The Pokey Finger of God

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The Gods of Ancient Rome

August 20th, 2010 · No Comments · christianity, culture, history, ritual

The Gods of Ancient Rome by Robert Turcan

About half-way through reading this book, I poked around in the bibliography and noticed something odd. Everything was in French, Italian, and German. A few things were in Spanish: the rest in Latin and Ancient Greek. I recognized a number of authors and titles, but I realized in an instant that most of the best information is in languages other than English. Periodically, something is translated — like this work — that open up a portal to much of what I cannot personally contact. Ultimately, it’s incentive to continue with my language studies.

The other primary observation was made after finishing the book. Any point regarding rites and rituals of ancient Romans were invariably followed with at least one, if not several, literary references. Disconcertingly, his references for Christian interpolations into history were taken “as read”.

Let me say this another way. When the author mentions something about Christianity prior to Constantine, his references are few — and this is significantly different from his meticulous documentation of Roman rite.

I certainly do not discredit Turcan for this oversight, as I am well aware of the lack of documentation of development. But it reminded me of another book, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, by F Cumont (which is in Turcan’s bibliography — in its original French), in which the author refused to entertain the topic of the Early Church in any part of Roman history prior to Constantine. Having reviewed both perspectives, I appreciate Cumont all the more.

Allow me concentrate on the pre-Christian history in Turcan’s work, which dominates the bulk of this work. In this area, Turcan was descriptive of his view of rituals and their impact on people from every class and nation. He is able to both adequately categorize some excessively complex inter-relationships, and provide meaningful description of the actions and motives of the Roman populace.

I liked how he described the festivals and private prayers. He provided sympathetic descriptions of the sincere, pious expressions of loyalty and honor by the Romans. The distinctions between Republican and Imperial traditions were clear.

Turcan starts by providing an exquisite view of the private religious expressions of the Roman patricians. The gods of the house, the gods of the family, and the patron deities of individuals, all became part of a complex of divinity – a web which each Roman had to carefully traverse daily. Any mistake resulted in obligatory compensation to the gods in order to salvage the future welfare of the house.

The strength of the ancestors was keenly felt by the Ancient Romans. There was not a clear distinction between gods and the honored dead, and both were frequently called upon and celebrated. The spirit of the family, which had kept it continuing as a potent force, was honored as a distinct figure. The spirits of the house were also recognized and respected. In short, everything in every part of the Roman’s life was connected to divinity, and the Romans actively sought out knowledge for how to satisfy every god.

This book did a remarkably cogent job of showing how Christianity was slowly developed over several centuries, beginning with early Roman religious practices, and slowly adding in influences from Greece, Egypt, and Syria. The origin of the Easter cycle can be attributed to the Attis cult, Christmas to Hermes cults, and so forth.

However marvelous the bulk of the book was, toward the end, the author brings in Early Church legends (as best he can) to correlate to historical findings. The author mentions some figures from Early Church stories and assumes particular epigraphic passages reference early Christian communities — both orthodox and heretical! Despite the microscopic level of detail on the history and transitions and rituals common to Republican and Imperial Rome, the author is otherwise silent on the development of the Early Church prior to Constantine.

Due to my position that Christianity began in the late 3rd century, I naturally found myself occasionally in conflict with the author. I can argue away the presence of Early Church “bright lights” through simple source analysis: most of the time, these characters can be traced to documents written or forged in the 4th century or later. The author’s insistence that Constantine was a Christian from the get-go is not entirely distinct from my own position, although his position that Constantine “converted” into an existing Christian cult is neither indicated by any period documents nor the historical record involving his own religious expressions. Instead, the only practical answer is that Christianity was what Constantine decided it would be.

Reading Turcan’s book was pleasurable for me. Having just covered a lot of the same ground, I was pleased to have much of my understanding confirmed and reinforced. However, I feel like I didn’t give the Roman ritual traditions an appropriate level of exposition in my book. There’s quite a bit of detail that I can add which would help to demonstrate my conclusions. I guess there’s more work to be done.