How Complex were Ancient Societies and Religions?

An Ancient Historian’s Response to “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History” (Whitehouse et al. 2019)


  • Maik Patzelt Universität Osnabrück



Big Data, Cognitive Science of Religion, Cultural Evolution, social complexity, Roman history, ancient religion


Whitehouse et al. (2019) recently concluded their groundbreaking big-data historical research by stating that “moralizing gods” followed in the wake of early increases in social complexity, rather than preceding and paving the way for such increases. According to these results, it was doctrinal (group) rituals that helped facilitate an increase in social complexity and (religious) identity. The idea of a “supernatural punishment” came later, helping to maintain the existing cooperation in societies once those societies reached a certain size. However, the focus on big data in the pursuit of these questions runs the risks of leading to oversimplifications and presuppositions. I will draw on examples from Roman religion that appear in the Seshat dataset to illustrate some critical points, and will point out some problems concerning cooperation and social complexity that follow from the way in which the historical evidence is handled and, thus, merged into the databank.

Author Biography

Maik Patzelt, Universität Osnabrück

Maik Patzelt is Lecturer in Ancient History at the History Department of the University of Osnabrück, Germany, and a Research Fellow (2019–2020) at the History Department of the University of Sheffield, UK. During his MA studies at Humboldt University, Berlin (2010–2012) and his PhD studies at the Max Weber Centre at Erfurt (2013–2016), he specialized in ancient history, with a particular focus on the social and religious history of Rome from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity. He has recently published a monograph, Über das Beten der Römer (2018), and a number of articles that investigate Roman prayers through the lenses of emotion theory, cognitive science, and theory of practice. The author would like to acknowledge the help of Paul Scade who proofread the text before submission to the publisher.


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How to Cite

Patzelt, M. . (2022). How Complex were Ancient Societies and Religions? An Ancient Historian’s Response to “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods throughout World History” (Whitehouse et al. 2019). Journal of Cognitive Historiography, 6(1-2), 98–112.



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