Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Roman religion (2)

A scene from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Mystery religions

Syncretism was the chief characteristic of all Roman religion. This is seen most clearly in the assimilation of mystery religions.

Though the state religion was effective in stirring patriotism, it had little to offer those who lacked a share in the state, especially women and slaves. In addition, it did almost nothing to soothe the almost universal beliefs in Fate or Chance. Some Romans turned to astrology, others to a passionate belief in certain saviours who would comfort them in this life and give them a happy life in the next world. This explains the popularity of eastern mystery religions and the partial Hellenization of the official religion. The promise of a better life in the world to come was especially appealing to the poorer and more oppressed elements in Roman society. The mystery religions of the East catered for individuals, rather than for the state. Thus they could be seen as potentially subversive. They offered positive rewards of personal satisfaction.

Roman religion (1)

The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill

Roman religion had many gods and their number was not fixed. There were no tenets of belief and no authoritative sacred texts.  The community’s adherence to its religion was demonstrated through action and ritual rather than words, and the chief ritual was animal sacrifice.  Romans did not doubt that the gods existed. They believed that all the important processes in the world were divinely activated, and that different gods had charge of particular functions and spheres of activity. As an intensely practical people, they thought of the gods in terms of what they did rather than what they were. For example, a 'jack of all trades' was 'a man of every Minerva' - Minerva was the goddess of trade and commerce.

The relationship of men and gods was one of reciprocity. If men carry out the proper rituals, the gods will protect and support them.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Rome under Augustus

A reconstruction of the Forum of Augustus,
showing the Temple of Mars the Avenger

One of Augustus's most remarkable achievements was to change the face of Rome. He faced a double challenge:
  1. to bring the population under control
  2. to turn the city into an architectural show place.

Relief showing the Praetorian Guard
under Augustus
  1. Rome was divided into 14 regiones and 265 vici- these were run by leading tradesmen, often freedmen, thus giving them a stake in government they had never had before. The regiones still survive in modern Rome as Rioni.
  2. Seven separate local fire stations were set up under the command of seven aediles. But the command structure was inadequate and the fires continued to blaze.  In AD 6, a paramilitary force of freedmen, 7000 strong, the vigiles were founded, under the control of a Prefect. Fully equipped with axes and buckets and the legal right to enter households.
  3. In AD 8 the provision and distribution of grain were organised under a military Prefect with staff.
  4. A police force - the urban cohorts - was set up. This was controversial because it went against the ideology of the city-state. However by the end of his reign the 3000 Urban Cohorts were a permanent institution.
  5. The Praetorian Guard were the only troops stationed in Italy. Initially, they were responsible for crowd control - then they became the personal guard of the Princeps. In 2 BC they became a separate command structure under the two Praetorian Prefects.
Augustus's reforms made Rome more efficient. They also introduced a new element of professionalism and specialisation- a move away from the previous self-help pattern of both Greece and Rome.

Augustus: from Republic to Empire

The Prima Porta statue
of Augustus

Augustus wrote in his Res Gestae Divi Augustus (Achievements of the Deified Augustus), 
‘After I had extinguished civil wars, by universal consent, I gained  control  over all affairs'.

The myth of Actium
Actium  (2 September, 31 BC) might not have been a decisive victory for Augustus, but it was a milestone in the history of Rome, its anniversary celebrated as a public holiday. The poets milked it for its propaganda, seeing it as a victory of senate and people (700 senators crossed over to Greece with Octavian in a show of solidarity) over the degenerate East. Antony was vilified as a general who had been unmanned by a woman. Cleopatra was portrayed as a crazed queen, attended by wrinkled eunuchs, the worshipper of a series of monster gods. By contrast, the promontory of Actium housed a temple dedicated to Phoebus Apollo, the god of prophecy, music and poetry, and the avenger of piety and purity, who was credited with routing the Egyptian gods.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Julius Caesar: epilepsy or strokes?

The historians Plutarch and Suetonius described Caesar as suffering from convulsions and sudden fainting fits, which Shakespeare interprets as the 'falling sickness'. It has been widely accepted that this was epilepsy. However, two doctors are now arguing that he might have been afflicted by cerebrovascular disease, a series of mini-strokes that would have impaired his judgement and might account for his reckless behaviour in his final years. See their arguments here.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Antony and Cleopatra

When Antony reached Tarsus in the autumn of 41, he summoned Cleopatra, now aged twenty-eight, to meet him. After Caesar’s death, she had gone back to Alexandria, where her younger brother and consort Ptolemy XIV had died in mysterious circumstances.  She then made the young Caesarian her co-ruler and he was proclaimed King of Egypt. Antony wanted to call her to account for her failure to supply an army to help him and Octavian. But Cleopatra staged a famous meeting with Antony on the river Cygnus, after which she became his mistress. His support enabled her to strengthen her rule in Egypt.  She returned there and was joined by Antony in the winter of 40-1. However, he was forced to leave, and did not see her for four years (nor the twins that she bore him).

Back in Italy Octavian was forced to evict many farmers in order to provide for his veterans. His army became bogged down in the siege of Perusia (Perugia), held by Antony’s wife, Fulvia. Plutarch describes Fulvia as a headstrong woman, given to meddling in politics. He states that she began the war with Octavian in order to lure Antony back to Italy. In 40 Antony tried to land in Brundisium, but he was refused entry into Italy. 

Antony and Octavia
The threat of war was averted by negotiation, and the Treaty of Brundisium in October reinforced their fragile alliance. As Fulvia had died, Antony was able to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This is probably the time the poet Virgil wrote his Fourth Eclogue; perhaps the divine child of the poem is the son that he believed would be born to Antony and Octavia. (In the Middle Ages it was believed that Virgil had foretold the birth of Christ.)
Now comes the crowning age foretold in the Sibyl’s songs, A great new cycle, bred of time, begins again. Now virginal Justice and the golden age returns, Now its first-born is sent down from high heaven.With the birth of this boy, the generation of iron will pass, And a generation of gold will inherit all the world.
The next few years saw Octavian increase his power in the west, and Antony in the east. In effect, they split Rome into an eastern and a western Empire.