A New History of Roman Religion

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Jörg Rüpke
David M. Richardson
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , February
     576 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Pantheon, Jörg Rüpke traces the evolution of the ancient Mediterranean world from a place where one performed rituals to a place where one belonged to religions. This is scarcely a new or settled question in classics or the study of religion. But at the heart of the book is the historical turn in the ancient world from technician to actor in the religious field.

For Rüpke, the ancient Mediterranean is an area of immense regional variation. This variation is both cultural and geographic. “In every period, major climactic changes have far-reaching consequences,” he observes, “and the highly disparate local consequences of global warming observable today suffice to heighten our awareness of the problems involved in taking the sediment layers of a lake here, or the growth rings of a forest there, as a basis for statements about other locations in such a physically varied region as the Mediterranean” (31). It was about 800 BCE when independent innovators in Greece decided to erect a single dwelling for a god, including the first Heraion on Samos. Such innovation was not happening in Etruria, where statues of gods graced the roof of a palace in c. 7th-6th centuries BCE. Later, Etruscans developed freestanding temples that held cult images, a phenomenon that occurred hand-in-hand with planned settlements in Etruria.

However, regional communication and borrowing between Greece and Italy became inevitable. In order to procure a roof with antefixes of palmettes, heads, and gorgoneia, patrons had their roof tiles produced in Capua and shipped to Satricum in order to emulate Greek designs favored by southern neighbor Campania. Monumentalization arrived in the sixth century BCE. By the fifth century BCE, Hera had a standard iconography in Italian temples.

While there are occasional nods to political theory, the basic thrusts of Rüpke’s story involve city planning and design trends with a soupçon of cultural borrowing through colonization and trade. There are tantalizing clues about the untangling of politics and religion. After abolishing the political title rex, Rome established a rex sacrorum, a “king of religious acts.” Rüpke abruptly concludes: “It was a radical move about which we know nothing further” (82).

What Rüpke can say is that the rise of religious personification—such as Pietas being represented by the Roman state as a woman with a covered head from the late Republic onward—is connected to the rise of the religious actor and the diminution of the religious technician. The religious technician might still be reading the will of gods based on the actions of chickens or the appearance of lightning. Yet, those signs might be manipulated for political reasons at the point of mass communication and religious action. Vestal Virgins held a demanding role that the oldest Vestal might cremate a cow’s fetus for the distribution of ashes at the Parilia and the birthday of Rome (April 21). Other than this, the Vestals perform gendered and “bloodless” roles requiring great personal sacrifice. Patricians are able to participate in religious priesthoods with no emphasis on technical precision and great potential for defining their civic and personal identities.

As the book nears its conclusion, Rüpke juxtaposes sundry written and performative networks of the Roman Empire: Juvenal’s poetry parties, Pliny the Younger’s aristocratic correspondence, and the Epistles of John trying to navigate a space between the authority of live performance and the authority of written correspondence. One wonders what we might think of networks from earlier times had we the songs of Cycladic art and the venues in which Homeric epics were performed. Why not simply take an approach like Simeon Solomon’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (from the nineteenth century and currently at the Tate)? Is this written-performative interplay really an unusual innovation of the late first and early second century?

Truly, however, the book is meant to be sweeping and grandiose. At some point during the book, I began to think the ambitions of Rüpke’s project resembled that of Paul Zanker’s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (University of Michigan Press, 1988)When I saw the tomb of the baker Eurysaces, which Zanker has described as equating Eurysaces’s labor with “service to the state” (Power of Images, 15), I felt justified in this comparison. Rüpke sees Eurysaces’s profession “not only as an instrument of social recognition, but as an entire lived and symbolic world” (238). The photograph, illustrative as all plates in the book are, was taken by the author himself (239). 

I don’t know if the previous paragraph gives too much away for the cognoscenti or completely loses the neophytes. The book does neither. It has a density of concepts and lightness of prose one expects of an eminent scholar. Like Zanker’s Power of Images, this book does not hash out the minutiae of scholarly articles. It builds upon them to try to achieve a dazzling and stretched thesis, an overall impression of a wide topic. The result is exquisite in execution and will provide a good point of departure for general readers and specialists alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janelle Peters is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jörg Rüpke is vice-director and permanent fellow in religious studies at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany, and has been a visiting professor at the Collège de France, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. His many books include On Roman Religion and From Jupiter to Christ.


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