21 September 2015
#History of World Civilization, Day Twenty-One
What religious beliefs did Romans observe, especially before the coming of Christianity?
The Romans considered themselves a highly religious people, recognizing a pantheon of immortal gods that governed the universe and sometimes intervened in human affairs. There were gods at every level of the Roman worldview, gods of heaven, beneath the earth, and everywhere in between, including minor deities that watched over individual families. They were highly inclusive and adaptive. Many Roman gods have Greek prototypes, as the Romans, particularly the educated elites, greatly admired Greek philosophy and considered their culture the imperial heir of Ancient Greece. They had a well-developed mythology, wherein Aeneas, son of the fertility goddess, Venus, left the ancient city of Troy for the Italian peninsula. Legend held that Rome was founded by the semi-divine brothers, Romulus and Remus.
A variety of cults existed, dedicated to one god or another, sometimes in combinations through mythological marriages. Rome frequently adopted the gods and religious practices of conquered peoples, adapting them to Roman needs and sensibilities. The intellectual elite revered Greek philosophy, while the uneducated masses held to a variety of salvation cults. The Egyptian goddess Isis was extremely popular, particularly prior to the rise of Christianity.
Another popular cult, especially amongst the military, was dedicated to Mithras, who was thought to embody personal courage, discipline, and strength. There was no such concept in Roman philosophy as a “separation of church and state.” Emperors were anointed by the gods, and in fact, were gods themselves. Military commanders would pray and make sacrifices to various deities, often building temples to the deities they credited with granting them success on the battlefield. Defeat would be attributed to a failure to properly honor the gods of sufficiently sacrifice to them, and penitential commanders would make yet more oblations to atone for their failures. Rome as a whole took the success of its military expansion as a sign of divine blessing and destiny.