After Life in Roman Paganism (Cumont, 1922)

A few days ago I finished reading After Life in Roman Paganism by legendary French historian of religion Franz Cumont. The book publishes lectures originally delivered in English at Yale University in 1921.

My copy, a Dover Publications paperback edition from 1959, originally cost $1.35, was designed to last for a long time in a library, and is “an unabridged and unaltered republication of the first edition published by Yale University Press in 1922.” There is a stamp on the cover page which reads “The University of Chicago / Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion.” And the volume is signed J. M. Kitagawa / U of Chicago in blue pencil. Kitagawa is still a legendary name around the University of Chicago, although he is not very well known.

Back to the volume itself. There are no annotations in the book… at all. Nor was there sign of a lot of reading. Now, I don’t think that means Kitagawa didn’t read it, because my reading of it, which occurred on two coasts and included quite a few nights that ended with dropping the copy on the floor of a beach house, left very little trace as well, and I also did not make marginal notes. It’s a sturdy book, designed to be clothbound and reside on a dusty shelf (unread) for generations.

Concerning the contents of the book, I found Cumont an ingenuously knowing historian, but also a friend to knowledge. He offers discussion of a treasure trove of evidences taken from the Roman era of the broader Mediterranean world, and thus his purview encompasses Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even further afield. He loves the subject and conveys his love quite vividly. For instance: long flights of fanciful dreamlike prose extol astronomical immortality as the ultimate achievement of pagan eschatological thought. Other passages convey his own deep fascination with the existential problem of human life, namely, it’s apparent end. But such follies of a brilliant scholar are more than matched by the immense learning he brings to the task. Here is a teacher who will for years continue to master many of us students of religion. Cumont gives a variety of learned citations to ancient authors, monuments, and inscriptions from a spectrum of traditions and geographical regions. One could learn a great deal, chasing down the sources cited by Cumont.

Ultimately, Cumont’s approach is the problem. The variety itself cannot be sustained. Cumont uses a safely vague (and so totally implausible) tissue of statements implying causal and actual connection between his scores of points of evidence. He cites so many modes of piety, varieties of belief, common practices, popular expressions, poetic and dramatic utterances, epitaphs, myths and prayers that he apparently has no time left for offering a plausible case that the words things and images he discusses all properly relate to one another, or a common subject, historically. Which is not to say that they don’t — often they clearly do. For example, in the first half of the book, the Pythagoreans appear to have enormous and far reaching influence on many thinkers, and much of his exposition is at least plausible. But the details of the relationship remain unclear in his exposition. So, this book is untamed and speculative, but sometimes right.

More about this book on strata.

Read it on Google Books:

what do you think?

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