Thursday, April 17, 2014


Katariina Mustakallio, Sive deus sive dea: la presenza della religione nello sviluppo della società romana (edizione italiana a cura di Donatella Puliga). Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2013. Pp. 196. ISBN 9788846736611. €20.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

We are living in a boom period for the study of Roman religion: the invaluable Forschungsberichte regularly assembled by Andreas Bendlin and colleagues bear witness to the chronological, geographical, and methodological diversity of recent scholarship.1 Katariina Mustakallio's compact and well-illustrated Sive deus sive dea, an Italian translation of the Finnish Uskonto ja yhteisö antiikin Roomassa,2 now joins the ranks of student handbooks on Roman religion published over the past two decades. Bracketed by a programmatic3 "premessa della curatrice" (Donatella Puliga, Ricercatore at the Università degli Studi di Siena) and an extensive bibliography, the main text checks in at a very manageable 155 pages—divided into 12 chapters that are each accompanied by topically-arranged suggestions for further reading.

The first four chapters introduce concepts, clarify terms, and set up historical and institutional scaffolding. Chapter 1 addresses the differences between our notion of religion and the Latin term religio, reflects (briefly) on our sources for the study of Roman religion, sketches the Roman concept of reciprocity between gods and men, and explains the terms ritus, cultus, and pietas. Chapter 2 darts from a structural-anthropological account of the Roman pantheon to a Dumézil-inflected overview of the Jupiter-Quirinus-Mars triad—and its Jupiter-Juno-Minerva successor—to a whirlwind tour of the history and topography of settlement at Rome and in the Tiber Valley. Also mentioned are the temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta in the Forum Boarium; the "stretto legame tra religione e istituzioni" in the traditional narratives of Rome's foundation; and the antiquity of the so-called dii indigetes and their steady supplementing by the dii nouensides. Chapter 3 shines its light on ritual and priestly activity. Topics explored here include the contractual features of Roman religion; divination, with emphasis on augury and haruspication; the nature of sacrifice and of the votum; human sacrifice in Roman myth and history; sacro-legal and juridical protocols, particularly in connection with punishment; the tension between, and determination of, purity and impurity; the Atiedian Brothers of the Iguvine Tablets and the collegium of the Arvals at Rome (the carmen Aruale is provided, without translation); the pontifices, flamines, and Vestals; and, in one (concluding) paragraph, the color purple as "colore per il sacro." Finally chapter 4 offers a periodized account of religious innovation in the early and middle Republic. Short treatments of the cults of Castor and Pollux, Ceres-Liber-Libera on the Aventine, and Fortuna Muliebris—all contextualized within the Struggle of the Orders—are followed by an account of the religious developments of 296/95 BCE and their primary catalysts (Verginia, the Ogulnii); then, an analysis of the "isteria religiosa" of the Second Punic War, some remarks on the importance of gender and its conceptualization to cult practice, and final notes on memoria and fama in Republican thinking.

In the second third of the book, attention shifts to the private, domestic, and gendered spaces for Roman religious practice. Chapter 5 scrutinizes the family as a locus for cult. Mustakallio opens with a brief exposition of the various divine agents believed to patrol and inhabit the domus. She then pivots to the notion of mos and its function in structuring the religious relationship between a family and its ancestors; a concluding section makes note of the practice of magic and the use of tabellae defixionis in the domestic sphere. Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to "the cycle of life" and its attendant divinities. The former is subtitled "birth, infancy, and tutelary divinities," but in fact ranges from birth and infancy to marriage and marriage ritual, and from there to old age; the latter, though mainly concerned with death and its commemorative and ritual apparatus, winds down with a few paragraphs on Roman conceptions of the afterlife. Chapter 8 is a four-page précis of the role of women in Roman religion that begins with the observation—sure to be contested by some—that, when compared to the status of women in Greek religion, the status of women in Roman religion was "più emarginate." Notes on the Matronalia, the Matralia, the festival of Bona Dea, and the place of gender in "il campo sacro" follow.

The chapters in the final third follow a loose chronological progression. Chapter 9, on "slaves, freedmen, and new cults," first reiterates (without qualifying or assessing) the traditional account of the religious crisis triggered by the social and institutional upheavals of the late Republic. A short historical overview—centered on the Second Punic War's ravaging of the Italian countryside, the emergence of latifundia as formerly peasant soldiers were compelled to seek their fortunes in the city, and the dramatic rise in the number of slaves—frames Mustakallio's treatment of the Eunus and Spartacus slave revolts and their religious implications. After commenting on the Roman tendency to install new cults during moments of social crisis, Mustakallio outlines in fairly quick succession the worship of the Magna Mater/Cybele (and Attis), the Bacchanalian conspiracy and its suppression, and the emergence of Mithraism. The chapter closes with the muddled argument that the trend in the High Empire towards a mono-/henotheism "secondo la quale i vari culti non erano che diverse manifestazioni … di un grande spirito divino" amounted to a "nuovo tipo di pensiero" (p. 131), citing the Ptolemaic-era syncretistic cult of Serapis in the same breath as "altre … combinazioni di divinità … nel periodo tardoantico." The more narrowly-confined chapter 10 tackles astrology at Rome, from its Republican-era rise and the Hellenistic-philosophical influences driving its popularization to its imperial (elite) adherents; also noted are the motivations behind the occasional expulsions of astrologers from the city. Chapter 11 takes up the relationship between the gods and "men of state"; points of emphasis here include the Republican ideological construction of odium regni, Augustus' success at allaying and averting this hatred while implementing religious reforms that integrated the imperial family into the religious life of Rome, and the institutionalization of imperial apotheosis.

This last topic sets the stage for the book's final chapter, "L'imperatore è un dio?" After a few pages on the construction of the Imperial fora and the religious changes brought into being thereby, the chapter references the vogue of new "Oriental" cults—especially those popular among soldiers—under the Severans; next follow several pages on Christianity, whose "successo progressivo e piuttosto rapido" is credited to the "punti di forza" of its doctrine: social openness and the ethos of solidarity (p. 159). The chapter concludes with a brief narrative of Christianity's institutionalization in the fourth century CE, wrapping up with the observation that many habits and beliefs associated with previous religious practices remained alive in the newly ascendant religion. Bibliography and a table of contents round out the remaining pages; there is no final chapter for the book as a whole, and no index rerum or locorum.

In the preface, Puliga alerts the reader that Mustakallio's book is meant not as a compendium of Roman religion but as a guide to its "elementi costitutivi" (p. 6). We are well within our rights, then, to ask whether this is a useful guide. Two features of the book deserve particular praise. The first is the generally strong coverage of Continental and European scholarship in the bibliographic supplements to each chapter and in the general bibliography (though there are some striking omissions4). The second is the superb quality of the photographs: the care involved in their selection and reproduction reflects a sophisticated understanding of how visuals can bring Roman religion to life for the expert and uninitiated reader alike.

Regrettably, Mustakallio's guide is marred by inconsistencies in the italicizing of ancient and modern titles, in the citation conventions for authors, in the use of opening and closing quotation marks, in the preference for in-text parenthetical citation versus endnotes, and in the alignment of text and photograph; errata both minor and major abound.5 More substantive issues with content and argument are apparent as well. First, the almost-total lack of connective and transitional tissue between chapter subsections left me wondering just how much was sacrificed in the paring down of the original Finnish volume. Second, in part because of the compression and selectivity of Mustakallio's text, well-studied topics in Roman religious history receive little to no attention. The provinces, and Roman religion in the provinces, are only fleetingly mentioned. Apart from a few sentences on the Julian reform at p. 118, there is no systematic exposition of the Roman calendar, a traditional set-piece in accounts of Roman religion and recently the subject of multiple monographs.6 Even more glaring is the total absence of Hellenistic/Roman Judaism; the religious tradition responsible for the texts of Philo and Josephus goes completely unaccounted for. Obviously, Judaism is not one of the "constitutive elements" of Roman religion; but seeing as one of the founding figures in the study of Roman religion thought it well worth his while to consider Jewish practices (Varro ARD frr. 16-17 Cardauns), shouldn't Roman engagements with the Jews receive at least some attention?

The final, methodological problem with this student guide is that at no point do we really get a sense of how the sausage is made—of how one moves from the textual and material record to reasoned and carefully justified conclusions about Roman religious practice. In this important respect, Sive deus sive dea falls short of the standard set by John Scheid's (comparably-sized) introductory handbook.7 To be sure, Mustakallio does occasionally allude to the limitations of the literary record, especially for the early Republic (so e.g. at p. 62 on the founding legend for the cult of Castor and Pollux at Rome; note also p. 73 n. 18). But otherwise this guide pays little heed to the ideologies and discourses that structure our sources, material and literary—or to the frictions, often quite heuristically productive, that emerge from reading these sources against and through each other. The end result, then, is a flattening and monochromatic guide to Roman religion, generous with assertion but much too short on interrogation.


1.   Archiv für Religionsgeschichte (2) 2000, 283-345; (5) 2003, 297-371; (9) 2007, 297-404; (11) 2009, 301-411; (14) 2013, 239-363.
2.   Helsinki, 2008; second ed. 2011.
3.   Puliga praises Mustakallio—formerly the head of the Finnish Academy at Rome—as a scholar "che da sempre a questa cultura si è accostata con l'equilibrio e il rispetto che si deve ad ogni alterità"; two paragraphs later, she commends the perspective da lontano of those who "non appartenendo alla geografia dei paesi del bacino del Mediterranneo, non ha la presunzione di sentirsi erede diretto di un patrimonio troppo spesso dato per scontato." The implication seems to be that Italian scholars are too secure in their claim to an unmediated heritage to bother with keeping the alterità of ancient Rome in clear focus.
4.   This reviewer was especially struck by the absence of the Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae; Catalano or Linderski on divination; Mary Beard's work on the Vestals; and Paillier's volume on the Bacchanalia.
5.   A list has been posted under the BMCR blog version of this review.
6.   M.R. Salzman's On Roman time (1990); J. Rüpke's Kalendar und Öffentlichkeit (1995 = tr. Eng. 2011 The Roman calendar from Numa to Constantine); D. Feeney's Caesar's Calendar (2007).
7.   J. Scheid, La religion des Romains (1998, second ed. 2010 = tr. Eng. 2003 An introduction to Roman religion), with an entire opening section devoted to issues of methodology. The heftier introductions to Roman religion published in recent years (Beard, North, and Price 1998; Rüpke 2001 = tr. Eng. 2007) also contain ample discussions of method.

1 comment:

  1. Dan-el Padilla PeraltaApril 17, 2014 at 10:39 PM

    Errata: p. 14 n. 2, Serv. ad Aened; p. 14 n. 4, “Ed div.” should read De div.; pp. 18, 61, 104, and 112 contain incomplete cross-references (“vd. pag. 00” vel sim.); p. 27, the dedication of the statue by the Ogulnii takes place in 296 BCE, not 206; p. 30 n. 31, the correct citation is Verg. Georg. 1.498-99; p. 32, the bibliographic entry for Rabun Taylor’s article “Watching the skies” is reduplicated; p. 36 at bottom, Feriae (not ferie); p. 39, J. (not W.) Scheid; p. 54 n. 29, dangling “Per”; p. 54 n. 14, the source for the Mars pater prayer is Cato (not Varro) De agri cultura 141; p. 55 n. 39, “Mit5chell”; p. 67, the Ogulnii were not edili patrizi but curuli (having held the tribunate of the plebs a few years prior, the Ogulnii were clearly plebeian, whatever we make of the patrician-plebeian divide at this time; this correction has implications for Mustakallio’s argument); p. 73 n. 4, sacrificius (not sacrifius); p. 73 n. 24, “il console Ogulnio aveva fatto promulgare una legge nel 300” is incorrect: the lex Ogulnia was promulgated by Cn. and Q. Ogulnius as tribunes (the latter would be consul in 269); p. 85, lar familiaris (not familias); p. 105, publicum (not pubblicum); p. 108 n. 1, in “Harlow M.k. Laurence R. 2002,” the stray k is a holdover from Finnish; p. 109 n. 31, “vedi vedi”; p. 114, Augustus et Augusta (not Augusto); p. 115 n. 12, Livy 22.57.6 is cited and quoted in connection with human burials of 114 BCE, but this passage refers to the human burials of 216 after Cannae; p. 122, “precedenzaper”; p. 126, the cult of Magna Mater is solicited following consultation of Sibylline Books in 204 BCE, not 214; p. 130, “adetpi”; p. 132 n. 23, “eKr” is a holdover from Finnish; p. 132 n. 29, Livy 29.10.4-8 (not 29.104-8); p. 142 n. 2, “Ennius ap.” should not be followed by semi-colon (and a reference to Jocelyn’s numbering of this fragment would be helpful); p. 143, “Ian G. Kidd, Ian G.”; p. 145, optimus ciuis, not optimum; p. 147, “quli”; p. 162 n. 8, in “Champeaux 2002, 136 ja 151” and n. 10, “Plin.ep.10.52.ja 102,” “ja” is holdover from Finnish; p. 174, “Fears, R.” should be “Fears, J.R.”; p. 175 (and elsewhere cited), the author of The complete Roman army is A. Goldsworthy, not Galsworthy; p. 184, “Palmer Robert E.A.” and “Palmer, R.E.A.” are the same person; p. 187, Elizabeth Rawson’s “Prodigy lists” article came out in CQ 21, not 1; the second set of photographs has two Fig. XVIIs.
    On the issue of text and image: the reader is referred to Fig. XVI, a statue of Isis with cistrum, twice in very different contexts; the second instance at p. 138 (in the context of Manilius’ Astronomica) seems mistaken. More puzzling is the reference to Fig. XI, cited after the following sentence on p. 102: “Nella tarda repubblica, i funerali di famiglie nobili si trasformarono infatti in sontuosi spettacoli, che comprendevano addiritura gare e rappresentazioni.” Fig. XI is a child sarcophagus (Museo Nazionale Romano inv. no. 713 = Huskinson Roman Children’s Sarcophagi [1996] no. 1.29) conventionally dated to the early second century CE; the child’s socioeconomic background is unclear—his parents were probably well off, but members of the nobili?—and the child’s “life journey” as depicted on this sarcophagus has no apparent connection to the points raised on p. 102.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.