When considering religion in ancient Rome and Roman attitude to the gods it is worth starting with a glimpse of what Romanisation meant to the people they invaded and colonised in terms of religion and cult: Expansion of the Roman empire did NOT mean expansion of roman religion in the same way that we may perceive for Christianity or Islam spreading in the wake of their empires. The Romans gave freedom of cult to the people they conquered. Romanisation was accompanied by (yes) colonisation and investment, even in exporting the Capitoline triad, but not accompanied with prohibition of existing cults – so long as they didn’t impair the roman state as such.
Charters would be set up to give the cities a degree of autonomy and a clear legal structure to abide by. Magistrates would be elected. Good examples of this can be seen at Pompeii (see Pompeii Religion) and Osuna (in Spain, from whence we have a complete charter). Another good example was the refounding of Carthage, also in the 1st century BC. What is noteworthy is that the cults introduced were a mix of Roman and local cults as were the forms of worship so that, within Carthage say, the specifically Carthaginian character was allowed to develop and so fitted a civic identity which was both Roman as well as local. This in turn reinforced a degree of local identity. The Romans applied to others the rules they applied to themselves: freedom of cult and openness to make the cults of others their own.
This brief consideration of the attitude of the Romans with respect to the deities does much to colour our understanding of their behaviour with respect to the deities of others, as well as help understand the deep split Christianity caused (or at least represented) in Roman society.
Changing attitude to religion in ancient Rome:
Religion in ancient Rome saw the same profound change as the empire itself: The deities were largely of Indo-European origin, similar in essence to those of Greece and the Orient. New deities such as Bacchus (Dionysus) were imported from the Eastern trade routes.
Within the early days of the city, when Rome was ruled as a monarchy, the relationship between ruling class and religion was fundamental as a means of legitimising the king’s decisions. Times of particular danger and particularly arduous decisions would be aided by signs from the gods, as read by fortune tellers. A fundamental example of this strong link between divinities and rule was king Numa Pompilius who married the nymph Egeria and was inspired by her to implement the foundations of Roman religion. She would give counsel and prophesy in exchange for libations. In fact she is said to have given the king a set of books which contained prophesies and which the king took with him to the grave only to be dug up again and conserved by the roman priesthood.
In the earliest days of the Rome, as with so many other cultures, the priesthood were also the holders of justice and law (divine law!) With time the role of the priesthood and of the deities was relegated to its own (religious) sphere, particularly as an increasingly well structured legal system took shape. Nevertheless there was always a strong link between the deities such as the Capitoline triad and the state. Roman legions marched behind the standard of Jupiter.
It was with the advent of the principate (Empire) that the emperor began to draw upon himself all spheres of power, and so too religious justification for his personal position. This model was somehow successful in the eastern half of the Roman empire, but unable per se to stem the fall of the Roman empire in the west.
Emperor and divinity became increasingly linked, at least within propaganda. From Julius Caesar onwards it was customary for roman leaders to become divinities after their death, born to the heavens by eagles. By the time of Emperor Nero the emperor was considering himself already a living quasi-divinity and this caused the inevitable clashes with monotheistic religions such as the Christians.
As the fortunes of the empire progressed so the economic condition of the nobility improved at the expense of the plebeians and ever greater numbers of people looked for answers alternative to those of the early Roman pagan gods. New religions came from the east, such as that of Christ and of rival “mystery” religions such as Mithras.
There are a number of interesting observations when considering Christianity and the Roman empire:
- The evolution of religion in ancient Rome, from a polytheistic to monotheistic state
- The ability of both the Christian church and of the Roman empire of combining timeless events with historically certain facts.
- An example of this would be Virgils Aenid – Romans as descendents from Aeneas and the Trojan war, his landing in central Italy intermingled with real places and readily identifiable ancient artefacts such as Hercules great altar on the forum Boarium. Or Augustus building his villa at the Palatine over the Lupercal cave where Romulus and Remus were brought up by the wolf.
- Christ, his very real teachings, followers and the clearly identifiable events of his life and the ready link with the God of the jews, the bible (Old Testament) and predictions within it of a forthcoming judgement day.
- The shift in personal approach to religion, the relationship between the individual and divinity: the early divinities were beings who expected appeasement through libations, whimsical beings which might be open to a contractual relationship or punish you with misfortune (or a lightning bolt!) if you had offended them. The Christian God (indeed the Jewish God) was a being who expected a degree of personal moral conduct and unity with your “brothers and sisters” in exchange for eternal salvation. This shift is rendered complete with St Augustine’s book “City of God”.
As the empire and its influence fell, so the Christian priesthood had an increasingly active role in social and political life of the city, particularly when the city lost its political place. Governing power had removed to Byzantium – New Rome – Costantinople and the Christian church of Rome, headed by its bishop (the Pope) was pretty much the only organisation left standing capable of administering the meagre population and resources left as Rome entered the dark ages.
The evolution of religion in Rome from this point onwards is also of great interest: we should remember that at least until the fall of Rome in 376 the Christian church was very much distributed across the empire, including Constantinople (new Rome) on the Bosphorus (Turkey) with Bishops such as St. Ambrose in Milan, St. Augustine of Hippo (in Roman north Africa): bishops were essentially equals, perhaps some of them more equal than others, but they were essentially at a par, like the Apostles. The supreme religious leader though was one and the same with the emperor – pontifex maximus.
So it is easy to see that at some point in the early middle ages some very significant events must have occurred in the church of Rome:
- The Pope (bishop of Rome) somehow took over the role of “Pontifex Maximus” – supreme leader of the church from the emperor, by then relocated at Constantinople
- The bishop of Rome took over secular power of the city (ie administered the city, not just spiritual aspects). This was for many centuries justified through an apparent will left behind by emperor Constantine – since demonstrated to be a forgery – nevertheless Papal power in central Italy continued right through to the 19th century and to a degree persists with the Vatican state.
- This concept of the pope being divine holder of earthly and spiritual power was reinforced during the 9th century AD: on Christmas day of the year 800AD the Pope (Leo III) he took it upon himself to crown Charlemagne as emperor of the holy roman empire. This was a significant act because it underpinned Papal superiority – the church’s superiority over earthly powers. Charlemagne made great concessions in central Italy to the Pope and the church, hence consolidating the Catholic church’s physical and economic might in Italy and Europe.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church….”
- The Christian church was split into East and West, pretty much as the empire was. The great “schism” of 1054AD between what became known as “Catholic” and “Orthodox” churches lay, and continues to lie, around a single phrase within Matthew’s gospel in the New Testament: 16:18:
- The bishop of Rome (the Pope) took this to mean that the successor of St. Peter, ie the bishop of Rome, the Pope, was intended to be the foundation and leader of Christ’s church. The rest of Christianity, particularly Christianity based in the orient, where the seat of the empire now lay, considered and continue to consider this to be a twist of words and hence continued to practice Christian faith under the same structure which was in being during the Roman empire .
This page has given a very fast overview and summary of the religious context of ancient Rome through its rise and fall. In particular we have outlined how the place of religion within Roman society changed and transformed from the days of the early settlement through to the fall of Rome and the early Middle Ages. Many different aspect of ancient Rome’s religion have been covered in other pages, such as:
Much more may be discovered by looking at the further articles we have written about Ancient Roman religion, Ancient Roman Gods, Ancient Roman mythology….