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CHAPTER II ROMAN RELIGIOUS CONCEPTS
Roman religious ideas were in many respects like those of the Greeks, partly because they were borrowed from the Greeks and partly because they were common to all the nations of the Mediterranean world. It may even be that some of these common forms are categories which the human mind by its constitution imposes upon some classes of phenomena, Grundideen, as ethnologists call them.[34] Among both Romans and Greeks we shall find deities sharply limited in their spheres, we shall find the religious act exhausted in the ritual communion, we shall find evanescent personalities among the gods. But all these things will be found in a far different degree, and at various periods many other matters will demand consideration which the Greeks did not know at all or knew to a slighter extent.

The differences in national development would of themselves require differences of treatment. Greek religion grew up in countless independent communities, which advanced in civilization at very different rates. Roman religion was developed within a single civic group, and was ultimately swamped by the institutions with which it came into contact. Again, it is much more necessary among the Romans than among the Greeks to distinguish clearly between periods. Roman political 41history passed through points of obvious crisis, and many institutions were plainly deflected at these points into quite new paths of development.

Real comprehension of Roman religion is a matter of recent growth. During the vogue of comparative mythology, the Roman myths were principally discussed, and the patent fact that these were mere translations from the Greek seemed a complete summing up of Roman religion. It is only when the actual Roman calendar, as recorded on stone during the reign of Augustus, came to be studied that the real character of Roman religion began to be apprehended.[35]

The results of this study have made it clear that during the highest development of the Roman state the official religious ritual was based upon pastoral and agricultural conditions that could scarcely be reached even in imagination. Propitiatory and dramatic rites carried out with painful precision, unintelligible formularies carefully repeated, ceremonial dances in which every posture was subject to exact regulation, all these things indicate an anxious solicitude for form that is ordinarily more characteristic of magic than of religion. Now, magic and religion have no very definite limits in anthropological discussions, but most of those who use the terms will probably agree that magic is coercive, and religion is not. We shall see at various points in Roman religion that a coercive idea was really present in the Romans’ relation with the gods, and that it followed in a measure from the way the gods were conceived.[36]

42The personality of the Greek gods was not so sharply individualized as the myths we happen to know would indicate, but the gods were persons. That is, during the act of prayer and sacrifice there was conjured up in the mind of the worshiper a definite anthropomorphic figure, who dealt with him somewhat as a flesh and blood man would do. But what was present in a Roman’s mind in very early times—those of the kingdom and the early republic—was probably not at all like this. The name of his deity was often an abstraction, and even when this was not verbally the case, the idea was an abstract one. And this abstraction had so little plastic form that he was scarcely certain of the being’s sex to which he addressed words of very real supplication, and wholly uncertain what, if any, concrete manifestation the god might make of his presence.[37]

But it will be well to understand that this abstraction, which the Roman knew as Salus, or Fortuna, or Victoria, was not a philosophic achievement. It was not a Platonic “idea.” No one could doubt the fact that in times of danger safety was often attained. The means of attainment seemed frequently due to chance; that is, to the working of unintelligible forces. It was to evoke these forces and set them in operation that the Roman ritual was addressed, and whether these forces acted of their own mere motion, or whether the formularies contained potent spells, which compelled their activity, was not really of moment. That was the nature of the “abstraction” which such words as Fides, Concordia, and the rest signified to Roman minds.

43In the early days a great deal of the religious practice was borrowed from the Etruscan neighbors, conquerors and subjects of Rome. The Etruscans, as far as anything can be said definitely about them, were especial adepts in all the arts by which the aid of deities, however conceived, could be secured. How much of actual religious teaching they gave the Romans, that is, how far they actually influenced and trained the emotions which the sense of being surrounded by powerful and unaccountable forces must excite, is not yet determinable. But they gave the Romans, or increased among them, the belief in the efficacy of formulas, whether of the spoken word or of action.

Although most of the Roman deities were abstractions in the sense just indicated, many others and very important ones bore personal names. These names could not help suggesting to intelligent men at all times that the god who bore one of them was himself a person, that his manifestations would be in human form, and that his mental make-up was like their own. Genetic relations between themselves and the gods so conceived were rapidly enough established. It is very likely, too, that some of these deities, perhaps Jupiter himself, were brought into Italy by kinsmen of those who brought Zeus into Greece, although the kinship must have been extremely remote. And when the gods are persons, stories about them are inevitable, arising partly as folk-lore and partly from individual poetic imagining. There are accordingly traces of an indigenous Roman or Italic mythology, but that mythology was literally overwhelmed, 44in relatively early times, by the artistically more developed one of the Greeks, so that its very existence has been questioned.[38]

The openness of the Romans to foreign religious influences is an outcome of a conception, common enough, but more pronounced among the Romans than anywhere else. In most places the gods were believed to be locally limited in their sphere of action, and in most places this limitation was not due to unchangeable necessity but to the choice of residence on the part of the deity. Since it was a choice, it was subject to revocation. The actual land, once endeared to god or man, had a powerful hold upon his affections, vastly more powerful than the corresponding feeling of to-day, but for either god or man changes might and did occur.

Both Greeks and Romans held views somewhat of this kind, but the difference in political development compelled the Roman to face problems in the relations of the gods that were not presented to the Greeks. Greek wars were not wars of conquest. They resulted rather in the acknowledgment on the part of the vanquished of a general superiority. With barbarians, again, the struggles were connected with colonizing activity, and, when they were successful, they resulted in the establishment of a new community, which generally continued the ancient shrines in all but their names. Roman wars, however, soon became of a different sort. The newly conquered territory was often annexed—attached to the city, and ruled from it. To secure the lands so obtained it was frequently found necessary to destroy the city of which they were once a 45part, and that involved the cessation of rites, which the gods would not be likely to view with composure. The Romans drew the strictly logical inference that the only solution lay in bringing the gods of the conquered city to Rome. The Roman legend knew of the solemn words with which the dictator Camillus began the sack of Veii: “Thou, Queen Juno, who now dwellest in Veii, I beseech thee, follow our victorious troops into the city that is now ours, and will soon be thine, where a temple worthy of thy majesty will receive thee.”[39] But besides this legendary incident, we have an actual formula quoted by Macrobius from the book of a certain Furius,[40] probably the contemporary of the younger Africanus. The formula, indubitably ancient and general, is given as Africanus himself may have recited it before the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.E., and it is so significant that we shall give it in full:

Whoever thou art, whether god or goddess, in whose ward the people and city of Carthage are, and thou above all, who hast accepted the wardship of this city and this people, I beseech, I implore, I beg, that ye will desert the people and city of Carthage, that ye will abandon the site, the consecrated places and the city, that ye will depart from them, overwhelm that people and city with fear, dread, and consternation, and graciously come to Rome, to me and my people: that our site, our consecrated places, and our city be more acceptable and more pleasing in your sight, and that ye may become the lords of myself, the Roman people, and my soldiers. Deign to make known your will to us. If ye do so, I solemnly promise to erect temples in your honor and establish festal games.[41]

What might happen as an incident of warfare could be otherwise effected as well. We have very old evidence of the entry of Greek deities into the city of 46Rome. The Dioscuri came betimes; also Heracles and Apollo, both perhaps by way of Etruria. And in historical times we have the well-known official importation of the Great Mother and of Asclepius.[42]

These importations of Greek gods were at the time conscious receptions of foreign elements. The foreign god and his ritual were taken over intact. Greek modes of divine communion, notably the lectisternium, or sacrificial banquet,[43] and the games, were adopted and eagerly performed by Romans. When Rome reached a position of real primacy in the Mediterranean, the process of saturation with foreign elements was accelerated, but with it an opposition movement became apparent, which saw in them (what they really were) a source of danger for the ancient Roman institutions. The end of the second Punic war, approximately 200 B.C.E., shortly after a most striking instance of official importation of cults, that of the Phrygian Cybele, particularly marks a period in this respect as in so many others. From that time on, the entry of foreign religions went on apace, but it was somewhat surreptitious, and was carried on in the train of economic, social, and political movements of far-reaching effect.

When the Jews came in contact with the Romans, this point had been long reached. As far, therefore, as the Jews were concerned, their religion shared whatever feeling of repulsion and distrust foreign religions excited among certain classes, and equally shared the very catholic veneration and dread that other classes brought to any system of worship.

47The former classes correspond roughly to those of educated men generally. Their intellectual outlook was wholly Greek, and all their thinking took on a Greek dress. But they received Greek ideas, not only through Homer and Sophocles, but also through Plato and Aristotle. Not popular Greek religion, but sophisticated religious philosophy, was brought to the intellectual leaders of Rome. One of the very first works of Greek thought to be brought to Roman attention was the theory of Euhemerus, a destructive analysis of the existing myths, not merely in the details usually circulated, but in respect to the fundamental basis of myth-making.[44] In these circumstances educated men adopted the various forms of theism, pantheism, or agnosticism developed by the Greek philosophical schools, and their interest in the ceremonial of their ancestral cult became a form of patriotism, in which, however, it was not always possible to conceal the consciousness of the chasm between theory and practice.

The other part of the Roman population, which knew Greek myths chiefly from the stage, could not draw such distinctions. What was left of the old Italian peasantry perhaps continued the sympathetic and propitiatory rites that were the substance of the ancient Roman cult. But there cannot have been a great number of these. The mass of the later plebs, a mixed multitude in origin, could get little religious excitement out of the state ritual. What they desired was to be found in the Oriental cults, which from this time on invaded the city they were destined to conquer.


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