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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent and readable book, 16 May 2011
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This review is from: The Cults of the Roman Empire (Ancient World) (Paperback)
Robert Turcan - The Cults of the Roman Empire

This is a fascinating introduction to the lesser known deities worshipped in Ancient Rome. This is not a book about the Olympian gods whom we usually associate with ancient pre-Christian Rome, but an introduction to such gods and goddesses as Isis of the Many Names; Cybele, known as the Great Mother; Mithras, the Unconquered Sun; and Dionysus and his bacchanalia, among many others.

Surprisingly these deities all originated to some extent in the east. Turcan describes them more accurately as being Graeco-Oriental but stresses that there has been a tendency to take "Oriental religions" en bloc and see them all as being religions with "mysteries" and which evolved towards "a doctrine of the soul freed after death from bodily ties and promoted to a happy celestial eternity".

This is not a generalisation that can be laid at the door of this author. He is at pains to explain the differences between the "respective peculiarities" of the different religions but also explains that, due to syncretism, various beliefs merge and combine as, for example, in the development of the cult of Serapis from Osiris Apis with the attributes of Pluto, god of the underworld.

For me, the most interesting aspect is Turcan's explanation of why there became a need for these cults. Briefly, they arose at times of uncertainty, when people in the Roman Empire felt insecure and rootless. These cults provided solidarity amongst their membership together with their promise of divine support in this world and the next. This was at a time when the worship of the Roman gods had become strictly formalist. By contrast, the cults offered "the attraction of strong feelings and emotions."

Equally interesting is their eventual defeat by Christianity. Turcan argues that it was their very diversity and disparity that finally failed to give believers a feeling of security. By contrast, "Christianity categorically and effectively ruled out theological and intellectual chopping and changing."

This is an excellent introduction to the various cults and I would recommend it to anyone who is a general reader with an interest in ancient religions, and not just for those who are students of the Roman Empire.
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The Cults of the Roman Empire (Ancient World)
The Cults of the Roman Empire (Ancient World) by Robert Turcan (Paperback - 15 Dec. 1996)
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