November 02, 2008

A function of Religion

Mostly readers of this blog will live in states where religion and politics are separated- either by law (as in the United States of America) or as in the UK de facto. Even those who wish for a more religious source for modern law do not share the outlook on religion which shaped the experience of the ancient Romans or the medieval or early modern Christians. When we seek to understand the past we have to understand the different functions that religion had in the past as opposed to our present. Our religions- in the West (and I include the Middle East in that west) are largely monotheistic and based around the action of prayer- they have public manifestations but they are also private, about the individual's relationship with God. In the ancient world, that was not as true or rather the public aspects of religion were stressed- and perhaps here our religions have become over time more individualised (a process that has produced both fundamentalism and liberalism in religion). That strays from my point- which is this different nature of religion in the ancient world- we can see that different nature if for example we examine Livy's discussion of religious observance in Rome in the early 4th Century BC.

The period immediately after the introduction of the taxes I described in my last post resulted in Romans being subject to huge costs. But they were also harsh periods agriculturally. Livy describes a terrible winter which was so cold that Rome was cut off as roads and rivers froze and became impossible or difficult to pass along. (V 13) That was followed by a summer of unprecedented severe heat- which caused or helped to cause in Livy's view a plague, 'neither human beings nor animals were immune' and the disease was 'incurable'. (V 13). This came alongside a series of military defeats- against Veii and others- Livy has the tribunes refer emotively to the Romans seeing 'our battered troops stagger in fear and disorder through the city gates.' (V 11) The Tribunes' statement gets at something that we have to recall- the effects of defeat or plague were not seen on a television screen from thousands of miles away, reduced the dull whirr of the set and the correspondent's voice, but realities, visible and imminent for every citizen of Rome who watched his neighbours die, who could not get grain from his farm and saw the troops come home in disgrace.

In this sense, the words national calamity have a real meaning- and Livy leaves us in no doubt as to what the response was. The senate consulted the Sybillene Books of prophesy- but more interestingly they also created a new ceremony. 'For the first time in Rome, the ceremony of lectisternium or the draping of the couches' was performed. (V 13). This ceremony took the form of three couches been left outside in the open air for the Gods to stay on. Livy informs us though of something like a carnival atmosphere in Rome at the time- 'a similar ceremony' was performed in private houses (V 13) and friends and neighbours were invited in and entertained. Viands were left out for whoever desired and men invited even their enemies to dine with them. Moreover the prisoners, held by Rome, were released from their chains and ultimately allowed to remit their sentences. What we see here is a spasm of religious fervour which allows a society to rebond together after calamity- a response to the disasters.

But the response went further- in this heightened atmosphere various religious signs were noticed by the Roman citizenry- in particular the Alban lake rose. The Romans, Livy tells us, were wont to rely on Etruscan soothsayers- none of whom were in the city at the time to consult and so sent a mission to Delphi. Also though two Roman soldiers came across and kidnapped an Etruscan old man who seemed to be a soothsayer- interpreting the plight of Rome's armies at Veii as being indicated from heaven (V 14). After the mission to Delphi had returned and confirmed the old man's interpretation, the soothsayer was 'held in the highest esteem' and he was employed to direct the Romans in ways to appease the Gods- the leading magistrates in the Republic had to resign and replacements had to be elected as their appointment had been done illegitimately (V 15), games were celebrated and the Alban lake drained- as Livy comments- these steps having been performed 'the doom of Veii was at hand' (V 20). I mention this not to ridicule the Romans but because it emphasizes how important religion was within the Roman polity and how political it was. Political office was tied to religion and political success tied directly to the will of the Gods.

This faith of the community is something that Livy himself believed in: Rome would be prosperous so long as it kept faith with its Gods and performed their rituals in appropriate ways. As historians, it hardly matters to us whether the sequence of events that Livy described happened exactly as he describes- what matters I think with this story is the mentality it uncovers. Firstly it suggests that religion functioned as a civic safety guard. One of the things that is noticeable throughout this tale is the stress that the Republic was under and the way that the population were emotionally supported through the use of their religious ceremonies. The cathartic carnival atmosphere of the day of the draping of the couches springs to mind.

Furthermore and secondly these ceremonies gave them reasons why they had failed- a bad winter and a bad summer could only be the product of the will of the Gods and could be solved. It promoted a constructive outlook on bad fortune which served the state and people well- in that sense religion was a useful psychological mechanism by which the Romans could understand their situation and move forward. It was also deeply empirical- after all errors were always likely to be made or be remembered in religious ritual. Lastly and probably most terrifyingly, religion could propel people to the front of politics incredibly quickly- the old man that the Romans had captured became a significant figure within the Republic because he seemed to hit upon a practical method of assuaging the fears of the commons. This had revolutionary potential in times of crisis- it suggests that religion at this point could perform the function of explaining popular distrust in their leaders.

The function of this civic religion was important within Ancient Rome. There is a last element to this which is that stories such as this reinforced a sense that Rome would survive- that Rome was blessed by the Gods. We have to understand this civic function in order to understand how the Roman state managed to survive- of course other cities in Italy no doubt at the same time had similar beliefs and the Roman state's survival against them had much to do with other factors- luck, favourable situation, skill etc.- but if we are to answer some important questions like how did this state or other states like it endure through plague, famine, misfortune and defeat then part of the answer is to be found in religion. Livy indicates this whilst also believing in it- we don't have to believe it, but we do have to understand it and keep it as a background if we are to understand Roman history.


edmund said...

wouldn't it be fairer to say that religon as got more individualist (as you do say) rather than been separated from politics- after all France or mexicio politics ceritnaly in terms ofp ower struggles require at least as much reference to religion to understand (i'd say more) as the early Roman Republic- the key thing is the communal nature of the early republics religion not separation or otherwise from politics

the Delphi story sounds unlikely at least in explanation- a lot closer oracles than there !

Gracchi said...

Thanks Edmund

Yes I think you are right. Divine right kingship et al kept religion and politics together for a long time. And that the real change is the rise of individualism- good point.

It does sound unlikely- though if Rome was moving into the orbit of the southern Italian cities it is possible and Livy makes reference to another mission to Delphi too. I wouldn't rule it out and I think its important that it was an emergency- I would agree thought that this is one moment where Livy is discussing what a Roman in his day might have done in these circumstances as opposed to a Roman in the 5th Century.

goodbanker said...

Your conclusion - and indeed all the historical bit of your piece (i.e. 98% of it) strikes me as spot on: in order to understand (Roman) history better, it is important to understand the different way in which religion and politics worked at the time.

I stumbled over your introduction, though: I don't observe a de facto separation of religion and politics in contemporary Anglo-Saxon societies. If anything, there is an explicit, symbiotic relationship between the two in the US - particularly evident with the Republican party. (I realise you qualified the US as being de jure, rather than de facto separated.) In the UK, the link between religion and politics is more subtle - yet it exists. Why is it increasingly the case, for example, that UK politicians' approach to the primary / secondary education system is to actively encourage faith-based schools, effectively incentivising parents to start attending their local church in order to increase the chances of getting their kids into a CofE (or other religious) school? (Surely there must be better ways of addressing the discipline problems of the classroom than for the politicians to outsource to the church the responsibility for instilling discipline in return for giving it preferential access to one generation after another of potential new recruits.)

edmund said...

goodbanker i think gracchi's comment agrees with the first point.

The second sort of misses it though- the point is not what church and state are doing in terms of religon and politics but where there's politics. Hence if the state adopted youre preferred educaiotjal policy (e.g stalinist russia) it's not like religon and politics were separateindeed the state was desperately trying to crush politics- and excludeing the religous from public life . religon was central to politics and the state creed was heavily religous (in this case atheism) in nature

good points on Delphi Gracchi

goodbanker said...

edmund - I've not followed your challenge.

All I was probing was gracchi's opening sentence - about "states where religion and politics are separated - either by law (as in the United States of America) or as in the UK de facto". I don't observe, in practice, such separation in either the US or the UK.