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Book Review by Thomas L. Dynneson

Religion of the Romans by Jörg Rüpke

Not understanding the forces of nature, nor possessing the scientific means needed to study the forces of nature, ancient people turned to those “experts” who claimed that they possessed special knowledge regarding natural events. In general these “experts” claimed that they could communicate with the gods that did control the forces of nature, as well as those forces that determined our fate as living beings. Consequently, over time, various cultures created special institutions, often associated with temples and ritual activities specifically for the purpose of learning the intentions of the gods. The various activities of ancient religion were aimed at appeasing the wishes of the gods, as they were capable of observing and judging all forms of human activity.
Protecting one from misfortune also might include various forms of practices called “rituals”, including the honoring of ancestors, as it commonly was believed that they still existed, but occupied another world. At the same time, they possessed the power to intervene in human affairs in this world. Very early in the development of cultures, priests came to occupy centers, such as temples, where villages and urban-centers (called cities) soon developed. In addition, high-ranking priests often came to perform both religious and political functions such as those associated with the Sumerians, the Egyptians, as well as the Mayans and Mesoamericans. These same forces were at work with the migrating tribes of Indo-Europeans, including the soon to emerge Greeks, Latins, Gallic’s, and Germans.
In ancient Rome religion and political realms of public activities were so closely aligned that it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate one from the other. The official calendar that governed government and public activities was determined religiously in the form of listings of sacred and secular days. The Roman Senate met in a templum, while incense and sacred flutes set the stage of the sacred work of senators. The worship of the gods was both a sacred public activity and also a private family-centered aspect of ancestry worship. Therefore, public and private life among the Roman people was focused regularly on religion and religious activities. The officials of the state, the Roman Senate, and the members of assemblies of the Republic, only proceeded after consulting with priests. The task of the priests was aimed at learning the intent of the gods.
In the ancient world there were no “schools of religion” where the tenants and the beliefs of religion were taught, as the many forms of religious activities were learned through participation. Youth participated with other family members in festivals and other public activities that were deemed necessary and sacred. Roman religion also determined accepted human actions and it also provided the standards for social moral conduct, especially in regard to the correct relationship between individuals, institutions and the gods.
Ancient religion was polytheistic with a general hierarchy of gods, including city gods, family gods, and even private gods. The Romans adopted and participated in a public cults or forms of polis-religion that took on the characteristics sacra publica. Whatever was deemed sacred within The City also defined and determined the type of ritual that its citizens owed to the gods. To ignore such obligations would, it was believed, have serious negative consequences for the people vis-à-vis the government, and such consequences as plagues, wars, defeats, poverty, and disaster could and would probably strike them in many realms of human activity.

Jörg Rüpke is a professor of history at the University of Ergurt, which is located in Thuringia, Germany. His work is recommended highly for students of ancient roman history because of its high level of scholarship. Although Roman religion was an important public affair, priestly colleges that served a variety of purposes and tasks controlled religious activities. For example, it was the task of the Vestal Virgins to maintain and guard the public hearth of The City. They guarded a purity symbolized by fides (fidelity of the conduct of the state including its military activities). Pontiffs and special priests (often both aristocrats and priests) controlled the Senate and often served as consuls, etc.
The priests were responsible for communicating with the gods through a process call augury. In general, the sky was divided into sectors that held meanings related to good and bad omens. The flights of birds were observed according to set religious rites, and the nature of their flights could determine the decisions, or the answers, to questions that had been stated ritually. Augury was a form of decision-making through the asking of questions and the reading of signs and omens. Early on, augury was used to decide court cases regarding the guilt or innocence of a defendant, especially when evidence was lacking.
The power of the priests was so important that it could influence government activities and even issues related to war and peace. Religious rules could be used to set boundaries, including the sacred zone of the pomerium (the boundary inside the city walls, which was designated a sacred zone). The crossing of The City’s pomerium could influence certain military powers, as armed troops were banned from crossing the pomerium.

Many scholars consider the comprehensive and in-depth study of Roman religion to be an essential aspect related to any serious attempt to understand Roman society and the nature of its forms. The structure of this book includes three important parts. The first part addresses the Structures of Roman religion and describes the relationship between the gods and the Romans. In addition, this section describes the nature of Roman religious activities, and reflections also regarding the nature of Roman religion. The second part of the text addresses such topics as sacred rules and their application to human activities, and various forms of communication between priests and gods, including the use of vows and curses. In addition, a sacred space requires precautions that must be observed in crossing or entering a sacred space. The concern for religious time, especially religious calendars, emphasizes that Roman society operated according to a year-by-year established sacred timetable. The third and final part of the text describes life in The City from a religious perspective, and the role of specialists and religious professionals whose special tasks determined the rhythms and the tempo of each calendar year. The role that religious colleges played included staffing and general government operations and also came to include military concerns.
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