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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Roman Religions

Hearsay, History, and Heresy: Collected Essays on the Roman Republic by Richard E. Mitchell and Randall Howarth (Gorgias Press) This book features a selection of articles written be Richard Mitchell concerning the origins and development of the ancient Roman state and the modern historiography of our understanding of that history. The introduction and commentary are provided by one of his PhD students,. Randall S. Howarth, whose own work is very much concerned with the same topics. The publication of these articles in a single volume provides a comprehensive commentary on the assumptions governing modern reconstructions of the period and the problems informing those assumptions.
The social and institutional history of the Roman Republic, especially that of the earliest years, is one of the most problematic and contested areas of study in the ancient world. Modem scholars have tended to assume that we should take the broad outlines of the traditions handed to us by the Romans at face value, despite their invention hundreds of stories after the fact. The inevitable result is that the dominant modern narrative contains a core of assumptions of dubious historicity. While some scholars have made significant attempts to correct portions of the obviously flawed narrative, virtually none have gone so far as to question its most fundamental elements. Mitchell's work has always done exactly this and when originally published, the majority of his arguments were regarded as radical. Nevertheless, over the last twenty years, or so, scholarly consensus is inexorable moving toward Mitchell. This collection traces the development of Mitchell's thought processes and highlights all of the most important evidence.

Professor Richard E. Mitchell has spent 50 years studying the genesis of Roman institutions and the emergence of Roman power in the early Republic. Early on, two things gelled in Mitchell's mind: first, that the most critical period for these topics was the fourth century BCE and, second, that much of modern consensus for that period depends upon assumptions that do not stand up well to critical analysis. That the latter should be so is not so surprising. For entirely practical reasons—the virtual lack of contemporary sources—scholars fall back upon an outline of events presented to us by much later Roman historians. We credit the outline as a useful framework because, presumably, later Romans were in a position to know what they were talking about. The rules of our engagement are thus implied; the particulars in the narrative are fair game for dispute, but not at the expense of its overall narrative structure. The result, Mitchell would argue, is that a matrix of questionable assumptions— some ancient, some modern—has come to form a kind of permanent foundation for scholarship on early Rome even as a growing body of work exists to challenge these assumptions. It would appear that what Mitchell and other critics would term a deeply flawed explanatory model has become so engrained in the literature that it is too big to fail and, implicitly, too big to challenge.'

Toward what assumptions has Mitchell demonstrated suspicion? That Rome had no use for silver coins until Pyrrhus nor ships until the First Punic war. That Rome's earliest treaties were essentially defensive in nature, and, as for Rome's plans for expansion in the late fourth century, well, there were no such plans. That the alienation of Rome and Carthage preceded Pyrrhus's arrival in Italy. That Rome—in relation to her neighbors—was essentially backward and reactive until forced by circumstances to be otherwise. That all important Roman political institutions and procedures were forged in a episodic competition between an hereditary elite and a grand unwashed urban proletariat, i.e., in a "struggle of the orders." That the insurgent leaders of the latter were tribunes. That it took until the first decades of the third century for the people's assembly to win a legitimate legislative competence. Finally, that the Lex Hortensia of 287 was the specific event that ended this competition. Although a number of scholars have made significant attacks on these assumptions as individual propositions, modem treatments that attempt synoptic analysis nevertheless persist in depending fundamentally on some combination of them and imply a sense of consensus which is not justified.

Mitchell argues that the weaknesses of these original assumptions are easily demonstrated. In fact, he shows that in many cases, they have already been demonstrated. One of the consistent strengths of Mitchell's work is the lengths to which he goes to credit critiques others have already made. Unfortunately, these previous efforts have been effectively compartmentalized by infrequent acknowledgement to the effect that their collective import is not realized, especially by those new to the subject. From this flows my contention that, whether or not scholars agree with all of Mitchell's conclusions, his reading of the underlying historiographical problems and of the ways in which the evidence has been received by modem scholars will be extremely useful for anyone interested in studying the early Republic. Although, with two exceptions, the articles printed herein have been published previously, their presentation here as a collection reveals organic connections between the various parts of his work that are not as obvious in isolation and implicitly suggests possibilities for continued work.

By all accounts the record we have inherited from the Romans is a flawed tapestry of historical events sewn through and through with binding threads of myth and polemic. No competent scholar of early Rome believes all the evidence can or should be taken at face value. The corpus of even remotely contemporaneous texts survives mostly as excerpts divorced from their original contexts and repeated by later, and perhaps lesser, writers and for editorial purposes almost certainly unintended by their original authors. Many of these bits—traditionally termed "fragments"—lack sufficient length and detail for us to fully appreciate their original significance, never mind their probative value. The most coherent narrative surviving from the Romans about their own past is derived from the parallel texts of Livy and Dionysius. That these two texts agree in so many ways inspires some confidence, but Mitchell would argue that their coherence is illusory, that it proves only that two writers consulted the same tradition and not that the tradition they consulted was reliable. In any case the best historical evidence is both hundreds of years and several hands removed from the subject at hand. And of course, the reception of the evidence has its own convoluted history.

Nowadays the ancient Greek and Roman world is largely the domain of classics departments, especially with history departments tending now to manage new hires to maximize geographic coverage as opposed to chronological. This suits scholars of modern and early-modern history who tend to regard ancient history as, if not actually ahistorical, at least as a kind of a prehistoric history. The term 'classics' is of course connotative of a privileged category of literature and certainly Greek and Roman sources enjoy a special status among the ur texts of Western Civilization. This is to some extent a legacy of the Renaissance, when the rediscovery and examination of lost Greek and Roman texts provided an alternative perspective for those tired of the intellectual passivity of the Middle Ages. But the intellectual habits of that period were slow in changing: the scholastics used Aristotle's logic to prove what was already assumed; Cola di Rienzo recited rote passages from Valerius Maximus in preparation for his brief but colorful 'restoration' of the Roman Republic in 1347; and Macchiavelli used the careers of David, Epaminondas, and Pyrrhus to suggest form in the chaos of Italian realpolitik. It was all a kind of antiquarianism that found its authority in the form of wisdom as opposed to its substance.

But even while Macchiavelli cited exempla and counseled imitation or avoidance—much as did Livy, at least implicitly—his friend Guicciardini privately ridiculed those who thought Florence could productively emulate ancient Rome, and in so doing he pointed down a path that led to modern historical thinking. Progress in this direction came in parallel with the scientific revolution which, perhaps with some degree of irony, began in the heavens and was not contained there. The heady progress of science in the physical and natural world led inevitably to the proposition that human social behavior, properly systematized, could also be understood as a science. The collapse of papal dominance and the awful excesses of the religious wars reinforced a growing conviction that the institutions associated with Christianity were responsible for the demise of reason. Did not Edward Gibbon—at least implicitly—blame Christianity for the fall of Rome? Editorially speaking, it was a grand turnabout: first Rome, fatally corrupted by secular humanism, was the foil for the redeeming power of Christ, then Christ became the foil for the interruption of reason and the grand political experiment of Greek and Roman antiquity. We see that John Locke, Thomas Gordon, and eventually John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, all returned to the ancient Greek and Roman writers as essential sources of political history whose careful study was essential to the creation of a modern political theory. But what is important for our discussion here is that neither the Renaissance thinkers nor their Enlightenment heirs seriously considered whether what survived in the text might not be historical, that Polybius might not know what he was talking about, that Sallust had an axe to grind, that for all of Cicero's supposed political acumen he was a shockingly poor judge of character. That's not what the text says.

History as an idea apart from history as inspirational literature or history as source material for political philosophers finally emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. German intellectuals struggled to articulate a unique cultural identity while at the same time asserting cultural continuity with the ancient world. The modern historian routinely believes, as did Johann Herder in the late eighteenth century and G.W.F. Hegel in the early nineteenth, that historical moments are uniquely conditioned by their context. In other words, history does not really repeat itself, and people in the past were like us only superficially. Theories of time and historical change inevitably followed and all came with the same kind of teleological underpinnings as did Charles Darwin's theories of biological evolution. Some historians, inspired by these intellectual currents, led their schismatic followers into the desert of ahistorical theory where historians—especially those of the distant past—were contemptuously dismissed as "blind compilers of sterile anecdotes." A more positive result of the rise of social theory as a scientific discipline is the appreciation that historical memory is frequently articulated as a form of political rhetoric. By way of recent example, we can see that the Italian recollection of their collective experience in World War Two is very much a prisoner of political imperatives. In 2005, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi instituted a national day of remembrance for the 10,000 or so Italians executed by Yugoslav partisans in the closing days of the war. Better in this instance to be victims than perpetrators. And for Italians it is definitely better to be victims of communists than of fascists.

In effect, while the events that make up the past have an effect on and lead to the present, historical writing reverses the process: the present is brought to bear upon and affects the past, or at least our understanding of it. Although anachronism is a Greek word, it is a concept uniquely conditioned by the habits of modern historical thinking and in its modem connotation essentially meaningless to the ancients, who, for their own part, saw change as decay, or repetitions of predictably cyclical patterns. It was perfectly legitimate under these assumptions for the Romans to use their present as a template for their past, especially since they regarded the relationship of past and present as an indication of a future unfolding. The ancient Roman narrative we have inherited is therefore not so much evidence of the past on which it purports to elaborate as it is an interpretation of that past. The salient point for us in this context is that an honest evaluation of the historical rhetoric we inherit from the Romans demands that we regard it first and foremost as an artifact of the moment in which it was created. This imperative and the discipline inspired by it has significant ramifications for the study of early Roman history because that subject depends first and foremost upon the deconstruction of ancient historical rhetoric.

All the important influences in Mitchell's training and career encouraged him to approach the ancient narrative for Rome with these principles in mind. Mitchell took his master's degree in history at the University of Michigan, where the ancient historians Finley Hooper and Paul Alexander figured prominently as early influences. At this point in Mitchell's development, the ancient world was a minor focus—nineteenth century Europe was his primary interest—but Hooper's delight in exploring difficult historiographical problems and Alexander's mastery of detail influenced Mitchell to study ancient Rome. After his time at Michigan, Mitchell went to the University of Cincinnati in what was coincidentally the first year Cincinnati began accepting Ph.D. candidates in history. As it turned out, the Cincinnati classics department already had a well established Ph.D. program and

Mitchell's progress was supervised, for practical purposes, under the dual auspices of the history and classics departments. Professor Donald Bradeen, Mitchell's advisor at Cincinnati, taught him to bring multiple categories of evidence—coins, archaeology, comparative studies—to bear on difficult historical problems as a way to bring new insights to old problems. Bradeen's rigorous `problems' approach to understanding and teaching history shaped the way Mitchell would eventually teach his own students, myself included.

After his exams, Mitchell applied for and won an American Numismatic Society fellowship. This turned out to be both fortuitous and portentous. The pre-eminent numismatists Ted Buttrey and Rudi Thomsen were both in attendance. Thomsen had just finished the last of his three volume Early Roman Coinage (Copenhagen, 1957-61). The Morgantina excavations in Sicily had only recently yielded new evidence for the introduction of the Roman denarius, and the seminar atmosphere in New York was electric with debate over the archaeology, the numismatic evidence, and the ancient sources for early Roman coinage. Bradeen's training provided the ideal preparation for the kind of scholarly environment in which Mitchell now found himself. Mitchell was drawn into the controversy over chronology, and by the end of the seminar he developed a thesis arguing for an earlier timeline than had only recently been published by Rudi Thomsen. Thomsen was of course present to hear his views challenged. Mitchell's work that summer won him the Moritz Wormser Prize for best seminar paper and, indirectly, a dissertation fellowship from the ANS. It also established Mitchell's reputation as a scholar unafraid of controversy.5 Mitchell's movement of the introduction of Roman coinage to the fourth century allowed him—and others—to interpret their introduction in the context of Rome's extension of dominion in the south of Italy before the arrival of Pyrrhus and undermined arguments others had made about the relationship of Rome and Carthage in the same context.

Using early coins as evidence not only helped Mitchell move beyond the limitations of a questionable literary tradition but it also gave him a glimpse of a different narrative of Roman ambition than was usually accepted for late fourth century Rome. This led him inevitably to re-examine the way modern scholarship imagined the working dynamics of the engine of Roman ambition, the Roman Senate. This led in the short term to his 1973 article, "The Aristocracy of the Roman Republic." The article attracted little attention among ancient historians at the time because it was published in a volume not dedicated to the ancient world, but it had a significant impact among american historians. At both the 1975 and 1988 meetings of the American Historical Association, the noted Jacksonian America scholar Edward Pessen called for a reassessment of nineteenth century social mobility based on the principles of what he termed the "Mitchell Thesis."? In his 1975 book, Three Centuries of Social Mobility in America, Pessen elaborated: "Mitchell brilliantly depicts the role of the small aristocracy that ruled society in actually abetting the upward movement of novi homines into the new (lesser) magistracies that had to be created in the wake of Rome's expansion...." Stanford Elwitt also went to the crux of the matter in a review of the volume in which Mitchell's article appeared: "Mitchell demonstrates [that t]he ability of the senatorial order to maintain its hegemony depended upon its willingness to accommodate new members in its ranks—thus providing for a modest measure of mobility within a closed system."

Mitchell's study of these fundamentals of senatorial patronage convinced him that standard interpretations surrounding the "struggle of the orders" made little sense and implicitly set the stage for the next phase of his work. Over the next ten years Mitchell produced a series of papers and articles sharpening the edges of what eventually became a direct challenge to the "struggle of the orders." In 1986 Mitchell contributed a substantial article to a volume edited by Kurt Raaflaub in which Mitchell and eleven other scholars presented a range of treatments of the "struggle of the orders." That volume, recently reprinted by Blackwell (2005) with addenda by most of the original contributors, remains essential reading as it presents a range of interpretations by those scholars who have continued to define the debate. One certainly cannot read this volume without coming away with an impression of how "fragile the early Roman narrative is." In 1990 Mitchell published his monograph, Patricians and Plebeians: the Origin of the Roman State (Cornell), in which he brought together all the threads of the argument and elaborated on many of the arguments made in previous contexts.12 In brief, Mitchell argues that the model of conflict we term the "struggle" has more to do with the last century of the Republic than it does with any earlier period. He shows how the prevailing argument depends, somewhat naively, on the stipulation that evidence available to the first generation of Roman historians featured that "struggle," at least in outline. Mitchell rejects that notion emphatically by demonstrating its inherent implausibility, given the nature of the evidence as we understand it. Ultimately, an insistence on the primacy of the narrative prevents us from understanding the real significance of the details that Livy —not to mention moderns— adduce in its elaboration.

These conclusions challenge the fundamental assumptions made by most ancient historians about the development of the Roman state and, not surprisingly, the newly published book elicited a variety of responses. Some reviews were quite positive:

On voir inimédiatement les consequences de telles assertions...la distinction fondamentale au sein de la société romaine de cette époque ne se situait pas entre les patriciens et les plébéens, mais entre les mileix civils urbains et les spheres militaires.

Even those who disagree with Mitchell's basic thesis will find that many of his arguments provoke them to rethink their assumptions about wide-ranging aspects of Republican political and religious institutions.

We have long known that...it is impossible to accept the picture in Livy and his late Republican sources of two political groupings locked in conflict for a century and a half...M[itchell] cuts the Gordian knot by suggesting that the two groups actually belong to two different categories.... Some of [Mitchell's] conclusions are more likely to win assent than others. But the hypothesis at least makes sense of the surviving sources. There never was a 'struggle of the orders'.

Other were less enthusiastic:

I am not sure that I understand always what M[itchell] is saying....[the] book cannot be said to offer any convincing new interpretation.

[Mitchell] has valuable things to say about individual problems...but this theory about a sort of Roman theocracy is not likely to convince many."

Eine offensichtliche konzeptuelle Schwäche der Darstellung macht
es nicht leicht, Vertrauen in die neue Interpretation der römischen

Frühgeschichte zu gewinnen.

In an addendum to his original article reprinted in the second edition of Kurt Raaflaub's Social Struggles in Archaic Rome, Mitchell took the opportunity to answer those who, as he put it recently in private correspondence with me, "really do miss the point:"

Modern scholars confuse the evidence with its interpretation and fail to see that our late sources placed available authentic archaic legal and religious material in an arbitrary chronological sequence and gave it structure and meaning by slavishly incorporating it into Rome's early history. In other words, the struggle is part not of the received "structural" facts of Roman history but of the city's narrative story developed by our sources. Freed from their interpretation as part of the struggle between patricians and plebeians, pieces of religious and legal evidence previously used to buttress the conflict are used now to reveal a society very different from the one portrayed by our ancient sources and reproduced by modem scholars.

Work being done by younger scholars shows signs of moving in Mitchell's direction. In 2000, T. Corey Brennan endeavored to "show [Mitchell] correct" concerning the roles of early Roman praetors. In his 2001 monograph on legislative practice in Republican Rome, Kaj Sandberg systematically destroyed one of the main elements of the "struggle" narrative (the notion that the plebeians had no right to legislate before 287) in part by invoking Mitchell's arguments.21 In 2005, Olga Tellegen-Couperus cited Mitchell's name frequently in a paper, subsequently published, where she argued for an interpretation of the urban praetor that does not rely on the struggle of the orders. Some of my work builds on Mitchell's in that it interprets the benchmark events of the so-called struggle in an alternate framework, namely, that their notices are vestiges of a very real conflict between city-based and regional political contructs. For his own part, Mitchell has continued to pose questions and challenge assumptions about structural elements of the struggle paradigm. Some of these are included in the current volume. What, for example, should be made of the numerous references, especially in Livy, to demands for land distributions and debt reduction? Where are the origins of distinctions between public and private property? What relationship existed between colonization and the development of the comitia tributa? If the tribunes of the plebs were not actually insurgent figures born in opposition to an entrenched hereditary aristocracy, what was their original function and how did it evolve? At this writing, his work continues.--- Randall S. Howarth

Companion to Roman Religion edited by Jorg Ruepke (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World: Blackwell) provides a comprehensive treatment of Roman religion within its cultural, social, and historical contexts. Written by international experts, this volume offers a new approach, directing its focus away from the gods and concentrating on the human-figures of Roman religion. The book addresses the media through which religion was experienced and shared, including epigraphy, mosaics, wall-paintings, drama, and poetry, and provides, for example, the first ever history of religious motifs on coins. Placing the various discourses and practices into a larger geographical and cultural framework, this volume also considers the cults, gods, iconography, rituals, and texts that were exported widely throughout the empire, revealing the sprawling landscape of Roman religion. Judaism and Christianity are firmly placed within a strongly historical approach, covering the period from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD.

Contributors to this volume: Cecilia Ames, Clifford Ando, Nicole Belayche, Frank Bernstein, Olivier de Cazanove, Ulrike Egelhaaf-Gaiser, Denis Feeney, Friederike Fless, Karl Galinsky, Richard Gordon, Rudolf Haensch, Stefan Heid, Peter Herz, Frances Hickson Hahn, Marietta Horster, Ted Kaizer, Annemarie Kaufmann-Heinimann, Hartmut Leppin, Jack N. Lightstone, Attilio Mastrocinque, Katja Moede, Eric Orlin, C. Robert Phillips III, Athanasios Rizakis, Veit Rosenberger, Jorg Rupke, Michele Renee Salzman, John Scheid, Christopher Smith, William Van Andringa, Jonathan Williams.

Excerpt: Roman Religion

Why dedicate a book of over five hundred pages to a religion as stone-dead as that of one of thousands of ancient Mediterranean cities?

For the choice of the city, it is easy to find arguments. Rome was one of the most successful cities ever to build an empire, which comprised millions of square kilo­meters and lasted close to a millennium. It was and is a cultural and religious center, even if the culture was frequently Greek and the religion is known nowadays as Catholic Christianity. Finally, Rome remains a tourist center, a symbol of a past that has succeeded in keeping its presence in school books and university courses. And yet, what has this all to do with Roman religion?

"Roman religion" as used here is an abbreviation for "religious signs, practices, and traditions in the city of Rome." This is a local perspective. Stress is not given to internal differences between different groups or traditions. Instead, the accent is placed on their common history (part I) and range of media (part II), shared or transferred practices (part III), and the social and institutional context (part IV).

Many religious signs were exchangeable. The fourth-century author of a series of biographies on earlier emperors (the so-called Historia Augusta) had no difficulties in imagining an emperor from the early third century venerating Christ among the numerous statuettes in his private rooms. Gestures, sacrificial terminology, the struc­ture of hymns were equally shared among widely varying groups. Nevertheless some  stable systems, sets of beliefs, and practices existed and were cared for by specialists or transported and replicated by traveling individuals. They were present in Rome, effective and affective, but a set of beliefs, a group, or even an organization had a history of its own beyond Rome, too. Here, the local perspective is taken to ask how they were modified in Rome or the Roman period (part V).

"Rome," the name of the city, finally, is merely a cipher for the Roman empire. In the long process of its expansion and working, the religious practices of the center were exported, in particular the cult of the living or dead emperors and the cult of the dominating institutions, the "goddess Rome" (dea Roma) or the "Genius of the senate" (Genius senatus). This was part of the representation of Roman power to its subjects (see chapter 22), but at the same time it offered space for the activities of non-Roman local elites to get in touch with the provincial and central authorities and to distinguish themselves from their fellow-citizens (chapter 23). As communication between center and periphery — and other attractive centers in a peri­phery that was marginal in administrative terms only — these activities touched upon the religious practices in the city of Rome, too. "Roman religion" cannot be isolated from the empire, at least for the imperial period, if we take for granted the character of earlier Rome as a Hellenistic city on the margins of Hellenic cul­ture (Hubert Cancik, p.c.). Again, that perspective holds true in both directions. The history of Mediterranean religions in the epoch of the Roman empire must acknowledge the fact that Persian Mithraism, Hellenistic Judaism, and Palestinian Christianity were Roman religions, too. It is the final section of this book that expli­citly takes this wider geographical stance (part VI).

An Ancient Religion

Roman religion did not grow out of nothing. Italy, above all in its coastal regions, was already party to a long-distance cultural exchange in the Mediterranean basin in a prehistoric phase. The groups that were to grow into the urbanization of the Roman hills did not need to invent religion. Religious signs and practices were present from the ancient Near East, via Phoenician culture, at least indirectly via Carthage, and via Greece and the Etruscans. Speaking an Indo-European language, these groups shared a religious "knowledge" in the form of names or rudimentary institutions in the area of cultural practices that we call religion. Even if historians of Roman reli­gion do not any longer privilege the distant common heritage of Celts, Romans, Greeks, Persians, and Indians over the intensive cultural exchange of historical times and the immense diffusion of practices from the non-Indo-European Near Eastern cultures, some constellations might find an explanation in those distant areas by com­paring cultures more isolated from each other in later times.

Cultural exchange — as said above — was not restricted to the founding phases. It is hard to overestimate the diffusion of religious practices within and from the Latins, Umbrians, and Etruscans. In detail, the range is not clear at all. There are definite similarities, a shared culture (or, to use a Greek term, koine), in votive and burial practices. To say the same for the architecture of sanctuaries is neither contradicted by the evidence nor massively supported. We can suppose that many characteristics of the gods, the fascination of statuary and anthropomorphic representation, were shared. The very few longer non-Latin texts demonstrate surprising similarities in calendrical practices (the Etruscan tegula Capuana from the fifth century BC) or in priestly organization and ritual detail (the Umbrian tabulae Iguvinae from the second to first centuries BC). Unfortunately, non-Latin Italian languages ceased to be spoken (and especially to be written) in the first century BC and the first century AD as a consequence of Roman domination. Latin antiquarian writers adduce many instances of the borrowing of middle Italian practices and symbols in order to explain contemporary Roman institutions.

The continuous presence of self-conscious Greek writers is not the only reason to pay an ever-growing attention to Greek influences and their (frequently deeply modifying) reception. From the beginning of the great "colonization" — that is, especially from the eighth century — onward, Greeks were present in Italy and served as translators of the achievement of the earlier civilizations of Egypt and the "fertile crescent" of Anatolia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine. Anthropomorphic images, temple building, and the alphabet came by this route. Influences were extensive and continuous. Despite the early presence of the alphabet it was not before the third century BC that Rome started to adopt Greek techniques of literary production on a larger scale. Many of the rivalries of Italian townships of the second century BC —frequently resulting in large-scale temple building — were fought out in terms of Greek cultural products. Competing with Roman elites meant being more Greek. Much of what provincials thought to be Roman and adopted in the process of Romanization during the following centuries stemmed from Greece.

The "Greece," however, of this intensive phase of cultural exchange — intensified by Roman warfare and plunder in Greek territories — was Hellenistic Greece, a cul­tural space that faced large territories. In the aftermath of the expansion by Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) and on the basis of the earlier establishment of Greek ports and trading centers on Mediterranean coastlands, this Hellenistic culture had developed techniques of delocalization, of universalizing ancient Greek traditions. It offered grids of history, a mythic geography that could integrate places and societies like Rome and the Romans. Greeks thought Romans to be Trojans long before Romans dis­covered the usefulness of being Trojans in talking with Greeks.

Religion for a City and an Empire

Roman religion was the religion of one of hundreds of Mediterranean cities. It was a Hellenized city and religion. Yet it found many a special solution, for reasons of its geographic location, local traditions, immigrants. The most important contingent factor, certainly, was its military success. At least from the fourth century BC onward, Rome organized an aggressive and efficient military apparatus, managing hegemony and expansion first within Italy, then within the Mediterranean basin, finally as far as Scotland, the northern German lowland plain, the southern Carpathians, the coast of the Black Sea, Armenia, Arabia, and the northern edge of the Sahara. Preliminary to that was the orchestrated growth of the Roman nobility through the immigra­tion of Italian elites.

These processes had consequences for the shape of religion at Rome. There is a strong emphasis on control, of both centralization and presence (see chapters 21 and 16). Public rituals were led by magistrates, priestly positions filled by members

of the political elite, mass participation directed into temporary and then more and more permanent architectural structures in the center of Rome. At the same time, religion remained independent in a peculiar sense: gods could be asked to move, but not ordered to do so; priesthoods could be presented with candidates, but co-opted them in their own right; the transfer of public property to imported gods was the subject of political decisions, but their rituals were not. Being not directly, subjected to political decision, religion offered a powerful source for legitimizing polit­ical decisions; it remained what Georg Simmel called a "third authority."

The dominant Roman model for religion was not expansionist; it was rather absorb­ing. Numerous "gods" — that class of signs the centrality of which within a set of social interaction makes us term these practices a "religion" — in the forms of statues, statuettes, images, or mere names, were imported, and — what is more — stories about these gods, practices to venerate them, molds to multiply them, knowledge about how to build temples for them, even religious specialists, priests, accompanied them or were invented on the spot.

For the ancient metropolis, a city growing to the size of several hundred thou­sand inhabitants, maybe close to a million by the time of the early empire, the usual models to describe the religions of Mediterranean cities do not hold. Surely, publicly financed cult — sacra publica, to use the ancient technical term — held an important share. The large buildings of public temples did provide an important religi­ous infrastructure. So did the publicly financed rituals. Yet the celebrations of many popular rituals were decentralized. This holds true for the merrymaking of the Saturnalia (not a public holiday in the technical sense!) lasting for several days, and for the cult of the dead ancestors and the visits to the tombs during the Parentalia. We do not know how many people fetched purgatory materials from the Vestal Virgins for the decentralized rituals of the Parilia, the opening of the "pastoral year." Many "public" rituals might have remained a matter of priestly performance without a large follow­ing. The life-cycle rituals — naming, leaving childhood, marrying, funeral — might utilize public institutions, but were neither spatially nor temporally coordinated. In times of personal crises, people often addressed deities and visited places of cult that were not prominent or were even outside of public ritual. Indeed, the growing importance of the centralized rituals of the public games — to be witnessed especially from the second half of the third century BC onward — were meant to compensate for these deficits of "public religion." Hence the "civic cults" (or "polls religion") does not form a sociologically useful category.

Neither does "pantheon." The idea of "pantheon" as a concept for the history of religion derives from the analysis of ancient Near Eastern and especially Greek mytho­logical text. These seem to imply the existence of a limited group of deities (around ten to twenty) that seem to be instituted in order to cover the most important needs of the polity. Internal coherence is produced by genealogical bonds or institutions by analogy to political ones: a council of the gods, for instance. For Greece, the omnipresence of the Homeric poems gives plausibility to the idea that local deities were thought to act within or supplement the circle of the around twelve most import­ant gods, even if these were not present in the form of statues or individually owned temples. For Rome and Italy this plausibility is lacking. The aforementioned centralizing rituals might further the idea of such a "pantheon" — technically, by the way, a term to denote the exceptional case of a temple owned by "all the gods." In contrast to the frequently used term di immortales, designating the gods as an unstruc­tured ensemble, the circus processions would present a definite number of gods. Yet we do not know whether the order of the gods was fixed or subject to situational and individual decisions. Even if tradition — that is, precedent — had its share, there was no codified body of mythological tales that would constitute an order of gods or even an inner circle of divine figures. The multitude of gods venerated in the city of Rome was always increased by individual decisions — those of generous members of the nobility and victorious generals investing parts of their booty, as well as those of immigrants with a foreign ethnic background. Likewise the decrease in number was due to individual neglect of cultic performances or lack of interest in maintaining and repairing sanctuaries.

These findings corroborate the earlier characterization of Roman religion. Of course, Roman religion was an "embedded religion" (see the introduction to chapter 25 for further methodological considerations). That is, religious practices formed part of the cultural practices of nearly every realm of daily life. Banqueting usually followed sacrifice (chapter 19) and building a house or starting a journey implied small sacrifices and prayers, as did meetings of the senate, parades, or warfare. Religion, hence, was not confined to temples and festivals; it permeated, to repeat this point, all areas of society. Yet politics — to concentrate on the most interesting realm in this respect —was not identical with religion. Many stories, the huge number of non-public rituals, individual "superstitions" (doing or believing more than is necessary), the complicated procedures for installing priests: all this demonstrates the independence of the gods and the possibility of distinguishing between religion and politics, between res sacrae and res publicae, in everyday life. It was religion thus conceptualized, thus set apart, that could be used as a seemingly independent source of legitimization for political action. This set the guidelines for liberty and control and explains the harsh reac­tion to every move that seemed to create an alternative, a counter-public, by means of religion. To define these borders of religion — one might say, from without — the technique of law was employed, developing a body of regulations that finally appeared as an important part of the law collections of late antiquity (see chapter 29) and were of the utmost importance for the history of religion in Europe.

If the Romans did not export their religion, they certainly exported their concept of religion. Of course, the outcome varied from area to area. The impact of particu­lar Roman religious signs (names and images of deities, for example) and practices (rituals, festivals) was small in the Hellenized territories of the Hellenistic east, even if Mishnaic Judaism can hardly be imagined without the impact of Roman law and administration. Yet for parts of northern Africa and the more northern European provinces of the empire, the diffusion of stone temples and plastic images, of writing and permanently individualized gifts to the gods, the permanent visibility of votives, and the self-representation of the elite by means of religious dedications — these traits (by no means exclusively Roman practices) fundamentally changed the shape of religion and its place in provincial societies, shaping Christianity no less than paganism. Roman religion became an inseparable strain of the history of religion in the Mediterranean world and what much later came to be termed "Europe."


In terms of the history of religion the afore-mentioned process is no "history of recep­tion" or Wirkungsgeschichte. For reasons of disciplinary traditions and political history, the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century offer an easy borderline for this book. Publicly financed polytheistic religion was ended, and non-Christians (with Jews as a special, frequently not privileged exception) were discriminated against for the filling of public offices. Yet cultic practices continued for centuries, Christians being perhaps not willing or able to stop them or to destroy the architectural infrastructure on which they were the performers. As transmitted by texts, ancient — that is, Greek and Roman — religion, together with the polytheistic practices in Judah and Israel described in much less detail in the Bible, offered the typological alternative to Judaism and Christianity and formed an important pattern on which to describe and classify the practices of "heathens" in the colonial expansion of Europeans. Thus, "religion" could be coined as a general term encompassing Christianity and its illegitimate equivalents: Asian, American, African, and Australian idolatries.

The latter process, to be dated to early modern times, implied that our perspect­ive on religion is informed by Christianity, a religion that developed from antiquity onward, and furthered by centuries of theological faculties within European and (in this perspective) lately non-European universities, a complex and well-ordered theory to reflect on its beliefs and practices: theology. Yet the ancient history of religion is no field to be analyzed within the framework of the standard topics, the loci communes, of Christian dogma, even if many of them found their counterpart (and origin) in ancient philosophy. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the independent discipline of "comparative religion" or "history of religion" tried to supplant this scheme with series of topics like gods, beliefs, temples, rituals, priests. These are helpful as appealing to common sense, but ahistorical if applied as a system.

What is described as "Roman religion" in this book is of an astonishing variety. Various are the phenomena, from Mithraic caves to hilltop Capitolia, from the offer­ing of paid services by divinatory specialists (harioli) to colleges of freedmen whose members met on a monthly basis. Various are the social functions, from the pater familias who led the sacrifice to his own Genius, and thus underlined his position as head of the family, to neo-Pythagorean convictions that informed the preparation of one's own burial and offered the prospect of a post-mortal existence.

For the purpose of a historical analysis, "religion" is conceptualized by the authors of this book as human actions and communication. These were performed on the presupposition that gods existed who were part of one's own social or political group, existed in the same space and time. They were to be treated by analogy to human partners and superiors. That offered space for wishful projections and experiments. What was helpful as regards human superiors should be useful in dealing with the gods, too. What was assumed to function among the gods should offer a model for human behavior, for consuls and kings.

Without doubt, "gods" were important symbols, either in direct representation or by their assumed existence behind the attempts to communicate with them ritu­ally. Methodologically, however, it is important neither to engage in a debate about their existence nor to expect to find them or their traces empirically. Thus, the lack of a chapter on "gods" is intentional. Analyzed as "signs," the "gods" have neither an essence nor biographies. To represent the immortal god in social space, one has to produce new or use established signs, and these signs vary according to the media used. Narratives are an important medium, for example in historiography or epic (chapter 10); images could appear on coins (chapter 11), on reliefs (chapter 12), or independently as sculptured statues (chapter 15); and conventions of representation, of the use, and of the audience vary from genre to genre. Rituals (part III), too, are an important — perhaps the most important — means of not only communicating with the gods but demonstratively, publicly performing this communication, of defining the respective god by the strategy and content of the communicative approach (animal or vegetable sacrifice, female or male name, choice of time and place). Rituals stage-manage the gods' existence and one's own piety at the same time. Thus, it seems important to concentrate on the human actors in the center of the book (part IV): on ordinary individuals, on members of the changing elites, on those, finally, who made a living out of religion.

If the renunciation of a chapter on the gods prompts an explanation, the lack of a systematic treatment of "cults" should prompt another. "Cult" as applied to ancient religions is a very convenient term, as it takes ancient polytheism to pieces that are gratifyingly similar to the large religious traditions like Christianity: defined by one god, be it Venus or Mithras, supposed to be connected to a specifiable group of persons, be it loosely or densely organized, characterized by common interests or social traits, be it women or members of the military, Syrians or freedmen. Without doubt, voluntary religious associations existed, but they were not necessarily exclusive, they did not necessarily concentrate on one god, and certainly, the sum of their activities did not comprise all or even most of ancient religious practices. According to socio-historical research, there was hardly a significant difference between the followers of the god Silvanus, a forest-god by name, sometimes venerated by colleges, and the god Mithras of Persian origin, whose exotic features were thematized in the cult of small and strictly hierarchical groups. Neither the sum of individual choices, ever changing or keeping within the limits of familiar or professional traditions, nor the identity of the name of a god from one place to another justifies speaking of "a cult" in the aforementioned sense. Thus, part V deliberately illustrates the wide spectrum of religious groups or options and does not attempt to map ancient polytheism as the sum of different "cults."

Any further reading should start with ancient sources, many of the literary texts being access ible in the bilingual editions of the Loeb library. There are no "scientific" accounts of Roman religion from antiquity, but some extensive descriptions exist in different literary genera. The most fully preserved account of Roman ritual is given in Ovid's commentary on the Roman calendar (Libri fastorum VI), written in late Augustan times and trying to integrate traditional Roman worship, the cult of the emperors, and the natural cycle of time. His near contem­porary, the Greek Dionysius of Halicarnassus, dedicated a long section in his Roman Antiquities to religion (2.63-74, trans. E. Cary). Varro's Antiquities of Divine Things survived in fragments only (a shorter self-quotation might be found in his On Latin Language 6); the polemical usage of it by the Christians Tertullian, in his To the Nations, and Augustine, in his City of God (books 4-7), give the best idea of its contents and later recep­tion. From the first half of the third century, Minucius Felix's dialogue Octavius offers another polemical and informed view on early (rather than middle) imperial Roman religion (trans. and comm. G. W. Clarke, New York 1974). The most important documentary texts are the acts of the Secular Games (new ed. and comm. for the Augustan games: Schnegg-Kohler 2002) and the protocols of the Arval Brethren (ed., comm., and French trans. Scheid 1998b).

Religion is central for a number of institutions discussed by the Greek politician and philo­sopher Plutarch in his Roman Questions; his account of Isis and Osiris (trans. and comm. J. Gwyn Griffiths, Cambridge 1970) is not only an ethnographic piece, but a contemporary perspective on a cult flourishing widely in the Greek and Roman world. Tacitus' Germania shows how a Roman viewed foreign cultures (and religion) at the turn of the first to the second century AD (trans. and comm. J. B. Rives, Oxford 1999).

For the religion of the imperial period the most interesting texts stem from genera of fictional literature: book 11 of Apuleius' Metamorphoses on the cult of Isis (comm. J. Gwyn Griffiths, Leiden 1975), Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Lucian's Alexandros and The Syrian Goddess, and Aristeides' autobiographical Hieroi Logoi. One should not forget the Chris­tian New Testament, in particular the Acts of the Apostles, and the early acts of martyrs, which narrate the confrontations of Christians with the Roman administration in provincial centers. Finally, the emperor Julian's Letters attest the project of an anti-Christian revival and Neoplatonic modification of traditional cults.

Cicero, prolific author, rhetor, politician, and philosopher from the late republic, deals frequently with religion, yet his On the Nature of the Gods (comm. Andrew R. Dyck, Cambridge 2003—) is more revealing for the history of Hellenistic philosophy than for Roman practice. The same does not hold for the subsequent On Divination (comm. A. E. Pease, Cambridge, MA, 1920-3, repr. Darmstadt 1963). The speeches On His House and On the Reply of the Haruspices do give interesting insights into the fabric of religious institutions. Other impor­tant sources are less easily accessible. Livy's Roman history remains basic to the history of republican religion. Religious information, however, is widely scattered. The lexicon of Festus, abridging the Augustan Verrius Flaccus' alphabetic account of his linguistic and religio­historic research, has not been translated so far. Beard et al. (1998) offer good commentary on a selection of sources for the late republican and early imperial period; Valantasis (2000) does so for late antiquity.

Literary as well as archaeological sources are extensively documented in the Thesaurus cultus et rituum antiquorum (ThesCRA) (Los Angeles, 2004-6). For reliefs Ryberg (1955) remains essential, frequently supplemented by Fless (1995). Schraudolph (1993) and Dräger (1994) publish numerous Roman altars; sarcophagi are shown and interpreted by G. Koch (1993) and by Zanker and Ewald (2004). Muth (1998) offers a glimpse into private mytho­logical mosaics.

Recent monographic accounts of Roman religion are given by Beard et al. (1998) and Rupke (2001 [2007]); shorter introductions are offered by North (2000) and Scheid (2003). The manual of Wissowa (1912, repr. 1971) remains indispensable (for a recent assessment of Wissowa's achievements see Archiv fur Religionsgeschichte 5, 2003). For monographic accounts of the religious history of individual provinces see now the series Religion der römischen Provinzen (Belayche 2001; Spickermann 2003, 2007; Kunz 2006; further volumes arc forthcoming).

The best guide to recent research is given by survey articles every three to four years organized by epochs and provinces (Belayche et al. 2000, 2003, forthcoming).

For the concept of religion see J. Z. Smith (1978, 1990, 1998) and Gladigow (2005).

Many chapters of this book offer frequent references, usually to the most important type of "reading," the reading of the ancient evidence. This is mostly available in annotated and translated form, as far as standard literary texts are concerned; often conveniently put together into multi-volume corpora, as far as inscriptions are concerned; often widely scattered, analyzed without image or photographically represented without analysis, as far as archaeological evidence is concerned. Here, the attempt is made to provide the interested reader with direct references, even if these refer to rather specialist publications.

Lord of the Cosmos: Mithras, Paul, And the Gospel of Mark by Michael Patella (T&T Clark) demonstrates the ways in which the Roman Imperial religion imbues Paul's letter and subsequently Mark's Gospel. Mark resonated in the imperial capital and beyond because of its inherent participationist theology, a theology probably augmented by Paul and possibly introduced by him. In his own writings, Paul draws from Mithraic vocabulary and symbolism. Mithraism itself functions within the cosmic framework outlined in Plato's Timaeus. Pauline theology, with its Mithraic overtones, coheres with the Markan theme of Christ's cosmic victory over Satan; Paul and Mark share a similar view of Christ's salvific act. With the Bartimaeus pericope (10:46-52), the Markan Gospel demonstrates that believers, by their call to discipleship, participate in that victory. This whole process is signaled by the baptism with its divine communication and actions of descent and ascent, a strong Pauline concept.

Patella shows that the Markan presentation of Jesus' death, the climax of the narrative, brings the act of divine communication full circle. At the baptism, God communicates to creation, and with Jesus' cry from the cross, creation replies in despair. Jesus' death is not the end of the story, however. The women at the tomb realize this fact and are awestruck at its significance, which is the reason that they do not tell anyone what they have witnessed. The notice to meet Jesus in Galilee is an affirmation of the resurrection. By moving from the area of the dead, that is the tomb, to the land of the living, Galilee, Mark echoes the cosmic theology in Paul, which moves from life to death, and back to eternal life.  

The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun by Roger Beck (Oxford University Press)

A study of the religious system of Mithraism, one of the 'mystery cults' popular in the Roman Empire contemporary with early Christianity. Roger Beck describes Mithraism from the point of view of the initiate engaging with the religion and its rich symbolic system in thought, word, ritual action, and cult life. He employs the methods of anthropology of religion and the new cognitive science of religion to explore in detail the semiotics of the Mysteries' astral symbolism, which has been the principal subject of his many previous publications on the cult.

Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org]

Roger Beck’s new book on Mithraism is a somewhat unusual product. To start with, the title is rather odd. What does it mean to talk about the religion of a cult if that cult is not a religion in itself? Beck also realizes the problem and even proposes three definitions of religion. In the end, he explains that his “study of the ‘religion’ of the Mithras cult is thus a study in cognition, a study of how the initiate gets to know his mysteries in the context of the life and physical environment of the mithraeum” (2). To call such a cognitive process “religion” is not very helpful. Moreover, anyone who is interested in “hard facts about the cult, its membership, and its physical remains” will be equally disappointed (3). This is somewhat disappointing, as students of early Christianity would have been interested in possible parallels between Mithraism and the emerging church. However, this is a book about the interpretation of the Mithraic mysteries, but mostly without the scholarly apparatus to go with it. On the other hand, the reader is served a rich menu of all kinds of methodological and hermeneutical considerations. These are not without interest, but they are often overly long and more the stuff of articles than of a book. In chapter 2 Beck surveys the previous approach to Mithras, which he faults as undervaluing (1) the literary evidence as against the monumental and (2) the mithraeum as against the figured monuments. Instead, he takes his point of departure in Porphyry’s De antro 6, which he takes as reliable evidence (85–87) and which suggests to him that the mithraeum itself, symbolizing the universe, was a store of esoteric meaning. The content of this “store” has to be deciphered by focusing on astral symbolism, as the basic constellation correspondences of the tauroctony are evident. In other words, the mithraeum communicates meaning through the medium of that symbolism (chs. 3–4).

In chapter 5 Beck wants to apply Geertz’s famous definition of religion to the Mithraic mysteries. The application is hardly successful, and neither is the comparison with the symbol system of the Mexican Chamulas. However, Beck interestingly explains what he calls Mithraism’s second axiom (the first is: DEUS SOL INVICTUS MITHRAS), namely, “harmony of tension in opposition,” which he firmly locates in the Platonic tradition.

After an interlude on the cognitive approach to religion (ch. 6), Beck proceeds with a cognitive exploration of a useful blueprint of the Mithraic cave. In the end, he concludes that we cannot recover the subjective experience of the initiate (ch. 7). That is certainly true, but we can recover his narration of that experience, if only we had the necessary sources, the lack of which is a major problem of Mithraic studies, it seems to me.

Having established that the common symbolic idiom of the mysteries is the language of astrology/astronomy (in Beck’s idiom, “star-talk”), he surveys a number of ancient authors, such as Origen and Augustine, about star-talk, which, as he notes, “can be heard as a language of figurative discourse” that can convey theological truth (ch. 8). From this perspective he once again looks at the tauroctony and the celestial helix, but his subsequent exposition (chs. 9–10) that the mysteries contained “idealizing cosmological speculation” (238) is too technically astrological/astronomical for me to summarize here.

What Beck wants to show is that the “Mithraic mysteries, across their axioms, motifs, domains, structures, and modes, communicated symbolically in a peculiar idiom” (7). I think that he is right in this respect, but he certainly could have expressed himself in a more understandable manner. In any case, one is left wondering how often a Mithraist took in the full cosmological message of his mithraeum. Were the mysteries a bit like a Roman-Catholic Mass that one participated in every time one convened? Unfortunately, Beck is not interested in such questions here, although they seem relevant too for our understanding of the “religion” of the Mithraic cult.

Presumably, this book is important for highly advanced specialists of the Mithraic world who are at home in its esoteric symbolism. Beginners would be better served by first reading Beck’s collected articles in Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works with New Essays (Aldershot, 2004) and M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries (trans. Richard Gordon; Edinburgh, 2000). The recent book by Beck is now in paperback: The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire: Mysteries of the Unconquered Sun by Roger Beck (Oxford University Press) is a study of the religious system of Mithraism, one of the 'mystery cults' popular in the Roman Empire contemporary with early Christianity. Roger Beck describes Mithraism from the point of view of the initiate engaging with the religion and its rich symbolic system in thought, word, ritual action, and cult life. He employs the methods of anthropology of religion and the new cognitive science of religion to explore in detail the semiotics of the Mysteries' astral symbolism, which has been the principal subject of his many previous publications on the cult.

Jan N. Bremmer
of Groningen

, The Netherlands


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