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.

Initiation: Anxieties about the after-life were assuaged by progressive initiations into the privileges of the god. Initiation freed the devotee from Fate. Salvation took place through personal initiation with a saviour god, who was believed in many cases to have died and to have risen again. The solemn process of initiation involved magic rituals and sacramental banquets. They purged human unworthiness by ecstasis (literally: ‘out of his senses’, the soul becoming clear of the body), enthousiasmos (literally, ‘possessed by a god’) and suffering. Through these experiences, the initiate gained the promise of immortality.

The cult of Bacchus

The mystery religions also catered for the less rational elements in human nature. Wine, a classic means of gaining release from inhibitions, was invested with religious significance in the Greek cult of Bacchus (Dionysus). In the early 2nd century BC the cult spread north from southern Italy, probably brought to Rome by traders and/or slaves. In 186 BC, the Senate banned this potentially dangerous cult, executing hundreds of its followers, both men and women. One of the best sources for the cult is the series of wall-paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, which seem to show the painful initiation of a young girl. The historian Livy described these mysteries in lurid terms:
When the wine had inflamed their minds, and the dark night and the intermingling of men and women, young and old, had smothered every feeling of modesty, depravities of every kind began to take place, because each person had ready access to whatever perversion his mind so inclined him ... The violence was concealed, however, because the shrieks of those tortured by deviant sex or murder could not be heard over the loud wails and the crash of drums and cymbals. 

The cult of lsis and Osiris

Isis was a national divinity of Egypt, dating back to at least 2500 BC. Her cult spread throughout the Mediterranean world. It came to the Greek cities in the south of Italy in the 3rd century BC, and was established in Rome in the time of Sulla as a private and secret cult.

The central myth of the Isis cult combines Egyptian and Graeco-Roman elements. Isis and her brother Osiris loved one another even in their mother's womb. Their marriage set the pattern for the brother-sister marriages of Egyptian rulers, and probably for the relationship of Antony and Cleopatra. But Osiris (commonly identified with the sun) was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, god of darkness. Isis mourned and searched for the fragments of Osiris's body, and through her agency he was restored to life and became pregnant by him with their child Horus. She was often depicted in visual representations, nursing him.

At the Mysteries, worshippers re-enacted the lamentation of Isis and her subsequent joy when she found the body of Osiris. There was much suspicion of the secret rituals that accompanied the cult, and in 58 BC the altars of Isis on the Capitol were destroyed by order of the consuls. The cult was again suppressed by Augustus.  However, its popularity meant that it had to be recognised eventually  (in the reign of Gaius/Caligula). It was a religion that appealed directly to women, slaves and freedmen, but free men also worshipped Isis because she was the conqueror of Fate. To people of both sexes and all ranks she was the merciful mother, a secure and compassionate refuge.  

Her temple is one of the best-preserved buildings in Pompeii. But it was not open to all-comers. This was a religion for initiates. And unlike other temples, it catered for a more congregational religious use and possibly a resident priest or two. 

The cult of the Great Mother 

In 204 BC the worship of the Magna Mater was introduced from the East. One of her names was Cybele and her title was Mother of Gods. The motive for the introduction of her cult was political- to boost Rome's morale during the Second Punic War. Cybele's homeland was Anatolia, the land of Troy and the original home of Aeneas, and this was one of the reasons why the Romans were drawn to her. Cybele was worshipped alongside her consort, Attis, a shepherd who betrayed her by falling in love with a nymph. In a fury, Cybele made him fall into a fit of madness, during which he castrated himself and bled to death under a pine tree. Attis was later reborn and reunited with Cybele. 

Once the cult was introduced, it proved very difficult to control. It was the most powerful of the mystery religions, the lengthiest and the most complex pageantry in the ancient world. On the Day of Blood, in March, the priests lacerated themselves, while fanatical novices castrated themselves under a pine tree in memory of Attis. In spite of preventive laws, (the cult was placed under the strict supervision of the state, and Roman citizens were not allowed to become priests) castration continued.


Mithras killing the bull
Mithras was originally the Iranian god of the sun, whose cult came to Rome in the late Republic, and spread throughout the empire, especially among the army. At the beginning of time, Mithras had sacrificed a great bull. As its body was torn apart its blood brought to life grain and grapes and its scattered sperm fertilized all living things. Mithras was the god of kings, justice and contracts, attractive to those such as soldiers bound in complete loyalty to their rulers. The cult stressed militant and masculine qualities, and women were excluded. But all men, whether freeborn or slaves, could participate equally in the long initiation ceremonies. The rituals were secret, involving ceremonies of progressive initiation, including the simulated death and resurrection of the initiates. Mithraeums (the underground temples of Mithras) were located throughout the empire, particularly where legions were stationed. One of the largest was in London.


  1. Roman religion was polytheistic, eclectic and syncretistic. It borrowed freely from its neighbours and from the peoples it conquered.
  2. It was state religion. The gods preserved and protected the state, and the leading politicians were also priests.
  3. From the late Republic, Romans were increasingly attracted to the mystery religions of the east, with their secret initiation rites and their themes of death and resurrection.