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C h a p t e r 4 Civic Religion A Discourse of the Elite? Thus far, I have laid out a certain number of terms, concepts, and historical realities that seem to me poorly understood by those who write about civic religion: the city, individual status, the categories of public and private. We can now turn our attention to religion itself to examine the principal objections directed at the model of civic religion, in order to deconstruct the model of individual religiosity , redolent as it is of Christian theology and Christianizing phenomenology. For me, four problems stand out. The first is the assertion that the civic model of religion was above all a discourse of the elite. The second is broader and consists of the opposition between civic religion and the “religiosity” of the individual. This opposition will be examined in numerous respects. For the opponents of polis-­ religion, it is essentially a matter of establishing that there was no link between citizenship and public cult, between civic identity and religion. To do this, they must prove that civic religion did not require individuals to participate in public cult and did not forbid other religious practices. As a related matter, they are concerned to cast in doubt the reality of popular participation in public religion. I will respond to these arguments in turn, while adding a key element to my argument. As it happens, if one simply leafs through the ancient sources, one discovers that civic religion was not the only form of collective religious conduct in the Roman world. Rather, each time that the Romans got together for any reason, they conducted themselves in the same way as in their civic communities. In other words, they established a collective cult of the same Civic Religion 45 type. In my view, therefore, the model is much more significant than one might at first glance suppose. After the argument that civic religion was a discourse of the elite and that there is no reason to credit the civic model with true preeminence, the third problem raised by these theories is that of emotion. Emotion is declared indissociable from any religious activity worthy of the name, and civic religion is devoid of emotional significance. In discussing this problem, we will be drawn to discuss ancient ritualism, a topic almost never raised by the studies that I have mentioned. Finally, it will be appropriate to examine the argument according to which the religious changes that affected the Roman world were the product not of civic religion but of private religiosity. The Arguments For the idea that civic religion was a discourse of the elite, a foundational statement is provided by the article of Richard Gordon that I have already cited. Gordon describes the hegemonic position of the elite in the Roman religious system and underlines the tight relationship between sacrifice, euergetism , and the domination of the elite.1 At the same time that the elite would have controlled and promoted one type of cult, it would have ridiculed and rejected other practices, such as magic, astrology, and superstitio in general. According to Gordon, the differences between religion and superstition were always negotiated, in such a way that cults that at one point lay outside the framework of civic religion, such as the so-­ called oriental cults or magical practices, could end up being integrated within the framework, and so could end up strengthening the public cults, to the extent that they tacitly accepted the cosmology of civic religion. This approach, which does not arouse any particular reservations so long as one attempts only a limited analysis of Greek and Roman public cults, has in fact been elaborated, and the critique has gone much further. According to its developed form, the principal authors of polis-­ religion did not actually describe how religion was organized but how certain social groups tried to organize it.2 According to this view, the religious works of Cicero—­ the treatises On the Laws, On Divination, and On the Nature of the Gods—­ which are elsewhere regarded more as prescriptive and technical writings than as disinterested 46 Chapter 4 efforts at systematizing norms, prove that the powerful did not consider their domination of polis-­ religion as totally assured. They describe not a historical reality but rather a discourse maintained by the elite. In particular, the distinction between public and private cults as it was drawn by the ancients and studied by contemporary scholars is arbitrary, just as is the...


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