Importance of Religion to the Romans
Importance of Religion for the Development of Senses of Roman Identity: Did Christianity Bring About the End of Traditional Forms of Romanness?
The religion of the Romans was not a singular one but a mixture of various religions. These beliefs were picked from the various nations that had been conquered by the Romans. Religion was fundamental in the daily lives of the Romans and contributed immensely to their sense of identity. The early civilizations were deeply rooted in religion, and the Romans were no exemption (Wilson, 2005). The Roman Empire leadership class rejected Christianity, and made efforts to kill it in its infant years in Rome. Christianity, which was monotheistic, became the official state religion after it eventually become dominant in the region, unlike traditional roman religions. However, Christianity did not stamp out the traditional practices of the Romans but rather adopted and adapted them as Christian rituals.
Religion in Ancient Rome
The religion that was practiced in ancient Rome encompassed beliefs and practices held by the Romans as well as those from various cults that were imported by the peoples under the Roman decree. They believed that the success they enjoyed in subduing foreign nations and increasing their power was due to having good relations with their gods. The ties between the roman religion and morality has been thought to be loose, but Hume (2015) is of the opinion that the religion of the Romans heavily influence their morality. The religious institutions of Romans can be traced back to Numa Pompilius (Várhelyi 2016; Silk, 2004). He was believed to have the power to commune with the gods directly and negotiate deals for the people. The religion he instituted was called the “way of the ancestors,” which appealed to the central identity of the Roman people.
Only the elite persons in the empire were allowed to become priests. The religion and the state in ancient Rome were demarcated just like in the modern forms of government. The phenomenon that made it seem that religion had a stake in the administration of the state was the pontiffs and augurs serving as elected public officials. The priests were very active in the society regarding politics and were required to marry and have families. An example of the personalities that were both religious leaders and influential political figures is Julius Caesar, who became Pontifex Maximus before his election as a consul (Várhelyi 2016). Augurs in the empire played the role of reading the will of the gods; they interpreted it to the communities. They also supervised the marking of boundaries in the empire. To them, these roles were a reflection of the universal order that was demanded by the gods (Sasson and Johnston, 2006). The Romans used this philosophy to justify their conquests, as they regarded their victories as destined by the gods.
Since the Romans regarded their conquests as divine interventions, they showed their appreciation to the gods after every win. For instance, military leaders made their piety known by dedicating a part of the loot from won battles to the gods (Witt, 2012). The most popular of the gods that were revered by the Romans was Jupiter, who represented a just rule. The Punic Wars were troublesome for the Republic, and the prevailing feeling was that lack of piety was the cause of this struggle (Halsted, 2009). The struggle led to the construction of new temples as a form of supplication to the deities to find favor and military success.
The relationship of the Romans and their gods was contractual. The piety of the people to the gods was rewarded with divine favors (James et al., 2009). There were no aspects of faith or dogma in this religion. Rather, it depended on practicing prayer, rituals, and sacrifices in the correct and recognized manner. Additionally, the religion was treated as a source of social order (Várhelyi 2016). Religion was part of daily life for the Romans, and each home had a shrine for prayers and libations for that particular place. Community shrines in the neighborhoods were also numerous, and they were located in various places in the empire. Natural features such as springs and groves were also considered sacred. The residents would demonstrate their piety to these shrines by bowing as they passed by, throwing a fruit offering or sitting for a while for meditation.
The Roman calendar had as many as 135 days devoted to festivals and games, and with their basis in religion. Religious practices were not limited to men, as women, children, and slaves too had significant roles to play in religion. Women only performed some public religious rituals. The important and active roles that were played by the women were represented by the many festivals and rites that were done in every stage of the female lifecycle (Pinheiro, 2015). Women also formed the most famous priesthood of Rome, which was the Vestal Virgins, an outfit that was supported by the state. These virgins were responsible for tending the sacred heart of Rome for centuries and were only disbanded after Christianity became the dominant religion in the region.
The Romans had numerous gods that they honored in their religious practices, and this was part of the reason why their religion was frowned upon by the early Christian polemicists. The Roman religion dominantly contained Greek influence, and this could be seen in various religious practices such as the cult of Apollo (Várhelyi 2016). Romans sought to have a common ground between their religion and that one of the Greeks. Latin literature was to incorporate adapted Greek myths and art later. Etruscan religion also influenced the religious practices of the Romans (Bittarello, 2009). The basis of this influence was historical rules of Etruscan kings in Rome.
There were foreign religions that would occasionally be imported into Rome. The initiates in these religions were given the promise of an afterlife. The roman authorities did not mind the encroachment of these religions and afforded the people the freedom of choice. Additionally, the people were required to follow family rites and participate in the primary religion before submitting to the foreign ones. The foreign religions had an aura of mystery around them and needed the initiates to take oaths and adhere to secrecy (Várhelyi 2016). The conditions given to the initiates plus the secrecy made the conservative Romans view these religions as a threat to the continuity of the empire. Furthermore, there were numerous instances when certain groups of cults would be suppressed if they were deemed to be a threat to the traditional morals and unity of roman people.
The religious policy of the Romans as they conquered other cultures in the Mediterranean was to absorb their deities rather than have the new nations abandon them. Roman leadership believed that allowing the conquered nations to preserve traditions helped in the stability of the empire. The state support that was given to various religions in the empires ensured that the people following them became incorporated well into the empire. This was done by adding the local deities of the conquered peoples to the hierarchy of Roman religion (Gersbach, 2015). Historical inscriptions made at the height of the empire reveal that in various places of the empire, local and Roman deities were worshiped side by side.
During the height of the empire, many gods were originally from the strange nations’, cultivated in Rome and then carried throughout the empire to even the most remote provinces of the civilization (Scheerlinck, Preat and Rey, 2016). Among the gods that were treated in this manner include Cybele, Epona, Isis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus (Várhelyi 2016). There was a salient tolerance when it came to religion because the Romans were not obligated to commit to only one god or cult (Humphries, 2016). In fact, the religious tolerance in this empire was impressive compared to the competing monotheistic systems that came up later. Judaism was the first monotheistic faith that the Romans came across, and it posed difficulties for the Roman policy on religion. A special exemption was granted for such faiths, but it usually led to conflicts later.
The Roman religion was flexible; therefore, it evolved to fit the needs of different emperors who came into power after the fall of the empire. The first emperor, Augustus, came up with a vast program of religious revivalism that was geared towards supporting and justifying the one-man-rule. The devotion of the people was now diverted from the republic and directed to the emperor (Várhelyi 2016). This resulted in emperor worship, a phenomenon that affected all the territories of the empire. From then onwards, the presence of Rome in its remote regions was characterized by Imperial cultism. It also offered a good avenue for the cultivation of a cultural identity and loyalty to the Emperor. Rejecting this state religion was regarded treason, and this caused a great conflict between Rome and Christianity. The Romans perceived Christianity as an atheist and superstitious cult.
The Church Fathers in 200 AD began to classify the various religions in the region as pagan. The influence of Christianity grew amid persecution and resistance from the residents and authorities in the empire. The 4th Century marked the domination of Christianity with the conversion of Constantine, who was the very first emperor to embrace Christian faith and make it the state religion of the empire. Additionally, the making of Christianity the state religion was made to the exclusion of all the others, and with it came the end of religious tolerance that had existed in the empire for eons. Imperial domination became characterized by Christianity monotheism (Várhelyi 2016). Despite many aspects of Rome’s original religion becoming discarded, many aspects of its rituals and beliefs influenced the practice of Christianity in time. Consequently, most of festivals and traditions of Christianity have their origins in the roman religions.
How Christianity Impacted Roman Religious Traditions
The first assumption made by the Romans after encountering Christianity was that it was an atheistic and disobedient sub-sect of Judaism. This sect was seen to reject all the other forms of religion, led the Romans to conclude that it must have been based on superstition. Additionally, Emperor Nero was not impressed by Christians and was, therefore, willing to blame them for the Great Fire of Rome that took place in 64 AD (Crotty 2012). Numerous Christians were executed later on. The main supporters of Christianity were powerless in the empire, which seemed to have no stake in the well-being of the roman state. Additionally, the proponents of Christianity were treated with hostility by the state, as the prevailing feeling was that they were a threat to its existence.
The elites in the Roman Empire practiced various forms of faith that included Hellenistic monism, Neoplatonism, and other traditional Graeco-Roman frameworks of religion. Christians were convinced that the various political and economic problems experienced in the empire were caused by the traditional religions (Yeomans, 2017). During this period, religious riots took place in Egypt, a fact that angered the emperor and made him demand that all subjects make sacrifices to the traditional gods as a form of penance. Failure to do that warranted a penalty (Crotty 2012). The Jews were favored by the emperor, as they were the only group exempt from the directive. The edict made by Decius was with the intention of uniting an empire that had been fractured socially and politically. Furthermore, the ancestral gods were not specified by name, and this gave the subjects enough room to exercise and fulfill that directive in a manner that was most comfortable with them.
The next emperor to issue out a religious edict was valerian, whose edict singled out Christians and their religion as a subversive foreign cult that was conceited. Christians were forbidden from assembling to worship and urged to make sacrifices to the traditional gods of Rome. The second edict stated that Christianity was a threat to the imperial system (Crotty 2012). Additionally, this was communicated to the senators and other high-ranking public officials in Rome. The emperor was later captured and died disgracefully (Yeomans, 2017). Christians interpreted the unfortunate events that happened to the hostile emperor as a form of divine judgment.
The next four decades that followed were peaceful, and this gave Christians an opportunity to form churches and grow stronger in the empire. Literature and theology on Christianity started to gain recognition among the intellects and elites in Rome. As more people became interested in the theology of Christianity, the literature on the religion was spread far and wide, as well the faith (Humphries, 2016). The various Christian churches at the time were disunited because of the varied school of thoughts held by their leaders (Crotty 2012). Christians managed to hold auspicious positions in the administration and military, but they were always held with suspicion by the other elites still holding onto the traditional faiths. Small indiscretions committed by the Christians in senior positions were met with severe consequences, while the same could not be said of their colleagues from traditional Roman cults.
In 303 AD, Diocletian came up with a series of edicts that were aimed at Christians. One of them ordered the destruction of all church buildings and Christian texts (Crotty 2012). This edict also forbade assembly and services by the Christians (Crotty 2012). Officials that were Christians were demoted, and freedmen that had adopted this religion were enslaved once more. Moreover, the legal rights of all Christians were reduced, and this was done in a bid to persuade them to abandon that faith (Stevenson, 2014). At around the same period, a group of Christians that was accused of conspiring to burn the palace was executed. The second edict was a threat to Christian priests that they would be imprisoned if they carried on with their faith bound duties. A third order offered the priests freedom if they desisted from doing Christian duties and performed sacrifices dedicated to the traditional gods of Rome. Finally, another edict followed, demanding sacrifice from all the subjects in the empire and was similar to the one that had been made by Dioecian.
The enforcement of the directives was sporadic and uneven. In some places, the imperial directives were enforced strictly. Christians who resisted the orders were either imprisoned or martyred. Some Christians compiled and saved themselves from the severe punishments. Additionally, there were communities predominantly Christian in the empire. For these communities, the authorities were a bit reluctant in the enforcement of the edicts (Stevenson, 2014). Galerius was the successor of Diocletian, and he continued with the ant-Christian policy till he asked Christians to pray for him on his deathbed (Latham 2017). This request meant that Christianity was now officially recognized as an essential part of the Roman Empire religions. The persecution of Christian abated, and St. Jerome claimed that the empire served as a defense against evil. He, however, thought that Imperial honors were not in line with the teachings of Christianity.
The peace that Christians began to experience from the emperors was acknowledged as peace coming from God. The Church then turned attention on ending internal strife and doctrinal schisms from within. The solution to this challenge experienced by the church came from unexpected quarters; that is, Pontifex Maximus Constantine I. He converted to Christianity and favored the Catholic Church as opposed to the Donatist (Paget, 2005). This was followed by an imperial directive, the Milan Edict in 313 AD, that there be mutual toleration between various religions in the region (Latham 2017). To the Christians, Constantine was seen to have triumphed under the sign of Christ. The Romans then proceeded to officially accept Christianity alongside their traditional religions (Latham 2017). The move to officially embrace Christianity helped Constantine gain favor from the Christians and Hellenic religions. The influence that he wielded with his position made him protect Christians from further persecution in the empire.
Constantine was kind to Christianity and funded the building of churches, inclusive of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Constantine wanted Christianity to become a unitary force (Latham 2017). He, therefore, promoted orthodoxy in its doctrine. Furthermore, numerous Christian bishops were summoned by Constantine to the First Council of Nicaea (Latham 2017). These bishops had the task of debating what was to be considered orthodox and what constituted heresy (Latham 2017; Paget, 2005). The consensus that was developed from the meeting was called the Nicene Creed, which lay a foundation for the dogma of the Church. Several decades later, and after some unsuccessful resistance, Nicene Christianity was declared the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Heretics and non-Christians were now subjected to persecution and exclusion just as Christians had been dealt many years earlier.
Religion was a key component of the identity of the Romans, despite the fact that many faiths and cults were practiced in the empire. The religious system that was prevalent in the empire was polytheistic, and this is why Romans were receptive to foreign faiths and gods. Moreover, each family in the Roman Empire had a household shrine. Therefore, many shrines were located all over the city and remote places of the empire. Initially, Christianity was met with opposition by the Romans, because of its monotheistic nature (Firdos, 2016). Consequently, Christians were prevented from practicing their religion and others were killed. Gradually, however, leaders of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity, and this led to the end of the oppression of Christians (Latham 2017). Although Christianity replaced all the other traditional religions of the Romans eventually, it was unable to erase the traditional rituals and beliefs of the Roman Empire people. Rather, they were adopted and incorporated into Christianity.
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