To combine high and low is a rare thing. Historians usually write either “high” with an overarching idea or theme but weak support, or they write “low” with lots of details and specific observations but little overall goal or point. The best historians know how to unite “Heaven” and “Earth,” for only in this union can one glean wisdom. A few years ago I read Carlin Barton’s book on the gladiatorial games and immediately decreed it the best book ever on the subject, case closed. Barton knows how to write in both directions, and she has bold ideas.
In the Sorrows of the Ancient Romans Barton successfully sought to see the gladiator contests not in light of the “bread and circuses” lens of Roman politics, but in the cultural and religious meaning of “suffering” for the Romans. In Imagine No Religion, cowritten with Daniel Boyarin, Barton remakes our understanding of Roman religion. She suggests in her introduction that the problem many scholars have in translating ancient texts comes from their natural love for abstraction.
Intellectuals and academics in the contemporary world are cosmopolites . . . . They are like the relativist Xenophanes who boasted of traveling the “world” for 67 years. They are pressed hard to find ways of ordering the variety of human experience. We scholars, like all cosmopolites, cope . . . by creating abstractions.
Barton argues that many translators see the world “religio” in Latin, and fail to see the nuance inherent in the word. I would add that academics might also tend to see the Roman concept of “religio” much in the way that those they connect with in the ancient world might see it. Hence, academics have tended to see Roman religion too much through the lens of Cicero. Cicero–a brilliant man who could see different sides of issues, alternating between retreat and involvement–seems a perfect doppelgänger for the modern don.
But when we look at Cicero in the 1st century B.C., we are not looking at the traditional reality of Roman religion, but at a reaction to political tumult, which likely sprang from the cultural and social upheaval of the Roman Republic at that time.
Some of Cicero’s more famous pronouncements on religion reveal something of a hierarchical and ordered system. He writes,
So from the very beginning we must persuade our citizens that the gods are the masters and regulators of all things, . . . that the race of humans are greatly indebted to them. They observe the character of every individual . . . with what intentions and with what pietas he fulfills his religiones . . .
In De Natura Deorum Cicero writes again in a similar vein,
. . . I ought to uphold the opinions about the immortal gods that we have received from the mayors, the caerimoniae, and the religiones. Indeed, I will always defend them, and always have. When it is a matter of religio I am guided by the pontifex maximus Titus . . .
Barton sees the concept of “religio” working much differently than as a means of social control, and cites the work of other scholars who translate the word as “care for the gods,” “hesitation,” “anxiety,” and the like. Clearly, some kind of cultural “attitude” is at work, a balancing of emotional attitudes and actions, and this forms the heart of Barton’s project with the book.
Earliest preserved appearances show that religio meant not so much a system of thought, but something akin to “what gave men pause.” In the Mercator of Plautus (184 B.C.) Charinus wants to leave home, his friend Eutyches tries to change his mind. Charinus responds, “That man causes me to have second thoughts–he makes me pause and wonder. I”ll turn round and go over to him” (Religionem mi obiecit: recipiam me illuc). In other sections of Plautus “religio” indicates the thought/emotion of holding back, thinking twice. A century later Cicero uses the word in a like manner when he recounts that Publius was greatly angry at Valerius, “Yet he kept hesitating and religio repeatedly resisted, holding back his anger.” In turn, acting against such a feeling caused one to feel pudor, whose symtoms gave one high anxiety more than shame. Barton suggests a parallel–“A modern man might approach a lapdog casually, but might hesitate before a Doberman or a pit bull. . . .Just so, ‘religio’ was evoked in dealing with the risky ventures of life, causing the Romans to behave with awe or circumspection.
Livy recounts the interactions between the consuls Paulus and Varro as they approached Cannae:
Paulus himself wished to delay . . . . Varro was greatly vexed at this hindrance, but the recent disaster of Flaminius and the memorable defeat of the consul Claudius in the First Punic struck his animus with religio.
Seneca writes similarly,
If a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not made with hands but hollowed out by natural causes, it will strike your spirit with a certain religio.
Barton again comments, “‘Religio‘ was especially evoked by highly charged boundaries, and the fear of transgressing taboos, such as we might approach the edge of an electric fence. No fear of magisterial authority or divine judgment was necessary.”
But religio had negative connotations as well. One could hem and haw too much, and in the wrong times and places. Cicero criticizes a rhetor named Calvus, who spoke with excessive precision and balancing, so that “his language was weakened with too much religio.” So too, superstition had a close alliance with religio, which should be seen, as Barton states, as “not the antithesis but the excess of religio.” One needed a steady balance of the right religio to act rightly in the world. Failure to have a proper balance would later result in unhelpful wild swings. Livy writes of Tullus Hostilius, “[a] man who had so far thought nothing of . . . sacred rites, [who then] suddenly fell prey all sorts of superstitions, and filled even the minds of the people with religiones.” Livy also recounts the impact of the 2nd Punic War warping the people’s sense of religio:
The longer the war dragged on and success or failure altered the spirits of men no less than their fortunes, such a great religio invaded the republic, for the most part from the outside, so that gods or men suddenly seemed changed. Now that the disorder appeared too strong, the senate assigned . . . the city praetor the task of freeing people from these religiones.
An intriguing “chicken or the egg” question arises when one looks at the collapse of the Roman Republic. Most look at the political disorder beginning with the Graachi and then see the concomitant centralization of power that culminated with Caesar as a solution to the breakdown. Another option–could the centralization of power in fact have indirectly caused the disorder? An alteration of the traditional political give and take would send shock waves through the psyches of the populace. Of course, most chicken-egg questions have no possibility of resolution, but thinking of the relationship between power and disorder will help us understand the fabric of reality.
We can apply this to Roman religion, and we see the possibility that too much control may have come before religio got out of balance. Toynbee and others document how the 2nd Punic War (218-202) particularly challenged traditional religion by exposing Romans to new ideas, cults, and (as we saw above), an excess of religio as superstition. As the Republic collapsed in the late 1st century BC, Lucretius expounds the notion of the gods keeping everyone in perpetual fear–through excessive control. “Religio” had gotten out of control:
Human life lay for all to see foully groveling on the ground, crushed beneath the weight of religio which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals on high with horrible aspect . . .
I must show in what ways fear of the gods crept into the heart which our earth keeps holy their shrines and pools and groves, their altars and images.De reruns natura, 1.62ff., 5.73ff.
Statius in the mid 1st century A.D. wrote that, “It was fear that first made gods in the world.” I’m not sure we would have seen such language 200 years prior.
Lucretius did not likely represent the majority opinion, but the authors look at what they call the “Ciceronian Turn,” where Cicero at least, and perhaps Rome as a whole, begins to look at religion as a tool for countering chaos. With the proper balance of religio gone, now things needed more hierarchy, more top-down structure. This in turn created the need for more “noble falsehoods” from the elite and a greater separation from patricians and the plebs.
It appears at first glance that the religious expansion/innovation happened first, and then we have the tightening afterwards. This view appeals to me as someone who views that religion, whether that religion have a direct conscious expression or no, forms the heart of any civilization. But the connection between excessive control and freedom will always be a close one. We can perhaps see Rome’s politics and culture tightening during the Punic Wars, the devastation of Italy due to Hannibal, etc., and then–religio starts to get out of alignment, showing more extremes.
However we see this relationship, the west will always play with fire when we focus alternately on the rights of individuals and the limits of government power, for that puts the focus on the edge rather than the center. Then, just as when we breathe heavily, we get unbalanced. A civilization cannot breathe heavily in and out for very long. A civilization cannot exist as a negotiation between extremes. It functions instead optimally when the tension between different elements is intuitive and thus, healthy. In Rome, for whatever reason this tension got out of alignment, with a resulting political and cultural decline from which they never quite recovered.
This relationship between extremes manifesting themselves simultaneously runs rampant throughout our world:
- The internet allows us to have more options than ever and to be surveilled as never before.
- Social media platforms give us essentially no limits on whom we reach with our thoughts, but online speech is also the most heavily regulated/punished.
- Technology gives us the possibilities of travel even into the uninhabitable regions of space, but even slight damage to the craft in the wrong place would kill everyone onboard.
- Nuclear power on the one hand could give the world abundant clean energy, and on the other hand, could destroy civilization entirely.
And so on. To take another example, Russia may have done wrong by invading Ukraine, but observe . . . even Russians who protest the war are being “canceled”, presumably because they are Russian. This absolutist way of acting in the world will hurt far more than it helps.
Imagine No Religion gives us great insight into the relationship between culture, religion and power. It is an open question as to whether or not America ever was a “Christian nation,” but certainly we are not that now, and have not been for some time. Many debate the nature of the “real” religion of America. Whatever that might actually be, the cultural and political tightening we have witnessed recently, however, either has come on the heels of a religious shift, or presages one. As man is, as St. Maximos put it, a macrocosm, individuals and civilizations need to breathe in and out calmly, intuiting the boundaries of our conduct. Healthy people and healthy civilizations result.