The frequent appearance of new introductions to Roman religion on bookstore shelves is a clear indication that the subject is one of ever-increasing popularity. It is also a sign that the search continues for a text of sufficient authority, accessibility, and comprehensiveness to become the standard in the field. Now entering the fray is Roman Religion by Valerie M. Warrior (W. hereafter), the first in the new series Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization from Cambridge University Press. The series is intended for readers with no prior background in the subject matter and is tied in to the readings in the Cambridge Latin Course.
Roman religion is definitely a growth industry these days. Just looking for introductions to the topic that have appeared since 2000, one finds J. North’s Roman Religion (Oxford 2000), R. Turcan’s The Gods of Ancient Rome (Edinburgh 2000), J. Scheid’s An Introduction to Roman Religion (Edinburgh 2003), and J. B. Rives’s Religion in the Roman Empire (Blackwell 2007). Though there is much overlap among the available treatments, the volumes vary considerably in emphasis and tone. W. has given us this slender volume of a mere 129 pages plus another 34 pages of study aides, an index, and bibliography — a far more abbreviated treatment than others. W. focuses on Rome and on the ritual forms the Romans observed, setting aside for the most part the issues of regional variation and worship throughout the wider empire. W.’s is the only book of the bunch really intended as a supplemental text, or at least one intended to work on equal footing with another. The most obvious distinguishing feature of W.’s book is that, whereas the other introductions contain very few (if any) images, W. has amply illustrated her work with plates in color and black-and-white.
Given its scope, presumably imposed by series guidelines, W.’s book is not really appropriate to serve as the main textbook for an undergraduate course devoted to Roman religion. Such brevity allows for only the lightest touch on each subject. However, this book would be a good addition to the required reading for courses on Roman history or Roman civilization. Indeed, the price of the paperback version makes this an even more attractive candidate for such a role. Students of the Roman world will appreciate W.’s lively prose and the clear timeline, maps, list of gods, and glossary provided at the back of the book. Discussions are enhanced by frequent quotation of ancient sources throughout and by close integration of the illustrating plates. One small complaint: though the majority of images included in the book are clear, a few of them are cropped in from larger pictures (sometimes also included). These cropped images, when expanded, become unpleasantly grainy and detract from the otherwise high visual quality of the book.
W. covers all the necessary bases, including the nature of the Roman gods and the forms of Roman worship; divination, prayer, sacrifice, and the relationship among them; private, domestic worship; public cult and priesthoods; the calendar and festivals; foreign cults; magic; emperor worship; Judaism and Christianity. Each chapter opens with a few epigraphs drawn from literary sources, and many more quotations (mostly from late Republican and early Imperial texts) are woven into the discussion. In some key instances, W. draws on inscriptional evidence as well. These passages are well chosen, and the synthesis W. offers of them is generally sound. Readers are left to their own devices, however, in putting the authors quoted into their historical context, and there is no discussion of the larger literary context from which the quotations are taken. This is unfortunate since most of the texts are not nearly as straightforward as they appear here. For example, very few classicists now unquestioningly identify Vergil with Tityrus in Ecl. 1 (as on p. 106).
One other aspect of the book that will not please some readers is that, in general, W. takes a synchronic approach to the subject, though the placement of chapters “Becoming a God” and “Jews and Christians” at the end of the book gives the overall impression of at least a general diachronic arrangement. Very little attention is paid to the significant shift in the religious landscape of Rome that accompanied the change from Republic to Empire. The last chapter focuses on the Romans’ interaction with Jewish and Christian communities within the wider empire, setting aside the issue of the persecution of Christians and the later, widespread acceptance and establishment of Christianity. These are reserved for a separate volume. The result is the reader has the impression that Roman religion remained much the same for many centuries. W. does hint, however, at the coming change in the relative statuses of traditional Roman religion and Christianity by giving Symmachus the last word: the book concludes with a portion of his Relatio III to the emperor Valentinian II, requesting more respectful treatment and tolerance of traditional polytheistic worship.
In sum, Roman Religion is not the definitive, comprehensive introduction to Roman religion that the scholars in the field and publishers are seeking. It is instead an attractive brief overview of the main topics readers new to the Roman world will want to understand about Roman religion.