No single, revealed religion dominated Ancient Rome.
Jews believe that Moses showed them the one God through his Law, Christians that Jesus is the way of the same one true Lord, Muslims that Mahomet interpreted the will of Allah, Lord of the Faithful, and with each of these monotheistic beliefs goes, as it were, a handbook whose assertions its believers would die for – the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran.
That the Romans had no one God, no one moral text, does not mean they had no religion. Not even the sophisticated, like Cicero, who had an opinion on everything, believed in the possibility of a Supreme Being directing the universe, be he like Robespierre’s short-lived invention motivated by Reason, or like the latter-day Jupiter, grumpily omnipotent; but gods they had a-plenty.
Our Romans were exposed to, and curious about, religious cults from the East – they detested what they knew about the Druids from Gaul, Germany and its think-tank, Britain – particularly Judaism, with which a few flirted, notably Poppaea, Nero’s extravagant lady, but it was two and a half centuries before an Emperor nailed the Cross, that unlikely symbol, to the standards of his soldiers. In the meantime Romans lived with, but never had to die for, their own gods.
They honoured, celebrated and sacrificed to, rather than regularly worshipped, a variety of gods including some who had been human, like Caesar and all our Emperors except Caligula and Nero. (Seneca wrote a satire about the reception of Claudius in the next world which was not kind.) The major Gods, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Saturn and Apollo, who alone kept his name, had been taken over from the Greeks and had splendid temples in the Forum, maintained by the state, while lesser deities were the responsibility of patrician families, who competed for the prestigious and occasionally profitable priesthoods, and the duties, mostly occasional and ceremonial, which went with them. Julius Caesar, who claimed for his gens Julia descent from Venus, was not best pleased when Marius, the First Man in Rome, his uncle by marriage, made him as a young man flamen dialis, priest of the cult of Jupiter, which honourable but invidious appointment debarred him from riding a horse, bearing arms and enjoying most delicacies. It was a malicious act. The awful old man, as he had then become, had spotted the boy’s talent and was jealous. Of course Caesar cheated, galloping his horse, Bucephalus, on the other side of the Tiber at dawn, but he had to wait for Marius’ replacement by his erstwhile protégé Sulla, the first dictator in Rome, to be released from his vows. Sulla, the least superstitious and most cynical of men, who nevertheless kept a little statuette of Apollo which he kissed in moments of crisis, arranged the affair through the technicality of Caesar’s child-bride (aged eleven) not being truly Roman by birth. (He had earlier refused the dictator’s demand that he divorce her on political grounds.) This episode shows how seriously Romans observed the form of their religion, however indifferent they were to the spirit.
Roman historians do not describe religious ceremonies any more than Macaulay retails the coronation of his hero, William III, and one would search Trollope in vain for an account of the liturgical activities of his ecclesiasts. In Rome they were an assumed part of life, unnecessary to record, but we do know that sacrifice of animals, in propitiation of the god, was a sine qua non of any service, the prize offering being a milk-white bull and the least a tray of cakes. (No Orthodox Jew could quarrel with this practice, since six pages of his current morning prayers detail the exact procedure for the slaughtering of animals and the sprinkling of blood on the altar, abandoned only after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and one day, he must hope, with the Temple, to be restored.)
Births, marriages and deaths, obviously, were celebrated by invoking the gods, but also various gods were separately appealed to for special effects. The danger of crop failure through blight, there being (happily, some would say) no pesticide in the ancient world, was a nightmare which had to be prevented by propitiating Robigo, the power of rust. Ovid writes how, returning to Rome one April, ‘a white-robed crowd blocked my path./A Priest was passing to the grave of ancient Robigo/to offer on the altar entrails of dog and sheep/I went straight to him, wishing to understand the rite.’ Ovid puts these words into his mouth:
Be merciful I pray, take your scabby hands off the harvest.
Do no harm; be content with the power.
Set your grasp on hard iron not on pliant crops; destroy the destroyer.
You’ll have better results from swords and lethal weapons; no need for them, the world’s at peace.
This gentle poem, infused with the spirit of the Augustan Age, tenderly idealizing bucolic procedures, like the Emperor’s altar, winsome and only half-reverent, is typical of a sophisticated Roman’s attitude to religion. All are happy, except a reddish brown dog which has its throat slit.
The Emperor Augustus was not himself particularly moral in his private behaviour, but publicly he was a prig. He was, like all Romans, superstitious, but he was not religious. However, he regarded the approval of the gods, as did the humbler of his subjects, as crucial to the safety and wellbeing of the state and would have nodded at Marx’s dictum that religion was the opiate of the people. He dosed them heavily. He revived the national day of prayer to the goddess Salus (Greek, Hygeia) and for the Festival of the Century, a well-documented affair, commissioned Horace to compose ‘a carefully scripted and well-composed hymn’ to be sung by choirs of twenty-seven boys and twenty-seven girls, all of whose parents had to be alive. It was a grand affair, lasting three days in a wooden theatre specially built on the banks of the Tiber, but everybody had to stand up, including 110 wives of free citizens and the Council of Fifteen, the high flyers of Rome, the relations and ‘friends of the Emperor’, descendants or ascendants of the consuls, generals and governors who had ruled, or would rule, the world. Augustus’ prayer was direct. ‘O Moirae [the Fates], I pray and beseech you to increase the power of the citizens, the people of Rome, in war and peace . . . grant for all time safety, victory and might to the citizens, the people of Rome . . . look with kindly grace . . . on me, my family and household, and that you may receive this sacrifice of nine ewe lambs and nine she-goats . . .’ and so on; for three days in June the blood flowed for the gods, and the flat cakes and pastry cakes and cup cakes were dutifully burnt. The Fates must have been listening. Augustus reigned for half a century and his dynasty supplied another four Emperors. M. Agrippa picked up the tab for the chariot races.
Augustus repaired eighty-two temples in Rome but never imposed any Roman cult, not even of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, on the provinces or on a defeated enemy. Trade, sometimes in the shape of carpet-baggers, followed the standards of the legions; missionaries never. There were no wars of religion in the ancient world; genocide (or ‘ethnic cleansing’) was unknown; controlled massacres occurred in extremis – for political or military reasons in Gaul, for instance, by Julius Caesar – but the motives were never religious.
Indeed part of the success of the Romans as imperialists was their tolerance, acceptance and even takeover of the gods of their enemies. Shrines to those of Carthage were erected in Rome after its destruction; the cult of Isis was condemned from time to time, banished by the austere Tiberius, restored by the exotic Caligula, and especially frowned on when Augustus had been propagating the line that his rival Mark Antony was a nice Roman boy seduced by the wiles of the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. But did not Antinous, much later, the beloved of Hadrian, drown himself in the Nile, as a sacrifice to the goddess, to protect the Emperor, or was he just losing his looks? The cult of Isis had been brought back by Roman soldiers from their Eastern campaigns and an illustration of there being one religion for the rich – essentially a belief in the divinity of the power of Rome – and many for the peasants, the proletariat, the rank and file of the army, is the story of the Consul Aemilius Paullus, who had to throw off his toga and take an axe to destroy a temple of Isis because no workmen could be found prepared to execute the decree.
Mithras was the focus of another seductive cult whose priests were adept at special effects and produced a textbook describing the mysterious power of rushing water in subterranean tunnels with mechanical contrivances opening and shutting doors. A more home-grown diversion, practised by some cults, was the propitiation of the god through the flogging of naked boys laid on the altar (the thick red line of the lash being, as it were, the logo of Ancient Rome).
Two systems of philosophy from fourth-century-BC Athens attracted the Roman élite, both so all-embracing that they encompassed religion. The Stoics, so called from the stoa, a painted corridor off the market-place in Athens, were inspired by Zeno, a Cypriot, who propounded views on every aspect of human thought from physics to epistemology (the theory of knowledge). Their like of abstract discussion was too highfalutin for Roman taste, which also failed to take to the equally influential Plato and regarded Greek thinking as unsuitable for the young; but Stoicism, modified by the grandee Seneca, Nero’s tutor and one of the richest men in Rome, and by the slave Epictetus, whose motto was ‘bear and forbear’, hit a chord in Rome because it seemed to answer the uncertainty and danger of the times. The Stoic message was gloomy. Men are weak and miserable in the face of evil, outward calamity is an instrument of divine training to be met with dignity and the contemplation of death (possibly by one’s own hand), self-discipline and respect for the dignity of the individual. Seneca at least practised what he preached in this respect (in other ways being far from moral), disapproving publicly of slavery and committing suicide in the classic manner.
Epicurus was a contemporary of Zeno, less ambitious and less passionate, whose gospel was salvation by common sense (and nothing else). This philosophy, at first shunned in Rome, was promoted by an amiable figure called Lucretius, of whom little is known, save that he did not die by his own hand after taking a love potion, as immortalized by Tennyson. In 55 BC he published a long poem, On the Nature of the Universe, which everybody read, especially Cicero. He dismissed divine providence and the immortal soul as illusions, sacrifices as absurd, maintained that all our knowledge comes from our senses and the world is fun as it is. The universe, he said, is boundless, nothing is created out of nothing, atoms are indestructible, but man, through greed, is exhausting the resources of the planet. (This was BC. Lucretius was a very early ‘Green’.) We must enjoy and rejoice in the manifold bounties of Nature, which we must study though we may never completely know. Who has ever heard the footfall of a midge?
Lucretius was a poet but he was also practical, warning against the use of dangerous beasts in warfare – ‘wild boars can turn on their employers’ – and the hazards of intense love between human beings. Here he is on sex (translated brilliantly by Ronald Latham, Penguin): ‘So, when a man is pierced by the shafts of Venus, whether they are launched by a lad with womanish limbs or a woman radiating love from her whole body, he strives towards the source of the wound and craves to be united with it and to transmit something of his own substance from body to body. His speechless yearning is a presentiment of bliss.’ The results of love are disastrous ‘. . . a hard-won patrimony is metamorphosed into bonnets and tiaras . . . entertainments, perfumes, garlands . . . to no purpose.’ Never mind, it will end badly ‘. . . perhaps he thinks she is rolling her eyes too freely and turning them upon another, or he catches in her face a hint of mockery’. One is reminded of Lord Chesterfield, a truly Roman figure, and his view of love-making: ‘The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, and the expense enormous.’
Romans took to religions from the East but they detested that of the Druids. As we have seen, Claudius panicked at the sight of a Druidic charm, a snake’s egg, in court; his troops, about to engage an army in Anglesey, were literally sickened at the sight of Druid priests sacrificing children to appease their gods before the battle – but they went on to win. That the Romans finally adopted Christianity, the most aggressive of the revealed religions, whose God came from one of their least respected provinces, with a Church of career priests, is one of the oddities of history.