Sunday, May 6, 2012


J. A. North, S. R. F. Price (ed.), The Religious History of the Roman Empire: Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xxi, 577. ISBN 9780199567355. $75.00 (pb).

Reviewed by E. J. Hutchinson, Hillsdale College (

Version at BMCR home site


The latest volume in the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies series, The Religious History of the Roman Empire, is a demanding collection of seventeen essays various in subject matter, ranging from the very theoretical to the much more concrete, and very recent in date (the oldest contribution, that of Averil Cameron, is from 1994; the most recent is from 2007, along with four from 2006).1 In a moment I shall have more to say on the organization of the volume and some of its features, but a few remarks on the book's purpose and audience are warranted first.2 In the very brief introduction (1-5), it is made clear that the collection intends to showcase the necessity of interdisciplinarity in the study of ancient religions, rather than leaving pagans to the Classicists, Christians to the Theology Faculties, and Jews to the Jewish Studies scholars, because studying any of these groups in isolation "will always result in a warped and partial view of their histories" (2). To that end, the editors have selected papers that "illustrate the work of some of the scholars who have influenced the arguments" and that "indicate some of the key moments" in the debates on the religious history of the Roman Empire (1). Thus many of these essays are dense, rigorous, and highly technical, and sometimes difficult to understand without a good deal of background knowledge. At the same time, "the selection of the work" is "designed to cater for those taking courses, whether in History, Religious Studies, Classics, or any other related discipline" (5)—that is, students will "find [it] a valuable introduction to the study of developments in ancient religious life" (5). There is, it seems to me, a tension between these two goals, because some of the material is pitched not to the student but to the specialist. The fact that all citations from languages other than English have been translated alleviates some of the potential difficulties, as do the incredibly useful individual bibliographies for each essay along with the "Suggestions for Further Reading" included at the end (564-71); but best of all would have been a longer and more detailed introduction elucidating how the papers fit together, relate to one another, and take their place in the larger debates of which they are obviously a part. There are interesting connections to be made among several of the contributions, but these are left implicit for the reader to discover. For the student, the novice, and the non-specialist instructor some guidance would have been useful. As it stands, for those particular audiences the book will best function as a collection of supplementary case-studies for a narrative history such as that by M. Beard and the two editors of the collection under consideration.3

The greatest benefit of this book is to bring together in one convenient location mostly fascinating and recent investigations that are otherwise difficult to obtain if one is not at a large research university. To illustrate this, I have used my own institution, a small liberal arts college, as a case-study. Of the seventeen essays collected here, I had access to exactly three through library holdings and electronic access (JSTOR, ebrary): J.B. Rives' article on magic in Roman law, first published in Classical Antiquity; Martin Goodman's essay "Josephus and Variety in First- Century Judaism," already reprinted in his Judaism in the Roman World: Collected Essays; and Peter Brown's "Enjoying the Saints in Late Antiquity," first published in Early Medieval Europe. In addition, seven of the seventeen papers are here translated into English from French, German, and Italian for the first time: J. Rüpke, "Roman Religion and the Religion of Empire: Some Reflections on Method" (German); W. Van Andringa, "New Combinations and New Statuses: The Indigenous Gods in the Pantheons of the Cities of Roman Gaul" (French); N. Belayche, "Hypsistos: A Way of Exalting the Gods in Graeco-Roman Polytheism" (French); A. Bendlin, "On the Uses and Disadvantages of Divination: Oracles and their Literary Representations in the Time of the Second Sophistic" (German, from a volume reviewed in BMCR 2007.04.03); S. Price, "Homogeneity and Diversity in the Religions of Rome" (French); G. Sfameni Gasparro, "Mysteries and Oriental Cults: A Problem in the History of Religions" (Italian, from a volume reviewed in BMCR 2007.08.05); J. Scheid, "Community and Community: Reflections on Some Ambiguities Based on the Thiasoi of Roman Egypt" (French). This list gives some idea of the variety of both the origin and the subject-matter of the papers found here.

The collection is structured around four major divisions. Part I, "Changes in Religious Life: Roman and Civic Cults," includes six papers, ranging from imperial cult to magic and with much focus on the provinces. Part II, "Elective Cults," includes four and deals with mystery cults and problems of identity and association. Part III, "Co-Existence of Religions, Old and New," comprises five essays that deal with Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and the terminology used to describe non-Christians in the late Empire ("pagans"? "polytheists"?). Part IV, "Late Antiquity," has only two – one might have hoped for a bit more coverage here – on women in early Christianity and on the saints.

In addition to the already recent vintage of the book's essays, eight also include an Afterword written shortly before publication (for most of them, in either 2009 or 2010): Rüpke, both contributions of Gordon, Rives, Belayche, Bendlin, Lieu, and Cameron. Sfameni Gasparro's paper, while not including an Afterword, has a supplementary bibliography (2009) arranged thematically. As a result of these features, the reader has nearly up-to-the-minute coverage, and in any case the individual bibliographies of all the papers are (again) quite useful and give the reader a wealth of leads to continue his investigation of the topics treated. Most helpful for the student and general instructor are the "Suggestions for Further Reading" noted above. These are arranged thematically and linked to the book's various chapters (for example, "On Judaism (discussed by Harland, above, Ch. 11 and Goodman, above, Ch. 12" (567)). They include only works in English and, most importantly, are selective and directed; they are therefore not so exhaustive as to be overwhelming and confusing for the novice. Finally, the book concludes with an index (573-7) including ancient authors, modern scholars, and topic areas together.

Overall, the book is handsomely produced. Several of the papers include images in black and white (for example, Gordon on the imperial cult, Van Andriga on indigenous Gallic gods, Price on homogeneity and diversity in Roman religion), and their quality is high. All images are listed in the book's front matter (xii-xvii). There are rather many typographical errors (see partial list below), but most of these are unobtrusive—though it is unfortunate that in one instance in North's essay on religious terminology the title of Athanassiadi and Frede's Pagan Monotheism is misprinted as Pagan Polytheism!

All in all, The Religious History of the Roman Empire is a useful and challenging compilation of some very hard-to-come-by papers and will provide students of ancient paganism, Judaism, and Christianity with much fodder for further and more in-depth investigation of Roman religious life.

Corrigenda (in case the book should go to a second printing): read "Victoria" for "Victoriae" (24); Mommsen's Römisches Strafrecht is listed under Momigliano's bibliographical entry (34); a verb is lacking in the first full sentence on 143; ἀγιώτατου should be ἀγιώτατον (160); missing accents in Greek text (162); read "Opramoas" for "Opromoas" (178); space missing between "fulfilment" and "must" (187); read "indestructible" for "indestructable" (199 n. 42); read "Oenoanda" for "Oinoanda" (219); "as as" should be "as" (221); read "oracles" for "oracíes"; "Tilloboros" should be "Tillorobos" (236); one finds "Sarapis" on 263 and in the index, but "Serapis" on 265; read "characteristics" for "charateristics" (288); "eating and drinking from the sacred instruments" rather than "eating and drinking of the sacred instruments" (311); "than they are in the Rhine-Danube area" instead of "than they are on…" (327); "feeds" should be "feed" (357); "aesceticism" should be "asceticism" (359); "en masse" for "on mass" (367; presumably this is what the French original in the citation said and could have been left as such); "previously" should be "previous" (395); read "vigorously" for "vigourously" (444); "nor" for "not" (451); delete one expression of possession in "the lack of food's defiling power of food" (468); read "I" for "It" (474); "see" should be "See" (511 n. 13); the English translation from Augustine on 531 is awkward as it stands, but could be made less so by removing the first period and replacing it with a softer pause; "Andeas" should be "Andreas" (562).


1.   I do not intend to review each contribution separately due to considerations of space and because they have all been published previously.
2.   This focus on very recent material sets this volume apart from others in the series which seek to collect "classics" from a much broader spectrum of time: e.g. the volumes on Lucretius, Euripides, and Ancient Literary Criticism.
3.   Beard, M., J. North, and S. Price. Religions of Rome. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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