Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion by Jörg Rüpke

Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion
by Jörg Rüpke
translated by David M. B. Richardson
Princeton University Press, 2018

Pantheon by Jorg Rupke.jpg

Jörg Rüpke's Pantheon, first published in 2016, now translated from the German by David Richardson, is a densely-researched (the end notes, references, and bibliography take up nearly 200 pages) survey of the whole religious life of a people and a region, a history of Roman religion that stretches from the Bronze Age to the 4th century of the Christian era and beyond – a history that, according to Rüpke, saw a subtle yet overwhelmingly important conceptual change, from people performing various rituals to people belonging to a religion. Although the author himself is always scrupulous to embrace the complexity of his subject, the obvious template on which such a conceptual shift maps is the shift from the various a la carte rituals of Republican Rome to the all-encompassing world-view of Christianity. The intertwining of the two makes for at times thrillingly challenging intellectual history.

Gradually, the concept of “religion” emerges and codifies, pecked at and worried over by philosophers, augurs, and public thinkers like Cicero, who was clearly fascinated by the whole subject of religio. “Religio” in the singular in Cicero's argument is a necessary consequence of any belief in a god, and finds its expression, as also its limits, in various feelings of religious obligation: religiones,” Rüpke writes (all credit to Richardson for making what had to be a nightmarish task of translation read so smoothly from start to finish). “It is possible to argue as to the existence or relevance of the gods; that is, about theism, which is a theoretical problem or tenet. But it is not possible to question religio.”

Following the literary and archeological trail closely through the long history of the Republic, down through the caesars, and right to the pivotal moment when the emperor Constantine granted Christianity official status throughout his domain, Rüpke analyzes the supple and often undocumented ways Roman religion developed into an over-arching concept that would impress itself on the entire Western world – and the ways that concept would transform, with religion changing from something people did to something they belonged to, something they lived.

“To reach the gods,” he writes, “it is necessary to attract and retain their attention.” Pantheon shows in fascinating detail the new and explosive ways the Romans developed to meet this essential requirement. It's vigorous, necessary reading on the subject.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is