Ancient History & Civilisation

Many Gods

The remains of the temples of Saturn, Concord, Vesta, Castor and Pollux, and of various deified emperors, ring the forum. Above, on the Capitoline Hill, stood the temple of the mighty Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Caesar’s forum held the temple of Venus Genetrix, Augustus’s of Mars Ultor, Nerva’s of Minerva - the list goes on. During the long centuries of the empire, these houses for the worship of Rome’s various gods were never neglected; on the deity’s festival days, they were without fail the scene of ceremony, sacrifice, and prayer. Yet, as time passed, less and less religious spirit infused what went on in them. They were maintained not so much for the gods’ sake as for the state’s, to stand as a manifest symbol of Romanism and provide a focal point for a feeling of belonging among the vastly diverse people of the empire: to serve, in effect, the cause of patriotism rather than religion. This was patently the case with the well-organized emperor cult, the worship of the spirits of Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and others who, by decree of the subservient Senate, had been deified upon their death. “Oh, dear,” the earthy Vespasian is reported to have said when he was on the point of dying, “I think I’m becoming a god.”

Traditional Roman religion by no means disappeared. Outside urban areas it was as strong as ever; not for nothing did the word “pagan,” which literally means “countryman,” come to be applied to its adherents. Peasants continued to sacrifice to the ancient gods of the fields and flocks as they had always done, continued to carry out punctiliously the rituals they had learned from their fathers. Even the sophisticated urbanite stood by old customs: Until late Roman times, houses still had a shrine or niche for the lar, the god of the household, and people still left lighted lamps or offerings there - although most often it surely was a mechanical act, the result of habit and not conviction. Some gods actually gained ground. The cult of Hercules throve: A heroic figure who selflessly devoted his mighty strength to freeing mankind from assorted evils had an understandable appeal.

There was yet another way in which the old gods lived on, through the ease with which Rome practiced syncretism, the melding of deities of similar characteristics but different origins. The Romans had early absorbed the Greek gods this way, assimilating Zeus to Jupiter, Hermes to Mercury, Athena to Minerva, and so on. Now they did the same to gods of all nations whose lands were overrun in the expansion of the empire. Roman soldiers in Celtic Britain, impressed by the power of a local war god, worshiped Mars Belatucader; soldiers and sailors all over the empire offered sacrifice and prayer to Jupiter Dolichenus, a union of Jupiter and a god from the inner reaches of Asia Minor whose origins may go back to Hittite times. One reason for the difficulties experienced first by Jews and then by Christians was the lofty exclusiveness of their supreme deity; such behavior was unparalleled among the multitude of other foreign divinities the Romans encountered.

But the traditional gods, even when invigorated by syncretistic unions, found it hard to meet the challenge of certain deities who, for three centuries before Augustus founded the empire, had been moving steadily westward from their homes in the east.

Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and the other members of the Greek pantheon had arisen to serve not individuals but city-states, the small homogeneous political units that were so characteristically Greek. When Alexander and his successors brought these under their rule and made them part of large-scale monarchies, their citizens quickly felt the need for some more personal form of worship. In the regions through which he had led his armies were religions that offered just this, religions that inspired a votary to forget his daily life in an intense emotional experience, or to look beyond it in the expectation of an ultimate salvation. They had all along affected a limited number of Greeks who had come in contact with them; on the heels of Alexander’s conquests they moved out of their homelands in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt to gain converts throughout the Greek-speaking east. By the first century B.C., they were seeping steadily westward. The Roman Empire, with its network of roads, trade routes, and sea lanes, its unceasing shuttling back and forth of merchants, officials, and soldiers, made their path easy. Isis, Serapis, Cybele, Babylonian astrologers - all soon were conquering new lands as far away as the shores of the Atlantic.

Egypt gave the Roman Empire the worship of Serapis and Isis - above all, Isis, the goddess whose unswerving dedication to her husband, Osiris, succeeded in raising him from the dead after his evil brother killed him, whose devoted attention to her child, Horus, succeeded in making of him her husband’s avenger. As the ideal wife and mother, her appeal was to both men and women, but particularly women, who had few friends in the traditional Greek or Roman pantheon; a virgin huntress or a girl who had never had a mother and went around in man’s armor hardly suited their needs. “I am Isis,” runs the hymn her congregations sang, “I am she whom women call goddess. . . . I brought wife and husband together. I ruled that women should bear offspring after nine months. I ordained that children should love their parents. . . . I compelled men to love women. . . . I invented the marriage contract.”

In her worship, there were priestesses as well as priests. The syncretism of the age melded her with Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, and other Mediterranean goddesses; she absorbed every one of them - she was the all-powerful queen of heaven, earth, and the underworld, giver of health, beauty, love, abundance, wisdom.

Isis had her difficulties in gaining a foothold in the city of Rome. After sweeping over Greece and the Greek isles and making her way through Sicily and southern Italy, she arrived there in the early decades of the first century B.C. But the hard-nosed rulers of the late republic were suspicious of Egypt politically and morally: They looked upon Isis’s shrines as centers of subversion laced with licentiousness. Time and again, decrees were passed banning her worship, but it always returned. Under the empire, such attempts were finally dropped and, indeed, from Caligula on, Rome’s rulers along with their subjects embraced her cult. There was a grandiose shrine of Isis right in the Campus Martius not far from the Pantheon; no trace of it has survived, but many of the statues and monuments that once decorated it have. Four of the obelisks that now stand in various parts of Rome come from it - the one in front of the Pantheon, the one atop Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona, another not far from the railroad station, and the little one that rides the back of a stone elephant near the rear of the Pantheon.

Her priests, dressed in linen robes - they were forbidden to wear wool - and with shaven heads, conducted services twice a day, chanting prayers to the sound of the sistrum, the special rattle required by her worship; holy water was sprinkled about, preferably water from Isis’s own river, the Nile. The first service was held in the dim light of early dawn; the priest began it by drawing back the curtain of the inner sanctuary and revealing to the congregation their deity’s holy image, a young matron holding in her arms the infant Horus. The second service came in the afternoon. And twice a year, there were great festivals in her honor: in November to celebrate the resurrection of her husband, and in March, the opening of the sailing season - for Isis among all her other attributes was patron goddess of mariners. The ceremony in March included a joyous and colorful procession in which her adherents, dressed in fantastic costumes, accompanied her sacred boat to the shore and launched it; some see in the occasion the origins of our carnival. Isis’s priests were a professional clergy, devoted to her service for a lifetime; they took a vow of chastity and were hemmed about by taboos - in addition to the ban on wool garments, they were forbidden to drink wine or to eat pork or fish or certain vegetables. Her initiates were equally dedicated. They waited for her “call,” some of them for years; when it came, and when they had finally gone through the mystic and solemn initiation, they emerged into a blaze of light, torches in hand, and were exhibited to the congregation as gods themselves, their souls forever freed from fate and death.

Isis most frequently was worshiped along with Serapis, a conflation of Zeus and an Egyptian deity deliberately created either by Alexander or by Ptolemy I, who took over Egypt at his death. Serapis’s synthetic origin apparently had scant effect on his appeal. He too offered salvation, and in addition, he had the gift of healing the sick. The seat of his worship was the vast Serapeum in Alexandria, where his great cult statue with golden head and jeweled eyes gleamed in its darkened shrine. When Christians sacked the place in A.D. 391, it was a sign to the world that their religion had finally triumphed.

Isis and Serapis provided soothing and abiding spiritual comfort and the reassurance that comes from daily services conducted by a responsible clergy. Other Eastern religions offered headier stuff, emotional catharsis, moments of pure ecstasy in which the votary totally blotted out reality and lost himself in the act of adoration. Cybele, the Great Mother goddess, had come to Rome from Phrygia in Asia Minor as early as 204 B.C., when she was taken there to lend her powerful aid in defeating Hannibal. She never left. Moreover, as time went on, she took over practices and rituals that belonged to other goddesses of the Near East, such as Phoenicia’s Astarte and Syria’s Atargatis. According to the legend, she was in love with the glorious youth Attis, who, like Isis’s Osiris, died and was resurrected. But in Attis’s story there was an element of wild passion - Cybele grieved in frenzy at his loss, greeted his rebirth with equally frenzied delight, and castrated him when, after she had become worn and plain, he spurned her. Her ceremony was awesomely impressive and at the same time wildly barbaric. The goddess was carried about in a monumental chariot, and her devotees danced to the pounding of tom-toms, clashing of cymbals, and shrilling of pipes. During the rites that commemorated her grief, her priests, all native Phrygians, lightheaded from a week of fasting and keyed up for the occasion, lacerated themselves with knives until arms and shoulders flowed with blood. The excitement rose to a crescendo, and at its climax, some novices were so transported as to carry out upon themselves the irrevocable act that gained them entry to the priesthood and forever joined them with the goddess - castration.

Cybele’s worship became so widespread that its excesses had to be toned down to conform to the tastes of its steadily expanding circle of adherents. By the middle of the first century A.D., offices in her hierarchy were being filled by men and women of respectable families. The priests no longer had to be eunuchs, and this opened the ranks to local burghers. But many still were; Saint Augustine saw them, with pomaded hair and make-up, begging in the streets of Carthage. In the second century A.D., her followers added to her rites the taurobolium, or baptism in blood, a messy practice much favored in certain Asian cults: The votary stood in a pit closed over by a grating, and as a bull was sacrificed upon it, he bathed himself in the blood that rained down, thereby becoming, as inscriptions commemorating the occasion proclaim, in aeternum renatus, “renewed forever.” Since the slaughter of no inexpensive victim was required, it must have been the wealthier members of her flock who went in for such renewal.

Not all the salvation cults came from the Near East. Many of the so-called mystery religions, whose members were initiated in a secret ceremony and then worshiped with a secret ritual they were sworn never to divulge, arose on Greek soil. The famous Eleusinian mysteries of Demeter and Persephone, goddesses of the crops, were celebrated at Eleusis, some twelve miles from Athens. There were any number of others, but the ones that most affected the Roman world were the Dionysiac mysteries. Dionysus was the god both of wine and of the emotional release that comes from it. His women devotees were called maenads, a word that derives from a root meaning “to be mad,” and in the numerous sculptures and paintings we have of them, they are always depicted in the act of dancing with mad abandon, seeking to be freed from themselves, to be totally possessed by the god and thereby forever assured of his divine protection. Numerous stone coffins have been found with scenes of the legend of Dionysus carved on them: Dionysus discovering his future bride Ariadne asleep on the island of Naxos where the faithless Theseus had deserted her, Dionysus with Ariadne at his side returning from a triumphal campaign in distant lands. Presumably those laid to rest in the coffins were devotees looking forward to a like union and sharing of triumphs with the god. Exactly what went on in his ceremonies we do not know; his initiates have respected their vow of silence. A clue may lie in the paintings on the walls of the so-called Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Here we see a young girl undergoing an initiation ceremony that involves, among other steps, a frightening flagellation. She may have been dedicating herself to Dionysus or perhaps to the deity of some other mystery cult; in any event, the result anticipated was the same, to make her one of the chosen and enable her to count on the god’s eternal favor.

Toward the end of the second century A.D., a religion came to the fore that, in its austerity and stern moral demands, stands in sharp contrast with the others of the age - the worship of Mithras. Its homeland was Persia. Persian religion conceived of two divine powers forever in opposition, Ahura-Mazda, lord of life and light, and Ahriman, lord of death and darkness. Mithras was the intermediary between mankind and Ahura-Mazda: the lord of light created him, so the legend went, from a rock and made him his attendant and agent, allied with the Sun, in the everlasting struggle against the lord of darkness. Of the many labors he carried out in this cause, the one his Roman worshipers chose to emphasize was his struggle with the first living creature, the bull. He overcame it and dragged it to a cave; it escaped, and the Sun dispatched a raven as messenger to inform him that his duty was to find and slay the creature. This he did, and from the bull’s blood flowed all the plenty of nature. Then the first human couple was born, and Mithras strove successfully to overcome the plague and flame that Ahriman sent to destroy them. His labors were then over, and after a final feast, he was carried in the chariot of the Sun to heaven, where he watches over the welfare of the faithful.

There were seven grades of initiates in the worship of Mithras. A votary started with the rank of Raven and rose through the ranks of Hidden One, Soldier, Lion, Persian, and Sun-Runner to Father, who presided over the ceremonies. These were held in small, narrow chapels - either underground or shut off from the light in order to give the effect of Mithras’s cave - which were decorated with sacred scenes, especially of Mithras killing the bull. Here the members gathered dressed in the costume of their rank, and in the course of the rites, they cawed, growled, and made other appropriate sounds. There was no professional clergy; direction was supplied by the Father. The congregations were small, for when the number increased beyond what was considered desirable, a new group formed and built its own chapel. This is why we find so many of them: There are forty-five known chapels of Mithras in Rome; and Ostia, whose population from late in the second century A.D. on could not have been over 50,000, had at least fifteen.

Mithras was a god of lofty goals, the ever-victorious protector of mankind, and his worship, despite the element of abracadabra in its ritual, made stern demands on its devotees: They were to be not only resolute and courageous but morally pure, like the god they served; some in their enthusiasm practiced a degree of asceticism. It was solely a man’s religion; there was no place in it for women. Soldiers in particular responded to the appeal of a god whose assignment, like theirs, was to protect people and who had never been conquered. The Roman army was in good part responsible for his rapid spread from the east over the whole of the empire; his distinctive windowless chapels have been found as far away as London. With its emotional appeal and its strong moral dimension, Mithraism throughout the third century A.D. was Christianity’s most serious rival in the struggle for people’s hearts.

Is there a clear line dividing the maenad in ecstasy, the frenzied priest who lacerates himself, the initiate cawing like a raven, from the Roman racetrack fanatic who calls demons down on a team he wishes to lose? Where does religion end and superstition begin? If there is such a line, it was not easy to draw during the days of the Roman Empire. To millions of its people, the stars were just as powerful deities as Jupiter, Isis, and Cybele, and magic as efficacious a way of getting one’s wishes satisfied as ritual or prayer.

The superstition par excellence of the age was astrology. Its ultimate source was Babylon, where long ago court astronomers had built up an archive of celestial observations. The Babylonians had come to the conclusion that there was an all-encompassing Fate ruling stars and earth and man, that Fate had built in a correspondence between the movements in heaven and those on earth, including man’s, and that, inasmuch as the movements of heavenly bodies were fixed, so were those of earthly bodies, and thus men’s lives were inexorably determined by the movements of heavenly bodies. For any person on earth, they could foretell whether he would joyfully be thanking his lucky stars or sorrowfully discovering he was star-crossed (the effects have permeated our very language).

Greek intellectuals as early as Plato and Aristotle’s successor, Theophrastus, had heard about astrology, but it was not until Alexander’s conquest of Babylon that the infection was released upon the Greek world. By the second century B.C., a subcenter of astrological lore had been established at Alexandria, and from this teeming entrepot, where so many trade routes converged, astrologers carried their message to the four corners of the Roman world. In the version worked out for the new audience, the seven planets were equated with traditional Greek gods, each was given a color, plant, mineral, even a vowel from the Greek alphabet, to be its symbols, and each was assigned its special influence upon the lives of men - after the planets, the twelve signs of the zodiac.

The eternal seductiveness of astrology needs no discussion. What is somewhat startling is the universality of its appeal in Roman times, its strength within every social stratum, including the very highest - the emperors themselves not only believed but made public display of their belief. Augustus issued coins stamped with the sign under which he was born, Capricorn. When Tiberius retired to spend his last years at a villa on Capri, among the intellectuals he chose to have about him was one of the most famous astrologers of the day. Domitian minted a coin to commemorate his infant son’s death, showing the babe seated on the globe of the earth stretching out his hands toward the seven planets. A bust of Commodus rests upon a sphere whose reliefs bear the three signs of the zodiac that governed the most important days of his life. Both Augustus and Tiberius banned astrologers from Rome at one time or another - not, of course, to rid the capital of frauds but in fear of subversion from rivals whose horoscopes might have told them that their ascent to the throne was in the stars.

Fate and the stars can be a grim and depressing burden: What is the sense of initiative or action if the events of one’s life are spelled out in advance as inexorably as the movements of the heavenly bodies? What joy is there in living under such a sword of Damocles? Lucian, whose voice of reason rings out with blessed clarity amid the mumbo jumbo of this age, in one of his imaginary dialogues set in the underworld, has a pirate newly dead and standing for judgment before the awful Minos defend himself on the grounds that not he but the irresistible ordinances of Fate were responsible for his wrongdoings. Carneades, head of the philosophical school of skepticism in the second century B.C., asked how it was that men fated to die at different times went down in the same shipwreck. But Carneades’s acute criticisms and Lucian’s mockery were feeble things against the tide of unreason. The astrologers had their solution to offer: By knowing precisely what the stars had in store, one could arrange somehow to outwit them. And so there was a rush to patronize the horoscope-casters, from Tiberius’s learned companion on Capri to the itinerants who canvassed illiterate village folk and were responsible for the scribbled horoscopes that archaeologists have found in the rubbish heaps of Egypt. Or people renewed their prayers in the sanctuaries of Isis or Serapis or Mithras and other gods whose power presumably transcended the stars, who could grant their worshipers release; “I alone may prolong the span of life allotted by Fate” was Isis’s boast. Or they turned to an equally potent form of superstition - magic.

Magic’s virtue is that its realm is unbounded. With the right formulas, the right incantations, the right gestures, a man can force even the stars to bend to his will. Moreover, it is quick: You do not have to spend long hours in prayer and then hope the god will be persuaded; you invoke the demon who, again through the medium of appropriate words and actions, will be constrained to act in your behalf. Here, for example, is the magic to catch a thief; it was written sometime during the fourth century A.D. on a piece of papyrus paper found in Egypt:

I call thee, Hermes, immortal god, who cuttest a furrow down Olympus . . . the great, everliving, terrible to behold and terrible to be heard, give up the thief whom I seek. Aberamentho oulerthe xenax sonelueothnemareba. This spell is to be said twice at the purification. The spell of bread and cheese. Come to me, lisson maternamau, erte, preptektioun, intiki, ous, olokotous, periklusai, bring to me that which is lost, and make the thief manifest on this very day. And I invoke Hermes, the discoverer of thieves, and the sun and the eye-pupils of the sun, the two bringers-to-light of unlawful deeds, and Justice, and Erinys, and Amnion, and Parammon, to seize the throat of the thief and to manifest him this day, at the present hour.

Magic is unlimited; it can aim at the highest targets as well as the lowly. When Tiberius’s nephew, Germanicus, died of illness in Syria in A.D. 19, a search of his room, Tacitus reports, revealed “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, lead tablets inscribed with Germanicus’s name, ashes half-burned and smeared with gore, and other evil devices by which souls are believed to be doomed to the shades of the Underworld.”

Astrology was by no means the only way to know the future. One could do it as well through the correct interpretation of dreams since these were assumed to be divinely inspired. Men took them as seriously as horoscopes. A certain Artemidorus from Asia Minor toward the end of the second century A.D. wrote a book on the subject that has survived, a catalogue of everything anyone could possibly dream of (and lots that no one ever would) with an interpretation of each, a veritable encyclopedia of balderdash. Then there were the oracles. Some were hoary and respected institutions, like that of Apollo at Delphi or Zeus at Dodona. Heads of nations used to consult them, and the priests in charge were capable of issuing statesmanlike advice or framing answers that were masterfully ambiguous. But in the time of the Roman Empire, most had degenerated to the level of the palm or tea-leaf reader. One of the pieces of scrap paper unearthed from Egypt’s rubbish heaps is a list of the standard questions addressed by visitors to an oracle; here is a sampling:

No. 73: Am I to remain where I am going?

No. 74: Am I to be sold?

No. 75: Am I to receive help from my friend?

No. 76: Has it been granted to me to make a contract with another person?

No. 77: Am I to be reconciled with my offspring?

No. 78: Am I to get a furlough?

No. 79: Am I to get the money?

The seer obviously took on all comers - slaves, soldiers, businessmen, distracted parents. Lucian tells the story of a gifted quack who actually created a highly successful oracle from scratch in a backwater on the south shore of the Black Sea. There, for stiff prices, a talking serpent he had rigged up answered questions for the local hayseeds and was so successful that “the fame of the shrine made its way to Italy and descended on Rome. Every soul there, one on the heels of the other, hurried either to go out in person or to send an envoy, particularly the most influential and important personages in the city. The leader and prime figure in this movement was Rutilianus [a prominent Roman]. . . . He heard about the shrine and practically threw up his current public office to fly off to Abonoteichos; as next best thing he sent out one envoy after another. . . . He got the people at the emperor’s court so worked up, most of them promptly rushed out to hear something about their own futures.”

Rutilianus was no worse than his compeers. Pliny the Younger comforted his good friend Suetonius by interpreting his dreams. Suetonius needed it; his superstition knew no bounds. It was he who reports with dismay Caesar’s cynical disregard of a fortuneteller’s warning to beware the Ides of March, who gives us an endless catalogue of the portents that accompanied the birth, acts, and death of the emperors whose biographies he wrote.

From the east came not only Cybele, Isis, Mithras, mystery cults, astrology, and magic, but also the religion that was eventually to absorb and supplant them all - Christianity.

It offered a Savior who did not belong to a remote past but whose teaching and miracles were within living memory. It offered a message of hope not only for those who could afford an initiation or a costly sacrificial victim but for all, including the destitute, the derelict, the criminal. It insisted on a rite that was simple and clean and uplifting, not designed to overawe or morbidly excite. Like the Jewish faith from which it sprang, it was proudly exclusive: The worshiper of Christ would not include other deities in his prayers or bend his knees to the image of a Roman emperor.

The early Christians clashed with pagan authorities as inevitably as had the Jews, and during the period we are surveying they suffered frequent and cruel persecution. But the future was theirs. Within two centuries, Isis had succumbed to the Virgin Mary, Asclepius and Serapis had yielded their powers to healing saints, and architects were building churches with columns cannibalized from Apollo’s or Jupiter’s crumbling temples.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!