Puzzles of old bull-sacrifice

Religions of Rome, Volume 1 - Religions of Rome, Volume 2
December 11, 1998

I mean, with religion you get on a different plane, and everything is most odd. It only goes to show that human beings are odd, because they have always been, on the whole, so religious." Thus reflects the narrator in Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, as she considers the relative oddity of Anglicanism, Islam and the Greek Orthodox church. A useful reminder to expect strangeness, rather than familiarity, in our encounters with the religions of others. Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price help their readers to enter this different plane, and suggest ways in which we may come to terms with the oddities of ancient Rome. They warn us, however, that oddity itself was not an objective fact, but was a culturally determined construct, by which Roman society sought to define its own essential character. Two related themes - Rome's responses to other peoples' religions, and the paradoxical combination of change and conservatism in Roman rituals - provide a unifying thread in these volumes' discussion of a cosmopolitan imperial capital which might otherwise seem to have had little in common with the archaic town from which it sprang. In exploring over a thousand years of religious life in the Roman world, from the time of Rome's foundation to its emergence as a Christian capital, Beard, North and Price offer a specific case study which will not fail to fascinate anyone who is intrigued by the nature of religious change.

The authors have chosen to organise their two volumes on different principles in order to present their subject both diachronically and synchronically. Hence, Volume One contains a narrative account of the religious development of Rome, whereas Volume Two arranges evidence for this thematically. This second volume is subtitled "A Sourcebook", but is much more than a collection of documents for the reader to dip into. The authors invite the reader to explore connections both between the individual entries, which are arranged thematically in each section, and between the different sections. Consider the case of sacrifice. Sculptural reliefs and inscriptions are juxtaposed with literary extracts from comedy, history and an agricultural treatise in order to illustrate the diversity of this central element in Roman rituals. I shall mention just three of the different perspectives to emerge. First, reality confronts the ideal in the case of a woman who could not afford the bull-sacrifice she had vowed to a god, but instead set up an inscription decorated with a large bull. Second, the Acts of the Christian Martyrs and a papyrus document illustrate how the Christian enemies of traditional Roman cults were identified by their refusal to perform sacrifices. Last, the distinctive bull-sacrifices performed for the Great Mother, in which, contrary to "normal" practice, the worshipper drenched himself in blood, reveal how that cult retained its character as a non-traditional religion, at the same time as it was incorporated into the official system of worship at Rome. By assembling a range of sources for sacrifices, the authors suggest how attitudes to sacrifice were a key element in defining what was Roman about official Roman cults.

Cross-references in both volumes direct the reader to illustrative material and further discussion of specific points. The many high-quality illustrations are fully annotated and incorporated into the debates of the main text. This visual evidence of objects preserved at first hand complements the words of literary texts. Such artefactual evidence has an important role in adding detail to our picture of Roman life beyond that of the elite in Rome. The tombs of the non-elite near Rome's harbour-town and a household shrine at Pompeii enrich the diversity of our picture of the places where religious activities occurred beyond the temples built by the elite. Technical terms are explained both where they occur and in a glossary, and all Latin and Greek is translated. Extensive indexes and bibliographies cater for all interests.

It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which these volumes present a new approach to their subject. Archaeology and anthropology in particular open up new perspectives. The "boundary crossing" of Mary Douglas, for instance, clarifies the religious character of two elements in Roman religion which at first sight seem quite different from each other: both prodigies and the Vestal Virgins assume significance from being "objects out of context".

The authors also seek to define new ways of thinking about Rome's religions that avoid the influence of assumptions derived from a Christian perspective. Not only do they question the relevance of "personal belief" to early Roman religions, but they also suggest that the idea of religious toleration is a modern concept, and is not, therefore, relevant to the Romans' treatment of the religions of others. Rome's polytheistic system was not entirely permissive of other practices; the Romans' concern to identify some religious practices as beyond the pale (such as witches and Christians) helped them to assert their own sense of identity. Rome's wariness of some foreign cults is not dissimilar to modern "witch hunts". The identification of subversive religious elements within a society, whether that society is Rome, China or Salem, may relate to that society's attempt to create a strong centralised political unity. The horizons of the elite at Rome had to extend outwards from the city itself to the empire as a whole and, as more areas of the Mediterranean world came under Roman control, Rome sought to ensure that these areas also followed correct religious practices. The close geographical and topographical ties of Rome's religions with the city of Rome itself presented a challenge to the idea that other places outside Rome could also have Roman religions. The exportation of specific Roman rituals, deities and religious buildings as part of Rome's imperialist mission helped to bridge this gap.

These volumes suggest a new model for the development of religion at Rome. The authors argue that, while Rome itself evolved from simple village to metropolis, the city's religious life did not experience a parallel evolution, gradually developing a complicated structure out of its primitive origins. The authors question the theory that the Romans had to borrow their myths from the Greeks before they could advance beyond the simple concept of "animism", in which divine powers are understood in terms of natural phenomena rather than complicated anthropomorphic deities. Archaeological discoveries suggest that Rome was a cosmopolitan society already in archaic times.

Early Christianity too belongs to this alien world. The curious juxtaposition of a pagan calendar and a calendar of the martyrs in a single book from the fourth century implies that the boundaries between religious practices were not always as strictly defined as one might suppose. Some Christians of the fourth century, it seems, sought to incorporate elements of traditional Roman heritage into their new religious context. The reign of Constantine did not make a clean break with the pagan past, but the process by which the new faith established itself remained rather piecemeal and hesitant.

Politics and religion were closely intertwined in ancient Rome. Writing a history of over a thousand years of religious life might itself seem sufficiently ambitious, but these volumes also present a history of some of the political, social and cultural changes that occurred during these years. Disagreement and debate among individual Romans offers clues about the ways in which the Romans sought to represent religion, making it the subject of debate: diversity is warmly embraced as a crucial part of our picture. These authors have certainly succeeded in demonstrating that religion is "good to think with". Their stimulating analysis of the religions of Rome ensures that debate about religious change and continuity will now proceed with fresh impetus.

Alison E. Cooley is junior research fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History

Author - Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price
ISBN - 0 521 30401 6 and 31682 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 454

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