Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Robert Turcan’s The Gods of Ancient Rome:  Religion in Everyday Life from Archaic to Imperial Times is a must-read for anyone thinking about the Religio Romana.  I started going through the book and typing up relevant/good information that Turcan uses, but…it took several hours, and that was just looking through the first third of the book.  It is 165 pages, and each page is chock full of information, so I’ll just put up the chapter titles and sub-chapters that it has.

It’s a fairly recent book as well, first published in 1998, and the edition that I read is from 2000.

Turcan takes the popular view that the Romans (the patricians, anyway – the plebeians were a different story) did not have religion as we know it today – that their religions (for, he says, the Romans did not have a single religion but many) were not religions of belief but ones that had a practical aspect.  They did not believe that the gods particularly cared about people in the way that, say, the Christian God does, but that they were there to form sort of contracts with.  This isn’t to say that the gods didn’t like people: the Romans believed that the gods were generally benevolent and good-natured.

Overall I enjoyed this book, except for one small thing.  Turcan refers to minor deities/spirits of the land as “demons.”  Now, I know this word comes from the Greek daimon, but I really wish he had chosen a different word; especially with the connotations that it comes with.

Here are the chapters, written about everything from daily household rituals to the imperial cult:

1.  Introduction:  Pietas Romana:  “This is not a treatise on Roman religion…my aim is to show the main characteristics of the part played by gods in the lives of Romans, from day to day, in the annual cycle, throughout a lifetime or in the course of history.”

2.  Religions of the Family and the Land

  • Daily rituals
  • From the cradle to the grave
  • Special rites, duties, and solemn occasions
    • Domestic ceremonies
    • Collective liturgies
    • Cults of the land
    • Gentilitial or ‘clan’ cults

 3.  Religions of the City

  •  Organisation of the priesthood
  • Periodic rituals
    • Pagan daily ritual
    • The liturgical year
    • The five-year cycle
    • The secular cycle
    • Rituals for special occasions
      • Consulting the auspices
      • Warnings from the gods
      • Keeping the gods on-side
      • Offerings, pledges and triumphs

4.  Religions of the Empire

  • Foreign cults
    • Gods of Greece and Great Greece
    • The mother gods of Anatolia
    • Dionysus and Sabazius
    • Gods of the Nile and Africa
    • Cults of the Levant
    • Mithras
    • The imperial cult
    • The occult, necromancy and strange devotions

5.  Conclusion:  The Impact of Christianity


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“If two things are equal to a third thing, they are all equal to each other.”

Euclid’s First Rule

First of all, I have to say – see this film.  Far too few people know the story of Hypatia, the woman portrayed in it, whose death marked the downfall of Classical antiquity philosophizing.

The underlying core of Agora is conflict – conflict between Christianity and Judaism and the pagan religions of Roman Egypt, conflict between right and wrong, and conflict between philosophy and love.

Agora is based off of true events.  It is the story of the latter end of the life of Hypatia, an Alexandrian philosopher.  It did a remarkable job in portraying the factual events of her life: both a mathematician and a philosopher, she lived in the city of Alexandria in the end of the 4th century/beginning of the 5th century CE.

She taught as the head of the Platonist school and took in any pupil as a student, from pagans to Christians, and taught to them works from philosophers such as Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle.  One such student was Synesius, the later bishop of Cyrene.  Her works – none of which have survived intact – included such things as treatises on mathematics and the workings of the heavenly bodies.

Apparently, as was shown all too well in the film, Hypatia was at the center of the conflict between Orestes, the Prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Christian Patriarch.  This caused her to become a hated figure by the Christians of Alexandria and would lead to her violent death – far worse than that portrayed in the film – at the hands of a mob in March of 415 CE.

At the end of the film, something that her character – portrayed by Rachel Weisz – said towards the beginning stuck with me as something that rings painfully true today, as something that many people would do well to remember: “More things unite us than divide us – whatever may be going on in the streets, we are brothers.  We are brothers.”

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