Religions of Rome I-II

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Mary Beard – John North – Simon Price, Religions of Rome.
Volume I: A History. Cambridge University Press 1998. 454 p. ISBN 0-521-31682-0.
Volume II: A Sourcebook. Cambridge University Press 1998. 416 p. ISBN 0-521-45646-0.

ARCTOS 33 /1999

Religions of Rome I-II is a product of the collaboration between three outstanding scholars of ancient religions, Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price. The writers promise to offer a radical new survey on the religions of Rome, written in a dialogue with ancient writers. Since this dialogue is crucial in their work, the documents discussed in the History are provided in English in Volume II, the Source Book.

Religions of Rome is an up-dated synthesis of more than a thousand years of Roman religious life, particularly in the city of Rome. Because religion was central in Roman life and in the fabric of power, politics and warfare, as the writers rightly stress throughout their work, it is studied in its full cultural context. In their massive synthesis Beard, North and Price summarize the recent scholarship on the religions of Rome. Religions of Rome of course cannot treat every subject very thoroughly but it is an important mine of information, and the Source Book is a fantastic thesaurus of ancient religions. There is a vast bibliography in both books though it is dominated by Anglo-Saxon scholarship.

Beard, North and Price do not provide any definition of ‘religion’ in their work because modern categories for thinking about religion are coloured by Christian ideas and therefore would not be applicable for understanding the religion in ancient Rome. Previous historians of  Roman religion have often been looking for elements that they have postulated as essential to all religions and the Roman religion seems to lack, e.g. personal contact with the divine. Instead, the writers have accepted that the religious experiences in Rome were different from modern ones and so they have come up with some kind of compromise between their own preconceptions, readings of cross-cultural theory and the Romans’ own representations of religious life.

The first chapter, Early Rome surveys how the Romans explained their own religion to themselves and interpreted the origins of their rituals and festivals. Their myths and stories are not adequate in modern standards of historical ‘accuracy’ but they offered the Romans a way of understanding, justifying and re-interpreting their own religious system. The writers criticize views that have labelled the changes in Roman religion as a deterioration. According to these views Roman religion was polluted by foreign influences from outside and the urban population of Rome was alienated from a true and pure religious tradition. However, as the writers demonstrate, recent scholarship, particularly archaeology, has shown the untenability of the idea of a genuine and uncontaminated Roman religion. Instead, Roman religion was a multicultural amalgam of different traditions. This is why the writers have not even tried to reconstruct a real Roman religion which is a wise solution since there is no such thing as Real Pure Native Genuine Original in human history.

One of the most important issues discussed in Religions of Rome is the relationship between religion and the changing politics of Rome during the Republic and particularly the question of religious neglect during the late Republic. For modern historians the Republican religion in Rome has often been in decline and manipulated for ‘purely political’ ends. The writers want to problematize this classic case of neglect since neglect is always a matter of interpretation. The narrative of the Republican religion in decline originates from ancient writers themselves and from the Augustan propaganda. The imperial propaganda that represented Augustus’ restructuring of the Republican religious system as restoration and revival of old traditions and rituals has deceived even modern scholars. Religions of Rome offers plenty of material (e.g. archaeological evidence) to show that the religious environment of the late Republic was not in a state of complete neglect. Furthermore, the writers criticize the modern idea of separating religion and politics because in Roman public life religion and politics were closely tied together. Thus, rivalry for power and control in Rome was always associated with rivalry for religious expertise and privileged access to the gods.

In chapter five Beard, North and Price discuss the construction and transgression of religious boundaries. As they remark, Roman paganism was not completely tolerant (toleration being a modern concept) but it rather defined the limits of the acceptable. As a matter of fact, Religions of Rome as a whole is a narrative of how the Roman élite defined proper and improper religious activity, religio and superstitio, and how these definitions changed over centuries. Christian cults transgressed the Roman definition of religio because Christians did not perform sacrifice to the gods and thus did not participate in the Roman sacrificial system: it was sacrifice, not any particular god or emperor, that was at stake.

The main emphasis of Religions of Rome is in traditional Roman religion but other religions in the Roman Empire are also surveyed. It is refreshing that various religions (cults of Magna Mater, Isis, Mithras, Judaism, Christianity etc.) are approached, not cult by cult or in chronological order, but thematically, it is for example discussed how visible they were in Roman urban life, how they were treated in literature, how they appealed to people and what they offered to their adherents. It is also praiseworthy that Christian cults are not paid any particular attention to, but are treated here as one among other religions.

The last chapter in the Religions of Rome discusses the most important aspects of the Constantinian revolution and the triumph of Christianity quite briefly. The eternal questions concerning Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his relationship with the Christian church are left open. Constantine’s conversion changed the religious situation in Rome: the concepts of religio and superstitio, the acceptable and the unacceptable, were redefined, though – the writers claim – Constantine and his successors may have deliberately kept the term superstitio ambiguous in the legislation. Nevertheless, from now on ‘being Roman’ was understood as ‘being Christian’. The Constantinian revolution affected the Christian religion and Christian self-consciousness as well. In the fourth and fifth centuries Christians had to define what was to count as Christian, that is: forexample were the traditional rituals and festivals of Rome pagan or could a Christian attend them and were Roman literature and Greek philosophy to be regarded as pagan or could a Christian enjoy them? The writers have decided to use the term ‘pagan’ in spite of its derogatory connotations. I regard this as a good solution since there is no neutral term; every word will always be loaded with various connotations. They also point out that it is possible to speak of ‘paganism’ as a system rather than as an amalgam of different cults virtually only from the fourth century on, in opposition to Christianity and under the influence of Christianity. In the last pages of Religions of Rome, Beard, North and Price assert that traditional cults of Rome were far from being mere fossilized survivals in the fourth century and continued into the fifth century. As the Lupercalia case at the end of the fifth century shows, ‘pagan’ festivals continued to be celebrated and the boundary between paganism and Christianity was not very clear for the inhabitants of Christianized Rome.

Maijastina Kahlos


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