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Roman Religion › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 13 November 2013
Roman Sacrificial Altar (Jehosua)

In many societies, ancient and modern, religion has performed a major role in their development, and the Roman Empirewas no different. From the beginning Roman religion was polytheistic. From an initial array of gods and spirits, Rome added to this collection to include both Greek gods as well as a number of foreign cults. As the empire expanded, the Romans refrained from imposing their own religious beliefs upon those they conquered; however, this inclusion must not be misinterpreted as tolerance - this can be seen with their early reaction to the Jewish and Christian population. Eventually, all of their gods would be washed away, gradually replaced by Christianity, and in the eyes of some, this change brought about the decline of the western empire.

EARLY BELIEFS & INFLUENCES

Early forms of the Roman religion were animistic in nature, believing that spirits inhabited everything around them, people included. The first citizens of Rome also believed they were watched over by the spirits of their ancestors. Initially, a Capitoline Triad (possibly derived from a Sabine influence) were added to these “spirits" - the new gods included Mars, the god of warand supposed father of Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome); Quirinus, the deified Romulus who watched over the people of Rome; and lastly, Jupiter, the supreme god. They, along with the spirits, were worshipped at a temple on Capitoline Hill. Later, due to the Etruscans, the triad would change to include Jupiter who remained the supreme god; Juno, his wife and sister; and Minerva, Jupiter's daughter.
Due to the presence of Greek colonies on the Lower Peninsula, the Romans adopted many of the Greek gods as their own.Religion and myth became one. Under this Greek influence, the Roman gods became more anthropomorphic – with the human characteristics of jealousy, love, hate, etc. However, this transformation was not to the degree that existed in Greek mythology. In Rome individual expression of belief was unimportant, strict adherence to a rigid set of rituals was far more significant, thereby avoiding the hazards of religious zeal. Cities adopted their own patron deities and performed their own rituals. Temples honoring the gods would be built throughout the empire; however, these temples were considered the “home” of the god; worship occurred outside the temple. While this fusion of Roman and Greek deities influenced Rome in many ways, their religion remained practical.

ROMAN RELIGION ABSORBED MANY OF THE GODS AND CULTS OF CONQUERED NATIONS.

Even though there were four colleges for priests, there was no priestly class; it would always remain a public office. This practice would even extend to the imperial palace. From the time of Emperor Augustus the emperor would assume the title of pontifex maximus or chief priest. Other than the pontifexes there were augures, individuals who read the entrails of animals and the flight of birds to interpret omens, or in other words, the will of the gods. Elaborate rituals were performed to bring Roman victory in battle, and no declaration of war or major event was undertaken without the clear approval of the gods.Dating from the time of the Etruscans, a diviner or haruspices, was always consulted, and it was considered dangerous to ignore the omens. Spurinna, a Roman soothsayer, read animal entrails and foresaw Julius Caesar ’s death on the Ides of March. When Roman Commander Publius Claudius Pulcher ignored the omens - refusal of the sacred chickens to eat - before a battle during the First Punic War, he was defeated, as was his military career.
As the empire expanded across the Balkans, Asia Minor and into Egypt, Roman religion absorbed many of the gods and cults of conquered nations, but the primary influence would always remain Greece. With only a few exceptions, most of the Roman gods had their Greek counterparts. This Roman mythology would have a significant influence on the empire - politically and socially - as well as on the future of western civilization. One needs only to look at the names of the days and months (Tuesday, Saturday, January and June), the languages of European nations, and the names of the planets (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto) to realize this influence.
The Lost Gods: The Romans (Planet Knowledge)
The Lost Gods: The Romans (Planet Knowledge)

THE ROMAN PANTHEON

While the study of Roman mythology tends to emphasize the major gods - Jupiter, Neptune (god of the sea), Pluto (god of the underworld) and Juno - there existed, of course, a number of “minor” gods and goddesses such as Nemesis, the god of revenge; Cupid, the god of love; Pax, the god of peace; and the Furies, goddesses of vengeance.
However, when looking at the religion of Rome, one must examine the impact of the most important gods. Foremost among the gods were, of course, Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of Zeus (although not as playful), and his wife/sister Juno. He was the king of the gods; the sky god (the great protector) - controlling the weather and forces of nature, using thunderbolts to give warning to the people of Rome. Originally linked with farming as Jupiter Elicius, his role changed as the city grew, eventually obtaining his own temple on Capitoline Hill. Later, he became Jupiter Imperator Invictus Triumphator - Supreme General, Unconquered, and ultimately, Jupiter Optimus Maximus - Best and Greatest. His supremacy would be temporarily set aside during the reign of Emperor Elagabalus who attempted to replace the religion of Rome with that of the Syrian god Elagabal.After the emperor's assassination, his successor, Alexander Severus, returned Jupiter to his former glory. Next, Jupiter's wife/sister was Juno, for whom the month of June is named - she was the equivalent of the Greek Hera. Besides being the supreme goddess with a temple on Esquiline Hill, she was the goddess of light and moon, embodying all of the virtues of Roman matron hood - as Juno Lucina she became the goddess of childbirth and fertility.
Jupiter

Jupiter

After Juno comes Minerva, the Roman name for Athena (the patron goddess of Athens ), and Mars, the god of war.According to legend, Minerva sprang from Jupiter's head fully formed. She was the goddess of commerce, industry, and education. Later, she would be identified as a war goddess as well as the goddess of doctors, musicians and craftsmen.Although no longer one of the Capitoline triad, Mars remained an important god to Rome - similar to Ares, the Greek god of war. As Mars the Avenger, this son of Juno and her relationship with a flower, had a temple dedicated to him by Emperor Augustus, honoring the death of Julius Caesar ’s assassins. Roman commanders would make sacrifices to him before and after battles and Tuesday ( Martes ) is named for him.
There are a number of lesser gods (all with temples built to them) - Apollo, Diana, Saturn, Venus, Vulcan, and Janus.Apollo had no Roman equal and he was simply the Greek god of poetry, medicine, music, and science. He was originally brought to the city by the Etruscans to ward off the plague and was rewarded with a temple on Palatine Hill. Diana, Apollo's Roman sister equivalent to the Greek Artemis, was not only the goddess of wild beasts and the harvest moon but also the goddess of the hunt. She was seen as a protector of women in childbirth with a temple at Ephesus in Asia Minor. Another god brought to the Rome by the Etruscans was Saturn, an agricultural god equal to the Greek Cronus and who had been expelled from heaven by Jupiter. A festival in his honor, the Saturnalia, was held yearly between the 17th and 23rd of December. His temple, at the foot of Capitoline Hill, housed the public treasury and decrees of the Senate. Another Roman goddess was Venus, who was born, according to myth, from the foam of the sea, equal to the Greek Aphrodite. According to Homer, she was the mother of Aenaes the hero of the Trojan War. Of course, the planet Venus is named for her. Next was Vulcan, also expelled from heaven by Jupiter, who was a lame (caused by his expulsion), ugly blacksmith and the god of fire. Lastly, there was Janus who had no Greek equal. He was the two-faced guardian of doorways and public gates. Janus was valued for his wisdom and was the first god mentioned in a person's prayer; because of his two faces he could see both the past and the future.
One cannot forget the Vestal Virgins who had no Greek counterpart. They were the guardians of the public hearth at the Atrium Vesta. They were girls chosen only from the patrician class at the tender age of six, beginning their service to the goddess Vesta at the age of ten and for the next thirty years they would serve her. While serving as a Vestal Virgin, a girl/woman was forbidden to marry and had to remain chaste. Some chose to remain in service to Vesta after serving their thirty years since, at the age of forty, they were considered too old to marry. Breaking the vow of chastity would result in death - only twenty would break the vow in over one thousand years. Emperor Elagabalus attempted to marry a vestal virgin but was convinced otherwise.
Bacchus

Bacchus

CULT WORSHIP

Besides the worship of these gods there were several cults - Bacchus, Cybele, Isis, Sarapis, Sibyl, and most of all the Imperial Cult. Some were readily accepted by Roman society while others were feared by those in power. Bacchus was a Roman deity associated with both the Greek god Dionysus and the early Roman god Liber Patri, also a wine god. Bacchus is best remembered for his intoxicating festivals held on March 17, a day when a Roman male youth would supposedly become a man. As his cult spread, the Roman Senate realized its dangerous potential and ordered its suppression in 186 BCE and afterwards, the cult went underground.
Another cult centered on Cybele, the “great mother” - a fertility goddess with a temple on Palatine Hill who was responsible for every aspect of a person's well-being. The goddess arrived in Athens in the fifth century BCE and first appeared in Rome during the Punic Wars. All of her priests were eunuchs, and many of her male followers would have themselves castrated.Next is Isis, the ancient goddess of Egypt who is best remembered in Egyptian mythology as the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus. After becoming Hellenized, she became the protector of sailors and fishermen. Arriving in Rome from Alexandria, Sarpis was a healing god and the sick would travel to her temple to be cured. Sibyl was a priestess of the Greek and Roman god Apollo who came to Rome from the Greek colony of Cumae. She offered the Etruscan King Tarquin the nine Sibylline Books which were books of prophecy, but the price was considered too high, so he refused. After she had burned six of the books, he reconsidered and bought the remaining three; these three books were consulted by the Roman Senate in times of emergencies but they were lost during the barbarian invasions of the fifth century CE.
Lastly, there was the Imperial Cult. The idea of deification of the emperor came during the time of Emperor Augustus. He resisted the Senate's attempts to name him a god during his reign as he thought himself the son of a god, not a god. Upon his death, the Roman Senate rewarded him with deification which was an honor that would be bestowed upon many of his successors. Often, an emperor would request his predecessor to be deified. Of course there were a few exceptions, notably, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian, who were considered too abhorrent to receive the honor. Caligula and Nero believed themselves living gods while Domitian thought himself the reincarnation of Hercules.
Commodus As Hercules

Commodus As Hercules

ROMAN RELIGION CHALLENGED

Judaism and Christianity, while posing separate threats to the empire, had one thing in common - they both refused to participate in the worship of the Roman gods and make sacrifices at their temples. Although the Jews had firmly established themselves in the empire, they were often the target of the emperors, often blamed for any ills that befell the empire. Nero had them expelled from Rome, and Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, would continue his father's war against the Jews in the Jewish Wars, eventually destroying the city of Jerusalem and killing thousands of its citizens.
Although Christianity was initially seen as a sect of Judaism, Emperor Nero grew more suspicious as this small sect began to grow, especially after the Great Fire of Rome; he even blamed them for the fire. They returned the favor, calling him the anti-Christ. As time passed, Christianity continued to spread across the empire, appealing to women and slaves as well as intellectuals and the illiterate. Persecutions increased where Christian churches were burned and all of this continued under the reign of Diocletian (emperor in the east), ending in the Great Persecution. To many, Christians offended the pax deorum or “peace of the gods".
Finally, under Diocletian's successor Emperor Constantine, Christianity would finally receive recognition in the Edict of Milan in 313 CE. Constantine's benevolence towards Christianity can be traced to the Battle of Milvan Bridge in 312 CE where he beheld a vision (a cross in the sky), enabling him to be victorious and become the emperor of a united Roman Empire. Later, in 325 CE he held the Council of Nicaea, reconciling the differences between the various Christian sects. He rebuilt the churches destroyed by Diocletian, and according to some sources, converted to Christianity on his deathbed (his mother was a Christian). After his death Christianity would continue to grow and eventually overshadow and replace the traditional Roman religion and Rome would even become the new center of Christianity. However, in the end, Christianity would still receive blame for the ills of the empire. In his book The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon blamed, in part, the fall of the empire on Christianity. In his eyes it absorbed the energy of the people making them unable to suffer through the adversities that plagued the empire. Yet, despite its highs and lows, from the days of the spirits inhabiting all things through the Roman/Greek gods and emperor deification to Christianity, religion always remained an important part of Roman society.

Roman Emperor › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 30 April 2018
Commodus (Jehosua)

Roman emperors ruled over the Imperial Roman Empire starting with Augustus from 27 BCE and continuing in the Western Roman Empire until the late 5th century CE and in the Eastern Roman Empire up to the mid-15th century CE. The emperors would take different titles such as Caesar and Imperator but it was always their command of the army which allowed them to keep their seat on one of history's most prestigious and long-lasting thrones.
Prior to the birth of the Roman Empire in the latter part of the first century BCE, there had existed many empires among these were the Assyrian, the Babylonian, the Persian, and the Macedonian. All of these had great leaders such as Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and, of course, Alexander the Great. Yet, history tells us these great men were all called kings; the term emperor was never used. In contrast, the Roman Empire was different, for it didn't have a king; it had an emperor, and one must search both the Roman Republic and the Empire, almost one thousand years of history, to discover the reasons for the difference.

FROM THE REPUBLIC TO THE IMPERIAL ERA

Before Rome was an empire, it was a republic with a long history of “democratic” rule. After ousting the Etruscans and their king, the city-state was ruled by a Senate and/or an assembly with elected magistrates - consuls and tribunes, both with a term of office limitations. After conquering the Italian peninsula, Rome gained considerable land through an aggressive military campaign - primarily in North Africa, Spain, Macedonia and Greece, plus various islands throughout the Mediterranean.Unfortunately, the size of the Republic placed considerable strain on its leadership; leaders, good and bad, rose through the political and military ranks to gain power, men such as Sulla, Gaius, Pompey and finally Julius Caesar ; the latter would assume the ominous title of “dictator for life.” As one historian noted, various social, political, and economic forces could no longer be contained by the Republican leadership; change was inevitable. After the assassination of Julius Caesar by members of the Senate on the Ides of March, a battle, both political and military, ensued between the members of the so-called Second Triumvirate ( Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus) with Octavian becoming the eventual victor.

OCTAVIAN WOULD SOON BECOME KNOWN BY THE NAME OF AUGUSTUS - MEANING “SACRED” OR “REVERED”

THE FIRST EMPEROR

As a victorious general, Octavian had often heard the cries of his soldiers - “Imperator” - especially after his defeat of Mark Antony. In the future, this title would automatically be assumed by his successors, regardless of their military experience, upon their ascension to the imperial throne. After two decades of civil war, Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, returned to Rome a hero. The people celebrated, hoping for the return of the stability that had been the Republic. While initially shying away from honors and power, Octavian, who would soon become known by the name of Augustus (a name meaning “sacred” or “revered”), would increasingly assume authority far beyond the intent of the Senate who had inadvertently granted it. One historian raised the question: was Augustus a “tyrant” who quietly took away Roman liberty, or a generous statesman who shared power with the Senate with the consent of the people of Rome? As an emperor, Augustus would set the stage for all of those who would follow him, from Tiberius, his much-maligned stepson, through the corruption of Caligula and Nero, the cruelty and incompetence of Domitian, and lastly, to the final individual to be called a Roman emperor, Romulus Augustalus (oddly named for one of the mythical founders of the city and the empire's first emperor).
Augustus

Augustus

ABSOLUTE POWER

While many of the structures that had existed under the old Republic remained, such as the Senate, they existed in name only.In a kingdom, a king had to answer to an assembly ( England had a Parliament; France had the Estates General, for example). Often, these assemblies controlled the finances of the kingdom, but in Rome the emperor could collect and spend as he wished. Emperor Nero, always in need of funds, would cry conspiracy, seize the property of an unsuspecting senator and murder him. After Augustus the Senate would never again have any real authority - only to endorse the wishes of the emperor. While Augustus and his successors would treat them with a modicum of respect (most wanted to avoid a repeat of the Ides of March) the real power was in the hands of the emperor, and to ensure his own safety, he relied on his personal bodyguard – the Praetorian Guard, who, within a few decades, would wield power unforeseen even by the Emperor Augustus.

THE ROMAN SENATE BESTOWED ON AUGUSTUS, & THEREBY HIS SUCCESSORS, CERTAIN POWERS FOR LIFE.

With the consent of the Senate, Augustus slowly assumed the sole leadership of the Empire, and while he disliked titles (even the title of emperor); he took instead the title of “princeps” meaning “first citizen.” Initially, he was a consul (a position other emperors would also hold) and provincial governor (of Gaul, Syria, Egypt and Cyprus, the latter gave him control of a majority of the military); as emperor he would command twenty-six legions. The Senate bestowed on him, and thereby his successors, certain powers for life: imperium maius, extreme authority over the provincial governors; and tribunicia potestasor tribune of the plebs, the authority to call an assembly of the people to enact laws. With his new powers, he could veto the actions of the magistrates (whom he would later appoint), and, in order to control those around him, he controlled the imperial patronage - no one could “run” for office without his consent. He also interfered with the religion of the empire. He rebuilt decaying temples, resurrected old religious ceremonies and assumed the title of Pontifex Maximus or Chief Priest. In short, the emperor's word became law.
However, despite his growing power, he remained popular with the people through his continuous supply of grain, games (he even presided over them) and numerous rebuilding projects. In his The Twelve Caesars, historian Suetonius wrote that the emperor improved the overall appearance of the city. “I found Rome built of sun-dried bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.” Those who followed Augustus would continue to rebuild the city, especially her temples, aqueducts, and arenas. Many Roman citizens believed they were entering a new golden age.

THE IMPERIAL DYNASTIES

Augustus (31 BCE to 14 CE) maintained control of the empire, even in death, and, like a king, named his successor. In his case it was Tiberius. Even the name Augustus would become a title, assumed by all who followed him. But the naming of a successor is one of the few ways an emperor is like a king. In a kingdom, the tradition was for the continuation of a bloodline.The present queen of England is from the House of Windsor and can trace her ancestry through the Hanoverians, Stuarts, Tudors, and even the Plantagenets. In contrast, the last emperor of the Roman Empire wasn't even related to his predecessor let alone Augustus. In fact, only a handful of emperors were related by blood. Titus and Domitian were the sons of Vespasianwhile Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius. Others were adopted - Tiberius, Nero, Nerva, Trajan, and Marcus Aurelius. Some obtained the throne through conquest or murder - Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian and Macrinus. One even bought the throne - Didius Julianus. Surprisingly, some emperors never set foot in Rome - Macrinus and Maximinius, while at times, there might be more than one claimant such as in the Year of the Five Emperors.
However an individual obtained the throne, the power that went with the position remained. And, at the forefront of this power was the Praetorian Guard. While the authority of the empire lay in the hands of the emperor, he placed his life in the hands of the Guard. During bleak times, the Praetorian Guard would be the ones to pick and choose (and sometimes overthrow) an emperor. After the death of Caligula at the hands of the Praetorian Guard, they found Claudius cowering behind a curtain and hurried him to the Senate, who reluctantly proclaimed him emperor. When they had finally realized the ineptness and depravity of Elagabalus, they murdered him and his mother and declared Alexander Severus the new emperor.
Caligula

Caligula

Unfortunately, the life of an emperor would not always be filled attending lavish ceremonies, directing military campaigns and dictating laws. He would often sit on the throne, paranoid, fearful of those closest to him. Of the first twelve emperors - Augustus through to Nerva - four would die naturally (although some question one or two of these), four would be assassinated, two would commit suicide, and two would be murdered by poison or suffocation, as one historian put it, “supreme power brought supreme risk.” It was rare that an emperor would resign or die a natural death as the possibility of being overthrown always existed.
The autocratic power of the emperor would endure despite the destructive reigns of Caligula, Nero, Commodus, and Elagabalus. Luckily for the empire, it would see the strength of such men as Vespasian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Constantine ; territories would be gained and lost; the empire would expand and contract, but somehow, despite the good and bad, the empire would continue to survive.

THE EMPEROR HELD A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE HEARTS & MINDS OF THE PEOPLE OF ROME, BOTH IN LIFE & IN DEATH.

DEIFICATION

The emperor held a special place in the hearts and minds of the people of Rome, both in life and in death. This adoration for the imperial leader would lead to his eventual deification or apotheosis. However, this type of honor or Imperial Cult was not unique to Rome; it dated back to Alexander the Great - he considered himself not the son of Phillip II but the son of Zeus.Emperor Augustus was treated as a deity during his reign; altars and temples were built to honor him throughout the empire - Pergamum, Lyons, and Athens - but none were built in Rome (at least while he still lived). Although he may have considered himself the son of a god, he never permitted himself to be called a god. Upon his death, the Senate would deify him - the same would happen to many of those who followed him, for example, Antonius Pius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan and Alexander Severus. Often, an emperor would initiate the deification of his predecessor. Unfortunately, emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Commodus, and Elagabalus were considered too “odious” to receive the honor. Caligula and Nero both considered themselves gods while they were still alive, and Commodus thought he was actually the reincarnation of Hercules.

Byzantine Empire c. 460 CE
BYZANTINE EMPIRE C. 460 CE

DIVISION OF THE EMPIRE

After a long period of truly incompetent emperors, Diocletian came to power in 284 CE. The Pax Romana or Roman peace had been dead for over one hundred years. The empire was being attacked on all sides and it was on the verge of collapse.Diocletian realized the one major flaw of the empire - its size. To solve the problem he created the tetarchy or rule of four. He divided the empire into two parts, one with its capital at Rome and another with its capital as Nicomedia (it would later be moved to Byzantium or Constantinople by Emperor Constantine). The principate initiated by Augustus was replaced by the dominate, however, he strengthened the borders, developed a more efficient bureaucracy, and stabilized the economy.Unfortunately, as the eastern half of the empire flourished, the west declined, even the city of Rome fell into ruin, until, finally, in 476 CE, the last emperor surrendered. The city's conqueror, Odoacer, refused the title of emperor.

CONCLUSION

For the most part, the people of the Roman Empire were kept reasonably happy, even during times of duress, as long as the emperors provided grain for bread and games/entertainment. Lasting monuments were built to honor many of the emperors - the Baths of Caracalla and Nero, the Arch of Constantine, and Trajan's Column. The emperor was an absolute ruler who provided stability for the people. It was never a constitutional office, quite simply, the emperor was the law.

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