Were The Romans Religious? Darn tootin’! From the man on the street to the emperor, everyone believed in, trusted in, and attended to the gods. The man on the street did his best to intently obey: 1) his household gods, 2) the gods of his ancestors, and 3) the gods of government. Sacrifices were taken very seriously. Particularly prized were those ending in really good barbecues. Let it not be said the Romans were not religious! Roman life was heavy with religion – until they heard of Jesus.
There was, though, at the emperor level a bit of cynicism. Vespasian on his deathbed sardonically said, “I suppose this makes me a god, too.” Augustus had precisely the same sentiment. They were at the pinnacle of religion on earth as living gods, but knew full well they were not gods. Too much cabbage and spiced wine wreaked havoc on their intestines just like the rest of us. There was, though, the notable exception of that nut Caligula who dressed like a god, spoke like a god, and sent down edicts forcing his subjects to acknowledge him and his horse as a gods. At the lowly end, the man on the street could poke fun at his neighbor’s beliefs, but cherished his own.
Everyone labored under four priesthoods. There was a College of Pontiffs (eventually the Catholic Pope). These guys had really impressive titles like Rex Sacrorum and the flamens. Their work was making sure public and private sacrifices were carried out with exactitude … or else. The only female priestesses were the Vestal Virgins within the College of Pontiffs. Their drawback was being virgins, but life was easy – as long as they did not let the flame of the sacred hearth go out … or else.
The second was the College of Augurs. These guys has the cool job of reading entrails and bird watching. How else could one know when it was time for battle? But I jest. Not all augurs were aides to generals; they also helped the common folk. For a fee an augur could flay your goat and read its entrails to see if you should buy that new house. If you had no goat, they could provide one, for a fee. No matter what you were up to the augurs had an opinion. Whether it be writing a law or taking a bride, an augur can divine if Fortuna will do you a good or bad turn.
Third was the College of the Guards of the Sibylline Books. The quindecimvin sacris faciundis (another fun title), were responsible for keeping the books safe and secret. But what were these books? When the Senate wanted to know about potential showers of stones, the guards were directed to consult the books in private and publicly declare a prophecy. This was indeed an important college, if you wanted to avoid showers of stones.
It was in the year 196 that the fourth college, that of the Epulones, was made an official part of Roman religion. They were the professional party planners for the gods. When a public ceremony, feast, or banquet was required the epulones made sure the dignitaries had proper seats, the flowers were just right, and the food came out on time. The festivals and the gods became so complicated that these professional party planners became a necessity.
Even though religion pervaded everyday life and there was a long list of required festivals, Romans had virtually no interest in theology. All they knew was their superstitions worked. If their oblations happened not to work, the fault was in the human for not pleasing the god. Romans could care less about how religion worked. The closest they humorously came was later on when Plotinus brought Neoplatonism to the fore. This was not just a retelling of Plato. It was an amalgam of Greek philosophy that happened to be headed up by the name of Plato. They were extremely mystical to the point of looking like characters out of Harry Potter – a great look for someone in the religion game. Anything went in Roman religion, as long as it was done correctly. The one and only rule was to include the worship of the emperor and after that… whatever you like!
The Romans had no problem with oriental religions, i.e., anything east of Greece. These tended to be short lived mystical groups anyway that faded away quickly. At least until Jesus came along. Jesus offered a clear, simple, and joyful alternative to the cumbersome and weighty system of Roman religion. What a refreshing relief it must have been to hear the Word! The Messiah set the Roman world on fire with the simple message of “follow me”. This did not sit well with seven hundred years of a behemoth of religious structure. The early Christians who embraced this simple message were considered atheists as they believed in only one God, His Son, and the Holy Spirit. They dared to run at odds to Roman religion; metaphorically tearing down the temples, the colleges, and everything the man on the street believed in so intensely.
Roman religion was fundamentally wrong from the beginning. The more the priests saddled Roman religion with ever greater complexity, the more cumbersome it became. This complexity went hand in glove with the power of the government. The plebeians were convinced their emperor was a god and the emperor gave credence to their beliefs which in turn obligated them to the government. This circular feedback powered their religion which powered their government. As new conditions arose, new gods were invented; even the concept of revenge became a god. It is no wonder the message of Jesus took hold so quickly. What a relief it was to throw off the massive weight of the Pantheon and its priests. The simple message of “follow me” was so light compared to all those gods needing attention.
The first Christians delighted in this joy and endured tremendous persecution because of it. Unfortunately the early church did not much learn this lesson. The church fathers did not invent more and more gods; instead they invented a more and more complex theology. As soon as they could they sank their philosophical teeth deep into theology. No, it was not the creation of more gods, but the development of an incomprehensible theology that tragically divided Christians – even to this day. Let’s get back to primitive Christianity the way Jesus intended it to be and to what those first Roman Christians believed in.
Copyright 2021 by Greg Hallback