Rezension über:

Jacob L. Mackey: Belief and Cult. Rethinking Roman Religion, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2022, XXI + 469 S., 11 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-691-16508-0, USD 45,00
Inhaltsverzeichnis dieses Buches
Buch im KVK suchen

Rezension von:
Federico Santangelo
Newcastle University
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Federico Santangelo: Rezension von: Jacob L. Mackey: Belief and Cult. Rethinking Roman Religion, Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press 2022, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5 [15.05.2024], URL:

Bitte geben Sie beim Zitieren dieser Rezension die exakte URL und das Datum Ihres Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse an.

Jacob L. Mackey: Belief and Cult

Textgröße: A A A

Jacob Mackey has written a divisive book - the sort of work that questions the terms of the discipline to which it seeks to contribute, and makes the case, "from the ground up" (60), for an altogether new approach and a new method. Belief and Cult carries two fundamental messages. The first one is "an attempt at reclamation". (43) Belief should be placed at the centre of our understanding of Roman religion, and be viewed as an Intentional state that shapes reality, and has a profound emotional and collective dimension: in fact, it is central to the understanding of religious agency (135). Intentionality is understood and used as a technical term (hence the capital I), drawn from the cognitive science of religion (CSR). Indeed, the second major point of the book is that the study of Roman religion should engage systematically with what that field has to offer. Mackey gives special weight to Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device (HADD), which is a mental process through which agency is attributed and overattributed: a central driver of religious belief. The implication of this line of argument is that most of the historiographical tradition on Roman religion has been missing a crucial part of the picture, has been asking a set of wrong questions as a result, and needs to be reframed accordingly.

This is, in many ways, an exceptionally difficult work; there is a great deal to unpack. Its first part is taken up by the patient elucidation of concepts and materials drawn from cognitive studies, combined with an insightful and constructively provocative survey of the historiographical debate. The assessment of the work of the late Simon Price strikes me as especially inspiring, but there is much to learn on every page; it is worth noting, and is probably revealing, that John Searle has a fair few more entries in the bibliography than John Scheid. The second part takes on several case studies, in which cognitive approaches are deployed in the exploration of the religious experience, ranging from Lucretius to augural observation, from prayer (on which I missed some engagement with the important work of Maik Patzelt [1]) to votive dedications and child religiosity. The book does not end with a traditional set of conclusions, but with an "epilog" that explores the cognitive dimension of Roman sacrifice, building on the nine-tiered ideal type produced by Francesca Prescendi, and putting it to the test of the close reading of key passages in Dionysius, Arnobius, and Caesar (in this order). Mackey then concludes that belief is central to the understanding of sacrificial ritual, and is a major emic factor that cannot be left out of our etic accounts. A powerful point of method emerges: the theoretical panoply that he articulates corroborates and expands the remit of the philological engagement with the sources, rather than undermining it in any way.

Mackey writes beautifully, and the reader who is prepared to slowly and fully follow the complexity of his argument will find a clear and sympathetic guide. The presentation of the material could have been more economical, but that is partly a function of the strong pedagogical ethos of the project. It is tempting, and relatively easy, to envisage a number of graduate seminars framed around the case studies pursued in this book, or indeed around its splendid theoretical introduction; an even more pressing question is how its key contentions will feed into undergraduate teaching. It will not be a simple process, nor a quick one, and Mackey rightly envisages this book as the start of a wider collective exploration, which is bound to take time, and will certainly see a number of pushbacks. Future directions of travel may include a systematic exploration of how four key terms in cognitive theory, the 4E model, play out in Roman religion: embodiment, embedding, enacting, and extension (17-18). An even more urgent brief, though, must be how we can bring diachrony into the picture. Do the same cognitive parameters apply to a Roman of the age of Ennius and one of the Severan period, to a colonist at Carteia or Italica and the follower of a henotheist cult in Imperial Asia Minor? If variance did occur, how did it play out, and how should it be explained? The rise of Christianity is frequently invoked as a fundamental turn in the way in which belief operates and confers meaning upon the human experience. There is no attempt to explain its success, and periodization seems to play a marginal role in Mackey's concerns.

This is a divisive, difficult, and complex work. Its general contention is nothing short of compelling. It marks an altogether new shift with which students of Roman religion will have to reckon for a long time to come, and that no one in the wider field of Roman studies can afford to overlook. Engaging with it will be rewarding, challenging, even infuriating at times: the disciplined student of Roman religion will constantly find themselves dragged out of their comfort zone. Tant pis. The conversation that Mackey has prompted is a necessary one, and the field is very much in his debt for initiating it so searchingly and so tersely.


[1] Maik Patzelt: Über das Beten der Römer. Gebete im spätrepublikanischen und frühkaiserlichen Rom als Ausdruck gelebter Religion, Berlin 2018, on which see

Federico Santangelo