Characteristics of Greco-Roman Religions

Roman religious thought is characterized by the syncretic thinking of the Roman people. They had little imagination and largely assumed the Greek gods with new names. Zeus, for example, is Jupiter in Rome. The three key gods of Rome, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno, were honored as early as 500 B.C. with a temple in Rome.

  • Jupiter was a city / state-god, Iuppiter Capitolinus. Consuls were required to sacrifice upon entering office. When a young man first wore his toga virilis (toga of manhood) he sacrificed to Jupiter. The ludi Romani were devoted to him and the triumphal parade of a victorious general led to Iuppiter Capitolinus.
  • Minerva developed from a Sabine goddess, although she is roughly equivalent to Athena. She was a virgin goddess who became the patroness of crafts, warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and the inventor of music.
  • Juno is Hera of Greek mythology, the wife and sister of Zeus. In early March she was honor with the festival of Matronalia, something of a mother’s day in which woman received gifts from husbands and daughters, and were to prepare the household meal.

Religion was administer by a collegia consisting of priests, although the priesthood was not a professional class. They were, however, the chief experts in matters of the gods. Religion in Rome was a matter of state, particularly in religious observance.

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

There are a number of important differences between Greco-Roman religions and modern religious practice. First, Religions in the Roman world were not usually exclusive. A person could devote himself to a particular god while recognizing other gods existed, or even worship various gods as needs arose.

Second, by the time of the Roman Empire, the identification of gods tended to reduce their numbers. Babylon and Egypt, for example, worship a wider variety of gods. The Greco-Roman trend was to reduce gods, blending multiple gods into a single deity. So, for example, all the “father gods” became Zeus. Although this seems like a trend toward monotheism, rarely would a Greek or Roman think in terms of a single god to the exclusion of all others.

Third, the Roman period tended to deify virtues, benefits, or abstract ideas, such as salvation (Salus) or liberty (Libertas), Luck (Tyche) and Fate (Moira). Even in Judaism, where monotheism was assumed, the angelic world was developed similar to the minor deity of the Greco-Roman world.

Fourth, the power of fate was very important in the early Empire. The idea of fate is critical to Stocism and was worshiped as a deity (Moira). Some religions developed, however, that claimed to have power over fate (Asclepius, Isis, Sarapis, for example). Since events were understood as somewhat “fixed” by fate, a belief in astrology became prominent. Astrology was rather technical, employing astronomy and mathematics.

Finally, morality was not closely tied to religion. Philosophy dealt with ethical matters, religion with the cultic ceremony. For example, there were few Greco-Roman writers who dealt with the religious problem of sin.

Once again, Christianity looks considerably different than most other religions in the Greco-Roman world. Although there were similarities to some mystery religions, the early Christians developed out of their Jewish foundations a distinctly different kind of religion in the Roman world.

Bibliography: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds to the New Testament, 173-176.

13 thoughts on “Characteristics of Greco-Roman Religions

  1. It’s interesting to consider the division between morality and religion in the Roman world in contrast to Judaism. While the Romans dealt with morality in a philosophy context, the entire platform of the Jewish faith was the law. The components of the law address morality and a code of conduct for the Jewish people, going far beyond ceremonial practice. The Jewish religion wasn’t simply a cultural practice, it was an entire way of life. The law applied to every part of a Jewish person’s life.
    With this in mind, there was certainly an understandable divide between Practicing Jews and participants in the Greco-Roman religions. The Romans couldn’t be expected to understand Jewish dietary restrictions and the Sabbath as practices, but the moral implications of religion would have been foreign to them. This religious difference between the two coexisting cultures helps us to understand the tension between them.

  2. As I ponder this concept of Christianity being different not just in practice but in thought it makes me wonder if that is what brought so many to it later on. Each god had a planet that corresponded with that deity, and each temple had a Roma eagle slapped in the temple next to the current god, maybe thats what made Christianity so popular. maybe the worst thing to happen to the church as that its power began to get to big and that everything was the way we said it was because we were the authority, and maybe its this contrast to cultures around us that has made it appealing to so many. Signing up to be a christian was the opposite of good salesmanship “sign up today and you could be fed to lions, or set on fire for the emperor for his garden, or just killed in your home”. maybe people realized they needed more.

  3. Foundations and fundamentals of Christianity now compared to Greco-Roman religion couldn’t be more dissimilar. For instance, the heavy significance that the Roman people had put on the power of fate is far from what a Christian would consider to be applicable to one’s faith…however, in contrast to that, a Christian may not put emphasis on the power of fate, but rather divine intervention. That is, something unusual or ironic may happen in the life of a Christian, but it wouldn’t be considered fate; it would most likely be considered “a call from God” or “the presence of the Holy Spirit”. Another major difference between the two religions is the concept of compartmentalizing philosophy and morality. For Christians, we are taught that no aspect of our life should be compartmentalized…every act, practice, behavior, or thought is all included in our walk of faith. It wouldn’t be “theologically correct” for a Christian to separate the roots and significance of philosophy from what the Bible considers to be moral or ethical. For the Romans, sin was separate from religion, and considered an ethical issue.

  4. I find it very important that all of the differences between the Greco-Roman religion and Christianity are highlighted quite clearly. I find it very interesting how some people can change how they view religion if they were to convert to Christianity from being Greco-Roman or vice versa. There are such distinct differences that it makes me wonder how people ever converted. How can two very devout religions allow their own people to change from one religion to another?

  5. It’s interesting how society has incorporated Greco-Roman religions into academic learning. I remember in sixth and eleventh grade in Literature/English class we had to read about Greek mythology and things of the like, somewhere in there referring to Greek mythology’s Roman counterparts. The gods of these cultures all had certain meanings or applications, representations, things that they stood for. There’s a striking contrast in ‘power levels’ in terms of these religious beliefs compared to Christian monotheism. Though it’s hard to link Romans to a religion because they were not religiously exclusive, and the greeks didn’t practice ‘religion’ in the way most people imagine religious practices.

  6. What do you think was the purpose of reducing groups of gods into a single deity in the Greco-Roman world? Was it simply for convenience? I learned quite a bit of new information about the Greco-Roman thought on gods from this article. I did not realize that matters of religion were separate from matters of ethics and morality, and it makes more sense to me after reading this why Christianity stood out as unique and sometimes offensive in its beginnings. It’s difficult for me to even wrap my mind around what religion would even look like without the inclusion of issues of morality, besides perhaps what you described as a series of cultic ceremonies.

    I’d be interested to learn more about what it looked like for Christianity to enter this scene and the offense that it must have roused. Reading some stories from the New Testament, I lacked this background and the Roman response seemed odd to me as I did not fully understand the background from which they were coming. I’d also be interested to learn more about the importance of fate in the Roman world. Why was fate considered so important and how did that effect the culture?

  7. I have never been interested in learning about the gods of other religions or cultures, especially the gods that the Romans believed in, but I do think that it can be important to learn about them to understand the people and culture of those living with the Jews and Christians. I find it interesting how similar some of the Roman gods were to the ones found in the Greek culture. This makes me wonder what some of the Romans thought about this and if they ever questioned how real their gods may be, not just in general, but because of their religion being so similar to the Greeks. Another thing that I find interesting in this is that the people were not very exclusive when it came to who they worshiped. Some may worship one of their gods, while others would worship a bunch of their gods. Something that struck me from the blog is that it says they would “worship various gods as needs arose”. I wonder just how devoted some of these people were to worshiping their gods and how much they truly believed or cared. If they only worshiped when they were in trouble or wanted something, it does not sound like they had a very good relationship with their god. Christianity is very different from the Roman religion because we do not have a bunch of different gods and we have a real relationship with God, which it does not sound like the Romans really had.

  8. I found it interesting that the beginning of the post said the Romans had little imagination. I think of the story of Romulus and Remus being raised by wolves. In my mind, that took creativity and imagination to come up with. It is true though that the Romans mostly drew from Greek gods and simply renamed them to fit the Roman world. Greek mythology is fairly well known and incorporated into many modern stories and works of literature. Roman mythology is much less well known, but so much of it draws off of the Greeks, simply with different names. Things like the Percy Jackson series is evidence of this, it focuses on Greek mythology, and parts of it incorporate Roman mythology, but even then, the story makes it clear that they are the same gods, just renamed to fit Rome. I thought it was interesting that the Romans would combine gods. I had never really heard much or any stories about Roman gods, so this was interesting. Even though they combined gods, they did not make it exclusive, they still worshiped mang gods. And though the Romans combined multiple gods into a single deity, they also had their own deities of abstract ideas, such as fate. While fate is an important immortal character in many stories and mythologies, Rome took it farther by treating fate as a deity. Compared to this, Christianity would definitely stick out. I had never thought about how different Christianity was from the religions that surrounded it. The Jews were always surrounded by other religions and people who worshipped other gods, but I had never thought about how different Greco-Roman religions were and how it would make Christianity look.

  9. The Roman people conceived of religion and the roles of gods much differently than how most modern societies construe them. The origins of many of the Roman gods were found in Greek mythology, as it was not uncommon for the names of deities to be changed from their greek identities to a new Roman identity. Additionally, many gods were assimilated into each other, reducing the overall number of gods. This practice was distinctive from many of the surrounding nations, as Egypt and Babylon did not tend to incorporate several deities into singular identities.
    Another difference between modern western religion and Greco-Roman religious practice is that, while the Romans tended to reduce the number of gods, they were not monotheistic in beliefs. They were not restricted to the worship of a singular god as Judaism was but rather were able to embrace notions of multiple deities and spiritual powers that coexisted with each other. This coincides with the lack of exclusive worship of particular deities in Greco-Roman culture, as most people worshipped as many gods as they desired or saw as necessary. This separates itself from modern western religion, which embraced Judeo-Christian monotheism as the standard for religious practice.
    Finally, there was a sharper distinction between morality and religion than in modern society, as the two concepts may have been considered separately. The moral realm was consumed by ethical and philosophical contemplation while the religious realm was more concerned with cultic ceremony and practice. Early Christian religion differs greatly from the Greco-Roman standard religious practice, as it interconnects the moral and religious realms while also promoting a monotheistic framework. This helps contribute to understanding why Jesus’s followers may have been considered with suspicion, being called “atheists” for not worshipping Roman gods and developing out of a Jewish framework that prioritized elements of monotheism and exclusivism.

  10. I find it odd that the Romans co-opted the Greek gods and changed them to be their own… what other time in history did this happen? What other cultures stole each others’ gods? A quick google search shows none others. If false gods and idols really do have spiritual presences behind them, then this could have significant implications for how those forces operate.

    By what criteria did the collegia decide who was an expert in the gods, and worthy of being a priest? It’s not like they had legitimate divine revelation as the Hebrews did, so what did it take to be considered an expert in something that didn’t exist?

    I can’t imagine being stuck in a religion that has no concept of divine love. It’s a huge mercy that God allowed us to be freed from such things. The Greco-Roman gods were worshipped purely out of fear and manic devotion; fear by the commonfolk who didn’t want to anger them, who only wanted the benefits they might grant, and manic devotion by the priests and oracles who encouraged the common folk.

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