Was There Religious Extremism in Ancient Rome?

Douglas Boin
Jan 11, 2016 · 4 min read

When the curtain rises for Act 1 of Mary Beard’s New York Times bestselling new book, it’s 63 BCE — sort of.

By Douglas Boin

This January, The Chronicle of Higher Education featured my 1,200-word essay on SPQR, classicist Mary Beard’s new history of Rome. It was the most room I’ve ever been given in a public forum before — the piece covers Edward Gibbon and Donald Trump, the Fall of the Roman Empire and Islamophobia — but space was still tight in print. Here, I wanted to offer readers a backstage pass to tour some topics I didn’t have a chance to include.

Since Beard’s history first came out, I’ve been struck by the fact that both our books on Ancient Rome begin in the same year (63 BCE) with the same famous episode in Roman history, the Catilinarian conspiracy. What’s also surprising is that we write about it in two entirely different ways. The plot is well known to many Latin students but deserves retelling for an audience who may not wake up with Cicero every day.

In November, 63 BCE, word leaked that a band of conspirators were amassing north of Rome, in Fiesole; and that they and their leader, the disaffected political Catiline, were scheming to murder the capital’s leading citizens. That, at least, is the picture the consul Cicero painted when he stepped before the Senate to share the latest intelligence briefing. It’s also the basic outline of what we know from the narrative of the contemporary Latin writer Sallust.

In SPQR, Beard recounts the fascinating tale of the “terrorists,” as she calls them, with perfect pacing and dramatic pitch. Testimonies are reconstructed; the effectiveness of the government response, led by Cicero, picked over. Every piece of intelligence is brought forward to put the events in perspective — everything, that is, except the religious motivations of the attackers.

Like a magician setting the stage for her illusion, Beard has casually hidden one of the most important strings, religion, so that we never look at it during her show.

Like Beard, I, too, opened my latest book on Rome with this episode. But I did so for a much different reason.

As Cicero’s third speech against Catiline makes clear, at least some of the anarchists were convinced that a doomsday prophecy would be fulfilled if they attacked the capital that very year. The source for their wild belief were documents in Rome’s own archives: the Sibylline books.

The Sibyls — manic clairvoyants who communicated in enigmatic pieces of poetry à la Nostradamus — had authored an important book of prophecies which Romans kept under lock and key. Apparently, one of the conspirators thought he was the unspecified “third Cornelius” who was destined to bring ruin to Rome that very year. Suffice it so say, he didn’t come close to overthrowing Rome. The gang’s whole leadership was rounded up and executed; hangers-on were routed in the Etruscan hills.

In my book, I give the history of how Rome came to acquire these strange religious texts and why they held such an authoritative and bewitching spell on many Romans who used them to justify their anti-government actions. For me, that’s an important window onto the phenomenon of apocalypticism that was rampant in the ancient world and not just limited to pockets of Jews or Christians. (These are also ideas that I’m exploring in some research-in-progress.)

In SPQR, Beard never mentions these women, the beliefs that came to be associated with them, or the toxic role they played in Catiline’s revolt. That’s why, when the curtain opens on her story, it may seem like 63 BCE — but it’s a highly manipulated version of it. Like a magician setting the stage for her illusion, Beard has casually hidden one of the most important strings, religion, so that we never look at it during her show. Once you know it’s there, however, her opening claim — that exploring ancient Rome from the 21st century “is rather like walking a tightrope, a very careful balancing act. If you look down on one side, everything seems reassuringly familiar…. On the other side, it seems completely alien territory” — seems like the ultimate bit of misdirection.

So why did Beard hide “religion” in retelling of those famous events in 63 BCE? The implication seems to be that in pre-Christian Rome “terrorists” couldn’t possibly have been motivated by religious beliefs.

That’s an easy position to argue since, in Beard’s version of ancient history, no one really believed in anything. As she explains to her readers, “Romans knew the gods existed; they did not believe in them in the internalized sense familiar from most modern world religions.” She’s not alone in trying to argue this position. James O’Donnell in Pagans (2015) begins his story of Rome from a similar starting point: “Do you believe that once upon a time there were such beings [as Jupiter and Minerva] who went about the world with superhuman powers of various kinds, interfering in the ordinary run of events?” he asks readers in his prologue. As quickly becomes clear, O’Donnell is asking a rhetorical question which requires a skeptical readers’ assent before continuing the book: “No,” he says, “I don’t either.”

The demands are the same in SPQR; it is only “the Christians” who seem responsible for introducing the curious cultural artifact we now call belief to history.

Why is so much Roman history framed in this way? Whatever the answer, I don’t think classicists need to have a “come-to-Jesus” moment to dramatize the importance of religious belief in Ancient Rome.

This post also appears at religiousdirt.com.

Douglas Boin

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A writer driven by what is novel. An editor committed to what is compelling. A professor and a champion of causes.

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