How did religious leaders resolve crises in ancient Rome?


The interaction between crises and religion is rarely discussed in research. But how do leaders actually deal with community crises? Classicist Lewis Webb will examine leaders’ religious responses to various crises in ancient Rome.

“Our future wellbeing depends on effective crisis management. By understanding past crises, we can improve our knowledge of past societies, historicize our own calamitous present, and contextualize current debates about crises and crisis management," says Lewis Webb.

This project's purpose is to investigate the interactions between—and transformative effects of—community crises and the official religious responses by political and religious leaders in Republican Rome (509–27 BCE), a city characterized by crises, wherein civic religion was a focal point for crisis management.

Everyday crises in ancient Rome

Lewis Webb is a researcher at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg.

“Rome faced persistent and pervasive community crises throughout the Republic, including epidemics, famine, natural disasters, wars, civil strife, and more. Civic religion was central to how political and religious leaders dealt with them”, says Lewis Webb.

Previous studies seldom treat civic religion as crisis management, or include women, and scholarship on crisis and religion is rarely in dialogue.

“The interplay between community crises and civic religion is rarely examined in scholarship on the Republic, as well as the roles of women in crisis management. By overlooking religion and women, we risk misunderstanding the breadth of crisis management strategies available to political and religious leaders, as well as the importance of religion in Rome”.

Religion and politics

Lewis Webb argues that crisis and crisis management are crucial issues for contemporary societies. We are all living amidst a wide range of crises: climate change, epidemics, food insecurity, refugee movements, and warfare.

“This project will create a more comprehensive and integrated picture of crisis management in Republican Rome, encourage reflection on how intertwined religion and politics were and are in past and present societies, and offer tools for assessing how today's leaders deal with crises”

Teacher at Oxford

The research project, called "Crisis rituals: Civic religion and crisis management in Republican Rome", will last three years and is funded by Vetenskapsrådet (the Swedish Research Council) with 3.5 million SEK.

Lewis Webb is a researcher at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Gothenburg, but currently holds a 'Stipendiary Lectureship' and a 'Fulford Junior Research Fellowship' in Classics and a ‘Departmental Lectureship’ in Classical Sexuality and Gender Studies at the University of Oxford, where he teaches Greek and Roman history.

Text: Cecilia Sjöberg

Crisis rituals: Civic religion and crisis management in Republican Rome
  • This project aims at investigating and systematizing the official religious responses of male and female leaders to community crises.
  • Investigating and outlining how crises and leaders' religious responses physically and religiously transformed Rome.
  • Broadening our knowledge of Roman leaders' crisis management strategies and religion's roles therein.
  • This project will generate a more comprehensive and integrated image of crisis management in Republican Rome, encourage reflection on the entanglement of religion and politics, and offer a lens on leaders’ responses to contemporary crises.