The Gods of Ancient Rome by Robert Turcan

Book Review by Ursus

There comes a point when any serious Romanophile has to study Roman religion outside of an elementary school mythology class. The Romans, after all, were a deeply pious people.

Religion was not separated from everyday life, it was a constant in everyday life. Every communal activity had a religious aspect and every religious activity was aimed at some level of community.

To reduce Roman religion to a mere carbon copy of Greek religion, as is often opined, or to treat Roman mythology as the childish delusions of a primitive people, is to ignore the religious genius of our cultural ancestors. Regardless of whether or not one sympathizes with Roman paganism, one should at least appreciate its place in religious history and its reflection of Roman mentality.

Roman religion as an academic subject has been held hostage over the years to a variety of "scholars" with pet theories. Few people treated Roman religion as the Romans themselves knew it, but rather tried to pigeonhole Roman religion into whatever fanciful idea they had concocted in the service of academic notoriety. Against the sordid legacy, Robert Turcan - a professor of Roman History at a prestigious French University - is like a breath of fresh air. In The Gods of Ancient Rome, Turcan presents Roman Religion from the perspective of the people who actually practiced it. The book is largely devoid of external theorizing and instead presents a candid portrait of the subject.

The book begins with a brief note on the attitude of Romans to their universe, a concept best expressed as pietas or piety. The book then details the religion of the Roman family and the simple farming community from which the mighty Roman Empire was to emerge. Turcan makes it clear this private worship was actually the focus of Roman religion.

It was within the bonds of the family that Romans honored a variety of household and familial entities. Roman religion was almost Confucian in its respect for ancestors and spirits, and this form of worship survived long after the public cult of the Olympians fell to foreign gods.

Turcan next describes the religion of the state, the level of religion most people think of in reference to Romans. While new gods were added and old ones forgotten, there is nonetheless a string of piety and traditions that unites all stages of Roman public religion.

The next section of the book outlines the exotic foreign cults that prospered throughout the Empire. Some of these cults would eventually eclipse the Olympian gods in popularity and prestige, and helped pave the way for Christianity. Turcan's book concludes with the obligatory chapter on the rise and triumph of Christianity.

In less than two hundred pages, Turcan provides a comprehensive outline on Roman religion. It includes plentiful quotes from primary sources, archaeological records, and there are photographs as well. Through it all readers come to know the Romans as a people who were at once uplifted and daunted by the plurality of divinities they felt inhabited the universe. The ritualistic obligations they felt towards these powers consumed much of their time and energy.

We moderns, rather than dismissing them as the wasted efforts of a nave people, should see Roman religion for what it really was. That is, the ultimate expression of the central Roman trait - duty. The same sense of duty a Roman felt to his gods and ancestors he also felt towards his country, and in so doing created the culture we all revere and praise.

Note: those wanting a more organized study of Roman religion should consult An Introduction of Roman Religion by John Scheid. Scheid gives the subject a much more thematic treatment, and this may be more accessible to those who think in more systematic terms. Schied, however, looks at Roman religion through his eyes rather than the Romans, and some of his conclusions are questionable. For the most objective look at the subject, Turcan is the safer bet.

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