Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture

Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture

by Duncan MacRae


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Scholars have long emphasized the importance of scripture in studying religion, tacitly separating a few privileged “religions of the Book” from faiths lacking sacred texts, including ancient Roman religion. Looking beyond this distinction, Duncan MacRae delves into Roman religious culture to grapple with a central question: what was the significance of books in a religion without scripture?

In the last two centuries BCE, Varro and other learned Roman authors wrote treatises on the nature of the Roman gods and the rituals devoted to them. Although these books were not sacred texts, they made Roman religion legible in ways analogous to scripture-based faiths such as Judaism and Christianity. Rather than reflect the astonishingly varied polytheistic practices of the regions under Roman sway, the contents of the books comprise Rome’s “civil theology”—not a description of an official state religion but one limited to the civic role of religion in Roman life. An extended comparison between Roman books and the Mishnah—an early Rabbinic compilation of Jewish practice and law—highlights the important role of nonscriptural texts in the demarcation of religious systems.

Tracing the subsequent influence of Roman religious texts from the late first century BCE to early fifth century CE, Legible Religion shows how two major developments—the establishment of the Roman imperial monarchy and the rise of the Christian Church—shaped the reception and interpretation of Roman civil theology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674088719
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Duncan MacRae is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Books of Numa 1

Part I Writing Roman Religion

1 Gods and Humans in Rome and Its Empire

2 Writing Roman Religion 28

3 Letters of the Republic 53

Part II Comparison

4 Rabbis and Romans 79

Part III Reading Roman Religion

5 Emperor as Reader 101

6 Paper Pagans 123

Conclusion: Beyond Scripture and Literature

Notes 149

Bibliography 211

Acknowledgments 253

Index 255

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