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

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