BMCR 2010.05.48

Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach. Religions of the Graeco-Roman World, 167

, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach. Religions of the Graeco-Roman World, 167. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. x, 219. ISBN 9789004175037. €89.00 / $132.00.


Books dealing with Roman gods are legion; but none have approached the topic quite like Michael Lipka has. His ambition is “to fill a gap that appears to have existed already in Wissowa’s seminal work (which took for granted the naming of the concept of “god”) and was from there bequeathed to modern approaches of ‘new historians’ and ‘sociologists’ alike” (9). Using John Scheid’s1 four-part thematic structure of Roman religion—space, time, ritual, actors (whom Lipka calls “personnel)”, and adding his own two, functions and iconography—to focus entirely on how these constituent concepts can be used to define how the gods were conceived by Romans, the author attempts to create a “more general concept of ‘god'” (8) than has previously been attempted. Lipka’s primary focus is on official Roman religion, and thus he has little to say about popular or private conceptions of Roman gods, and thus little to say about much of the population of Rome. His concern is not an historical phenomenon but a descriptive approach to the concepts of the Roman “god” which can be mapped out with precision. Lipka’s “aim is to set out the conceptual boundaries of the term ‘god’ in a systematic fashion, which can be verified by historical and archaeological data, without actually trying to establish under what circumstances and in what historical sequence these boundaries came to pass or were violated in turn” (8).

After a brief introduction that lays out the basic methodological approach and summary of the work, the six constituent concepts are explained in detail in the first chapter, encompassing more than half of the book. Lipka argues that changes in the concept of “god” / ” deus” manifest themselves in changes in the main constituent concepts, which are space, time, personnel, function, iconography, and ritual. Space is of primary importance to Lipka since all official cultic activity occurred in some predefined space which was consecrated to a particular god. Time is approached for its expression in feriae, or holidays, set aside to honor the gods. For Lipka, personnel consisted of priests and other officials engaged in honoring the gods at specific places and at specific times. The functional concept section addresses how, in theory, officials approached gods evoking their specialized powers, with characteristic reliance on indigitamenta or pontifical manuals. Lipka addresses iconography in terms of representation of the deity and the importance of assimilation of particular standard portrayals. The final constituent concept addresses the thorny issue of the relation between ritual and belief in Roman religion.

Chapter two attempts to show the creation of the concept of “god” from the constituent concepts and its eventual dissolution with the rise of and triumph of Christianity. In chapter one, Lipka proposed that the Roman concept of god began to break down with the development of the imperial cult, “which actually blurred the existing dichotomy between “divine” and “human.” By doing so, it became a much more disintegrative force than, say, most foreign divine concepts which arrived in Rome in the imperial period” (50). He asserts, “One may doubt whether Christianity would have managed to eventually triumph over paganism, if it had not been assisted by the dissolving forces of the imperial cult” (30). Chapter two addresses how public authorities adopted the Roman gods, through the constituent concepts outlined in chapter one. The chapter then discusses the process of deification, differentiation and dissolution, which was precipitated by the rise of imperial cult. Chapter three builds on the preceding two and demonstrates the usefulness of his six constituent concepts in a test case, that of the Secular Games of 17 B.C. This chapter grows out of Lipka’s anticipated objection to his methods and argument: “No doubt, many historians will feel that this use of history is arbitrary and that the constituent concepts I have argued for were applicable only because I had chosen such an ahistorical and apparently selective approach” (147). By using this historical event, Lipka hopes to show that his approach can “lead to a satisfactory description of the concepts of divinity involved” (147). Relying on Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, Lipka fits this account on how gods were conceptualized during the games into his six constituent concepts.

Chapter four addresses how his model works within various groups’ conception of the gods from three perspectives: the elite, the underprivileged, and women. Here we see Lipka’s top-down approach cascade down to attempt to see what people were actually thinking. Chapter five concludes the work and sets out seven main conclusions which are, the following: 1) Special focalization of Roman cult was primarily linked to urbanization; 2) Lack of special focalization was linked to the lack of temporal and iconographic focalization, i.e. Christianity; 3) The imperial cult led to defocalization of traditional concepts, leading to the rise of Christianity; 4) The rise of Christianity was the result of “lack of special focalization, ritual simplicity, and self sufficiency with regard to functional focalization” (192); 5) It was Constantine the Great who created the “systematic spacialization of the Christian Cult” (192); 6) “The spacialization of Christianity was in fact a concession to the pagan way of conceptualizing gods” (192); 7) “Conceptualization of the ‘divine’ facilitated coordinated action among individuals who basically lacked a coordinated modus operandi, i.e. it served to form temporary or permanent communities. Following this line of reasoning, Roman gods were a means, self-imposed on urban society, in order to coordinate and thus ensure collective target oriented action” (192).

This book is dense and challenging and has the tone of an omniscient narrator who has little use for doubt. Nowhere do we see the real problems of interpreting the spotty evidence we have for Roman religion in Lipka’s pages. This certainty that marks his pages reminds one of the good old days of studying Roman history when we could gain access to what was really going on in the minds of the Romans by reading and interpreting the sources we have. Overall this book has some important things to say about the official cults of Rome seen as an administrative apparatus of Roman political and religious structure. The attempt to systematize the way gods were conceived in Rome is an important goal and has much merit. Nevertheless, there are some problems with the work that may impair its overall usefulness to anyone wanting to know about how the Romans understood their gods.

The rather broad strokes the author uses to understand the Roman gods force him to make broad statements that are oftentimes based on older scholarship. One striking example is his insistence that the “socially underprivileged were not only attracted to exotic rites. Magic, in all its forms, was popular among the lower strata of society (while the more educated may have preferred the turn to philosophy or to choose a disguised agnosticism)” (178). The ghost of Gibbon has arisen. Some factual slips are sometimes encountered too, such as maintaining that women are attested as officials in the cult of Mithras (177). Further, the description on the back of the book claims that “this book develops general criteria for an analysis of pagan, Jewish and Christian concepts of gods in ancient Rome (and by extension elsewhere)”.

Although Lipka hopes to find a general applicability of his approach to other concepts of the gods, for example that of India, unfortunately he falls somewhat short of his mark. He may have bitten off more than he could chew in the pages he allotted himself. His detailed analysis of Roman deities does not translate to his treatment of Jewish and Christian conceptions, opting rather for rather short mentions and gross generalizations. For example, in the treatment of Christian iconography, which he lumps with that of the Jewish, Lipka asserts that that “the lack of iconographic foci in the early Christian … traditions” was “the result of blind and unselfish obedience to the third commandment” (102). The fact that early Christians did not have their own set of readily recognizable visual representations of Christ is patently untrue, as any visitor to the Roman catacombs would certainly attest.2 He also states “the emperor was not officially worshipped in Rome during his lifetime” (131). This is certainly true from a senatorial perspective. However, as Ittai Gradel 3 has shown, private monuments to the living emperor were not only common, “Rome was clearly crowded with cults dedicated to the living emperor” (223).

In all, I could not see how one could apply this work to understand the way the gods were viewed by the Romans themselves. Dealing with “conceptions” in a general way does not allow for the diversity of belief in Rome. I applaud Lipka for his attempt at challenging us to make sense of how Romans understood their gods, but his model provided me with more questions than answers about how Romans understood their gods.


1. John Scheid. An Introduction to Roman Religion. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2003.

2. See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine. Macon Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1985; 2003.

3. Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.