The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome

The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome

The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome

The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome

Synopsis

Roman religion has long presented a number of challenges to historians approaching the subject from a perspective framed by the three Abrahamic religions. The Romans had no sacred text that espoused its creed or offered a portrait of its foundational myth. They described relations with the divine using technical terms widely employed to describe relations with other humans. Indeed, there was not even a word in classical Latin that corresponds to the English word religion.

In The Gods, the State, and the Individual, John Scheid confronts these and other challenges directly. If Roman religious practice has long been dismissed as a cynical or naïve system of borrowed structures unmarked by any true piety, Scheid contends that this is the result of a misplaced expectation that the basis of religion lies in an individual's personal and revelatory relationship with his or her god. He argues that when viewed in the light of secular history as opposed to Christian theology, Roman religion emerges as a legitimate phenomenon in which rituals, both public and private, enforced a sense of communal, civic, and state identity.

Since the 1970s, Scheid has been one of the most influential figures reshaping scholarly understanding of ancient Roman religion. The Gods, the State, and the Individual presents a translation of Scheid's work that chronicles the development of his field-changing scholarship.

Excerpt

John Scheid’s The Gods, the State, and the Individual: Reflections on Civic Religion in Rome is an impassioned intervention in a contemporary debate in the study of ancient religion. It speaks for a method or, perhaps, a perspective, as well as a distinctive national tradition. In the book, Scheid himself contextualizes his work within a century’s history of scholarship on religion in the ancient world. This foreword offers an additional perspective on the contemporary context in which Scheid intervenes and explains choices made in the process of translation.

Roman religion has long presented a number of challenges to historians of religion in the Christian and post-Christian West. Among others, one might single out the nonexistence in classical Latin of any term that corresponds to English “religion,” and the similar absence of any vocabulary to discuss religious affiliation or acts of conversion that distinguish those phenomena from, say, acts of political belonging or changes in doctrinal persuasion in the study of philosophy. To these one might add Roman religion’s lack of a sacred text that (nominally) offered a totalizing portrait of the religion’s propositional content or foundational myth, as well as the Roman practice of describing relations with the divine using technical terms for social relations widely employed to discuss relations with other humans: pietas, whence English “piety,” describes dutiful respect toward ties of kinship above all, but also other social bonds; colere, whence Latin cultus and English “cult,” describes sustained acts of attention, respect, and cultivation toward things we cherish: social superiors, close relations, and the land whence one springs.

Building on a long tradition of scholarship, whose contours I trace below and in which he himself has played a leading role, Scheid confronts these challenges head-on. Proceeding with a profound respect for historical and philological detail, Scheid explores the functioning of a religious system tightly . . .

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