Jörg Rüpke. Religious Deviance in the Roman World: Superstition or Individuality? (Translated by David M.B. Richardson). Cambridge University Press, 2016.
In 186 BCE the Roman Senate passed a resolution that limited the celebration of the Bacchanalia. According to the Senatusconsultum de Bacchanalibus, the festival was to be approved by a praetor before its celebration, thus eliminating the deviant qualities of the Bacchanalian rites. In his new volume Religious Deviance in the Roman World: Superstition or Individuality? Jörg Rüpke, Vice-director for Religious Studies at the Max Weber Centre of the University of Erfurt, argues that an analysis of Roman conceptions of religious deviance such as the celebration of Bacchanalia can illuminate normative Roman religion and aid in identifying individual religious behavior in the Roman world. This volume is a translation of the German Aberglauben oder Individualität: Religiöse Abweichung im römischen Reich published by Mohr Siebeck in 2011.
Chapter One introduces Rüpke’s methodology and sources. Rüpke adheres to a sociological definition of deviance as “any activity perceived to infringe a generally valid norm of a society or of a particular group within that society…it must be judged to offend against binding, socially defined standards” (p. 3; original citation in Joas 2001: 170). Rüpke aptly discusses the problems of determining what is normative and what is deviant, as some elite texts only describe ideal behavior and not necessarily deviance. Though Rüpke spends a considerable portion of the chapter defining deviance, he does not provide a similar definition for religion. Such an inclusion would have clarified how Rüpke determined what texts are categorized as discussing religious deviance. Indeed, one wonders, how can one deviate from something that has never been explicitly defined? Also included in this chapter is a brief description of the terms superstitio and deisidaimonia as indicators of religious deviance.
In his second chapter, Rüpke analyzes the religious norms of the late Roman Republic, as described by Varro and Cicero. According to Varro, religious deviance is caused by inadequate knowledge, and thus deviance can be fixed by attaining knowledge through books. Cicero also discusses religious deviance in his de Legibus. Rüpke argues that Cicero’s discussion of religion (Book 2) should be read in parallel to his discussion of power and legitimate rule (Book 3), which reveals that, to Cicero, “the existence and supremacy of the gods is as fundamental for ‘religion’ as is the self-evidence of rule in the power structure of society” (p. 23). According to Rüpke, Cicero emphasizes the importance of knowledge for non-deviant religion. Rüpke argues that both Cicero and Varro assess religious norms in the late Roman Republic, and thus address the outer limits of Roman religion to limit religious deviance.
In Chapter Three, Rüpke continues his discussion of priestly knowledge and religious deviance in relation to both private and public cults. Rüpke analyzes the work of the early Imperial Age author Valerius Maximus who describes public priests as “the very centre of religion by virtue of their total control of knowledge” (p. 42). Knowledge not controlled by priests can thus be deviant, and Rüpke rightly points out that though this does not necessarily indicate orthodoxy, it indicates that it is not only deviant religious practice in the Roman world that can have negative consequences. Chapter Four examines Seneca’s and Plutarch’s views of individual deviant behavior in temples and around representations of deities, as well as elite discourse on the nature of idols. Seneca prefers that individuals maintain reason rather than emotion. In a series of passages from de Superstitione, Seneca emphasizes the frenzy and emotion of those who adhere to superstition rather than to proper religious behavior. Thus, religious deviance, for Seneca, is a “religious experience that transcends social control” (p. 50).
In Chapter Five, Rüpke moves to Late Antiquity, and for the most part, considers various themes found in Roman legal texts including Codex Theodosianus, the Digest, and Codex Iustinianus. The themes include clergy, sacred property, ritual practices, as well as the knowledge and norms associated with each theme. Rüpke shows in his discussion that the norms presented in these legal codes highlight the conceptualization of religious law in Late Antiquity. Rüpke argues that the legal regulation of deviance “was confined to a small category of religion where interference with administrative structures was a danger” (p. 107). This limitation brings to mind Seth Schwartz’s concept of misprision “whereby the rabbis defined pagan religiosity as consisting exclusively of cultic activity…but in so doing declared the noncultic, but still religious, aspects of urban culture acceptable” (Schwartz 2001: 164). Similar then to the rabbis, Rupke claims that Roman legislators of Late Antiquity interpret religious deviation only as that which could explicitly “interfere with the political and legal structure of the community” and thus allow everything that is not explicitly forbidden (p. 77).
In his sixth chapter, Rüpke returns to the religion of the Roman individual, including discussion of graves to claims of mourning to avoid conscription. Rüpke highlights the conflicts that might arise from the allowance for individual religion as well as the mobility of foreign cults upon integration into the Empire. Accordingly, Rüpke argues that Rome’s attitude toward certain religions “demonstrates the desire to embrace the religious gain represented by such a cult importation while isolating the deviant practices associated with it” (p. 98). Finally, Rüpke briefly traces the terminological evolution of terms such as secta, haerisis, and disciplina and the boundaries that they mark. Furthermore, he shows that their evolution parallels that of religion in the Roman world. In his final chapter, Rüpke provides a summary and contextualizes his findings in terms of the realia of the Roman world.
Scholars of ancient religion and legal traditions will find Rüpke’s volume resourceful for the development of religious norms throughout Roman history, from the early Republic to Late Antiquity. Though expansion and clarification is needed in various sections, especially regarding what constitutes religion, the usefulness of Rüpke’s volume truly is found in the presence of primary sources as well as the contextualization of those sources in the Roman world.
Catherine E. Bonesho is a Rome Prize Fellow in Ancient Studies and a PhD Candidate in Classical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Joas, Hans. 2001. Lehrbuch der Soziologie. New York: Campus Verlag.
Schwartz, Seth. 2001. Imperialism and Jewish Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press.