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Reviewed by:
  • Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture by Duncan macrae
  • Anthony Smart

Duncan MacRae, Anthony Smart, Roman religion, Late Republic, Brent Nongbri, civil theology, Catullus, Varro, Romanisation, Romanization

duncan macrae. Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 272.

The link between written texts and Roman religion is not an easy one to explore. In a modern world where the written form has become such a [End Page 484] prominent part of religious practice and thought, there exists an expectation that either similar attitudes must have existed in the ancient past, or that their religion is so different from modern belief systems as to make comparison between them obsolete. That there is a link between religious practice and religious writings in the Roman world can be argued, but it is still a difficult perspective to maintain when Roman religion was itself so insular, and a bizarre combination of historical memory, political identity, and accumulation of empire. It is partly this link that Duncan MacRae is seeking to understand, by considering those writings from the Late Republic that talk about and consider religious practice and the gods. This is an important, if difficult, endeavor, and one that opens a number of new ways of thinking about a familiar period and topic; but it is also one that is not entirely successful in its hypothesis. MacRae's efforts, however, should not be diminished by this, as he writes with great fluency and enthusiasm and provides a well-reasoned interpretation of civil theology.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "Writing Roman Religion," focuses on the available evidence and advances a number of persuasive positions (13–75). This is the strongest section of the book, and although some of the points made should be challenged, it provides a compelling series of interpretations. In the introduction, MacRae paints a clear overview of the topic and some historiographical approaches (1–10). Drawing upon Brent Nongbri, the work sets out a broad definition of religion, and consequently, of Roman religion. MacRae recognizes this, but through a comparison with Moses Finley and Foucault, stresses the necessity of using modern terminology: "to unpack and translate ancient categories and representations, while accepting the profound differences between ancient cultures and our own" (7). This is not enough. The introduction would have benefited from a much more rigorous exploration of how Roman religion can be, and has been, interpreted, and how then this leads to the important questions that MacRae is asking. In contrast, the discussion of civil theology is better, and although it can be defined in ways different to those adopted in this book, the examination of theologia civilis (3–4) has important consequences for the study of Roman religion.

The following three chapters are strong. The first provides a nuanced engagement with the question over state religion, and importantly recognizes the plurality of lived religions within the Republic. More needed to be said of Romanisation (e.g. at 17), and the manner within which Rome took on the mantle of former enemies' deities and transformed them into something now seemingly Roman, but this is a confident and eloquent opening chapter. The next two chapters work best when read together, where MacRae reveals [End Page 485] an excellent understanding of the texts chosen, and carefully places them against the shifting political backdrop of the Late Republic. The thoughts in Chapter 3 on the reason why the elite appear to focus on writing these works is particularly compelling, recognizing as it does the social and performance elements contained within both the practice of religion, and the storing and delivery of that knowledge through the medium of writing (esp. 55–59). Catullus's poem to Colonia (Caullus 17, at 69–73) can be read rather differently than MacRae does, and to view it as "a carnivalesque juxtaposition of the interests and tropes of civil theology alongside the sexual comedy of the old cuckold" (71) is a step too far, but nonetheless reflects a keen sense of historical inquiry. MacRae may be right here, but more evidence would be needed, and a fuller exploration of Catullus...


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