Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion 
by jörg rüpke 
translated by david m. b. richardson 
princeton, 576 pages, $39.95

In August of 410, for the first time in eight centuries, the city of Rome was sacked. While the fall of the ancient capital to an army of renegade Goths might be reckoned a failure of imperial politics or military strategy, it was also seen by not a few contemporaries as divine retribution. The Romans, after all, had abandoned their old gods en masse, and the consequences were plain: In anger at the Christians, the gods had deserted the city. The ensuing polemic was the impetus for St. Augustine’s City of God, a defense of the faith against its critics, standing in a long line of such apologies by Christians. Augustine tells us that he wrote the text to refute the worshipers of false gods, “or pagans, as we usually call them.” Neither a suave Neoplatonizing senator sentimentally attached to the ancestral rites nor an illiterate peasant praying for his crops to grow would have ever thought to call himself a “pagan.” The word was strange, and a little derogatory. It was entirely the concoction of an in-group, the Christians, to describe an out-group. We call them.

The origin of the term “pagan” remains obscure. It came into usage as a designation for polytheists in the fourth century, overlapping with a preexisting stock of words in Greek (ethnikos, eidôlolatrês, hellên) and Latin (gentilis) for the worshipers of many gods. Maybe “pagan” meant something like “hick,” a country bumpkin who had not yet heard the news that there was a new God in town; maybe it meant something like “civilian” or “civvy,” someone not enlisted as a soldier in the army of the true God. The Latin can sustain either interpretation, and research has not produced a definitive answer. What is clear is that, by giving a name to it, the Christians gave definition and form to something that had not theretofore been quite so sharply ­demarcated. The problem for anyone interested in the history of religion is that, once spoken, the word and the idea that it is supposed to connote are hard to unthink. (Augustine uses paganus only seven times in the entire City of God; ordinarily, the pagans are just “they” or “them.” A cursory search reveals that modern English translations of Augustine’s text lean on the word far more regularly.)

It is telling that in Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion, Jörg Rüpke scrupulously abstains from using the word “paganism.” Rüpke covers more or less the same ground as Augustine: the beliefs, practices, and media of Roman religion from its obscure Iron Age origins down to the cosmopolitan period of empire. But unlike the bishop of Hippo, Rüpke never assumes that there is, fundamentally, any such thing as Roman religion. Like most recent work in the field, the study is anti-essentializing. There is no quintessential nature of Roman religion, stretching across time and space, genre and medium. Even defining “religion” in neutral terms not subtly colored by Christian assumptions is a delicate challenge. Religio is a Latin word; it meant something like the actions and observances that accompany a properly reverent sense of piety. Religio did not mean anything quite as grand or encompassing as the interlocking systems of belief about the cosmos, the fate of the soul, the totality of ethics, the nature of divinity, and the right worship of the gods. If the Pew Research Center asked an ancient Roman what his religio was, only a befuddled look would have followed. To a large extent, the work of bundling the disparate parts of human activity and imagination that we think of as religion into a system happened in the Roman world. Religion in this larger sense is a product of history, and specifically the history of the Roman Empire.

We have had anti-essentializing studies of Roman religion for several decades now. The dominant landmark over the last generation has been the survey and sourcebook of Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome. Rüpke’s magisterial study is a successor of that project, by an erudite and prolific leader in the field who has written on everything from the Roman calendar to religion in the Roman army. (I thought it was a typo when I saw Rüpke 2013m cited, but indeed, it turns out that he refers to thirteen of his own publications just from the year 2013.) If Pantheon were more accessibly written, it would have a good chance of becoming the new standard, and it deserves a wide readership despite its forbidding technical language. Rüpke starts out by offering a bare-bones working definition of religion as “the extension of a particular environment beyond the immediately plausible social milieu of living humans,” and some version of this leaden but precise phrase recurs throughout the book. What he calls “the immediately plausible” is the realm of interpersonally available observation and experience, what we might call (in terms of a post-Newtonian universe) “nature.” Religion involves things beyond the directly seen and experienced, particularly the dead and the divine (that which a modern person might call the “­supernatural”).

Pantheon tells a bracing story because it does not succumb to the entropy that so often overtakes anti-essentialist histories of religion. On the first page we are given a narrative arc: “We will describe how from a world in which one practiced rituals, there emerged a world of religions, to which one could belong.” The story starts in the Iron Age, with the local religions of the western Italian peninsula. It turns out we know very little. Too often, the answer has been to import assumptions from the more literate world of the contemporary Greeks. But that skews the picture, leading, for instance, to an over­emphasis on the great rituals of animal sacrifice from the archaic Aegean. Or we retroject later belief and practice to an earlier time, as scholars from Varro (and politicians from Augustus) onward have done. But that, too, is misleading. Rüpke instead takes the scant archaeological remains for no more and no less than what they hint at: locally oriented agrarian societies, marked by family remembrance of the dead, where religion was deeply embedded in everyday life but not highly specialized or literate. He lets its strangeness stand unresolved.

Roman religion, and our knowledge of it, begins to change toward the later archaic age and in the centuries of the early republic. Giant monumental temples went up. Interaction with the east (in the form of selective appropriation, rather than passive reception) became an integral part of Italian religious culture. Priesthoods were increasingly formalized. Collective action in the form of public worship (vows and augury, for instance), banquets, and games developed. Rüpke downplays the idea of “civic religion.” On the one hand, he is right to emphasize that there was not a coherently organized pantheon, worshiped systematically by the Roman people. Religious affairs were ad hoc, the deities manifold and ­incongruent. On the other hand, throughout, Rüpke underestimates the binding power of communal religious practice in the Roman polity. For the Greek observer Polybius, writing in the second century before Christ, it was “in things concerning the gods” that, above all else, the Roman republic was distinctive. Religious fear or superstition (deisidaimonia) was “what holds the Roman state together.” Of course, Polybius added, religion was useful in channeling the passions of the common people. But in ancient poly­theism generally, and the Roman version of it particularly, religion and politics were inextricable. The Roman people worshiped the Roman gods, and they did so with an ­exactitude and a punc­tiliousness that stood out.

This Roman seriousness in religious affairs can help us understand the outlook of a late republican figure like Cicero, as well as the pivotal changes which were to follow. For the patriotic Cicero, religion was integral to the good life, but not co-extensive with it. Religion meant observance of the ancestral traditions, but it was not an arid or merely external performance of rituals. It entailed a moral disposition, a deep-seated attitude of reverence that was good for the self and the community. But this disposition was not incompatible with ­intellectual skepticism, and it was in the end something less complete, less encompassing than philosophy, which was the true guide to living the good life.

The Roman Empire saw this formula reversed: Religion swallowed philosophy. As the republic became the empire, the place of religion changed. Even apart from the rise of Christianity, the centuries of Roman imperial dominance might have been one of the most important, and certainly one of the most interesting, periods in the annals of religion. It was a heyday for the gods, both old and new. It has been a long time since the conventional wisdom held that Christianity emerged against a backdrop of spiritual despair, moral degeneration, or decrepit civic polytheism. Rather, Christianity grew up beside, and eventually displaced, a vibrant, fecund, and loud “paganism” that was by turns a model and a rival for the early Church. Chris­tianity was not a weed that spread in a burned-out field. Its success in the prolific garden of the early empire has therefore become harder to explain.

The long reign of Augustus—a conservative revolutionary—was transformational in unpredicted ways. He claimed to revive and restore the old customs, while concentrating religious authority in his person and his family. But in doing so, he undercut the already fragile power of the traditional aristocracy. Religious authority was always a diffuse and dynamic property in Roman society. Rüpke calls attention to recent work that has highlighted the centrality of prayer to ancient Mediterranean religion, especially in Rome. There is something inherently democratic about prayer. Prayer is harder to control than the great, collective acts of animal sacrifice. The Augustan effort to monopolize religious authority was like grabbing water.

The sociology of the Roman Empire was decisive. Its bustling roads and sea routes were a network of religious knowledge and practice, creating what Rüpke calls “new propinquities” that generated religious energy. Wealth, urbanization, and literacy opened the space for an age of “expertise.” Religious experts peddling the right formulas for health and happiness flourished. Rüpke might have used the example of Apollonius of Tyana, a wandering, wonder-working sage with a full-fledged philosophy and decided opinions about how to worship the gods properly. He traveled the same highways and spoke to the same crowds as the apostles, itinerant religious experts in their own right. The old public temples thrived, but there were also new kinds of private religious associations, from collegia that were in essence collective burial societies to mystery religions, such as the cult of Isis, that answered the need for tightly knit communities of worship in cities that were giant demographic sinks and therefore full of migrants.

In some ways the most representative text of mature Roman polytheism is Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass. The only complete Latin novel to survive from antiquity, it is the work of a North African of the second century who was equally devoted to Platonism as a philosophy and the worship of Isis as a mode of religious life. The story is an allegory of religious salvation, in which the insatiable curiosity of the main character, Lucius, leads him to seek occult knowledge. He accidentally turns himself into a donkey, and most of the novel is about his suffering in this inferior state. In an hour of final desperation, he throws himself upon the benevolence of the gods, and Isis, the queen of heaven, emerges from the sea under the light of a brilliant moon to redeem him. It is a beautiful story, a specimen of the religious creativity fostered in the Roman Empire. Philosophy and religion are seamlessly interwoven in a syncretistic vision of the cosmos. This vision appealed to the individual’s hunger for meaning and salvation within the context of a community of knowledge, equipped with its own secretive techniques to touch the power of the divine (Lucius must dunk himself in the sea seven times before he has his divine vision, and he must eat a rose to be transformed to a higher state—sacraments by a different name). And, inevitably, Lucius’s journey ended in the city of Rome.

Rüpke’s study misses the opportunity to situate the rise of Christianity within the framework he has prepared. Early Christianity winds in and out of the last chapters of the book. But unless it is your professional obligation to stay current with the latest one-­upmanship of hypercriticism in the field, the early Christianity presented here will not seem recognizable. “Christianity” is presented as a second-century confection. The heretic Marcion is credited with writing the first gospel, inspiring the reaction that we call the canonical Gospels. Any knowledge of Peter and Paul’s death is dismissed as pure myth. Paul is a figure mainly constructed as a totem of identity in the later second century. The Book of Acts is not just a romantic history but a wholesale historiographical fabrication. Until sometime in the second century, the Christians had “as yet no actual community.” The persecutions, the martyrdoms, were mostly the work of Christian imagination—a literary experiment that got way out of hand. In the second century of the Roman Empire, rival entrepreneurs such as Marcion and Irenaeus “invented” the Christianity we know.

In a work of authoritative scholarship, this presentation is unwelcome—and revealing. Rüpke builds his picture of early Christianity selectively, or rather exclusively, on ideas at the edge of scholarly respectability. For instance, he presents without context or qualification the views of Markus Vinzent on Marcion and Otto Zwierlein on Peter. Other important recent work on these same figures, for example by Dieter Roth and Markus Bockmuehl, which undercuts the most sensational reconstructions, is damned to the oblivion of missing bibliography. To be fair, it is a big field, or collection of fields—where Roman religion, New Testament studies, Roman history, and early Christian studies meet—and no one can read everything, especially in a synthesis of this magnitude. Still, to cite a work on the Petrine traditions (Zwierlein’s Petrus in Rom) that the Roman historian T. D. Barnes recently called “a nadir in historical criticism” (in his contribution to the volume Peter in Early Christianity) as though it were simply the state of play in the study of early Christianity does a disservice.

This imbalance leaves us without a real sense of how ­Christianity emerged from the matrix that Rüpke has ably presented. Christian missionizing was in sync with the deepest spiritual vibrations of the early empire—and conducted in a deliberately weird key. Like other early imperial religions, it was a totalizing system, with a love of texts and an impulse to encyclopedism. It shared the heightened individualism of the surrounding religious culture, while also proving deft at creating strong, trans-ethnic communities. Early Christian leaders (however tiny the number of them who were literate) could spar with the best of the high Platonists. But the new faith was intractably strange, starting with the scandal of the cross. Its sexual ­morality tended to be uncomfortably stringent. The stark intransigence of the martyrs “hacked” into the Roman practice of making a public spectacle of penal torture. Agapê as a moral ideal was a brusque and novel intrusion onto the crowded scene of ancient ethics. Somehow, from this unstable mix of familiarity and strangeness, Christianity spread and ultimately triumphed in the Roman Empire.

We still lack a good, up-to-date history of how this happened. ­Robin Lane Fox’s sweeping Pagans and Christians is still a personal favorite, but it is getting long in the tooth and, like many attempts, is more focused on the Greek East than on the entire Mediterranean. Had he not indulged dubious theories of early Christianity, Rüpke could have brought us a little closer to answering important and enduring questions with fresh illumination. How did Christianity emerge from the volatile spiritual milieu of the Roman Empire? Why did the city of Rome exert such a ­gravitational pull on the early Christian movement? Why did it matter that a Judeo-Greek religion triumphed, paradoxically, both because of the cultural resources in the capital and despite the hostile suppression of the religion by the imperial power? To answer those questions would indeed be to account for how religio became religion.

Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and provost at the University of Oklahoma.