This book, elegantly printed and well illustrated with colour pictures of a high quality, opens the welcome editorial enterprise of republishing Franz Cumont’s works. The project, which involves a large number of talented scholars, is sponsored by the Academia Belgica and by the Institut Historique Belge both at Rome. It is worth remembering that the Belgian Academy inherited Cumont’s archives and scientific legacy (for further information visit the webpage www.academiabelgica.it). The name of this Belgian historian of religions has been the subject of renewed scholarly interests in the last few years—if indeed his fame ever declined (a bibliographic survey cited at page lxix states that Cumont is counted among the most often mentioned scholars in scientific works about the ‘oriental religions’ in the Roman Empire).
As the two directors of the project—Corinne Bonnet and Walter Geers—state in the prefatory section, the aim of the collection is to provide a re-edition of Cumont’s major works, and also of some texts not published before, though up-dating them with the latest advances in scholarship. One can only congratulate the editors of the book for the service they provided and hope that the other volumes will follow soon. The plan of the work, displayed on the last page, seems very rich and promising. Franz Cumont’s manifold interests in ancient religions (Mithraism; oriental cults; astronomy; funerary symbolism; magic) make him one of the most important and talented scholars of his generation, both from the philological perspective and the archaelogical and epigraphical one. For example, he played a decisive role in the excavations of Doura-Europos—see the recently publication by G. Bongard-Levine, C. Bonnet, Y. Litvinenko, A., Mongolus Syrio Salutem Optimam Dat. La correspondance entre Mikhaïl Rostovtzeff et Franz Cumont (Paris, 2007), reviewed here, BMCR 2008.09.03.
The scientific legacy of a researcher like Cumont (and most of his contemporaries from Europe and the United States) should stand as an example for every scholar and should be regarded with admiration and respect in itself, but also because he was a generous and open-minded person, according to those who were in contact with him. I will not discuss in detail Cumont’s work, for it was reviewed by the most important personalities of his times when it first appeared and because the editors outline the salient points in their vast and detailed introduction. I limit myself to pointing out that reading Les Religions Orientales is a mandatory task for everyone who is interested in the subject, though in some respects Cumont’s views may appear old fashioned or questionable. However, this “little book about a great topic”, as Cumont himself labelled it, is still worth reading, and recent surveys (like that by A. Tripolitis, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age, Grand Rapids-Cambridge 2002) if compared to that work look shabbier and much more superficial.
The idea of ‘oriental religions’ has been subjected to a transformation, both in the sense of ‘oriental’, which appears too inclusive and general, and in that of ‘religion’, compared to which the word ‘cult’ has become preferable (since the 1981 volume edited by Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell’Impero romano. Atti del Colloquio internazionale, Roma 24-28 settembre 1979; see also the reassessment by R. Turcan, Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain, Paris 1989). Further discussion on this topic is provided by J.Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine (Chicago, 1994), 107 ff. (who notes that the choice between ‘cult’ and ‘religion’ is not without important implications in the comparison of Christianity and other ancient religions). According to Bonnet, who also criticizes Cumont’s diffusionist approach, it is more correct to speak of ‘Greco-Oriental’ cults, for, in their first phase, they were subject to a deep Hellenization. (However, I am not sure whether Cumont wasn’t aware of that also, since Droysen’s broad concept of Hellenism was surely well known and assumed). Nevertheless the term ‘oriental religions’ can still be used as a practical way of labelling the spreading of a large number of religious forms of worship during late Hellenism and the imperial age, as the editors wisely state in the last page of their preface. They quote an interesting passage by Georges Dumézil about the survival of scholarly labels which, in the end, acquire autonomous life. Perhaps the most significant witness of this term’s success is the well-known collection E.P.R.O. ( Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain), founded and directed by the late Maarten J. Vermaseren for the publisher E.J. Brill in Leiden. A reconstruction of this collection is provided by J.M. Pailler, “Les religions orientales, troisième époque”, in Pallas 35 (1989), 95-113.
Many questions the book poses are fascinating, and one will read with delight the literary elegance of Cumont’s prose (the essay was intended as the result of a series of lectures and maintains a discursive tone, even though one can perceive the massive erudition underlying it). Page after page, the book discloses a lavish fresco of the saffron-clothed priests of Attis and the Great Mother; the pure and chaste initiates to the mysteries of Isis and the Hellenistic god Serapis; the struggle between Mithras and the primordial bull, namely between light and darkness (Mithraism was a central subject in Cumont’s interests); the solemn ritual pomps; priests, enchanters, and charlatans; the frantic sounds of drums and cymbals of the adepts to Ma and Sabazios; the chiaroscuro of the Bacchanals; the speculative astronomical lore, astral determinism and the soul’s ultimate destiny (Cumont would later write again on these themes and must be reckoned among one of the specialists of ancient astronomy); its intermingling with magic; the mystical stream of Platonism and its contaminations with theurgy; the splendour of solar veneration; the riddles about fate; the solitary figure of the ‘unknown’ God of the Jews and of the Christians, worshipped with a zealous monotheistic attitude. The book is superb in considering the so-called Oriental religions within the global perspective of the Roman Empire, with its acculturative strength. At the same time he tried to emphasize how Christianity in some respects might be foreshadowed by these cultic forms.
In the present review, however, I’ll concentrate mainly on the rich and precise introduction, which is due to Corinne Bonnet and Franoise van Haeperen. Bonnet, in particular, is currently acknowledged as the major specialist on Cumont. Writing an introduction to books that are considered ‘classics’ and benchmarks of scholarship is always both a tantalizing task and a major commitment, as I myself found when I worked on the Italian edition of Norden’s Agnostos Theos (Brescia, 2002). One has to reckon with almost a century of scholarly discussion resulting in a huge amount of bibliography, not to mention new textual and epigraphical discoveries and interpretations. At the same time, readers expect a precise contextual reconstruction of the origin of the book, its place in the contemporary debate and scholarly trends.
The two editors have accomplished their task well. The reader will learn much about the genesis of the book and of the transformations it underwent in the editions that followed the first one of 1906 (see also the final synopsis, L’atelier de Cumont, pp. 367-403). These transformations are partly due to the criticism Cumont had to reckon with, even though he did not change the backbone of his thesis. In particular, besides the main objections put forward by Jules Toutain, which concerned the importance accorded to literary sources more than to the epigraphic ones, criticism came mostly from Catholic scholars: they reproached Cumont for having considered Christianity as a form of ‘oriental’ religion, undistinguished from the other cults. The most conservative Catholic lobby eventually succeeded in casting Cumont out of the chair in Ghent, perhaps also because of his penchant for modernism. From page xxiii onwards the authors discuss the historical horizon of the book, namely the status of the studies in Cumont’s own times and in particular the oriental vogue which inspired not only artistic works but also scholarly trends. These pages are perhaps the most interesting of their introduction.
The history of scholarship has been increasing in the last decade, so it would be impossible to cite everything about so wide a topic like that of the ‘oriental religions’. Nonetheless, if one has to put forward some reservations about the introduction, these concern the basically francocentric attitude displayed in citing secondary literature. Just to cite some examples, this introduction could have profited from Mario Mazza’s introduction to the Italian edition of Nock’s Conversion (Rome and Bari, 1974), which deals with analogous questions (and the same Nock would have been worth quoting on p. xli, among the most significant scholars, even though slightly posterior to Cumont). Mario Mazza is also the author of an important essay about the notion of ‘syncretism’ and the coexistence of various religions in imperial age and late antiquity, where he clearly outlines the dialectic between the approaches of Toutain and Cumont, the former position being reprised in recent times by MacMullen: I refer to his “Le religioni dell’impero romano. Premessa ad una considerazione storica della religiosityà ellenistico-romana”, in Storia, letteratura e arte a Roma nel II sec. d.C. Atti del Convegno (Mantova 23-24 maggio 1992) (Florence, 1995), 109-138. The epoch-making book by Robin Lane Fox on Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the second century A.D. to the conversion of Constantine (London and Harmondsworth, 1986) perhaps deserved more than a simple mention. At the same time, it is surprising that the name of a perceptive and acknowledged influential master of Italian scholarship in the study of oriental religions like Ugo Bianchi is quoted only once, and, furthermore, just to criticize him (p. xliii).
Besides these shortcomings, I might suggest other complements to the introduction’s bibliography: on the importance of Creuzer (p. xxxi) one can now read the monograph by Francesca Marelli, Lo sguardo da Oriente: simbolo, mito e grecità in Friedrich Creuzer (Milan, 2000). The (correct) criticism of E. Said’s well-known thesis concerning Orientalism (p. xxx) should have taken into account Giovanni Casadio’s forceful and brilliant article: “Studying Religious Traditions Between the Orient and the Occident: Modernism vs. Post-modernism”, in Unterwegs. Neue Pfade in der Religionswissenschaft. Festschrift für Michael Pye zum 65. Geburtstag = New Paths in the Study of Religions. Festschrift in honour of Michael Pye on his 65th birthday (München, 2004), 119-135. Casadio is the author also of “Franz Cumont, historien des religions et citoyen du monde”, in Imago Antiquitatis. Religions et iconographie du monde romain. Mélanges offerts à Robert Turcan (Paris, 1999), 161-165, a paper which could have been profitably cited as well.
Minor faults are some repetitions here and there, probably due to the fact that the essay is written by two different persons (see p. xxiv and xxxi, about Renan and his theories). I noticed only a few editorial mistakes and a curious error: the so-called Religionsgeschichtliche Schule had its see in Göttingen, not in Tübingen, as stated at p. xli.
Despite these criticisms, however, the work as a whole looks excellent, and the editors deserve our deep gratitude.