The Gods, the State, and the Individual:

Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome

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John Scheid
Clifford Ando
Empire and After
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This new book by one of the most important modern connoisseurs of antiquity, John Scheid, is an introduction to the author's reflections on the nature of the Roman religion. On the one hand, he sums up his own research, and on the other, he opens new prospects.

Despite its relatively small size, the main theme of the book is its comprehensive coverage of the concept of the polis-religion proposed by Scheid in An Introduction to Roman Religion. (Indiana University Press, 2002). However, it is possible that some of issues are covered too briefly in this volume, and therefore readers may have to turn to Scheid’s previous works.

The composition of the book, translated from the French original by Clifford Ando, a well-known expert on Roman antiquity, includes a translator’s foreword, a preface, introduction, and eleven substantive chapters. In the first chapter, “The Critique of Polis-Religion: An Inventory,” Scheid describes the objections raised against his concept. The remaining chapters are devoted to discussing these objections and refining Scheid’s concept.

Scheid warns of the danger of getting conclusions wrong by considering Roman religion in the light of anachronistic interpretations. And so he proclaims two principles: “One must deconstruct the deconstructionists” (2), and “ad fonts,” conclusions written “not on the basis of primary sources but rather from encyclopedia articles (136).

Scheid very thoroughly answers every objection of his opponents, confirming his arguments with many historical facts. However, the strong side of the book is unquestionably its weakness at the same time: the author was carried away by apologies for his own concept, responding to particular objections and breaking away from the question of the nature of the Roman religion in general. In his previous work, Scheid argued: “There was in fact such a thing as ‘Roman religion’, as many Roman religions as there were Roman social groups,” thus emphasizing how much the modern understanding of religion, formed under the influence of Christianity, differs from the ancient.

Unfortunately, Scheid is not familiar with the works of the outstanding Polish connoisseur of ancient religions, Tadeusz Zieliński, especially with the latter's idea that a classical division into monotheistic and polytheistic religions cannot be applied to Roman religion. In his books The Religion of the Roman Republic and The Religion of the Roman Empire, Zieliński says that “the Roman deity was one in many and multiply in one.” It seems to me that such a concept could serve as an answer to the question Scheid cites: “Why the authorities of polis-religion not create even the appearance of order by suppressing redundant cults or ‘syncretizing’ the superfluity of deities?” (57).

Scheid is certainly right that Roman religion did not have a single doctrine that encompassed all practices (59), but certain trends can and should be singled out. Zieliński sees the possibility of developing a tendency already existing in Roman religion to integrate (or syncretize) into a monotheistic religion. From the initial deification of pure acts under the influence of Hellenization, the Romans came to the anthropomorphization of deities. Such a shift in understanding the essence of the deity led to the next step. And here an important role was played by the only Roman figure in the whole pantheon—Genius. His genius was attributed to every person, every college, every city and even the whole Roman people. An anthropomorphision allowed attribution of genius even to gods. It is in the rituals of the Arval Brethren, to which Scheid has devoted so much attention, that Genius Jovis, Genius Martis, Genius Mercurii are mentioned. People made sacrifices to these geniuses as to the gods themselves. Such an “ascension” of geniuses from a person to a god, and from a group of people to a group of gods, ultimately led to the genius of the totality of the gods, and the emergence of the concept of the genius of the whole people. And from here one can already see a step towards pure monotheism. However, the development of Roman religion was interrupted, and the process of its transformation was not completed. Perhaps if  Zieliński’s works were translated into English and other languages, the conclusionsof Scheid and other specialists in Roman religion would be somewhat different.

Finally, it should be noted what The Gods, the State, and the Individual is not: it is not an introduction to Roman religion or the history of Rome. There are no detailed descriptions of colleges or rituals, gods or deities. The book is strictly subordinated to the goal of protecting the polis-religion, and therefore it is oriented towards specialists in ancient Roman religion. An ordinary reader should be ready to arm themselves with encyclopedias and summarizing works if they wish to follow Scheid’s arguments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Illya Bey is professor of patristic studies at the Center for Religious Studies at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University, Ukraine.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Scheid is Professor of Religion, Institutions, and Society in Ancient Rome at the Collège de France and author of An Introduction to Roman Religion.

Clifford Ando is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago and Research Fellow in the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies at the University of South Africa. He is author of Law, Language, and Empire in the Roman Tradition, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.



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