Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Andreas Bendlin, Jörg Rüpke (ed.), Römische Religion im historischen Wandel: Diskursentwicklung von Plautus bis Ovid. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge Bd. 17. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009. Pp. 199. ISBN 9783515088282. €46.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Linda Zollschan

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume of eight essays is the result of a one-day colloquium at The University of Erfurt in January 2003 under the auspices of the research programme on Roman Imperial Religion and Provincial Religion.

In the introduction to the volume, Bendlin sets out the main theme of the collection, which is the interplay between literature and religion. More specifically, he sees the main topic as the evolution of a relationship between religion and literature in two specific periods when Roman society underwent rapid change, namely, the early second century and the late republic into the Principate. In order to reach some insight into the complex relationship between religion and literature, the editor proposes to start with the exposition of the origin and development of literary reflection concerning religion in Latin literature.

The earliest Latin author treated in the volume is Plautus. (A contribution on Cato the Elder would have been welcome.) Roman comedy is treated by Dunsch, who highlights the religious feast culture and the performative character of Roman comedy and re-emphasises its value as a source for Roman religious and social history. Using the example of Plautus' Mercator, Dunsch shows the many aspects of the play that display an intense knowledge of religious details. He argues that already in the early second century there was a much deeper and widespread familiarity with Hellenistic modes of philosophical thought coupled with antiquarian speculation on Roman religious practice. This argues against the thesis that it was in the late Republic when religion became an area of intellectual dispute.

Sehlmeyer presents a study on religious rituals and aetiologies in antiquarian literature. The author reconstructs the early form of antiquarian literature from the beginning of the second century to the more scholarly and historical type at the end of the second century and, finally, to the beginning of the first century. He asks what motivated the Romans to undertake such detailed studies and connects the move with other philosophical interests of the Romans at this time.

Rüpke's study on Varro in this volume should be read in conjunction with his more recent work on the subject.1 Rüpke sees Varro's Antiquitates rerum diuinarum as a work which, due to his antiquarian research, served to preserve the civic (that is, state) religion and its rituals. Varro attempted to reinstate the 'Roman' religion, which he saw as becoming rapidly diluted and being rendered precarious in its survival through the importation of foreign deities and the pervasive influence of Greek philosophy. (p.76) Rüpke suggests that Varro's systematization actually fixed Roman religious traditions in writing and, as a consequence, these traditions were rendered stable at a time of increasingly accelerated cultural change.

Gildenhard examines the use of religious philosophy in the political sphere in the late Republic. He shows the close interaction of traditional Roman religious practices, politics, and the Roman nobility when all three were subject to the stress of social change. His evidence is derived from an exploration of religious philosophical semantics in the speeches of Cicero (using the 3rd Catilinarian, de domo sua and In Pisonem). Gildenhard links the Greek philosophical arguments of Cicero with the new ordering of Roman religious concepts in the late Republic.

The second contribution by Rüpke is on Propertius' Fourth Book of Elegies. This study brings together classical studies and Roman religion by one of the leading specialists on Roman religion writing today. His analysis on this much studied work2 interprets the opening poem as a dialogue concerning a critical examination of the Roman idea of aetiologies. The figure of Horos, who is introduced as a Babylonian astrologer, calls himself in line 75 a vates. The author connects this with the topicality of the time regarding the debate between traditional Roman divination and astrology. In note 138 on p. 137 regarding bronze tablets and their significance for the Romans I would add the work of Williamson and Culham.3 This essay is a worthy contribution to the literature on Propertius' elegies and on Augustan literature in general.

LHommé attempts to uncovers the 'real' Verrius Flaccus from under the accretions of later editors. His De uerborum significatione comes to us (in a fragmentary fashion) from the later editions of first Festus and later of Paulus the Deacon). LHommé comes to the conclusion that Flaccus was a writer who lent his work to support and flatter the Augustan regime. She does this not merely by recounting the facts that Flaccus tutored the grandsons of Augustus and that he was given a house on the Palatine near that of Augustus, but by examining his actual writings. She notes that only the temples restored by Augustus are listed among those which had been rebuilt. (p. 153) Flaccus also included the opinion of antiquarians who had participated directly in Augustus' reforms. The entries which pertain to religion (a quarter of all those that survive) reflect, she concludes, the state of Roman religion only after Augustus' reforms.

Pfaff-Reydellet studies Ovid's Fasti as a work which uses the form of a commentary on the calendar to comment on the present, that is, a contemporary discourse on the massive religious changes undertaken by Augustus. Classicists have been slow to appreciate the value of the work: one senses some general agreement with Hermann Fränkel's comment that 'to versify and adorn an almanac was not a sound proposal in the first place.' [4]] While Classicists focus on the Fasti as a poetic artifact and study its structure,5 historians generally are interested in Ovid's attitude to the Princeps and the Imperial ideology.6 Pfaff-Reydellet sees Ovid as being neither antagonistic to, nor a supporter of, the Princeps; but rather as a poet who accepted the power of the Imperial family. One may contrast this view with some of the negative comments made by Ovid in the Fasti on Augustus' changes to the Roman cult. 7 In this paper one would prefer to see a more nuanced approach to the question of the political stance reflected in the poem. One might ask, for example, whether we are looking at merely the extent to which Augustan ideology had permeated the age. The author makes no mention of the debate on whether it is correct or justified to use terms such as 'pro-Augustan' or 'anti-Augustan'.8 One can only strongly endorse the call by Phillips for a 'dialogue between the most conceptually sophisticated modern studies of Roman religion and the most sensitive, scholarly, literary criticism of Ovid'.9

Waldner's paper is concerned with the way that Ovid adapts Greek models, as in the Iphis episode in Book 9 of the Metamorphoses. In his view, Ovid, in seeking to retell the tale in a new fashion, in reality converts the story into a study on religion and politics in Augustan Rome. The author suggests that Greek myth and Roman ritual influenced each other. In keeping with the theme of the volume, his study of Ovid shows how Latin literature and Roman religion operated in a mix of tension especially considering the politics and the dynamic changes of the Augustan Principate.

This volume illustrates how much of a divide still exists between what seem to have become almost separate disciplines of Roman religion and Classical studies. Background in both areas can create a complete and meaningful discussion into the relationship between Roman religion and Latin literature. Overall, this volume does not entirely live up to its stated aims, but it should provide motivation to open up the field for further research and development. Nevertheless, the papers presented here will be of interest in their own right to both Classicists and scholars of Roman religion.

Table of Contents:

B. Dunsche: Religion in der römischen Komödie: Einige programmatische Überlegungen.
M. Sehlmeyer: Auseinandersetzungen mit Religion in antiquarischer Literatur von M. Fulvius Nobilior bis L. Iulius Caesar.
Jörg Rüpke: Antiquar und Theologe: Systematisierende Beschreibung römischer Religion bei Varro.
I. Gildenhard: Gelegenheits metaphysik: Religiöse Semantik in Reden Ciceros.
Jörg Rüpke: Properz: Aitiologische Elegie in Augusteischer Zeit.
M.-K. Lhommé: Lectures traditionnelles et relectures augustéennes de la religion romaine: Verrius Flaccus, un antiquaire au service d'Auguste.
M. Pfaff-Reydellet: Ovids Fasti: Der Kaiser tritt in den öffentlichen Kalender ein.
K. Waldner: Zwischen Kreta und Rom: Ovids Bearbeitung eines aitiologischen
Mythos aus Nikanders Heteroiumena (Ant. Lib. 17) in den Metamorphosen.


1.   J. Rüpke, 'Varro's tria genera theologiae: Religious thinking in the late Republic', Ordia Prima 4 (2005) 107-129.
2.   Since 1992 nine monographs and fourteen dissertations, testified to the renewed popularity of Propertius. See M. Janan: review of J.B. DeBrohun, Roman Propertius and the Reinvention of Elegy, Ann Arbor 2003, in AJP 125/4 (2004) p. 622.
3.   C. Williamson, 'Monuments of Bronze: Roman Legal Documents on Bronze Tablets' Class.Ant. 6 (1987) 160-183; P. Culham, 'Archives and Alternatives in Republican Rome' CP 84/2 (1989) 100-115.
4.   H. Fränkel, Ovid: A Poet between Two Worlds, Berkeley, 1945, p. 148.
5.   See for example, L. Braun, "Kompositionskunst in Ovids 'Fasti', " ANRW 2.31.4, (1981) Berlin, pp. 2344-2383.
6.   A. Wallace-Hadrill, 'Time for Augustus: Ovid, Augustus and the Fasti' in M. Whitby et al. (eds.) Homo Viator: Classical Essays for John Bramble, Bristol, pp. 221-230.
7.   C.R. Phillips, 'Roman Religion and literary Studies of Ovid's Fasti', Arethusa 25 (1992) 55-80.
8.   For a critique of these terms see D.F. Kennedy, "Augustan" and "anti-Augustan". Reflections on Terms of Reference, in A. Powell (ed.) Roman Poetry and Propaganda in the Age of Augustus, London, 1992, pp. 26-58. Cf. response from P.J. Davis, "Since my part has been well played": Conflicting Evaluations of Augustus, Ramus 28 (1999) pp. 1-15.
9.   See note 7 above, p. 59.

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