Ancient History & Civilisation

IV

FROM PAGANISM TO CHRISTIANITY

CHAPTER 8

THE CLIMAX OF PAGANISM

The Patriotic Gods

During this whole period most official pagan worships were fading into the background. Pliny the younger, on his arrival in northern Asia Minor early in the second century, had already found the temples becoming deserted and neglected,1 and the withdrawal of paganism continued. During the third century its shrines in north Africa were abandoned, and at Rome, too, the cults lost ground. The public treated their annual ceremonies as occasions for carnival,2 and even the official coinage shows markedly diminished attention to most gods and goddesses. An inscription reveals that the funds allocated to a religious foundation in AD 241 only amounted to one-quarter the figure of earlier years.3

This failure of enthusiasm was one of the prices paid for war and disaster. As Julian the Apostate later remarked, ‘It was the sight of their undeserved misery that led people to despise the gods.’4 Another reason for waning interest in the old religion was the growth of monotheistic feeling. Throughout this period the Olympians were coming to be regarded as branches or aspects or symbolic representatives of a single unknowable divinity (pp. 134, 174).5 A move in this direction was taken by the coinage of Commodus, on which Jupiter is described as Exsuperator orExsuperantissimus – the chief god, but also something more.6 This attitude made the deities of Olympus acceptable to the more advanced thinking of the day, but it also weakened their hold on the minds of the Roman people as autonomous, individual entities.

However, the eclipse of the ancient divinities was limited by two important exceptions. First, the mystery religions which promised individual salvation were still powerful (pp. 186 ff). The second exception, which found greater expression on the coinage, comprised deities concerned with the protection of the state. As the members of the Olympian pantheon mostly faded into an amorphous background, national propaganda concentrated upon those who fulfilled the time-honoured role of protectors of the ruling emperor and the Roman people.

While amid crisis and emergency Plotinus counselled withdrawal into contemplation (p. 152), many an emperor invoked these gods and goddesses as an emotional rallying-cry. For they, men still felt, were the divine guarantors of the military success on which the empire’s security rested; there remained a strong instinctive conviction that Roman power depended upon proper cult-acts performed towards the traditional deities. Citizens and subjects, and above all soldiers, associated their support for the ruling power with recognition of the gods of Rome. That is why Dio Cassius, in the speech which he attributes to Augustus’ adviser Maecenas, suggests (though a Greek himself) that the emperor should make worship of the Roman gods compulsory, ‘according to the customs of our fathers’.7 For this historian, like many others in governing circles, believed that the veneration of foreign cults implied an undesirable non-Roman way of life. Christians were atheists because they did not revere the gods who guarded the empire; and conversely the worst and most dangerous enemies to Christianity, in the eyes of its protagonist Tertullian, were not the mystery religions but still the national gods of Rome.

Clearly the most Roman and patriotic of all cults was the worship of Rome itself. As the city began to lose its political and economic importance (p. 97), the emotional inspiration of its name remained as great as ever; the heavily charged slogan Roma Aeternapreserved and intensified its power. Imperial coins embroider upon the theme in many ways. They identify the city’s fortunes with those of the ruling emperor, just as Tiberius, long ago, had been declared ‘born for the eternity of the Roman name’.8 Moreover, the festival of the Birthday of the City was given added grandeur by its association with Hadrian’s magnificent temple which linked Rome with the divine founder Venus (p. 166).9

One of the army’s annual celebrations, listed in the military Calendar of Dura, honoured the goddess Rome; and Aurelian’s refoundation of her temple was connected with the strength of the cult in his native Balkan region which dominated the army and court. Another son of these Danubian provinces, Diocletian gave even more massive and widespread publicity to the idea of Rome than any other ruler. For he and his fellow-emperors expressed this idea, without variation, on millions of the silvered bronze coins of their universally circulating reformed currency. These enormous and uniform issues, issued at many mints from c. 294 onwards for more than two decades, represent one of the largest outbursts of numismatic propaganda in the whole of Roman history. By such means, every household in the empire was repeatedly remnided of eternal Rome for many years.

But the slogan of Diocletian and his colleagues was not simply concerned with Rome itself; instead it celebrated the Genius of the Roman People – GENIVS POPVLI ROMANI. The Genius was represented by a youthful male figure, carrying a cornucopia and wearing the turreted (mural) crown which was characteristic of the Fortune (Tyche) of cities. Since Genii, in very early days, had often been represented by snakes, they have conjecturally been regarded as a survival of totemism. The word means the begetter, and personifies that particular divine characteristic, some masculine principle beyond human eyes, which enables the line to continue for generation after generation; thus Hercules, manhood personified, was associated with Genius under Commodus (?) and Septimius,10 and joined him as a patron of Diocletian’s regime. In a crisis of the war against Hannibal (218 BC), the religious rites decreed by the state had included the sacrifice of five human victims to Genius-a magical measure by which Rome would increase its male population and win the war. During the further emergencies which heralded the end of the Republic, the Temple of Genius beside the forum attracted attention for miraculous prodigies.

The idea had meanwhile developed that gods had Genii of their own-essences of their numinosity. Under the influence of the Greeks, whose daimon was a related conception, this concept came to be applied to individuals also: everyone had a Genius, who was his productive element and at the same time his protector. This meant that Roman emperors, although public worship of their own persons was contrary to tradition, could more readily be venerated through their Genii, by rather the same sort of cult-acts as were performed in honour of the daimon or fravashi of a Parthian king.11

Moreover, Genii belonged not only to people and gods but to institutions. Among these were military groups such as Decius’ Army of Illyricum (p. 16). Cities also had their own Genius, and the concept had long been linked with Rome itself. For on the Capitoline Hill, as ancient calendars record, there was an annual festival of ‘the public Genius’ (Genius Publicus) united with Rome’s special goddess Venus,12 and a shield on the Capitol was dedicated to the Genius of the City of Rome.

The Romans had never attributed human form to their deities with the same facility as the Greeks, and this dedication included the additional precautionary words ‘whether masculine or feminine’. However, it became established that the Genius of the Roman People – for such was the formula which emerged – was, as might be expected, male. Supervision of the cult belonged to the family of the Cornelii, one of whose late Republican representatives had placed the head of the Genius on a coin – bearded at this stage and not clean-shaven as in later centuries.13 Beside the head are globe and rudder, indicating that this is the power which guarantees Rome’s universal rule. Then, after several subsequent appearances on coins, a relief of Septimius depicted the Genius of the Roman People wearing the turreted or mural crown of city Fortunes.14 Genius again wears that crown, sometimes combined with the rays of fashionable Sun-worship, on the obverse of one of the last large bronze coins ever to be issued at Rome, and one of the very few, within the past two hundred and fifty years, to show any head at all other than some portrait explicitly ascribed as to an imperial personage. The coins may date from a short period of interregnum immediately following Gallienus’ death (268).15

Then, after Aurelian had restored the Temple of the City, Diocletian, as has been said, singled out the Genius Populi Romani as the main publicity theme of his coinage. In the days when many earlier slogans no longer carried weight, here was one which, like the massive uniformity of the coinages themselves, would stress the Romanness and unity of the entire military and civil commonwealth, and marshal paganism to fight its decisive battle against the Christians (p. 234). Before long, certain additional coins referred to the Genii of the rulers themselves – GENIO AVGVSTI IMPERATORIS, CAESARIS. It was these leaders, then, who guaranteed the success of the Roman world and cherished the creative spirit immanent in its people.

The principal issues with GENIO POPVLI ROMANI, diversified by a more varied range of Romanità from Maxentius whose principal asset was his control of the capital city, declined and came to an end in AD 316, when Christianity was beginning to offer new watchwords (p. 180). Yet the appeal of Rome did not cease. A large painting, apparently of Constantine’s reign, shows a frontal seated figure of the goddess.16 When Fortune (Tyche) and other gods vanished at this time, the Fortunes or spirits of cities were retained and interpreted as entities at God’s gift and will. Indeed Constantine himself, despite his Christianity, gave Constantinople a temple of Fortune, and placed in this shrine a statue of the Fortune of Rome.17 Coins and medallions of the new city honour not onlyCONSTANTINOPOLIS but also VRBS ROMA and POP (ulus)ROMANVS. For although the eternal was now believed to be the real, the majesty of the city reflected this eternity. In an age of provincialisation and barbarisation, when the capital had been removed elsewhere and emperors rarely set foot in Italy, the most urgent of rallying cries still was Rome.

The Temple of the City established by Hadrian and rebuilt by Aurelian associated Rome with the goddess Venus, who through her son Aeneas was the divine mother of the Roman race. As the other Olympians faded, Venus had retained her glamour as one of the founders of Rome. Her worship kept an emotional strength which confirms that these survivals of traditional paganism went deeper than merely official and superficial levels. The place which the goddess still held in the souls of Romans is revealed by the outstanding Latin poem of the whole singularly unpoetic epoch. This is the Pervigilium Veneris or Vigil of Venus (?c.AD 307). Its ninety-two exquisite, melodious, sensuous lines, with their unclassical lilting rhythm and recurrent refrain, blend official and personal cult, patriotism and nature and romance. The subject is the three-nightly Sicilian festival of Dione who is Venus.

Then from the blood spilled from above and the glistening

Sea-foam, among hosts of sea-urchins, sprang

Creation’s goddess – Dione: a wave, breathing her spirit

Everywhere, sowing her seed-track over the hidden seas,

Through all skies and lands; man’s heart and the veins of the earth

Received her way of creation.

Tomorrow let there be love for him who never has loved

And love for the lover tomorrow…

As it glows, she tinges the ripening year with jewelled

Sprays, pushing the buds to fertile

Clusters under the west wind’s warmth, and sprinkles

Dew-beads left by the night breeze. Tears as they quiver

Hanging at bursting-point sparkle; the clinging dewdrop

Falls, a rounded pearl.

Tomorrow let there be love for him who never has loved

And love for the lover tomorrow

She sings: I am silent. When will my spring come ?

When shall I be as a swallow and stop being silent?

In this silence the Muses have left me – Apollo is gone.

So did the city Amyclae meet her end in silence

Without a word.

Tomorrow let there be love for him who never has loved

And love for the lover tomorrow18

The pageant ceases with a sob, it has been said; and behind the passion thuds the tramp of the barbarians along the roads to Rome.19 The days of the Olympians are nearly over, and there is nostalgia for the glorious past. But since the world is still unthinkable without Rome, Venus must survive, because Venus, as another part of the poem recalls, was the mother of all Rome’s glory; and Hadrian and Aurelian had linked them in the resplendent temple which sought to pilot paganism into new and unfamiliar epochs.

Another patriotic goddess who defied the decline of the Olympians by her continued impact on the later Roman world was Vesta. Her shrine in the forum is repeatedly shown on coins and medallions of Septimius and subsequent emperors, and the neighbouring courtyard devoted to her service contained many dedications persisting right up to the fourth century AD. The fire-cult of Vesta (Hestia) corresponded to contemporary Sun-worship and to the fire-altars of Sassanian Persia; and her Vestal Virgins suited contemporary tastes for asceticism and monastic seclusion. As the ancient, everlasting guardian of Rome and its rulers, Vesta in these dangerous times received more devoted veneration than ever.

So, for a time did the great Roman emperors of the past, called divi to distinguish them from the dei of Olympus.20 Drawing upon Greek ideas of deification as a reward for merit, the Romans had fostered similar legends relating to Hercules and their own founder Romulus.21 And just as those had been human beings whose mighty deeds raised them to be gods after their deaths, so also Augustus and some of his successors and their wives and relatives were posthumously appointed to this honorific godhead by a grateful state. They were hardly objects for prayer, but upon important occasions ordinary people probably thought of them as next and nearest to Jupiter.

As polytheism became unfashionable, the divi, like the Olympians, lost their personal identity and tended to become a generalised conception, representing the glorious past and the concept of eternal Rome embodied in the continuity of the throne. After the time of Marcus Aurelius, no new individual temples were given; but they received places in a general Temple of the Divi (275–6). They also enjoyed special honour at the headquarters of armies and were prominent in the cults laid down for soldiers. The military calendar of Severus Alexander found at Dura contains forty-one entries, of which no less than twenty-one are concerned with divi and divae; and when Aurelian received barbarian envoys, he set out the effigies of the divi at the place where the interview was held.

At almost all periods of the empire coins were issued with the heads of some of these deified personages. A characteristic accompanying design is the funeral pyre of Consecration, a many-storeyed cenotaph still found centuries later in Asian lands. Usually not more than a single divus or diva is celebrated at a time, and usually these were personages who had not been dead for long. Some issues are exceptionally large; for example Antoninus’ output of coinage for his deceased and deified wife Faustina the elder is enormous, and Marcus Aurelius’ commemorations of the younger Faustina are scarcely less extensive.

But on a few occasions the government, looking into the past as it often did, produced a series of coins honouring simultaneously a whole range of such imperial deities. The most significant of these multiple issues is a ‘consecration’ series of base silver issued in the mid-third century. Stylistic considerations and the evidence of hoards identify their issuer as Decius (249–51).22 The series has been variously ascribed to Rome and Mediolanum (Milan), while local bronze pieces of similar types were minted at Philippopolis (Plovdiv) in Thrace. There in the Balkan territories, from which Decius the first Illyrian emperor had come, belief in immortality was ardent. But the appeal and circulation of the major series comprehended wider circles of the Roman world. Decius was fighting desperately against the Germans, not on behalf of the old Olympians but for the survival and perpetuation of Rome, whose finest representatives were these venerated emperors of the past, their virtues proved in action. The array of deified rulers on Decius’ coinage, like the parades of ancestors at Roman funerals, were part of the crisis-propaganda which accompanied his persecution of Christians (p. 229). At a time of supreme stress he was closing the ranks behind patriotic tradition.

And yet the appeal to the divi was a failure, for except in some countries such as Africa, where their worship was especially strong, this cult did not outlast the third century; in the revivals of paganism under Diocletian it played only a very minor part. Nevertheless Maxentius deified his own son, who had died in boyhood (c. 310), and Constantine honoured Divus Claudius Gothicus, a fellow-Illyrian emperor and Sun-worshipper from whom he claimed descent (p. 180). Moreover, the Christian Constantine himself became Divus after his death. Poets could still call Christian emperors immortal, but now there was a new shade of theological meaning; coins issued in posthumous celebration of imperial ladies show their chariots beckoned up to heaven by the hand of God or Elijah.

The reigning emperor, unlike those who were dead and consecrated, had never in his lifetime officially become a god. But his status was a good deal more than human. For as the Olympians increasingly failed to satisfy religious aspirations, the ruler gained in stature at their expense. Before Rome had possessed emperors, the Greek monarchies which succeeded to the heritage of Alexander the Great saw their monarch to be a deity – and indeed the most efficacious of them all, because he was present in the flesh(epiphanes) and could therefore be of some use. Following these and other regional and historical traditions, people throughout the Roman empire likewise thought of their ruler as some sort of a divinity.

Caligula let his godhead be inferred, for example when he dressed as Mercury; and the theme of comparison with this or that Olympian was re-echoed for hundreds of Augusti by a million flattering tongues and pens. As the imperial role became more and more autocratic, informal ascriptions of divinity to the reigning monarch grew in frequency and explicitness. Things pertaining to him had already for some time been described as Sacred. The mint, with its vital responsibility of supplying money for the army’s pay, was called by this epithet early in the second century AD.23 A hundred years later, an imperial pronouncement is described as sacrae litterae.24 There was also increased emphasis on the Perpetuity and Eternity of successive rulers, and the frontality of their representations on reliefs had divine implications (p. 88). Yet for centuries the official coinage, while offering every other conceivable form of adulation, scrupulously refrains from declaring the living emperor to be a god. He was never named divus in his lifetime, and it was not until the later third century that a few rare issues of Serdica (Sofia) in his homeland call Aurelian deus. But that was an untypical isolated flight of fancy (of. p. 279, n. 20); the empire was not a theocracy.

The most frequent and nearest approach to hailing the ruler as a god was to compare or identify him with one of the gods. A preferred model was Hercules, who embodied many of the chief ideas of enlightened monarchy and had himself, after death, supposedly risen to heaven because of his great deeds (p. 168). Trajan, of Romano-Spanish origin, was devoted to the gods of Gades (Cadiz) and particularly to Hercules Gaditanus, whom he emulated as conqueror of barbarians and the world. Hadrian saw Hercules as the pioneer and forerunner of his journeys; Marcus Aurelius interpreted him as the prototype of self-sacrifice and devotion to humanity; and Commodus, the last of the line, gathered together all the threads and identified himself publicly with Hercules, whose lion’s skin he wears in portraits on his coins. Much to the disapproval of Dio Cassius, Commodus loved Hercules’ occupation of killing animals25; like many a Persian and Parthian monarch and Alexander the Great and his own predecessors, he was the Royal Huntsman. A coin which shows Commodus attacking a lion is inscribed ‘to the Courage of the emperor’ (VIRTVTI AVGVSTI), for the ruler’s daring in the hunt symbolises military victory, and the slaughtered beasts stand for the powers of evil.26 The last bronze medallions of the reign boost his role as Hercules, and this was also made prominent in army shrines. The terms ‘conqueror’ and ‘unconquerable’(victor, invictus), which henceforward become official designations of the ruler, again imply a comparison with Hercules, and with Alexander the Great as well.

Commodus used to appear dressed as other gods also. His coins present a dedication to ‘Jupiter the youthful’ ( IOVI IVVENI), and in order to point this comparison the god is endowed with the imperial features. Similarly, on the Arch of Septimius at Lepcis Magna, the emperor’s Triumph no longer leads him to Jupiter on the Capitol; in his own person, he is not only the victorious general but Jupiter as well. Although emperors were not officially deified in their lifetimes, there was now little more that could be done to emphasise their elevation to the rank of the gods.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly spiritual age, these pretensions began to ring false. In spite of the ruler’s growing autocracy and magnificence, he was not the same as the quasi-monotheistic transcendent divine power in which people of this epoch believed (p. 163). And so while the adulation of reigning Augusti continued and intensified, a different and indeed contradictory interpretation of their relationship with the deity gained ground. This was the idea that the emperor was not one of the gods, but was instead their favoured and chosen delegate and regent upon earth. Such a belief went back to ancient Persia, where Darius had declared ‘by the grace of Ahuramazda, I am king’27; and the Parthian and Sassanian monarchs whom Rome saw beyond its eastern borders maintained that they, too, were the gods’ elect. The conception was familiar in Egypt; and Semitic countries had likewise seen their rulers as messenger or angel (mal’ak) of the deity, borrowing his character, becoming his emanation and substitute, and rising to his lofty height. Similar ways of thinking are found in the Iliad, in Plutarch’s biographies of Roman kings and leaders, and in Greco-Roman theories of divine monarchic right.28 The success of Roman emperors had always been attributed to heavenly guidance, and the view gained ground that, whatever their own qualities, they needed this guidance in order to prosper.

Thus a medallion of Marcus Aurelius shows him as a minute form standing beside Jupiter’s huge figure. Commodus, too, when not identifying himself with the gods (p. 170), claims them as his protectors. Jupiter is not only made to resemble the emperor but is described as the defender of his safety. Commodus not only identifies himself with Hercules but calls him his Comrade or Companion (HERCVLI COMITI). From now on, coins and medallions increasingly concentrate on displaying the gods in this light – not, that is to say, as themselves, but as the patrons and protectors and comrades of the emperor. The divine comrade was a sort of double, a friend beyond phenomena. Godhead was one, there were many telephone lines, different switchboards; a comes gave you a private line.29Even poetical flatterers had sometimes recognised that there was a natural hierarchy in which the emperor, though superior to mankind, was below the gods.30 His higher position than mere humans was stressed by the epithets declaring his unequalled piety and good fortune (pius,felix), which first appear jointly in 184 and come to form an essential part of a ruler’s titles. But the emperor’s lower position than the gods is indicated by his heavenward look, which is also a feature of sculptural representations (p. 92). Pertinax(AD 193) shows Providence raising her eyes and hands to a star, and the head of the ruler is sharply upturned on portrait busts and medallions from the time of Gallienus.31 Man’s gaze into the skies had long been a Greek commonplace, and became a symbol of the aspirations of Alexander the Great; and Roman Republican coin-portraits may already have shown traces of the same heaven-directed emotion.32

This, then, was the spirit in which Aurelian, while describing the divine power as his consort (consors), explicitly rejects the deification attributed to him on one of his coins (p. 170); it was more in keeping with the spirit of the times to claim divine grace. The god, he said, had given him the purple and fixed the length of his rule,33 and his coins stress various aspects of the concord between the emperor and this divine power. It was again as elect of the gods, rather than as gods themselves, that Diocletian and his colleague Maximian attempted to renew and restore the pagan worship to which they had been devoutly brought up in their Balkan peasant homes. The endeavour was proclaimed all over the empire by coins and medallions, reliefs depicting pagan sacrifices and vows, and inscriptions. The publicity of Diocletian and his colleagues leans heavily upon the past; and orators pronouncing the eulogies of these rulers again assert that success comes by correct acts of worship. For the emperors were not, themselves, officially gods,34 but their dominion was the earthly counterpart of heaven. ‘We must practise ourselves’, says a writer of the time, ‘by praising earthly kings and so habituate and train ourselves for adoration of the deity.’35

The link was made still more explicit when Diocletian and Maximian founded their whole theology on the specific comradeship and protection which they received from Jupiter and Hercules respectively, and which led them to assume personal titles of Jovius and Herculius. Although there were later continuations and revivals of paganism, this was the last great official manifestation of the Olympian cults. But the culmination of this whole tendency to treat the emperor as the elect of pagan deities was reached under Constantine, when he devoted his coinage throughout the empire to proclaiming that his comrade was the Sun-god.

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