Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture by Duncan MacRae (review)
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Reviewed by
Duncan MacRae. Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 259. US $49.95. ISBN 9780674088719.

MacRae's core question is how we can understand a religion—in his case, Roman religion—that has texts but not scriptures in the Judeo-Christian [End Page 459] sense of canonical sacred texts. Looking at the period of the last century of the Republic, "Varro and other members of the Roman elite produced large numbers of learned treatises on traditional Roman religious culture" that together represent what MacRae proposes is a "civil theology" (3; theologia civilis, a term adopted from Augustine). Collectively, these texts presented intellectual discussions of gods and cult within the distinct Roman context. Despite the burning of the books of Numa by the Senate in 181 bce, "the Roman cult that Numa supposedly founded became legible" through the writings of elite authors (4). Scholars of religion have misunderstood this, since they align themselves too quickly with Augustine, who drove a wedge between Christians and their "pagan" counterparts on the basis of "scripture." Despite Augustine's rhetoric, this is not the case, argues MacRae, who sets out to demonstrate not just that non-Christian Romans had texts about religion but also that these texts were treated distinctly, not as scripture, but neither as "merely" literature. These texts in particular made Roman religion legible to readers, thus making it a "religion of the book" (146).

In the Introduction, MacRae acknowledges two key methodological challenges: how to employ the highly contested term "religion" (which he chooses to use as a second-order term) and the indirect testimony for much of the evidence he draws upon, since so many writings from the late Republic have been lost. Nevertheless, it is still possible to examine developments in civil theology. Chapter 1 counters the notion of a Roman state religion by demonstrating the pluralistic religious culture of the late Republic and early imperial periods. "There was no essential Roman religion waiting to be written down; in fact, the idea of 'a Roman religion' was the creation of the intellectual books" (15; his emphasis). Archaeological and literary evidence shows that there existed a variety of options for relating to the gods, with no clear singular system that linked them all together. Against this lived reality, elite writers wrote books that, despite never gaining status as "scripture," still functioned to present a more unified approach to what can be termed "Roman religion."

In Chapter 2, MacRae gets to the heart of his argument by showing how elite writers reflect on a distinctly Roman form of cult, thus textualizing traditional ideas and practices. Reading partial and sometimes fragmentary texts, he broadens the frame of civic theology beyond the usual scholarly focus on Varro and Cicero (although both these authors remain relevant). The texts themselves followed a particular rhetorical style, and in some cases a judicial style, that includes description, reference to civic geography, ethnography, etymology, and language that made the gods and their cult more comprehensible. The gods of Rome, or at least some of them, thus became embedded in elite constructions of Roman identity, and by the 40s bce a distinctive Roman "religion" was clearly in place.

The elite social identity of both the authors and the readers is the focus of Chapter 3, which demonstrates how highly competitive were the production and authority of books on religion in the late Republic. Particularly [End Page 460] interesting is the shift in the role of the elite priest from cult practitioner to writer and reader of civil theology texts, the intended audience for which was elite peers. Cicero's earnest involvement in the production and reading of books on Roman religion (particularly in On His House) is contrasted with Catullus' satire of the impact of civil theology (Poem 17), yet together they demonstrate its broader growth and dissemination.

Chapter 4 comes across as a bit of a diversion when MacRae undertakes a comparative analysis of Roman literature on religion and the Mishnah, "an early rabbinic compilation that defined Judaism" (6). MacRae cites J.Z. Smith and Marcel Detienne on the benefits of...


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