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Lecture #10 (Nov. 13) - Religion, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Roman Life

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Rob Mc Cutcheon

Lecture #10 – Religion, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Roman Life What is (and is not) Roman Religion  “roman religion” or “paganism” is not monotheistic either institutionally or in terms of theology o Romans did not all worship the same Gods o However, a set of practises and a worldview characterized all the differing (and competing) cults in the Roman world  Christianity, while very important to the history and culture of late antiquity (the fourth century CE and onwards), was a marginal and unimportant cult during the first three centuries CE  Our knowledge of paganism coloured by Christian depictions of it Religio and Superstitio  Religio and superstitio are not the same thing as “religion” and “superstition” in English  What is religio? o “It is the cultivation of the Gods.” Cicero, The Nature of the Gods (2.8) o “Religio is that which involves concern and veneration of a certain superior nature, which men call ‘divine.’” Cicero, On Invention (2.161)  Religio involved the community’s relationship with the Gods and system of obligations stemming from that relationship o Worship of gods similar to patronage  Supernatural patrons  If they paid homage to the gods, good things would happen – reciprocal relationship  In contrast, superstitio was an excessive personal (and often private) devotion toward ritual and the Gods, which could put the welfare of the community at risk o Based on the desire for knowledge or fear of the gods o Being overly careful with personal relationship with the gods, not of that of the community  With the modern idea of superstition, your fears are not valid/justified o Fears were valid for superstitio  Can only be distinguished in cultures with monotheistic cultures – real gods vs. false gods  Superstitio – worship of true gods, but not the right way to practise o Harmful for the community Characteristics of Roman Religion  About the relationship of the community with the divine, and not about the personal connection between an individual and a God  Roman fundamentally believed in the Gods as a class of immortal, powerful, and intervening beings, who must be dealt with and appeased in order for the healthy functioning of Roman society  Religion in the Roman world was highly local; that is, it had much to do with place and ethnicity  No division between political and religious matters o Religion in Rome was “embedded” in daily life and unavoidable  Little in terms of scripture, complicated theology, or personal moral code and responsibilities  It was ritualistic and thus traditionalist, but open to integrating new gods and cults into its system (the more, the merrier in terms of gods within certain limitations)  Less individualistic than modern society  Embedded in daily life – no distinctions between religion and politics  The number of divine is infinite – it is impossible to know them all o Romans were open to new deities (as long as they ‘fit the mold’)  Religion was localized  consequently, Romans did not force their religion on their colonies  No ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ gods Did Romans Believe in their Gods?  Religion was more of a ritual to appease the gods, but there seemed to be little belief in gods themselves  ‘coldly legalistic’ – about what you did, not what you thought Where was Religion Practised?  Two types of scared places: o Those which people had dedicated to the Gods o Those which the gods themselves had chosen  A templum was a place dedicated to the Gods. A templum was not the building, but a space having been made sacred by augurs. A space could be a templum without having an actual temple built upon it o The Roman temple would have an altar and a cella, within which would be found the cult statue  Augurs would have marked off rectangular/square space & look for a sign from the gods o Must also mark out which direction they are going to look  Roman temples are entered from only one side, unlike Greek temples which are accessed from all sides  Places of nature that inspired awe were places which the Gods chose o Groves, lakes, caves, rivers, and places struck by lightening o E.g. Lake of Diana at Nemi – made by an asteroid  Necropolises were also considered sacred, although not dedicated by men or chosen by the Gods  Roman altars would have been located outside of the walls  The templum may have been marked with walls, boundary stones, railings, or nothing How was Religion Practised?  The primary religious rite in the pagan Roman world was the sacrifice/offering o Three primary types of sacrifice: public, domestic, and private  The location of the sacrifice varied by its type: o A public sacrifice was celebrated in front of the temple, close to the altar  Would occur close to dawn  sense of openness/lightness o The domestic sacrifice took place in one of the more public rooms of the house (atrium of peristylium) o Private sacrifices were usually connected with magic or divination and often done in isolated places, a quiet room, a grove, or a necropolis  Usually associated with superstitio  Nighttime  hidden, dark, closed off  Sacrifices/offerings were conducted by those who had authority (e.g. magistrate, priest, or paterfamilias) o Would take a cleansing bath and wear a white toga (cleanliness, purity) o Toga worn differently - head covered (sign of devotion), arms more free  The sacrifice was often preceded in the public context by a procession to the ritual area  For less wealthy Romans, they would offer a ‘sacrifice’ of porridge to the gods o More meaningful – not offering a gift, but offering the only thing they had  Salutation for the Gods  name specific gods and all other unknown gods who should be honoured The Anatomy of a Sacrifice  The sacrificial animal was nearly always a domestic animal whose gender matched that of the God’s (goats, sheep, cattle) o Gods of the upper world received victims with white hides, while underworld gods received victims with darker hides o For certain gods of fertility (e.g. Tellus and Ceres), pregnant cows were offered up o Idea of ‘structural similarity’  match animal to gods  Animals would wear a decorated and fringed blanket  Mark out seniority of the gods by the age of the animals  Before they would be sacrificed, an animal would need to ‘nod’ to symbolize that they were willing to be sacrificed  Flour would be sprinkled over the animal, and then a knife would be ran down its spine o Larger animals would be killed with an axe, smaller animals would have their throat cut  Exotic animals used for superstitio  Once slaughtered, the entrails of the animal had to be examined (often by a haruspex) to determine the will of the gods o Abnormalities were interpreted as a negative sign from the Gods and thus the whole ritual had to be redone  A new animal would be chosen to be sacrificed  The victim was then cooked, with a required portion allocated to the Gods o The victim of a sacrifice to an underworld god would not be eaten, however, since the living were not supposed to share food with the world of the dead  Sacrifice in public context demonstrated: o Conspicuous consumption o Communal relationships with gods o Superiority of humans over animals Prayer and Divination  Prayer was common, but was typically done aloud and according to a formula o Public in nature  Two types of divination: auspices and augury  Auspices were not direct consultation with the Gods, but rather precise ritual that was thought to reveal the god’s agreement with whomever was consulting them o More common than augury o Could involve bird signs – often chickens in cages o Entrails as auspice during sacrifice o Frequently would keep ‘restudying’ the auspices until they could be deemed favourable  Auguries were natural signs from the Gods and were interpreted by magistrates or augurs o Thunder and lightning were the most common (Jupiter as god of thunder) o Animals at weird places/times/acting strange is a bad omen  There were also many “down-market” forms of divination at all levels of Roman society  Curse tablets  pieces of led with curses inscribed on them o Bundling of god to a person  Predicting the horoscope of the emperor was a mark of treason o Wondering what would happen to the emperor insinuates that you are thinking too much about it Who was in Charge of Religion?  There were as many different priests and religious officials in Rome as there were different cults o The most important and the most powerful college of priests were the pontiffs, the augurs and the decemviri  Pontiffs would advise on sacred law, and they kept ledgers of their laws and decisions  Had an advisory role in the state  The pontiffs had oversight of the state cult – sacrifices, games
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