Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2009) 35.


Jörg Rüpke (ed.), A Companion to Roman Religion. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xxx + 542, incl. 2 maps and 68 black-and-white figures. ISBN 978-1-4051-2943- 5. UK£95.00, US$174.95, AUS$233.95.

Mark Kirby-Hirst
World Languages, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

For anyone familiar with the investigation of Roman religion, the Companion to Roman Religion proves an excellent overview of current studies in Roman belief. Certain sections of the volume may be beyond the grasp of the uninitiated, but that is to be expected in a project of this size. The approach to such a varied undertaking as this needs to be carefully considered, and with the rather staid chronological perspective dispensed with, Rüpke elects to utilize an appealing thematic organization, dividing this collection of papers into six categories—‘Changes’ (pp. 29-125), ‘Media’ (pp. 127-201), ‘Symbols and Practices’ (pp. 203-271), ‘Actors and Actions’ (pp. 273- 341), ‘Different Religious Identities’ (pp. 343- 426), and ‘Roman Religion Outside and Seen from Outside’ (pp. 427-471). In this way Rüpke’s editorial style nimbly shifts the reader's focus from one point to another. Unfortunately, it seems that in illustrating the extent of Roman religious studies, certain important areas may not have received the attention they deserve. Every chapter of the Companion concludes with ‘Further Reading’ that recommends other works available in each area.

This particular journey through the sea of curiosities that comprise Roman religion begins with the usual slew of notes (pp. x-xxx) before moving on to two chapters that stand outside of the six-part construction of the work. The editor, Jörg Rüpke, furnishes the Companion with a chapter entitled ‘Roman Religion -- Religions of Rome’ (pp. 1-9). It is a fitting introduction and explains why chapters speaking to issues of cult and the Roman gods were not included. For example, Rüpke (p. 7) contends that 'cult' is a notion that makes it easier for us modern monotheists to conceive of Roman traditions. The second introductory paper is penned by C. Robert Phillips (pp. 10-28). It is a more technical study in which Phillips (p. 11) argues against ‘the assumption . . . that knowing Greek religion meant knowing Roman religion’. He sketches the state of classical research as far back the Renaissance, and ultimately concludes that a renewed interface with disciplines like anthropology may allow a truer understanding of Roman beliefs. Phillips’ ‘Further Reading’ section is quite comprehensive.

‘Part I: Changes’ examines different manifestations of change in Roman belief. Christopher Smith opens with ‘The Religions of Archaic Rome’ (pp. 31-42), a chapter scrutinizing the archaic period of Roman Religion. Smith’s treatment seems to move too swiftly through the available evidence, but his conclusions are quite apt, as he notes that a proper overlay of all the parts of this picture -- archaeology and investigations of the religious calendar to name but two -- is vital for gaining a fuller understanding of early Roman religion. The next chapter by Olivier de Cazanove (pp. 43-57) grapples with indigenous Italian religion. De Cazanove importantly points out that the lack of a shared religious identity between Romans and native Italians does not preclude any form of religious interaction between the two (pp. 44- 45). Next, Eric Orlin (pp. 58-70) approaches the subject of the practice of religion in urban centers during the Republican period, arguing that urban religion was concerned primarily with the well-being of the city of Rome. This focus seems due in part to the tight control that the ruling elites exercised over Roman religion (pp. 59-60). Orlin concludes with a short summary of the devolution of religious authority to the Roman people. Chapter Six (pp. 71-82) has as its central theme the dichotomy of ‘Continuity and Change’ in the religion of the Augustan age. Here Karl Galinsky argues for the synthesis of tradition and innovation as leading to the peculiar brand of religion that typifies the Augustan revival, and even broaches the thorny issue of the early stages of the imperial cult. William Van Andringa contributes Chapter Seven (pp. 83-95), leaping ahead in the chronology several hundred years by commenting on the manner in which imperial religious discourse created a lingua franca for believers that allowed citizens to share their feelings of dedication for gods that may not necessarily have been mainstream in the Roman Empire. This was especially obvious in the inverse with some of the more popular of the state-sponsored deities. Hartmut Leppin (pp. 96-108) investigates processes of religious transformation from the time of the Emperor Decius to the rule of Constantine. He notes that the competition between a burgeoning Christianity and Mediterranean paganism characterized this period for its ancient observers, with both sides forced to invent new strategies to represent their faiths. The final chapter of ‘Part I’ is by Michele Renee Salzman (pp. 109-25) and covers the search for common ground between pagans and Christians during the fourth century C. E. Salzman notes the intimate bond that existed between society and Roman paganism (p. 110) and elaborates on the reinterpretation of the pagan as Christian and the desacralization of certain older traditions.

The next part addresses issues like the representation of the religious by Roman mints and the appearance of religious iconography in the home. Denis Feeney (pp. 129-42) discusses the manner in which religion is portrayed in historiography and epic. Feeney (p. 129) explains that we cannot be certain of whether Romans portrayed the religious in writing before or after adapting Greek literary forms for their own use. This process of translatio imperii is illustrated in the works of several Roman authors from Virgil to Tacitus. Jonathan Williams (pp. 143-63) next comments on Roman coins. The chapter is well-illustrated with numerous examples of coins that run the gamut both in terms of type and age, which Williams uses to convincingly demonstrate that religious iconography was always a key part of the minting of Roman coins. Katja Moede next discusses the representation of the sacred in sculpture (pp. 164-75). She is careful to point out that although a great deal of information concerning the religious beliefs and practices of the Romans can be gleaned from this evidence, the very nature of art excludes certain details at the expense of the aesthetically pleasing (p. 173). Of all of the papers that grapple with the relationship between religion and art, Moede’s provides the most satisfying blend of theory and exposition of the artworks concerned. Chapter Thirteen (pp. 176-87) is concerned with inscriptional evidence for religious activity. Rudolf Haensch covers all aspects inherent in making use of inscriptions and argues convincingly for their employment in illuminating the beliefs of the common people (p. 187). There is no ‘Further Reading’ for this chapter as Haensch notes that no introductory text for Roman religious epigraphy exists. However, the addition of several general works in the field of epigraphy would have proved useful. ‘Religion in the House’ (pp. 188-201) by Annemarie Kaufmann-Heinimann closes ‘Part II’. She deals with the immanence of the religious in daily life, making her case through the religious art found in everything from wall paintings to a home’s crockery.

‘Symbols and Practices’ is the title of ‘Part III’. Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser opens with a practical approach to the study of cult sites (pp. 205-21), and is concerned with how these sites engaged with the world around them (p. 205). She describes this through the relationship between structure and functionality, and provides three examples of temple sites: the Grove of Anna Perenna (pp. 212-14), the sanctuary of Apollo Palatinus (pp. 214-18), and the temple of Fortuna Augusta in Pompeii (pp. 218-21). In Chapter Sixteen (pp. 222-34) Frank Berenstein investigates what he terms ‘complex rituals’ through studies of public games, spectacles, and festivals. He endeavours to demonstrate the extent to which politics infiltrated these areas of religious experience in order to provide new means of advancement for the elite. Frances Hickson Hahn offers an intriguing examination of prayers and hymns in Roman religious practice (pp. 235-48). Her initial quotation of Pliny (HN 28. 10) and Valerius Maximus (1.1.1) frames her study by forefronting the absolute necessity of these verbal elements of worship. Chapter Eighteen (pp. 249-62) deals with music and dance as it occurs described in pictures or text. Friederike Fless and Katja Moede seem to spend a great deal of time describing various works of art and could probably have provided a more substantial theoretical discussion. As the author of Chapter Nineteen, John Scheid (pp. 263- 71) provides a valuable introduction to Roman sacrificial ritual. He moves efficiently from the generics of sacrificial rites to cult banquets and concludes with a brief discussion of funerary and grave offerings.

‘Part IV: ‘Actors and Actions’, offers a refreshing take on the people who held the responsibility of creating the human interface between the divine and profane worlds. Two chapters, the first by Nicole Belayche (pp. 275- 91) and the second by Marietta Horster (pp. 331- 41) broach the topic of the place of the priest in Roman society. While Belayche is interested in the social positioning of priests and how this impacted upon Roman ritual, Horster offers a pragmatic take on life for the priest by, for example, examining their remuneration. Both authors have useful insights to contribute. Chapter Twenty-One by Veit Rosenberger (pp. 292- 303) engages more closely with the role of the elites in Roman religious expression, and concentrates particularly on the use of prodigia and mantic rituals to command the expectations of the lower classes. Peter Herz (pp. 304-16) then investigates the maintenance of the so-called consensus deorum hominum, and considers the changes instigated in this much-desired sociopolitical stability through the religious duties of the Roman emperor. The life of the urban elite in the East is the subject of Athanasios Rizakis’ chapter (pp. 317-30). He characterizes the situation of these elites as straddling the Greek and Roman worlds, while professing loyalty to both and still trying to benefit themselves and their communities.

‘Part V’ engages other forms of Roman religiosity with four chapters approaching Judaism, philosophical religion, Mithras and Christianity. Jack Lightstone’s (pp. 345-77) paper is the longest in the Companion, addressing Judaism as practiced within Roman settlements. Attilio Mastrocinque (pp. 378-91) examines the reinvention of religion by the intelligentsia through early scientific thinking and philosophical movements like Pythagoreanism. Mithraism is discussed by Richard Gordon (pp. 392-405). He portrays the cult of Mithras as an alternative religious form, the choice of a unique spirituality that brought a military structure to the believer’s life. Stefan Heid (pp. 406-26) concludes the section by investigating 'the Romanness of Roman Christianity'. This is accomplished primarily through an analysis of how pagan ritual spaces were co-opted for Christian use. In sum, ‘Part V’ is a worthwhile addition, granting a different perspective on how people worked from within Roman religion to affect change, although Lightstone’s chapter could have included a greater emphasis on the interaction of Jews and Roman paganists, perhaps through the study of instances of conversion. This may have better integrated the paper's subject matter with the remainder of 'Part V'.

‘Part VI’ is the final section of the Companion and comments on outsiders' perceptions of Roman religion. It comprises three papers by Clifford Ando (pp. 429-45), Ted Kaizer (pp. 446-56) and Cecilia Ames (pp. 457-71). Ando is concerned with how specifically Roman cults were spread to provincial settings. He calls attention to the civic cult and its function in fostering a seemingly colonial mentality. Kaizer takes on Roman religion in the Eastern Empire, and is especially interested in Roman cults interacting with local traditions like those of Dura-Europos. He suggests that a degree of tolerance allowed for the simultaneous development of these two strains of religion with few difficulties. Ames provides the final paper by sketching Roman paganism through the eyes of the Christian writer Tertullian. She suggests that in his attempt at arguing against the oppression of Christianity by Roman traditionalists, Tertullian actually remolds Christianity as the Roman religion par excellence (p. 471). The typical addenda follow with an extensive bibliography (pp. 472-510), as well as three indexes (pp. 511-542) to assist the reader (a general index, index of personal names, and index of places).

It seems to have become fashionable of late to publish collections of essays in the form of these so-called companion volumes. However, in terms of its scope and the intelligence of its presentation and argumentation, the Companion to Roman Religion dwarfs all comers. Although this book’s own bibliography demonstrates the breadth of work that has been done in aid of the study of Roman religion, other volumes of the same standard as this one are a rare achievement. Therefore this Companion is indeed a meaningful addition to the contemporary analysis and exposition of the religious practices of the ancient Romans.