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I have posted on this topic before, usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.
Ruler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.
The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.
The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.
Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.
In the 90s A.D., Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13) Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domitian exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 15).
How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.
What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?
Bibliography: Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).
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.
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.
Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.
First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical. If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.
“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead and of graves…At the end of the year, during the Parentalia (13-21 February) the dead of the household were collectively honored as divi parentu…. Food, salt, and wine were carried to the graves, which were decorated with flowers and wreaths. It is noteworthy that the Romans never transformed the cult of the di parentes into a cult of divine ancestors of the clan.” (Gladigow, 811)
Despite this, religious practice in the Roman could be personal. For example, the custom of honoring a sacred image by touching one’s hand to one’s lips (adorandi gratia manum labris admovere) not only in a temple but even when passing by a temple (ANRW 2/16/1: 579-80). But even this devotion was not required, there was no “proper liturgical practice.” This practice developed as an expression of gratitude alongside the generally obligatory sacra privata and sacra publica.
Prayers were a part of Roman religious practice. Some may sit at the feet of an image in prayer, telling their troubles to the god or goddess:
Propertius 2.28.46 I bind myself with a sacred verse against this wish: I write: ‘By Jupiter, the Mighty, the girl is saved’: having taken such pains, she herself can sit at your feet, and, sitting there, tell you all her troubles. (Translated by A. S. Kline).
Family prayers were more likely made to household gods rather than powerful gods like Zeus. For example, families would offering prayers of thanks to Penates, the god of the storeroom, for providing daily meals. The spirits of family ancestors (lares) could be honored at meals as well.
- Janus: God of doorways
- Forculus: protector of doors
- Limentinus: guardian of the threshold
- Cardea: goddess of the hinges
- Vesta: goddess of the hearth
- Potina: goddess of children’s drinks
- Sentia: goddess of children’s mental development
- Orbona: the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless
Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son. Although based on its Jewish roots, Christianity was a radical view and therefore generated suspicion and anger.
Bibliography: Burkhard Gladigow, “Roman Religion,” ABD 5:809.