I. Introduction: the project and its rationale

adapted from my article:

When comparing ancient Roman religion with a more familiar, modern-day religion, such as Christianity, there are several conceptual differences that any modern western observer needs to overcome.[1] Some differences are well-known, such as the fact that Roman religion worships many gods, and that the Romans see religion as a civic duty rather than a matter of personal conviction. But perhaps the most important, and certainly the most interesting difference is the emphasis Roman religion places on doing over thinking. Christianity teaches that belief is everything. However, when it comes to questions of where and how one should worship God, there is considerable freedom: though there are recognised and long-established Christian rituals in which one can participate (for example, the Eucharist), it is equally acceptable within certain branches of the Church to pray to God in one’s own place, in one’s own way, and at one’s own time. An ancient Roman would regard this approach as entirely the wrong way round. The Romans had incredibly complex rules governing the time, place, personnel and procedure for worshipping a deity, and deviation from these rules in any way was deemed to be a bad omen, and often resulted in the ritual having to be performed again until it was done correctly. However, there was no such dogma governing what Romans thought about the actions they were undertaking, or the nature of the particular god they were honouring. This was because the Romans did not possess any underlying, authoritative religious text to which to refer, as is the case with the Christian Bible. Without an orthodox religious text, the meaning behind the festivals in the Roman year was in a state of flux, and it was, therefore, up to individuals to reach their own informed decision as to the most likely meaning behind a religious tradition/deity amidst the maze of variant interpretations which had been generated over the years.[2]

It is at this dynamic intellectual level that I personally find the study of Roman religion so stimulating. As I have been working and publishing on the interaction between Roman literature and religion for some years, I wanted to teach an advanced (Level 2/3) research-led module on Roman Religion at Leeds which would allow students the opportunity to engage with both the ‘strict acting’ and ‘free thinking’ aspects of the ancient Roman religious experience.

The module-entitled ‘Living the Religious Experience at Rome’ ran for the first time in 2007-8. As a key part of the assessment for the module, students are given a specific year, A.D. 10, and a choice of two Roman festivals: in 2007-8, these were the Lupercalia and the Megalensia; in 2010-11, these are the Vestalia and the October Horse. Students are asked to get themselves into groups of either two or three, and are invited to construct a wiki in which they take on the persona of a contemporary religious participant by describing both the proceedings of a given festival as well as their own feelings and viewpoints about it. As such, students are taking part in a project to bring Roman religion to life by exploring the potential diversity of Roman religious life at a specific point in its history. Not just interesting in itself, this project has genuine academic validity, as it answers the rally call of many a scholar on the ancient world. Keith Hopkins may be taken as representative of the current keenness to engage empathetically with the ancient world:

“We need to use empathetic imagination to help us think and feel ourselves back into how different Romans themselves experienced festivals … We can never think like Romans. And yet if we are to understand the power of Roman rituals, their repeated capacity to secure citizens’ involvement, then we have to recapture the excitement, the heightened emotions of participants … This perspective, as I have said, has its dangers. It is based sometimes of imagination rather than on sources, and so violates the canons of careful scholarship. But it can also serve as a valuable corrective to the unselfconscious elitism of Roman historians, both ancient and modern, who place themselves effortlessly in the very top ranks of Roman society and view rituals only downward, from above.”[3]

The best of the wiki narratives in each year will be housed on this website, which is designed to act as an educational resource for the benefit of a wide range of learners, such as: undergraduate Classics and Religion students both at Leeds and in other UK institutions; school children (for whom Roman Religion is a topic on both GCSE and A-Level Classical Civilisation syllabi); and general enthusiasts.

II. Pedagogical Benefits to Students

I list below the pedagogical benefits that students have gained from the wiki Roman religion project so far:

Deep learning: Opportunities for ‘informed creativity’. This is by no means a ‘lightweight’ assignment where characters can say what they like. Each account is going to consist of:

i) fact/uncontested information (i.e. things that the student can get ‘wrong’);

ii) disputed fact: the viewpoint will be dependent on the character (and there is a need for plausibility);

iii) informed creative license: the mimetic nature of the project allows students to explore the realm of the plausible, unrefutable but undocumented (at a basic level, for example, we have no evidence of a slave catching a ride on a local cheese cart to get to a festival, but we have evidence of slaves, cheese sellers and carts).

Deep learning: in order to enrich their character’s narrative, students are invited to apply relevant knowledge they have gained from any of the modules they have taken/ are taking so far. As such, the exercise seeks to encourage students out of the mindset of ‘atomising’ their knowledge, which is often an unfortunate side-effect of the university modular system: instead, they are invited to see all their modules as different windows onto the (same) ancient world.

Transferable/ Employability skills: Opportunities for group work/ project management and advanced IT skills not typically associated with the teaching of Classics at university.

Recognising the Value and Impact of Research: The wiki assessment has already demonstrated an ability to inspire students to think creatively and holistically about the classical world. An awareness that the best narratives will form part of an educational website will further enable students to appreciate the research-value of their work and the impact their research might have on the wider community.

[1] For useful overviews, see M. Beard, J. North and S. Price (1998), Religions of Rome Volume I: A History, Cambridge, 42-54; J. Scheid (2003), An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana, 5-38.

[2] The most important contributions to this issue are: M. Beard (1987), “A Complex of Times: No more Sheep on Romulus’ Birthday”, PCPS 33, 1-15; J. Scheid (1992), “Myth, Cult and Reality in Ovid’s Fasti”, PCPS 38, 118-31; D. Feeney (1998), Literature and Religion at Rome, Cambridge, 1-11.

[3] See K. Hopkins (1991), “From Blessing to Violence”, in A. Molho et al. (edd.), City States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy, Stuttgart, 484.