The Cults of the Roman Empire

The title of this book is a little misleading; there is almost no coverage of the state cults of the Roman empire, the cult of the emperor, or the indigenous cults of western Europe. The original French title (it’s a translation) referred to the “oriental cults”, which is more accurate, but still not completely so, as two of the most important oriental cults get virtually nothing. On the other hand, there are plenty of other sources on Judaism and Christianity, so I suppose the author can be forgiven.

Once past the title, the book does, I think, a good job at what it actually set out to do. There are chapters on groups of oriental cults, discussing their arrival in the Roman empire, their development there, and their spread. This includes the Egyptian cults, particularly Isis, the Syrian cults, the Magna Mater, Mithras, Dionysus, and a few lesser figures for which there is less in the way of evidence.

In fact, a shortage of evidence is a common problem. The final victory of Christianity means that all the cults described in the book died, and any writings they may have had were lost. Reconstructing Mithraism is described as akin to trying to reconstruct Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament and the iconography of medieval cathedrals; this would clearly be a rather unreliable process, and our evidence for Mithraism is relatively good. This is probably why so many cults can be covered in a relatively short book; the amount that can be said about each without straying into unsupported speculation is rather limited.

That said, I now think I know a good deal more about those cults than I did before reading the book. I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s assessment that the failure of the cults in the face of Christianity was inevitable, because they failed to truly appeal to Romans in the later stages of the Empire. The fact that Christianity did win tends to colour our assessments; had it failed, many historians would doubtless have felt that was inevitable. In particular, he criticises the cults for not having a developed and coherent theology, like Christianity. However, we don’t know that they didn’t, as we are missing a lot of material. If we only had the Old Testament and cathedral iconography, Christian theology would look fairly impoverished, and the Jesse Windows would probably lead to theories that Christians though that Christ grew on a tree. And then was nailed to one, and rose from the dead – clearly a simple vegetation deity, which would explain why Christianity failed to catch on as compared to the elaborate soteriology of Mithraism. (Actually, I do tend to agree that Mithraism’s exclusion of women doomed it, assuming that such an exclusion was universal. The cult of Isis might be a better candidate, especially as a number of aspects of Isis seem to have been adopted into the cult of the Virgin Mary.)

One of the most intriguing sections was the description of the cult of Dionysus. It seems to have been quite popular, despite official attempts to suppress it, much like Christianity. If that had been the one to win, with its celebration of wine, women, and song, the history of Europe would have been very different. It also seems to be an element of society that never goes away; look at the history of carnival in Europe and matsuri in Japan. I know that quite a few scholars have written on this topic; I’d quite like to get around to reading some of them eventually. So many books, so little time.

Anyway, this was a good book, which I can recommend to people with an interest in the pagan religions of ancient Rome. It certainly provided me with a lot of useful inspiration.

Posted in Books, History.

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