Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


The religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans have not attracted social scientific investigation to the extent accorded either the major world faiths or the religions of band and tribal peoples. Notwithstanding that one would be hard-pressed to find a living devotee of Zeus or Athena, Janus or Mars, that imbalance in scholarly attention is somewhat surprising, not only in consideration of the formative impact of classical civilization upon world religious history but also given the early dependence of sociological and anthropological "theory" upon evidence drawn from Greco-Roman sources. Comte, Tylor, Marx, Weber, Freud, Durkheim, Frazer, and other celebrated "founding fathers" of social science typically passed through an educational crucible featuring immersion in Greek and Latin, and their writings display easy familiarity—and at times even professional competence—with classical materials. Indeed, much of the theoretical armature of early social science discourse—evolutionary and developmental schemata, models of social organization, ideal-types, and concepts—derives from that engagement.

A true analytical dialogue between historians and social scientists on the subject of religion commences with Fustel de Coulanges's The Ancient City , published in 1864 (Johns Hopkins University Press 1980). Fustel's central thesis—that the primordial religious beliefs of the Greeks and Romans provided organizing frames for their advanced social institutions (family, law, property, politics)—would encourage his former pupil, Émile Durkheim, to explore the connections between religion and society more comprehensively. In two seminal works, Primitive Classification (University of Chicago Press 1963 [1903]), with Marcel Mauss, and The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (Free Press 1952 [1912]), Durkheim sought to establish that the sacred beliefs and practices of a people constitute a symbolic and ritual representation of their social order; in venerating imaginary spirits and deities, they are honoring the actual powers and structures of their own collective life. Those postulates—mingled with insights from J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (St. Martin's 1990 [1890])—would stimulate new approaches to the study of classical antiquity, pioneered by leaders of the Cambridge school. Exemplary yields from that interdisciplinary ferment include Jane Harrison's (1903, 1912) attempts to document the dependence of various myths and rituals upon social institutions and customs, and F. M. Cornford's (1912) efforts to trace the origins of Hellenic rationalism to key collective representations—moira, physis, nomos —that were grounded in the primitive religious notion of mana , the impersonal ordering power of life. Important later contributions by H. J. Rose (1948), Martin Nilsson (1955, 1961), and George Dumézil (1970), although differing significantly on points of interpretation, all owe various debts to the creative exchanges between the Durkheimian and Cambridge schools. The anthropological structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss likewise builds on that legacy, and his views—eclectically spiced with Marx, Weber, and Foucault—have exerted considerable influence on the circle of French classicists led by Jean-Pierre Vernant (1974), Marcel Detienne (1972, 1977), and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1986).

Two other prominent traditions in social science—those founded by Marx and Freud—have also furnished analytical principles for work on ancient religion by classical specialists. Alban Winspear's (1940) pioneering exploration into the social origins of Plato's thought offers a religion-as-ideology line, while G. Thomson (1949, 1955) employs the categories of class and false consciousness to address issues ranging from the cultural consequences of slavery to the politics of the pantheon. In E. R. Dodds's highly influential The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California Press 1951), key developments in the history of Hellenic religiosity are explicated with the aid of psychoanalytic principles and anthropological insights on such matters as dream states and the shame-culture/guilt-culture polarity.

Max Weber's comparative studies in sociological world history are commonly buttressed by the author's interpretive mastery of the source materials of Greco-Roman antiquity. In his wide-ranging explorations in Religionssoziologie , Weber strategically uses aspects of Hellenic spiritual culture and practice to draw out parallels and contrasts with other religious traditions of historic consequence: Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. More directly, in the major section of Economy and Society (University of California Press 1978 [1921]) devoted to religious matters, Weber grounds many of his ideal-type categories and propositions in Greek and Roman experiences. Ancestor cults, ideas regarding the soul and afterlife beliefs, anthropomorphization and pantheon formation, the fundamental role of poets and philosophers in providing cognitive order for the divine in the absence of corporate priesthoods and canonical texts, the political religiosity of the classical city-state, Roman religious "legalism," the rise of personal or individualistic spirituality in the form of mystery cults promising both worldly and afterlife rewards to their ritual adherents and the congregational-soteriological faiths of Orphism and Pythagorianism, the religious life of women, the consequences of civic depoliticization under Roman imperium for the growth of Christianity—these are among the many topics illuminated by Weber's comparative-sociological analysis.

Although current scholarly fashion favors eclectic and more "middle-range" applications over "grand theorizing," social science perspectives continue to inform the researches of ancient historians and classicists. The historian Keith Hopkins (1978, 1983), in a manner befitting his formal sociological training, has examined the religious dimensions of gladiatorial contests, the emperor cult, and the complex of beliefs and practices regarding death in Roman society. An anthropologically framed focus on gender and religion is featured in the pathbreaking studies of Sarah Pomeroy (1975) and Sally Humphreys (1983). S. R. F. Price (1984) draws upon Geertz and Bourdieu to show how emperor worship functioned both as a cognitive system and as a vehicle of symbolic power in consolidating Rome's expanding suzerainty in the Mediterranean world. Ramsay MacMullen (1981), with a social historian's attention to context, provides an invaluable and variegated portrait of how paganism actually "worked" in the daily lives of inhabitants of the Roman empire. The classical scholar Walter Burkert (1983, 1985, 1987) has produced several authoritative studies that display a deep learning in the social sciences and in biology, shedding light on virtually all aspects of Greek religion. The complex and tension-ridden interfacial contacts between Greco-Roman paganism, Judaism, and Christianity have preoccupied scholars since the time of Gibbon, but few have matched the analytical rigor and mastery over empirical detail displayed by either Arthur Darby Nock (1933, 1972) or Arnaldo Momigliano (1977, 1987). In the ongoing, multilingual series, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (de Gruyter), volumes II.16, II.17, II.19, and II.23 explore diverse facets of Greek and Roman religion, with varying degrees of social science sophistication; particularly valuable treatments are offered of the mystery cults, demonic powers, the Sibylline oracles, magical practices, and the histories and functions of principal deities of the Roman pantheon.

Religions have generally proved to be among the more durable—if endlessly adaptive—of social phenomena; once institutionalized and culturally elaborated, they are seldom eradicated or abandoned altogether. The fate of Greek and Roman "paganism" provides a striking exception to that tendency, for the triumph of Christianity—although accompanied by selective "borrowings" and syncretic fusions in both thought and ritual—did entail the eclipse of a polytheistic religious order that had reigned for more than a millennium. The sociological issues raised by that fact alone provide sufficient warrant for renewed attention by social scientists in a field that so captivated the founders of their disciplines.

Joseph M. Bryant


W. Burkert, Homo Necans (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983)

W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985)

W. Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987)

F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy (London: Arnold, 1912)

M. Detienne, Les jardins d'Adonis (Paris: Gallimard, 1972)

M. Detienne, Dionysos mis á mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1977)

G. Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)

J. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (London: Merlin, 1962 [1903])

J. Harrison, Themis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912)

K. Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978)

K. Hopkins, Death and Renewal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)

S. Humphreys, Family, Women and Death (London: Routledge, 1983)

R. MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981)

A. Momigliano, Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977)

A. Momigliano, On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987)

M. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion (Munich: Beck, 1955, 1961)

A. D. Nock, Conversion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933)

A. D. Nock, Essays on Religion and the Ancient World (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972)

S. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (New York: Schocken, 1975)

S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984)

H. J. Rose, Ancient Roman Religion (New York: Hillary House, 1948)

G. Thomson, The Prehistoric Aegean (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1949)

G. Thomson, The First Philosophers (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955)

J. Vernant, Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne (Paris: Maspero, 1974)

P. Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986)

A. Winspear, The Genesis of Plato's Thought (New York: Dryden, 1940).

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