Marion Findlay, Roman Religion. Auckland: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998. Pp. ii + 103. ISBN 0- 582-71846-5. NZ$29.95.
David C. Mirhady
Simon Fraser University
This beautifully produced and richly illustrated (in black and white) paperback is aimed at (New Zealand) high school students and is complemented by a source text (non vidi).[] It is thus filled with instructional prompts for students, e.g. 'what do you understand by religion?,' which might also make it suitable for independent learning. It posits general conceptions of the role of religions in the modern world for comparison, which also serve to invite students into its discussions. On the other hand, its own formulations of answers to these questions may often be too dogmatic, too little open-ended for students to have a real sense that they may inquire further, that even trained scholars can disagree on many issues, and that it may be up to the students to decide some issues for themselves. These qualities may be more expected in a university-level text, but I'm convinced that it's never too early for students to appreciate that matters such as Roman religion are the stuff of evidence and interpretation and not simply the memorization of 'facts'. In short, the book lays out 'facts' remarkably well, but instructors should keep their own imagination and curiosity active.
The book has eight chapters, none longer than twenty pages, on religious practices, private religion, state religion, Augustan reforms, philosophy, mystery cults and the Christian and Jewish challenges. Every couple pages there is a box or two with suggestions for things to do: for the most part these require simply a review of some of the key information, but sometimes they suggest creating a poster or mural or imagining a select group of gods at a dinner party. The book has no indices, but it is short and its table of contents is thorough. At the end of the book there is a very useful appendix of authors and a listing of Roman emperors.
The second chapter, 'Roman Religious Practices' (pp. 19-40), begins with prayer and quickly directs students to a passage to be read in the source text, Aulus Gellius 2.28.1-3. Not to worry if you don't have that text handy: Findlay provides a five-line synopsis. Instructors will want to engage their students over whether Findlay has got all the salient points. As we move from prayer (for which there are several more passages to be read, which I like), to sacrifice, we also reflect that students, especially those who are not religious themselves, perhaps need a little reminding about the wide range of purposes for prayer besides request, which is Findlay's model. I'm thinking of prayers of praise, thanksgiving, or simply worship. The discussion of sacrifice likewise takes a straightforward approach: sacrifice is identified with making an offering, and the procedures for that are nicely described. Several literary passages are also suggested and summarized. Again, the teacher using this material would do well to reflect just how differently our students understand the term 'sacrifice'. It won't be enough simply to point out sacer and facere. A more wide-ranging discussion of what people think they are doing in performing a sacrifice will be necessary. The last part of the chapter deals with divination, and again it succinctly covers the proper topics, augury, omens, the Sibylline books and so on, almost every topic illustrated with a short reading passage. Here we might pause to consider another pitfall we should warn our students about, namely, the problem of using literary texts, like the Aeneid, to illustrate issues of religion, and divination in particular. After all, divination is a wondrous narrative tool in the hands of an ancient storyteller, who has a preternatural ability to control the efficacy of the divination that he relates.
Private religion is the subject of chapter three (pp. 41-52), which begins with household gods and goes on to rites of passage. I would have liked more suggestions for reading passages for the latter; we get Catullus 61 for marriage and Aeneid 6.212- 35 for funerals. Here we might have hoped for some funerary inscriptions, but there are none. The chapter concludes with a section on private worship on the farm. Chapter four, 'State Religion' (pp. 53- 66) begins by touching on the secularization of the New Zealand calendar and then outlines the Roman calendar with an illustration that students will revel in deciphering. As the chapter moves on to describe the festivals of each month, it's no surprise that Ovid's Fasti are recommended readings. Who presides over these festivals? Naturally priests do, and the various priesthoods are described next. Here we expect and are rewarded at the end of the chapter with a discussion of the role of expertise and authority in Roman religion, which was so different from our own day.
Chapters five and six, on the Augustan revival (pp. 67-72) and Roman philosophical beliefs (pp. 73-79), seem to come in reverse order inasmuch as our major sources for the latter, Lucretius and Cicero, wrote before Augustus. Their intellectual milieu was surely to some extent that against which Augustus led his revival. Nevertheless the material is nicely and succinctly laid out, and the passages of philosophy from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius certainly take us into the post-Augustan period.
Chapters seven, 'Mystery Cults' (pp. 80-86), and eight 'Monotheistic Religions' (87-96), could easily be one chapter, if not for the unease many Christians might feel at such a collocation. Here we go back to 205 BC for Cybele, to Eleusis, Mithraism, and Isis, before going on to Celtic religion, although there is no explicit explanation about whether it should be regarded as a mystery religion, and some students might be led to believe that the Celts got their belief in reincarnation from the Pythagoreans. Perhaps they did, but the non-expert instructor would need some help believing it.
I am no expert on Roman religion. I took on this review because I, like many (I suspect), for several years taught a comprehensive one-semester course on classical mythology based on Morford & Lenardon, Powell et al. These texts give 'Roman religion and mythology' one week, perhaps just a class, after having sprinkled liberal doses of Ovid's Metamorphoses throughout the course. Thankfully I've now weaned myself off those texts and simply use primary texts of, for example, Homer and Greek tragedy. But I've left the Romans out entirely with the feeling that they deserve their own course, albeit a sequel to the now exclusively Greek course. Not having a thorough training in Roman religion - I read my Virgil and Ovid as a student, but now I research Greek law and rhetoric - I needed a very accessible text that would guide me in the pedagogy of Roman religion in order to mark out its distinctness from the Greeks' and to let it serve as a background for my non-classical-specialist junior undergraduates' understanding of Roman mythology (granting that there may be such a beast informing the great literary texts).[] To a great extent, I think I've found my guide.
Even those who are not in a position to adopt this text for their students (Roman religion has no place in the Canadian school curriculum) may want to pick up this text as a guide to presenting several introductory lectures on Roman religion as a propaedeutic to reading. That is how I shall be using it.
[] The source text is W. F. Richardson, Roman Religion: Classical Studies for Schools Study Materials No 2 (Dunedin 1991). All the passages are thoroughly cited, so anyone with access to a fairly complete Loeb collection will be in good shape even without the source text.
[] In this regard, the recent, magisterial Religions of Rome by Mary Beard, John North, Simon Price (Cambridge 1998), is too daunting, though I'm glad it's in our library for consultation. Also of interest is D. C. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs (Cambridge 1998).