Book Review: Legible Religion
Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture
by Duncan MaCrae
Harvard University Press, 2016
As Duncan MacRae points out in his intensely thought-provoking debut, one of the many ways in which the ancient Romans were anomalous involved their relationship to the divine: temples abound in their cities, religious rites and offices abound in their societies on every level, and yet they had no sacred text. There were books of recorded prophecies, there were annual compilations like the Annales Maximi functioning as a kind of sacerdotal accounting of which celestial contracts were fulfilled and which weren’t, but there was nothing equivalent to the concept of a divinely-inspired sacred-in-jot-and-tittle central holy book like the Books of Moses were for the Jews or, later, the Koran would be for the Muslims. The Romans may have exhibited a “rhetoric of rule-making,” but their peculiar brand of public religion, what MacRae winningly dubs their “civil theology,” has none of the finger-of-God exclusivity to be found in virtually all other contemporary societies:
Alongside these markers of sacredness, canonization of Scripture enables practices of religious reading and interpretation. Biblical commentary or midrash, for example, make use of a canon; bibliomancy – the use of Scripture for divination – also depends on an articulation of a closed canon. We look in vain for the development of an accepted written canon for Roman religion.
The lack of that accepted written canon has led many scholars over the centuries to disparage the Roman religious experience, to relegate it to the mercantile and parvenu where so many aspects of ancient Roman society tend to settle. MacRae very effectively furthers recent calls for a reappraisal of this picture. His book concisely (the thing could have been three times as long, and MacRae is such a companionable author that most readers will wish it were) lays out the case for that most neglected of things: the Roman soul.
He does this mainly through one man and one work: Varro’s Divine Antiquities – which of course means that a prominent seat at this intellectual table is reserved for St. Augustine’s long point-by-point argument with Varro in City of God. As MacRae aptly puts it, “[Augustin] did not consider Varro simply an authority; instead, he found in him an opponent.”
Much like Cicero and other Roman intellectuals, Varro wrote extensively on Roman rituals and religious history, and St. Augustine, while railing against these treatises, preserved enough of them for MacRae to map out an invigorating new appreciation of what and more importantly how Romans approached the religious in their lives. The resulting book will have readers of Roman history and literature re-thinking everything from the scandal of Clodius Pulcher sneaking into the women-only Bona Dea rites to all the barbed religious commentary in the Golden Ass of Apuleius. Those readers will find it amazing and a bit chastising that they could so easily have dismissed something that runs through so much of what they know about ancient Rome; Legible Religion makes such dismissals impossible.