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Romans, though you’re guiltless, you’ll still expiate
your fathers’ sins, till you’ve restored the temples,
and the tumbling shrines of all the gods,
and their images, soiled with black smoke.
~Horace, Odes, III, 6; A. S. Kline trans.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review: Introduction to Roman Religion

John Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion. Indiana University Press, 2003.

The work is divided into neatly arranged sections as follows: 1) The scholarly "baggage" that has conditioned the study of Roman religion. 2) Definition and concepts. 3) Rituals. 4) Sacred Time. 5) Sacred Space. 6) Sacrifices. 7) Auspices and Divination. 8)Priests. 9) Gods. 10) The historical interpretation of Roman Religion according to political, philosophical and mystical models.

This is a highly organized, clearly written text that manages to effectively convey its points. Those with no prior exposure to the serious study of Roman religion will have no problem following the author's thematic divisions of the subjects. There are sufficient charts, diagrams, illustrations, bullet points, and excerpts from other works to aid in the clarity of data. The book also contains a chronology of events, a glossary of terms, a listing of important people and a bibliography for more specialized study. In short, it's a triumph of elucidation.

The other triumph of the book is achieved in Scheid's introductory chapter. He attempts to counter some of the approaches to the study of Roman Religion that have held the subject hostage to biased and erroneous assumptions. If we are to study Roman Religion, we have to see it as it really is. Not through the hostile eyes of Christian contemporaries. Not as a carbon copy of Greek, Etruscan, or Indo-European religion. Certainly not through the now defunct "numina" theory. With scholars like Scheid, we can now finally begin to understand the Romans and their religions as what they really were, not what other people would want them to be.

Now for the negatives. Some of Scheid's conclusions are questionable, I would daresay. In one area, he denies the importance of the private cult of Vesta, heretofore seen as one of the linchpins of Roman religion. In another area he denies the impact of the Oriental cults on the development of Christianity. Scheid does offer something in the way of evidence for his assertions, but on the whole I'm far from convinced. Scheid may actually be going too far in his attempts to correct previous assumptions about Roman religion. Some of these assertions are practically revolutionary, and I feel revolutions need a better grounding than what I saw illustrated here.

My other complaint is that I felt some of the parts were lacking. I understand this is an "introductory" text, but I felt there was still room to cover some topics in greater detail. For instance, the chapter on the gods I felt was pretty slim. The author no doubt assumes we are familiar with Roman gods via widespread knowledge of Greek mythology. The problem with that is twofold. Fist, these days most people's exposure to Greek mythology and religion is superficial at best. Second, the Roman gods are oft viewed rather differently than their alleged Greek counterparts, and their cults evolved considerably over the course of the centuries. Delving into greater exposition would impress upon the reader the uniqueness of Roman polytheism, without seriously detracting from the brevity of an introductory text.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but not unequivocally. I would recommend reading it in conjunction with another major scholar such as Robert Turcan. The serious study of Roman religion has just begun, and while Scheid certainly deserves his place in the epic, he is far from being the last word.

Originally posted at Thursday, 13 August 2009 15:02 Ursus

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis. I too am grateful for Scheid's book but yes there are lots of weak spots.
    He makes it seem too that certain gods were in charge of certain things. But many women prayed to Hercules for health & left votives, men prayed to Bona'd pray to the gods you had a relationship with....