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Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 17.

James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire. Blackwell Ancient Religions 2. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. x + 237, incl. 11 half-tones, 4 maps, 6 text boxes and two glossaries. ISBN 1-4051-0656-5. US$34.95.

Alison B. Griffith
Department of Classics, University of Canterbury
Christchurch, New Zealand

In this recent volume on Roman religion James Rives undertakes the daunting task of providing an overview to religion in the Roman Empire for undergraduates, secondary teachers, and other interested readers. The result is a concise, readable, stimulating, and adroitly organized introduction to a vast, cumbersome topic. Though only the second in the ‘Blackwell Ancient Religions’ series, the present volume joins a now steady stream of introductory texts and sourcebooks on Roman religion.[[1]] Readers will undoubtedly find it a welcome update for John Ferguson's The Religions of the Roman Empire,[[2]] its long- serving predecessor.

Given his audience, Rives wisely approaches the topic in terms that contrast ancient religion with modern preconceptions -- derived mainly from the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions -- which readers might understandably bring to the subject. This is most apparent in the introduction (pp. 1-12), where he explains the choice of words in the title -- specifically, why 'religions' is a modern term that cannot be applied to religious practices in antiquity, and what exactly is meant by 'Roman Empire' (rightly acknowledged as simultaneously a geographical, chronological, and political term on pp. 1f.). Throughout the book Rives demonstrates his thorough familiarity with a wide range of primary sources for the subject by using an eclectic and, on the whole, judicious selection of ancient evidence to illustrate the nature of ancient religion and the extent to which it differs from its modern counterparts. That said, pictures and plans are few, and archaeological evidence for religious practices, particularly those outside the mainstream traditions, is not used as much as literary and epigraphic evidence.

It is in drawing the distinction between religion then and now that Rives introduces the concept of a ‘Graeco-Roman normative tradition’ in religion, a ‘sort of implicit religious standard, a set of practices and beliefs that the [Greek and Roman] social and cultural elite of the empire regarded as normal’ (p. 6), that underlies his entire approach to this subject. Chapter 1, ‘Identifying Religion in the Graeco-Roman World’ (pp. 14-53), addresses more fully the ancient norms that constituted what is otherwise an elusive concept of religion -- the broad notion of ‘the divine’ and the manifold ways in which ancient gods were approached through cult, myth, art, and philosophy. Rives concludes with a discussion of the most palpable differences: the nature and role of authority, belief, and morality in defining people's experience with religion. What he does not do, and perhaps should, is defend more explicitly his argument that the Graeco-Roman normative tradition is a more useful device for understanding religion in the Roman Empire on a general level. The point that Roman religion was one of so many local traditions and was not imposed on the conquered is made somewhat indirectly and sporadically.

In Chapter 2, ‘Regional Religious Traditions of the Empire’ (pp. 54-88), Rives argues that the variety of local observances, even under Roman rule was another aspect of the Graeco-Roman norm, in which each cultural group had its own gods and religious practices. His aim is to show how these many local traditions were both similar to and different from the Graeco-Roman tradition, and thus he begins not with Italy but with Greece (followed by Asia Minor), whose culture was as pervasive as that of Rome and was adopted by members of the Roman elite and spread even further by conquest. Thus the reader gains the impression that the center of gravity in the Graeco-Roman norm sits decidedly east of the Adriatic, and this is reinforced by the discussion of religion in Italy which, despite a clear description of major differences between Roman and Greek practices and beliefs, emphasizes Greek influence. Apart from this, Rives accomplishes the difficult task of summarizing regional religious traditions in other parts of the empire in a manner that is succinct, informative, and gives a clear idea of practices before and after Roman conquest.

The nature of the divinity, only briefly described in the first chapter, is examined in more detail in Chapter 3, ‘The Presence of the Gods’ (pp. 89-104). Rives begins with the greatest commonality, the recognition of divine power in features of the natural world -- especially groves, caves, and water, and the omnipresence of shrines and altars honouring divine presence. In the second part of the chapter he makes effective use of inscriptions and votives to show how ordinary people, in invoking or thanking gods for assistance, perceived divine power of the gods and acknowledged the gods' direct intervention in their lives.

In Chapter 4, ‘Religion and Community’ (pp. 105-31), Rives explores religion as a social phenomenon that shaped group identity and social hierarchy. In contrast to the emphasis on personal experience in the previous chapter, he notes that any individual dedication attests not just a personal encounter with a god, but also that individual's relationship with a range of groups. The ensuing examination of the role of religion in shaping group identity and people's everyday experience in the most important communities -- city, household, and voluntary association -- stems from Aristotle's identification of natural human relationships in Politics 1.2. In the section on the city, Rives ably illustrates how urban spatial and temporal organization was oriented around temples and festivals, as well as how benefaction of these defined and reinforced social hierarchy. The story is much the same on the household level, where both cults specific to the family (for example, worship of the dead) as well as those that reduplicated public cult on a micro-scale (for example, worship of the Lares) influenced physical space and familial structure. In the final section Rives examines the role of religion in groups formed among those with shared religious beliefs, ethnicity, or occupation.

The next two chapters are devoted to the variety of gods and religious options within the Roman Empire. In Chapter 5, ‘Religion and Empire’ (pp. 32-57) Rives explains the ‘religious integration’ of the empire as the result of near universal recognition of the multiplicity of gods in conjunction with the mobility of worshippers to specific, specialized sites, and the transportability of gods with the relocation of their followers (especially slaves, soldiers, traders, and other officials). Such movement also spread the worship of initially local gods to entirely new places and social networks, and fueled the consequential process of syncretism and interpretatio. An examination of the historical development and importance of the deified figure of the emperor as a unifying factor concludes this chapter. Chapter 6, ‘Religious Options’ (pp. 158-81), looks at the other side of the coin; religious alternatives offering an experience or teachings outside the mainstream religious tradition that constituted the integration described in the previous chapter. The discussion is remarkable for the breadth of cults and source material addressed with concise clarity. Rives skillfully organizes the vast array of cults under the subheadings ‘Attractions’ and ‘Advantages’ and returns, implicitly, to his initial focus -- the substantial difference between modern and ancient definition of religion -- to show where Judaean and early Christian teachings fit in the range of options. Though he rightly represents the various options as offering a difference in degree and intensity rather than substance, the word ‘cult’ creeps in, as it must, without any discussion of the Latin word, or acknowledgement of the pejorative connotations that its English cognate carries today.

In Chapter 7, ‘Roman Religious Policy’ (pp. 182-201), Rives returns again to the idea of a Graeco-Roman tradition to describe the extent to which there was a religious policy, given the existence and nominal acceptance of multiple, overlapping traditions. He defines important terms such as atheism, impiety, and superstition from a Graeco-Roman point of view, which was largely bound up in the idea of showing respect for the gods through proper, traditional religious observances. Here superstition is represented as a question of degree and substance. Accepting that direct intervention in religious matters was rare, and more often took the form of ‘indirect pressures and incentives’, Rives examines the negative impact of Roman rule in terms of exertion of or disregard for authority and three instances of active suppression (magic and monotheism in Judaean and Christian practice).

Some features of the book, including further reading sections at the end of each chapter, a full bibliography, and two glossaries (of major deities and of authors and texts) will assist readers new to the subject. The intra- textual citations (pp. 69, 128, 129, 134, and 139) are conspicuous by their paucity and send a mixed message to students about the necessity of proper citation. The six text boxes are well chosen and provide a stimulating point of departure for discussion, but this is not a source book per se, especially since there is no index of the hundreds of other references to ancient source material in the text.

None of the criticisms herein should detract in any major way from this book, which offers a fresh view on a broad, even intractable subject in a manner that is both accessible and understandable for the uninitiated. It will, no doubt, become one of the staple texts for any introductory course on Roman religion and grace many a ‘further reading’ list in Roman imperial history and civilization courses.


[[1]] C. Ando (ed.) Roman Religion (Edinburgh 2003); M. Beard, J. North and S. Price Religions of Rome. Vol. 1: A History. Vol. 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge 1998); J. North Roman Religion. Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics, No.30 (Oxford 2000); V. Warrior Roman Religion: A Sourcebook (Newburyport, MA 2002); J. Scheid (tr. J. Lloyd), An Introduction to Roman Religion (Bloomington, IN 2003).

[[2]] John Ferguson, Religions of the Roman Empire (Ithaca, New York 1970).