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Religions 11: What is Roman
Key concepts
Chronological overview
753 BCE: Rome’s foundation: Romulus
 753-509 BCE: Rome kingdom
 509-27 BCE: Republic: battle between plebeians and
patricians; Rome more powerful: expansion in Italy
 340-338: Italian War
 264-129 BC: three Punic Wars against Carthage
 Subjugation of Hellenistic world (from about 200
 168: Battle of Pydna: victory over Macedonia
 148: Provincia Macedonia
 146: Corinth destroyed
133-29: Rome conquers Pergamum (Asia Minor):
provincia Asia
91-89: Social War of Italian cities against Rome: they all
get Roman citizenship
88-79: Sulla restoration and dictator
60: first triumvirate: Crassus, Pompey and Caesar
58-50: Gallic conquest by Caesar
49-46: civil war, Caesar becomes dictator
44: Caesar killed
43: second triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavian and Mark
Antony: O. wins: battle of Actium 31, battle of Actium;
death of Cleopatra in 30
27 BCE (or 31): end of Republic, begin of Roman
Empire, with Augustus as Emperor; Empire until
Julio-Claudian emperors (27 BCE-68 CE): Claudius
conquers Britain
 Flavian Emperors (69-96): Vespasian, Domitian
 Nerva and successors (96-138): Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian;
Trajan conquers Dacia (Roumania) and Mesopotamia
 Antonines (138-192): Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius:
height of Empire
 192-284: military emperors, third-century ‘crisis’
 284-305: Diocletian
 306-337: Constantine the Great: Christian Empire
 284-602: Late Antiquity
 476: fall of Rome; East continues
Greek religion
hieros, hagnos,
hosios, hagios
sebesthai theous/ta
tous theous etc.
Roman religion
‘obligation with respect to the divine’
a. negative: ‘prohibition’, e.g. it is the religio
that non-initiates do not participate in the
mysteries of Eleusis (Livy)
b. positive: ‘prescribed ritual/customary
From second century CE on: religio comes
to mean ‘worship of a particular deity’
(personal relation with god and
commitment of way of life prominent)
Apuleius, Golden Ass 11.26: ‘I was a
constant worshipper, a stranger to the
temple, but at home in the religio’
 Appropriated by Christians: ‘the true
religio of the true God’ (Tertullian, Apology
 From this time on religio comes closer to
our ‘religion’
Words for gods:
- Theos/thea, deus/dea, plural theoi/theai, di
- Abstract ‘divine’: theos, deus
- Other abstract words:
a. daimon/daemon: less specific than theos/deus, hence
variety of entities between human – divine sphere,
‘spirits’, ‘souls’; in Christian times, it would get a
negative meaning through contrast with Theos/Deus
b. Heros/heros: more restricted sphere, tombs (Greek); in
Roman world more stretched out: Herakles/Hercules
became god, human benefactors could become heroes
c. Numen: vague (is there but exact identity
unclear) ‘divine power’, ‘divine will’
d. genius: guardian spirit of individual,
gradually wider scope: genius loci
e. Distinctively Roman: spirits of the dead as
quasi-divine beings: di manes
Dis manibus sacrum
Approaches to the divine
Varro (1st cent. BCE), three approaches
(theologiai = ways to think about the
the civil: civic/official/public religion
the mythical: Roman myth and
the physical: philosophy
1. The Civil
Rives discusses here cult = religious
rituals and practices employed in worship
NB: Bremmer discusses this under ‘ritual’
(what is this and what is difference
between the two?)
- Prayers: invocation – attention - request
- Sacrifice (see offering scene on next slide:
what is difference with Greek religion?)
- Vows
- Divination: interpretation of divine
Arch of Marcus Aurelius, Rome
Initiation/purification (NB: Bremmer lists
this under elaborate rituals)
2. Myth
Placing too much emphasis on myths:
Not central to Graeco-Roman religions:
- No canon
- Marginal to cult (see discussion myth –
ritual in Bremmer: myth only rarely
touches on ritual)
Too little emphasis on myths
Other idea is that myths had lost all religious
significance by Roman times:
- Shift from oral tradition to elite literature and
art; mythographies; however, not restricted to
elite: masses retained access, e.g. through art,
cultic practices etc.
- Criticism on myths; yet never entirely dismissed;
and others gave deeper meaning to myths (e.g.
- Ergo: kept religious meaning and significance
The gods
Kronos: Chronus/Saturnus
Persephone: Proserpina
Hades: Pluto
Demeter: Ceres
Poseidon: Neptunus/Neptune
Hestia: Vesta
Zeus: Jupiter
Hera: Juno
Apollo: Apollo
Artemis: Diana
Hermes: Mercurius/Mercury
Dionysos: Bacchus/Dionysus
Athena: Minerva
Ares: Mars
Aphrodite: Venus
Hephaistos: Vulcanus
Greek vs. Roman myth
Relation Greek-Roman myth, idea of Roman slavishly taking over Greek
myths, but this is untrue. Not one to one relationship:
- Other emphasis in pantheon: e.g. Juno and Jupiter more, Minerva
less important; Hercules worshipped as deity
- Romans usually put legendary men/heroes in well defined
geographical and historical context: stories about early Rome
(Romulus and Rhemus), Aeneas (Aeneid)
Ergo: there existed a ‘Roman mythology’!
Moreover, Roman pantheon was much more than just these gods:
- New gods: Silvanus (Pan), specific Italian gods (Bellona, Mater
Matuta), eastern gods (Magna Mater, Isis etc.)
- Abstractions become highly popular, in particular since Hellenistic
period (Tyche/Fortuna, Helios/Sol, or even Tiber)
- New additions to the pantheon were also the Roman emperors, who
nonetheless retained separate status (divus)
In conclusion, after approaches 1-2 to the
 Roman religion was much like Greek religion
(‘Graeco-Roman tradition’): religion in the
Roman Empire, however, has to be seen after
developments in Hellenistic period (e.g. more
emphasis on private experience of religion, ruler
cult, abstract deities such as Fortuna), which
were fostered in a specific Roman context
(stories about early Rome, Italian deities etc.).
2b Art
Much the same as myth (intertwined)
* Again, too much emphasis on divine images: idolatry (=
idol worship), as if worship of statues was central to GreekRoman religion
• Jewish-Christian concept: only worship of one God >
concept is applied by early Christians to Graeco-Roman
• Greek terms for statue:agalma, andrias, aphidruma,
bretas, eidôlon, eikôn, hedos, hidruma, kolossos, and
Latin: effigies, imago, signum, simulacrum and statua
Jewish works, I BCE and later, Christian works first half II
CE onwards > eidôlon; term is used for all Graeco-Roman
statues (though non-Christians used the term only rarely
for divine statues)
Placing too little value on divine images:
as if they are only pure decoration
3. Philosophy
Different schools of thought (Academics, Stoics, Epicureans),
but all strived to define the divine. Generic ideas:
- morally good and perfect
- source of blessings and virtues
- Removed, yet linked to daily life by intermediate levels of
Philosophy was not ‘armchair science’ but way of life > comes
closer to our concept of ‘religion’; clear ideas about morals and
behaviour, ‘missionary’ aspect (e.g. influence of Cicero’s
Hortensius on Augustine, pp. 40-1 textbook)
However, despite criticism on all 3 other approaches to divine,
philosophers never wanted to replace them and remained
restricted to the elite! (e.g. example of Cicero, On the Nature of
the Gods, p. 40 textbook)
4 independent approaches to the divine
that overlapped in various ways:
Myth and art: similar subjects, though also
Cult separate, but myth and art also
played a (limited) role
Philosophy: most radically different from
other 3, but still did not reject them;
either integrating or accepting them
Diversity of approaches explains why there was
no priestly class and also why there existed a
diversity of religious authorities in charge of
different areas
 Rise of the polis: religious authorities are:
a. Magistrates (civic priests)
b. Priests
Focus on proper cult acts, not on their
interpretation, hence correcting someone’s
religious behaviour was not part of the job (unless
it affected the well-being of the community): they
were facilitators of the holy
Other misconception:
Emperor not head of religion (pontifex
maximus), only president of highest
religious institution (pontifices) but had no
wider authority than Rome
Measures concerning religion derive from his
authority as emperor
Belief: specific (modern) Christian connotation:
contains series of key doctrines that characterize
essence > problematic term for Antiquity
 Without this association, however, the term can
be useful if we mean: ‘accepting something in
the religious sphere as true even without proof’
 Rives, p. 48: ‘What distinguishes the GraecoRoman tradition from Christianity is thus the
absence not of religious beliefs, but of pressures
to define and scrutinize those beliefs’
A. religious significance should be seen primarily
in terms of social and cultural factors, not belief
 B. no central doctrine
 C. no mechanism to enforce ‘beliefs’: no
orthodoxy (‘right belief’), but orthopraxy (‘right
Ergo: individuals believed what they liked without
interference; the only thing that was expected was
that you did your religious duties
Modern notion of religion strongly
associates with morality, but in Antiquity
there were no fixed set of rules
 Widespread belief in gods’ concern with
moral behaviour, but never systematised
or imposed
 Ergo: not central to Graeco-Roman
religion as it is now