religion originally wrote their papers for other purposes. That these are now chosen as representative of recent and noteworthy scholarship, and even in a more general sense implicitly used to defend new arguments, is a tribute both to their quality and to Ando’s prudent selection of them, which rests on a substantial command of the primary and secondary source material. Ando rightly refrains from defending his choices but rather lets the individual papers speak for themselves. His main criteria, not explicitly stated, are that scholars must ask questions that can be answered by the available data (p. 291) and that they should do so self-consciously, “view(ing) Roman religion from a distance both chronological and conceptual” (p. 19). In the introduction to each section Ando contextualizes the papers in terms of method, the issues they address and their role in scholarly discourse at the time of publication and now. With older papers he is particularly careful to highlight those aspects that still resonate in modern debate. The papers do not merely address questions of recent interest to historians of Roman religion but also put forward substantial arguments against outdated interpretations of it. The argumentation is based on close analysis and interpretation of ancient literary sources. To be commended is the extent to which the modern authors acknowledge the limitations of their source material, especially as concerns personal bias and point of view of ancient authors.

In his general introduction — a stand-alone paper in its own right — Ando articulates the major themes of the book, more obliquely than directly. He argues that Roman religion had an “epistemological basis” that “by its very nature conditions the manner in which [it] can be studied” (p. 2) and that, though a religion of ritual and orthopraxy, it had institutions that were subject to exegesis, interpretation and adaptation. The remainder of the introduction explores the definition and adequacy of the term “religio” and, consequentially, the elusive character of Roman religion, which is for Ando “a [cultural] system of embedded symbols and social actions and their institutionalization” (p. 12) — “a Roman conception of religion … was of and for a political community or body of citizens … that included both gods and humans” (p. 3, n.7). In his paper (pp.220-43) Ando argues that this specificity of Roman religion in terms of people and place — its “sacred geography” — ultimately prevented its export and its ability to become “a religion for and of the Empire” (p. 239).

The major questions and issues that “the data” are able to inform comprise the various parts of the book individually. These focus primarily on the late republican and Augustan eras, and, while the imperial cult receives some attention, a contribution from Simon Price on this subject is conspicuous by its absence. Each part can be read and appreciated, but certain issues are explored implicitly and explicitly throughout. I cannot possibly provide a summary of each paper that does justice to its scholarship without taxing the reader. Rather, it seems most profitable merely to note some important sub-themes. I make an exception only for the papers in Part I, one of which may not be very familiar to readers.

As Ando observes in the introduction to Part I: History and Method “there are no disinterested students of religion” (p. 19). This section constitutes a logical and necessarily cautionary beginning to a book about approaches to so complex a human institution as the religion of an entirely alien culture. Jonathan Smith sets the tone and Greg Woolf lays out one of the major sub-themes. In “On Comparison” Smith admonishes historians of religion (which religion is of no consequence) who, faced with their own ignorance, assert the uniqueness of their subject rather than confront its obscurities, and who indulge in uninformed comparison in an attempt to comprehend its nuances. He calls for a “discourse of difference” (p. 28) and devotes the second part of his paper to defining and explaining “comparison” as an instrument of scholarship. Woolf’s ” Polis -Religion and its Alternatives” describes this influential model and examines the implications of it for Roman religion in the Empire. If the polis model fits, even imperfectly, then the religion of the Roman people could be exported only in a limited sense primarily because “it seems likely that the cumulative effect of Roman rule was to loosen the control exercised by the polis over cults” (p. 49).

The manner in which this control unravelled, or, to put it more positively, the fact that the very capacity for Roman religion to expand and incorporate new deities, was, paradoxically, a contributing factor to the erosion of its authority and, some might say, substance, is taken up throughout the collection. In Part V: Roman and Alien, North’s “Religious Toleration in Republican Rome” examines an early (alleged) challenge to senatorial authority resulting in the Senatus Consultum de Bacchanalibus of 186 BC. Ando’s “A Religion for Empire” and MacCormack’s “Loca Sancta” (Part VI) investigate notions of religion and place, or “sacred geography” in light of the ultimate ‘failure’ of Roman religion (if indeed it can characterized as such) to become a “religion of and for the Empire” and to meet the challenge of Christianity. Finally, in Part VII: Continuity and Change, Koch (“Roman State Religion in the Mirror of Augustan and Late Republican Apologetics” and Wissowa (“The Historical Development of Roman Religion: An Overview”) subscribe to the notion of the ‘decline’ of state religion but offer complex explanations of it as a process occurring within a specific historical context in the long transition from Republic to Empire.

The source and nature of power and authority are the primary focus of the papers in Part II: Religious Institutions and Religious Authority, and in many others as well. Gordon examines the priestly colleges as one of the many “ordering principles” (Woolf’s term) in Roman religion, while Nock investigates the tone and language of prayer, particularly in contrast to Greek practice, arguing that a primary and idiosyncratic feature of Roman religion was the way in which Romans (humans) arrogated religious authority unto themselves by law. The particular role of the senate (see especially North’s paper in Part V) and the law (Ando, passim) as sources of authority also receive significant attention.

One defining aspect of power and authority in Roman religion rests on the fact that Romans viewed religion as a human institution. Throughout the collection various authors demonstrate an essential corollary: that as a human institution religion was subject to interpretation, change and above all expansion. The papers that explore the ways in which this occurred also helped to reorient the entire discipline away from two outdated notions: that Roman religion declined during the course of the Republic and that, because Roman ritual was apparently unsupported by aetiological myths, it was mythless. In Part III: Ritual and Myth, Feeney and Scheid demonstrate the lively role of myth, and mythopoesis, as it worked alongside ritual in the Augustan era, but this is in a certain sense equally a concern in Beard’s “A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday” in Part VI.

The thorny problem of Roman belief is tackled by Ando, Momigliano and Scheid in Part IV: Theology. This section rightly constitutes the book’s fulcrum since it is this subject more than any other that has brought scholars to a “methodological impasse”. Ando identifies two major flaws in past scholarship (p. 143): the first being the tendency to view Roman cult merely as “an agglomeration of rituals,” and gods one could add, that resists analysis and the second being a failure to recognize a “theological basis” in Roman religion. That the problem persists is evidenced by the omission of ‘theology’ from the indices of several recent and well-respected publications (p. 143 n.10). Critical to the discussion is Varro’s tri-partite theology (‘civic’ [that used by the people], ‘mythic’ [that of the poets] and ‘scientific’ [that of philosophers]), to which Ando devotes considerable attention in the introduction. Momigliano’s paper examines the contemporary writings of Varro, Cicero and Nigidius Figulus in relation to one another and identifies very clear differences amongst the three. Scheid accounts for the apparent “atomization” of gods as way of coping with ignorance of the names of particular deities, who are identified in prayers as separate stages comprising a single action. He concludes with an observation on a very fundamental theological difference between Roman religion and Christianity, namely the failure of the former to “imagine…the universality of god” (p.187).

I highly recommend reading the collection in its entirety as this facilitates full appreciation of the thematic overlap amongst the papers. One of the special strengths of this volume, and one that gives it considerable coherence, is Ando’s own contribution in Part V. All the papers explore aspects of the myriad implications of Roman religion as a cultural system, while simultaneously, if one follows Ando’s central argument, revealing why it enjoyed only limited success in becoming a religion of Empire.

The book is relatively free from typographical and other errors. The maps may be superfluous, despite the well-canvassed notion of “sacred geography”. The map of Rome is incorrectly oriented and thus needs a north point, and on it the Ara Pacis is misplaced, being sited neither in its ancient or modern location. In the “Guide to Further Reading” I draw readers’ attention to the M. Steinby (ed), Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, 6 vols. (Rome 1993-2000), which, although its entries are in several languages, has outpaced and replaced L. Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Baltimore 1992).

This is not a book wherein the loose ends are neatly tied up in a conclusion. Rather its manifold insights enlighten without discounting the complexity of a subject that at times defies our efforts to come to terms with it. As discrete entries, Ando’s sub-topical introductions succeed admirably in articulating important topics and in locating the selected papers within the state of the field. Their success in linking the separate parts of the book to each other and to Ando’s own theses, advanced in the main introduction and his paper, is uneven. To be fair, this objective was probably not stipulated in Ando’s brief as editor, and thus I merely observe rather than criticise. Many readers will undoubtedly appreciate Ando’s reluctance to tell his readers how to interpret this mass of scholarship. Readers with sufficient background (or fortitude for those without) to meet Ando halfway will find this a challenging, stimulating and worthy book.


1. As background I recommend the simultaneous publication by J. Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003 or M. Beard, J. North and S. Price, Religions of Rome (2 vols.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

2. See also W. Scheidel and S. Von Reden, The Ancient Economy. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002); M. Whitby, Sparta. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002); and T. Harrison, Greeks and Barbarians. (New York and London: Routledge, 2002).