Ancient Roman Empire - Religion

Religion

Main articles: Religion in ancient Rome and Imperial cult (ancient Rome) See also: History of the Jews in the Roman Empire, Early Christianity, and Religious persecution in the Roman Empire

Religion in the Roman Empire encompassed the practices and beliefs the Romans regarded as their own, as well as the many cults imported to Rome or practiced by peoples throughout the provinces. The Romans thought of themselves as highly religious, and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety (pietas) in maintaining good relations with the gods (pax deorum). The archaic religion believed to have been handed down from the earliest kings of Rome was the foundation of the mos maiorum, "the way of the ancestors" or "tradition", viewed as central to Roman identity. There was no principle analogous to "separation of church and state". The priesthoods of the state religion were filled by the same men who held public office, and in the Imperial era, the Pontifex Maximus was the emperor.

Roman religion was practical and contractual, based on the principle of do ut des, "I give that you might give." Religion depended on knowledge and the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, not on faith or dogma, although Latin literature preserves learned speculation on the nature of the divine and its relation to human affairs. For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life. Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family's domestic deities were offered. Neighborhood shrines and sacred places such as springs and groves dotted the city. Apuleius (2nd century) described the everyday quality of religion in observing how people who passed a cult place might make a vow or a fruit offering, or merely sit for a while. The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances. In the Imperial era, as many as 135 days of the year were devoted to religious festivals and games (ludi). Women, slaves, and children all participated in a range of religious activities.

In the wake of the Republic's collapse, state religion had adapted to support the new regime of the emperors. As the first Roman emperor, Augustus justified the novelty of one-man rule with a vast program of religious revivalism and reform. Public vows formerly made for the security of the republic now were directed at the wellbeing of the emperor. So-called "emperor worship" expanded on a grand scale the traditional Roman veneration of the ancestral dead and of the Genius, the divine tutelary of every individual. Upon death, an emperor could be made a state divinity (divus) by vote of the Senate. Imperial cult, influenced by Hellenistic ruler cult, became one of the major ways Rome advertised its presence in the provinces and cultivated shared cultural identity and loyalty throughout the Empire. Cultural precedent in the Eastern provinces facilitated a rapid dissemination of Imperial cult, extending as far as the Augustan military settlement at Najran, in present-day Saudi Arabia. Rejection of the state religion became tantamount to treason against the emperor. This was the context for Rome's conflict with Christianity, which Romans variously regarded as a form of atheism and novel superstitio.

The Romans are known for the great number of deities they honored, a capacity that earned the mockery of early Christian polemicists. As the Romans extended their dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, their policy in general was to absorb the deities and cults of other peoples rather than try to eradicate them. One way that Rome promoted stability among diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods. By the height of the Empire, numerous international deities were cultivated at Rome and had been carried to even the most remote provinces, among them Cybele, Isis, Epona, and gods of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, found as far north as Roman Britain. Because Romans had never been obligated to cultivate one god or one cult only, religious tolerance was not an issue in the sense that it is for competing monotheistic systems.

Mystery religions, which offered initiates salvation in the afterlife, were a matter of personal choice for an individual, practiced in addition to carrying on one's family rites and participating in public religion. The mysteries, however, involved exclusive oaths and secrecy, conditions that conservative Romans viewed with suspicion as characteristic of "magic", conspiracy (coniuratio), and subversive activity. Sporadic and sometimes brutal attempts were made to suppress religionists who seemed to threaten traditional morality and unity. In Gaul, the power of the druids was checked, first by forbidding Roman citizens to belong to the order, and then by banning druidism altogether. At the same time, however, Celtic traditions were reinterpreted within Imperial theology, and a new Gallo-Roman religion coalesced, with its capital at the Sanctuary of the Three Gauls in Lugdunum (present-day Lyon, France). The sanctuary established precedent for Western cult as a form of Roman-provincial identity.

The monotheistic rigor of Judaism posed difficulties for Roman policy that led at times to compromise and the granting of special exemptions. Tertullian noted that the Jewish religion, unlike that of the Christians, was considered a religio licita, "legitimate religion." Wars between the Romans and the Jews occurred when conflict, political as well as religious, became intractable. When Caligula wanted to place a golden statue of his deified self in the Temple in Jerusalem, the potential sacrilege and likely war were prevented only by his timely death. The Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD led to the sacking of the temple and the dispersal of Jewish political power.

Christianity emerged in Roman Judea as a Jewish religious sect in the 1st century AD. The religion gradually spread out of Jerusalem, initially establishing major bases in first Antioch, then Alexandria, and over time throughout the Empire as well as beyond. Imperially authorized persecutions were limited and sporadic, with martyrdoms occurring most often under the authority of local officials.

The first persecution by an emperor occurred under Nero, and was confined to the city of Rome. Tacitus reports that after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, some among the population held Nero responsible and that the emperor attempted to deflect blame onto the Christians. After Nero, a major persecution occurred under the emperor Domitian and a persecution in 177 took place at Lugdunum, the Gallo-Roman religious capital. A surviving letter from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bythinia, to the emperor Trajan describes his persecution and executions of Christians. The Decian persecution of 246–251 was a serious threat to the Church, but ultimately strengthened Christian defiance. Diocletian undertook what was to be the most severe persecution of Christians, lasting from 303 to 311.

In the early 4th century, Constantine I became the first emperor to convert to Christianity, launching the era of Christian hegemony. The emperor Julian made a short-lived attempt to revive traditional and Hellenistic religion and to affirm the special status of Judaism, but in 391 under Theodosius I Christianity became the official state religion of Rome, to the exclusion of all others. From the 2nd century onward, the Church Fathers had begun to condemn the diverse religions practiced throughout the Empire collectively as "pagan." Pleas for religious tolerance from traditionalists such as the senator Symmachus (d. 402) were rejected, and Christian monotheism became a feature of Imperial domination. Heretics as well as non-Christians were subject to exclusion from public life or persecution, but Rome's original religious hierarchy and many aspects of its ritual influenced Christian forms, and many pre-Christian beliefs and practices survived in Christian festivals and local traditions.

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