The Study of Greek and Roman Religions
Insularity and Assimilation
Series: Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation
- ISBN: 9781350102613
- Published By: Bloomsbury Academic
- Published: August 2022
In The Study of Greek and Roman Religions: Insularity and Assimilation, Nickolas P. Roubekas critiques the lack of integration between classicists and scholars of religion. He focuses on the category of religion, and to a lesser extent the concept of theology, finally proposing that the insularity of classics can find integration (“assimilation” is an interesting choice) with theorists of religion through recognizing that “belief in gods / supernatural agents” was a primary component of Greek and Roman religion. By doing all three, classics can better define its object of study as well as better link its studies, findings, and theories to other sets of cultural-historical data.
The book seems to have two audiences: first, classicists themselves, who tend to resist theorization of the category of religion in favor of cultural-historical particularism, especially practices (83); and second, theorists of religion who follow a deconstructionist paradigm by rejecting the category of religion (and theology) as a defensible scholarly frame (90-92).
On the first audience: Roubekas’ book is published in Bloomsbury’s series “Scientific Studies of Religion: Inquiry and Explanation.” While hopefully the title of the book puts it on the radar of classicists, this is a series mostly populated by and directed toward theorists of religion, especially those interested in cognitive theories. Roubekas cites many of these scholars in his network approvingly, like the series editors Luther Martin, Donald Wiebe, Radek Knudt, and Dimitris Xygalatas. Thus, there is some danger of the book only talking to the relatively small group that work in both theorization of religion more generally and on cognitive approaches specifically (which includes myself), most of whom likely agree with Roubekas’ core points.
Roubekas’ use of mind-based cognitive theories leads him to defend the “belief in gods / supernatural agents” as the best way to understand religion, not only in the ancient Mediterranean, but also globally and comparatively (73-85). While the field of the cognitive science of religion (CSR) is more complex than just the mind-based theories Roubekas favors, he is surely right that classics would benefit from better defining “religion” and explaining its sources and subject matter via other frames and cultures.
More broadly, that classics is shallow on theory is well known, notoriously a decade or two behind the curve set by other fields. So Roubekas here hits the mark, if expectedly, and to his credit also acknowledges the practical, non-insidious explanations: disciplinary boundaries (which exist everywhere), incentives toward specialization (gatekeeping reviewers tend to be specialists in narrow areas), and the extensive training required to be a classicist—years of training in Greek and Latin, alongside several other ancient and/or modern languages, obligations which don’t similarly constrain scholars specializing in the theory of religion (139 n. 9).
Classics is theory rich in other areas—such as reception studies, identity theory, and politics (especially on race and gender)—and is increasingly thinking outside of Greece and Italy. Nonetheless, Roubekas’ narrower point is correct: Classics does woefully little to theorize the category of religion, and it draws too infrequently from allied theorization in religion as it goes about focusing on its relatively strongly bounded data set. One might object to Roubekas’ evidence, mainly surveying companions and handbooks to demonstrate how rarely classicists theorize religion (22-33); or object that there are many influential scholars at top universities who bridge classics and religion (Roubekas cites several); or that characterizations of any field are bound for overgeneralization. But the nature of the field—in papers written, jobs on offer, graduate training, types of dissertations produced, and books published—show the continued, relatively narrow theoretical horizon of classics, especially around religion.
In the area of classical primary sources themselves, meanwhile, Roubekas makes a few astute points about the ancient sources themselves. He insightfully suggests that scholars of Greek and Roman religion tend to consider their subject matter in isolation because most of our ancient Greek and Latin sources claim their own gods and religious practices to be distinct from others (64). Later, he links our ancient sources to modern scholarship by noting that the Greeks and Romans themselves similarly meta-reflected on the nature of religious belief in their societies, linking current theories in CSR with ancient theorization on the nature of the gods (95-105).
Finally, then, onto Roubekas’ second audience: theorists of religion who reject the category of religion for any number of reasons: as manufactured, Christian, colonial, or semantically empty. This debate has been playing out for some time (39-50), again with two camps rather well entrenched: those that reject the category as problematic, and those that see its continued value. As with the many classicists resistant to theory, this book is unlikely to persuade those who polemicize against religion as a category. But Roubekas does well to detail arguments from Bruce Lincoln (94), Adele Reinhartz (50), and others that acknowledge that religion is a modern and flawed category, but still maintain the category is helpful if we use it self-reflexively and if it continues to productively explain our data (52).
The other side of this debate critiques the category but offers little to replace it (47). No less problematic are “culture” and “tradition” in all their manifestations, including doxa and praxis (beliefs and practices), which are no less artificially constructed despite sounding technical as Greek (!) words (51). This side of the debate does little to understand humanity in the large, or to put periods, geographies, and cultures in wider conversation. Defining Greek and Roman religion as wholly different from Christianity and/or modernity forecloses comparison and precludes questions around relationality (10-11), which seem to be core values of the academy.
Theory should be judged by the breadth and depth of its explanatory value. Defining religion as the beliefs and practices surrounding supernatural agents provides tremendous value in both understanding Greek and Roman religion and explaining it in broader contexts. While this may strike the sympathetic as obvious and the skeptical as misguided, in the eyes of this reviewer Roubekas has made a clear, learned, and useful contribution to the study of Greek and Roman religions that points a way forward.
Paul Robertson is senior lecturer in Classics and Humanities at the University of New Hampshire.Paul RobertsonDate Of Review:March 30, 2023