October 27, 2008

Roman religion

Men's minds fell sick as well as their bodies; they became possessed by all sorts of superstitions, mostly of foreign origin, and the sort of people who can turn other men's superstitious terrors to their own advantage set up as seers and introduced strange rites and ceremonies into private houses, until the debased state of the national conscience came to the notice of the leaders of soicety who could not but be aware in every street and chapel of the weird and outlandish forms of new prayer by which their hag-ridden compatriots sought to appease the wrath of heaven. Then the government stepped in, and the aediles were instructed to see that only Roman gods were worshipped and only in the traditional way. (IV 30)

This passage within Livy's history demonstrates two central truths which dominated the history of Roman religion. The first is that Roman religion was influenced from abroad- who knows what 'foreign' customs Livy is talking about here. Influences came to Rome from Etrusca- where for instance the custom of lictors proceeding before Kings came in and some of the other 'Roman' customs arrived from. Many religious customs in Rome- the Sibylene prophesies for example- have even their professed origins as coming from abroad. It does not seem extraordinary to me to see that Rome borrowed and was borrowed from in a commerce of religious ideas that went throughout the Italian peninsular following the paths of trade and war. Of course the paths led south as well as north- we find the Romans borrowing Greek customs too. The story of Romulus and Remus has its antecedents in Greek myth- and even the entire idea of various Roman Gods- Apollo most importantly- came early and from Greece (according to Professor Burket at least.) This trend carried on through Roman history- the cults of Isis (Egyptian), Mithras (Syrian), Christ (Palestinian) and many others remain visible in the historical record to demonstrate to us the cosmopolitan nature of Roman religion: it is even visible in the worship of the Emperors themselves- a process that Tacitus tells us started in the Eastern Provinces and then came to the Imperial city.

Alongside this continuous process of religious adoptation of the ideas of others- and the adoptation might be philosophical too witness the Stoics- the Romans felt a deep anxiety about the corruption that these cults introduced. This passage reflects that anxiety. In particular Romans suggested that adopting the new Gods might lead the citizens to abandon the old ones who had served Rome well. Such new rites could often have a distabilising effect on individual lives- akin say to the fear about scientology today- an ancient Roman might see the Orphic cults of Greece as promoting sin, moral decay and leading young men and women astray. Livy's language with its warnings about the exploitation of the superstitious by those who set themselves up as 'seers' comes from that tradition. But the broader anxiety was focussed upon the very nature of the Roman republic- when Rome absorbed all these customs and ideas from abroad, how Roman did Rome remain? But this cultural mix flowed from Rome's engagement with and importance in patterns of trade and warfare that it wished to dominate- in which case without this fertilisation from abroad, the Republic risked becoming static and ultimately declining.

This tension at the heart of Roman history lies at the heart of Livy's history, it is a tension familiar to all imperial states. The tension lies between the idea of the imperial heartland and its importance as a centre- and the fact that in order to continue to govern its territories successfully, it has to absorb, observe and ultimately sympathise with them. Rome's destiny as an imperial state was eventually to sublimate the history of the city within the history of the empire- that is the heart of the revolution that Livy did not see- wherein the principate changed to an imperium- but Livy was already aware that Rome itself was becoming less Roman in his own day and that it had made its way in the world through adoptation and expropriation rather than purity. The Aediles stepped in to make sure Roman gods were worshipped alone- but how did they tell which were the Roman Gods (afterall almost all would have been influenced by foreign customs) and furthermore they were evidently not successful, as Rome was.

Machiavelli once said, commenting on Livy, that Rome as a republic forsook stability for expansion- the passage aboves testifies that this was a conflict that was alive in the minds of Romans like Livy- even if it was resolved in favour of expansion eventually.

10 comments:

Georg said...

Very interesting to read. Could be that the taking over of Christianity was one of the causes of Rome's downfall.

Those early Christians must have been like the Talibans. Always praying in thinking how to make sure to achieve paradies.

Before, Rome accepted a lot of different religions besides their own one (that served so well).

Georg

Gracchi said...

Possibly- I think its more complicated than Christianity alone and its worth remembering that paganism itself existed right into the late empire and that the highly Christian Eastern Empire survived for another couple of hundred years until its form was altered by the Islamic conquest.

I don't like the comparison to the Taliban either- the Taliban were tribesmen in the mountains of Aghanistan. Whatever you think about hte early Christians their movement was very different- women, the urban working classes, sophisticated intellectuals like Origen and Augustine and also they were a pan imperial movement. Its not that they were modern liberals- but its worth separating out different groups if you wish to analyse them and the analytical category that includes Augustine and the Taliban would be an incredibly wide one- possibly so wide as to be a useless unit of historical analysis.

goodbanker said...

Indeed: when did you last hear a Taliban spokesman say "chastise me o lord... but not yet" (cf. Augustine's Confessions)?

But, seriously, isn't all this a minefield? It's surely too simplistic just to describe the Taliban as mountain tribesmen in origin. They may well have been; but (my understanding is that) they became a force after attending the madrasas (religious schools) in the political vacuum that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Are there any meaningful similarities between this and the situation that the early Christians (up to the end of the third century) found themselves in? I suggest it's difficult to say, given the paucity of genuinely unbiased sources in relation both to early Christianity and to present-day Afghanistan.

Perhaps a key difference that we can safely comment on is in the two groups' relative success in winning hearts and minds of the political class of the Empire that persecuted them: until Emperor Constantine's conversion, the early Christians were (arguably) little more than yet another religious sect that was one of several to be persecuted by the Romans. Even once they gained their foothold as the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was nothing inevitable about the Christians retaining this status. They had to graft hard early on in particular, in order to make it stick. (What if Julian the Apostate hadn't been killed by the Persians in 363? what if Ambrose of Milan hadn't had the political access to bully the boy-emperor Valentinian II into backing Christianity?) But they did get that momentum (and the rest is history). By contrast, the Taliban's hearts and minds campaign has not succeeded in winning over movers and shakers in the West, and shows few signs of doing so. To my mind, here is an important way that Georg's comparison between the two begins to break down.

Georg said...

Hallo everybody,

My comparison of the early Christians and today's Taliban - right or wrong - stirred up something, it appears.

As Goodbanker said, the T. did not win the hearts and minds of the West. Sure, but they seem to be winning the hearts of plenty Afghanis, Pakistanis, Saudis etc. = the list is long. And in the very near future, we'll start negotiating with them so that we shall be able to leave the country after several years of blundering around there.

As to St. Augustinus, he was the inventor of eternal hell fire for heretics and pagans, a narrow minded theological intellectual and hair splitter. No relation to thinkers and scientists of his time.

And those early Christians were not very much willing to defend the Roman Empire - they had their own celestial empire in mind - thus obliging Rome to hire Germanic mercenaries to do the job. And as everybody knows, a mercenary wants to earn money and spent it not defend his country. That is my link between early Christianity and the downfall of Rome.

Just one more thing: why do you call the Roman Livius by this strange name Livy. He should have at least the right to be called by his own name (like everybody around here).

Hope nobody minds too much.

Georg

Gracchi said...

Easy bit first Georg- Livius should be called Livius yes- but in English he has been called Livy for a long time so I call him Livy. I realise that that isn't strictly correct but its common usage and I want it to be accessible.

Ok taliban comparison- yes I was too simplistic- but I suppose what I wonder about with the taliban analogy is not whether Christians are morally objectionable or not- and I can quite see that ideas of hell might well be- but whether they actually are like the taliban. I think there are numerous good reasons why Christianity under Rome was not like the Taliban- they didn't afterall conquer Rome but infiltrated its institutions and captured the mind of a conqueror.

On your point about military power- there may be something in that- I've never seen the figures- I have a vague memory of Peter Heather attacking the idea in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire but I might be wrong. I do agree there is a link- but I'm not sure its the key factor nor am I sure that there was one key factor. And I do think it is worth bearing in mind that hte empire survived in the East, Christian for a hell of a long time after Rome's fall- and was Christian. I don't think there is an automatic link between Christianity and military failure- though I do realise that your argument that it may have diverted the bright young men who might have joined the imperial civil service has some possible merit to it.

Good banker I suppose in an unsubtle and tired way I was trying to make the point you so skilfully make- that there is little comparison beyond the fact that they were both very religious and committed to ideas like heaven and hell.

I suppose in a way it comes down to this- the Taliban and Augustine may have more in common with each other in terms of beliefs than say Georg or me or you have with either group- but is it still useful to class them together- I'm not sure.

Lastly Georg you are always welcome here- I'm sorry if I gave the impression you weren't- its a blog where the more criticism I get the more I think, and the more I think, the better off I am.

Thanks for both of your comments nad apologies for the inadequate response but it comes after a bottle of wine and at the end of a long day!

goodbanker said...

Well, this is fun!

Gracchi - overall, I'm with you (and with Peter Heather - a very grounded historian). If I part from you, it is in having a greater degree of uncertainty when interpreting medieval history: the sources (both written and archeological) are never as complete as one would want them to be. (Arguably, the same applies to the news that emanates nowadays from Afghanistan - albeit for different reasons.) In some ways you're too generous is describing my point as "skilful": a more aggressive commentator would accuse me of sitting on the fence!

So let me come off the fence - and reinforce - another point you make: quite apart from the point you make that the Byzantine Empire continued as a Christian Empire for the best part of a millennium, weren't some of the immediate successors to the (western) Roman Empire also Christian? Notably, Theodoric the Ostrogoth was Arian Christian, and delighted in continuing where Justinian had left off in the mosaic churches of Ravenna.

Gracchi said...

Yes- I would agree with you about the uncertainty in medieval history- and perhaps I was too emphatic earlier.

You are right as well the succesor kingdoms were often Christians- indeed if I'm right in my rememberance- many of the barbarion tribes had become Christian by the time they finally invaded- the Goths being the biggest example. ONe of the legacies of the empire was probably the continuance of Christianity in Western Europe.

Its worth noting as well that the East was more religious in many ways than the West- monasticism flowered in Egypt for example and took longer to get to the West.

edmund said...

you don't think part of the objection (both by any historical concern and by livy) might simply be that non roman gods were seen as not having rome's interests at heart in the way of Rome's own gods?

On the origianl comment georg your orignial comment seems ridiculous- it's a very odd point of comparaisoin ( besides anything else it doens't even separate the Taliban from other afghans) why not say mother teresa-who at least self identif8ied as the same religion ?

I also think the "served so well" while a more reasonable ponit is still wrong-where's the evidence the east was less christian? and also it was the bishop of rome (and other bishops) more than anyone else who kept the ideas . legacy, law etc of the roman empire going-so it's odd to identify it as the problem!

edmund said...

now to make comments on georg's odd subsequent quote

Hallo everybody,

My comparison of the early Christians and today's Taliban - right or wrong - stirred up something, it appears.

if that's to point out it's absurd yes

As Goodbanker said, the T. did not win the hearts and minds of the West. Sure, but they seem to be winning the hearts of plenty Afghanis, Pakistanis, Saudis etc. = the list is long.


? the Taliban is by definion an Afghan/possibly pakistani (indeed Pushton) group i think your getting confused with Al Quada

And in the very near future, we'll start negotiating with them so that we shall be able to leave the country after several years of blundering around there.

Possibly- I think you may have forgetten why we're there because they supported the murder of thousands of innocnet civilians and took and kept as a military ally the perpecutator (in terms of organisation) if you attack you have to expect for people to hit back!

As to St. Augustinus, he was the inventor of eternal hell fire for heretics and pagans,


I'm very certian this was an idea that preempted Augustine and would love to have some evidence that he invented it. I do think it may have been less consensual than some scholars believe-y

a narrow minded theological intellectual and hair splitter. No relation to thinkers and scientists of his time.

He was one of the leading experts of Platonic philosophy/sceince ( he left a religion in large part because he realized the head of it knew less about eclipses than he did) that's just absurd apart from your tautologicla logic that no chrisan can be a scientiist or philospher, poor aquinas, poor Falliday,

And those early Christians were not very much willing to defend the Roman Empire - they had their own celestial empire in mind - thus obliging Rome to hire Germanic mercenaries to do the job.

Evidence? didnt german mercancies date back to first century? And wher'es the evidence it got more of a problem due to christanity (indeed it was the eastern orthodox empire that ultimatley reduced the dependence)

And as everybody knows, a mercenary wants to earn money and spent it not defend his country. That is my link between early Christianity and the downfall of Rome.

This is absurd and indeed goes direct agaisnt the evidence the rise to imperium made christanity a lot less pacifist (as a pratical phenomonea)

Just one more thing: why do you call the Roman Livius by this strange name Livy. He should have at least the right to be called by his own name (like everybody around here).

ease of reference I imagine and also because that's how his name would be transilletated in english0- i doubt we have that much idea how he'd pronouced his name at least for certian. However reasonable point- unlike all your others on this thread i'm afraid!

Hope nobody minds too much.

One is always free to disagree even when wrong :)

Georg

Gracchi said...

Edmund I'm going to leave your last comment.

On the two points you raise with me: as to Livy's original point about the Roman gods- yes I agree with you that that would be Livy's argument.However I would suggest that almost all the Roman gods were imported from abroad- at different stages. What I think Livy demonstrates here is some awareness of this importing- where he doesn't go is the next step, which as a believer would be almost impossible, which is to see Roman religion as a complex amalgum of imports from the East and the West.

As to the evidence of the East being more Christian. Its actually a fairly common point. Firstly the Greek world was more populous and richer than the West- trade spread the new religion and one would expect therefore the East bound together more by trade to be more religious than the West. I'd also say that there were more backwaters in the West- I can't think of a single area in the East that needed reconversion like Britain did after the collapse of the fifth century.

Furthermore most of the innovations of the Roman era from monks to theological confrontation happened in the East. There were many more bishoprics in the East too which probably reflects more Christians- there were four Patriarchites in the Eastern empire (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) - only one in the West (Rome) and that is reflected in the attendance at Church councils. Also theological dispute seems to have had more impact in the East- off the top of my head I cannot think of an equivalent in a Western city of the riots that wracked Alexandria between Athansians and Arians in the fourth century.

Those are all pretty important indicators of the strength of Eastern Christianity.