PANTHEON: A New History of Roman Religion

Jörg Rüpke

Princeton (2018) h/b 551pp £30.00 (ISBN 9780691156835)

In many respects, this book is a culmination of R.’s career to date on the study of Roman religion. A translation of the original German version (published in 2016 by C. H. Beck), it covers the development of the way in which ‘religion’ practised in the Mediterranean from the ninth century BC underwent a gradual process of change that by the fourth century AD had laid the foundations for religion as we understand it. At heart, religion moved from a matter of what individuals did across a pantheon of gods (enactment of ritual in the home, at the graveside and so on) to the emergence of communal groups defined by what they believed in.

R.’s methodological grounding lies in religion as the actions of individuals. Beginning in the ninth century, he imagines a woman named Rhea in order to explore her perspective on the places and objects that could be termed ‘religious’ in her world. Burial practices and grave goods, such as the Villanovan hut urns from North Italy, are used to understand what—and who—Rhea might consider ‘special’, as ancestor figures introduce the concept of ‘not indisputably plausible actors’, used throughout the book to refer to gods, spirits, ancestors or other supernatural beings with whom religious communication takes place. 

Over the centuries, infrastructures, such as temples, and practices, such as ritual vows, developed, to meet the demands of the divine pantheon. But a major change starts to emerge from the first century BC when Varro and Cicero begin the process of ‘systematizing religious experience and religious activity and the interpretation thereof’, which ‘fundamentally altered traditional activity and authority’. This prepared the ground for the emergence of religious experts in a range of different belief systems, the development of ‘philosophies’ of religion, and ultimately of the growth of communities of ‘believers’. This is the point at which things start to look more like what we could class as ‘religion’ and, not entirely coincidentally, Christianity starts to take centre stage. R. discusses the formation of such groups, and the way they affected the meaning of religion and religious identity, though still keeping the focus on individuals as the core of those groups.

The time period covered by this book is as vast as is the range of evidence adduced, and the argument cumulative in effect, often dense and not an easy read. It is certainly not a book to dip into. There are a couple of moments where the translation and proofreading of this edition let it down, but this thesis is important for anyone working on the history of the concept of religion. 

Chris Mowat

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