Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Write-Up: Roman Ideas of Deity

W. Warde Fowler.  Roman Ideas of Deity in the Last Century Before the Christian Era: Lectures Delivered in Oxford for the Oxford University Fund.  London: MacMillan and Co., 1914.

I have been looking for books to read about ancient Roman religion, and this book stood out to me on account of its simple prose and its focus on the aspect of religion that interests me most: theological beliefs.  The book contains a series of lectures by W. Warde Fowler on Roman religion.  Fowler covers such topics as Fortuna and whether it was a goddess of chance, an extension of the head deity, or even considered to be a deity at all; monotheizing tendencies that treat Jupiter as the head god, and how that interrelated with Stoicism, which did not even believe in a personal deity; the belief that humans could become gods, and that this actually occurred with Zeus and other deities in the pantheon; the decline of Roman religion in the time of Augustus, and how many sought to compensate for this through mystery religion; how chaos led people to focus on individual saviors; family religion; and the worship of the Roman emperor’s genius, a divine aspect of him.

Overall, Fowler’s view seemed to be that Roman religion imported significant concepts from Greek religion, but that Roman religion did not faithfully hold on to those concepts because they were not authentic to it.  Roman religion inherited personalized deities from the Greeks, for example, but it tended to abandon that in favor of Stoicism or treating Jupiter in a monotheistic sense, plus there are writings in the time of Augustus that do not convey enthusiasm about the gods and that treat the gods’ names as symbolic.  Roman religion inherited from the Greeks a tendency to regard leaders as divine, but Roman emperors did not insist on being worshiped, and Roman emperors were often divinized after their death rather than when they were alive.  Fowler acknowledges that there were many in the Roman empire who worshiped the Roman emperor—-living or dead—-as divine, but he argues that worshiping a living emperor was not part of the official Roman cult.

I have been reading other books about Roman religion.  I recently read Jӧrg Rüpke.  Religion of the Romans (2009; see my post here), and I am currently in the middle of Ittai Gradel’s Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (2002).  Of course, the question that occurs to me when reading a 1914 book about Roman religion is the extent to which scholarship has changed: which of Fowler’s insights continue to be accepted, and which have been rejected?  Well, Fowler said that adherents to the Roman cult could basically manipulate the gods through ritual to do whatever the adherents wanted, but I got a different picture from Rüpke’s book: that the gods could refuse a request, and worshipers did not have to fulfill their vow if the gods did not fulfill their end of the bargain.  On Gradel, Gradel seems to disagree with saying that emperor worship was somehow inauthentic to Roman religion, for Gradel does not believe that we know a whole lot about what early Roman religion was like.  Gradel also does not appear to regard theology as particularly significant, for Romans often participated in the cult even if they did not believe in personal gods or gods who cared about human beings, plus the ritual could communicate inconsistent beliefs about the gods (i.e., a god is present in the Temple through the idol, yet is in heaven).

In terms of criticisms, I do not recall Fowler explaining how exactly Roman religion declined under Augustus—-what specific factors led to that.  He did a better job explaining how Roman religion came to highlight the individual, and yet, even then, he did not go into certain specifics: why was there chaos that was leading Romans to look to individuals as potential saviors?

Fowler also would have done well to have laid out a conclusion that summarized his arguments.  With some scholarly works, a reader can go through a maze of argumentation and wonder where exactly he or she is ending up.

Soon, maybe next week, I will write a post about Gradel’s book.  It is clear, I will say that.  I am not always clear about what exactly Gradel is arguing against, but the book itself is laid out quite well.


  1. rome needs a lot of homework to understand

  2. I was thinking that when reading Ittai Gradel's book yesterday. I wish that Gradel included a survey of previous literature on the topic, but the problem probably was that there is so much previous literature on Roman religion, that writing a survey would be difficult!


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