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VINE VOICEon 31 March 2013
Religion in ancient Rome was diverse but did not consist of separate and distinct 'religions', each with its own set of core beliefs and principles, scriptures, clergy, shrines, rituals and customs. Rives represents religion in Graeco-Roman terms reflecting the influence of the former on the latter. For Romans religion was an obligation to the divine and embodied in 'prescribed ritual or customary practice'. Over time this became worship of particular deities, stressing belief and commitment to a way of life. At the outset of the third century Tertullian described Christianity as 'the true religio of the true god'. The number of Roman gods was significantly greater than the 12 or 15 major deities depicted in art and myth. When the poet Virgil wrote in the Aeneid about the goddess Juno as an individual deity he would have been aware there were a variety of different Junos worshiped in Rome. Roman deities were not all characterised by personality, some were defined by the intellect, the senses or as abstractions such as Fear or Panic which were regarded as gods of the underworld. As Christianity became dominant the word 'theos' or 'deus' came to mean the one true God while Graeco-Roman deities were called 'daimon' or 'daemon' and characterised as malevolent spirits.

The Romans were aware of the differences between mythical heroes, naturalistic speculation and religious practice as a means of social control. Roman religion was a means of rationalising the historical and contemporary power of Rome based on myths widely understood to be fictitious. Gods were offered prayers, hymns and sacrifices in specific contexts on a quid pro quo basis as 'a self-sufficient approach to the divine'. Many scholars now assume that in the imperial period 'myth had lost all genuine religious significance and survived only as an element of high culture'. Myths were regarded as providing entertainment for the masses, widely satirised by the educated classes and intellectually attacked by Christians. Roman myth did not provide an authoritative account of the divine world but represented separate approaches to the divine. It was 'a vital and pervasive way of envisioning the divine world', providing a support for a long established tradition. Whether that tradition reflected divine reality was widely discussed as shown by Cicero's treatise 'On Divination' which presented arguments for and against the existence of the divine. While many thinkers seem to believe they are making new propositions in discussing theism/atheism they are merely repeating the same arguments as the Romans and Greeks several thousand years ago. In truth there is nothing new under the sun.

Rives looks at people's experience of the divine world, its role in their lives and discusses 'the role of shared cult practices and and beliefs in the formation of communities at various levels, from the household to the city'. The Romans considered it normal for people to have their own deities and religious traditions so they tolerated variety in local traditions and were open to receiving new cults and rituals. The Greeks and the Persians left evidence of their religious traditions whereas the Galatians abandoned their native deities for those of the land where they settled. Religion under the Romans in Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Italy are each treated in sufficient depth to form the conclusion that there was enough uniformity underlying regional religious traditions to prevent the development of social or political instability. Such uniformity included worshiping local deities (some of which included Roman gods) and participating in its rituals. Religion reinforced traditional elites but also opened the way for marginalised groups to advance their social status as happened with women thanks to the public priesthood of the Vestal Virgins.

Although there was a close connection between religious devotion and local identity, religion itself was a force for integration within the Roman Empire. The emperor formed a link between the divine and the human, being regarded as one or the other depending on circumstances. This was manifested in the Imperial cult, the production of images and the idea of unity in diversity. While many traditions regarded him as god, this view was not shared by Judeans or Christians. However, both prayed for his health alongside their prayers for peace and stability. Christians formed a controversial group, being falsely attacked as a malevolent force with some suggesting they practiced human sacrifice. The Roman socio-economic elite were uneasy with the fact that many Christians were from the lower classes and they looked askance at Christians in much the same way as Anglicans were hostile to 'enthusiasm' in the eighteen century. Christians' refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods identified them in Roman eyes as 'atheists' who rejected the bonds between the divine and the human and were thus unreliable.

Christians were actively persecuted on several occasions. Valerian issued edicts against Christians while towards the end of the third century some Christian soldiers refused to fight and were executed as traitors to Rome. In 303 Diocletian ordered Christians to stop meeting, destroyed their churches and texts, reduced the legal rights of Christians, downgrading officials who were Christians and enslaving Christian freedmen. Constantine converted to Christianity after he became emperor, although this was a political rather than a religious conversion. He had no qualms about killing anyone he regarded as a threat. Constantine prevented Christians from being persecuted which led to a rapid growth in numbers and also attracted some who followed the emperor's lead for personal and political advantage. Early Church Fathers condemned paganism and by asking the emperor to preside over the Council of Nicaea integrated church and state. The common assertion that Christian festivals were incorporated into Roman pagan practice is a fundamental error. Using existing festival dates for Christian activities represented the exclusion of paganism by Christianity not its inclusion. Rives has written an erudite book but not one for the general reader. Three stars, just missing four, because of its soporific effect.
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