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.

8 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?

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  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.

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