“O Roman, you will be punished…..till you have rebuilt the temples and houses of the gods falling into decay and their images sullied with black smoke…” and later “A marriageable virgin rejoices to be taught Ionic Dances…and meditates from her very infancy on unchaste amours. Soon after marriage, she seeks after younger men…”
Certainly there was a difference in Roman morality and customs between the founding fathers of Rome of the fifth century BC and those who ruled the world five hundred years later. The discovery of Greek culture which had come with the taking of southern Italy and the wealth which came with the cheap slaves and grain after Carthage did much to mollify the customs of the once austere Romans. This also reflected itself in religion.
When the Greek captive Polibius was brought to Rome from Rhodes some 160 years before Horace he saw and recorded what in his opinion was a relatively solid religious tradition in Rome. This, in his opinion, was the basis of Roman superiority over other nations: According to him, that which in other nations would have been considered humble superstition was regarded in Rome as the foundation of the state. He also remarked about the great deal of ritual and pomp which the state itself encouraged so that the relatively illiterate masses might be held in check by their religious fear both in public and private life.
Polibius’ appraisal was most probably true in the earlier days of Rome at the time of the Kings such as Romulus and Numa Pompilius who believed in the signs to be read in the flight of birds or the entrails of sacrificed animals and instituted the first religious orders. King Tarquin the Proud (Tarquinius Superbus, 535-509BC) bought the three Sibyline Books written by a seer know as the Sybil of Cumae. The books were paid at a high price and were guarded in the Capitol and referred to for inspiration whenever the city was in great danger.
A thousand years later the city of Rome had gone through a myriad of customs and gods, some were of its own creation and others imported. The Roman attitude to foreign gods was very open so long as they didn’t go against Roman interest whilst the general attitude to religion was largely ceremonial. An individual would strike a bargain with a god very much as one would go to strike a mercantile bargain at the forum. Failure to follow the proper rituals could result in divine punishment.
Amongst this hotchpotch of religions there was Christianity which started as a decidedly minor cult but which slowly grew with time, especially when the old gods failed to improve Rome’s fortunes against the barbarian hoards pushing at its borders. At different times Christianity itself was blamed for Rome’s growing misfortunes. Competing against other cults such as Mithraism and the Apollo-Sun god “Sol Invictu”, Christianity finally won the day, destroyed other altars and single handedly led the citizens of Rome into the dark ages.
The hotchpotch of religions was actually rendered possible because the Indo-European divinities such as Saturn, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva could be regarded as being both international and local. This was achieved by creating local liturgy and ceremonies to fit local (Roman) culture and identity. Even the Roman individual could attend to both the public gods, which were part of his Roman identity and his personal gods, which formed part of his personal identity.
This leads us to ponder the fact that there was no general written base or theology. This allowed an enormous adaptability of the complete pantheon of foreign divinities to Roman needs and allowed them to be incorporated within the identity of “Romanity” as a whole.
The Old Testament on the other hand eliminated this flexibility and forced the monotheist Jews and Christians to denounce the flexible religious structure which acted as a glue of the cosmopolitan Roman identity. This set them apart or outside of the very State or indeed as a state within a state.
As the empire moved towards an increasingly autocratic rule focused on a single Emperor-God it is hardly surprising that the Roman authorities might see a threat in these renegade religions which refused to play ball and did everything to go against “Roman identity”.
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