Tuesday, 23 February 2016

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.

Roman religion had both Greek and Italian elements. The Romans imported the Greek pantheon from the Greek colonies of the south of Italy. Below are some examples:

The Sibylline Books: From the fifth century they started to consult the oracle of the Sibyl of the Greek city of Cumae. Sibyl, of Sibylla, was a mythical prophetess of ancient Greece, originally a royal Trojan maiden. Apollo endowed her with a prophetic ability and when she spoke, her sayings were recorded on a palm leaf.  According to Roman legend, a collection of her sayings, the Sibylline Books, was sold to Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. The Books were housed in the Temple of Jupiter and a special priestly college of fifteen priests was assigned to look after them. At times of war and state emergency, the Senate could order them to be consulted. 

Jupiter: Jupiter was worshipped by the Greeks as Zeus and by the Etruscans as Tinia or Summanus. 

Saturn: The Italic god, Saturn, was assimilated to the Greek Chronos, the father of Zeus, and so came to stand for the Golden Age, which Virgil celebrated in his Eclogue 4.

Janus: the god who faced both ways
Janus: On the other hand  Janus was a purely Italic god, found in no other mythology. He was the god of doorways and gates, and he was worshipped at an ancient gateway in the Forum. From here he watched over all the doors and gateways of Rome. Augustus used his cult to great effect when he closed the gates of his temple in 29 BC at the end of the civil wars. Prayers could only reach other gods through Janus; in religious ceremonies his name was always mentioned first. Janus had knowledge both of the past and the future, and was portrayed with two faces. He also gave his name to the first month in the year.

The state religion
Patriotism and the state religion are indistinguishable. The Capitol was a religious centres as well as a citadel. All formal activity took place in an explicitly religious context. Assemblies were preceded by religious rituals to ascertain the approval of the gods. Magistrates, when conducting their business, stood in a specially designated area, the templum.  The sanction of the gods was required before any major public action was taken, such as the holding of an assembly, or the departure of a commander for war. The state religion was a vehicle for Roman patriotism and this provided with its emotional content. 

The pontifices (priests) were not specially trained professionals, but a sub­ group of the political elite, who carried out particular rituals or sacrifices.  Cicero wrote: 
‘Among the many things…that our ancestors created and established under divine inspiration, nothing is more renowned than their decision to entrust the worship of the gods and the highest interests of the state to the same men.’ 
The most important priesthood, the office of pontifex maximus, had an influential role in political decisions, and was particularly prized for its prestige. Julius Caesar's election to this post in 63 BC was his first major career achievement

The college of augurs was one of the four leading priestly colleges, No important decision was made without consulting the auspices. The role of the augurs was not to foretell the future but to observe and interpret signs by which the god's approval of a proposed public action could be judged. Roman religion was preoccupied with omens and strange events – for example, showers of blood from the sky, androgynous births. 

As Rome became increasingly dominated by powerful individuals, these individuals tended to monopolise links with the divine. Sulla claimed to be under the special protection of Venus; he also carried round with him wherever he went an image of Apollo. Both Julius Caesar and Augustus were deified after their deaths. The Romans could also create new gods - such as the deified emperors. The new goddess, Roma, was worshipped in the east. Her temple was erected in the Greek city of Smyrna (in modem Turkey) in 195 BC. Her cult was a clear political move. The Romans did not hesitate to import foreign gods but this was a state matter not a private one. Every new god had to be recognised by the state.  

The essential function of any Greek and Roman temple was to house a statue of a god or goddess. Sacrifices always took place outside in the open air. Temples could also serve other public functions: for example the state treasure was housed in the temple of Saturn.
The Maison Carée in Nîmes, southern France;
built in the time of Augustus in honour of his grandsons

Stylistically, a Roman temple differed from a Greek in several respects:

  1. A Greek temple has a colonnade all round; most Roman temples only have sham colonnades at the side.
  2. A Roman temple has a deep porch, with a cella occupying the whole width of the temple.
  3. Roman temples are built on a high podium 9 or 10 feet high so they can only be approached by a flight of steps at the front. Greek temples are open on all sides.

The gods
The Capitol was the home of the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva), the Vestal Virgins, and the priest of Jupiter (the most senior of the priests).
Jupiter with his thunderbolt
Jupiter was the god of the sky and of lightning. He symbolised good faith, justice and honour. He was also a war god and his aid was invoked before military expeditions. Annual games were held in his honour. By the first century BC the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus stood on the Capitol overlooking the city and protecting it. Every year the new consuls, on entering office, went in procession to perform a sacrifice to him. The first meeting of the Senate was held in the temple. On 1 January 44 BC (two months before his assassination), Caesar offered sacrifice to him, as consul, not as pontifex maximus.

Juno, Jupiter's consort, eventually became the chief female deity of the state. The legendary cackling of her sacred geese warned of a Gaulish attack in 390 BC, and saved the Capitol. She was later given the title moneta, the warner. The first Roman coins were produced in the temple of Juno Moneta (so the term became the origin of mint, money). She was eventually associated with the Greek, Hera, the consort of Zeus.

Minerva, the daughter of Jupiter, was the goddess of wisdom and mental activity and presided over the trade and industry of Rome. She was also patron to writers, doctors, schoolmasters and craftsmen. She later became identified with Athena. Pompey built a statue to Minerva out of the spoils of his conquests.

Vesta was the goddess who presided over the hearth - the centre of the Roman home- and was propitiated by family worship. The temple of Vesta in the Forum contained the sacred hearth, tended continuously by six Vestal Virgins. Vestals were recruited from good families at the age of seven, and spent thirty years in service. After that time they were free to marry, though few did. The cult of Vesta was symbolic of the eternal power of Rome. Her treasures were zealously guarded, and only the Vestals and the pontifex maximus were allowed to enter her temple. When Augustus ordered a raid on the temple of Vesta in order to gain possession of Antony' s will, he was committing sacrilege.

Household gods
A lar, wearing his dog-skin tunic
and carrying a horn of plenty
There were two chief classes of Italic gods: those whose function was to guard the state, and those who watched over the family. We know far more about the state religion, but this does not mean that it was more important than the religion of the household. One of the most important functions of the paterfamilias was to oversee the religious rites required to maintain the well being of the family. The origin of these rites went back to the days when Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, involved in the preservation of the household fire on which the farmers were so dependent.  The cupboards of stored goods had their own spirits, the penates. The gods of the household, the lares, traditionally guarded the boundaries of the home and all those who lived in it.

The only way for a family to keep the pax deorum (peace of the gods) was to follow the correct ritual. A sacred salted cake was thrown into the fire at the chief meal of each day to appease Vesta. Misfortune followed if a ritual was not performed correctly. Therefore the cult rendered by the paterfamilias, who acted as priest to his lares, his penates and his manes (spirits of his ancestors) was just as important as that of Janus or Jupiter.

Agricultural gods
Rural religion was older than the official religion of Rome  (the term  'pagan' simply means rural or rustic). Household and wayside shrines were found all over Italy - these commemorated a host of minor deities whose function was to look after fields or households. Trees and groves were dedicated to individual gods, the Tiber and the Po developed cults of their own. Father Tiber was usually portrayed as an old bearded man, but though he was thought to show his anger by flooding,  he was not the object of formal worship. Every May, however, a procession of priests and Vestal Virgins cast human effigies into the Tiber as an act of purification.

Chief of the agricultural divinities was the fertility god, Faunus. Under the name of Lupercus, he had a temple on the Palatine, the Lupercal - the name of the grotto where the she-wolf suckled the twins, Romulus and Remus. The Lupercalia was celebrated on the 15th of February and was among the most important festivals on the Roman calendar. Faunus's wife or daughter was Fauna, who was invoked under the name of the Bona Dea (Good Goddess); women celebrated her cult at the beginning of December, in a mysterious festival that was forbidden to men. The aristocratic playboy, Clodius, caused a scandal when he infiltrated her rites in 62 BC disguised as a woman.

There were many rural festivals. The Robigalia took place in April and was in honour of the power of rust; a reddish brown dog was sacrificed. The Lemuria was a festival in May when the dead came back to life. The festival of Terminalia was held in honour of boundary stones.