restricted access Chapter 10 Why Did Roman Religion Change?
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C h a p t e r 1 0 Why Did Roman Religion Change? These reflections bring us to the last point that we must examine, the reasons for religious change. In fact, we have already emphasized that the model of polis-­ religion is capable of explaining how city-­ states managed the arrival of new cults, but not why religious change occurred. Often, the underlying idea in scholarship is that expressed by Franz Cumont and Richard Reitzenstein, to wit, that it is “individual religiosity” that was the origin of new beliefs. The adoption of the new religion was imposed on everyone precisely at that moment when city-­ states—­ and the public religion of the elite—­ faded out. However, the matter is not so simple as this. I am not going to return to the question of the supposed decline of the city-­ states in Greece at the end of the fourth century bce and later, with the advent of empire, throughout the Mediterranean world. This historiographical model, founded upon Hegelian dialectic and shaped by the aspiration to unify Germany, nourished by the great thinkers and historians of Germany in the nineteenth century, has long since been revealed as false. The city and its civilization remained the framework of life and thought for the ancients until late antiquity. This entire patchwork of reasoning by the adversaries of the civic model ought therefore to be revised. This is all the more true, insofar as the communal framework of religions is not simply an aspect of the political organization of individuals, but also of the functioning of private communities. This dimension amounts to more than just an aspect of what we call civic religion. It is further characterized by ritualism. If one rereads the criticisms made of Georg Wissowa by his contemporaries1 and by certain contemporary authors, one realizes that the question of change is often accompanied by, or merely a proxy for, another 126 Chapter 10 concern, to wit, that rigorous ritualism would not have been able to respond to the aspirations of individuals or a people with true “religiosity.” On this view, a religion based on ritualism, like Judaism, Shinto, or Taoism, to name only a few, would not merit the name of religion. Healing Cults Back to the issue of religious change. What are the religions that are thought to incarnate this change? There is little surprise in the arguments of Wissowa’s adversaries and the critics of civic religion. Clearly, above all it is Christianity, preceded by precursors like the mystery cults, the cults of the Egyptian gods, those of Cybele and Mithra, in short, those that one calls “oriental cults.” Often, one adds also the so-­ called healing cults, whether these are cults of Aesculapius or sanctuaries associated with springs. First, a general remark, which is not drawn from theories of communication or theology, but which is a fundamental theory of history: no event can be explained by its consequences. One cannot give an account of the advent of Christianity by postulating that humanity had long since been longing for it. The adversaries of the model of polis-­ religion are nevertheless adepts of this approach. In their eyes, it should suffice to look for the traces of this aspiration and, like Ulrich von Wilamowitz-­Moellendorff or Richard Reitzenstein, to find them in the high “religiosity” of Greek tragedy, in Platonism and in the oriental cults. By proceeding in this way, the researcher projects, onto actions earlier than the change he or she studies, the characteristics that he or she attributes to the later phenomenon. But the later phenomenon, in the form in which it is conceived, is often itself a construction clearly posterior to the period of supposed change. In consequence of this reflection, one might ask, for example , which version of Christianity one should one have in mind. The doctrinal history of the first centuries of Christian religion is complex, and it is only gradually that a certain unity emerges. Again, it is essential to remember that the model employed in the inquiries that I have discussed derives from the era after the Reformation. In short, from a historical point of view, this approach poses numerous problems. It is not a question of denying that Christianity is the child of its era and that one finds in it elements that preexisted it. It is the Why Did Roman Religion Change? 127 use that is made of a modern understanding of Christianity to reconstruct its history that one...