* ancient civilizations -- Rome relgion

Ancient Rome: Religion

Figure 1.--This is a bas relief from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, now consrrved in the Capitoline Museum. It shows Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and members of the Imperial family offering sacrifice in gratitude for success against Germanic tribes. Notice the bull to be sacrificed. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitolium can be seen in the background, the only extant portrayal of this important Roman temple. We are not positive who the boy in the center is, but it us surely Commodus. Notice his long curls. His death (192) is usually considered to be the end of the Golden Age of the Empire--the period referred to as the Pax Romana.

Rome's religion is today classified as paganism. It was a kind of mix of religion, morality, and patriotism. As Roman develooed from a small farming village to a great power, the Romans cane to worshipped thousands of gods. Just about everythiung, including living and inanimarte onjects (trees, rocks, streams, bridges, virtually everything) was seen as having a guardian spirit or what might be called a god watching over it. Each of these many spirits or gods had at least one task job to do. Some had very important tasks vital to society. This included watching over the crops, or bringing out the sun daily. Something no one wanted to mess with and thus these gids were vital to society. But all Roman gods were of some importance to someone. The Romans dutifully prayed to their gods daily, sometimes more. As Rome expanded they came in contact with other people who worshiped and adored other gods. In many ways the Romans were tolerant of these additional gods. This was especially true if the conquered people had fought valiantly, the Romans seem to have concluded that their gods must have power to be reconned with. So the Romans adopted many of these gods and added them to their pantheon. They commonly gave those new gods Roman names and commonly changed some of their attributes and behavior to better accomoidate Roman society. Thus is why the Greek gods have Roman names. There was one big exception--the Catheginian god Baal Hammon. Both Carthage and Baal were utterly destroyed as a result of the Punic Wars. Now while foreign gods were ofren added to the Roman pantheon and tolerared, Roman law required that all people in the Empire must if not worship, at keast honor the Roman gods ehich came to include the Emperor. One group that had troube with this were the Jews. In the early years of the Republic, Romans took all this very seriously. By the time of the Empire, many Romans dud theur civic duty, but were much less serious aabout the gods. This explains in part the rise of mystery cults along wiuth Chruistinity. A fundamental step in the waning years of the Empire was the conversion to Christianity. This would fundamentally affect the future of Western civilization. Some authors because of the timing attribute Christianity, at least in part, to the fall of the Empire. Most notably this was Gibbon's principal thesis. [Gibbon] Most modern authors provide a more complex assessment. [Woolf]


Gibbon, Edward. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

Woolf, Greg. Rome: An Empire's Story (2012).


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Created: 7:15 PM 9/26/2020
Last updated: 7:15 PM 9/26/2020