BMCR 2023.01.08

Belief and cult: rethinking Roman religion

, Belief and cult: rethinking Roman religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022. Pp. xxi, 468. ISBN 9780691165080.



As the new millennium dawned, we surely had reached certain unshakable conclusions in the study of Roman religion. At bedrock, resting on apparently unassailable ground, was the maxim: Romans did not believe in their gods. This was particularly true of Roman elites, especially once they had taken on trappings of skeptical Hellenistic Greek philosophy. The case for Roman religious belief was closed, or so it seemed, and even to entertain the question was the mark of an unsophisticated mind operating with anachronistic “Christianizing assumptions,” leaving one open to peremptory dismissal or bemused ridicule. Formidable authorities, such as John North, Jean Pouillon, S. R. F. Price, John Scheid, and Mary Beard, among others, had locked the door and thrown away the keys on the question of Roman belief, settling it once and for all with an emphatic “no,” and banishing it from serious consideration in the future. Romans did not have “interiorized” religious experiences. Roman religion was about ritual performance; it was a matter of savoir faire, not savoir penser. That savoir rituel and belief, with attendant emotional charge, were mutually exclusive in Roman religious culture, as experts enjoined, appears in retrospect to have been preposterous. The path-breaking study by Jacob L. Mackey demonstrates that, in many ways, it was.

For some time now, informed by psychological studies, developments in cognitive science, and (frankly) common sense, scholars have been chipping away at the communis opinio concerning Roman religious studies from around the turn of the century. Researchers of ancient Greek religion embraced cognitive approaches to religion before their counterparts in the field of Roman religion. Thomas Harrison’s Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus (2000), is an early sustained assault on the prevailing scholarly dogma of the time. Andrej and Ivana Petrovic’s Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion (2016), reconstructs inner, subjective states of individual worshippers as they approached the gods. Jennifer Larson employed Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) in her Understanding Greek Religion: A Cognitive Approach (2016). As far as Roman religion goes, Andreas Bendlin questioned the widespread notion of unbelieving Romans in “Rituals or Beliefs? ‘Religion’ and the Religious Life of Rome,” SCI 20 (2001), 191-208. Jörg Rüpke, doyen of Roman religious studies, headed the “Lived Ancient Religion” (LAR) project, funded by the European Research Council from 2012-2017. Its brief was to put the individual back into the study of Roman religion, focusing on experiences and beliefs. In a stimulating study, Roman Republican Augury: Freedom and Control (2019), Lindsay Driediger-Murphy has argued for the binding, aleatory divine will of Jupiter in Roman augury. As this research indicates, Roman religion as performative ritual, to the exclusion of interiorized, subjective states and belief as a psychological phenomenon, has proven to be sterile and inadequate. We have been witnessing a paradigm shift, and the demise of an old orthodoxy.

In what is perhaps the most important contribution to this new direction in the study of Roman religion, Mackey’s book explodes religion without belief from a theoretical perspective. Belief and Cult consists in nine chapters arranged in two parts: Theoretical Foundations and Case Studies. The book is replete with technical terminology unfamiliar to most classicists and ancient historians. In addition to CSR (Cognitive Science of Religion), the reader encounters acronyms such as ToM (Theory of Mind), HAAD (Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device), and CREDs (Credibility Enhancing Displays); and phrases like “4E cognition,” “doxastic states,” “MCI agents” [minimally counterintuitive], and “autonomous System 1 and deliberative System 2 cognitions.” We run up against knotty ideas such as “perception of inanimate nonagents in neurological social cognition.” Mackey does a good job of directing the reader to points of origin in the exposition of such difficult theoretical constructs (e.g., section 2.6.1 for Systems 1 and 2 cognitions).  He usefully provides a glossary for key concepts (395-98) and is forthright about demands and difficulties of his argument. “[T]his is a theoretical book. If you dislike theory, this book may not please you” (22). Caveat lector, then. But to my mind, Mackey’s study is likely to become indispensable, if arduous, reading for anyone interested in ancient religions (and even for those seeking theoretical and methodological grounds upon which we can do history). In its field, it may well prove to be a game-changer.

Within the compass of a review of a painstakingly and meticulously constructed argument of such dense complexity and richness, I cannot strive for comprehensive treatment, but rather only indicate what I take to be the book’s main themes and most significant contributions. Mackey’s overall concern is with religion as “an etic term that denotes practices that involve doing things to, for, directed toward, with, or significantly implicating gods, spirits, ghosts, and other nonhuman or superhuman…entities” (398). For Mackey, metacognition is the key to a proper understanding of Roman religious practices. But here metacognition is not a ne plus ultra transcendence of thought, as in the (non)goal of a Zen koan, or in Jiddu Krishnamurti’s seemingly simple question that can haunt one for a lifetime, “Can thought stop?” Rather, Mackey employs this key concept with the more manageable meaning of occupying a perch upon which we can “think about our own thinking.” Intentionality (with a capital “I”) does a lot of heavy lifting. It is “The property of a mental episode, and also of a speech act, by virtue of which it is about, of, directed at, or represents some object” (397). “Belief,” a form of Intentionality, is essentially a representation of “how things stand in the world.” Its constituent elements are: 1) subjects; 2) objects; 3) contents; 4) psychological modes; 5) “mind-to-world” direction; and 6) conditions of satisfaction. Most striking is Mackey’s use of neurological research suggesting that homo sapiens is evolutionarily hard-wired to extend psychologically anthropomorphic agency to inanimate objects (with counterintuitive ontologies), especially by means of cultural imprinting and conditioning from infancy onwards.

Mackey demolishes “belief denialism” (dismantling Rodney Needham’s linguistic/conceptual relativity thesis along the way), by showing how its tenets were based in the very “Christianizing assumptions,” which spokespeople for the idea of Roman religion as noncognitive, unreflective performance used as damning evidence against anyone wanting to talk about belief in Greek and Roman polytheistic religions. This is to say, creedal, catechistic Christianity, with its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities (such as policing “cognitive conformity”), was their baseline for what constitutes belief. More importantly, and constructively, Mackey argues for horizontal “Shared Intentionality” and nuances illocutionary forces of speech acts (though I’m surprised to find no mention of Wittgenstein or Quentin Skinner), and he employs CSR along with sensitive readings of ancient texts (Cicero, Livy, Ovid, Lucretius, Prudentius, Augustine, and others), to make a compelling case for belief (defined in concrete, rigorously logical terms) as a precondition for performative cult and ritual as “communal common ground.” In an important sense, Mackey builds upon but also goes beyond Clifford Ando’s idea of Roman religion as “empiricist epistemology,” as discussed in The Matter of the Gods (2008). But as recently as 2020 Ando could state, “belief played no normative role in discourses on religion” (Introduction, Sceptic and Believer in Ancient Mediterranean Religions, 3). Mackey’s answer is pointed: “any belief that represents a norm…may be called a deontic belief (section 3.3.2)” (338, with discussion of “cognition-about-practice” and “cognition-in-practice” at 347-62). Earlier in the work, Mackey states baldly and proleptically that “human action is causally impossible and explanatorily unintelligible without reference to belief” (110).

Mackey’s ultimate goal, as I see it, is simple in conception, but difficult to realize consistently in practice: to reintroduce living, breathing human beings into the study of ancient religion. The older view—Roman religion without “interiorized” states, emotions, or beliefs—was of a piece with profoundly influential movements in western intellectual traditions. Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Jung, and Foucault differed in many respects, but whether we are thinking about labor relations, society, the Oedipal complex, the collective unconscious and archetypes, or epistemes and Power, their generalizations and abstractions efface individuals and individuals’ agency. I should note that, although Mackey does not discuss them in any detail, theoretical constructs of Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, and Quentin Skinner, disparate as they are from one another in many respects, also reinstate individuals and individuals’ agency, as does Mackey’s work and CSR approaches to Greek and Roman religion generally.

Mackey examines ancient texts, primarily Cicero and to a lesser degree Aristotle, to bolster his arguments in Part One (Theoretical Constructs). In Part Two (Case Studies) he demonstrates that ancients’ “dispositional [unconscious] beliefs” and metacognition (in their own words) support theoretical arguments in Part One. For me, Part Two clinches Mackey’s case. It consists in chapters on Lucretius’ Roman Theory (supplemented by excursuses on Sextus Empiricus and Philodemus), Children’s Cult (ad incunabula), Folk Theology, and Inauguratio. In Chapter 6, on De Rerum Natura (esp. 210-213), Mackey preempts criticism that an elite writer steeped in Epicurean philosophy cannot be used to reconstruct Roman religious experience (211, we cannot afford “to discount an entire class of Roman materials that explicitly claim not only to speak about but also to participate and intervene in Roman religious life”). In any event, as far as I can tell, Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s Divine Institutions (2020), charting a shared intentionality of sorts, based on archaeological evidence for both elite and nonelite votive practices throughout Italy in the fourth and third centuries BCE, nicely complements and validates Mackey’s conclusions. In this vein, Mackey provides epigraphical testimony of ordinary Romans making votive offerings after having seen gods or received deities’ admonitions (223-25, with Verity Platt’s 2011 book, Facing the Gods).

Mackey writes with economy and force (with “to wit” as ubiquitous, charming deictic pointer), and he occasionally underscores why all this theorizing matters, bringing us crashing down viscerally from theoretical abstraction to realia of human existence, as in contemplation of Innocentius’ fistulas (55-57, 105-106). Noting Mary Beard’s “Protestantizing bias” in scoffing at the notion of a Cicero or an Ovid taking ritual purification seriously, Mackey offers this autobiographical revelation (55):

I am in a position to recommend that we imagine exactly that. I was raised in a tiny village in south India on an ashram at the feet of a guru who was deeply schooled in the traditions of both Vedanta and British education, who effortlessly quoted Plato, Shakespeare, and Keats, but who also conducted daily rituals of ancestor worship in which he lit incense and burned camphor on a bed of carbonized cow dung at a shrine housing the cremated remains of his father, who had been his guru.

Mackey could have marshalled psychological literature on attitudinal ambivalence and situational context to bolster his point here (I discuss this literature and provide references to clinical studies in The Peace of the Gods, 183-92).

With thrifty, utilitarian pretensions, Thomas Jefferson proudly stated that he never read anything more than once, excepting Cervantes. Notwithstanding Jefferson’s stance, Belief and Cult is not to be read once and put aside. Students of Roman religion should commune with it, pondering its profound implications, which will take most of us a while to absorb fully. Discrete chapters and subsections will likely be inexhaustible in providing new insights and generating fruitful rethinking of many a scholarly problem. For historians, Mackey’s theoretical groundwork is liberating, as it may enable even something like R. G. Collingwood’s exercise in “reenactment” to be put back on the table.

Recent studies employing Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR), with Mackey’s work being exemplary among them, remove a straitjacket and provide room to breathe, as it were. Roman religion is more interesting when it includes flesh-and-blood human beings. Belief and Cult has probably administered a coup de grâce, establishing compelling theoretical grounds for reintroducing belief, emotion, desire, hope, and fear to the study of Roman religion. Romans did not have ritual instead of belief, but rather they had ritual because of belief. Finally, Mackey’s book obliterates hitherto persistent, if muted, strains of an unbelieving Roman elite manipulating nonelites through religion, which I have elsewhere called “elite instrumentalism.” That historical distortion goes back to Polybius (6.56.6-13). Mackey helps us to pronounce it irrevocably dead.