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The Religion of Rome.
-- From Ten Great Religions by James Freeman Clarke, first published 1899
Entered according to Act of Congress,
in the year 1871,
by James Freeman
Clarke, in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
§ 1. Origin and essential Character of the Religion of Rome.
In the Roman state nothing grew, everything was made. The practical
understanding was the despotic faculty in the genius of this people.
Fancy, imagination, humor, seem to have been omitted in the character of
the Latin race. The only form of wit which appeared among them was satire,
that is, wit used for a serious purpose, to punish crimes not amenable to
other laws, to remove abuses not to be reached by the ordinary police. The
gay, light-hearted Greek must have felt in Rome very much as a Frenchman
feels in England. The Romans did not know how to amuse themselves; they
pursued their recreations with ferocious earnestness, making always a
labor of their pleasure. They said, indeed, that it was well sometimes
to unbend, Dulce est desipere in locis; but a Roman when unbent was like
an unbent bow, almost as stiff as before.
In other words, all spontaneity was absent from the Roman mind. Everything
done was done on purpose, with a deliberate intention. This also appears
in their religion. Their religion was not an inspiration, but an
intention. It was all regular, precise, exact. The Roman cultus, like the
Roman state, was a compact mass, in which all varieties were merged into a
stern unity. All forms of religion might come to Rome and take their
places in its pantheon, but they must come as servants and soldiers of
the state. Rome opened a hospitable asylum to them, just as Rome had
established a refuge on the Capitoline Hill to which all outlaws might
come and be safe, on the condition of serving the community.
As everything in Rome must serve the state, so the religion of Rome was a
state institution, an established church. But as the state can only
command and forbid outward actions, and has no control over the heart, so
the religion of Rome was essentially external. It was a system of worship,
a ritual, a ceremony. If the externals were properly attended to, it took
no notice of opinions or of sentiments. Thus we find in Cicero ("De Natura
Deorum") the chief pontiff arguing against the existence of the gods and
the use of divination. He claims to believe in religion as a pontifex,
while he argues against it as a philosopher. The toleration of Rome
consisted in this, that as long as there was outward conformity to
prescribed observances, it troubled itself very little about opinions. It
said to all religions what Gallio said to the Jews: "If it be a question
of words and names and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge
of such matters." Gallio was a genuine representative of Roman sentiment.
With religion, as long as it remained within the limits of opinion or
feeling, the magistrate had nothing to do; only when it became an act of
disobedience to the public law it was to be punished. Indeed, the very
respect for national law in the Roman mind caused it to legalize in Rome
the worship of national gods. They considered it the duty of the Jews, in
Rome, to worship the Jewish God; of Egyptians, in Rome, to worship the
gods of Egypt. "Men of a thousand nations," says Dionysius of
Halicarnassus, "come to the city, and must worship the gods of their
country, according to their laws at home." As long as the Christians in
Rome were regarded as a Jewish sect, their faith was a religio licita,
when it was understood to be a departure from Judaism, it was then a
criminal rebellion against a national faith268.
The Roman religion has often been considered as a mere copy of that of
Greece, and has therefore been confounded with it, as very nearly the same
system. No doubt the Romans were imitators; they had no creative
imagination. They borrowed and begged their stories about the gods, from
Greece or elsewhere. But Hegel has long ago remarked that the resemblance
between the two religions is superficial. The gods of Rome, he says, are
practical gods, not theoretic; prosaic, not poetic. The religion of Rome
is serious and earnest, while that of Greece is gay. Dionysius of
Halicarnassus thinks the Roman religion the better of the two, because it
rejected the blasphemous myths concerning the loves and quarrels of the
heavenly powers. But, on the other hand, the deities of Greece were more
living and real persons, with characters of their own. The deities of Rome
were working gods, who had each a task assigned to him. They all had some
official duty to perform; while the gods of Olympus could amuse themselves
as they pleased. While the Zeus of Greece spent his time in adventures,
many of which were disreputable, the Jupiter Capitolinus remained at home,
attending to his sole business, which was to make Rome the mistress of the
world. The gods of Rome, says Hegel, are not human beings, like those of
Greece, but soulless machines, gods made by the understanding, even when
borrowed from Greek story. They were worshipped also in the interest of
the practical understanding, as givers of earthly fortune. The Romans had
no real reverence for their gods; they worshipped them in no spirit of
adoring love, but always for some useful object. It was a utilitarian
worship. Accordingly the practical faculties, engaged in useful arts, were
deified. There was a Jupiter Pistor, presiding over bakers. There was a
goddess of ovens; and a Juno Moneta, who took care of the coin. There was
a goddess who presided over doing nothing, Tranquillitas Vacuna; and even
the plague had an altar erected to it. But, after all, no deities were so
great, in the opinion of the Romans, as Rome itself. The chief distinction
of these deities was that they belonged to the Roman state269.
Cicero considers the Romans to be the most religious of all nations,
because they carried their religion into all the details of life. This is
true; but one might as well consider himself a devout worshipper of iron
or of wood, because he is always using these materials, in doors and out,
in his parlor, kitchen, and stable.
As the religion of Rome had no doctrinal system, its truths were
communicated mostly by spectacles and ceremonies, which chiefly consisted
in the wholesale slaughter of men and animals. There was something
frightful in the extent to which this was carried; for when cruelty
proceeds from a principle and purpose, it is far worse than when arising
from brutal passion. An angry man may beat his wife; but the deliberate,
repeated, and ingenious torments of the Inquisition, the massacre of
thousands of gladiators in a Roman amphitheatre, or the torture of
prisoners by the North American Indians, are all parts of a system, and
reinforced by considerations of propriety, duty, and religious reverence.
Mommsen remarks270, that the Roman religion in all its details was a
reflection of the Roman state. When the constitution and institutions of
Rome changed, their religion changed with them. One illustration of this
correspondence he finds in the fact that when the Romans admitted the
people of a conquered state to become citizens of Rome, their gods were
admitted with them; but in both cases the new citizens (novensides)
occupied a subordinate position to the old settlers (indigites271).
That the races of Italy, among whom the Latin language originated, were of
the same great Asiatic stock as the Greeks, Germans, Kelts, and Slavic
tribes, is sufficiently proved by the unimpeachable evidence of language.
The old Latin roots and grammatic forms all retain the analogies of the
Aryan families. Their gods and their religion bear marks of the same
origin, yet with a special and marked development. For the Roman nation
was derived from at least three secondary sources,—the Latins, Sabines,
and Etruscans. To these may be added the Pelasgian settlers on the western
coast (unless these are included in the Etruscan element), and the very
ancient race of Siculi or Sikels, whose name suggests, by its phonetic
analogy, a branch of that widely wandering race, the Kelts272. But the
obscure and confused traditions of these Italian races help us very little
in our present inquiry. That some of the oldest Roman deities were Latin,
others Sabine, and others Etruscan, is, however, well ascertained. From
the Latin towns Alba and Lavinium came the worship of Vesta, Jupiter,
Juno, Saturn and Tellus, Diana and Mars. Niebuhr thinks that the Sabine
ritual was adopted by the Romans, and that Varro found the real remains of
Sabine chapels on the Quirinal. From Etruria came the system of
divination. Some of the oldest portions of the Roman religion were derived
from agriculture. The god Saturn took his name from sowing. Picus and
Faunus were agricultural gods. Pales, the goddess of herbage, had
offerings of milk on her festivals. The Romans, says Döllinger, had no
cosmogony of their own; a practical people, they took the world as they
found it, and did not trouble themselves about its origin. Nor had they
any favorite deities; they worshipped according to what was proper, every
one in turn at the right time. Though the most polytheistic of religions,
there ran through their system an obscure conception of one supreme being,
Jupiter Optimus-Maximus, of whom all the other deities were but qualities
and attributes. But they carried furthest of all nations this
personifying and deifying of every separate power, this minute subdivision
of the deity. Heffter273 says this was carried to an extent which was
almost comic. They had divinities who presided over talkativeness and
silence, over beginnings and endings, over the manuring of the fields, and
over all household transactions. And as the number increased, it became
always more difficult to recollect which was the right god to appeal to
under any special circumstances. So that often they were obliged to call
on the gods in general, and, dismissing the whole polytheistic pantheon,
to invoke some unknown god, or the supreme being. Sometimes, however, in
these emergencies, new deities were created for the occasion. Thus they
came to invoke the pestilence, defeat in battle, blight, etc., as
dangerous beings whose hostility must be placated by sacrifices. A better
part of their mythology was the worship of Modesty (Pudicitia), Faith or
Fidelity (Fides), Concord (Concordia), and the gods of home. It was the
business of the pontiffs to see to the creation of new divinities. So the
Romans had a goddess Pecunia, money (from Pecus, cattle), dating from the
time when the circulating medium consisted in cows and sheep. But when
copper money came, a god of copper was added, Æsculanus; and when silver
money was invented, a god Argentarius arrived.
§ 2. The Gods of Rome.
Creuzer, in speaking of the Italian worship, says that "one fact which
emerges more prominently than any other is the concourse of Oriental,
Pelasgic, Samothracian, and Hellenic elements in the religion of Rome." In
like manner the Roman deities bear traces of very different sources. We
have found reason to believe, in our previous chapters, that the religion
of Egypt had a twofold origin, from Asiatic and African elements, and that
the religion of Greece, in like manner, was derived from Egyptian and
Pelasgic sources. So, too, we find the institutions and people of Rome
partaking of a Keltic and Pelasgic origin. Let us now see what was the
character of the Roman deities.
One of the oldest and also most original of the gods of Rome was the
Sabine god JANUS. He was the deity who presided over beginnings and
endings, over the act of opening and shutting. Hence the month which
opened the year, January, received its name from this god, who also gave
his name to Janua, a gate or door274, and probably to the hill
The Romans laid great stress on all beginnings; believing that the
commencement of any course of conduct determined, by a sort of magical
necessity, its results. Bad success in an enterprise they attributed to a
wrong beginning, and the only remedy, therefore, was to begin anew. Ovid
(Fasti, I. 179) makes Janus say, "All depends on the beginning." When
other gods were worshipped, Janus was invoked first of all. He was god of
the year. His temple had four sides for the four seasons, and each side
had three windows for the months. That his temple was open in war, but
closed in peace, indicated that the character of Rome in times of war was
to attack and not to defend. She then opened her gates to send her troops
forth against the enemy; while in seasons of peace she shut them in at
home. This symbol accords well with the haughty courage of the Republic,
which commanded victory, by not admitting the possibility of defeat276.
This deity is believed by Creuzer and others to have had an Indian origin,
and his name to have been derived from the Sanskrit "Jan," to be born.
He resembles no Greek god, and very probably travelled all the way from
Bactria to Rome.
On the Kalends of January, which was the chief feast of Janus, it was the
duty of every Roman citizen to be careful that all he thought, said, or
did should be pure and true, because this day determined the character of
the year. All dressed themselves in holiday garb, avoided oaths, abusive
words, and quarrels, gave presents, and wished each other a happy year.
The presents were little coins with a Janus-head, and sweetmeats. It was
customary to sacrifice to Janus at the beginning of all important
Janus was the great god of the Sabines, and his most ancient temple
appears to have been on Mount Janiculum277. The altar of Fontus, son of
Janus, and the tomb of Numa, a Sabine king, were both supposed to be
there. Ovid also278 makes Janus say that the Janiculum was his citadel.
Ampère remarks as a curious coincidence, that this god, represented with a
key in his hand, as the heavenly gate-keeper, should have his home on the
hill close to the Vatican, where is the tomb of Peter, who also bears a
key with the same significance. The same writer regards the Sabines as
inhabiting the hills of Rome before the Pelasgi came and gave this name of
Roma (meaning "strength") to their small fortress on one side of the
In every important city of Etruria there were temples to the three gods,
JUPITER, JUNO, and MINERVA. In like manner, the magnificent temple of the
Capitol at Rome consisted of three parts,—a nave, sacred to Jupiter; and
two wings or aisles, one dedicated to Juno and the other to Minerva. This
temple was nearly square, being two hundred and fifteen feet long and two
hundred feet wide; and the wealth accumulated in it was immense. The walls
and roof were of marble, covered with gold and silver.
JUPITER, the chief god of Rome, according to most philologists, derives
his name (like the Greek Ζεὸς) from the far-away Sanskrit word "Div" or
"Diu," indicating the splendor of heaven or of day. Ju-piter is from
"Djaus-Pitar," which is the Sanskrit for Father of Heaven, or else from
"Diu-pitar," Father of Light. He is, at all events, the equivalent of
the Olympian Zeus. He carries the lightning, and, under many appellations,
is the supreme god of the skies. Many temples were erected to him in Rome,
under various designations. He was called Pluvius, Fulgurator, Tonans,
Fulminator, Imbricitor, Serenator,—from the substantives designating
rain, lightning, thunder, and the serene sky. Anything struck with
lightning became sacred, and was consecrated to Jupiter. As the supreme
being he was called Optimus Maximus, also Imperator, Victor, Invictus,
Stator, Prædator, Triumphator, and Urbis Custos. And temples or shrines
were erected to him under all these names, as the head of the armies, and
commander-in-chief of the legions; as Conqueror, as Invincible, as the
Turner of Flight, as the God of Booty, and as the Guardian of the City.
There is said to have been in Rome three hundred Jupiters, which must mean
that Jupiter was worshipped under three hundred different attributes.
Another name of this god was Elicius, from the belief that a method
existed of eliciting or drawing down the lightning; which belief probably
arose from an accidental anticipation of Dr. Franklin's famous experiment.
There were no such myths told about Jupiter as concerning the Greek Zeus.
The Latin deity was a much more solemn person, his whole time occupied
with the care of the city and state. But traces of his origin as a ruler
of the atmosphere remained rooted in language; and the Romans, in the time
of Augustus, spoke familiarly of "a cold Jupiter," for a cold sky, and of
a "bad Jupiter," for stormy weather.
The Juno of the Capitol was the Queen of Heaven, and in this sense was the
female Jupiter. But Juno was also the goddess of womanhood, and had the
epithets of Virginensis, Matrona, and Opigena; that is, the friend of
virgins, of matrons, and the daughter of help. Her chief festival was the
Matronalia, on the first of March, hence called the "Women's Kalends." On
this day presents were given to women by their husbands and friends. Juno
was the patroness of marriage, and her month of June was believed to be
very favorable for wedlock. As Juno Lucina she presided over birth; as
Mater Matuta,279 over children; as Juno Moneta, over the mint.
The name of Minerva, the Roman Athênê, is said to be derived from an old
Etruscan word signifying mental action.280 In the songs of the Sabians
the word "promenervet" is used for "monet." The first syllable evidently
contains the root, which in all Aryan languages implies thought. The
Trinity of the Capitol, therefore, united Power, Wisdom, and Affection, as
Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno. The statue of Minerva was placed in schools.
She had many temples and festivals, and one of the former was dedicated to
her as Minerva Medica.
The Roman pantheon contained three classes of gods and goddesses. First,
the old Italian divinities, Etruscan, Latin, and Sabine, naturalized and
adopted by the state. Secondly, the pale abstractions of the
understanding, invented by the College of Pontiffs for moral and political
purposes. And thirdly, the gods of Greece, imported, with a change of
name, by the literary admirers and imitators of Hellas.
The genuine deities of the Roman religion were all of the first order.
Some of them, like Janus, Vertumnus, Faunus, Vesta, retained their
original character; others were deliberately confounded with some Greek
deity. Thus Venus, an old Latin or Sabine goddess to whom Titus Tatius
erected a temple as Venus Cloacina, and Servius Tullius another as Venus
Libertina,281 was afterward transformed into the Greek Aphroditê,
goddess of love. If it be true, as is asserted by Nævius and Plautus, that
she was the goddess of gardens, as Venus Hortensis and Venus Fruti, then
she may have been originally the female Vertumnus. So Diana was originally
Diva Jana, and was simply the female Janus, until she was transformed into
the Greek Artemis.
The second class of Roman divinities were those manufactured by the
pontiffs for utilitarian purposes,—almost the only instance in the
history of religion of such a deliberate piece of god-making. The purpose
of the pontiffs was excellent; but the result, naturally, was small. The
worship of such abstractions as Hope (Spes), Fear (Pallor), Concord
(Concordia), Courage (Virtus), Justice (Æquitas), Clemency (Clementia),
could have little influence, since it must have been apparent to the
worshipper himself that these were not real beings, but only his own
conceptions, thrown heavenward.
The third class of deities were those adopted from Greece. New deities,
like Apollo, were imported, and the old ones Hellenized. The Romans had no
statues of their gods in early times; this custom they learned from
Greece. "A full river of influence," says Cicero, "and not a little brook,
has flowed into Rome out of Greece282." They sent to Delphi to inquire
of the Greek oracle. In a few decades, says Hartung, the Roman religion
was wholly transformed by this Greek influence; and that happened while
the senate and priests were taking the utmost care that not an iota of the
old ceremonies should be altered. Meantime the object was to identify the
objects of worship in other countries with those worshipped at home. This
was done in an arbitrary and superficial way, and caused great confusion
in the mythologies283. Accidental resemblances, slight coincidences of
names, were sufficient for the identification of two gods. As long as the
service of the temple was unaltered, the priests troubled themselves very
little about such changes. In this way, the twelve gods of Olympus—Zeus,
Poseidôn, Apollo, Arês, Hêphæstos, Hermes, Hêrê, Athênê, Artemis,
Aphroditê, Hestia, and Dêmêtêr—were naturalized or identified as Jupiter,
Neptune, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan, Mercury, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Venus,
Vesta, and Ceres, Dionysos became Liber or Bacchus; Persephonê,
Proserpina; and the Muses were accepted as the Greeks had imagined them.
To find the true Roman worship, therefore, we must divest their deities of
these Greek habiliments, and go back to their original Etruscan or Latin
Among the Etruscans we find one doctrine unknown to the Greeks and not
adopted by the Romans; that, namely, of the higher "veiled deities,"284
superior to Jupiter. They also had a dodecad of six male and six female
deities, the Consentes and Complices, making a council of gods, whom
Jupiter consulted in important cases. Vertumnus was an Etruscan; so,
according to Ottfried Müller, was the Genius. So are the Lares, or
household protectors, and Charun, or Charon, a power of the under-world.
The minute system of worship was derived by Rome from Etruria. The whole
system of omens, especially by lightning, came from the same source.
After Janus, and three Capitoline gods (Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva), above
mentioned, the Romans worshipped a series of deities who may be classed as
I. Gods representing the powers of nature:—
1. SOL, the Sun. A Sabine deity. In later times the poets attributed to
him all the characters of Helios; but as a Roman god, he never emerged
into his own daylight.
2. LUNA, the Moon. Also regarded as of Sabine origin.
3. MATER MATUTA. Mother of Day, that is, the dawn. Worshipped at the
Matronalia in June, as the possessor of all motherly qualities, and
especially as the protector of children from ill-treatment. As the storms
were apt to go down at morning, she was appealed to to protect mariners
from shipwreck. The consul Tib. Semp. Gracchus dedicated a temple to her
4. TEMPESTATES, the tempests. A temple was dedicated to the storms, B.C.
5. VULCANUS. This name is supposed to be from the same root as "fulgeo,"
to shine. He was an old Italian deity. His temple is mentioned as
existing B.C. 491.
6. FONTUS, the god of fountains. The Romans valued water so highly, that
they erected altars and temples to this divinity, and had a feast of
fountains (Fontinalia) on October 13th. There were also goddesses of
fountains, as Lynapha Juturna, the goddess of mineral springs. Egeria is
the only nymph of a fountain mentioned in Roman mythology.
7. DIVUS PATER TIBERINUS, or Father Tiber, was of course the chief river
god. The augurs called him Coluber, the snake, from his meandering and
8. NEPTUNUS. The origin of this word has been a great puzzle to the
learned, who, however, connect it with nebula, a cloud, as the clouds come
from the sea. He had his temple and his festivals at Rome.
Other deities connected with the powers of nature were PORTUNUS, the god
of harbors; SALACIA, a goddess of the salt sea; TRANQUILLITAS, the goddess
of calm weather.
II. Gods of human relations:—
1. VESTA, an ancient Latin goddess, and one of the oldest and most
revered. She was the queen of the hearth and of the household fire. She
was also the protector of the house, associated with the Lares and
Penates. Some offering was due to her at every meal. She sanctified the
Afterward, when all Rome became one vast family, Vesta became the goddess
of this public home, and her temple was the fireside of the city, in which
burned always the sacred fire, watched by the vestal virgins. In this
worship, and its associations, we find the best side of Roman
manners,—the love of home, the respect for family life, the hatred of
impurity and immodesty. She was also called "the mother," and qualified as
Mater Stata, that is, the immovable mother.
2. The PENATES and LARES. These deities were also peculiarly Roman. The
Lar, or Lares, were supposed to be the souls of ancestors which resided in
the home and guarded it. Their images were kept in an oratory or domestic
chapel, called a Lararium, and were crowned by the master of the house to
make them propitious. The paterfamilias conducted all the domestic worship
of the household, whether of prayers or sacrifices, according to the maxim
of Cato, "Scito dominum pro tota familia rem divinam facere285." The
Penates were beings of a higher order than the Lares, but having much the
same offices. Their name was from the words denoting the interior of the
mansion (Penetralia, Penitus). They took part in all the joys and sorrows
of the family. To go home was "to return to one's Penates." In the same
way, "Lar meus" meant "my house "; "Lar conductus," "a hired house ";
"Larem mutare" meant to change one's house. Thus the Roman in his home
felt himself surrounded by invisible friends and guardians. No other
nation, except the Chinese, have carried this religion of home so far.
This is the tender side of the stern Roman character. Very little of
pathos or sentiment appears in Roman poetry, but the lines by Catullus to
his home are as tender as anything in modern literature. The little
peninsula of Sirmio on the Lago di Garda has been glorified by these few
3. The GENIUS. The worship of the genius of a person or place was also
peculiarly Italian. Each man had his genius, from whom his living power
and vital force came. Tertullian speaks of the genius of places. On coins
are found the Genius of Rome. Almost everything had its genius,—nations,
colonies, princes, the senate, sleep, the theatre. The marriage-bed is
called genial, because guarded by a genius. All this reminds us of the
Fravashi of the Avesta and of the Persian monuments. Yet the Genius also
takes his place among the highest gods.
III. Deities of the human soul:—
1. MENS, Mind, Intellect.
2. PUDICITIA, Chastity.
3. PIETAS, Piety, Reverence for Parents.
4 FIDES, Fidelity.
5. CONCORDIA, Concord.
6. VIRTUS, Courage.
7. SPES, Hope.
8. PALLOR or PAVOR, Fear.
9. VOLUPTAS, Pleasure.
IV. Deities of rural and other occupations:—
1. TELLUS, the Earth.
2. SATURNUS, Saturn. The root of this name is SAO = SERO, to sow. Saturn
is the god of planting and sowing.
3. OPS, goddess of the harvest.
4. MARS. Originally an agricultural god, dangerous to crops; afterwards
god of war.
5. SILVANUS, the wood god.
6. FAUNUS, an old Italian deity, the patron of agriculture.
7. TERMINUS, an old Italian deity, the guardian of limits and boundaries.
8. CERES, goddess of the cereal grasses.
9. LIBER, god of the vine, and of wine.
10. BONA DEA, the good goddess. The worship of the good goddess was
imported from Greece in later times; and perhaps its basis was the worship
of Dêmêtêr. The temple of the good goddess was on Mount Aventine. At her
feast on the 1st of May all suggestions of the male sex were banished from
the house; no wine must be drunk; the myrtle, as a symbol of love, was
removed. The idea of the feast was of a chaste marriage, as helping to
preserve the human race.
11. MAGNA MATER, or Cybele. This was a foreign worship, but early
introduced at Rome.
12. FLORA. She was an original goddess of Italy, presiding over flowers
and blossoms. Great license was practised at her worship.
13. VERTUMNUS, the god of gardens, was an old Italian deity, existing
before the foundation of Rome.
14. POMONA, goddess of the harvest.
18. PALES. A rural god, protecting cattle. At his feast men and cattle
The Romans had many other deities, whose worship was more or less
popular. But those now mentioned were the principal ones. This list shows
that the powers of earth were more objects of reverence than the heavenly
bodies. The sun and stars attracted this agricultural people less than the
spring and summer, seedtime and harvest. Among the Italians the country
was before the city, and Rome was founded by country people.
§ 3. Worship and Ritual.
The Roman ceremonial worship was very elaborate and minute, applying to
every part of daily life. It consisted in sacrifices, prayers, festivals,
and the investigation by augurs and haruspices of the will of the gods and
the course of future events. The Romans accounted themselves an
exceedingly religious people, because their religion was so intimately
connected with the affairs of home and state.
The Romans distinguished carefully between things sacred and profane. This
word "profane" comes from the root "fari," to speak; because the gods
were supposed to speak to men by symbolic events. A fane is a place thus
consecrated by some divine event; a profane place, one not
consecrated.286 But that which man dedicates to the gods (dedicat or
dicat) is sacred, or consecrated.287 Every place which was to be
dedicated was first "liberated" by the augur from common uses; then
"consecrated" to divine uses by the pontiff. A "temple" is a place thus
separated, or cut off from other places; for the root of this word, like
that of "tempus" (time) is the same as the Greek τέμνω, to
The Roman year was full of festivals (feriæ) set apart for religious
uses. It was declared by the pontiffs a sin to do any common work on these
days, but works of necessity were allowed. These festivals were for
particular gods, in honor of great events in the history of Rome, or of
rural occurrences, days of purification and atonement, family feasts, or
feasts in honor of the dead. The old Roman calendar288 was as carefully
arranged as that of modern Rome. The day began at midnight. The following
is a view of the Roman year in its relation to festivals:—
- 1. Feast of Janus, the god of beginnings.
- 9. Agonalia.
- 11. Carmentalia. In honor of the nymph Carmenta, a woman's
- 16. Dedication of the Temple of Concord.
- 31. Feast of the Penates.
- 1. Feast of Juno Sospita, the Savior: an old goddess.
- 13. Faunalia, dedicated to Faunus and the rural gods.
- 15. Lupercalia. Feast of fruitfulness.
- 17. Fornacalia. Feast of the oven goddess Fornax.
- 18 to 28. The Februatio, or feast of purification and atonement,
and the Feralia, or feast of the dead. Februus was an old
Etrurian god of the under-world. Also, the Charistia, a family
festival for putting an end to quarrels among relations.
- 23. Feast of Terminus, god of boundaries. Boundary-stones anointed
- 1. Feast of Mars. Also, the Matronalia. The Salii, priests
of Mars, go their rounds, singing old hymns.
- 6. Feast of Vesta.
- 7. Feast of Vejovis or Vedius, i.e. the boy Jupiter.
- 14. Equiria, or horse-races in honor of Mars.
- 15. Feast of Anna-Perenna, goddess of health.
- 17. Liberalia, Feast of Bacchus. Young men invested with the
Toga-Virilis on this day.
- 19 to 23. Feast of Minerva, for five days. Offerings made to her
by all mechanics, artists, and scholars.
- 1. Feast of Venus, to whom the month is sacred.
- 4. Megalesia. Feast of Cybele and Altys. It lasted six days, and
was the Roman analogue of the feast of Ceres in Greece and of Isis
- 12. Cerealia. Feast of Ceres. Games in the circus.
- 15. Fordicicia. Feast of cows.
- 21. Palililia. Feast of Pales, and of the founding of Rome.
- 23. Vinalia. Feast of new wine.
- 25. Robigalia. Feast of the goddess of blight, Robigo.
- 28. Floralia. Feast of the goddess Flora; very licentious.
- 1. Feast of the Bona Dea, the good goddess; otherwise Maia, Ops,
Tellus, or the Earth. This was the feast held by women secretly in
the house of the pontiff.
- 9. Lemuralia. Feast of the departed spirits or ghosts.
- 12. Games to Mars.
- 23. Tubilustria, to consecrate wind instruments.
- 1. Feast of Carna, goddess of the internal organs of the body,
and of Juno Moneta.
- 4. Feast of Bellona.
- 5. Feast of Deus Fidius.
- 7 to 15. Feast of Vesta.
- 19. Matralia. Feast of Mater Matuta.
Other lesser festivals in this month to Summanus, Fortuna, Fortis,
Jupiter Stator, etc.
- 1. Day devoted to changing residences, like the 1st of May in New York.
4. Fortuna Muliebris.
- 5. Populifuga. In memory of the people's flight, on some
occasion, afterward forgotten.
- 7. Feast of Juno Caprotina.
- 15. Feast of Castor and Pollux.
Other festivals in this month were the Lucaria, Neptunalia, and
- 1. Games to Mars.
- 17. Feast of the god Portumnus.
- 18. Consualia, feast of Consus. Rape of the Sabines.
- 23. Vulcanalia, to avert fires.
- 25. Opeconsivia. Feast of Ops Consiva.
The chief feasts in this month were the games (Ludi Magni or Romani)
in honor of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.
- 13. Fontinalia. Feast of fountains, when the springs were strewed
- 15. Sacrifice of a horse to Mars.
The feasts in November are unimportant.
- 5. Faunalia, in honor of Faunus.
- 19. Saturnalia, sacred to Saturn. A Roman thanksgiving for the
harvest. It lasted seven days, during which the slaves had their
liberty, in memory of the age of Saturn, when all were equal. The
rich kept open table to all comers, and themselves waited on the
slaves. Presents were interchanged, schools were closed. The Senate
did not sit.
Thus religion everywhere met the public life of the Roman by its
festivals, and laid an equal yoke on his private life by its requisition
of sacrifices, prayers, and auguries. All pursuits must be conducted
according to a system, carefully laid down by the College of Pontiffs.
Sacrifices and prayers of one or another kind were demanded during most of
the occasions of life. Hidden in our word "inaugurate" is the record of
the fact that nothing could be properly begun without the assistance of
the augurs. Sacrifices of lustration and expiation were very common, not
so much for moral offences as for ceremonial mistakes. The doctrine of the
opus operatum was supreme in Roman religion. The intention was of little
importance; the question was whether the ceremony had been performed
exactly in accordance with rule. If not, it must be done again. Sometimes
fifty or a hundred victims were killed before the priestly etiquette was
contented. Sometimes magistrates must resign because the college of augurs
suspected some informality in the ceremonies of their election. Laws were
annulled and judicial proceedings revoked for the same reason. If the
augurs declared the signs unfavorable, a public meeting must be adjourned
and no business done. A single mistake in the form of a prayer would make
it ineffectual. If a man went out to walk, there was a form to be recited;
if he mounted his chariot, another. All these religious acts were of the
nature of charms, which acted on the gods by an inherent power, and
compelled them to be favorable, whatever their own wishes might be. The
gods were, therefore, as much the slaves of external mechanical laws as
the Romans themselves. In reality, the supreme god of Rome was law, in the
form of rule. But these rules afterward expanded, as the Roman
civilization increased, into a more generous jurisprudence. Regularity
broadened into justice.289 But for a long period the whole of the Roman
organic law was a system of hard external method. And the rise of law as
justice and reason was the decline of religion as mere prescription and
rule. This one change is the key to the dissolution of the Roman system of
The seat of Roman worship in the oldest times was the Regia in the Via
Sacra, near the Forum. This was the house of the chief pontiff, and here
the sacrifices were performed290 by the Rex Sacrorum. Near by was the
temple of Vesta. The Palatine Hill was regarded as the home of the Latin
gods, while the Quirinal was that of the Sabine deities. But the Penates
of Rome remained at Lavinium, the old metropolis of the Latin
Confederation, and mother of the later city. Every one of the highest
officers of Rome was obliged to go and sacrifice to the ancient gods, at
this mother city of Lavinium, before entering on his office.
The old worship of Rome was free from idolatry. Jupiter, Juno, Janus, Ops,
Vesta, were not represented by idols. This feature was subsequently
imported by means of Hellenic influences coming through Cuma and other
cities of Magna Græcia. By the same channels came the Sibylline books.
There were ten Sibyls,—the Persian, Libyan, Delphian, Cumæan,
Erythræan, Samian, Amalthæan, Hellespontine, Phrygian, and Tiburtine.
The Sibylline books authorized or commanded the worship of various Greek
gods; they were intrusted to the Decemviri.
Roman worship was at first administered by certain patrician families, and
this was continued till B.C. 300, when plebeians were allowed to enter the
sacred colleges. A plebeian became Pontifex Maximus, for the first time,
The pontiffs (Pontifices) derived their name (bridge-builders) from a
bridge over the Tiber, which it was their duty to build and repair in
order to sacrifice on either bank. They possessed the supreme authority in
all matters of worship, and decided questions concerning marriage,
inheritance, public games.
The Flamens were the priests of particular deities. The office was for
life, and there were fifteen Flamens in all. The Flamen Dialis, or priest
of Jupiter, had a life burdened with etiquette. He must not take an oath,
ride, have anything tied with knots on his person, see armed men, look at
a prisoner, see any one at work on a Festa, touch a goat, or dog, or raw
flesh, or yeast. He must not bathe in the open air, pass a night outside
the city, and he could only resign his office on the death of his wife.
This office is Pelasgic, and very ancient.
The Salii were from early times priests of Mars, who danced in armor, and
sang old hymns. The Luperci were another body of priests, also of very
ancient origin. Other colleges of priests were the Epulones, Curiones,
The Vestal virgins were highly honored and very sacred. Their work was to
tend the fire of Vesta, and prevent the evil omen of its extinction. They
were appointed by the Pontifex Maximus. They were selected when very
young, and could resign their office after thirty years of service. They
had a large revenue, enjoyed the highest honors, and to strike them was a
capital offence. If a criminal about to be executed met them, his life was
spared. Consuls and prætors must give way to them in the streets. They
assisted at the theatres and at all public entertainments. They could go
out to visit and to dine with their relations. Their very presence
protected any one from assault, and their intercession must not be
neglected. They prepared the sacred cakes, took part in many sacrifices,
and had the charge of a holy serpent, keeping his table supplied with
The duty of the augurs was to inquire into the divine will; and they could
prevent any public business by declaring the omens unfavorable. The name
is probably derived from an old Aryan word, meaning "sight" or "eye,"
which has come to us in the Greek αὐγή, and the German
auge. Our words "auspicious" and "auspicate" are derived from the
"auspices," or outlook on nature which these seers practised. For they
were in truth the Roman seers. Their business was to look, at midnight,
into the starry heavens; to observe thunder, lightning, meteors; the
chirping or flying of birds; the habits of the sacred chickens; the
appearance of quadrupeds; or casualties of various kinds, as sneezing,
stumbling, spilling salt or wine. The last relics of these superstitions
are to be found in the little books sold in Rome, in which the fortunate
number in a lottery is indicated by such accidents and events of common
The Romans, when at prayer, were in the habit of covering their heads, so
that no sound of evil augury might be heard. The suppliant was to kiss his
right hand, and then turn round in a circle and sit down. Many formulæ of
prayers were prescribed to be used on all occasions of life. They must be
repeated three times, at least, to insure success. Different animals were
sacrificed to different gods,—white cattle with gilded horns to Jupiter,
a bull to Apollo, a horse to Mars. Sometimes the number of victims was
enormous. On Caligula's accession, one hundred and sixty thousand victims
were killed in the Roman Empire.
Lustrations were great acts of atonement or purification, and are often
described by ancient writers. The city was lustrated by a grand procession
of the four colleges of Augurs, Pontifices, Quindecemviri, and Septemviri.
Lucan, in his Pharsalia, describes such a lustration.291 Tacitus gives a
like description, in his History,292 of the ceremonies attending the
rebuilding the Capitol. On an auspicious day, beneath a serene sky, the
ground chosen for the foundation was surrounded with ribbons and flowers.
Soldiers, selected for their auspicious names, brought into the enclosure
branches from the trees sacred to the gods. The Vestal virgins, followed
by a band of children, sprinkled the place with water drawn from three
fountains and three rivers. The prætor and the pontiff next sacrificed a
swine, a sheep, and a bull, and besought Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva to
favor the undertaking. The magistrates, priests, senators, and knights
then drew the corner-stone to its place, throwing in ingots of gold and
The Romans, ever anxious about the will of the gods, naturalized among
themselves the Etruscan institution of the Haruspices. The prodigies
observed were in the entrails of animals and the phenomena of nature. The
parts of the entrails observed were the tongue, lungs, heart, liver, gall
bladder, spleen, kidneys, and caul. If the head of the right lobe of the
liver was absent, it was considered a very bad omen. If certain fissures
existed, or were absent, it was a portent of the first importance. But the
Romans were a very practical people, and not easily deterred from their
purpose. So if one sacrifice failed they would try another and another,
until the portents were favorable. But sceptical persons were naturally
led to ask some puzzling questions, such as these, which Cicero puts in
his work on Divination:293 How can a cleft in a liver be connected, by
any natural law, with my acquisition of a property? If it is so connected,
what would be the result, if some one else, who was about to lose his
property, had examined the same victim? If you answer that the divine
energy, which extends through the universe, directs each man in the choice
of a victim, then how happens it that a man having first had an
unfavorable omen, by trying again should get a good one? How happens it
that a sacrifice to one deity gives a favorable sign, and that to another
the opposite? But these criticisms only arrived after the old Roman faith
had begun to decline.
Funeral solemnities were held with great care and pomp, and festivals for
the dead were regularly celebrated. The dead father or mother was
accounted a god, and yet a certain terror of ancestral spectres was shown
by a practice of driving them out of the house by lustrations. For it was
uncertain whether the paternal Manes were good spirits, Lares, or evil
spirits, and Lemures. Consequently in May there was the Lemuria, or feast
for exorcising the evil spirits from houses and homes, conducted with
§ 4. The Decay of the Roman Religion.
"The more distinguished a Roman became," says Mommsen, "the less was he a
free man. The omnipotence of law, the despotism of the rule, drove him
into a narrow circle of thought and action, and his credit and influence
depended on the sad austerity of his life. The whole duty of man, with the
humblest and greatest of the Romans, was to keep his house in order, and
be the obedient servant of the state." While each individual could be
nothing more than a member of the community, a single link in the iron
chain of Roman power; he, on the other hand, shared the glory and might of
all-conquering Rome. Never was such esprit de corps developed, never
such intense patriotism, never such absolute subservience and sacrifice
of the individual to the community. But as man is manifold and cannot be
forever confined to a single form of life, a reaction against this narrow
patriotism was to be expected in the interest of personal freedom, and it
came very naturally from Greek influences. The Roman could not contemplate
the exuberant development of Greek thought, art, literature, society,
without bitterly feeling how confined was his own range, how meagre and
empty his own life. Hence, very early, Roman society began to be
Hellenized, but especially after the unification of Italy. To quote
Mommsen once more: "The Greek civilization was grandly human and
cosmopolitan; and Rome not only was stimulated by this influence, but was
penetrated by it to its very centre." Even in politics there was a new
school, whose fixed idea was the consolidation and propagandism of
republicanism; but this Philhellenism showed itself especially in the
realm of thought and faith. As the old faith died, more ceremonies were
added; for as life goes out, forms come in. As the winter of unbelief
lowers the stream of piety, the ice of ritualism accumulates along its
banks. In addition to the three colleges of Pontiffs, Haruspices, and
Quindecemviri, another of Epulones, whose business was to attend to the
religious feasts, was instituted in A.U. 558 (B.C. 196). Contributions and
tithes of all sorts were demanded from the people. Hercules, especially,
as is more than once intimated in the plays of Plautus, became very rich
by his tithes.294 Religion became more and more a charm, on the exact
performance of which the favor of the gods depended; so that ceremonies
were sometimes performed thirty times before the essential accuracy was
The gods were now changed, in the hands of Greek statuaries, into
ornaments for a rich man's home. Greek myths were imported and connected
with the story of Roman deities, as Ennius made Saturn the son of Coelus,
in imitation of the genealogy of Kronos. That form of rationalism called
Euhemerism, which explains every god into a mythical king or hero, became
popular. So, too, was the doctrine of Epicharmos, who considered the
divinities as powers of nature symbolized. According to the usual course
of events, superstition and unbelief went hand in hand. As the old faith
died out, new forms of worship, like those of Cybele and Bacchus, came in.
Stern conservatives like Cato opposed all these innovations and
scepticisms, but ineffectually.
Gibbon says that "the admirable work of Cicero,'De Naturâ Deorum,' is the
best clew we have to guide us through this dark abyss" (the moral and
religious teachings of the philosophers).295 After, in the first two
books, the arguments for the existence and providence of the gods have
been set forth and denied, by Velleius the Epicurean, Cotta the
academician, and Balbus the Stoic; in the third book, Cotta, the head of
the priesthood, the Pontifex Maximus, proceeds to refute the stoical
opinion that there are gods who govern the universe and provide for the
welfare of mankind. To be sure, he says, as Pontifex, he of course
believes in the gods, but he feels free as a philosopher to deny their
existence. "I believe in the gods," says he, "on the authority and
tradition of our ancestors; but if we reason, I shall reason against their
existence." "Of course," he says, "I believe in divination, as I have
always been taught to do. But who knows whence it comes? As to the voice
of the Fauns, I never heard it; and I do not know what a Faun is. You say
that the regular course of nature proves the existence of some ordering
power. But what more regular than a tertian or quartan fever? The world
subsists by the power of nature." Cotta goes on to criticise the Roman
pantheon, ridiculing the idea of such gods as "Love, Deceit, Fear, Labor,
Envy, Old Age, Death, Darkness, Misery, Lamentation, Favor, Fraud,
Obstinacy," etc. He shows that there are many gods of the same name;
several Jupiters, Vulcans, Apollos, and Venuses. He then denies
providence, by showing that the wicked succeed and the good are
unfortunate. Finally, all was left in doubt, and the dialogue ends with a
tone of triumphant uncertainty. This was Cicero's contribution to
theology; and Cicero was far more religious than most men of his period.
Many writers, and more recently Merivale,296 have referred to the
remarkable debate which took place in the Roman Senate, on the occasion of
Catiline's conspiracy. Cæsar, at that time chief pontiff, the highest
religious authority in the state, gave his opinion against putting the
conspirators to death; for death, says he, "is the end of all suffering.
After death there is neither pain nor pleasure (ultra neque curæ, neque
gaudii locum)." Cato, the Stoic, remarked that Cæsar had spoken well
concerning life and death. "I take it," says he, "that he regards as false
what we are told about the sufferings of the wicked hereafter," but does
not object to that statement. These speeches are reported by Sallust, and
are confirmed by Cicero's fourth Catiline Oration. The remarkable fact is,
not that such things were said, but that they were heard with total
indifference. No one seemed to think it was of any consequence one way or
the other. Suppose that when the question of the execution of Charles I.
was before Parliament, it had been opposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury
(had he been there) on the ground that after death all pain and pleasure
ceased. The absurdity of the supposition shows the different position of
the human mind at the two epochs.
In fact, an impassable gulf yawned between the old Roman religion and
modern Roman thought. It was out of the question for an educated Roman,
who read Plato and Zeno, who listened to Cicero and Hortensius, to believe
in Janus and the Penates. "All very well for the people," said they. "The
people must be kept in order by these superstitions."297 But the secret
could not be kept. Sincere men, like Lucretius, who saw all the evil of
these superstitions, and who had no strong religious sense, would speak
out, and proclaim all religion to be priestcraft and an unmitigated
evil. The poem of Lucretius, "De Rerum Naturâ," declares faith in the gods
to have been the curse of the human race, and immortality to be a silly
delusion. He denies the gods, providence, the human soul, and any moral
purpose in the universe. But as religion is an instinct, which will break
out in some form, and when expelled from the soul returns in disguise,
Lucretius, denying all the gods, pours out a lovely hymn to Venus, goddess
of beauty and love.
The last philosophic protest, in behalf of a pure and authoritative faith,
came from the Stoics. The names of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius
Antoninus gave dignity, if they could not bring safety, to the declining
religion of Rome.
Seneca, indeed, was inferior to the other two in personal character, and
was more of a rhetorician than a philosopher. But noble thoughts occur in
his writings. "A sacred spirit sits in every heart," he says, "and treats
us as we treat it." He opposed idolatry, he condemned animal sacrifices.
The moral element is very marked in his brilliant pages. Philosophy, he
says, is an effort to be wise and good.298 Physical studies he condemns
as useless.299 Goodness is that which harmonizes with the natural
movements of the soul.300 God and matter are the two principles of all
being; God is the active principle, matter the passive. God is spirit, and
all souls are part of this spirit.301 Reason is the bond which unites
God and other souls, and so God dwells in all souls.302
One of the best sayings of Epictetus is that "the wise man does not merely
know by tradition and hearsay that Jupiter is the father of gods and men;
but is inwardly convinced of it in his soul, and therefore cannot help
acting and feeling according to this conviction."303
Epictetus declared that the philosopher could have no will but that of the
deity; he never blames fate or fortune, for he knows that no real evil can
befall the just man. The life of Epictetus was as true as his thoughts
were noble, but he had fallen on an evil age, which needed for its reform,
not a new philosophy, but a new inspiration of divine life. This steady
current downward darkened the pure soul of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, of
whom Niebuhr says,304 "If there is any sublime human virtue, it is his."
He adds: "He was certainly the noblest character of his time; and I know
no other man who combined such unaffected kindness, mildness, and humility
with such conscientiousness and severity towards himself." "If there is
anywhere an expression of virtue, it is in the heavenly features of M.
Aurelius. His 'Meditations' are a golden book, though there are things in
it which cannot be read without deep grief, for there we find this purest
of men without happiness." Though absolute monarch of the Empire, and rich
in the universal love of his people, he was not powerful enough to resist
the steady tendency to decay in society. Nor did he know that the power
that was to renew the life of the world was already present in
Christianity. He himself was in soul almost a Christian, though he did not
know it, and though the Christian element of faith and hope was wanting.
But he expressed a thought worthy of the Gospel, when he said: "The man of
disciplined mind reverently bids Nature, who bestows all things and
resumes them again to herself, 'Give what thou wilt, and take what thou
Although we have seen that Seneca speaks of a sacred, spirit which dwells
in us, other passages in his works (quoted by Zeller) show that he was,
like other Stoics, a pantheist, and meant the soul of the world. He says
(Nat. Qu., II. 45, and Prolog. 13): "Will you call God the world? You may
do so without mistake. For he is all that you see around you." "What is
God? The mind of the universe. What is God? All that you see, and all that
you do not see."306
It was not philosophy which destroyed religion in Rome. Philosophy, no
doubt, weakened faith in the national gods, and made the national worship
seem absurd. But it was the general tendency downward; it was the loss of
the old Roman simplicity and purity; it was the curse of Cæsarism, which,
destroying all other human life, destroyed also the life of religion. What
it came to at last, in well-endowed minds, may be seen in this extract
from the elder Pliny:—
"All religion is the offspring of necessity, weakness, and fear. What
God is, if in truth he be anything distinct from the world, it is
beyond the compass of man's understanding to know. But it is a foolish
delusion, which has sprung from human weakness and human pride, to
imagine that such an infinite spirit would concern himself with the
petty affairs of men. It is difficult to say, whether it might not be
better for men to be wholly without religion, than to have one of this
kind, which is a reproach to its object. The vanity of man, and his
insatiable longing after existence, have led him also to dream of a
life after death. A being full of contradictions, he is the most
wretched of creatures; since the other creatures have no wants
transcending the bounds of their nature. Man is full of desires and
wants that reach to infinity, and can never be satisfied. His nature is
a lie, uniting the greatest poverty with the greatest pride. Among
these so great evils, the best thing God has bestowed on man is the
power to take his own life."307
The system of the Stoics was exactly adapted to the Roman character; but,
naturally, it exaggerated its faults instead of correcting them. It
supplanted all other systems in the esteem of leading minds; but the
narrowness of the Roman intellect reacted on the philosophy, and made that
much more narrow than it was in the Greek thought. It became simple
ethics, omitting both the physical and metaphysical side.
Turning to literature, we find in Horace a gay epicureanism, which always
says: "Enjoy this life, for it will be soon over, and after death there is
nothing left for us." Virgil tells us that those are happy who know the
causes of things, and so escape the terrors of Acheron. The serious
Tacitus, a man always in earnest, a penetrating mind, is by Bunsen called
"the last Roman prophet, but a prophet of death and judgment. He saw that
Rome hastened to ruin, and that Cæsarism was an unmixed evil, but an evil
not to be remedied."308 He declares that the gods had to mingle in Roman
affairs as protectors; they now appeared only for vengeance.309 Tacitus
in one passage speaks of human freedom as superior to fate,310 but in
another expresses his uncertainty on the whole question.311 Equally
uncertain was he concerning the future life, though inclined to believe
that the soul is not extinguished with the body.312
But the tone of the sepulchral monuments of that period is not so hopeful.
Here are some which are quoted by Döllinger,313 from Muratori and
Fabretti: "Reader, enjoy thy life; for, after death, there is neither
laughter nor play, nor any kind of enjoyment." "Friend, I advise thee to
mix a goblet of wine and drink, crowning thy head with flowers. Earth and
fire consume all that remains at death." "Pilgrim, stop and listen. In
Hades is no boat and no Charon; no Eacus and no Cerberus. Once dead, we
are all alike." Another says: "Hold all a mockery, reader; nothing is our
So ended the Roman religion; in superstition among the ignorant, in
unbelief among the wise. It was time that something should come to renew
hope. This was the gift which the Gospel brought to the Romans,—hope for
time, hope beyond time. This was the prayer for the Romans of the Apostle
Paul: "Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost."314 A
remarkable fact, that a Jewish writer should exhort Romans to hope and
§ 5. Relation of the Roman Religion to Christianity.
The idea of Rome is law, that of Christianity is love. In Roman worship
law took the form of iron rules; in Roman theology it appeared as a stern
fate; in both as a slavery. Christianity came as freedom, in a worship
free from forms, in a view of God which left freedom to man. Christianity
came to the Roman world, not as a new theory, but as a new life. As,
during the early spring, the power of the returning sun penetrates the
soil, silently touching the springs of life; so Christianity during two
hundred years moved silently in the heart of Roman society, creating a new
faith, hope, and love. And as, at last, in the spring the grass shoots,
the buds open, the leaves appear, the flowers bloom; so, at last,
Christianity, long working in silence and shadow, suddenly became
apparent, and showed that it had been transforming the whole tone and
temper of Roman civilization.
But wherever there is action there is also reaction, and no power or force
can wholly escape this law. So Roman thought, acted on by Christianity,
reacted and modified in many respects the Gospel. Not always in a bad way,
sometimes it helped its developments. For the Providence which made the
Gospel for the Romans made the Romans for the Gospel.
The great legacy bequeathed to mankind by ancient Rome was law. Other
nations, it is true, had codes of law, like the Institutes of Manu in
India, or the jurisprudence of Solon and the enactments of Lycurgus. But
Roman law from the beginning was sanctified by the conviction that it was
founded on justice, and not merely on expediency or prudence. In
submitting to the laws, even when they were cruel and oppressive, the
Roman was obeying, not force, but conscience. The view which Plato gave as
an ideal in Crito was realized in Roman society from the first. Consider
the cruel enactments which made the debtors the slaves of the creditor,
and the fact that when the plebeians were ground to the earth by that
oppression, they did not attempt to resist the law, but in their despair
fled from their homes, beyond the jurisdiction of Rome, to establish a new
city where these enactments could not reach them. Only when the laws are
thus enforced by the public conscience as something sacred, does society
become possible; and this sense of the divinity which hedges a code of
laws has been transmitted from ancient Rome into the civilization of
Cicero, in his admirable treatise on the laws, which unfortunately we have
in an imperfect condition, devotes the whole of the first book to
establishing eternal justice as the basis of all jurisprudence. No better
text-book could have been found for the defence of what was called "the
higher law," in the great American antislavery struggle, than this work of
Cicero. "Let us establish," he says, "the principles of justice on that
supreme law which has existed from all ages before any legislative
enactments were written, or any political governments formed." "Among all
questions, there is none more important to understand than this, that man
is born for justice; and that law and equity have not been established by
opinion, but by nature." "It is an absurd extravagance in some
philosophers to assert that all things are necessarily just which are
established by the laws and institutions of nations." "Justice does not
consist in submission to written laws." "If the will of the people, the
decrees of the senate, the decisions of magistrates, were sufficient to
establish rights, then it might become right to rob, to commit adultery,
to forge wills, if this was sanctioned by the votes or decrees of the
majority." "The sum of all is, that what is right should be sought for its
own sake, because it is right, and not because it is enacted."
Law appears from the very beginnings of the Roman state. The oldest
traditions make Romulus, Numa, and Servius to be legislators. From that
time, after the expulsion of the Tarquins, Rome was governed by laws. Even
the despotism of the Cæsars did not interfere with the general
administration of the laws in civil affairs; for the one-man power, though
it may corrupt and degrade a state, does not immediately and directly
affect many persons in their private lives. Law continued to rule in
common affairs, and this legacy of a society organized by law was the gift
of Rome to modern Europe. How great a blessing it has been may be seen by
comparing the worst Christian government with the best of the despotic
governments of Asia. Mohammedan society is ruled by a hierarchy of
tyranny, each little tyrant being in turn the victim of the one above him.
The feudal system, introduced by the Teutonic races, attempted to organize
Europe on the basis of military despotism; but Roman law was too strong
for feudal law, and happily for mankind overcame it and at last expelled
Christianity, in its ready hospitality for all the truth and good which it
encounters, accepted Roman jurisprudence and gave to it a new lease of
life.315 Christian emperors and Christian lawyers codified the long line
of decrees and enactments reaching back to the Twelve Tables, and
established them as the laws of the Christian world. But the spirit of
Roman law acted on Christianity in a more subtle manner. It reproduced the
organic character of the Roman state in the Western Latin Church, and it
reproduced the soul of Roman law in the Western Latin theology.
It has not always been sufficiently considered how much the Latin Church
was a reproduction, on a higher plane, of the old Roman Commonwealth. The
resemblance between the Roman Catholic ceremonies and those of Pagan Rome
has been often noticed. The Roman Catholic Church has borrowed from
Paganism saints' days, incense, lustrations, consecrations of sacred
places, votive-offerings, relics; winking, nodding, sweating, and bleeding
images; holy water, vestments, etc. But the Church of Rome itself, in its
central idea of authority, is a reproduction of the Roman state religion,
which was a part of the Roman state. The Eastern churches were sacerdotal
and religious; the Church of Rome added to these elements that of an
organized political authority. It was the resurrection of Rome,—Roman
ideas rising into a higher life. The Roman Catholic Church, at first an
aristocratic republic, like the Roman state, afterwards became, like the
Roman state, a disguised despotism. The Papal Church is therefore a legacy
of ancient Rome.316
And just as the Roman state was first a help and then a hindrance to the
progress of humanity, so it has been with the Roman Catholic Church.
Ancient Rome gradually bound together into a vast political unity the
divided tribes and states of Europe, and so infused into them the
civilization which she had developed or received. And so the Papal Church
united Europe again, and once more permeated it with the elements of law,
of order, of Christian faith. All intelligent Protestants admit the good
done in this way by the mediæval church.
For example, Milman317 says, speaking of Gregory the Great and his work,
that it was necessary that there should be some central power like the
Papacy to resist the dissolution of society at the downfall of the Roman
Empire. "The life and death of Christianity" depended, he says, "on the
rise of such a power." "It is impossible to conceive what had been the
confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the Middle Ages, without
the mediæval Papacy."
The whole history of Rome had infused into the minds of Western nations a
conviction of the importance of centralization in order to union. From
Rome, as a centre, had proceeded government, law, civilization.
Christianity therefore seemed to need a like centre, in order to retain
its unity. Hence the supremacy early yielded to the Bishop of Rome. His
primacy was accepted, because it was useful. The Papal Church would never
have existed, if Rome and its organizing ideas had not existed before
Christianity was born.
In like manner the ideas developed in the Roman mind determined the course
of Western theology, as differing from that of the East. It is well known
that Eastern theological speculation was occupied with the nature of God
and the person of Christ, but that Western theology discussed sin and
salvation. Mr. Maine, in his work on "Ancient Law," considers this
difference to have been occasioned by habits of thought produced by Roman
jurisprudence. I quote his language at some length:—
"What has to be determined is whether jurisprudence has ever served as the
medium through which theological principles have been viewed; whether, by
supplying a peculiar language, a peculiar mode of reasoning, and a
peculiar solution of many of the problems of life, it has ever opened new
channels in which theological speculation could flow out and expand
"On all questions," continues Mr. Maine, quoting Dean Milman, "which
concerned the person of Christ and the nature of the Trinity, the Western
world accepted passively the dogmatic system of the East." "But as soon as
the Latin-speaking empire began to live an intellectual life of its own,
its deference to the East was at once exchanged for the agitation of a
number of questions entirely foreign to Eastern speculation." "The nature
of sin and its transmission by inheritance, the debt owed by man and its
vicarious satisfaction, and like theological problems, relating not to the
divinity but to human nature, immediately began to be agitated." "I
affirm," says Mr. Maine, "without hesitation, that the difference between
the two theological systems is accounted for by the fact that, in passing
from the East to the West, theological speculation had passed from a
climate of Greek metaphysics to a climate of Roman law. For some centuries
before these controversies rose into overwhelming importance, all the
intellectual activity of the Western Romans had been expended on
jurisprudence exclusively. They had been occupied in applying a peculiar
set of principles to all combinations in which the circumstances of life
are capable of being arranged. No foreign pursuit or taste called off
their attention from this engrossing occupation, and for carrying it on
they possessed a vocabulary as accurate as it was copious, a strict method
of reasoning, a stock of general propositions on conduct more or less
verified by experience, and a rigid moral philosophy. It was impossible
that they should not select from the questions indicated by the Christian
records those which had some affinity with the order of speculations to
which they were accustomed, and that their manner of dealing with them
should not borrow something from their forensic habits. Almost every one
who has knowledge enough of Roman law to appreciate the Roman penal
system, the Roman theory of the obligations established by contract or
delict, the Roman view of debts, etc., the Roman notion of the continuance
of individual existence by universal succession, may be trusted to say
whence arose the frame of mind to which the problems of Western theology
proved so congenial, whence came the phraseology in which these problems
were stated, and whence the description of reasoning employed in their
solution." "As soon as they (the Western Church) ceased to sit at the feet
of the Greeks and began to ponder out a theology of their own, the
theology proved to be permeated with forensic ideas and couched in a
forensic phraseology. It is certain that this substratum of law in Western
theology lies exceedingly deep."318
The theory of the atonement, developed by the scholastic writers,
illustrates this view. In the East, for a thousand years, the atoning work
of Christ had been viewed mainly as redemption, as a ransom paid to
obtain the freedom of mankind, enslaved by the Devil in consequence of
their sins. It was not a legal theory, or one based on notions of
jurisprudence, but it was founded on warlike notions. Men were captives
taken in war, and, like all captives in those times, destined to slavery.
Their captor was Satan, and the ransom must be paid to him, as he held
them prisoners by the law of battle. Now as Christ had committed no sin,
the Devil had no just power over him; in putting Christ to death he had
lost his rights over his other captives, and Christ could justly claim
their freedom as a compensation for this injury. Christ, therefore,
strictly and literally, according to the ancient view, "gave his life a
ransom for many."
But the mind of Anselm, educated by notions derived from Roman
jurisprudence, substituted for this original theory of the atonement one
based upon legal ideas. All, in this theory, turns on the law of debt and
penalty. Sin he defines as "not paying to God what we owe him."319 But
we owe God constant and entire obedience, and every sin deserves either
penalty or satisfaction. We are unable to make it good, for at every
moment we owe God all that we can do. Christ, as God-man, can satisfy God
for our omissions; his death, as offered freely, when he did not deserve
death on account of any sin of his own, is sufficient satisfaction. It
will easily be seen how entirely this argument has substituted a legal
basis for the atonement in place of the old warlike foundation.
This, therefore, has been the legacy of ancient Rome to Christianity:
firstly, the organization of the Latin Church; secondly, the scholastic
theology, founded on notions of jurisprudence introduced into man's
relations to God. In turn, Christianity has bestowed on Western Europe
what the old Romans never knew,—a religion of love and inspiration. In
place of the hard and cold Roman life, modern Europe has sentiment and
heart united with thought and force. With Roman strength it has joined a
Christian tenderness, romance, and personal freedom. Humanity now is
greater than the social organization; the state, according to our view, is
made for man, not man for the state. We are outgrowing the hard and dry
theology which we have inherited from Roman law through the scholastic
teachers; but we shall not outgrow our inheritance from Rome of unity in
the Church, definite thought in our theology, and society organized by