- The Peace of the Gods: Elite Religious Practices in the Middle Roman Republic by Craige B. Champion
The issue of how to tackle the discussion of individuals’ religious belief in the polytheistic religious environment of Mediterranean antiquity continues to present both scholarly and pedagogical difficulties. One is caught between the intimidating mountain of narratives and explanations past generations have bequeathed us, on the one hand, and the religio-political debates of the present, on the other. Unconscious assumptions and unstated motives abound. Navigating this perilous terrain adroitly, Champion’s historical exploration of the religious beliefs of Roman elites, which is at once explicitly theoretical in its approach and, at the same time, lucidly articulated, is a welcome contribution.
Certainly, others have laid important groundwork for such investigations. The recently departed J. Z. Smith (for example, in Drudgery Divine. On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity [London 1990]) did much to help scholars understand the topography of that mountain to which I referred above, and in the area of belief among Rome’s elite Denis Feeney’s Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs (Cambridge 1998) is indispensable reading. Brevity precludes providing adequate bibliography here. Champion tackles a distinctly different kind of problem, namely, how one can assess the religious beliefs of historical actors through the problematic and narrow lens of ancient historiographers, especially those who imposed different cultural views on the same actors.
To this end, Champion identifies Polybius (6.56.6–13) as the primary culprit in originating the idea of “elite-instrumentalism,” which casts Roman elites as cynical manipulators of the common people in their roles of both religious experts and also agents. The influence of Polybius’ portrait has left an unduly large mark on works spanning from antiquity to the present. Champion acknowledges that scholars who are today influenced by the elite-instrumentalist paradigm rarely if ever adopt it crudely and uncritically. Nevertheless, he correctly observes, there is still a need to recognize elite-instrumentalism’s impact and to argue against it, if only to be able to see the historical possibilities occluded thereby.
In highlighting elite-instrumentalism’s limitations, Champion can appear at times to use it as a straw man. Additionally, the book may tax the patience of some readers in presenting familiar individual cases, such as the importation of the cult of Cybele to Rome or the Suppression of the Bacchanals (143–63), and then submitting them to questions that would, to the specialist’s eye, seem to have ready answers, which Champion omits or bypasses as he carefully constructs his overarching argument. In short, this book is not always an easy read, but the reader is advised to check occasional feelings of frustration and press on to the payoff in chapter 5.
The payoff is well worth the reasonable price of admission. One of Champion’s virtues is the way he articulates a clear and up-to-date theoretical position for tackling the difficult problem of discerning historical actors’ religious beliefs from their recorded religious actions. Thankfully, the author’s discussion of theory is entirely lacking in the obfuscatory language that weighs down too many otherwise valuable works of scholarship. Consequently, Champion’s analysis of the religious activities of Scipio Africanus and Scipio Aemilianus is convincing [End Page 594] on multiple fronts. Having identified the distortion that comes from elite-instrumentalism, Champion is able to show how the most logical and parsimonious reading of accounts of the Scipios’ religious actions at specific points in their respective commands is that these men believed in the gods and the efficacy of Roman religious practices in maintaining the pax deorum.
To this reader’s mind, too much emphasis is placed on fear and the alleviation of anxiety as motivator and aim, respectively, of the religious activity of the Roman elite. While it is salutary to attribute to these Romans the same fears that plagued the people at large, it is...