Ancient History & Civilisation


The development of spirits (numina) into gods (dei) was gradual. Its beginnings cannot be traced, but they go back in part to the Indo-European period before the Italian and Greek races separated. Some deities, as Jupiter, Mars and Juno, are found in the worship of many Italian towns, others are more local. When the Romans came into contact with the cults of neighbouring towns, they tended to assimilate any new deities which might meet needs unanswered by their native deities.6 For instance, Minerva, an Italian goddess of handicrafts, was imported to meet needs created by the growth of trade and industry in the regal period; Diana of Aricia was installed on the Aventine for political motives (p. 50); Fortuna, originally perhaps an agricultural deity, from Praeneste or Antium, and Venus, originally the protectress of gardens, perhaps from Ardea. But not all the new deities were Italian in origin. Contact with Etruria and the Greeks brought many new gods into Latium and ultimately to Rome.

The influence of the Etruscans on Roman religion was profound, yet transitory. They hastened the change of spirits into gods fashioned in the image of man, but they did not impose their own gloomy beliefs on the Roman people. Hitherto spirits had been worshipped at holy places, where an altar of turf might be erected – but not in temples made with hands. But from Etruria the Romans derived the idea of housing a deity in a temple and of providing him with a cult statue. When this was done the transition to anthropomorphism was complete. The most famous of Rome’s temples was that begun on the Capitol by Tarquinius and dedicated in the first year of the Republic to the Etruscan Triad, Tinia, Uni and Minerva. Of these deities, however, two were Italian, Juno and Minerva, while Tinia was identified with Jupiter. The temple was built by Etruscan workmen in Etruscan style, and it contained a terracotta cult statue made by an Etruscan artist, but its Etruscan connections were soon forgotten and it became the abode of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the god who centralized the worship of the Roman people and became the presiding genius of the whole state. But the Romans were slow to apply rigorously the ideas they adopted. Mars and Hercules had long to be content with altars in the Campus Martius and Forum Boarium; and cult statues of native gods were few before the Hannibalic War. ‘For more than 170 years’, wrote Varro, ‘the Romans worshipped their gods without images. Those who first made images of the gods, both removed fear from their states and added error.’ But while anthropomorphism led to scepticism, the adoption of Etruscan methods of divination led to superstition. This art was practised by the Romans before contact with Etruria: auspices were taken from the flight of birds and sometimes from the behaviour of lightning. But under Etruscan influence the Roman state elaborated augury, instituted a college of augurs, and used Etruscan experts in divination from the entrails of animals. The darker side of Etruscan religion, its morbid preoccupation with death and its elaboration of the tortures of the damned, had little effect on Roman belief, but did unfortunately influence Roman conduct. The practice of slaughtering prisoners who were led in triumphal procession, and the institution of gladiatorial shows in 264 BC, derived from a people who may well have introduced human sacrifice into Italy.

Contact with Greek religious ideas, which came to Rome through Etruria and Latin towns and later by direct intercourse with the Greek cities of southern Italy, had a far greater influence on Roman religion. If the Asiatic origin of the Etruscans be granted, they must long have been conversant with Greek ideas, with which, at any rate, they were familiar before their contact with Rome. From Latin cities also, which had been brought by trade into contact with Greek colonies, the Romans received anthropomorphic deities. Perhaps from Tibur came Hercules, whose worship as a patron of commerce was conducted in Greek fashion with unveiled head at the Ara Maxima in the Forum Boarium, where his wide reputation might secure safety for all traders. Traditionally in 499, the cult of Castor and Pollux was introduced from Tusculum and a temple was erected (cf. p. 332) in the Forum; their association also was commercial. During the regal period Apollo was established in a precinct outside the Porta Capena, probably as a god of medicine to deal with a plague; in 431 a temple was built for him. Apollo’s connection with the oracle of the Sibyl at Cumae directed Rome’s attention thither. The story of how Tarquin bought the Sibylline books is well known; even if a permanent collection of oracles did not exist in Rome at so early a date, it is probable that the Romans sent to consult the oracle in times of stress, such as famine. It was in obedience to the Sibyl’s directions that a temple was built on the Aventine to Ceres, Liber and Libera: the Romans thus adopted the cult of the Greek corn deities, Demeter, Dionysus and Kore, beside seeking corn from Cumae. By 367 there was probably a permanent collection of Sibylline oracles at Rome, under the care of decemviri sacris faciundis, who consulted them in times of difficulty to discover how to maintain the pax deorum. Their importance is that they led to the reception of new Greek deities, such as Mercury, Neptune and Aesculapius in their Latin names, and of the Graecus ritus. These new gods, however, had less religious significance than the new ceremonies of lectisternia and supplicationes. In 399, when a pestilence raged during the siege of Veii, the Sibylline books ordered that for eight days images of three pairs of gods should be exhibited on couches before tables spread with food and drink. Here was novelty indeed. Appeal was made not to the old numina but to Greek gods; the whole population was to share in the ceremony; and the eight days were kept as holidays. Doubtless the ceremony was partly an attempt to divert the attention of the people from their hardships, but it was also an appeal to the emotional expression of religious feeling. Five lectisternia were decreed in the fourth century. Connected with them was the supplicatio in which the whole people went garlanded in procession around the temples of the city and there prostrated themselves in Greek fashion, the women ‘sweeping the altars with their streaming hair’. The dignified attitude of the early Roman was forgotten and the chilling effect of the formal state religion led to these outbursts of popular emotion in foreign rites in which the individual could again take his part. The Roman state was forced to respond to the new needs, but in doing so it prepared the way for the even wilder worships of the east.

Apart from such occasional outbursts the general effect of the predominance of an official priesthood was to bring the old religious forms into contempt, so that we find Claudius Pulcher daring to drown the sacred chickens (p. 157). But the disasters of the Hannibalic War reawoke religious fears and anxiety. The number of prodigies that was noticed and recorded in the books of the pontiffs testifies to the renewal of superstitious dread. The state tried to comfort and distract the people by giving public games in accordance with Sibylline instructions; in 217 Ludi Magni and in 212 Ludi Apollinares were celebrated. After Trasimene and Flaminius’ disregard of the pax deorum sterner remedies were taken; a ver sacrum was vowed and a lectisternium was held on a large scale (see p. 18). Twelve pairs of gods, Greek and Roman alike, were displayed and the old distinction between native and foreign deities was disregarded: the advice of the Sibylline books and the decemvirs was esteemed higher than the old ius divinum of the pontiffs. Cannae evoked even greater religious panic, which was quietened by burying alive two Greeks and two Gauls in the Forum Boarium minime Romano sacro, and by despatching an embassy to seek advice at Delphi. In 213 there was a fresh outbreak of religious emotionalism among the women, and the praetor was instructed to rid Rome of all private priests and prophets, who were undermining the state religion by introducing foreign rites. When Hasdrubal’s invasion threatened, the pontiffs took special precautions to secure the pax deorum: twenty-seven maidens chanted a carmen composed by the poet Livius Andronicus and an elaborate ritual procession was staged. After Hasdrubal’s defeat at Metaurus an extraordinary wave of thankfulness to heaven swept over the people. During the last stage of the war it was found in the Sibylline books that Hannibal would leave Italy if the ‘Great Mother’ of Phrygia was brought to Rome. So in 204 the cult stone was shipped from Pessinus to Ostia, where it was received by Scipio Nasica and Roman matrons who escorted it to the temple of Victory on the Palatine. There it remained until a temple was built for the Magna Mater in 191. Thus the first Oriental deity was officially introduced into Rome in a desperate attempt at novelty when the ordinary Greek deities had become familiar. It is unlikely that the magistrates realized at first the ecstatic and orgiastic nature of the cult; later Roman citizens were forbidden to take part.

Twenty years later the introduction of the worship of Bacchus caused a serious scandal. Dionysus or Bacchus had long been recognized at Rome as Liber, but it was not till 186 that the orgiastic features of the Dionysiac ritual reached Rome from southern Italy, mediated through Etruria and Campania. Revelry may have occurred at native Italian rural festivals, but the celebration of the Bacchanalia introduced drunkenness, crime and immorality of all kinds. The cult spread like wildfire until the Senate authorized the consuls to stamp it out throughout Italy. It was treated as an offence against the state, not against religion; as a conspiracy or rebellion against which police measures must be taken. Morality was the concern of the state rather than of Roman religion from which it was divorced. With characteristic shrewdness the Senate legalized the cult when its excesses had been suppressed: if anyone desired to continue this worship, he must obtain permission from the praetor who would seek the Senate’s sanction that no more than five persons might celebrate the cult together. Death was the penalty for infraction. Worship which did not endanger public morality was a matter for individual wishes, not for the state: an important precedent was established by a state which later had to deal with Christianity.7

The Romans went after foreign gods and imported externa sacra because they desired something better than the old religious forms which had lost their meaning. But the ‘enthusiastic’ cults which answered the need of the individual merely stirred up emotional frenzy and moral degradation. The state tried to check the evil which it had at first encouraged, but the way was open for the numerous oriental cults that came to Rome in the later Republic and the Empire. In 181 an attempt was made to introduce other religious ideas which offered the individual the hope of attaining happiness in the next world by initiation and mystic purification in this. Orphism and Pythagorean beliefs spread northwards from Magna Graecia and some forged writings were ‘discovered’ in the tomb of Numa. The books were burnt as subversive of the state religion, but Orphic ideas were doubtless reaching Rome, and Ennius’ influence helped their circulation; they had, however, greater effect in the later Republic.8

The fusion of Greek and Roman religion, or rather, the overlaying of the old Roman beliefs with Greek mythology, was completed by the increasing influence of Roman literature. Under the spell of Greek models Roman writers, who found their early history barren of sagas of gods and heroes, took over a large part of the mythology of Greece and thus accelerated the process by which the old Latin numina were identified with the gods of Greece. The anthropomorphic tendency was complete: Roman deities, identified with their Greek counterparts in the Olympian hierarchy, were now paired off as husbands and wives, and the mythological foibles of the gods were even shown on the Roman stage: the amours of Jupiter and the misdoings of Mercury were parodied before a Roman audience in the Amphitruo of Plautus. At Rome Ennius popularized the teaching of Euhemerus on the human origin of the gods, which held that they were merely great men deified. So complete was the fusion of the Graeco-Roman mixture that it is only comparatively recently that the native worship of early Rome has been cleared of its foreign accretions and its real nature understood. One scholar who has taken a large part of the work of reconstruction points out that at the end of the Hannibalic War the divine inhabitants of the city were as much a colluvies nationum as the human population itself. ‘Under such circumstances neither the old City-state nor its religion could any longer continue to exist…. In the next two centuries Rome gained the world and lost her own soul.’

But the picture is not entirely black. The old Roman religion might develop into formal sacerdotalism upheld by an urban aristocracy, but its vitality was not extinguished among the common people of the countryside.




Graeco-Roman mythology might give rise to widespread scepticism, but the educated could seek salvation in Greek philosophy, which now penetrated into Rome. In 173 two Epicurean philosophers were expelled from Rome and in 161 philosophers and rhetoricians in general suffered the same fate. The practical Roman did not take naturally to philosophy, mistrusting its abstract teaching, especially of those who held the object of life to be pleasure, albeit those pleasures of reflection chosen by reason rather than physical pleasures. In 159 (or 168) the Stoic Crates, delayed at Rome by an accident, started to lecture. It was impossible to stem the tide from Greece. In 155 the heads of the three great philosophic schools, Critolaus the Peripatetic, Diogenes the Stoic and Carneades the Academic came to Rome on a political embassy. While waiting they gave lectures and Carneades startled his respectable audience by accepting principles one day which he refuted the next and by propounding the theory that justice was a convention. This new teaching aroused the interest of the ‘intellectuals’ of the Scipionic circle, which was joined by the Stoic Panaetius about 144 BC. The manner in which the teaching of the Porch was adapted to Roman life is a subject which falls beyond the scope of this volume.9 Suffice it to add that Stoicism taught the Romans a new doctrine of the relation of man to God; and even more influential than its theological and moral theories was the fact that it offered men a new way of life. Its appeal lay largely in the possibility of the practical application of its teaching to everyday life. The comprehensiveness of the Stoic ideal exercised a profound and inspiring influence in the Roman world at a time of religious bankruptcy, and it reinforced men’s moral reserves, until another religion from the Orient, very different from the earliest eastern cults that reached Rome, brought a still broader view of the universal brotherhood of man and offered a different way of life from that laid down by the Stoic sage. If the promise of the early religious experience of the Roman people was not fulfilled, at any rate the early Christian Church had to reckon with many of the phases of its development, besides receiving into its own vocabulary such words as ‘religion’, ‘piety’, ‘saint’ and ‘sacrament’. Roman Stoicism made its contribution to the thought of Christianity; the organization of the old state religion impressed itself on that of the new priesthood; and even the petty numina of the countryside survived long enough to influence the Roman Catholic conception of the division of function among the saints and to provoke the derision of the Church Fathers.

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