On Roman Religion

Lived Religions and the Individual in Ancient Rome

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Jörg Rüpke
Studies in Classical Philosophy
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , October
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


That four of the twenty-seven pages of bibliography in On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome comprise works by its author—alone or with others—is testament, not only to the breadth and significance of Jörg Rüpke’s scholarship, but also to the deep foundations on which is constructed this relatively slim but very important book, the publication of his 2013 Townsend lectures. Rüpke’s lucid, thought-provoking, and highly persuasive attempt to access “lived ancient religion” here recognizes the vitally important point that multiple individual appropriations of particular practices, performances, experiences, or interactions such as prayer, dedications, or reading are not simply additional elements—understood to be of potentially peripheral interest—that we can recognize as a bolt-on or supplement to earlier scholarly reconstructions of ritual systems. These appropriations, including the potentially subversive, are rather in-and-of-themselves how traditions and norms surrounding such practices are reproduced, modified, and continued. As such, they are integral to a dynamic, historical description of “religion” on Rüpke’s helpfully broad definition. This is enormously important.

The book begins and ends with more overtly sociological discussion, and the obvious potential dangers of attempting today to access “individuals” from this world are properly highlighted and well explored in chapter 1, in which Rüpke rightly observes that individuation was itself a social process (20). The “individuals” explored move from particular pontifices maximi, to Propertius, to the “connected readers” of Ovid’s libri fastorum, to those making dedications, to the author of The Shepherd of Hermas. The material covered ranges widely in time and genre: from republican to late imperial, from Augustan-era poetry to “mass-produced” inscriptions (139). The chapters move chronologically and, in general terms, from more elite examples to those with relevance to broader groups, although the argument in chapter 5 in particular raises the interesting question of how what we might term the “less connected” reader could be incorporated into the picture by those who think the range of people accessing particular texts such as Ovid’s libri fastorum (or Ennius’ Annales) might be a little wider than is argued here.

A few photographs by the author are scattered through the book, but never explicitly referred to in the text, and their relevance to the subject-matter is not always immediately clear. In the fascinating discussion in chapter 8 of the enormously complex text The Shepherd of Hermas, to take one tantalising example, we find a photograph of the late first-century BCE tomb of Eurysaces, who is assumed by the author—according to the title accompanying the illustration—to be a freedman. Rüpke’s own claim, which is laid out more fully in various earlier works, is that the text’s author is an ex-slave who engaged in business, perhaps trade, and then later sea-salt extraction, and this is posited on the page  opposite the photograph (148). The way in which, or the extent to which, the image is intended to interact with the reader’s experience of the text is left unstated. Perhaps this was a deliberate strategy, but it does not seem a wholly satisfactory one.

The book as a whole is enormously fertile, and really is essential reading for anyone interested in “Roman religion.” This is true in particular for the approach that is advocated throughout the eight chapters, which interconnect, even though each focusses on specific subject-matter—of which chapter 4 on magic is perhaps least rewarding. This also holds true for the breadth of material addressed. Singling out only a few of many possible examples, we find chapter-length treatments of well-studied texts such as Propertius 4.2, approached from the perspective of modes of religious appropriation and representation of gods (chapter 3); a fascinating passage in Macrobius presenting the menu from a priestly banquet (104); Ovid’s implied criticism of contemporary epigraphic fasti in his choice of material for inclusion (87), which is noted in chapter 5 considering the “users” of this text; and various considerations of the importance of the act of reading—and writing—for the practices under overall examination. Rüpke has addressed many of these in earlier works, to which the reader can turn for more specific discussion, but the framework within which they are brought together here is vital.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna Clark is associate professor of ancient history at Christ Church, Oxford University.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jörg Rüpke is Permanent Fellow in Religious Studies at the Max Weber Center, University of Erfurt. He is the author of many books, including From Jupiter to Christ: On the History of Religion in the Roman Imperial PeriodReligion: Antiquity and Modern Legacy, and Religion in Republican Rome: Rationalization and Ritual Change.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.