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Acquired Gods and Religious Authority

Like others, Romans saw themselves as a people blessed by their gods and their gods as extending benevolence only to them. And like others, they had numerous gods – gods representing every force of nature that they perceived. The supreme god of the Romans was Jupiter, a god of sunshine and rain, and most importantly He was Rome's protector. The Romans had a fertility god called Mars, who stirred the plants back to life in spring. And the connection between Mars and land suited another of his occupations: wars were often about possession of land, and Mars was also a god of war.

The Romans had a god called Janus – from which the word January derives. Janus was a god of doorways, including the gates at the walls of Rome. The largest temple in Rome was for the goddess Venus, the daughter of Jupiter. She was a goddess of vegetation, a bringer of good fortune and victory and the protector of feminine chastity.

Like others, the Romans had acquired much in religion through cultural diffusion, and like others they remained largely unmindful of such origins. It seems that the Romans acquired the gods Jupiter, Juno and Minerva from the Etruscans, and perhaps through the Etruscans the Romans acquired Greek gods. The Roman gods Mercury, Ceres and Diana resembled Greek gods, and the Roman god Hercules was a Greek god. With increased contact between Romans and Greeks, the Romans would identify their gods more with Greek gods. And the Romans would adopt Greek mythology to support their gods.

Religion for the Romans was not about their love for gods or of gods who loved them, nor was it about withdrawing from the present and waiting for a happy life in the hereafter. Religion for the Romans was about the here and now and the terrors that the gods could devise. For the Romans, devotion to the gods and pleasing the gods was a duty, an act of patriotism, an act of service and protection for the community.

The Romans believed that gods dwelled in places. When Rome was destroyed by the Celts (Gauls) in 390 BCE and the Romans were considering migrating elsewhere, the Roman Camillus made a speech describing such a move as abandoning their temples and their gods. "All things turn out well when we obeyed the gods," he is reported to have said, "and ill when we spurned them."

To serve the gods, the Roman government saw itself as the source of moral as well as legal standards. State priests attempted to appease the gods by carefully performed rituals and offerings. The welfare of the community was seen as affected by such virtues as discipline, soldierly courage, chastity among the women, and frugality, all of which were believed to please the gods. The Romans were afraid of displeasing the gods through some word or deed. And, to protect the community from the anger of the gods, soldiers took religious oaths against thievery. Olive growers took an oath against their conspiring with others to raise prices. Olive pickers took an oath against stealing olives. And those who handled public money took oaths against stealing. It appeared that religion would keep Rome on the path of virtue.

At the head of Rome's religion was the Pontifex Maximus, who, when the Romans threw off rule by an Etruscan king, replaced that king in this role. Under the Pontifex Maximus was a college of priests called pontiffs. They were officers of the government in charge of handling Rome's relations with the supernatural. It was their duty to keep the city on good terms with the gods by making sure that every important act of state was sanctioned by the gods, including relations with foreign communities.

Similar to the priesthoods of most other polytheisms, the Pontifex Maximus and his college of priests did not have the same concerns with heresy that would appear in the Middle Ages. What mattered instead of individual heresies, individual souls and ideas influenced by the devil, were the acts of people regarding rituals that protected the state.

During its first war against Carthage, Romans blamed a defeat on anger of the gods over misconduct by the Vestal Virgins. Rome discovered that two of its Vestal Virgins had had sexual relations with a male temple official. Roman authorities had one of the accused Vestal Virgins buried alive, and the other killed herself. Authorities had the accused male official beaten to death. Then Rome sent a representative to the oracle in Delphi to inquire what prayers and supplications might atone for the failure among the Vestal Virgins.

Priests were assigned to individual gods, and laws derived from myths governed the priests: the priest of Jupiter was forbidden to walk under an arbor of vines, touch a dead man, eat bread fermented with yeast or to go outside without his cap. That the state's priests were exclusively members of the aristocracy had its origins in earlier times – when the aristocracy believed that its interests alone were served by the gods.

Common Romans saw relations with their gods as personal. They saw their gods as guiding them through all kinds of matters, from birth to death. Each Roman household had its divine protector. And to this god they prayed – much as modern Christians pray while leaving ritual to their priests.

Rome's Senate held a lot of political authority, and Senators occasionally exercised their power concerning religious matters, making an accumulation of authority with the priests difficult and perhaps impossible.

Toward the end of the Republic, when Augustus Caesar became Rome's first emperor, in 27 BCE, he was also Pontifex Maximus. The emperor sacrificing to the gods became the foremost representation of ritual and in the popular mind the foremost expression of the relation between Romans and the divine.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.