Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Write-Up: Religion of the Romans

Jӧrg Rüpke.  Religion of the Romans.  Trans. and ed., Richard Gordon.  Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2009.

This book is about the religion of the ancient Romans: their rituals, their festivals and who attended them, their votive offerings, their sacrifices, and their private and public devotion.

From an academic perspective, this book is quite informative, especially for those who want to learn more about Roman ritual.  There was not a whole lot of chemistry between me and this book, however, and so I may try out other books on Roman religion in the future.  This book did have some interesting details, though: that the Epicureans believed that the gods had bodies that consisted of atoms and that “the dynamic equilibrium between the positive and negative flow of atoms” guaranteed these gods’ immortality (page 65); that people were supposed to pray out loud because otherwise others might suspect them of devising harm against someone; and that gods were not believed to be under any obligation to grant people’s requests.

I also learned about a type of votive offering, a devotio, in which a Roman commander would offer to sacrifice himself in battle if the gods let Rome win.  Usually, the commander would charge into the ranks of the enemy to fulfill this vow, but what would happen to him if he survived and Rome won?  What was thought to have happened was that he would be excluded from the community and regarded as a non-citizen, and “a doll representing him was burned” (page 165).  That would count as the fulfillment of the vow.  Rüpke goes on to say, though, that “this was almost certainly a Late-Republican or Augustan rationalization” (page 165).

I appreciated when Rüpke tied in what he was discussing in Roman religion with the Bible.  This happened rarely, but it did happen, as when he talked about Paul’s stance on whether the Corinthian Christians could eat meat offered to idols.

Overall, because of my familiarity with rituals in the Hebrew Bible, I did not feel as if I was in a no-man’s land when reading Rüpke’s discussion of Roman rituals, even if Rüpke provided quite a bit of theory.  They are a lot alike.  I would have liked, however, to have read more about Roman theology—-beliefs about the gods and the gods’ stances on morality—-along with Roman mythology.

I may find another book that is more of a fit for me.  I don’t particularly want to go through the hulkish Cambridge Companion to Roman Religion, at least not right now.  I may check out A Matter of the Gods, which is a book about how Romans viewed the gods, but it keeps getting checked out!  I checked it out one time and could not renew it because someone else wanted it, and later I went to the library and it was not on the shelves.  There was a book on the emperor cult, which might be pretty good.  We’ll see!  I’ll just keep on reading!

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