Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Complexities of Roman Religion

The face of religion in Ancient Rome was complex and dynamic. Though the state religion, based on the Greek model, was pervasive throughout the empire, the worship of the Olympians was hardly the only religious practice. To understand religion in the Roman world, you must forget much of what you know about religion today. Religion in the modern sense (in regards to Christianity, Judaism and Islam) is based on sacred texts which dictate moral dogma to the religion's followers and requires those followers to perform codified rituals. The latter applied to religion in Ancient Rome, but no the former. There were no sacred texts in Roman religions and moral behavior was not dictated by religion. Instead of following a certain dogma in order to gain eternal salvation, worshipers in the Roman Empire viewed religion as a means to appease the gods. The gods were seen as fickle and their power unlimited, so placating them was in man's best interest. The purpose of religion was as a safeguard for society; making the gods happy, through sacrifice, prevented them from reigning down wrath upon man. If the gods were happy, man was happy, and if the gods were especially pleased, certain gods might be extremely generous with their benevolence.

There certainly were moral lessons to be learned in Roman religion, but the ultimate goal was somewhat different when compared to modern religions. In the "big three" religions of today, adhering to the moral code laid down by your respective religious text not only benefits you and your fellow man, but is your ticket to paradise. Not so in the ancient world. In the view of Romans, everyone went to the Underworld. Only the most wicked or hated mythological figures went to Tartarus and experienced Hell as we know it. The Underworld was not Heaven as we think of it. Elysium was the island in the Underworld where heroes and virtuous souls spent eternity, but it must be reiterated that Roman religion did not promise a paradisical afterlife. How a Roman acted in day to day life didn't matter when he was dead. The moral lessons inherent in Classical mythology were concerned with the present; offend the gods and they will exact revenge on you. Being a productive member of society was the goal of moral lessons both then and now, but the rewards differ greatly.

Finally, monotheism is the most prevalent type of religion today; in the Roman world, polytheism was the rule. Not only was the state religion made of up dozens of gods, but there were many other religions that people followed in addition to their obligations to the state. Some notable examples from the Greek world include the cults of Dionysus and Demeter. The word "cult" has modern negative connotations and can be misleading when applied to ancient worship, but its use is standard. Both Dionysus and Demeter were long established Greek deities, but their worship was outside of the standard religious practices of both the Greeks and Romans. So called foreign cults were also prevalent in the Roman world. The Egyptian goddess Isis became very popular (see article below) and the worship Mithras from the Near East also flourished. As the Roman Empire spread, soldiers took the state religion with them, but also adopted local gods into their worship, so in far off places like Gaul or Britain, it was not uncommon for Jupiter to be worshiped along side some minor local deity. The Romans also added dead emperors to their list of gods and in some parts of the empire the living emperor was worshiped as divine. So, not only were the Romans polytheistic, they also incorporated other religions into their own or worshiped other gods along side their traditional tutelary deities.