CUP (2016) 342pp £80 (ISBN 9781316811092)
Do not be put off by thinking this is just a book about trees. Whilst they form the grounding of this book’s subject, it is just as much a rethinking of how we understand Roman religion.
H.’s main contention is that trees have fallen out of favour in contemporary understanding of religion—ancient and modern—and are now overlooked for the role they did play in Roman theology and ritual. In the vein of ‘rethinking’, one of the themes throughout the book is the questioning of terminology, from ‘sacred’ to numen, and where the uses of these words lead us.
H. begins by providing a fruitful review of the history of the study of Roman religion, reaching back to the 19th century and of course (given the topic) a focus on Frazer’s Golden Bough. This chapter gives a good overview of the historiography of Roman religion as a whole, useful for anyone trying to grapple with the topic.
The further four chapters take trees and the idea of sacred trees in different directions: theology, materiality, agency and divinity. The gods—another area that often takes a backseat in Roman religion—and their relationship to trees is frequently brought to the fore in these chapters. Chapter 3, for example, takes the problem of whether the trees were worshipped as belonging to the gods or as the gods themselves, whilst chapter 6 provides a detailed discussion of epithets and their role in the formation of the deity-tree relationship. Though H.’s arguments are strong, perhaps the hardest to swallow is that of arboreal agency: the idea of trees as social actors is somewhat unexpected. It could have benefitted more from the relationship that acting trees had with acting humans: the tree may have been seen by the Roman thinkers to have a role in creating the omens, as H. suggests (p. 217), but this line of thinking ignores the fact that the Senate, as human agents, had an active and final role in confirming the existence of an omen.
That said, H. successfully develops the recent trend away from seeing Roman religion as practice without thought, as well as demonstrating the importance of thinking about trees and associated arboreal matters. Overall, for anyone with an interest in how to think about Roman religion, this book is certainly worth more than merely leafing through.