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Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives

Book Review by Ursus

James B. Rives is an Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, and has written numerous books and articles on classical religion. What did the various pre-Christian religions of the Roman Empire have in common, and how did they differ from the monotheistic faiths that define modern religion in the West? These are the two questions that Rives answers with aplomb in his Religion of the Roman Empire.

Rives seeks to explore Greco-Roman polytheism. Greek and Roman religious traditions had their differences, particularly in the manner of sacrifice and organization of priesthoods, but otherwise in scope and purpose their religions were very similar. Their gods were identified with each other early on, and the Romans simply imported many Greek deities directly where equivalent gods did not already exist. Therefore it makes sense to treat Greek and Roman religion together in one continuum.

Rives also briefly explores the religious systems of other groups in the empire. While the religious traditions of the Celts and Carthaginians (to use just two examples) had differing gods and practices from the Greeks and the Roman, their polytheistic systems nonetheless shared broadly in certain assumptions and functions. Indeed, the various pre-Christian faiths held enough in common with each other that they were able, with a few exceptions, to co-exist peacefully, with the figure of the Roman emperor serving as a theoretical rallying point.

The only faith, besides the Christians themselves, who could not operate under the mannerisms of polytheism was the exclusively monotheistic faith of the Judeans. But even there, as Rives points out, the Judeans held something in common with their immediate neighbors in the Levant. Other peoples also participated in mandated circumcision and proscriptions against consumption of pork. Many peoples in the area of Syria were also keen in elevating one deity above the rest as a supreme deity; the Judeans were merely exceptional in denying the validity of other deities.

Judeans aside, the classical world was defined by polytheism, but defining polytheism as such is no easy task. There was no central or inerrant scripture to provide a common theological framework for adherents, nor was there a central body interested in imposing doctrinal orthodoxy or moralism. Instead there was a series of cultic practices that differed from culture to culture, along with some loosely held beliefs.

Rives offers the viewer some interesting ways of looking at polytheism. He divides polytheistic reality into several layers - cult, myth, art and philosophy - and looks at each one in turn. He explores how polytheism was experienced by individuals, households, private organizations and city-states. He documents the mobility of both worshipers and deities themselves under the aegis of the Pax Romana. Rives showcases some of the off color religious options in the classical world, such as esoteric mystical sects and freelance magicians. Finally, he looks at sources of authority in the classical world and how they imposed themselves (or not, as the case may be) on society.

Rives correctly assesses that polytheism was, by and large, a social and cultural experience, rather than an individual experience. Religion was something experienced by families, tribes or city-states and was integral to daily life, not separate from it. The religious authorities in the classical world were also, by and large, the same socio-economic elite who directed civil matters (exceptions, such as the Druids with their authority stemming from mastery of arcane lore, were treated with suspicion). Religion was therefore participating in communal life, and placating those powers thought to preside over communal life. While there were cults with different presumptions, they always operated either parallel to the civic cults or on the fringes, never quite replacing civic religion. The scope and practice of religion in the classical world was therefore entirely different from what modern Westerners experience today.

Rives writes for a general audience and is a delight to read. Those with little exposure to classical religion should be able to easily follow this clearly written and highly organized work. He offers no pre-conceptions about either polytheism or monotheism and writes with complete academic objectivity, something all too often rare in religious commentary. Aiding the work is an extended bibliography, glossary, maps, illustrations and topical inserts. This work is highly recommended for this wishing to acquaint themselves with classical religion.

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Book Review of Religion in the Roman Empire - Related Topic: Roman Religion


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