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
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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