Georgetown University provost and author O’Donnell (The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History, 2008, etc.) offers a revisionist tour of the reach and purpose of the gods for the Romans, from the height of Rome’s temple building by Augustus in 17 B.C. to the Christian incursions of the A.D. fourth century.
Senior statesmen privately consulted the ancient Greek Sibylline books kept beneath the Temple of Jupiter in Rome not to predict the future so much as to “determine what it would take to placate the gods—and thus produce a better future.” O’Donnell emphasizes how very gradual changes took place in how the people viewed their religion, as in the fluid exchange between the Greek and Roman pantheons and a general willingness by migrating people “to discern a familiar god behind an unfamiliar name.” The author describes with relish some of the various rituals practiced in ceremonies of sacrifice at the Roman temples, including prodigious spilling of blood, and popular notions of divination, such as augury (the watching of birds) and haruspicy (the reading of the innards of various animals), all of which were slowly eclipsed by the spread of Christianity. Yet Christians, too, had their magic incantations and secret societies. Examining the works of such philosophers as Plotinus, O’Donnell explores the eager adoption of new ideas about a more powerful deity and bloodless ritual. Yet Constantine’s gathering of bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 spurred the birth of paganism, as Christianity was fundamentally defined in opposition to it: as a rejection of false gods and old ways. Eventually, O’Donnell arrives at what a pagan is (from the Latin paganus, or peasant): anybody who was not a soldier of Christ.
A roundabout historical lesson that employs the classical texts with irony and irreverence.