Roman Religion in Antiquity
There are few topics today as hotly debated and as historically violent as religion. In ancient times the shift from polytheism to monotheism in terms of the way in which the world worshiped gave rise to events such as the Inquisition and the Crusades in the name of converting the world to a single religion. In the name of other monotheistic religions, people have imposed upon themselves stoic deprivations of food, drink, comfort, and the like. Great masses have been murdered and tortured in the name of religious ideals or a god. This is the nature of the world in which monotheism requires a type of perpetual and stoic purity that requires adherence to a single god form, precluding all others. The general perception today is that the polytheistic religions, like the one in Rome, were vastly different from the three monotheistic world religions in the world today. And indeed, this is true. When considering the shape and form that gods took in early Rome, it is clear that there was a vastly different paradigm to view religion, gods, and the individual's personal relationships with these, the modern faithful might do well to learn from the general viewpoints the ancients used to worship their gods and used religion to inform life.
Early Roman Religion
According to Bear, North, and Price
, early Roman religion was traditionally based upon the history of Rome itself. Yet, many writers also recognize that this religion is based upon tradition that date back even earlier than the foundation of the Roman city. King Evander, for example, established rites in honor of Hercules and other Greek styles of worship. This accounts for the relative integration of Greece in Roman culture.
Indeed, Virgil's epic the Aeneid, offers an account of Aeneas who visited the city that was to become Rome. The Roman race was to be founded from the Trojan race after their defeat by Greece. The Trojans brought with them the Trojan gods, but were also influenced by their conquests and the traditions among which they lived in the evolution of their early religions.
In the second volume of their work on Roman religion, the authors mention the interesting facet represented by the theory that anthropomorphic deities were a secondary development of religion, where the initial form that divinity took was generally animistic
. A further theory was that this is the basis upon which a thorough understanding of original Roman religion should be built; that it "atrophied," as it were in the animistic form, with anthropomorphic god forms generally adopted from the Greek religion. The authors, however, deny this on the basis of the ancient Latin language, which indicated that divinity was, indeed, regarded in terms of the human form.
When the above information from the first volume, it is clear that the Roman concept of divinity has been far more complex than the mere animistic almost from its inception. Hence, while animistic elements may have been present, what evidence exists seems to exist that the divine has taken human form for the Romans themselves even while the young Empire's religious paradigms were influenced by external cultures and forces.
What is furthermore interesting about the Roman religion and its gods and goddesses is the extent to which they were part of human life at the time. This created for the average Roman of the time a kind of reality in terms of the integration of life with religion that is not as evident in religion today. The Roman religion has a deity for almost every part of human life, as well as all areas of philosophy and abstract thinking. Roman warfare was one of the areas ruled by divinity. Several gods and goddesses were, for example, associated with the vows, rituals, and sacrifices made during times of war
. Indeed, many of these gods took a significantly personal part in the rituals, where they were depicted in works of art as standing next to their supplicants or supporting them in such way. Although the divine was seldom credited with any personal part in wars and other human affairs, they were asked for support and credited with such when matters were successful.
As the Roman religion developed, the Gods even evolved to form part of entertainment and humor, which are clearly exclusively human attributes. The god Mercury offers an example of this. In the play Emphitryo by Plautus, the god is portrayed in a light, humorous way, implying that he would oversee the smooth...
However, according to Beard, North and Price, this was not the case. Indeed, the authors note that the lines between the different deities and their divine concerns were much less clear than popular perception would suggest.
As a result, many of the deities that had less clearly defined personalities, remained outside of the surviving legends and myths that have captured the imagination of the Western world for so many centuries. The Lares, for example, were the protecting spirits of place, where important living or traveling spaces were to be protected or blessed. This includes places such as the home, the crossroads, the city, and so on. In this, they played an important part in the Roman conception of the importance of space, especially in the home as representative of the state and politics on a micro-scale. Gods were therefore as important to the Roman world as their rituals of daily life, such as education, politics, and warfare.
When compared to modern-day religion, it is true that many religious adherents find the hand of God in all areas of life, from searching for work to the safety of their children and the daily ritual of education, eating rituals, and the like. Despite the fact that there are many and significant differences between the early Roman religion and the religious affiliations we find today, this is an important commonality if one were to draw parallels and learning paradigms between the religious adherences and affiliations.
In terms of ensuring the well-being of the people, many Roman deities were associated with agricultural activities, such as Robigo, a destructive goddess who personified mildew on growing wheat. To appease her, a festival was held in April.
In today's religious ritual, the monotheistic God contains both the benevolent and potentially destructive qualities embodied in the various Roman deities. To appease their God, the Israelites of the Old Testament, for example, had to give a portion of their wealth on a regular basis while also offering sacrifices and rituals. Even today, Christians give tithes to the church under the assumption that this will ensure God's continued benevolence and concern for their well-being.
There is therefore a particular parallel between the Roman conception of their gods as having a particular interest and concern for the well-being of humanity, while also interacting with their gods to ensure continuing divine benevolence, and the way in which the monotheistic God is perceived by his devotees today.
Debates and Disregard
The rise of Christianity during the early centuries after Christ in the late stages of the Roman Empire resulted in a complete disregard for any of these parallels, even resulting in the ridicule of the ancient religions by devotees of what was regarded at the time as the "true religion." Nevertheless, it is also true that debate and argumentation formed part of the Roman religious mindset since its earlier times. During earlier times, however, this type of debate took a much friendlier, more open tone than the later forms of debate did. Perhaps Beard, North and Price
had a point when they claim that the early Roman religion was so far from what today's religious adherent considers appropriate worship that it is all but useless to apply our current concepts in such investigations.
Today, the monotheistic religions tend to have more in common than is acknowledged by their individual adherents. These similarities are disregarded drive towards assuming that only the religion in question is the "true" belief system.
This is not paradigm that Roman religious adherents clung to. Indeed, there was no sense of exclusivity when it came to the adoption and incorporation of foreign gods into the Roman lore. This is perhaps the second most fundamental difference between the generally monotheistic concept of divinity that prevails in the world today and the polytheistic religion in Rome. According to Beard, North and Price, this could often even take the form of incorporating enemy deities into the pantheon. Indeed, this was a "constant" occurrence, according to the authors. When an enemy was conquered, the gods of the new territory were generally incorporated in the Roman religion. Roman soldiers even went as far as monopolizing the power of the local enemy god by means of sacrifice and prayer to gain its protection and deprive…
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