Legible Religion

Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture

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Duncan MacRae
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , June
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Legible Religion is, in many respects, an admirable piece of scholarship on Roman religion. Duncan Macrae must be commended for at least three accomplishments: (1) making a difficult and often contested category such as “civic religion” more applicable and less problematic; (2) reminding his readers that religion is almost always mediated and established via written records primarily composed by certain elites; and (3) his bravery in talking about “civic theology” in ancient Rome, a term that most likely will raise fierce criticisms on the grounds of being a “Christian” term/category here used to describe and assess pre-Christian and non-monotheistic religions.

Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the volume is divided into three parts consisting of six chapters in total, and accompanied by extensive endnotes, a wide-ranging bibliography, and a general index.

Compared to the direct competition for this volume—being in my view John Scheid’s The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome (University of Pennsylvania, 2016)—Macrae is more interested in the theoretical discussions that appear in his book. For example, he addresses the problems with utilizing the very term “religion” already in the introduction, where he clearly demonstrates its problematic nature as it has been thoroughly discussed recently by contemporary genealogists of religion (6-7). However, I must note that Macrae adopts a rather loose definition of religion—as he puts it, the term is used in one way in the first chapters of the book and in another in the latter, “driven by the need to make the Roman past comprehensible to contemporary readers” (7). An objection here could be that using the term in such a fluid fashion allows for almost everything to count as religion, which in turn could raise several objections.

Macrae justifies his utilization of civic theology since his work revolves around the construction of “Roman religion” as portrayed in the treatises of figures such as Varro and Cicero, along with several other authors he discusses throughout the book. As he puts it, “these intellectual writings were both ‘civil,’ because they were focused on what they perceived as particularly Roman religious culture, and ‘theological,’ in as much as they were concerned with the intellectual discussion of the gods and their worship” (3). Naturally, this means that Roman religion was not a stagnant ritualistic tradition, as is the customary view, but also included heated debates and learned treatises among educated individuals pertaining to the nature of the gods and their worship (cf. 5-6).

Chapter 1 addresses in detail the issue of civic religion. Macrae rightly argues that although the concept has its obvious merits, “most interactions with the gods at Rome existed beyond the reach of the state and were not, for the most part, the object of surveillance or legal regulation” (18). This, as he demonstrates, can be argued if we follow the radical changes that occurred in the period between the second century BCE and the first century CE, including the millions of slaves and migrants from the colonies that arrived in Rome to the influence of Greek and Hellenistic culture and the import of foreign deities, such as the goddess Magna Mater and Attis. All this contributed to a culture of diversity, in which “humans interacted with the divine as embodied individuals, in small groups … and, sometimes, as a collective” (25).

In chapter 2 Macrae turns his attention to ancient authors, primarily Varro and Cicero, in order to demonstrate that “Roman religion” as a legible object must be assigned to those individuals who utilized various techniques: from ethnography, to compare Roman deities and practices to Mediterranean ones and the creation of a Roman distant past, thus establishing a distinctive “Roman” religion, to etymology and Roman legal language and the formation of religious documents that included hymns and priestly records often accompanied by commentaries. As Macrae concludes, “elite writers wrote down a constellation of practices, institutions, and ideas as a ‘religion’ that was both distinctively Roman and ostensibly archaic” (50).

Chapter 3 addresses the questions of who wrote and who read those books, as well as what they meant within Roman society. Different authors are discussed here, from Servius Fabius Pictor and Lucius Caesar to Cicero and L. Aelius Stilo. All these authors were among the elite and their audience was primarily their peers. Writing and reading such works allowed these authors to “buttress specific performances in important arenas” (68) while creating both a tradition and its reception.

In chapter 4 Macrae proceeds to an interesting comparison between Roman civil religion and the rabbinic Mishnah. As he argues, and without failing to mention the serious differences between the two, both rabbinic and Roman texts served the same aims and followed similar methods. For example, while the Romans adopted the style of civil law, the rabbis followed the style of the Torah; nevertheless, both sought to systematize and define their traditions, and marked borders to stress their respective uniqueness.

Chapter 5 addresses the role of Augustus and his successors in further establishing the authority of those books in order to “support their own regimes” (102), which was accomplished in three ways: the books provided resources for legitimizing the religious authority of the emperor by performing rituals; the civil theologian was now not merely an aristocrat but a member of the court writing for the emperor, while the aristocrats used those same books to reply to the monarchic rule.

Finally, chapter 6 enters into the early Christian world, examining how Christian authors such as Tertullian and Augustine dealt with these texts. Both authors dedicated space and energy in their works to refute, debate, and demonstrate the fallacies of civic theology, primarily as it was portrayed in Varro’s Divine Antiquities.

Macrae has offered a very detailed, well researched, and nicely written book that will be of great interest to scholars and students of Roman religion, early Christianity, and religious studies. I am assuming that several classicists will find most of his positions “problematic,” but Macrae’s work will make it difficult for those who disagree with him to refute his arguments.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Duncan MacRae is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati.



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