Wednesday, February 14, 2018


Nicole Belayche, Yves Lehmann (ed.), Religions de Rome: dans le sillage des travaux de Robert Schilling. Recherches sur les rhétoriques religieuses, 21. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2017. Pp. 328. ISBN 9782503569338. €75.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christopher Smith, University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Robert Schilling (1913-2004) was a pupil of Dumézil and an inspirational teacher, both at Strasbourg and as a Directeur d'études at the École pratique des hautes études, where he led a course on the 'religions of Rome.' He was also a long-standing friend of the great Senegalese politician and one of the founders of the concept of négritude, Léopold Sédar Senghor.

His best known work is probably the important study of Venus, La religion romaine de Vénus depuis les origines jusqu'au temps d'Auguste, (Paris, 1954), but he was also a vigorous essayist, and two collections show the breadth of his approach and knowledge: Rites, cultes, dieux de Rome (Paris, 1979) and the evocatively titled Dans le sillage de Rome: Religion, poésie, humanisme (Paris, 1988), which inspired the title of this volume.

This interesting collection of essays arose from a colloquium of his friends and pupils on the centenary of his birth. Aside from some predominantly biographical pieces, for the most part the essays engage directly with areas of Schilling's interests.

The nature and role of the goddess Venus is obviously one of the key areas, and it is striking that for all the obvious interest in the deity (and perhaps because of the ubiquity of the deity), it is hard to think of another serious monographic account since Schilling. Critically, Schilling's determination to look beyond Venus as merely an adaptation of Aphrodite, and also to sustain an argument about the long term significance of Venus across time, has proved attractive and durable. There is a clarity and logic about Schilling's approach that remains appealing, whilst at the same time reflecting its greatest limitation, which is to oversimplify potentially the complex nature of the development of religious thought by relying too heavily on an assumption of continuous evolution. Yet the magical charm of Venus, the connection with wine and the Vinalia, and the operation of Venus as an intermediary with Jupiter are all intriguing and successful suggestions.

As a whole, the volume reflects Schilling's own tendency towards a distinctly top-down account—this is religion as seen through high literature and imperial choices and actions. Emperors and poets are the subject, not the ordinary actors of lived religion, and geographically the concentration is on the centre of power at Rome. Scheid for instance stresses the relationship between imperatores and Venus, where the line from Sulla to Augustus is clear. Venus' closeness to the power of Jupiter is the key to this interpretation. Pirenne-Delforge and Pironti look at how scholarship has moved forwards with the relationship between Venus and Aphrodite. Their emphasis on a more dialogic relationship between the presentation of the two deities is a helpful reminder that in the imperial period Roman influence was critical in the evolution of Greek religion. At the same time, one might reasonably ask whether the same approach would work for the oriental influences, for instance the connections posited between Astarte and Venus, which are somewhat underplayed in the volume. Venus is also the subject of Notter's survey of the poems of Martial, which shows the diversity of contexts in which Venus appears, from the overtly sexual to epigrams with a marriage or imperial context. Implicitly, Venus also lies behind Molinier Arbo's explication of the pietas of Commodus in the SHA Life, and the problematic relationships of his mother Faustina.

Janus was another deity whom Schilling discussed in detail—and another immensely complex area. Belayche's contribution focuses on the account in Macrobius, and particularly on his various epithets for Janus, showing the immense learning of this account, with its Platonic underpinnings. The connection of Janus and Juno is given new emphasis here, and shows how what may have been a very old relationship could be completely reinterpreted centuries later. It is this reinterpretation that also animates Heim's survey of the way that solar cult develops alongside and into Christianity. The emperor Aurelian may have contributed a more significant step in this process than acknowledged here, though Heim focuses on later antiquity. Another late antique transformation is to be seen in Chapot's account of Paulinus of Nola's Propemptikon for Bishop Niketas, which translates into Christian terms a traditional poetic form. Chapot neatly shows how theological interpretations of the concept of the journey transform it into an inner spiritual journey, through the Christian transformations of time and space. Continuing into the field of reception, Lefèvre traces classical echoes in the work of a 17th century Jesuit Jakob Balde, which fits into the current trend of reclaiming the importance of neo-Latin literature.

Much of the volume effectively illustrates the sophistication of elite thought about religion. André demonstrates this point through a dossier of legal evidence for the Roman games, where rite, spectacle, performance and authority intersect in increasingly complex ways. Lehmann brings a number of parallel passages to bear on the quasi-purgatorial eschatology that is dimly visible in Vergil's Aeneid Book 6; particular comparisons are made with Plato's Phaedo and the Orphic tradition. Pfaff-Reydellet extends the same sophistication of analysis to Ovid, asking how it would change our understanding of the poet if we place his works more centrally as part of the Augustan world, and showing how Schilling's work had prepared the way for the sort of analysis we already see in Barchiesi's The Poet and the Prince (California, 1997); Guittard offers some thoughts on Schilling's study of the Fasti and the history of the Roman calendar. Merckel discusses Seneca the Younger's theology, drawing out the sense of awe required by his philosophy and the necessity of reason as a foundation for religion. Here as elsewhere a longer treatment would have been needed to tease out some of the methodological issues raised, and particularly the mechanisms of the transference of theological ideas, but Schilling clearly inspired a shared approach to take very seriously the ancient authors, their deep knowledge of and response to their predecessors, and the profundity of their theological arguments.

The only genuinely Dumézilian essay is a striking essay by Briquel on Romulus and Remus, building on Schilling's account of the Lupercalia in Ovid's Fasti. Briquel connects Remus arriving at a sacrifice as a victor to take the gods' portion of the food to his subsequent fall—an interesting reading that is then used as the basis of a comparison to the story of Jacob and Esau.

The last essay is an essay written by Schilling and Freyburger for ANRW but which was not published due to a timing issue. The focus of the essay is on the cult of Venus in the imperial period, and much of what characterised Schilling's work is on display here—a highly logical approach, a concentration on elite behaviour and philosophical discussion, and an awareness of change over time. Interestingly, it is here that the eastern cults of deities such as Astarte do come in to play.

What does Schilling and his legacy have to offer, in sum, to the study of ancient religions? First, the emphasis on the sophistication of discourse is an important corollary to thinking about religious expertise in general; one thinks for instance of Heidi Wendt's important monograph At the Temple Gates: The Religion of Freelance Experts in the Early Roman Empire (New York, 2016; rev. BMCR 2017.05.18). Second, there is a reminder that there is still work to do even on basic issues such as the work that the deities of antiquity actually did and how that work changed and evolved over time; see now for instance Jorg Rüpke's From Jupiter to Christ: On the History of Religion in the Roman Imperial Period (Oxford, 2014). Whilst the field has moved on from Schilling, his values of careful and attentive reading of the evidence remain central.

Authors and titles

Robert Schilling : chaire Religions de Rome, 1957-1982, John Scheid
Robert Schilling et la religion romaine. Regard sur une œuvre scientifique, Yves Lehmann
Robert Schilling, latiniste et humaniste, Gérard Freyburger
Vénus et les modalités de l'action. La fécondité de l'analyse de Robert Schilling, John Scheid
Vénus et Aphrodite : 60 ans après la thèse de Robert Schilling, Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge & Gabriella Pironti
Les ludi romains : religion, idéologie et encadrement juridique sous le Haut-Empire, Jean-Marie André
Ovide, les Fastes et l'histoire du calendrier romain, Charles Guittard
Nomen ostendit (Macrobe). Rites et images, les supports des noms de Janus, Nicole Belayche
L'analyse de R. Schilling : une remarquable avancée dans l'interprétation de la légende de Romulus, Dominique Briquel 
Prendre au sérieux Ovide, poète des Fastes : l'héritage de Robert Schilling, Maud Pfaff-Reydellet
La déesse Vénus dans les Épigrammes de Martial, Catherine Notter
La piété de Commode et les amants de Faustine : réflexions autour de Comm., 8, 1 dans l'Histoire Auguste, Agnès Molinier Arbo
Le voyage chrétien et son récit : enjeux et signification du propempticon (carm. 17) de Paulin de Nole, Frédéric Chapot
Quisque suos patimur manes (Énéide, VI, 743). Réflexions sur l'eschatologie virgilienne, Yves Lehmann
Aspects de la théologie de Sénèque. Un stoïcisme paradoxal : raison et émotion religieuse, Cécile Merckel
Le culte solaire chemin vers le christianisme, François Heim
Römische Götter in der Dichtung des Elsässers Jakob Balde – eine literarische Wiederauferstehung, Eckhart Lefèvre
La religion romaine de Vénus sous l'Empire, Robert Schilling et Gérard Freyburger 
Bibliographie d'études parues depuis 1986
Table des matières 

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