Part 1 of a 3-part series.
For better or worse, the religious environment in the Roman Empire, the period in which Christianity first appeared and later dominated its civilization, is now fairly alien to us. Understanding it, however, is necessary if one is to understand the earliest development of Christianity.
The Greco-Roman world, at the start of the 1st century CE, was polytheistic. That is, people believed in a large variety of gods and goddesses, each the subject of a body of stories and rites, worshipped at various levels. The major exceptions to this were the Jews, who believed in a sole god, JHWH, and a few other sects, such as the dualist Zoroastrians (although in Roman times, they remained well outside the mainstream, as the Zoroastrian homeland, Persia, was politically and culturally independent of Rome).
The deities of polytheistic religions began — in pre-historic and proto-historic times — as anthropomorphized representations of natural forces. This was the result of the human need to explain what could not readily be understood. Phenomena such as weather and fertility were attributed to powerful spirits with human-like personalities (which explained why they could be so apparently capricious). It was believed that deities needed to be enticed to provide for humanity, or appeased into not harming humanity. Polytheistic religions, therefore, have many rites and codes intended to accomplish this. Worship practices of all sorts were designed, literally, to manipulate the deities into making the world liveable and granting people success. It was also necessary for everyone to follow those practices, since even just one person apparently spurning a deity, might cause that deity to become angry and lash out or fail to provide some needed gift.
This religious goal is known as propitiation and is what makes Greco-Roman polytheism substantially different from the currently-dominant religions of the occidental world, which are soteriological instead. The worldview that the world is, itself, alive with spirits of various kinds, is known as animism. While many Greco-Roman worship practices dealt with deities whose power existed on a cosmic scale, in their minds the world was full of many types of lesser spirits. A mountain, for instance, had a spirit; so too did each river, each lake, each island; even families had special devoted spirits (sometimes these were the ghosts of deceased ancestors). The propitiative and animistic nature of Greco-Roman polytheism will remain important as we learn more about it.
As culture progressed, people learned more about the world, but they largely retained even many deities who covered natural phenomena that they knew about. For instance, preagricultural societies attributed fertility to the actions of spirits, but the advent of agriculture taught them a great deal about the subject, having discovered the significance of sperm and seed; nevertheless, fertility deities were retained into classical times.
This progression led at least some ancients to understand that the deities they honored were not exactly what they had been presumed to be; some of the philosophical schools of classical Greece, for instance, looked beyond them to a more singular divine “essence” which stood behind them. Belief in those deities remained widespread, however, so much so that Socrates —one of those philosophers who rejected the idea that the traditional Olympian gods existed as had been presumed —was the target of a mob which intended to kill him. While this seems bizarre and primitive to us, consider that worship was deemed compulsory ... the people of Athens could ill afford for one of the gods to be offended even by this lone “atheist” (as they called him).
The lesson of Socrates is worth remembering even as we move forward through the centuries. While Hellenic philosophy continued, and even became widespread in what would become the eastern Roman Empire, there remained a large portion of the population who did not understand the Socratic/Platonic view of divinity, and maintained its polytheistic perspective. In fact, even many educated Greco-Romans maintained what we might call a superstitious fear of the traditional gods and goddesses. This again may seem strange to us, but even these educated folk were essentially animistic still, seing the world around them as alive and teeming with spirits.
Although nationalism in the sense we use the word did not exist in ancient times, most peoples had a reverence for some deities which they connected with their own nation, and they also connected other nations around them with their own sets of deities. In the minds of Romans, those deities were connected with those peoples intimately, and were part of the overall workings of the world. Order was maintained when they worshipped their own body of Roman deities, the Greeks worshipped the Greek deities, Etruscans the Etruscan deities, and so on. While Romans expected other Romans to make offerings to Roman gods, therefore, they did not expect Greeks or Etruscans to do so. It was acceptable for each nation to worship its gods according to its own traditions.
Now, there was a good deal of overlap among the religious practices of the ancient world. As Romans, for example, interacted more often with Greeks, they began to view Greek deities in terms of their own, and vice-versa. In fact they developed systems of “identity,” or mappings of Roman deities to Greek and back again. Religious practices also spread around; Romans, for example, took up Etruscan divination rites. The idea that gods could be known by different names, and the same rites performed by different peoples, became integral to their religious worldview. In many ways, one could say that the peoples who lived in what became the Roman Empire started out with different religions, but ended up worshipping different aspects of the same basic pool of religious notions and practices. This made everyone naturally pluralistic; exclusivity was not demanded, since it was not relevant.
Some peoples did not participate in this vast polytheistic religious pool, such as the aforementioned Jews and Zoroastrians. The Jews believed in a deity which they presumed to be singular in nature, the sole god of the world; Zoroastrians also had a sole god (Ahura Mazda) opposed by a sole rival (Ahriman). These religions, along with a few other cults, had literary and ritual practices not shared with others. This was acceptable, however, since these religions were seen as national traditions. Thus, most “national religions” were left alone. (Zoroastrianism was an exception this rule. It was outlawed by Rome for two apparent reasons: First, its association with the practice of sorcery and magic, which itself was outlawed; and its homeland, Persia, was an enemy state.) The existence of some alternate religious systems was tolerated on that basis.
Some of the sects which moved through the Greco-Roman world came to be viewed harshly and were suppressed, for various reasons. The Dionysian cult, for example, was known for its female followers entering frenzied states, during some of that cult’s rites, sometimes becaming violent; the Romans outlawed this cult and the associated Eleusinian Mysteries within Italy, during the Republic period. So it was possible for the Greco-Romans’ pluralism to be pushed too far. (Despite the violence, this cult and the Eleusinian Mysteries persisted in mainland Greece well into Imperial times.)
The average Greco-Roman polytheist, then, stood at something of an impasse. They knew enough about their world to know that the deities did not, in fact, control everything; they understood some natural mechanisms which, centuries or millennia before, had been chalked up to deities’ whims. Some had even decided that the many gods were merely reflections of a single, incomprehensible, Ineffable Divine force. Yet, they did not understand their world well enough to dispense with their belief in spirits and deities altogether. Moreover, practices such as divination retained their value as they sometimes worked as advertised — often enough to keep trying them, anyway. Academy philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and the rest might speculate that the spirits and deities either did not exist or were not relevant; and some of the rest of the population might have been educated enough to know about this; but pragmatically, the Greco-Roman population behaved as if they did exist and they were relevant to everyday life.
Inevitably, there were efforts to merge varying systems. Some of these were academic in nature, short-lived and not completely thought out; but others took on lives of their own and persisted. The Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria, for example, merged traditional Hebrew belief and practice with Hellenic philosophy; he went so far as to claim Plato as the intellectual descendant of Moses (Philo claimed Pythagoras, to whom Socrates and Plato owed a great deal of their thinking, had been a student of Moses). Neoplatonism also merged the older polytheistic notions of the reality and power of deities and spirits, with high-minded philosophy which, under Socrates and earlier philosophers, had suggested otherwise.
Elsewhere on this site I’ve discussed the mystery-religions; these were, essentially, mergers of ancient fertility cults with more current religious and philosophical beliefs. Thus, they have a resemblance to Neoplatonism. These took various forms depending on the locale and degree of education of those involved (i.e. urban mystery-cults had more philosophical content, while rural ones were more ritually-oriented). Unfortunately the best-documented mystery-religions were urban in nature; we can understand the rural versions only by supposition and surmise.
One might ask why the ancient Greco-Romans retained dependence on a system of beliefs which, in many ways, they no longer needed and had at least begun to speculate was irrelevant. There are two reasons: Need and success. Although the ancients had mastered the world to a remarkable extent, having built massive works, massive cities, and having attained an unprecedented population, the world could still be hostile to them. The possibility of famine, drought, pestilence, flood, earthquake, etc. hovered around them constantly. Most people lived at a subsistence level, and just one bad crop season could be deadly. Many in the ancient world hovered on the fringe of survival. This meant that any “edge,” no matter how slim, granted them a good deal of comfort.
Moreover, the conquests of the Roman legions (and to an extent, those of Alexander before them) were seen as phenomenal, even within their own time. People were historically aware enough to realize that no state had ever expanded so far and brought so many peoples and places into contact with one another. In fact, this was often spoken of in awe (much as we, today, frequently express amazement that technology has made the whole planet into just a village). This success was attributed to a great many factors, among which were the Romans’ deities, who (it was widely thought) had helped them on the way, thus revealing their power.
By the 1st century CE, then, few people were willing to give up on the traditional deities, since they were so close to peril and because the Roman gods had been so successful. These people were, one might say, “hedging their bets.” Over time this became a cultural dependency; a perceived need to keep pleasing the gods or risk disaster.
As one might expect in an animist culture, belief in the power of magic was widespread. This meant it was also feared. Malevolent magicians could cause all sorts of horrible things to happen, and in the minds of some, they occasionally did so. To us, magic was part of the ancient polytheists’ practices; various rites, for example, brought the seasons, aided crops, etc. They also conducted divinations, and used other kinds of auguries. To us, this is all “magic,” but in the minds of the ancients there was a compelling difference between what was accepted ritual conducted on behalf of the community or nation, and sorcery done for only private gain. The former was pious, while the latter was shunned. Many states, including Rome at the height of its power, had regulations against the practice of sorcery. Despite this, upstanding citizens participated in the communal rites, and leaders even participated in them.
Romans in particular moved away from using rites to invoke the favor of spirits or gods, as at the start of a military campaign, since this smacked of the sort of “magic” they found distasteful. Instead they called used divination methods to determine the best-possible times to act. They consulted Etruscan haruspices, who used animals’ innards to peer into the future, and consulted the Sybilline Books which were of Greek origin, kept in the Temple of Jupiter, for the same purpose.
Proceed to Part 2, Enter the Christians.
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