Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"An Introduction to Roman Religion"

John Scheid, “An Introduction to Roman Religion”, (Translated by Janet Lloyd 2003, Indiana University Press, 1998, USA, ISBN 0-253-34377-1).

I recommend John Scheid’s excellent book for an introduction to the Roman religion. In his book, the author emphasizes the major role that the Roman religion had in Roman government, both in the Republic and later in the Empire. Also, he analyzes the Romans’ perceptions of space and time, rituals, sacrifices, and their deities.

More importantly, Mr. Scheid tackles how modern people should interpret the intent of ancient Romans. How can people see the Roman religion beyond the prism of Christianity? Studying the religion of the Romans is more than comparing it to other Pagan religions such as the Norse. The author stresses that scholars need to decolonize the religion of the Romans from their modern sensibilities.

He writes, “But none of us can escape our prejudices and the assumptions drawn from our own society and history. Even if we were to bury ourselves in antiquity and read only the ancient sources, we would still hardly be able to guard against those insidious influences. A better tact is to remain conscious of weight brought to bear by the recent past and the implicit cultural attitudes which threaten to distort our judgment, and then act accordingly, with those influences in mind.” p.17.

Rome, the city, had also a major function in the Roman religion. The City defined both time and space. Gods of death and destruction had their sanctuaries outside the Pomerium (City boundaries as defined by Romulus, the Founder.) As Rome grew and added more Deities, those who were hostile to Rome, had their shrines outside the Pomerium. Meanwhile, the founding of the City and other important historical events determined the religious calendar.

According to John Scheid, the Roman religion fostered liberty and dignity for both the Romans and their Kindreds. The Romans approached their Kindreds with reason, and not in fear. They saw their relationship with their Deities as one of a client-patron relationship. The clients (people) provided support, while the patrons (Gods) provided favors. Together, they brought about the common good for Rome.

Because there was a compact between the Gods, the Senate, and the People of Rome, everything depended on proper ritual and sacrifice. By the auspices, the Gods informed the magistrates of their Will. However, the interpretation of the auspices could be contested by anyone with standing in the government. Therefore, the magistrates had to be mindful of the will of the People in their interpretations.

The Roman Civil Wars disrupted their religion. Since Caesar and Pompeii had equal standing, they fought over who the Gods wanted for Rome. When Octavian became Emperor Augustus, he reformed the religion. He changed the taking of the auspices from granting public liberty to ensuring his personal power. In addition, Augustus began the Cult of the Emperors by deifying Julius Caesar, his uncle.

The author sums up the religion of the Romans, thusly, “As we have seen, the only religious ‘belief’ for Romans consisted in the knowledge that the gods were the benevolent partners of mortals in the management of the world, and that the prescribed rituals represented the rightly expected counterpart to the help offered by the immortals.” P. 173

Friday, December 21, 2007

Nature Spirits

At first glance, “Nature Spirits” seems to only imply the birds, trees, and perhaps stones. But the world is full of spirits. The wind spirits dance and play with leaves. Dragons, sit on the top of mountains, sunning themselves. Lares of the house guard the door against the Manes, spirits that would do the family harm.

Everything is alive with a mind and spirit of their own. Walking along a small stream near my building, I encounter different kinds of Nature Spirits. At one mossy dip between the maple trees, the fairies dance. Further along behind several houses, the stream meanders to a dark place. Among the roots of a dark tree on the stream bank lives a spirit that wishes no contact with people. (I generally avoid that place.)

When I was little, my mother loved to go into the woods and look for birds. On our treks, she taught me the names of trees, flowers, and of course birds. From our forays into the forests, I became attuned to the Nature Spirits. From my mother, I learned the importance of learning the name of each one. Names give a deeper understanding of each spirit.

When I teach at a new school, I offer salt to the Lares of the parking lot. Then, I offer gemstones to the School Lares. This is to ensure a parking spot, and help in teaching the children. I have discovered that the Lares remember me when I return to a school.

In the Roman Hearth culture, the family has a guardian spirit called the Lar Familaris. They made daily offerings to Them to watch over the house. Several of the Dii Familaris are charged with specific responsibilities – the Penates guard the food stores, Forculus the door, Limentinus the threshold, and Cardea the hinges. Meanwhile every male-family member has their Genius, female their Juno watching over them.


Nature Spirits

Oh, Nature Spirits who inhabit the world
Look upon us with kind eyes.
Help us care for Your world.

Dii Familaris

Dii Familaris guard the home –
Forculus, the door
Limentinus, the threshold
Cardea, the hinges
God Janus, the comings and goings.

So many protecting the family
So many the family honors
We give, They give, we give…..
Round, round, round,
A circle of hospitality
How good knowing the door is protected.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


ADF’s definition of moderation is “cultivating one’s appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical), through excess or deficiency.”

ADF couches moderation in terms of addiction. For me, it is more than that. I see moderation in terms of living a healthy life. Consider how disruptive a life is when ruled by excess emotions. People move from drama to drama, but never resolve
anything. The other extreme is having a life of suppressed emotions. How can anyone experience life, if they chose not to feel? Living a life with icy calmness is as destructive as being an erupting volcano.

Moderation encompasses many things – wisdom, prudence, and a desire not to live in the extremes. In the philosophical sense, moderation is the even handed approach to life. Moderation counsels, “choose the middle path, rather than fluctuate between the two extremes”. As the road map to a fulfilling life, moderation places boundaries on excesses.

In their practical way, Romans modified the extreme parts of the Greek philosophy of stoicism. Valuing moderation, the Romans wanted stoicism to apply to the actual challenges of daily life. For them, practical wisdom was the life lived with good sense. To me, that is the definition of moderation.