The Romans and their Religion

If you had been born a Roman citizen in Rome around the time the New Testament was being written, you would probably perform a few ceremonies to usher in your day. You would begin with a prayer and an offering of salt cake at the shrine to the gods of the house in the atrium. You would take the time to be sure you got the right shoe on the right foot, because the last time you didn’t, and got them switched, some catastrophe happened to you. And it would probably happen again if you carelessly switched your shoes again. Then before leaving the house early in the morning, a prayer to the god who permitted safe opening of the door would be in order. Hopefully, someone left in the house–wife or servant–would murmur a prayer to the god who presided over the closing of the door. Otherwise, misfortune might enter the house through the open door.

Before the Senate began each day, offerings were made to more gods, and the omens were read from the entrails of some animal. If everything looked satisfactory, business would begin. If not, everyone went home. If in the course of the day someone heard thunder, the Senate would close up and go home. Thunder was a warning from the gods of ill fortune looming close by. (Occasionally if the Senate became unruly in a heated debate, one of the leading senators would claim to have heard thunder in the distance and the debate would cease and everyone would go home. Hopefully, the next day everyone would be behaving more rationally.)

Natural catastrophes (floods, earthquakes, etc.) were believed to be the work of some god. Eclipses were especially ominous. Some god was extremely angry if an eclipse occured. In the Matthew account of the crucifixion, when darkness fell over the land and was accompanied by an earthquake, you can just see the Roman centurion shaking in his military boots as he says, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” The signs he had been taught to watch for all his life told him there was a greater power at work here.

Romans took religion seriously; and not serious just about the gods they adopted from the Greeks and renamed and built beautiful statues and temples to. It is a mistake to think the Romans relied totally on the Greek gods. They did honor them, but they were more for show and to impress each other with their individual culture since they prized the Greek culture so much. Most important to the Romans were those old faceless, sexless, numerous gods who had no physical form. They might be better described as SPIRITUAL FORCES which governed everything from rain to the function of a doorway, to the proper sitting of boundary stones or the element we call “luck.” (Eventually, some of these gods did acquire names–the door opening god became Janus Patulcius and the door closing one became Janus Clusivius.)

Roman religion was so intimately tied to all the strata of government and even the most worldly and intellectual of the Roman senators subscribed to these religious matters, making them scrupulously superstitious. It was assumed that some god was in charge of everything.

Of course there were some who laughed and scorned the idea of any gods influencing their lives. But most felt that this attitude of contemptuous irreverence was dangerous to the safety of the state, for Roman religion was at its heart a reciprocal agreement between gods and humans. Only if the Roman community, as a whole, conscientiously performed certain rituals upon specified occasions would the gods grant the city their aid and favor. These rituals included prayers, vows, and ceremonial sacrifices (usually of animal flesh). Hence the importance of interpreting auguries and omens, which were the primary means by which the gods imparted their desires and decisions to the human world. Throughout the centuries of the Republic, Romans had always taken their duties to the deities very seriously, from the household gods of the common people to the national gods of Mars and Capitoline Jupiter. And most citizens believed that the success of the Roman state was the direct result of this devotion. It has been said, “To understand the success of the Romans, you must understand their piety.”

Romans did prize the Greek culture. You weren’t anyone unless you could read and write and speak Greek as well as Latin. You had to hire a good Greek teacher for your children. But the Romans did not openly embrace everything Greek. Many Greeks considered homosexuality the highest form of love. The Romans as a culture did not adopt this attitude. In fact, they considered it the lowest form of love, if they considered it at all. Homosexuality did exist in the Roman culture, but it was considered detrimental to a political and military career. Roman soldiers were known to kill a fellow soldier who had made improper advances toward them, sparing the soldier’s family of an embarrassing trial. The Emperor Nero did try to elevate homosexuality to an acceptable level, but everyone knew he was crazy. (Nero was emperor in 54-68 A.D., while Paul was writing his New Testament letters).

Morals varied from time to time and from house to house, as they do in our culture. The emperor Augustus (the emperor when Christ was born) and Tiberius were rather appalled at the laxity in morals and actually tried to legislate morality. Some of the legislation worked, some didn’t. They felt the bonds of family life were disintegrating – divorce and adultery were on the rise. Many Roman citizens were devoting their lives exclusively to the unbridled and degrading pursuit of wealth and luxury – characterized by their possessions that possessed them and their banquet feasts, where some would “eat to vomit and vomit to eat,” as Seneca put it.

The political arena was becoming more and more corrupt. That’s one reason the Republic failed and was replaced by the Empire. But an empire passed on to the previous emperor’s heir did not remove corruption. With some emperors the corruption and morals became even worse. And as for the gods, they really didn’t demand good morals, just allegiance and sacrifices to honor them was enough.

Many of the superstitions which we associate with the Middle Ages, were actually beliefs from the Roman era. The Church became the official religion of Rome around 320 AD, but it never eradicated all the ancient superstitions.


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