In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section God, Greco-Roman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Series
  • Anthologies
  • Regional Surveys of Cult
  • Studies of Individual Gods
  • Imperial Developments

Biblical Studies God, Greco-Roman
Alexander Millington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0210


The study of Greco-Roman divinity encompasses all of the many elements that make up a Greco-Roman god. These include stories told about the gods and stories that incorporate the gods as narrative elements, both of which can appear within narrative and lyric poems, within stage-plays, within speeches composed for the law-courts, and within narrative histories, which we may possess in their original form or in summaries compiled in a later era to engage that era’s debates. The constituent elements of a god also include the gods’ names, which bind together cult and story, and sometimes carry metonymic weight or derive from a preexisting abstract concept, and they include the epithets that are joined to them, which may be geographic or descriptive or reflective of function. The gods were made up of stories and images, and occupied space and reciprocal interactions with their worshippers. Sanctuaries and statues, sacrifices and festivals, prayers and votive offerings, epiphanies (both in dreams and in the waking world), and messages passed through oracles and divinatory experts all contributed to these complex divine constructs. The gods possessed both vivid anthropomorphic personalities and an array of functions: social, political, causal, and narrative. The exact relationship between the god emplaced within a local cultic context, and the many other manifestations of the same divine name, continues to engender debate. The gods permeate our sources for the ancient world: literary and archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic. This article, therefore, suggests introductory surveys not of particular source-types, but of the scholarship concerning the key constituent elements of Greco-Roman gods. I have favored works published in the early 21st century because they invariably contain comprehensive references to, and often extended critical discussions of, the most influential of the older works.

General Overviews

Jost 1992 and Scheid 1998 are among the best entry points to the study of Greek and Roman religion, respectively. Unlike many general handbooks, Jost places the gods on center stage. Nilsson 1955–1961 provides valuable orientation for understanding the scholarly context within which mid-20th-century works on the gods were written. Burkert 1985 is still influential, despite its limitations. Parker 2011 and Polinskaya 2013 are clear and astute guides to early-21st-century debates.

  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Translated by John Raffan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

    Often said to have superseded Nilsson 1955–1961, Burkert’s handbook is much more narrowly focused: restricted to Archaic and Classical Greece, with the gods marginalized in favor of an anthropological approach to ritual. To be used with extreme care: many of the references lead nowhere, and several of the sections devoted to individual gods are compressed and simplified reworkings of those provided by Nilsson. Translation of Burkert’s Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (Berlin: Kohlhammer, 1977).

  • Jost, Madeleine. Aspects de la vie religieuse en Grèce: Du début du Ve siècle à la fin du IIIe siècle avant J.-C. 2d ed. Paris: SEDES, 1992.

    A concise, clear, thoughtful, wide-ranging, and unusually god-focused introduction to Greek religion. An excellent starting point, providing a reliable general orientation. Opens with an extended discussion of exactly what a Greek god may be considered to be.

  • Nilsson, Martin P. Geschichte der griechischen Religion. 2 vols. 2d ed. Munich: Beck, 1955–1961.

    Nilsson’s monumental handbook surveyed the state of the field in the middle of the 20th century. Now heavily outdated, no later handbooks have rivaled its ambition. Although the second volume includes a survey of Roman religion, the sections in the first volume that describe individual gods limit themselves to Greek gods and Greek-language sources. These chapters are heavily reliant on entries in Farnell 1896–1909 (cited under Studies of Individual Gods) and in the 19th-century encyclopedias.

  • Parker, Robert. On Greek Religion. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    A series of thought-provoking essays on a selection of important issues rather than a handbook, the preface provides a brilliantly concise survey of key aspects of the field that are not treated in detail within this slender volume. The chapter on “Analysing Greek Gods” is essential reading.

  • Polinskaya, Irene. A Local History of Greek Polytheism: Gods, People, and the Land of Aigina, 800–400 BCE. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004262089

    An extended exploration of the major theoretical and methodological questions and paradigms involved in the study of Greek polytheism informs and contextualizes Polinskaya’s detailed study of Aiginetan cult. Essential reading.

  • Scheid, John. La religion des Romains. Paris: Armand Colin, 1998.

    A short, but rich and well-organized introduction to Roman religion.

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