Roman Religion (Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization) by Valerie M. Warrior

Book Review by Ursus

Within the constraints it sets for itself, Roman Religion offers a pleasing and informative overview of the bygone days of Roman paganism. Well written, easily understandable and lavishly illustrated, Warrior's book is an excellent eye opener to those with no prior exposure to the academic study of pre-Christian Roman religion. Other works are far more erudite, but I am reviewing this for the benefit of the absolute neophyte who simply wants a crash course on the subject.

Roman Religion is part of the Cambridge Introduction to Roman Civilization. These books are designed to serve as brief but academically sound overviews of given topics. Those topics include women, warfare and slavery in the Roman world. The books are meant to be used in tandem with Cambridge University's Latin course, but they can be enjoyed separately as well. Once read, a given work will enable the student to pursue further studies in the field should they wish, or if no further study is desired they at least walk away having garnered a basic understanding of the discipline.

Valerie Warrior wrote Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, and so has an excellent understanding of the primary sources involved in Roman religion. She has taught in numerous institutions of higher learning in North America. The work itself is logically organized into ten short chapters. It contains maps, a glossary, a chronology, a bibliography and an index to aid in organizing key data. Every chapter is prefaced with one or two choice quotes from primary sources (Cicero is heavily used). Best of all, in my opinion, is that every second page contains a color photograph or illustration; it's as much a visual feast of Roman religious artefacts as it is a serious study.

Chapter one gives an overview of the gods. Roman polytheism had received influences from Greece and Etruria from the beginning, but the worship of animistic domestic spirits in the home and neighborhood truly differentiated Roman paganism from its neighbors. Chapter two looks at divination, prayer and sacrifice. It gives you a feel for the legalistic tone of Roman paganism, for no major endeavor was conducted without first consulting the will of the gods.

The next three chapters look at the religion's relation to family, politics and war, respectively. These three chapters are where Warrior's book truly shines, for she expertly illuminates the world view of Roman pagans. There was no area of life which was not seen as influenced by the various powers that be, and the function of religion was to placate the gods lest they withdraw their divine favor. Both Romans and foreigners felt that Roman religious awe is what kept the Roman state together. Such was their religious fervor that on the occasions when Rome lost a military confrontation, the blame was sooner placed on impiety or incorrect observance of rituals than on faulty tactics. Religion could be manipulated for political purposes as well, and this charade was played out continuously in the Late Republic and Empire.

Chapter 6 gives a feel for some of the calendar festivals. The conservative Romans often retained an ancient holiday even if they had long since forgotten the origins and purpose of said holiday. The next chapter outlines Roman attitudes to foreign cults. The Roman state was actually quite receptive to foreign gods, unless their behavior somehow slighted the political establishment. This was the central crux for the repression of the Bacchic cults from Greece, and later this attitude would be repeated in regards to Christianity.

Chapter 8 gives an interesting overview of magic and occult; this sort of thing you rarely get in an introductory test. The Roman establishment was suspicious of esoteric activities, and they established a death penalty for "witchcraft" long before Christianity borrowed the practice. Nonetheless, the amount of curse tablets and magic amulets recovered throughout the empire show that people resorted to unorthodox methods when they had motivation to do so.

Chapter 9 surveys apotheosis, or how powerful political figures received cultic religious activities like onto deities. And chapter 10 offers a run down on Roman attitudes to Judaism and Christianity, two religions that by their very nature could not assimilate into mainstream Greco-Roman culture. Roman treatment of both groups was actually fairly lenient in times of peace and prosperity; but in times of political crisis or social unrest both religions were targeted for failing to tow the line on various cultural matters important to the political establishment.

In contrast to the Greeks, who were a little more laid back about their religion, you wonder how the Romans managed to accomplish anything if they were always consulting sacred chickens or lightning flashes for great matters. On the other hand, you can see religion as illustrative of Roman cultural values as a whole. The divine powers that be had to be placated no matter what, and they had to be placated in the exact prescribed manner. Romans were not above borrowing or innovating when needed, but otherwise operated in a conservative fashion. Duty, legalism, inclusiveness, reverence for the past, and even the patron-client social relationship: all these merge in Roman paganism.

For the serious student, I could recommend books far more erudite in the subject: anything from Schied, Turcan or Rives, for instance. But I am reviewing this work specifically for those who want a brief but competent taste of Roman paganism. And if one is a visual person, I would recommend combing through the work anyway for its breadth of color photographs. Valerie Warrior has done a great job compiling the absolute essentials of Roman polytheism.

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