Ancient History & Civilisation



The most important respect in which Roman civil society surpasses that of other states seems to me to be how it treats the gods. I think too that the very thing that among other people is viewed unfavourably is, among the Romans, a source of cohesion: I mean their respect of the gods. For it is developed to such an extraordinary extent among them—both in their private affairs and in the common business of the community—that nothing is treated as more important than this. This fact seems astonishing to many people.

(Polybius, Histories 6.56.6–8)

A Moral Empire

We are, in many ways, still Greeks when we contemplate the rise of Rome. It is not just that we rely heavily on Greek narrative accounts; nor even that we share with our Greek witnesses—Polybius and Diodorus, Dionysius and Plutarch among many others—a sense of ourselves as outsiders looking in on Rome. Even more fundamentally, the way we try to understand how societies work remains firmly based in a tradition of political science that can be traced directly back to classical Greece. When Polybius asked why it was Rome that had conquered the Mediterranean, he found his answer in a unique balance of political and military institutions—a perfect blend of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements—along with the attitudes and habits they inculcated. Religious awe was just one component; he followed the passage quoted above with a good functionalist explanation of its role in stabilizing the social hierarchy. He looked, in other words, for Rome’s comparative advantage over its competitors. Another Greek, Aelius Aristides, in a speech of praise addressed to Rome nearly three centuries later, compared Roman success in government to the failure of earlier empires. One key variable he identified was inclusiveness; that Romans were unusually willing to incorporate those they had subjected into the citizen body.1 Whether or not we agree with these particular arguments, the analytical procedure is familiar.

Romans did not think like this, or not until the Greeks taught them to do so. Even after Rome had grown its own philosophers, they did not supply the most influential explanations of Roman success and failure. To access those we have to investigate the interlinked worlds of moral discourse and religious practice. For from the very earliest records we can access, Roman texts and monuments alike proclaim that Rome had grown great through the virtue of her men, and the favour of her gods.

During the Republic, it was common to attribute Roman successes to the virtue of its leaders, and Roman failures to their vices or occasionally to errors they had made in preparatory rituals. One result was a moralizing rhetoric that coloured all surviving speeches, histories, and biographies and many other kinds of literature.2 Right back in the third century BC, the first of the elogia carved on the sarcophagi from the tomb of the Scipiones shows the close connection made between what we would call private moral qualities and public conduct. A rich tradition of invective preserves many more accusations of vice than memorials of virtue. The political reputation of Caesar was damaged by allegations that he had allowed King Nicomedes of Bithynia to have sex with him. Few of Cicero’s opponents in the trials in which he made his name escaped attacks of this kind. Virtue and vice were also manifested in the public sphere, where Romans performed as speakers and priests and magistrates and generals: so Caesar’s success in conquering Gaul was proof of his own dynamic virtues. The tradition persisted into the imperial period. Sallust, writing in the 40s BC, recalled an ancient habit of taking the examples of virtuous men as models for one’s own conduct.

For I have often heard that Quintus Maximus, Publius Scipio and the most famous citizens of our state were in the habit of saying that their hearts were set ablaze with the ardent desire for virtue when they looked on the images of our ancestors.3

The remark forms part of a justification of history, but he goes on to say how the practice has fallen into decline, and people today only want to outdo their ancestors in wealth rather than virtues. Similar sentiments were expressed by Tacitus; writing nearly two centuries later he made similar comments at the beginning of his account of the exemplary life of Agricola.4 Even the emperors would find themselves under this moral spotlight, as they did in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars or Juvenal’s Satires, although condemnation was generally reserved for those who were safely dead. Roman writers in every age lament the decline of traditional morality, but in fact the moral tradition at Rome was extraordinarily long-lived.5 Arguably the content of Roman virtue hardly changed until Christian bishops redefined it in the fourth century: even then new virtues did not displace old. Procopius’ Secret History offers an unexpurgated account of the vices of Justinian’s court that would have delighted early imperial readers.

That mode of thought also offered an interpretation of the collective history of the Roman people. Roman prosperity derived from the proper management of relations with Roman gods and from ethical behaviour; periods of crisis might be understood as signs of a breakdown in those relations, and of moral decadence. Rome’s gods had issued no detailed code of personal ethics, but their support might be lost either by neglecting their cult or through acts of impiety: Polybius followed his account of Roman piety with the observation that Romans always abided by their oaths. Equally the gods gave support to the brave and virtuous, concepts the Romans barely distinguished. When disasters struck or when dreadful omens were reported, the Senate might ask a particular college of priests to consult the oracles known as the Sibylline Books, which generally prescribed a major public ritual or the invitation of a new god to Rome. Occasionally more sinister remedies were employed: some disasters might be caused by one of the Vestals breaking her vow of virginity. If she was found guilty she would be buried alive.

No crisis was greater than the civil wars that convulsed the state between the murder of the Gracchi and Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Naturally these wars came to be explained in terms of collective moral failure, perhaps the effects of the corrupting luxury brought by imperial success. The period saw its fair share of contested omens and struggle for control of religious institutions.6 Trials of Vestals were held not long after the murder of Gaius Gracchus, and one source reports the Romans even resorted to human sacrifice as well. A sequence of public panics—we might almost call them episodes of religious hysteria—also gave rise to some wider feeling that failures in moral conduct were in some sense the root of the troubles of the late Republic. Livy addressed this in the preface to his great history, itself a product of the crisis, but not completed until the reign of Augustus. He begins by sketching out the narrative arc of how Rome grew from small beginnings to the point where it is now overburdened by its greatness, contrasts its pristine virtue to the terrible contemporary circumstances, and asks the reader to reflect on

the way of life and customs, and the sort of men and means by which good order at home and empire abroad was won and extended: then as decline sets in, let him reflect on how standards began to slip little by little, then began to slide faster and faster and eventually collapsed until we reach the situation today, where we can bear neither our vices nor the remedies they call for.7

Livy’s interpretation was not exactly Augustan: the closing phrase is altogether too pessimistic. But the huge investment Augustus put into moral rearmament suggests that ideas of this kind were fairly widespread.8

So too does the way reconciliation took place in the years after the battle of Actium brought the civil wars to an end. In 27 BC, the Senate and people of Rome presented Octavian with a great shield on which were listed Courage, Justice, Mercy, and Piety towards the gods and his country. Courage translates virtus, the origin of our notion of virtue, but meaning something rather different to Romans. Virtus was not a condition but an active force, one connected to manliness, a power that might transform the world. Justice and Mercy were conventional regal qualities. Piety, pietas, was the set of dispositions that held Rome’s hierarchical society together. Pius was the signature virtue of Virgil’s Aeneas, repeatedly displayed towards the gods and his father. Freedmen and clients owed pietas to their former masters and patrons. It includes recognition of duties, as well as respect for persons. Augustus had displayed these qualities, the Shield proclaims: perhaps the senators also hoped he would continue to display them. The battle of Actium was presented as a ‘secular miracle’:9 by winning it Octavian had saved the state. The title ‘Augustus’ was awarded to him around the same time. It was not an office, not did it already have some established meaning, but its connotations were easily understood as religious. Augustus’ virtues had saved the state, and Rome might now return to a Golden Age.10 The original shield, itself made of gold, was hung in the Curia Julia in Rome, where the Senate often met. A copy made in Italian marble, and measuring a metre across, has been found at Arles in southern France, where a colony of veteran soldiers had been recently established. A few years later an issue of denarii, the coin in which soldiers were paid, carried an image of the shield. Other coins bear the image of the civic oak crown, a traditional reward for saving the life of a fellow citizen. That too had been awarded to Augustus. Signs of this kind formed both a rationalization of recent history and a manifesto for the future. Rome, they declared, was back on track.

Religious Imperialism?

If disasters signalled a breakdown in relations with the gods, it followed that success was a sign of divine favour. The general whose battlefield vow was answered paid his dues by building a temple to the god in question. Each triumph culminated in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline. As with morality and history, this could be imagined on a larger scale. Romans certainly came to believe the gods supported their wider hegemony. Virgil’s Aeneid plots the rise of Rome as the fulfilment of a divine plan, the will of Jupiter. How early did Romans begin to suspect they were especially beloved of heaven? There are a few tantalizing hints that already in the third century BC some Romans had begun to feel that the gods/their gods had some special plan for them, and so that their religious action was not exactly on a par with those of others. In the ruins of the temple of Dionysus on the Greek island of Teos, an inscription was found that records a letter sent by a Roman magistrate in the 190s BC confirming the temple’s privileges. It also asserts that the Roman people were the most religious of men.11

It is possible that when Polybius remarked on the exceptional piety of the Romans he was reflecting the self-image of the Roman elite. Was the exceptional religiosity of the Romans already a theme of the lost history written by the senator Fabius Pictor, a work to which we owe (indirectly) our most detailed accounts of Rome’s earliest major festival the Ludi Romani?12 Pictor had also been part of a delegation sent by the Senate to the oracle of Delphi after Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 BC. Polybius had, naturally, many opportunities for observing the religious life of Rome, and ritual was an important concern for many members of the elite. Many senators held priesthoods, and unlike magistracies these were generally held for life: the most important were regularly signalled in ceremony, and were commemorated long after their death. Caesar, Cicero, and the Younger Pliny all held major priesthoods and their writings show how important this was to them. Priestly colleges co-opted new members on the death of an incumbent: the numbers were tightly restricted, and it was a convention not to co-opt an immediate relative. Support in winning priesthoods established lasting ties of gratitude. The populares briefly introduced elections, but the emperors ended this, making priesthoods another of the gifts they might bestow. Their prestige survived these transformations. Both in ritual performances and in the meetings of the colleges and the Senate itself, senatorial priests devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy to the precise management of cult and to dealing with prodigies and religious problems, such as how exactly to declare war on a distant enemy or what ceremonies should be used to bring a particular new god into Rome. Religious knowledge at Rome consisted of expertise in ritual, not in theology, and rituals were fundamental to the workings of the state.13 Assemblies, meetings of the Senate, even battles could not begin until the auguries had been taken, that is until the approval of the gods had been established, usually by divining from the flight of birds. Once a general had been given his command, his imperium, he acquired a whole range of temporary ritual duties and prerogatives. Magistrates too performed sacrifices in the course of their civil duties. The Senate was the ultimate mediator between the Romans and their gods. It has even been suggested that the collective authority of the senatorial aristocracy largely derived from its religious functions.14 All ancient communities had priests, but perhaps in Rome the correlation between political and religious authority was unusually strong.

Yet if we compare the rituals, beliefs, and religious institutions of Rome with those of their neighbours, the Romans seem in many respects very conventional. Most peoples of the ancient world were polytheists: they believed in a plurality of gods, and paid cult to a number of them. A merchant who travelled the Mediterranean around the turn of the millennium would find, in every city he visited, monumental temples, images of the gods, and priests conducting rituals on behalf of the community. The gods were generally treated as powerful social beings—physically close at hand, but of an order of being that transcended the everyday. Rituals were designed to establish their wishes, and to win their support. Winning support almost always involved animal sacrifice. Mostly the animals that were sacrificed were drawn from that small range of domesticates on which all these economies depended. Processions, purifications, hymns, prayers, and music might be added to involve more people. Festivals took place, generally on an annual cycle but also to mark special events, and might involve games or contests of various kinds. Kings and cities were the focus of the grandest cults, but there were also domestic and village cults and even private, personal vows and offerings made to gods. Oracles of various sorts and healing shrines were ubiquitous. All this was true of Greeks and Etruscans, Phoenicians and Samnites, and most of the other peoples of the Mediterranean world.

Each community had its own cults of course, and there were differences that perhaps mattered enormously to worshippers. A few peculiarities were infamous: the Egyptian gods had the heads of animals; the Jews had only one god; the Druids were rumoured to sacrifice not only animals, but also humans. But these scandals stood out against a background of broad similarity. Many gods were in any case shared among peoples who felt themselves related, so all the Greeks worshipped Athena; and all the western Phoenicians Melqart (originally the great god of Tyre), and so on. The Romans had their own bizarre rituals: Greek scholars like Dionysius and Plutarch, as well as Roman ones, devoted some effort to trying to work out what rituals like the October Horse were all about.15 Quite probably there was no ancient consensus, and the origins of most Roman rituals are now lost, even if we can sometimes see how they functioned in later ages, to mark time, to draw the community together, and to assert the relative status of those who presided, participated, and only watched.

From at least the archaic period, there had been attempts to find equivalences between the gods of different peoples—Jupiter and Zeus, Hercules and Melqart, Uni and Astarte, and so on. Those connections were made not only by philosophers, antiquarians, historians, and poets, but also by traders, migrants, and envoys who encountered new gods in the communities they visited and wondered how new they were. The bilingual dedications to Astarte/Uni at Pyrgi described in Chapter 3 show how closer relations between nearby peoples, in this case Phoenicians and Etruscans, might bring their gods into a new relationship. It was common to behave as if a single divine order lurked behind the myriad local cults.

Eventually some religious leaders made a virtue of this by deliberately asserting syncretisms: the goddess Isis in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses claims to be known as the Great Mother of the Gods at Pessinus, Cecropian Minerva in Attica, Venus of Paphos on Cyprus, Dictyan Diana to the Cretans, Stygian Prosperina to the Sicilians, Ceres at Eleusis, and also as Juno, Bellona, Hecate, and the goddess of Rhamnous, but really Queen Isis, the form used by the Ethiopians and Egyptians.16 The Baal of the city of Doliche in Syria spread through the Roman world as Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus. Philosophers reached even more radical conclusions, for example that none of the traditional gods was correctly imagined, or that the gods of the poets were demons, lesser deities created by a greater more perfect god who did not share the passions and social roles of humans. Speculations of this kind played a major part in converting the god of the Jews into the universal deity of the Christians. Most of these developments took place in the early imperial period. But Romans were aware of alien gods and the philosophical debate they inspired from the earliest stages of overseas expansion. Pictor’s visit to Delphi was not unusual. Many Roman governors of Macedonia visited the sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace, and during the last century BC many prominent Romans were initiated into the mysteries of Demeter and the Maiden at Eleusis; they included Sulla, Cicero, Antony, and Augustus. The literature of the Republic also shows a familiarity with Greek philosophical speculations on the divine: Ennius produced a Latin version of the work of Euhemerus who argued that the gods of myth had once been great men, Lucretius followed Epicurus’ line that the gods were impossibly remote from the material world, or perhaps did not exist at all, Cicero’s philosophical dialogues On the Nature of the Gods and On Divination bring conventional Roman thought into contact with the major philosophical schools of his day.17

Equivalences of this kind ought to have posed real problems for the management of Roman ritual. If the gods of the Egyptians were the same as those of the Romans (Thoth = Hermes = Mercury for example), then why was it important that Romans follow their own customs when sacrificing? After all, even the name used to address the god mattered enormously in some Roman rituals.18 Equally, if all the Junones of Latium referred to the same goddess (and also to Astarte of Carthage and Uni of Veii) why was it necessary to persuade the Juno of Veii to come to Rome in 396, Juno Sospita to come from Lanuvium in 338, or to establish cults to Juno Lucina in 375 and Juno Moneta in 344? And what about the idea that a city’s gods were in some sense its citizens, and might be expected to give it particular support? Propertius imagined the gods of the Romans ranged against those of the Egyptians at Actium, while the armies of Octavian and Cleopatra fought below. How could this be related to the idea of a single cosmos? More fundamentally, were the gods of Rome the gods, or only the gods of the Romans? No single answer emerged as authoritative. Right up until late antiquity we can find the same Roman senators worshipping a great number of traditional, alien, and syncretized gods, and also debating the minutiae of correct ritual in the priestly colleges. Romans seem to have managed to maintain a mental reservation between a sense of the extreme particularity of individual cults and an openness to all sorts of theological and cosmological speculation; between punctiliousness about ritual practice on the one hand, and an apparent lack of concern about belief on the other.19

If the Roman elite of the middle Republic thought themselves especially pious, and if they attributed success in war to the favour of their gods, is it possible to see this as a driving force in Roman imperialism? That case seems more difficult to make, especially when Rome is compared to other peoples. First, the religion of the Romans does not seem unusual compared to that of other Mediterranean peoples. Many Etruscan and Latin cities had priesthoods very like those of Rome, and some rituals associated with war, like those surrounding the priesthood of the fetiales, were probably shared by Italian states. Other cities attributed their success to the gods, and imagined their gods to be on their side. The statue of Athena spat blood in fury at Augustus’ victory over Actium; the god of the Jews lent support against Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman imperialists.20 Nor did Roman religion offer particularly effective means of integrating conquered peoples. Rome’s gods always remained those of the city. Arguably the Roman Empire had no collective ritual system until Caracalla extended the citizenship to all Romans in 212, and the Emperor Decius asked them all in 249 to take part in a supplicatio, a collective effort in which all citizens would perform sacrifices to the traditional gods, perhaps in expiation of whatever actions or inactions were held to be the cause of the ongoing military crisis of that period.21

Religion has had a more central place in other imperial expansions. It has been suggested that it was the demands of the Aztec gods for sacrifices that powered the expansion of their power in Mexico, and the divine calling of the Merovingian kings that led to the unification of Frankia and its conversion into the most dynamic and complex of early medieval states.22 It is difficult to imagine a plausible account of the Arab conquests that did not give Islam a key role, or a history of the Crusades that did not stress the capacity of the religious authority of the popes to harness the military energy of medieval Europe. The institutions of the Church were powerful mechanisms for organizing conquered lands and peoples from the Norman conquests in the British Isles and Sicily, through the eastwards expansion of Europe and the settlement of Outremer, right up to the early modern conquest of the Americas. Compared to these phenomena Roman religion seems reactive and inward-looking. Other Roman institutions played a much greater part in promoting and facilitating expansion: patronage and slavery, military alliance, and Roman law are obvious examples. The gods, it seems, were passengers on this journey.

Understanding Empire

What the religious traditions of the Romans did offer, however, were new ways of understanding and coming to terms with their growing power.

Ritual was at the centre of these understandings. There were rituals to mark the departures of generals and their returns, rituals to prepare for battles, the ritual of appealing to a named deity on the battlefield itself, the ritual of hailing a general imperator after a victory, the ritual extension of the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city, after Roman territory had been increased, special honours paid to generals who killed their opponents in single combat, and so on.23 Most famous are the set of rituals drawn together into the triumph.24 Battlefield vows often promised a deity a temple in return for victory. As a result the city began to be filled with victory temples, many along the routes triumphal processions followed.25 Most were rather small. But as the scale of booty increased in the early second century larger complexes were built including great temple complexes for Jupiter, Juno, and Hercules of the Muses by the Circus Flaminius at the southern end of the Field of Mars. Augustus’ temple to Mars the Avenger was the culmination of this tradition.

Another mode of using religion to reflect on expansion was offered by antiquarianism. From the late second century BC some writers had become interested in the history of Rome’s many and complex cults. Almost all of what they wrote is lost, as is the most authoritative of all accounts of Roman religion, Varro’s Antiquities Human and Divine, which even 500 years later was still the target of St Augustine’s attack on traditional religion in his City of God. But many fragments of antiquarian knowledge of religion survived in later texts. From these we can reconstruct a history of the public cults of the city of Rome in terms of the accumulation of more and more foreign gods and ritual traditions. Varro seems to have thought there was an original core of authentic Roman religion, perhaps the religion established by Numa, the second king of Rome, and Cicero writes about the Lupercalia as older than the city itself. But otherwise the cults of the city had accumulated in historical time. The haruspices were believed to have brought from Etruria their art of divining the will of the gods from the entrails of sacrificial victims and other portents. The worship of Apollo and Asclepius had been brought from Greek cities in 433 and 291 respectively. Venus of Eryx came in 217 from Sicily, and Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods, had come to Rome from Pessinus in Asia Minor in 204. Cults which were considered as imported were managed by a particular priestly college, the decemviri, and many were worshipped according to what Romans called ‘the Greek rite’, although it corresponded to no actual set of Greek rituals.26 The Augustan scholar Verrius Flaccus thought that whole series of gods had been brought to Rome through the ritual of the evocatio in which the protective deity of an enemy city was persuaded to defect to Rome. The history of religion thus became a way of telling imperial history.

Antiquarian researches were very speculative, but it really does seem that Romans of the third century BC were aiming to muster the most powerful cults in the Mediterranean world behind their empire. Each new god arrived following a crisis, but the cumulative effect was to create an annexe of the public cults devoted to the gods of the wider Mediterranean. So the ‘Greek rite’ flags Apollo and the rest as immigrant deities. Cybele, when she was brought to Rome from her Anatolian cult centre, was given a temple on the Palatine and games were set up for her in the Roman festival calendar. But elements of her more exotic rituals were preserved as if to retain a sense that she was a foreigner.27 Fewer new arrivals are attested after the Hannibalic war, and there were periodic expulsions of new cults that had arrived by private agency rather than through the mediation of the Senate and its priests. The Senate’s ferocious response to the cult of Bacchus in 186 was the first of several such reactions. Attempts were made to exclude Bacchus, Isis, the god of the Jews, and the god of the Christians: all entered Rome during the early empire. One way or another accommodations of new cults and links with foreign sanctuaries accumulated right up until the conversion of Constantine.28

Finally, there was the emergence of the idea that Roman rule was divinely ordained.29 By far the most extravagant productions along these lines date to the reign of Augustus, and this is also the point at which the religions of other communities were systematically oriented towards Rome. Yet an air of the divine had long surrounded Rome, and perhaps the emperors did no more than harness the power of the ritual tradition.30 Octavian began his career as the son of a god, for Julius Caesar had been deified after his death, and had received godlike honours just before it. Greek communities had already given honours of that kind to a number of Roman generals. From the start of the second century BC some Greek cities introduced worship of the goddess Roma at home, or else made dedications on the Capitol. There were also cults of the Roman People and of the Universal Roman Benefactors. Less information survives from the west but in Spain some of Sertorius’ followers believed he received prophecies from an enchanted deer, and in Gaul cults sprang up around Caesar after his death.


Fig 8. Bronze statuette of Cybele on a cart drawn by lions, 2nd half of 2nd century AD

It is not surprising, then, that Octavian’s success at Actium was marked almost immediately by a victory stele at Philae in Egypt on which his name was inscribed in hieroglyphics within a cartouche, a sign that he was considered a pharaoh, nor that offers of godlike honours from the Greek cities of Asia followed soon after. The Shield of Virtue and the title Augustus awarded by the Senate and people of Rome pointed in the same direction. Honours from Italian and provincial communities followed, from client kings like Herod of Judaea and Juba of Mauretania, and from Roman colonies like Tarragona. If some were apparently spontaneous, in most cases it looks as if careful negotiation preceded cult so as to establish exactly what would prove acceptable. In a few cases, such as the creation in 12 BC of a great altar at Lyon where representatives of the Gallic communities met once a year to elect a high priest and hold gladiatorial games in honour of Rome and Augustus, it seems as if an imperial prince took the initiative. There was no single empire-wide cult of the emperors. Each community found their own way to indicate his proximity to heaven.31

The creation of emperor worship has seemed a watershed in Roman religion. It seemed so to some aristocratic Roman writers who generally deplored and ridiculed it. The emperors were their relatives, and they were all too aware of their very human failings. Poetry was an easier medium in which to suggest connections between Roman destiny, the will of the gods, and the person of Augustus. Virgil’s Aeneid presented a hero led by the gods to found the Roman race, took him on a tour of the site of the future city, a place already pregnant with future history and ancestral cult, and then took him to the Underworld for a glimpse of great Romans waiting to be born. The most explicit and most quoted statement of Rome’s imperial destiny is put into Jupiter’s prophecy promising Romeimperium sine fine, power without limits. Augustan monuments deployed the globe prominently alongside traditional symbols of victory, and thousands of identical portraits of the emperor were produced and placed in every conceivable public and private context. The central public spaces of cities in Italy and the west were transformed by the creation of monumental temples and precincts. Greek inscriptions celebrate unprecedented honours and ceremonial. The personality cult of Augustus evokes inescapable echoes of those of the leaders of totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century: the capacity to mass-produce one man’s face in a pre-industrial age is even more impressive.32

Many imperial nations have come to understand their rule as divinely ordained and sustained. Our idea of the mandate of heaven is Chinese in origin: the sons of heaven mediated between men and gods, and their position depended on the support of the latter. But almost every empire has claimed cosmic sanction. Persian shahs attributed their success to Ahura Mazda. Alexander came to be believed the son of Zeus, and received godlike honours. Max Weber termed the idea that the powerful were powerful by heaven’s will ‘the theodicy of good fortune’: such beliefs offer reassurance that human society is justly ordered and history meaningful. Like all ideologies, beliefs of this kind comfort rulers as well as make their rule seem less arbitrary to their subjects. If we look at early empires more closely we find it is very common that the same emperors sought support from different gods in different parts of their realms. The Achaemenids patronized Marduk in Babylon, Apollo in Greek Asia Minor, and the god of the Jews in Jerusalem. Alexander won support from the oracle of Ammon in the Siwah Oasis west of Egypt. The Macedonian Ptolemies who ruled after him in Egypt became pharaohs. What would have been really innovative was a secular concept of empire.

Further Reading

Catharine Edwards’s The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 1993) has transformed our understanding of Roman morality, inviting us to see moral discourse not as an expression of a particular group of prejudices, but as a highly politicized set of practices central to competition among the elite. Rebecca Langlands’s Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 2007) explores the key virtue of pudicitia.

The best introduction to Roman religion is now Religions of Rome (Cambridge, 1998), a collaboration between Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price. Also recommended are Jörg Rüpke’s Religion of the Romans (Cambridge, 2007) and James Rives’sReligion in the Roman Empire (Malden, Mass., 2007). Mary Beard’s The Roman Triumph (Cambridge, Mass., 2007) explores in vivid detail the complex relationships between war and ritual in Rome and the Roman imagination. Paul Zanker’s Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor, 1988) brings out the phenomenal visual impact of imperial rituals in Rome, Italy, and the empire.


Map 3. The Republican empire around 100 BC

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