BMCR 2004.07.62

An Introduction to Roman Religion. Originally published in French as La Religion des Romains (Paris, 1998). Translated by Janet Lloyd

, , An introduction to Roman religion. Edinburgh: Indiana University Press, 2003. 232 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0253343771. $22.95 (pb).

John Scheid, now Professor at the College de France, is widely respected as one of the most original as well one of the most authoritative historians of Roman religion. From his excavations at the shrine of the Arval Brethren on the outskirts of Rome and definitive study of its rich epigraphy to his more recent work on the archaeology of provincial Roman religion in the north west he has demonstrated exceptional breadth. He has produced a range of important studies of specific rituals including the triumph and the ritus Graecus. This very short book offers an exposition of his thought on the essentials of Roman religion. The translation, in which Janet Lloyd has been ably aided by Mary Beard, is beautifully clear.

Scheid’s subject is the religious behaviour of Roman citizens living in Rome or in other Roman cities, that is in colonies and to a lesser extent in those municipalities and peregrine cities whose public cults were modelled on those of Rome. This is not a guide to the religions of the empire, and relatively little is said of “non-Roman” religion, whether or not practiced by Roman citizens or by others in the City of Rome. Equally it does not provide a narrative history of Roman religion. Highly sensitive to change as it is, Scheid’s account is nevertheless an exploration of a religious system conceived of as broadly unchanging in its essentials over the period for which it can be studied. For Scheid this period extends mainly between the third century BC and the third century AD.

A word on the format of the book, which derives from the textbook series for which the French original was written. Scheid has chosen to structure it thematically rather than chronologically, and his central three parts deal respectively with the religious organization of time and space (calendars, festivals, temples and sanctuaries), with key rituals (sacrifice and divination above all), and with religious actors (priests and gods). This core is followed by a discussion of religious exegesis and preceded by a discussion of methodology and the research tradition. There are two figures of calendars and six of temples, but otherwise the book is not illustrated, though there are long text-boxes, tables and a small number of translated texts. Extensive chronological tables, notes on key individuals and authors and a short guide to further reading (up to 1998) followed by an index conclude the book. Also inherited from the textbook format is the division of Scheid’s text into small units. This is best illustrated by exemplification. Chapter 4 on the division of time (pp.43-59) comprises section 1 on the relationship between the astronomical and the civic calendar, section 2 on the Roman month, section 3 on the structure of the calendar, section 4 on its creation, and section 5 on what the calendars do not say. Section 1 itself is divided into 1.1 on the absence of a universal religious calendar, 1.2 on the natural calendar and 1.3 on the civic calendar and also includes text-boxes on the Eudoxan and Varronian calendars, on the principal Roman civic calendars and on the Caesarean calendar. Although several ancient sources are mentioned, only two are quoted (one chapter of the lex Ursonensis and one of Macrobius), but two calendars are illustrated and there is a list of festivals. The only modern scholar mentioned in the chapter is (appropriately) Jörg Rupke. Again following the textbook format, the book has no annotation: there are neither references to ancient testimony and other evidence nor mention of or engagement with modern discussions. Scheid writes very clearly and with precision and is careful to note the limits of what can be known. The book is thus a useful, and of course utterly reliable, guide for beginners. More adventurous students and researchers may find it frustrating not be able to follow up many of Scheid’s arguments in detail, but such are the constraints of the textbook genre. Some researchers will, however, be glad to read a lucid expression of how Scheid views the broader picture and a succinct expression of his views on methodology.

Those who might use this book in university teaching probably now have a fairly good idea of how it might best be employed. Compared to many English language textbooks, whether specialised volumes on religion such as Religions of Rome 1 or general course books such as As the Romans did 2 this book is rather short on sources and references. Both those books are considerably larger, of course, but Scheid’s is less well suited to encourage students to develop critical skills, either in relation to ancient evidence or modern argument. It is less of a discursive account than Rupke’s Die Religion der Römer,3 an excellent introduction to much the same field as Scheid’s or indeed than Scheid’s own Religion et Piété à Rome.4 Scheid’s little book will, however, be of great use to students for its very clear explication of the mechanics of Roman cult practice. The discussion of sacrifice in chapter 6 is, as might be expected, a high point. The sequence of actions, along with the precise terminology that described them, is spelled out; variations on the basic rite are introduced; and the broader contexts of sacrifice including dining are made clear. Students baffled by the meanings of immolatio and lectisternium or by the distinction between devotio and defixio will be making supplicationes to John Scheid for many saecula to come. The chapters on the calendar, on divination and on priesthoods also provide valuable guides to complex issues. The second area in which Scheid’s textbook will be of use to some students is in its brief discussion of the history of research into Roman religion, including thumbnail sketches of the views and value of the approaches of Mommsen, Wissowa, Dumézil and Burkert. Here I found myself wishing for more, as well as interested in the ways in which Scheid both associates himself with and distances himself from Dumézil and Burkert.

Scheid’s own stated methodological preference is for an historical anthropology of Roman religion. Study should proceed through careful case studies, each based on “a detailed analysis of all aspects of the ritual” in Dumézilian mode. Those familiar with Scheid’s scholarly publications will not be surprised to see that anthropology takes priority over history. Put otherwise, the study of constants precedes the discussion of variables. Where this matters least is in discussion of the rich evidence for cult from the last generation of the Republic and the earliest imperial centuries. The density of evidence, especially for the cults of the City, allows rich interpretations to be developed, especially for scholars such as Scheid (not that there are many others) who are equally happy with Ciceronian theology, votive inscriptions and sanctuary archaeology.

Where the textbook is noticeably more tentative is in the discussion of religious change. The “invention of the city” (p.17) is for Scheid a key event: “city” stands here for the civic community of the Romans, of course, rather than simply urbanization. But should we located this event in the seventh century or the fifth century BC? In practice, although Scheid is careful not to reject the study of archaic religion (“not in itself an absurd project” p.13), we are not yet, in his view, at the point when it can be studied properly. This is a commonly held view, of course, but not a universal one.5 Equally, and less conventionally now, Scheid is less interested in the cult of the fourth century AD.

“by which time the city ideal, as such, had faded away and the misfortunes of the times had caused many Romans to doubt the protection said to be afforded by the traditional gods. Instances of the survival of traditional practices chiefly involved the aristocracy, which preserved a selection of public cults, now celebrated as domestic ones, by transforming them into a kind of philosophising religion.”

This is a view that seems at odds with many recent studies of late paganism that stress its continued vitality and the persistence of many rituals even in the City of Rome well into the late fourth and sometimes the fifth centuries. Scheid has, of course, already excluded from consideration “mystery cults”, Judaism, Christianity and most cults originating outside the City of Rome. The perspective is very different, in this respect, from that of Religions of Rome. This reader was left wondering how far the stability of Scheid’s Roman Religion was an artefact of the way that it has been defined.

Anthropologists are forever discovering history and historians anthropology. Many anthropologists are now preoccupied above all with the study of change, and have produced detailed critiques of the practices of writing and conceptualization that their predecessors employed to construct “ancestral traditions” and “ethnographic presents”. Those of us to whom Scheid’s championing of historical anthropology seems the only sane way to go beyond the catalogue in the study of Roman religion, maybe need to import this new anthropological sensibility into our own studies. It is to be hoped Scheid’s textbook, with its bold methodological charter will entice many more students to engage in just such a project.


1. M. Beard, J. North and S. Price 1998. Religions of Rome. Vol. 1: A History, and Vol. 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. J.-A. Shelton 1998. As the Romans Did. A sourcebook in Roman social history, 2nd edn, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. J. Rupke 2001. Die Religion der Römer. Ein Einführung, Munich: Beck.

4. J. Scheid 2001. Religion et Piété à Rome, 2nd edn, Paris: Albin Michel.

5. Some dissenting voices are gathered in E. Bispham and C.J. Smith (eds.) 2001. Religion in Archaic and Republican Rome and Italy: evidence and experience, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.