The Peace of the Gods

Elite Religious Practices in the Middle Roman Republic

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Craige E. Champion
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691174853.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Craige B. Champion’s The Peace of the Gods: Elite Religious Practices in the Middle Roman Republic provides an in-depth analysis of a popular scholarly interpretation of religion’s function in Roman society called “elite-instrumentalism.” This interpretation argues that Rome’s elite minority controlled the non-elite majority through religious spectacles or the maintenance of the pax deorum (Peace of the gods). Champion explains that the Romans believed that the proper observance of religious spectacles could placate the wrath of the gods and thus help them avoid natural calamities and the destruction of their enemies.

Instead of simply accepting the interpretation of “elite-instrumentalism,” Champion offers new insights into the role of religion in elite Roman life. The central thesis of this book is that the elites were “steeped in fear,” and that they “were not immune from the psychological pressures of trying to maintain the gods’ good-will and the dread of failing to do so (20.” Champion argues that the Roman elites were driven to maintain the pax deorum or “peace of the gods” as the official guardians of the state religion because of their insecurities, uncertainties, anxieties, and even fears.

Champion lays the foundation of his argument by discussing both the ancient and modern historians whose writings support “elite-instrumentalism” in chapter one. He explains that, instead of seeking to entirely downplay the validity of “elite-instrumentalism,” his approach focuses on the way different scholarly interpretations help us understand the function of religion in Roman society. As a classical interpretation that he believes has its roots in Greek and Roman antiquity among such writers as Livy or Polybius, Champion argues that “elite-instrumentalism” and the alternative interpretations “are not mutually exclusive,” and that the historian’s job is to determine the “matter of degree and emphasis” of each interpretation’s validity (xxiv).

In chapter 2, Champion discusses a range of subjects concerning the official, everyday administration of religion in the city of Rome. These subjects include the influence of priestly authority, the structural relationships of priesthoods and the senate, political power struggles, and the degree of the elites’ active involvement in religion and ritual observance. Perhaps the most interesting part of chapter 2 is Champion’s discussion of several military and political incidents in which the elites and priests displayed an obsessive concern for the minutiae of formal religious rules and protocols. He concludes that the most satisfying explanation for such an obsessive concern is the proposition that the elites did, indeed, believe in their religion.

Champion argues that a psychological state of intense fear, uncertainty, and anxiety likely underlay many of the elite’s religious behaviors in the military realm in chapter 3. He contends that military and religious institutions adapted to the anxiety and uncertainty of military expeditions by addressing disturbances and disaster with the pax deorum. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is Champion’s attention to the psychological stress on the military commander, who carried out religious imperatives and ritual mandates to alleviate some of his fears and anxieties about military failure while also flouting his leadership skills and luck. In the opinion of this reviewer, Champion’s in-depth analysis of the fear of military disaster by commanders supports his central thesis more than the other chapters of his book. Champion’s careful analysis of the military commander is comprehensive and convincing. 

In chapter 4, Champion explores the complex religious scene of the Middle Republic where, as a result of foreign conquest, a steady flow of new divinities and rituals entered the city of Rome. As a result of the civic polytheism of Rome, Champion shows a frantic attempt by the elites to impose order and to intervene in the diverse religious scene by sincerely maintaining the pax deorum. One of the most interesting discussion points of this chapter concerns three examples of human sacrifice in Rome. Champion concludes that each incident of human sacrifice was carried out on the recommendation of the Sibylline Books. And furthermore, as he shows, each human sacrifice coincided with the authorities’ fears of imminent military catastrophe and total annihilation of the Republic, which suggests that the proper maintenance of the pax deorum was a deadly and serious business for the elites.

Perhaps the most theoretical analysis of this book is left for chapter 5, where Champion seeks to understand the elites’ religious behaviors in the Middle Roman Republic by drawing on psychological, sociological, anthropological, and cultural theories. Although his survey of various historical episodes reveals a few instances in which the elites demonstrated skeptical or critical behaviors in regard to religion, Champion shows that such incredulous attitudes commonly shifted to a strict observance of rituals in a religious context. Chapter 5, more than any other part of this book, critiques the interpretation of “elite instrumentalism” the most by paying attention to a composite of psychological and biological factors that help us better understand the human nature of the Romans. Champion’s approach in chapter 5 is a strong ending to his book, and a satisfying ending for a contemporary audience that seems so focused on the methodological, academic analysis of the religious behaviors of people who lived in a radically different culture two millennia ago.

Champion explains in the preface of his book that he has reflected on the interesting statement in the history of Polybius that maintains the Roman elites used religious ceremony and ritual to awe the gullible, common people for several years (6.56). Indeed, it is obvious after reading Champion’s book that he has spent considerable time teaching, researching, and writing about this concept of “elite-instrumentalism.” This work offers significant insight into what religious activities meant to their elite practitioners in the Middle Roman Republic by meticulously analyzing primary and secondary sources. Although Champion has written a thought-provoking book that contextualizes the elites’ religious behaviors in the Middle Roman Republic and each chapter is written in clear language that engages readers by citing interesting examples, this book requires careful attention to the meaning and context of primary sources.  Therefore, it may be too advanced for some students. As is to be expected by an in-depth study of such a specific topic, Champion’s analysis of the pax deorum will most likely appeal to scholars of religion and classicists interested in Roman religion. In fact, any scholar of religion or classicist interested in researching the topic of the pax deorum in the Middle Roman Republic will have to become familiar with Champion’s book, which opens up the debate about the role of religious activities among the elites from a fresh perspective using an eclectic array of current theories in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and cultural and literary studies.

Champion has written a book that has reinvigorated a commonly discussed topic with new perspectives and thoughtful analysis. The research on the topic of the pax deorum in the Middle Roman Republic is comprehensive in scope, with detailed footnotes and an impressive bibliography. Overall, Champion’s methodology that relies on psychological research, anthropology studies, and cultural theory provides a unique glimpse into ancient aristocratic Roman society with its cultural assumptions and parameters that are so radically different from anything we can easily recognize or experience today.     

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Shisley is an Instructional Designer at Eastern Kentucky University and an independent scholar of early Christianity.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Craige B. Champion is professor of ancient history and classics in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He is the author of Cultural Politics in Polybius's "Histories," the editor of Roman Imperialism: Readings and Sources, and a general editor of the Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Ancient History.

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