Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Gods of Ancient Rome: A Book Review

Reviewed work: Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times, p. i-v + 1-180+ illustrations, New York: Routledge, $95 hardcover

Beginning by quoting ancient sources, and readers who like many quotes will appreciate this volume, the author sets out to make his argument that the Romans were not religious in the same way modern people are religious. They did not love their gods. They did not get enthused about their religion. In short, they were almost like businessmen making a deal with their gods. Part of the reason for this lack of emotion on the part of worshipers seems to be that the worshipers didn't always know to whom they were praying, "whether thou be a god or goddess" and "unless you prefer some other name" often being part of the priests' prayers. As much as anything, Turcan explains Roman religion as being not much different from a Californian's behavior in small claims court: Wait your turn, be quiet, don't offend the judge, use the right words, and you'll get what you want. The citizen doesn't have to love the judge, doesn't have to think the judge's authority is legitimate, and doesn't have to think the judge is particularly wise. According to Turcan, the Romans' attitude toward the gods was, likewise, almost completely transactional and utilitarian. Thus, Turcan writes almost nothing of Roman theology (e.g. what the Romans believed about their gods), but deals almost entirely with Roman piety (e.g. how the Romans practiced their religion).

After laying the foundation of Roman practicality in religion, Turcan goes onto explain the pietistic actions of the Romans in three main spheres of life: The family, the countryside (after all, Rome was an agrarian society), and the state. Beginning with a brief naming of many of the gods and demons who look after or are concerned with various household items, such as plates, doors, and hand tools, the author continues his account of Roman household piety at the start of the day, when the master of the house rises and ponders his dreams to determine if one or anther of the gods might have spoken to him during the night. From that point the author follows the typical pious Roman though all of his daily rituals, which were many. An interesting connection Turcan makes is between the cult of the ancestors and the recitation of the Romulus myth by the mistress of the house. This serves as a springboard, not so much in the construction of the book, but in the mind of this reader, for the leap from a household piety to a state piety.

The Roman state religion, according to Turcan, is nothing less than an extension of the household religion, which is infused with the idea of duty. Many of the rituals and practices of the later state religion developed directly from private household religion. For example, the deification of dead emperors in Roman state religion can be seen as growing out of the Roman households' ancestor worship. Duty to dead ancestors was amplified to duty to dead emperors.

Finally, after dealing with the Romans' practice of their own indigenous religion, Turcan, who is a professor of Roman history at the Sorbonne, turns his attention to the Roman's practice of exotic religions from the east and south. He might have done a better job dealing with this aspect of the Roman religious experience, as his explanation for why many of the ordinarily punctilious Romans all but abandoned their traditional gods and cultic practices for foreign gods and cults, is not very convincing. But, answering the question "why?" is not something Turcan set out to do. This book is about "what", and Turcan acquits himself well in this regard.

If there is one problem with the book it is the sometimes unusual word choices, such as the use of the word "bigotry" when discussing Cicero's opinion of auguries, and unfortunate phrase constructions, such as "case of the sacred chickens", which distract the reader from the matter at hand. I don't know that blame for this problem can be laid at the author's feet though, since the original language of this book is French and the English translation was prepared by a bureaucrat in the French Ministry of Culture. Nevertheless, this is a very engaging book, with arguments constructed from primary sources and archaeological findings, there being just the right amount of quotes and photographs to support conclusions. While not every historian dealing with Rome will want this book, those who want to know how the Romans practiced their religion can do a lot worse than reading this book.

(Photo: Relief of the Roman goddess Vesta and her virgin priestesses, Palermo Mueum, Italy)

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