Book Review: Religion In The Roman Empire

Religion In The Roman Empire, by Ben Holtzer

Let’s talk about the good parts of this book first.  It’s a short book (more on that below) so it will give the reader some information about Roman religion–quite a bit actually–while not overstaying its welcome.  On those grounds the book offers at least some modest pleasures for the reader who wants to learn about a subject without having to spend a great deal of time on it.  And the information in this book is deeply interesting.  To be sure, the book could have included more and I am not necessarily happy with the framing of this book when it comes to religion in the Roman empire, but I got what I wanted out of the book and it was certainly something that I would recommend if a reader wants a basic look at Roman heathen religion.  So long as the reader knows that they are getting something that is a bit more narrowly focused than they might hope for with a more comprehensive look at how the Roman Empire viewed religion, then they too will be able to get something out of this volume as well.  And that is probably enough for most would-be readers.

This book is a bit less than 100 pages and it is divided into eight chapters with other materials added as well.  The book begins with an introduction that provides the history of the Roman empire, at least how it is recorded by Roman historians (some of which appears to be mythic in nature).  After that the author talks about the relationship between the divine and the human (1), which is less sharply drawn than in some religious beliefs.  There is a discussion of Roman rites, including those rites done at home (2), as well as a discussion of holy ground and the concept of the numinous that was so important in some heathen faiths (3).  After that the author spends some time talking about spiritual men (4), many of whom were elites, as well as religious women (5) like vestal virgins.  There is then a discussion of the importance of religion in marking life’s transitions (6) as well as various heathen festivals and holidays (7) and a discussion of the conceptual nature of many Roman deities relating specifically to issues of harmony and discord (8).  The book then ends with a glossary, resources for further information, source notes, a bibliography, and an index.

As a reader, though, I am disappointed in several aspects of this book.  For one, I would have liked to have seen the writer talk a bit about Emperor worship and how this presented problems when it came to the relationship between the Empire and monotheistic faiths.  Additionally, as is frequently the case when one reads books that talk about ancient history, this book does not really do a good job at expressing a positive view of biblical religion.  To be sure, there are few readers or writers anywhere who know very much about biblical religion, but those writers who are seeking to justify and defend Greco-Roman culture (classicists) tend to be particularly prickly about the role that Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism) play in a proper understanding of the ancient world and faith in the ancient world and this book really drops the ball.  One can say, for example, that many Romans thought that Christians were atheists and antisocial because of their religious commitments and then comment that this was obviously not the case, rather than writing in a way that gives more credence to Jupiter and Juno than to God and Jesus Christ, which is a terrible strategy when writing about religion.  Truth matters, after all.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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