Monday, August 21, 2017


Jörg Rüpke, On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the Individual in Ancient Rome. Townsend lectures / Cornell studies in classical philology. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2016. Pp. x, 198. ISBN 9781501704703. $49.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Ine Jacobs, University College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is the result of three Townsend Lectures delivered at the Department of Classics at Cornell University in autumn 2013. As such, this monograph forms a counterpart to Robert Parker's volume on Greek religion.1 However, Rüpke takes a whole new approach to Roman religion. Like many more of his recent publications, this book places individual interpretations and appropriations of gods, rituals, and religious functions in the foreground. Emphasis no longer lies on deities or on collective expressions of religious feelings towards these deities, but on named or unnamed real people who left traces in the literary and epigraphic record. Whereas individuals have only been given attention in previous studies of Roman religious institutions and ritual if their actions provoked outrage amidst contemporaries, the individuals that interest Rüpke are not necessarily famous or even known by name.

In each chapter he presents the reader with individual actors, interpreters or creators, living between the third century BC and the third century AD, all with specific interpretations and motivations guiding their communication with both gods and humans. Not only does such an approach do justice to the messiness of religion and life in general, as Rüpke rightfully remarks, it makes it much easier to understand how and why religious expressions and ritual changed over time. Indeed, even though individuals make original choices, when their example is followed by others they can influence and re-shape institutionalised forms of religion and ritual. This intricate interplay between individualisation and institutionalisation forms a recurring theme throughout the book. In addition, the reader is repeatedly made aware of the related and equally complex relations between texts and rituals ("discourse and action," p. 121), the one constantly shaping the other.

After a brief introduction and a first theoretical chapter, chapters 2 to 8 each deal with very diverse aspects of Roman religion, some of which have been elaborated in other publications by the same author and are mentioned in the footnotes of this overview volume. The introduction offers a concise overview of traditional and recent trends in the study of ancient Mediterranean religion and contrasts them with the approach taken in the volume. It introduces and briefly dwells on the concept of "lived religion", as reformulated by urban anthropologist Meredith McGuire2 and transposed by Rüpke to antiquity. "Lived ancient religion is concerned with action and experience" (p. 61). The first chapter analyses what the concept of an individual meant in antiquity and provides on overview of the ways one can gain insight into individualisation and individuality. Rüpke decidedly turns away from the generalised individual found in theoretical works on individuality, as well as from autobiographical texts written with an audience in mind. Instead, he explains how he seeks and finds individuality in distinct combinations of deities both in domestic contexts and in sanctuaries (one of the few places in the book where material culture in the form of statuettes and depictions is briefly considered), in exceptional religious roles and in individual communication with a deity through revelations and dedications.

Chapter 2, "Individual Decision and Social Order", provides a new analysis of individual appropriation and interpretation of traditional political and priestly roles in the late republican period. Religious specialists had to adhere to a set of regulations and expectations. Yet, despite social expectations and the promise of harsh penalties for non-compliance, a few individuals managed to interpret their responsibilities in unconventional ways. Rüpke shows in particular how the coating of a religious office could impact the political realm as well. Appropriation, as the way in which the individual interprets existing norms and traditions, and in particular those surrounding images of gods, provides the starting point of Chapter 3 ('Appropriating Images-Embodying Gods'). The discussion begins with a poem of Propertius (Carmen 4.2), composed around 16 BC, in which a (statue of a) god by the name of Vertumnus addresses the reader/listener. The poem makes clear that Vertumnus is virtually impossible to define, has no single function, is both god and statue and can be worshipped in multiple manners. In other words, the deity can be appropriated by every individual worshipper.

The next chapter ("Testing the Limits of Ritual Choices") then investigates the circumstances in which magic was used and how individuals saw it as part of or separate from sacred rituals. After a short overview of the mentioning of magic in Hellenistic and Roman literature, Rüpke focuses on the period of the 30s and 20s BC, during which a heightened number of poems on magic coincided with stronger rules regarding such practices. Propertius again serves as the starting point of the discussion, as in his poems, magic is entirely permissible, even though there are many other possible solutions to deal with adversity and control the surrounding world, and even though engaging in magic remains dangerous.

Chapter 5, 'Reconstructing Religious Experience', focuses on the anticipated audience of texts, their users or "connected readers". Using Ovid's Libri fastorum, or calendar of Roman festivals, Rüpke reconstructs Ovid's individual readers as the "informed and sympathetic observer or bystander" (p. 95), interested in major public festivals as well as local cults, eager to learn what is proper on which day of the year and what emotional tone should be adopted when participating. Though such calendars form part of an established tradition, the connected reader is directly addressed and encouraged to make individual choices against the backdrop of institutionalised cult.

In both Chapter 6 ("Dynamics of Individual Appropriation") and Chapter 7 ("Religious Communication") the potential of individual choices and originality in enacting a ritual is studied. Rüpke strongly argues for thinking in terms of "ritualization" and "performance" (p. 99-100), supplementing the perceived repetitive and stereotypical nature of an act with the uniqueness of every single time it was carried out. In Chapter 6, Rüpke opens the reader's eyes to individual interpretations and motivations of established ritual happenings as diverse as auspicia, inaugural meals for the priesthoods of the pontifices, triumphal processions, war declarations, priesthood rituals and Roman calendars. The delicate balance between tradition and originality in communication with the gods then is discussed in Chapter 7. After an overview of potential strategies of communication, including location, timing, multi-channelling in words and gifts, and so on, there follows a section on the epigraphic habit. The decline in the epigraphic habit starting in the third century is linked to an increase in specialisation of religion, meaning that religion was increasingly dominated by a few intellectual specialists who usurped all lines of communication. These are certainly interesting ideas, but the section is too short and dense to really make a strong impression.

Finally, Chapter 8 ("Instructing Literary Practice in The Shepherd of Hermas") focusses on a text which "is characterised by uncoordinated, parainstitutional, and even contrainstitutional appropriations" (p. 140). After a brief presentation of the content, which enjoyed great popularity in the decades after its conception, Rüpke sketches the social context in which it was conceived and, in a long-term process of individualization, became transformed from an oral account into a written text before the end of the second century.

Despite the fact that this is not an easy read – the argument is often dense and a decent amount of pre-existing knowledge on Roman religion is required – Rüpke manages to provide unique insights into appropriation of religion in both the public and private realm. A lot is discussed in these 160 pages. The book may therefore come across as somewhat fragmented, its argument only attaining full strength when read from cover to cover. The attentive reader will be left with the firm impression that we are entering a whole new era of religious studies. Indeed, there is no reason why research into individual interpretations and appropriations should remain limited to the timeframe of this book. Like Rüpke's other recent publications, this volume should be used as a source of inspiration for all those interested in past religious experience.


1.   BMCR 2012.03.06
2.   McGuire, Meredith B. 2008. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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