Encyclopedia of Religion
Roman Religion: The Early Period
Encyclopedia of Religion
Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 12. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p7892-7911. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning
Robert Schilling and Jörg Rüpke Save Article
ROMAN RELIGION: THE EARLY PERIOD
HISTORY OF SCHOLARSHIP
Although Roman religious institutions had been studied earlier (by, for example, Barnabé Brissonius, 1583), the differentiation between Greek and Roman religion within antique "heathendom" or "polytheism" was the work of nineteenth-century scholars. ConcentratingPage 7893 | Top of Article on literary sources and on origins as described by ancient historiographers and critically reviewed by contemporary historians, the studies by J. A. Hartung (1836), Rudolph H. Klausen (1839), and J. A. Ambrosch (1839) marked the beginning of a scientific reconstruction of the religion of the city of Rome (and, marginally, of the religions of Italy). Under the impact of the extensive collection of inscriptions and the systematization of Roman law and the Roman "constitution" assembled by Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), German scholars, especially Georg Wissowa (1859–1931), reconstructed authentic Roman religion as a body of sacral law and conservative ritualism informed by legal conceptions of deities. The Roman calendar, projected into the regal period as a document of early systematization, and the lost "books of the priests" (libri sacerdotum), transmitted in occasional antiquarian quotations only, formed the basis of the reconstruction.
Wissowa's handbook (1902/1912), with its detailed account of deities, temples, and rituals, dominated factual research in the twentieth century. Less successful were the more experiential or expressive interpretations of Roman rituals (e.g., Fowler, 1899 and 1911) and the attempts of Hermann Usener's school and James George Frazer to elucidate these rituals by ethnographic comparison, opening classical material to late-nineteenth-century evolutionary schemes (late resonances in Bailey  and Wagenvoort ). Drawing on comparative linguistics and mythology, Georges Dumézil interpreted Roman deities within an Indo-European framework of three basic "functions" (sovereignty, warfare, and agriculture). Dumézil's impact remained limited, but his attention to a mythology present in the guise of Roman historiography re-enlarged the objects of studies.
The quest for origins and "Wesen" (spiritiual substance) led to a neglect of the interaction with Hellenic culture (an important exception was Altheim, 1930), visible already in the archaeology of early Rome (Foro Boario), and with Italian religions that were increasingly subjected to Roman domination and increasingly present in Rome. Thus the reinterpretation of public Roman religion within the framework of a more skeptical and more sociological image of the history of Roman political institutions (see Beard et al., 1998) must be supplemented by intensified research in Italian imagery and architecture (e.g., Wiseman, 1995, 2000; Coarelli, 1987), as well as a new look at late republican literature (e.g., Feeney, 1998; Barchiesi, Rüpke, and Stevens, 2004) and extra-urban inscriptions.
Any attempt at a historical reconstruction of republican Roman religion has to rely on a critical reading of early Augustan historiography (late first century BCE). With a few…