In 59 BC, the Roman consul Bibulus pronounced that adverse omens invalidated the radical legislation proposed by his consular colleague Julius Caesar regarding the distribution of agricultural land. Such incidents, which appear to have been relatively rare, were seized on by 19th-century scholars, who characterised Roman religion as a complex, legalistic system, cynically manipulated by elite individuals for their own ends and serving as a means to bolster their political authority over the gullible, superstitious plebs.
The part played by Rome’s official magistrates and priests receives due consideration in Jörg Rüpke’s hugely ambitious study. The power of magistrates to invoke adverse omens to block one another’s legislation, he suggests, indicates the importance of religion in the negotiation of consensus among Rome’s political elite. But he is also concerned with highlighting the individual religious agency of inhabitants of the Roman world more generally.
The vast sweep of Rüpke’s work takes us from the tantalisingly evoked religious feelings of a hut-dwelling woman in a small, archaic community through to the experiences of downtrodden city-dwellers in Rome in the third century AD who are prompted to identify with Susanna, ill-treated by the elders, as they listen to Hippolytus’s new version of the story found