Monday, March 2, 2015


David Engels, Peter Van Nuffelen (ed.), Religion and Competition in Antiquity. Collection Latomus, 343. Bruxelles: Éditions Latomus, 2014. Pp. 307. ISBN 9782870312902. €51.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Andrzej Gillmeister, University of Zielona Góra (

Version at BMCR home site

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

This volume attempts to apply a market place metaphor to the study of ancient religions. It shows a broad range of approaches within this theory, which function in the sociological studies of religion since Peter Berger's achievements in the late 60s of the 20th century and the influence of Rodney Stark's works on the study of ancient religion. The book contains 12 essays related to methological approach (two), the ancient Near East (one), the classical Greek world (two), Roman religion (two), competition in Late Antiquity (four) and a general paper about religious history in the first millenium AD.

The introductory chapter, written by David Engels and Peter Van Nuffelen, is extremely interesting. The authors present a very wide spectrum of methodological approaches connected with market place and competition metaphors. It is a brilliant introduction into the development of contemporary theories in religious studies. It puts the other papers published in the volume in a theoretical framework which shows that economical metaphors—market and competition—have their clear limits and should be used cautiously. This chapter also contains a good bibliography.

The article "Religious Rivalry in Seleucid Babylonia. Marduk of Babylon versus Anu of Uruk" by Tom Boiy (45-54) examines competition between those two patron deities and it shows how this process evolved.

In "Oracles and Oracle-Sellers. An Ancient Market in Futures" (55-95) Esther Eidinow assumes that the examination of the nature of the network interconnections between mantic centres and oracle sellers allows, inter alia, to define the efficiency of the market place metaphor. Eidinow's well-documented research clearly shows that there was a competition between individual seers, but we must stress that they functioned within a kind of network of relationships. It is also necessary to reappraise the idea of a competition between oracle sanctuaries e.g. Dodona and Delphi. They collaborated rather than competed. Eidinow is very careful in using the economic metaphors. She rightly draws attention to the fact that the market place metaphors do not fit exactly into the reality of the Greek world. In footnotes 104 and 164 there is a reference to Johnston (2008) but it cannot be found in the bibliography.

The next article "Liberty versus Religion Tradition. Some 'Impious' Thinkers in Ancient Greece" by Aikaterini Lefka (96-112) tries to answer the question why in the generally tolerant Greek society some philosophers were persecuted and even condemned to death. Lefka considers the case of Socrates, Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and the Pythagoreans. She claims that, along with other factors, the accusation of impiety was always an important part of persecution, and she treats these cases as the limitation of religious and social freedom in the ancient Greek community.

Dominique Briquel in "Etrusca disciplina and Roman Religion. From Initial Hesitation to a Privileged Place" (112-132) examines how the place of the haruspices in civic Roman religion evolved. Their presence in the ritual life of Romans could be a factor that inspired competition in this field. However, as Briquel clearly demonstrates on the basis of an analysis of the activity of augurs, the haruspices rather added to Roman religion the elements which this religion lacked. He rightly states that Roman and Etruscan priests took their duty to another level and were simply complementary to each other without being competitors. It was rather a peaceful cohabitation. He shows the religious and political roots of an originally hostile attitude towards Etruscan specialists in divination, but the situation changed under the Empire, and the Etrusca disciplina was completely integrated into a framework of civic rituals and was able to compete with Christianity. Briquel concludes his reflections with a statement that the Etruscan religious tradition was one of the most vivid components of pagan religion, which was very attractive to the believers, particularly in regard to its interest in the afterlife. I would only like to supplement the author's remarks on one point. The additional analysis of the activity of another priestly college, e.g. decemviri sacris faciundis could support Briquel's hypothesis by showing that during the Republic the official Roman priests acted at the civic level and haruspices only at the private one.

Françoise Van Haeperen devotes her article "Cohabitation or Competition in Ostia during the Empire" (133-148) to two main issues. She begins by addressing the question whether there was any competition between the members of a single collegium and if this rivalry could result in religious euergetism. The second issue is connected with the potential competition between new and old cults. She thinks that despite the well-attested presence of foreign gods, such as Mithras in Ostia, there is only little evidence of a real competition. The last problem she deals with is the question of contacts between pagans and Christians. Van Haeperen proves that the character of the potential competition between these two social groups may have been rhetorical rather than real.

In "The End of Open Competition? Religious Disputation in Late Antiquity" (149-172), Peter Van Nuffelen, one of the volume's editors, critically assesses Richard Lim's thesis that the decline of religious disputation in Late Antiquity was one of the reasons for the disappearance of religious competition. According to Van Nuffelen, this opinion is wrong because the persuasive discourse was noted as the most proper way to deal with religious pluralism even if its character was more rhetorical prior to this period. This careful distinction between discourse and reality deserves the reader's attention.

Veit Rosenberger's study "Competing Cenobites. Food and Drinks in the Lives of Theodoretus of Cyrrhus" (173-191) shows that one can analyse the thematic problem at several levels, e.g. as a competition between monks and the devil, or even God. The latter competition had a friendly character and was part of the priests' efforts to deserve eternal happiness in paradise. Rosenberg identifies another trace of competition in the relations between monks caused by the literary sources (e.g. Theodoretus). A further aspect of competition lies in treating martyrdom as an agon between ascetics and their persecutors. The last example is the rivalry between different groups of Christians, which can be regarded as the 'real' one. Rosenberger identifies these kinds of competitions by analysing various situations in which they could reveal themselves because, as he concludes, "the large-scale competition must be dealt with alio loco" (189).

In Ine Jacobs' article "A Time for Prayer and a Time for Pleasure. Christianity's Struggle with the Secular World" (192-219) we can find a very interesting analysis of how the significance of sacrum and profanum was established in Late Antiquity. She looks at the archaeological remains of theatre buildings as the basis for her analysis and argues that, when Christian buildings became more visible in the city, the role of theatres, even though they continued to exist, diminished. In the last part of her article Jacobs makes a fair analysis of the presence of the cross on this kind of buildings as a way to purify them from idolatry. She concludes her observations with the statement that in Late Antiquity the boundaries between the secular and the profane were quite obvious and these spheres remained in competition, especially in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. Jacobs also thinks that if the initial phase of this rivalry is well attested, the later evolution is more difficult to research. She is convinced that the sacred slowly won its battle for the Christian world.

Aude Busine, in her article "The Conquest of the Past. Christian Attitudes towards Civic History" (220-236), assumes that Christianity had to change not only the beliefs and customs of a city, but also modified a city's cultural identity. She considers the way in which Christians tried to compete with the pagan past of a Greek poleis. Busine thinks that the process which she calls "interpretatio Christiana of local myths" (226) pursues the creation of a new vision of civic past and ensures room for a new identity in the well rooted history of Greek cities. In some cases, however, it also tries to replace these local myths by new ones established on the basis of Biblical reality. She concludes that the aspiration to re-appropriate a charter myth showed that for the Christians of Late Antiquity the classical idea of the polis perceived as the urban and civic community was still very vivid.

The extensive study "Historising Religion between Spiritual Continuity and Friendly Takeover. Salvation History and Religious Competition during the First Millennium AD" written by David Engels (237-284) considers religious beliefs in a long-term perspective by examining their construction, continuance and evolution. Engels aims to present the material taken from different religions such as paganism (which he regards as common beliefs of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity), Christianity, Judaism, Manichaeism, Sunnite Islam and Ismailism. This broad spectrum allows him to outline the history of religious history in the first millennium AD. Without any doubt this study, although it oversimplifies the topic in some sections, is very interesting. It shows that it is worth comparing even quite different cultural and religious systems to demonstrate their common roots and, most importantly, sometimes the intense competition or collaboration between them.

The last article "Oriental Religions and the Conversion of the Roman Empire. The views of Ernst Renan and of Franz Cumont on the Transition from Traditional Paganism to Christianity" (285-307) is written by Daniel Praet, one of the most prominent experts on Franz Cumont's work. Praet compares the ideas of the French writer and the Belgian historian about so-called oriental religion. He devotes his article to present the model of competition between Mithraism and Christianity as it was seen by Renan and Cumont. This is a brilliant presentation of the interaction between literary and scientific spheres in which the author clearly indicates the important role of classical education in Europe before World War II.

This volume, edited by David Engels and Peter Van Nuffelen, presents a high level of scholarship and provides scholars with new and original assumptions which allow explorations of the nuances of the sociological and, partly, anthropological approach to ancient religions. The articles are a masterful example of how a clever and prudent use of modern theories can provide a fresh view on ancient reality. They are all closely connected with the thesis formulated in the introduction, but the case studies clearly go beyond it. They verify the main assumption about competition in ancient religion as one of the most important factors present in ancient religions. The authors show us that the metaphors of the market place and competition in most cases should be supplemented by another one: collaboration.

As is usually the case of most Collection Latomus volumes, the book is a valuable publication, in spite of some typographic errors and small editorial mistakes.

Table of Contents

1. Religion and Competition in Antiquity. An Introduction. David Engels / Peter Van Nuffelen: p. 9
2. Religious Rivalry in Seleucid Babylonia. Marduk of Babylon versus Anu of Uruk. Tom Boiy: p. 45
3. Oracles and Oracle-Sellers. An Ancient Market in Futures. Esther Eidinow: p. 55
4. Liberty versus Religious Tradition. Some 'Impious' Thinkers in Ancient Greece. Aikaterini Lefka: p. 96
5. Etrusca disciplina and Roman Religion. From Initial Hesitation to a Privileged Place. Dominique Briquel: p. 112
6. Cohabitation or Competition in Ostia under the Empire? Françoise Van Haeperen: p. 133
7. The End of Open Competition? Religious Disputations in Late Antiquity. Peter Van Nuffelen: p. 149
8. Competing Coenobites. Food and Drink in the Lives of Theodoretus of Cyrrhus. Veit Rosenberger: p. 173
9. A Time for Prayer and a Time for Pleasure. Christianity's Struggle with the Secular World. Ine Jacobs: p. 192
10. The Conquest of the Past. Christian Attitudes towards Civic History. Aude Busine: p. 220
11. Historising Religion between Spiritual Continuity and Friendly Takeover. Salvation History and Religious Competition during the First Millenium AD. David Engels: p. 237
12. Oriental Religions and the Conversion of the Roman Empire. The Views of Ernest Renan and of Franz Cumont on the Transition from Traditional Paganism to Christianity. Danny Praet: p. 285

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