What Was Ancient Roman ‘Pagan’ Religion?

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The historical record demonstrates the Romans to have been a religiously observant people. Admittedly, Roman religious life was diverse considering the size and extent of the empire and its influence. Despite this diversity, historians still believe it possible to point out several commonalities concerning the beliefs and practices typical of Roman religion (1).

Religion in Public Life

Featuring most prominently in Roman religious life was the sacrificial system. Citizens engaged in public worship and visited temples believed to be the home of the gods. The Romans were polytheistic, meaning that they believed in the existence of many greater and lesser deities. Temples, easily identifiable by their many columns, were considered sacred spaces in which offerings were made with the hope of ensuring the gods remained or became benevolent. There were also feast days for worshiping various gods. The beginning of March, for instance, was a time of many sacrifices to the god Mars. There were also days for the blessing of horses, arms, and trumpets. Scholar of religion Ninian Smart captures the spiritual dimension of Roman life,

“Roman religion was focused on deities and spirits who can collectively be called numina — mysterious spirits who roused reverential fear. Its gods ranged from the great Jupiter, with his consort Juno, through Mars or War, Venus or Love, and Ceres of the grain harvest, to such specialist deities as Narrator, the god of feeding, and Januarius, the god of the threshold. The whole of reality and of human activity was punctuated and pervaded by the numina” (2).

This religious dimension required a number of roles. Diviners, such as the augurs, predicted the future from observing the flight of birds while various events and games had religious significance. Chariot racing, boxing, wrestling, and gladiatorial combats were public events administered by classes of priests, headed by the supreme priest called the pontifex Maximus, a title later taken over by the Popes. There were the Vestal Virgins who were girls selected from the patrician class and appointed for thirty years with the responsibility of maintaining the sacred fire in the court of the goddess Vesta.

Gods in the Home

There were household ceremonies, addressed to the lares or household gods and to the ancestors (3). These ancestors, called the maiores (“greater ones”), were patriarchal in that there was a male, possibly a grandfather or great-grandfather, considered the originator of the family. The household venerated this ancestor and gave thanks to the gods for the blessings the family had received on their behalf. Family members would venerate their ancestors (as opposed to worshiping them) by recalling their great deeds and the stories of their family’s progress from a distant past. Roman homes also often had a shrine dedicated to a lesser deity. These shrines were not dedicated to the major deities like Mars or Jupiter, but rather to lesser gods such as lares believed to protect the home and the hearth where food was cooked.

Roman Religion Absorbs Other Religions

As the Romans continued to expand their borders they began absorbing other cultures, which led their pantheon of gods to expand and include others. Since the Romans were increasingly exposed to Greek culture, notably through occupying Greek city-states in the south of Italy and via the importing of educated Greek slaves as tutors, there was a tendency to identify Greek and Roman gods freely. Seen together were the likes of Jupiter and Zeus, Venus and Aphrodite, Juno and Hera, and so on. This was followed by an increasingly blended Graeco-Roman civilization when the Romans finally overran Greece, annexing them in the mid-second century BCE and then the Hellenic East. Soon the military leader Pompey organized the East into provinces subsidiary to Rome and not long after did Julius Caesar conquer Gaul and begin subjugating Britain. By 44 BCE the Roman Empire was more or less in place. After Caesar had died, the empire was taken over by his adopted son, Octavian, who assumed the title of emperor and later the name Augustus. This expansion propelled forth the spread of mystery religions, philosophies, and strands of thought. Smart writes,

“The Roman Empire later synthesized and absorbed many streams of thought and practice from the subjugated peoples, and nowhere was this more obvious than in the case of religion: the cults of Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, Cybele from Asia Minor, and Astarte from Syria; Jewish religion from Palestine; Manichaeism from Persia; and Christianity, also from Palestine, are prime examples, to sit alongside such homegrown religiosities as the older paganism of Greece and Rome, the mysteries of Eleusis, Orphism, the intellectual faith of Platonism and its daughter Neoplatonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism. The empire was a great melting-pot of spiritual notions” (4).

Although Rome’s imperial ideology certainly required sacrifice and homage to the emperor, within this milieu there evolved a flux of beliefs and practices. As Smart noted, these included mystery religions, such as the cult of Mithras and of Eleusis, and many more. The Egyptian god Isis had a temple on the Aventine hill in Rome’s capital since the second century BCE. Particularly popular among Roman soldiers was Mithras, the god who was credited with slaying the bull that would renew life. This was celebrated by initiates in half-underground temples where they partook in feasts. The Cybele cult, introduced into Rome through contact with the Greeks and dedicated to the “Great Mother”, was popular with women and had its own priests and male followers who were eunuchs. Finally, one cannot omit the reality of the imperial cult, namely the deification of the ruling emperor beginning with Augustus. Augustus it seems resisted attempts to name him as a god instead viewing himself as the son of a god. Later emperors, such as Caligula and Nero believed themselves to be living gods. Historian Ryan Reeves observes the unfying practical function of the imperial cult,

“The cult of the emperor, if it had not existed, might very well have allowed all the varieties of pagan worship in all of the sectors and in all of the regions of Rome to become their own Galapagos islands of faiths and would have shaped and developed in hundreds of different ways, if not thousands. But the core of all of this if you were a Roman and in a Roman city or village were designed to propagate and support the emperor himself. All of these were designed to venerate and support the cult of the emperor as the focal point of the Roman state” (5).

There was also the development of Neoplatonic philosophy, notably in the writings and teachings of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. Plotinus modified the teachings of Plato and proposed the notion of the One, namely a supreme God that emanates in the form of the Intellect or Nous. This being also emanates in the Soul in which the Forms are seen in space and time. Plotinus believed that the Soul is entrapped in the material world but that through the person’s intellectual, ethical, and mystical efforts it can ascend back to the supreme God. Ideas such as these appealed to Christians and were influential in informing their theology.

Christianity Becomes Rome’s Official Religion

Although Rome tolerated the religions of some other peoples they had conquered, this contact between ideologies still manifested conflict, particularly in the empire’s dealing with Jewish and Christian populations. Both these religious traditions were perceived as alien because they were monotheistic and refused to accept and worship the gods of Rome. Christians and Jews held to the belief in the existence of a single God and certainly not in the Roman belief of many gods. They also refused to make sacrifices to the Roman deities in the many temples dedicated to them. So different were the Christians that the Roman historian Dio Cassius referred to them as hostile to Rome,

“Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should abhor and punish, not merely for the sake of the gods… but because such men, by bringing in new divinities in place of the old, persuade many to adopt foreign practices, from which spring conspiracies, factions, and cabals” (Dio Cassius 52.36.2).

From Roman historian Tacitus, one learns that Christianity, which was to Tacitus a “pernicious superstition” and “disease”, had originated in Judaea and under its founder, Christ, who was crucified due to sedition against the empire. He further speaks of Roman authorities convicting a number of Christians that were thrown to wild beasts and how Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Apparently Nero used this as a means to justify punishment of the Christians by having them crucified and then set alight to serve as lamps to illuminate the darkness of night.

These events and others like them occurred sporadically during the first three centuries of the first millennium CE. During this period the Christian religion was a far cry from any position of cultural, social, or political dominance and was largely viewed as a threat to the empire. Emperor Diocletian, ruling from 284 to 305 CE, was abhorred by the continual growth of the Christian religion and certainly favoured the traditional religion predicated on the gods and goddesses of Rome. He gave his subordinates orders to destroy churches, Christian texts, and ban Christians from gathering to worship. Fortunately for the Christians, Constantine (r. 306 to 337) soon followed as ruler and became the first emperor to convert to Christianity. He legalized the religion in the Edict of Milan of 313 CE, which helped Christianity grow unpunished eventually eclipse traditional Roman religion. In 391 CE, Theodosius ordered the end of pagan sacrifices and in 399 there was the destruction and conversion of pagan sanctuaries.

References

1. Ryan Reeves [YouTube]. 2014. Roman Pagan Life and Worship. Available.

2. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 238.

3. Ryan Reeves [YouTube]. Ibid.

4. Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 230.

5. Ryan Reeves [YouTube]. Ibid.

7 comments

  1. […] Although there are limitations, a number of details in Pliny’s letter correspond with what we learn from the New Testament texts. From the book of Acts, which chronicles the emergence of the early church, a huge riot broke out just south of Ephesus (19:23-41). A large number of people in the area were converting to Christianity which led to the silversmiths going out of business as they were finding themselves unable to sell their images of the gods. The most natural reading of Acts and Pliny’s letters is that people were converting to Christianity and that this had a negative impact on local businesses connected to temples and Roman religion. […]

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