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John Scheid and scholarly biases in the study of Paganism

In his book An Introduction to Roman Religion, John Scheid (“widely respected as one of the most original as well one of the most authoritative historians of Roman religion” – quote taken from the BMCR review here) writes that

Since the mid-nineteenth century, when it first became the subject of specialist research, the study of Roman religion has been affected by a variety of influences. Christianity, in particular, has often provided the yardstick by which it has been judged. The fact that it had been under the Roman Empire that Christianity developed seemed to justify the generally disparaging judgement passed on traditional Roman ritualistic polytheism. It seemed to support the notion that a ‘superior’, ‘true’ religion had triumphed over an ‘inferior’ one, and to justify writing of the ‘conversion’ of the Romans.
[pp. 4-5]

Scheid then goes on to list three specific ways in which this Christianizing bias has strongly colored the scholarly study of Roman religion:

1. Roman religion was characterized as “decadent” and “cold“: “This approach was very much due to the sway of German idealism.” The main idea here is that Roman religion failed to meet people’s spiritual needs, thus explaining the supposed ease with which Christianity triumphed. To illustrate this, Scheid quotes Theodor Mommsen’s 1854 The History of Rome:

… the forms of the Roman faith remained at, or sunk to, a singularly low level of conception and insight … [The religion of Rome] was unable to excite the mysterious awe after which the human heart is always longing, or thoroughly to embody the incomprehensible and even malignant elements in nature and in man … The Latin religion sank into an incredible insipidity and dullness, and early became shrivelled into an anxious and dreary round of ceremonies.
[pp. 6-7]

2. Roman religion was characterized as “swamped with foreign cults“. According to Scheid, this view “was pushed to such absurd extremes that even the triad of Capitoline deities (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva), the guardian Gods of the Roman state, were represented as being of ‘foreign’ origin.”

3. Roman religion was characterized as not “pure“. According to Scheid, the study of Roman religion has been marred by “the Romantic concept of closed, ‘pure’ cultures and by the idea of decadence — as if true Roman religion only existed before its contamination by decadent imports from the outside.” In opposition to this “Romantic” vision of Roman religion, Scheid insists that “the idea that one might be able to reconstruct a ‘pure’, unadulterated state of Roman religion is itself a modern myth.”

Scheid is not without his own biases, though. He himself uncritically perpetuates a number of false notions about religion in general, and Roman religion and Christianity in particular. And despite Scheid’s correct identification of some of the errors that others have made as a result of using Christianity as a “yardstick”, Scheid’s own errors have the same cause.

Briefly here are the five most obvious such errors:

1. Roman Paganism “was a religion without revelation.” (p. 18)

2. Roman Paganism “involved no initiation and no teaching.” (p. 19)

3. “Those who did not enjoy the same social status could not belong to the same religious community.” (p. 19)

4. “It was a religion with no moral code. The ethical code by which it was ruled was the same as that which ruled other ‘non-religious’ social relations.” (p. 19)

5. Late antique Roman Paganism was in a state of marked decline. Traditional religion had largely disappeared from most of the populace except for the elites, who had transformed it “into a kind of philosophising religion.” (p. 191)

Each of these errors opens up its own quite substantial can of worms. I list them here now, in hopes of being able to return to them later, to at least make it clear that I am not giving some sort of open-ended endorsement of everything Scheid has to say – like any work of solid scholarship, Scheid’s book must be approached with a critical eye and mind.

Finally here are two sizeable excerpts from Greg Wolf’s BMCR review of Scheid’s book (also linked to above), focussing on Scheid’s “methodological charter”:

Scheid’s own stated methodological preference is for an historical anthropology of Roman religion. Study should proceed through careful case studies, each based on “a detailed analysis of all aspects of the ritual” in Dumézilian mode. Those familiar with Scheid’s scholarly publications will not be surprised to see that anthropology takes priority over history. Put otherwise, the study of constants precedes the discussion of variables. Where this matters least is in discussion of the rich evidence for cult from the last generation of the Republic and the earliest imperial centuries. The density of evidence, especially for the cults of the City, allows rich interpretations to be developed, especially for scholars such as Scheid (not that there are many others) who are equally happy with Ciceronian theology, votive inscriptions and sanctuary archaeology….

Anthropologists are forever discovering history and historians anthropology. Many anthropologists are now preoccupied above all with the study of change, and have produced detailed critiques of the practices of writing and conceptualization that their predecessors employed to construct “ancestral traditions” and “ethnographic presents”. Those of us to whom Scheid’s championing of historical anthropology seems the only sane way to go beyond the catalogue in the study of Roman religion, maybe need to import this new anthropological sensibility into our own studies. It is to be hoped Scheid’s textbook, with its bold methodological charter will entice many more students to engage in just such a project.

One response to “John Scheid and scholarly biases in the study of Paganism

  1. Yewtree August 9, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    A pity that he is using Dumézil – rather an outdated approach.Also there was more than one religion going on in ancient Rome. I guess that, as in modern Paganism, you could be a member of more than one of them, but there must have been many different theological and philosophical positions and ritual styles.

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