Despite Adam Smith’s observations on the economics of religion (Smith (1776) V.i ff.), only recently have modern critics started to consider the notion of religious economies, in which there are competing economic forces of demand (the consumer) and supply (the religious organisation and its officials). The relative success of religious denominations in achieving their ends (instilling piety in their supporters) depends on the varying levels of diversity and competition, both within and outside of that organisation. This provides a useful starting point to consider the dynamics at work in the religious experiences of the Roman people from the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE.
For too long Roman religion in the Republic has been regarded as a static, timeless institution controlled by the élite classes at the expense of the masses. Recent work on the later Roman Republic, however, has eroded the illusion of an all-encompassing state religion to demonstrate a vibrant market-place of religious activity in which individuals had relative freedom to choose outlets for their own acts of religious devotion (e.g. Bendlin (2000)). It is now possible to perceive a world populated by astrologers, dream interpreters, and backstreet diviners vying for attention alongside civic rituals in honour of Jupiter, Juno or Hercules. It is also possible to point to variant modes of competition within and between the apparatus of state-sanctioned rites and among the élites who were supposed to maintain a monopoly over those rites. Nonetheless, the Roman sources for the later Republic maintain a uniformly positivist outlook vis à vis the predominance of the “state” religion and its institutions.
In this paper, I argue that an understanding of the competitive aspects of Roman religion cannot simply be arrived at by applying ready-made economic theories or by undoing traditional modalities (e.g. state-individual; public-private). Any conclusions about the nature of that competition must engage with the complexities of the literary and archaeological sources while explaining the relative success of the Roman state organisms in managing and controlling religious worship.
Bendlin, A. (2000) ‘Looking beyond the civic compromise: religious pluralism in late republican Rome’ in E. Bispham and C. J. Smith (edd.), Religion in Archaic Rome and Italy: Evidence and Experience. Edinburgh, 115-135.
Eswaran, M. (2009) ‘Competition and performance in the market place for religion: a theoretical perspective’ Under Review.
Iannaccone, L. R. (1991) ‘The Consequences of Religious Market Structure: Adam Smith and the Economics of Religion’, Rationality and Society, 3:2, pp. 156-177.
North, J. (1974) ‘Conservatism and Change in Roman Religion.’ Papers of the British School in Rome 44, 1–12.
North, J. (1979) ‘Religious Toleration in Republican Rome'. Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 25, 85–103.
Smith, A. (1776) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London.
Stark, R. (2006) ‘Religious competition and Roman piety’ Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 2, 1-30.