On Roman Religion (by Tiro)

“To them that ask thee, where hast thou seen the gods, or how knowest thou certainly that there be gods, that thou art so devout in their worship? I answer first of all, that even to the very eye, they are in some manner visible and apparent. Secondly, neither have I ever seen mine own soul, and yet I respect and honour it. So then for the gods, by the daily experience that I have of their power and providence towards myself and others, I know certainly that they are, and therefore worship them.”
– Marcus Aurelius Antoninus; Meditations 12:XXI

A NOTE ON LATIN and DATING (stop sniggering at the back)

I’m going to talk at you for a little while about Rome, and about its history, its religion and its mythology, and what it all means to me. Yes, I know: it’s always about me… But before I get started I’d like to touch briefly on the issue of Rome’s language. The Romans, as we know, spoke Latin. Latin is a beautiful, melodic language, whose sparkly appeal is matched only by my completely bunglesome approach to speaking it. I don’t ‘speak it’, by the way – let’s get that out of the way right now, before anyone takes to thinking I’m giving it all like “look at me, I speak Latin, don’tcha know”. I can speak Latin fine when I’ve got some written down in front of me and plenty of time to work out how to pronounce it, but I won’t be giving any persuasive speeches in the forum any time soon.

As well as being a very appealing language – to me, anyway – Latin is also, unfortunately, a very dead one. There are those who’d argue otherwise, and some of those people will get a mention tonight; but for the most part very few people actually use Latin these days. Catholic clergy do – it’s still an official language in the Vatican City State, although they use a strange-sounding variant called ‘ecclesiastical Latin’, although that’s about as far from Roman street Latin as Shakespeare is from your average drunken football chant.
So, aside the Catholic Church, no-one uses Latin any more. The Church and the occasional scholar, of course: historians and the like who study the writings of ancient Latin speakers. No, writers. Well, you know. So. The Church and historians. And then there are the biologists, of course: lots of scientific terminology in the biological sciences is Latin. And Greek. So, yes. The Catholic Church, historians and biologists. But other than that, no-one. Apart from doctors and other medical types, whose textbooks are packed with it.
But apart from all those people, no-one uses Latin any more. It’s a dead language.

All right – on reflection it’s perhaps a little more alive than you might think. But one thing we can’t do with any great degree of reliability is work out just how Latin would have sounded as it was spoken all those centuries ago. Linguists have pieced together some of the rules, and it’s those rules I wanted to mention, because most of them I’m going to ignore.
Where I’ve used dates, I’m going to give you the BC and AD dates that you’re used to (BCE or CE if you prefer – but I’ve always been of the view that a rose by any other name, and all that), but I’m going to also give you the year according to the late Roman dating system, called ‘ab urbe condita’, or “from the founding of the city”. I’m doing this because I think it gives a better idea of the timescales involved by not splitting the calendar into two.

THE FOUNDATION OF ROME

Year 1 Ab Urbe Condita was, logically, the year the city of Rome was founded. There may have been a zero, but I’m not getting into that. It was founded by a legendary fellow called Romulus. You may have heard of him: he and his brother were the chaps who were raised by wolves, and Romulus is the one who didn’t get murdered (allegedly) by the other one. Well, allegedly or not, Remus never featured much in the stories after the first few pages, so you can draw your own conclusions on that score.

Romulus has two histories. There’s the mythological one in which he’s raised by wolves, and the historical one that the Romans didn’t really talk much about. They preferred the one that had the founder of their society as a divinely protected individual raised by noble wild beasts. Incidentally, suggestions that the word ‘lupa’ – or ‘she-wolf’ – may in fact have been used here in its slang sense of ‘prostitute’ are entirely scurrilous and totally without foundation (except inasmuch as they’re widely accepted linguistically and historically and actually provide a likely explanation of the legend).

Still, if you were to ask a Roman which interpretation of Romulus’ story is the true one, they’d look at you askance. The question wouldn’t make a great deal of sense to them. To a Roman, mythology is at least as true as mundane historical fact. History makes for an essential record of worldly truth, but mythology provides essential truth beyond the earthly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the time our story begins, there are no Romans. There is no Rome, to speak of. Romulus and his brother Remus are heirs to the leadership of a tribe in west central Italia. It’s around 2,762 years ago, and the brothers plan to found a new city on a hill called the Palatine. A brotherly dispute over the exact positioning of the city’s foundations escalates into ‘allegedly’, and Romulus find himself the sole ruler of the new city, which he names ‘Roma’, after himself (and if you’re one of those who thinks it’s a bit of a shame that he didn’t go the whole hog and call it ‘Romulus’, so we could eventually have had a Romulan Empire, then I need you to help me with the Klingon translation of the website). His people are a fairly small band of… well, yobboes, quite frankly. Bandits, rogues, and other assorted undesirables exiled or fugitive from the settlements around about. It’s not so much that they share any particular ambition to be together; it’s more that they all have a desire not to be somewhere else. Romulus they accepted as their king, much in the way that Robin Hood was the king, so to speak, of his Merry Men. He didn’t have any particular right to the authority, but he’d proven himself a capable leader and earned himself a measure of loyalty.

The followers of Romulus spend much of their time shouting abuse and throwing things at the neighbouring tribes, such as the Sabines, who’ve settled many of the nearby hills. Gradually, the little community of hoodlums grows, as people wander out into the hills and join up, but there’s something missing. The Romani (the ‘people of Roma’) were somewhat short on female companionship and – being practical above all else – they were conscious that the absence of women meant their tribe promised to be small and short-lived. So, lacking the capacity to breed their own yobboes, Romulus and the lads sent out a nice RSVP to the Sabines inviting them out for dinner – seven-thirty for eight o’ clock, please bring a bottle and all your women. They duly nabbed all the attending ladies and, shall we say, ‘adopted’ them. Now this was a while ago – you could do this sort of thing back then and it was just put down to laddish high spirits. The Sabines weren’t entirely delighted about the whole thing, and a bit of a skirmish ensued; but the Romans, being slightly more practised at brutality, came out on top and the Sabine tribe ended up entirely absorbed by Rome.

With his people’s future now a little more secure, Romulus sets about divvying up his followers into various groups of politicians, soldiers, workers and layabouts. Out of the general population he takes 3,300 combat-capable men and uses them to form the first Roman legion. From the remainder – those who are too old or otherwise not suitable for fighting – he takes 100 men and forms them into a council to advise him in his rule. This council he names the ‘Senate’, because it’s composed of senior citizens, and its members he declares ‘patricians’ – the first of what would become the Roman upper class.

With the basis of his government organised, Romulus hands swords to the soldiers and instructs them to go out and grab a bit more land. This they do with some gusto, and before very much longer the neighbouring tribes have all submitted to Roman domination.

In time – according to legend, thirty-eight years after assuming power – Romulus died. At a gathering at the Campus Martius – a field sacred to Mars, the god of war and agriculture – there was a great storm, and when it subsided Romulus was nowhere to be seen. A senator called Proculus announced to the terrified people that – far from having been assassinated and surreptitiously disposed of due to his increasingly tyrannical attitude to rule – Romulus had in fact ascended into heaven, where he now sat as the god Quirinus, alongside Mars, and Jupiter, the Father and King of the Gods.

Quirinus issued one notable commandment, to whit: “go forth and kick ass”. Which I could have translated into Latin if I’d wanted to, but just I didn’t want to. Okay? Okay.
The Roman people, then, cheerfully went out and conquered everything they could see; fending off various unruly mobs of People Who Didn’t Want To Be Conquered, and pretty soon, they ruled a sizeable portion of western Italia.

Then the wheel fell off the chariot.

The Trouble With Authority

Romulus’ successor as king was decided by public vote – as were all the kings from that point on. Rome was a monarchy, but not a hereditary one. Pratchett fans may recognise this as the same system that selects the Patricians of Ankh-Morpork; and in the real world, the system still exists for the selection of popes – the ‘kings’ of the Vatican City State.
Unfortunately, the people of Rome didn’t seem to be able to work out when their favoured candidate was going to turn out to be a bit of a nutcase, and the last of the kings – Tarquinius Superbus… Let’s say he didn’t endear himself to the people. After a particularly nasty example of the abuse of power, the people decided they’d had it up to here with these pompous kings, and started to ask themselves just what good they were anyway. A fellow called Lucius Junius Brutus eventually took the job of giving King Tarquin the bum’s rush, and with the king and his family high-tailing it into the hills, the Romans establish a system of public rule – the ‘res publica Romanum’, literally the ‘collective property of the Roman public’; what we now refer to as the Roman Republic. The Senate, now elected and headed by two consuls chosen from amongst the senators, took direct control of the state and began to govern on behalf of the people. This form of government ‘by the people and for the people’ was encapsulated in the symbol adopted for all state affairs: Senatus Populusque Romanus – The Senate and the People of Rome; commonly abbreviated to SPQR.

The Republic period lasted from 244AUC (509BC) to shortly after 709AUC (44BC). The Republic did a grand job of representing the interests of the Roman people, expanding their influence through a combination of culture, economic might and – true to Quirinus’ instruction – the occasional application of monstrous military force.

And at home, the Senate and its two leaders kept the peace by the simple principle of ensuring that the people were fed, watered, entertained, and that they hated all the politicians pretty much equally. This worked spiffingly well until a proconsul named Gaius Julius Caesar won yet another military campaign – this time against the tribes of Gallia, or Gaul, in the region mainly occupied by modern France. Caesar was out doing all this noble and heroic military stuff for the glory of Rome, while his co-consul, and close friend, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was stuck at home doing the unpopular domestic governing. This threatened instability. Failing in its various attempts to get the unruly Caesar to just come bloody home and shut the frak up and stop embarrassing everyone please, the Senate declared his Gallic war illegal, and Caesar himself a traitor and war criminal.

Caesar was the sort of chap who saw the opportunity in a crisis, and in this case, he rallied his men, crossed the river Rubicon and marched on Rome, where after a short break for a civil war he got himself voted ‘Dictator-For-Life’. Nice work if you can get it. Or maybe not: a few months later he was abundantly perforated by a bunch of scheming no-goods in the forum (and to hear the government talk today you’d think Knife Crime was a modern problem), another war ensued, and before you knew where you were the Republic lay dead, and the Imperium Romanorum – the Roman Empire – stood in its place.

(Actually, this is a modern perspective: to the Romans at the time, the Republic never fell. The men we call the ’emperors’ of Rome were never so called by the people of the day. Instead, they were called ‘princeps’ – the title for the head of the Senate – whilst ‘imperium’ was simply that authority which enabled a general to command his troops. Over time an impressive number of other previously separate titles were consolidated in the ‘princeps’, and they no longer had to be elected to stay in power – but other than that it was all exactly as it was before Caesar, no really.)

The Roman Empire continued mighty for almost another five hundred years. But its influence was waning; internal discord and decadence, plus increasingly frequent assaults by barbarians wore down the cohesion of the state, until it finally broke in two. The Western Empire ultimately collapsed in 1229AUC (476AD), ninety-six years after adopting Christianity as its official religion. The eastern half continued on as the Byzantine Empire until 2206AUC (1453AD) when it too finally collapsed

THE GODS OF ROME

So we can see that, all told, Romans tended to have a problem with authority. They didn’t like kings much, weren’t all that fond of politicians, and tended to tolerate emperors only for a year or two before murdering them and selling the throne to a different one.
But there were some forms of authority that Romans did respect – or at least, felt it was probably unwise to ignore. Back where we started, as the Romans-to-be began to gather in Romulus’ shiny new city on the Palatine, many brought with them the gods and goddesses who had watched over the homes and fields of their former homelands. Divinity was a powerful influence in Roman life, and an integral part of the operation of the state itself. Even in its earliest days, Rome was home to countless thousands of household and agricultural deities. Being personal to the families they protected, many of these gods and goddesses’ names are lost to history. But as Rome began to consolidate as a social and political entity, the gods too began to expand their influences. Some of them established themselves so well in the burgeoning kingdom that they became the Top Twelve gods, or, as the locals referred to them, the Dii Consentes. Their names are still familiar to us today:

Apollo, who originated in Greek paganism, is a god of the Sun, of light and truth, and of healing; and he’s renowned as an expert archer. In fact, his skill at hitting tiny moving targets from a long way away is the reason his name was chosen for NASA’s Moon programme. He’s also known as ‘Phoebus’ in some later Roman writings.

Ceres (CARE-eez) is the goddess of fields, crops and the harvest. The Romans depended on her for their staple foods, and her name is the root of our word ‘cereal’. She’s also got a small planet named after her.

Diana (dee-ANNA) is the Romans’ Moon Goddess. She’s a hunter and presides over feminine matters, chastity and virginity.

Juno (YOU-know) is the Queen of the Gods, sister and wife of Jupiter and the Roman ‘mother goddess’ figure. She has authority over marriage and prosperity. The month of June is named for her, and it’s considered the most auspicious time to marry.

Jupiter (YOU-pitta)– or Deus Pater (DAY-oose PART-er) – is literally ‘the god father’. He’s the Father and King of the Gods, and has dominion over the sky, the law and the state. He is commonly styled ‘Jupiter Optimus Maximus’ – Jupiter the Best and the Greatest – and this style is often found on votive plaques and other religious inscriptions as ‘IOM’, ‘I’ and ‘J’ being equivalent in Latin.

Mars is properly called Martius, and he was originally a local god of agriculture and rose in prominence to become the Roman god of war. He was one of the gods most revered by the militaristic Romans. He’s the source of the word ‘martial’, often applied to things military, as in ‘court martial’ or ‘martial law’. The month of March is also sacred to him, and is a particularly good time for military practice, planning and preparation.

Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, craft, magic and music. Her image survives in the modern world in many statues and designs, especially relating to education and knowledge. Many colleges and universities in Britain and in the United States have statues and images of Minerva. She also features on the reverse of British 50p pieces in her aspect of ‘Britannia’, the personification of Britain.

The planet Mercury is the fastest world in the solar system, completing an orbit of the Sun – one year on Mercury – in just 59 days. It’s named for the fastest god, Mercury, or Mercurius, who, like his Greek equivalent Hermes, is the messenger of the gods. He’s also responsible for communications in general, and is the de facto god of the Internet. He also has responsibility for traders (his name sharing its root with the word ‘merchant’), commerce in general, and thieves.

Neptune or Neptunus is the god of the sea, loosely equivalent to the Greek god Poseidon. Neptune is the god of salt and fresh water, and of horses.

Venus, or Venera, holds dominion over matters of love, sex and beauty. Contrary to artistic depictions, she does, in fact, have a perfectly serviceable pair of arms. Aside a multitude of nineteenth-century references to love, she also lends her name to the unfortunate variety of health concerns specifically related to, um, intimate matters.

Vesta is the goddess of hearth and home. Romans looked to her to protect their houses and their families and ensure that domestic life was untroubled. She was an important figure in state theology, having her own order of priestesses, who we’ll look at in a moment (look, that is, but don’t touch, or there will be terrible things happen to you).

And last only in alphabetical terms, we have Vulcan, the smith, the forgemaster, and the god of fire. Vulcan – or Volcanus – gives us our word for the explody fiery mountain phenomenon and is someone you probably want to try to stay on the right side of. But then, they all are, more or less.

As well as these famous twelve, there’s also a supporting cast of hundreds, nay thousands, of gods; many of whose names you may also have heard. Deities like Janus, who looks after hallways and doors and gives us our word ‘janitor’, for, well, someone who works in the hallways. Victoria, the goddess of righteous victory; Roman equivalent of the Greek Nike, whose name you might well nick to put on your line of sportswear. Invidia, the goddess of retribution, known to the Greeks as Nemesis. Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld and his consort Proserpina. Naenia, the goddess of death and funerals. Aurora, goddess of the dawn; her sister Luna, goddess of the Moon; and their brother Sol, god of the Sun.
And perhaps most importantly of all, and yet very rarely referred to directly, the Parcae, the powers to whom even the gods are answerable: Nona, who spins the thread of destiny; Decima, who measures it; and Morta, who finally cuts it. These three, or beings like them, appear in Roman mythology, in Greek myth as the ‘Moirae’, and in Norse mythology as the ‘Norns’. In Roman legend, they weave the strands of destiny together according to a plan that even the gods aren’t entirely privy to.

Mythology

You’ll likely have noticed that just about every Roman god I’ve just mentioned came with a Greek equivalent. A sort of divine Buy One Get One Free. In fact, the Mediterranean and European cultures of the day were pretty casual god-swappers: deities would quite cheerfully move around, spread themselves out, and when they found others doing similar jobs they might start to associate, and – eventually – even merge together. In fact, from a certain point of view it’s possible to argue that the Greek and Roman gods are, in most cases, the same entities; but simply looked at in different ways by their followers. Apollo, as we’ve seen, certainly wouldn’t argue with that: there’s no question that he is the same god in Greece and in Rome.

Another interesting case is that of the Greek healer god Asklepios, known to the Romans as Asclepius. The Greeks tell the story of Asklepios: born to a human woman by the aforementioned Apollo, he angered Zeus by bringing people back from the dead. For this upset to the natural order, Zeus killed Asklepios with a thunderbolt. Apollo was enraged, there was something of a fallout on Olympus, and eventually Asklepios was raised into heaven where he became a medicinal deity subordinate to his divine father. He can be seen today as the constellation Ophiuchus, or Serpentarius in Latin, meaning ‘the snake holder’. (The snake is sacred to Asclepius, and his symbol is a rod with a snake coiled around. This symbol is another ancient survival into the modern day, being an international emblem for emergency medical services.)

This story shows that the same god can appear in two separate pantheons, and with a fairly minimal change of name. But the story of Asclepius’ life, death and deification is not Roman. It’s purely Greek. The reason for this is that the Romans generally lacked the rich and complex mythology of the Greek religion. In Greece, the lives of the gods were a veritable soap opera, with comings and goings, fall-outs, obsessions, promises, betrayals, schemes and shenanigans. In Rome, they just were. To a Greek, the important thing about religious mythology was the moral lessons that could be learned from the stories of gods and heroes.

I began this venture with a quote from the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, renowned as a philosopher and considered one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (out of a good few hundred). His words effectively sum up the Roman view of deity. The gods are not distant beings who sit apart from Nature, controlling it from afar and guiding human affairs. Instead, a Roman would view the gods as a fact of Nature, visible right there within it, not so much controlling human affairs as hosting them.

In the Roman state religion, even where they looked to the same or comparable deities, the important thing was the maintenance of the Pax Deorum, which I’ll explain after the break. What you believed about a god wasn’t as important as what you did for that god, and what you expected them to do for you. This was the foundation of the Roman State Religion.

(BREAK for BEER!)

RELIGION – PUBLIC AND PRIVATE

In the modern day, the republic of the United States of America concerns itself greatly with the concept of the ‘Separation of Church and State’. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution dictates that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”; which is often misinterpreted – particularly by militant atheists – to mean that religion shouldn’t really be allowed in America. The separation of church and state is a bitterly – and occasionally violently – disputed issue in the US, where religion tends to be an enormously emotive subject in general.

But to a Roman, the concept of the separation of religion and government would have been entirely alien. They were, in effect, the same thing. Law was divided into two main areas of concern: the res publica – the ‘things of the people’, from which, as we saw earlier, the term ‘republic’ was drawn – and the ‘res divina’, the ‘things of the gods’. Just as there were magistrates, prefects, praetors and consuls to look after the administration of the law as it applied to mortals, so there was a hierarchy of priests to ensure that the gods were properly served by the state.

The Pax Deorum

The basis of religion at all levels in Rome was the ‘Pax Deorum’. This means the ‘peace of the gods’, and refers to the reciprocal arrangement that the ever-pragmatic Romans entered into with their gods. Needless to say, gods are powerful, and deserving of some respect for that alone. But Romans are strong and independent and wilful and some might possibly say maybe a tad bloody-minded and belligerent. They don’t bow to someone just because that person’s powerful. There has to be some tangible benefit. “What”, the Romans asked of their deities, “do we get out of all this sacrificing and ritualising you demand of us?”

“Fair question”, the gods replied, “if a little cocky. Well, how about this: you do all the sacrificing and ritualising that we’ve asked you for, and we’ll not smash your upstart little city to pieces and eradicate every last one of you tiny insignificant buggers from the face of the earth?”

“Well, since you put it like that,” the people said, “Hand us that white bull, shall you, and the big knife. Ta.”

The Priesthood

So the first role of the priesthood was to ensure – as far as it was possible for the state as a whole to do so – the maintenance of the human side of the Pax Deorum.

The overall responsibility for ensuring that the state as a whole complied with the Pax fell to the chief priest of the city, the Pontifex Maximus. This office – literally meaning ‘the chief bridge-builder’ – was created during the reign of the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who succeeded Romulus.

The Pontifex Maximus headed the first of Rome’s religious colleges (in Rome, a college was a committee of sorts, as opposed to our sense of an educational establishment), the Collegium Pontificum, or in English the ‘College of Pontiffs’.

The role of the College of Pontiffs was primarily to advise the king, and later the Senate, on religious affairs – what the gods wanted and what they would offer in return, usually in terms of weakened enemies, bumper harvests, fruitful loins and so on. Without compliance with the gods’ demands, Rome could expect grim times: offend Ceres, and you could look forward to famine and starvation. Mars, if not treated properly, could easily withdraw his support from your latest military adventure and send your best-trained legionaries scurrying for the hills like whipped dogs. Upset Vulcan, and don’t be surprised to see your town finish up as a grim museum piece full of ash-encased bodies. If that last one sounds unfair, you can be confident that it was certainly the explanation widely accepted at the time.

The College of Pontiffs also included the ‘flamines’ (fla-MEEN-eyz). These sound as though they ought to have been leggedy pink birds with ridiculous bills; however, to the best of history’s knowledge this was almost never the case. Rather, the flamines were the plural of the flamen, and the flamen was the priest who had a specific responsibility to one particular god. He knew what the god wanted, how happy they were, why they might not be happy and what needed to be done to make them less unhappy. As mentioned, an unhappy god can cause a considerable amount of mischief, so the flamines really are there for your own good. Pay attention to what they tell you, no matter how barmy it might sound.
One of the most important duties of the Pontiffs was to set the calendar for the year. Roman timekeeping was, frankly, a nightmare. For example, their days, like ours, had twenty-four hours. But while they had the same number of hours in the one whole day and night cycle as we do, they didn’t have any minutes or seconds. And if you think that’d make things complicated, try this: a Roman had twelve hours of daylight, and twelve hours of night. Which, as you’ll realise, meant that the separate night and day hours had to get longer and shorter throughout the year.

And that’s just the hour of the day. Get onto the time of year and the nightmare gets worse. As a matter of fact, we use the same month names – more or less – as they did. Originally there were ten months in the Roman year, and most months were just numbered. This is why the end of our calendar is a simple count in Latin: Septem, Octo, Novem and Decem. Later, extra months were added and some were renamed. Some were named to commemorate gods and goddesses, such as January for Janus, March for Mars and, as mentioned, June for Juno. Others were named for deified people, such as ‘Julius’ and ‘Augustus’. (The attempt by the bonkers emperor Commodus to rename all the months for his own titles fortunately didn’t outlive him.) But throughout the year there was a complex list of sacred days and festivals, and it was the job of the Pontiffs to set the rules relating to these. This wasn’t just something to occupy the priesthood, though. The status of each day was a concern for the average Roman, too. For the purposes of everyday business, each day had to be declared either ‘fasti’ – allowed – or ‘nefasti’ for not allowed. And woe and shame if you tried to seal a deal or start a business on an inauspicious day!
There were three days in particular in each month that were of particular importance. These were the anchor points of the month, and they were the first day, called the ‘kalends’ (the root of our word ‘calendar’); the ‘nones’, on the ninth, and the ‘ides’ on or around the fifteenth day. If you were bludgeoned into reading Shakespeare at school – or even, gods forbid, you actually enjoyed it – you’ll have heard the prophet’s famous admonition tpo Caesar to “Beware, the Ides of March!” Although in English, it doesn’t sound quite so good: “Watch out for the day on or around the fifteenth of March!”

As well as the Pontifex Maximus and the flamines, the College of Pontiffs included the famous sisterhood known as the ‘Vestal Virgins’ (no sniggering at the back). These were chaste women (chaste all over Rome, by all accounts), recruited at the age of six and required – on pain of actual death – to remain untainted by muckiness and lechery for the next thirty years. Their responsibility was to Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home. Since Rome was the spiritual home to all Romans -whether they lived there or not – it was very important that the City should keep Vesta happy. So the Vestals spent their time attending to her desires, and kept a sacred hearth-fire burning in the Temple of Vesta all day every day, mostly without interruption from their founding in the time of Numa Pompilius to the rise of Christianity over a thousand years later.

THE ANCIENT RECONSTRUCTED

There follows a short break for two thousand years of Christian supremacy in Europe.

Following which, once they’d got the whole ‘burning heretics’ thing out of their system and become a little more relaxed, people started to find that they could actually get away with suggesting that, as it might be, the doctrines of Christ and his Church, as admirable and righteous as they may be, just didn’t tickle their spiritual fancy. Instead, they found that they were drawn to learn more about the old ways, the practises that’d been – shall we say – discouraged under the rule of the Church. Of course I’m not telling you anything on that score; but amongst those groups who started to study and eventually reconstruct these older traditions – those of the old Norse, of the pre-Christian Greeks, the Ancient Egyptians, the Celts and the American Indians – there were some who, for whatever reason, felt their affinity to lie with Ancient Rome and its old gods.

They began to make efforts to revive the Roman paganism under the banner of the ‘Religio Romana’ – with ‘religio’ being here used in its original Latin context of ‘obligation’; the term literally meaning an obligation to the gods of Rome. One of the main centres for the study and practice of ancient Roman paganism is the online community called ‘Nova Roma’ – New Rome – whose members observe Roman social structure and organisation as strictly as an online environment and modern morals will allow (for example, they don’t keep slaves or treat women as property – or at least, they’re not supposed to. The modern Religio doesn’t sanction either.). The ‘citizens’ of Nova Roma also take Roman names according to very strict rules and conventions, pay ‘taxes’ (donations to maintain the website), and have very intense, very detailed arguments about precisely what intonation one should use whilst praying in Latin. They take the whole thing exceedingly seriously, and, if I’m honest, it’s all a bit heavy for me.

(From this point, I sort of degenerated into making it up on the spot, and answered one or two questions, including one about household spirits.  I’m not sure what’s for the best here – but tell you what: if you, the reader, have any questions you’d like to ask in a sort of virtual equivalent of the evening, please just add a comment and I will try to answer.  Ta.)

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