12967 - Religions of the Classical World (1)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will have a general knowledge of religious-history research methods, religious history in the classical world, sources and issues connected with studying the religions of the classical world. They will understand and use the correct language and research tools of their subject, know the rudiments of polytheism and classical religions, be familiar with the kind of sources and use them correctly for religious-history research. They will be able to describe and illustrate the various aspects of encounters between religion and culture (links, hybridization, conflict) using specific instances and understanding the multicultural contexts. They will be able to discuss the main topics of the discipline competently and have learnt to listen, understand and debate respectfully with different cultures and viewpoints, spotting the tie-ups among different disciplines.

Course contents

The language of religions: from the definition of the field of investigation to the functional structuring of ancient polytheisms between differential comparison and intercultural translatability

Definition of the concept of religion between History of Religions, Religious Studies and Science of Religions. Critical elaboration of the object of historical-religious investigation: taxonomies and classifications, methods and tools, operational concepts, fields of afference, historical dynamisms, cultural implications, social consequences.
The course of this year takes up the topic outlined last year on the theme of religions understood as systems of action based on communication in society.


* ATTENTION: System limitations require to enter on the same page the information relating to the "main" Course:



as well as information relating to the "borrowed" Course:



Students who take only the 6 credits course must necessarily refer to the teaching unit of MODULE 1 given in the second semester, 3rd period (1 February-10 March)

* In using this page the student must pay particular attention to the reconstruction of the contents related to the ("main" or "borrowed") course chosen by him


15951 - RELIGIONS OF THE CLASSICAL WORLD (12 CFU) - II semester / 3rd and 4th teaching period

MODULE 1: GENERAL PART (3rd teaching period)

From the definition of the field of investigation to the functional structuring of ancient polytheisms


The Module 1 of the course is divided into two parts: the first part will outline the theoretical and methodological paths that have influenced the genesis and contributed to the development of an autonomous discipline in its cultural specificities and historical manifestations. Starting, therefore, from the definition of the concept of religion and religions in the context of historical-comparative studies, we will proceed to outline the framework of the most recent acquisitions in the field of evolutionary and cognitive studies on religion.

The second part focuses on Homo religiosus and the sacred experienced as the hermeneutic structure of religious anthropology. We will then analyze the functions and structures of the ancient polytheisms of the Mediterranean area in a comparative perspective, dealing with the following topics: myths, rites and belief systems: a functional definition; building the human, imagining the divine: anthropomorphism, aniconism, hierophanies; worship and devotion: eusebeia, threskeia, pietas and religioSacer faceresacrificium-sacrilegium as accomplishment of the sacred; coping with the gods in ancient Egypt: sacred space and ritual system; forms of knowledge of the divine will: practices of possession and divinatory experience in Greece and Rome; "binding" the gods: the art of magic between Egypt, Greece and ancient Rome; Myths of origin and stories of foundation: the cosmogonic narratives of the Mediterranean area and the ancient Near East; Hellenism and religious innovations in Imperial Rome, mystic cults and sacra peregrina.


MODULE 2: MONOGRAPHIC PART (4th teaching period)

Religions in contact, social transformations. Exercises of cultural "translation": the lesson of the ancients

In ancient religious systems the discourses on identity, memory, tradition; cultural meeting-exchange-comparison; acculturation, assimilation, interpretatio; transition-training-passage; foundation-refounding-challenge; symbolic imagery; mythical heritage; ritual performance; topography of the sacred, they intertwine to compose a complex and simple puzzle at the same time responding to the logic and anthropopoietic purposes of the construction of an articulated and multifunctional human universe. At the crossroads of intersecting routes, the ancient Mediterranean is a place of contact between peoples, cultures and traditions that are strong in their identity and yet liquid, congenitally disposed, as historically exposed, to transformation and change.

The module 2 of the course focuses on the reception and diffusion of foreign cults in imperial Rome, with consequent phenomena of appropriation and cultural resematization of which the work of the Greek Plutarch (De Iside et Osiride) and the African Apuleio (Metamorphosis) offer exemplary testimony, up to the encounter-clash with the irreducible otherness of the Judeo-Christian system of doctrines. The following topics will therefore be analyzed: from the Cumontian category of "oriental religions" to the emic definition of sacra peregrina: definitory analysis and methodological issues; religions in contact and societies in transformation: the great historical changes since the transition from the Republic to the Empire; facing the "otherness": the practice of interpretatioAnatolian cults: the "mother of the gods" in Rome; Egyptian cults: The isiac mysteries; Iranian cults: Mithra and the cult of Sol invictus; Semitic cults: Adonis and Atargatis; Traco-Phrygian cults: Attis, Cybele, Dionysus; orgiastic cults: the senatusconsultum de baccanalibussectarian cults: orphism and Pythagoreanism; the rise of Christianity and the so-called "mosaic distinction": dealing with an irreducible otherness; between religio, superstitio and magia: at the dawn of the dispute between Pagans and Christians; from orthopraxis to orthodoxy: axial change; Plutarch of Cheronea: the Egyptian "theology" of a Romanized Greek; Apuleio di Madaura: the path of initiatory knowledge of a Romanized Berber.


12967 - RELIGIONS OF THE CLASSIC WORLD (1) (6 CFU) - II semester/3rd teaching period


From the definition of the field of investigation to the functional structuring of ancient polytheisms

[For detailed programme see above]



Main Texts (Compulsory)

*texts in pdf format are available in "Virtuale":

  • ILEANA CHIRASSI COLOMBO, Sacer, sacrum, sanctus, religiosus. Valutazioni e contraddizioni storico-semantiche, in Sacrum facere, Atti del I Seminario di Archeologia del Sacro (Trieste, 17-18 febbraio 2012), a cura di Federica Fontana, Edizioni Università di Trieste 2013, pp. 11-21.
  • FABIO MORA, Verso una tipologia delle religioni classiche, «Kernos» 13, 2000, pp. 9-33.

  • GIUSEPPINA PAOLA VISCARDI, Tra uno e molti. Unità e molteplicità di rappresentazione del divino nei pantheon greco e romano, «Humanitas» 73.1, 2018, pp. 27-59.
  • PHILIPPE BORGEAUD, FRANCESCA PRESCENDI,Religioni antiche: un'introduzione comparata, edizione italiana a cura di Daniela Bonanno e Gabriella Pironti, Carocci, Roma 2011.

Further Readings (Recommended/Optional)

*texts in pdf format are available in "Virtuale":

  • UGO BIANCHI, Problemi di storia delle religioni, Edizioni Studium, Roma 1993 [1958].
  • JONATHAN ZITTEL SMITH, Religion, Religions, Religious, in Mark C. Taylor (ed.), Critical Terms for Religious Studies, The Chicago University Press, Chicago & London 1998, Chapter Fifteen, pp. 269-284.


* All non-attending students are required to study also the texts reported in the Further Readings' section



Main Texts (Compulsory)

*texts in pdf format are available in "Virtuale":

  • MAURIZIO BETTINI, Elogio del politeismo: quello che possiamo imparare oggi dalle religioni antiche, Il Mulino, Bologna 2014.
  • FRANZ CUMONT, Le religioni orientali nel paganesimo romano [1929], trad. it. di Luigi Salvatorelli, Laterza, Roma-Bari 1967.


Further Reading (Recommended/Optional)

*texts in pdf format are available in "Virtuale":

  • FRANCOISE VAN HAEPEREN, Le “Religioni orientali” nel mondo romano, ovvero un oggetto di aspri dibattiti all’inizio del XX secolo, «Chaos e Kosmos» XVII-XVIII, 2016-2017 – www.chaosekosmos.it
  • FRANCESCO SINI, Impero romano e religioni straniere: riflessioni in tema di unversalismo e "tolleranza" nella religione politeista romana, «Sandalion» 21-22, 1998-1999, p. 57-101.


* All non-attending students are required to study also texts reported in the Further Readings' section

Teaching methods

The course is divided into a series of lectures on framing and analysis of the topics reported in Course contents Section, supported by Power Point presentations and moments of collective discussion and in-depth analysis.

Assessment methods

Students who attend at least 75% of the lessons are considered to be attending.

The course includes a final oral examination in which students must demonstrate an in-depth knowledge of the reported bibliography, reasoning skills and critical analysis of the material studied, aptitude for processing and / or identification of conceptual links and intertextual links, language skills.

The following assessment levels will be taken into account for the awarding of the final grade:

  • a judgment of excellence (30 cum laude) will be formulated if the student demonstrates that he possesses solid, critically acquired and solidly reasoned knowledge, wealth of discursive articulation and expressive properties;
  • the judgment will be excellent (30) if the student proves to possess complete and adequate knowledge, well articulated and expressed correctly;
  • the judgment will be good (29-27) if the student proves to possess more than satisfactory knowledge, expressed correctly;
  • the judgment will be discreet (26-24) if the student proves to possess the basic knowledge in the essential lines, but not completely exhaustive and / or not articulated with due correctness;
  • the judgment will be sufficient (23-21) where the student proves to possess general knowledge but acquired in a superficial way, expressed in a not always appropriate way and articulated in a confused way;
  • the judgment will be just enough (20-18) where the acquired knowledge is expressed and articulated in a confused, inorganic and / or incomplete way;
  • the judgment will be below the sufficiency (<18) where the knowledge should be absent or extremely incomplete and the student should show lack of orientation in the discipline.

Teaching tools

Power Point presentations and PDF files of the texts quoted in the Readings/Bibliography Section will be made available to students among the on-line teaching materials.

Office hours

See the website of Giuseppina Paola Viscardi