THE GODS OF ANCIENT ROME: Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times
By Robert Turcan, translated by Antonia Nevill and published by Edinburgh University Press at £16.00. 180pp. ISBN: 0-7486-1390-0
If this book had been written for the pagan market it would almost certainly have devoted a few pages to each of the main deities of the Roman pantheon, rehashing their myths from Ovid or similar sources, and focusing on magickal correspondences, incense recipes and suchlike. Fortunately it's an academic book whose author tells us: "My aim is to show the main characteristics of the part played by gods in the lives of Romans, from day to day, in the annual cycle, throughout a lifetime or in the course of history." And he does just that.
As he makes clear, the modern academic view of Roman religion is far removed from that of those of the 19th century who saw it as cold and clinical, a materialist piety in the service of the state; rather it is seen as penetrating to the core of everyday life, in the homes of Romans of all social ranks, as much as filling the official temples and public spaces, and Roman life was greatly concerned with a myriad of minor deities and powers with control over very narrow and specific areas of life who had to be kept on board to ensure the success of everything a Roman might take part in.
Turcan starts with a discussion of the nature of Roman pietas, or piety, ie the nature of the relationship and mutual obligations between humans and gods, of the need to have the gods on your side to minimise the risk of things going wrong because that relationship had been neglected or obligations unfulfilled. One made sacrifice to the gods in return for their support and protection in whatever area of expertise they oversaw.
In his discussions proper, Turcan begins with the oldest strand of Roman religion - that of the household cults and the agrarian cults assumed to date from the earliest period of the city's history though he points out that our contemporary evidence for that period is extremely scanty and our knowledge derives largely from later sources writing of this earlier period. Every corner of a Roman house was sacred from the threshold and the door hinges, which each had their own protective deities, to the better known lar (later plural lares), the household's tutelary spirit, and its penates or ancestral spirits, each of whom could be expected to be honoured daily and treated with utmost respect in order to ensure their continued protection. Similarly, every stage of the agricultural cycle was under the protection of a specific deity or spirit whose task was to protect the wheat from rust or to ensure that the ears reached harvest time undamaged.
The urban or state cults included those such as that of Vesta, Jupiter and those concerned with the safety of the city and the state or with its prosperity are thought to have developed somewhat later. With them came the traditional Roman calendar in which individual days were set aside for mundane and human matters while others were dedicated to public festivals such as the Saturnalia and Lupercalia or to other religious activities or were deemed auspicious for senate and other state meetings.
In the chapter entitled Religions of the Empire Turcan discusses the arrival and impact of various cults and religions during the late Republic and empire periods from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. As pagans we might assume that the arrival of the cults of Bacchus, Isis or Cybele in the Roman heartland would automatically be a Good Thing, however Turcan discusses in detail the concern caused to the Roman authorities by the ecstatic worship associated with these cults and the fanaticism of some of their followers; the followers of Bacchus were rooted out and executed by the thousand in order to suppress his cult, while the followers of Isis caused a near riot on one occasion at a public ritual as a protest against delays in granting permission for the building of an Iseum, and temples of Isis were periodically closed for reasons of public order.
Finally he turns his attention to the impact of the rise of Christianity on the traditional cults of Rome and in particular the struggles of the pagans to keep their temples and worship alive in the face of growing Christian hostility and determination to put an end to them.
This is by its nature a very brief outline of the material Turcan manages to cram into this informative but quite brief book. He manages to discuss in some detail the nature, role and meaning of sacrifice (always an iffy subject for modern pagans even if those of two millennia ago regarded it as a normal and essential part of worship) and augury, the nature and creation of sacred space and sacred time and the role of the family as a microcosm of the wider state amongst other topics. There is a lot here and, as one would expect, it's very well referenced and draws on vast amounts of original Roman source material.
One point however: since Turcan is Professor of Roman History at the Sorbonne in Paris and this book was therefore originally written in French, the bibliography contains a high proportion of further reading in French, German and Italian, much of which will therefore be inaccessible to an English-speaking reader. Nevertheless there is much that an English-speaking reader can follow up with and the illustrations are drawn from less familiar collections of antiquities.
All in all, an excellent overview of the relationships between Romans and their gods for anyone wanting something more than a new age handbook.