BMCR 2007.09.42

Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell Ancient Religions, 2

, Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell ancient religions. Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2007. x, 237 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9781405106559 $34.95.

Table of Contents

After the inaugural volume dedicated to Greek Religion,1 the series Blackwell Ancient Religions welcomes Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives (henceforth R.), author and co-editor of several volumes on religion in the Roman world.2 In line with the scope of the series, which aims at offering modern readers introductions to religion in the ancient world, this book presents itself as an agile and stimulating overview of religious phenomenology in the Roman empire, accessible also to those with little or no previous exposure to Classical Studies.

In order to clarify the scope and the method of his work, in the “Introduction” R. begins with a comment on the terms contained in the book title, offering first a basic chronological and geographical definition of the Roman Empire. Religion used in the singular in opposition to the more common plural best connotes the author’s original approach. According to R., the variety of religious phenomena within the Roman Empire is in fact better understood if treated as the multifaceted expressions of a single sensibility rather than by creating artificial divisions not corresponding to the ancient mentality. Considering the lack of sacred scriptures, religion in the Greco-Roman world has to be studied through other types of evidence (literature, inscriptions) and the last part of the introduction is dedicated to presenting such sources, illustrating their nature as well as their limits.

Chapter One, “Identifying Religion in the Greco-Roman World”, opens with a discussion of the vocabulary in use in the Greek and Roman world to express religious practices and belief. Offering a brief survey of the linguistic uses of both cultures, the author draws attention to the lack in the Greco-Roman world of a specific term exactly corresponding to “religion” in the modern sense of the word. This lack betrays an approach to this important sphere of human activity very far removed from the one made popular by the advent of monotheistic religions. Once the impossibility of an exact linguistic superimposition has been verified, R.’s attempt to offer a definition of religion in the Greco-Roman world continues by analysing the varied conceptions of the divine, the way these related to and interacted with divinities (cult, myth, art, philosophy) and finally what role important issues such as authority, belief and morality played in directing people’s attitude and beliefs.

Chapter Two, “Regional Religious Traditions of the Empire”, contains a quick survey of the religious practices in the various areas of the Roman Empire (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Italy). For each of them the author first briefly presents the historical events which led them into the Romans’ sphere of influence and then describes the peculiarities of local divinities and their cult. A summarizing paragraph reflects on the dynamic tensions between uniformity and diversity, particularization and generalization, continuity and change which were so important in shaping the religious phenomenon in the Greco-Roman world.

Chapter Three, “The Presence of the Gods”, explores the way ancient people experienced the divine, concentrating on three specific aspects. The first paragraph is dedicated to exploring the trend of identifying the divine in the natural world to the extent that certain places were considered either as divinities or as dwellings of a deity. A second feature common to the Greco-Roman tradition is the acknowledgement of superhuman power in direct relation with the gods’ deeds and the benefits they were able to grant to their followers. Tightly intertwined with the latter is the manifestation of the gods in people’s everyday lives, and the third paragraph offers an overview of the modalities of these encounters as reflected in literary texts and inscriptions.

A partial corrective to the emphasis on the personal encounter with the divine of the previous chapter, Chapter Four, “Religion and Community”, aptly serves as a reminder of the social and political dimension of the religious experience in the Greco-Roman world. Largely building on passages from Aristotle’s Politics, R. identifies the city, the household and voluntary associations as aggregating poles for the performance of cultic activity as well as for the shaping of religious identity.

In spite of the important role played by cult and belief on a local level, religion greatly contributed to promoting integration and a sense of belonging among citizens of the Roman Empire. Chapter Five, “Religion and Empire”, concentrates on four different phenomena that served this purpose, the first of which was the exchange of ideas and beliefs favoured by travels and pilgrimages to consult oracles, attend religious festivals and visit famous sanctuaries and temples. A similar and probably even more pervasive effect was obtained through the relocation and the immigration of people such as slaves, traders, and soldiers from one region of the empire to the other. Identification processes such as the interpretatio romana and syncretism, (the latter, in the view of the author, is reserved only to processes involving more complex philosophical and religious elaborations) are considered some of the most effective strategies used to create a certain degree of religious unity in the variegated panorama of the Roman empire. A similar role is then acknowledged for the imperial cult in all its nuanced and locally differentiated manifestations.

Chapter Six, “Religious Options”, explores all those religious alternatives, including esoteric wisdom, miracle working and mystery cults, which distanced themselves from mainstream practices and belief. Rather than offering a list of these options, the author chooses to articulate his analysis from two perspectives, namely the attractions they exerted on their followers and the advantages they offered.

Chapter Seven, “Roman Religious Policy”, deals with the issue of Roman authority and examines the extent to which it intervened and influenced religious matters both by condemning improper behaviour such as atheism and superstition and by imposing specific obligations on the other. After some general considerations, three specific study cases including magic, Judaic tradition and Christianity are scrutinized.

The “Epilogue: Religious Change in the Roman Empire”, offers a partial counterbalance to the lack of a diachronic approach in the rest of the book. It underlines the importance of keeping development and evolution in mind when considering religion in the Roman Empire, offering brief considerations on the development of phenomena such as the imperial cult, the spread of the so-called mystery religions and Christianity.

A list of further reading, mostly restricted to bibliography written in or translated into English, is offered at the end of each chapter. A stimulating tool is represented by the six boxes of text which allow a close encounter with primary sources of literary and epigraphic nature. The need to limit both the size and the cost of the book notwithstanding, a slight increase in their number would have significantly expanded the didactic possibilities of this text. The volume is aptly complemented by two practical glossaries offering essential information on the major deities and the authors and texts cited in the text, as well as by bibliographical references and a general index. Four maps inserted at the beginning of the volume, illustrating the Roman Empire in the second century CE, Greece and Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and Western Europe, offer a useful if basic cartographic support which enables a fast identification of areas and centres mentioned in the text. Eleven black and white pictures illustrate selected objects and monuments among those dealt with in the various chapters.

If R.’s decision to emphasize the unity and the homogeneity of the religious phenomenology in the Roman world (symbolized by his preference for the singular religion vs. the plural religions) is innovative and potentially fruitful, it also contains some risks. Whereas the book title leads the reader to expect a treatment of Roman religion in the imperial period,3 the author’s decision to favour a synchronic rather than a diachronic approach and his too often recurring identification of the imperial Roman religious practices and belief with main stream Greco-Roman tradition lead to a considerable historical and chronological flattening.

In Chapter Two the regional traditions of the Empire and their toleration and support by imperial authorities are explained by calling into question the “Greco-Roman elite” who “considered it normal for every people to have their own deities and religious tradition” (54).

The tendency to recognize the presence of the gods in natural phenomena is illustrated by quoting and treating on the same level passages of Hesiod, Seneca and Apuleius, leading only to the correct but also banal conclusion that “water was also very important in the Greco-Roman tradition, as indicated by the high profile of springs and rivers in both myth and cult” or that caves and rocks played an important role in various regions of the Mediterranean (91).

In Chapter Four, the tight connections existing between religion and the civic community are sketched out through examples mostly derived from the Greek world, such as the cult of Artemis in Ephesus or Athena’s worship in Athens (115-117), while the relationships within the household, another important seat of religious activity, is outlined on the basis of Aristotle’s witness (117). The interference of political authorities in regulating domestic cult is illustrated by appealing to Aristotle and Cicero, but neither author, in spite of their value in other respects, qualifies as a witness for Roman imperial practice (121). This tendency to flatten the discussion historically to the level of the Greco-Roman tradition is frequent also in the remaining chapters, with a partial exception represented by the more focused Chapter Five.

In conclusion: this text provides a dense and stimulating overview of Roman religion (considered as part of the larger phenomenon of Greco-Roman religion) directed to a non-specialist audience primarily interested in identifying its main peculiarities and the way it compares and contrasts with other religions closer to modern sensibility. More disappointing is its inability to offer a detailed and nuanced discussion of the subtle dynamics of change and adaptations influencing religious phenomena once these latter come in contact with the new socio-political order imposed by the creation of the empire and with the cultural values spread by the Romanization process in Italy and in the provinces.

The book is clearly written and appears free of typos and misprints. However, there are some formal oddities which disturb the reader and raise some questions. One of them is the excessive use of the verb “to discuss” and the related term “discussion”. Even leaving out the introduction, whose programmatic character may justify such abuse (5-6 with discuss/discussion used five times in less than two pages and then again 8, 11), there are many other examples of these two terms clustering through the rest of the text (see 13, 14, 15, 20, 21 twice, 22, 23 twice, 31, 77, 79, 81, 89, 107, 153). In addition to creating an unpleasant stylistic feature in its total neglect of variatio, this odd repetition also ends up having some repercussions for the content of the book. One has in fact the impression that such frequent use of the term, so common in teaching practice (where “to discuss” and “discussion” often appear in syllabi and class lectures to mask the simple coverage of a topic by suggesting a more dynamic approach), prevents the treatment of an issue from reaching a satisfactory depth while confining it to a mere declaration of intentions.

Another puzzling characteristic is the inconsistent use of notes: whereas from a quick glance at the text layout, one could easily infer that R. has legitimately chosen to avoid the use of notes, condensing the bibliographical information in the list of further readings at the end of each chapter, a more careful examination of the book reveals that sparse bibliographical notes are occasionally inserted without a scientific criterion (one single note appearing only on p. 69, 129, 134, 139).

In spite of all this, thanks to the clarity of its language, the utility of its didactic subsidies, the ability to identify and explain the multiform religious attitudes within the Roman Empire by making use of a variety of evidence, this book, alone or preferably supported by one or more complementary texts,4 qualifies itself as a good text book for a course on Roman religion, while it will also offer a stimulating reading for the general educated public interested in getting exposure to the subject.


1. Jon D. Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Ancient Religions, 1. 2005, see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.04.03. Forthcoming in the same series, based on the information contained in the publisher’s website, are Sarah Johnston, Ancient Greek Divination and Derek Collins, Magic in the Ancient Greek World.

2. Such as Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, see BMCR 95.12.23 and Jonathan Edmondson, Steve Mason, James Rives, Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, see BMCR 2006.10.45.

3. A treatment of the republican period is to be expected in C. Donough, Religion of the Roman Republic, announced in the series list of publications found on R’s volume but not mentioned on the publisher’s website among the forthcoming volumes.

4. Such as M. Beard, J. North and S. Price, Religions of Rome (2 vols.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; J. Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003; Clifford Ando (ed.), Roman Religion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003.