It seems that the Romans were mostly supportive of Judaism until around the first century. Just like other foreign cults, such as the ones from Egypt or Greece, Romans allowed this religion to practice due to its ancient origins. Emperor Claudius even says, “Do not dishonor any of the traditional practices connected with the worship of their God” (Warrior, 14.8). This shows how Romans were protective in their early relationship with Rome because of the Jews ancient roots. The Jews views clashed with much of Roman worship but they were allowed to be different in most cases. Many times in Warrior Judaism is associated with Egyptian religion as well showing where Judaism was placed in the pantheon of foreign cults and religions. Rives even says that Judaism was perceived as “divine” in some ways due to its understanding of truth (193). The Jews were allowed many rights during the Roman Empire but I think the thing that changed that was the coming of Jesus. Jesus changed religion and created a tension.
This tension was not only with Romans but with Judaism as well. As the strength of Christianity grew so did Roman elites fear of all other foreign religions. Tiberius was one of the first emperors to start discriminating against the Jews eventually leading to a tax just for being Jewish (Warrior, 14.19). Tacitus reveals a lot in his excerpt from Warrior about the feeling towards foreign religions in the Roman Empire. Tacitus shows both his knowledge and ignorance of Judaism. He cites Moses and The Sabbath but questions where they come from and why Jews are so “weird and abominable”. He argues that Jews only do these things, such as circumcision, to be different than other peoples. Tacitus makes two connections to Judaism and Egyptian religion both in their sacrificing and burial rituals. While writing about Moses’ laws he says, “In theses everything that we regard as sacred is held to be profane. On the other hand they permit things that for us are taboo” (Warrior, 14.21).
It seems as though christianity hits all of the buttons that Rives lists in his chapter that would have the Romans react to it in a negative way. They didn’t practice animal sacrifice, they didn’t honor the gods of Rome, and the religious power of their tradition was out of the hands of the Roman elite. In short they were considered atheists, in the sense that they didn’t honor the gods in the proper way, and superstitious. A few of these issues seem to illustrated in a letter written by Pliny to the emperor Trajan regarding his treatment of Christians. His policy, laid out in the letter is that when a Christian is charged he gives them a chance to repent and honor the gods and the emperor. If they take this opportunity they are spared, and if not the accused is put to death. This section is Pliny talking about what success he has had with this strategy. “The contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and countryside, but it can probably be arrested and cured. It is quite clear that the temples which has been almost deserted for a long time have begun to be frequented and that the sacred rituals that has long lapsed are being revived, and that there is a general demand for sacrificial animals which, for some time, were finding very few buyers.”(Warrior, 15.5) Clearly high on his list of concerns is the lack of traditional Roman cultic practice and ritual sacrifice.
Another letter, this time written by a christian called Minicius Felix lists some of the common views on Christians, calling them a wicked rabble of illiterates and women that “despise political offices” (Warrior 15.7) and meet in secret to eat human flesh and engage in lustful and incestuous acts (Warrior, 15.7-9). If these were common views of Christians at the time then it explains why the ßRomans treated them with the scorn that they did.
A good example of Christian response to these claims of atheos and lack religious respect for the emperor is given by Tertulian in his Apology. In it he basically says that they cant offer sacrifices to the gods, because there is only one god to be honored and the others don’t exist. He also says that they are constantly praying for the good health and success of the emperor, they just don’ do this by performing animal sacrifice, “The Christians are considered public enemies because they will not give the emperors vain, false and rash honors, and because they celebrate the emperors’ festivals as men of true religion, in their hearts rather than in licentious behavior.”(Warrior 15.15) He further goes on to say that the association isn’t clandestine or evil, it is just people trying to help each other where they can.
After the initial persecution of Christians it got much worse before it got better. First there was Diocletian’s great persecution(Warrior 15.21) followed by Galerius declaring Christianity illegal (Warrior 15.22) However, it slowly, then very rapidly got better for the Christians in the Roman Empire. As time went on and more and more Romans, and specifically elite Romans became christian the Imperial policy toward Christianity began to soften before coming to a head with the Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity in 312 (Rives, 200). This conversion would then lead to ban on pagan religion and Christianity becoming the law of the land, certainly a major jump from a time when professing your faith as a Christian merited a death sentence. To conclude and emphasize how much the prevailing attitudes in Rome had changed by the late 300s BCE, here is a quote from Symmachus, the pagan prefect of Rome from a letter he wrote to a Christian emperor, “And so we are asking for amnesty for the gods of our fathers, our native gods. It it reasonable to assume that whatever each of us worships is one and the same…What difference does it make which system each of us uses to seek the truth? It is not by just one route that man can arrive at so great a mystery.”(Warrior, 15.27)
As Rives makes clear throughout his chapter, the primary goal of Roman religious policy was to protect and maintain public peace and order (190). In the eyes of many roman citizens and officials, the only way to secure such a peace was through correct religious observance to the gods, thus upholding the pax deorum. Rives describes two classes of religious observance that were viewed as a direct threat to religious peace. The first class is the atheos, which describes those who show insufficient respect to the gods. In contrast to the atheos, those who were defined as superstitio were thought to exhibit improper, unacceptable, incorrect religious behavior (184). For some romans, superstitio was the worst offense a citizen could make in religious practice. Plutarch even held the opinion that belief in no gods at all is better than belief in gods who are arrogant, captious, and petty (185). With these attitudes towards religious dissent, it comes as no surprise that Christianity would come to stand at odds with mainstream Roman religio, and by consequence Roman public order.
The Roman perception of early Christianity is best captured by Tacitus’ account of great fire in Rome that occurred under the rule of Nero. Tacitus recalls that “The deadly superstitio was checked for a time only to break out again, not only in Judea, the source of the evil, but even in the capital itself, where all things hideous and shameful collect from everywhere and become all the rage” (Warrior 175). Superstitio is not just offensive or inconvenient for Roman rule, it is described as lethal. With such a view, it makes perfect sense why Christians would serve as a scapegoat for a major disturbance of public order. Interestingly though, Tacitus claims that the Christians charged were not found guilty on the grounds of arson directly, but rather for their “hatred of the human race” (Warrior 175). Because Roman religious and political life was so closely united, the Christian rejection of Roman religio was seen as a politically subversive act directed not only at the gods, but towards roman citizens and officials as well. In response to these accusations, prominent Christians like Tertullian claim that they have nothing but the well-being of the empire in their mind. He states that on behalf of the well-being (salus) of the emperors, we invoke the eternal God, the true God, the living God… We pray that they may have long life, secure rule, a safe home, strong armies, a faithful senate, honest subjects, and a peaceful world” (Warrior 179-180). Even though Christians don’t observe public cultic practice, it does not mean that they wish to cause any form of political strife or upheaval. In the eyes of Tertullian, it is actually the Christians who should be seen as responsible for upholding roman peace and public order, because they are invoking the one true God. Thus, Roman officials should view Christians as pious and not superstitious.
Despite these arguments form early Christians, Roman policy for Christians remained a reactionary effort to suppress any upheaval they might cause in public order. Trajan himself states that when dealing with Christians “It is not possible to lay down any general rule that could provide a fixed standard” (Warrior 178). Nevertheless, he praises Pliny the Younger for his policy of dealing with Christians as they were brought before him, but never actively seeking them out. This method remained the standard precedent for many years until the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian during the third and early fourth centuries. These changes in policy targeted those men “who set up new-fangled and unheard-of sects in opposition to the older religious practices” (Warrior 183). While this policy was not exclusive to Christianity, it clearly made them a target to be sought out and suppressed. Interestingly enough, this mentality is maintained even after Constantine’s victory and the Empire-wide acceptance of Christianity; this time, however, the roles have been reversed. Speaking about public policy on cultic practice, Constantius makes his views clear when he states that “all superstitions must be abolished” (Warrior 184). It is now the old Roman cults that are viewed as superstitio and subversive to public peace and order.
Rome had a policy to accept many other religions than simply their own pantheon, given that they were not harmful to the Roman way of life. This was particularly helpful when examining how the Romans treated their Jewish population. The Roman elite had “respect for ancestral traditions” (Rives, 194) even when they considered the religions bizarre. This respect from the elites of Rome, and smooth maneuvering by the Judean leaders, led to a general acceptance of the Jewish way of life. Roman authorities allowed the Jews to practice their ancestral ways and practices without interference, even going so far as to write documents dissuading other Romans from stealing their sacred funds and scriptures by calling that sacrilege (Rives, 195).
Jews in the Roman empire also got special treatment, at the beginning, due to their religion, Josephus writes that Lucius Lentulus gave special permission to the Jews to be exempt from military service on religious grounds (Warrior, 14.2). Josephus often writes of the Roman favor towards the Jews, they had the right to meet in assembly when it was restricted to others, as well as being exceptions to holding common meals. Though the Jews were favored at times and had their rights upheld, while some were not, this peaceful cooperation between the people of Rome and the people practicing Judaism did not last.
There were multiple revolts of the Jews during the Roman Empire. The first was because of a conflict in Caesarea, which led to a protest breaking out in Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the temple and in its place a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus was built. The Romans also forbade proselytizing, and all taxes that originally went to the temple now went to Jupiter. Tactitus, a historian, wrote that everything the Romans thought as pious was found impure by the Jews and everything the Jews believed in was found impious by the Romans (Rives, 194). He wrote, “ they are extremely loyal toward one another and always ready to show compassion, but toward every other people they show hate and enmity” (Warrior, 14.21). The disrespect and overall difference in cultures, at this point, was a major reason that the two peoples were not able to get along. This work shows a Roman historian’s views on the Jews and how their differences are just too vast. This Roman perspective would be a problem, because it would become a perspective of the elites, and as they had power and influence, this opinion would be detrimental to the Jews of Rome.
In his chapter on Roman religious policy James Rives presents evidence that points to a lack of a cohesive policy on how religions were treated in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, most of the interaction between Roman authorities and religious groups under their rule would have been reactionary in nature. Most notably if an individual or group were seen as disruptive to the status quo. As Rives has discussed in other chapters, the socio-economic elite were the same people in charge of religious affairs, so any group that appeared to threaten this established hierarchy as dealt with accordingly. However, up until the first century the Jewish people in the Roman Empire were granted a fair amount of freedom when it came to religious practices. Rives partially explains this phenomenon in stating, “…some people looked upon Judaean tradition with fascination or even admiration, partly because it was perceived as an ancient and exotic “oriental” tradition…” Much like the Roman fascination with all things Egyptian, they viewed the ancient traditions of the Jewish people with a certain reverence that allowed the Jews to go against many Roman religious norms. This difference in religious norms would eventually cause confrontation, as was discussed in both the Warrior and Rives readings. The Jewish historian Josephus cites several exemptions from normal Roman life in his title Antiquities, “…his fellow-Jews cannot undertake military service since they are not able to bear arms or march on the days of the Sabbath. Nor can they obtain the traditional foodstuffs to which they are accustomed. I, therefore, like the governors before me, grand them exemption from military service and allow them to observe their native customs…” (Warrior, 14.5, pg. 165) This relationship of benevolent respect of tradition began to deteriorate in the first century, largely due to the aforementioned concern of the Roman authorities to maintain rule and order. During the first century, there were a series of disturbances and uprisings in Judaea that required notable military responses. In reference to the cause of this unrest, Rives states, “…the Roman governors of Judaea were not especially competent in dealing with Judaean sensibilities, and some were overtly hostile. On the other side, some Judaean extremists regarded the mere fact of Roman rule as a challenge to the rule of god.”
In his writings, Histories, Tacitus encapsulates many of these Roman ideas regarding the Jewish people. He states, “In these everything that we regard as sacred is held to be profane. On the other hand they permit things that for us are taboo.” He continues, “These rites, whatever their origin, are maintained by their antiquity.” In these passages he outlines not only the superiority of Roman religious practices, but also why Jewish rituals were allowed to exist when they seemed to go against everything that being a pious Roman consisted of.
The Sibylline texts were very important to the aristocracy of Rome. They leaned on these texts for all sorts of different advice. The people who read the texts were initiated and lived in the temple of Jupiter during their tenure, which is for life. These texts helped the Romans decide what to do in time of uncertainty in the empire. One particular instance was that weird hybrid animals and hermaphrodites were being born so they consulted the oracles. The oracles responded by telling them to give a sacrifice to Juno Queen to Zeus (Warrior, 7.18). Another instance is when there was a plague to oracles to Rome to bring a Greek god and they installed a temple to him. The writings say that the “pestilence subsided with amazing speed” so apparently this worked (Warrior 8.10).
Magic seemed to play a role in the majority of everyday peoples lives because of the many writings and inscriptions with magical attributes. It seemed all types of various incantations, potions, and spells were used by everyday people trying to change their lives. Sometimes being so specific as to curse specific body parts and even finical success on another person (Warrior, 12.12). Cato also describes magic to heal a dislocation that is fairly simple and could be done by anyone theoretically (Warrior, 12.6). The only explanation I have to the widespread interest in magical religion is that they had to have believed that these things really did affect their day to day lives. An interesting magic instance that happened was described by Pliny the Elder who describes someone magically transporting his whole farm into the courthouse (Warrior, 12.4). This is interesting because it seems to have no greater significance other than this act of magic happened.
The Cult of Mithras was an exclusively male only cult that possibly has its roots in the ancient near east. The cult was a sanctuary for all those initiated where they could move from place to place and be invited in because they were apart of the secret cult. The only primary text we have is from a Christian writer and it has to do with the initiation rituals. Being blindfolded in a cave and giving yourself over to Mithras is about all we get from the texts (Warrior, 9.13-16). It is interesting that they describe themselves as being “male brides to Venus” so they are describing the relationship as one close to marriage (Warrior, 9.15). Members also have a hierarchy and can rank up understanding maybe more and more about the cosmos as it seems their titles were that of luminaries.
There were many advantages to having multiple different esoteric religions in the Roman Empire. Multiple religions gave a way for people to worship whomever they wanted, it gave them a way to make new specific religions to fit their needs. The Sibylline Books were works that the people of Rome went to when they had any questions, to consult in Senate affairs, in case of political strife, and when a great calamity had befallen them ( Warrior, 5.7). The prophesies were vague in that the same verses might be used for different situations at different time for advice. Another example of when the Romans consulted the Sibylline Books was when they had many deformities all at once and they needed to make sure that they were on the right path (Warrior, 7.18).
The cult of Mithras is as mysterious as it is wide spread. The cult of Mithras was practiced as far as Iran and was typically worshiped along with another god, different gods depending on the different traditions. The cult of Mithras has a mysterious and complicated 7 step initiation process for its members, one step for each of the known planets. The cave of Mithras is a very important part of the cult, the cave represents the cosmos for the people. Most of the people who joined the cult were soldiers, tax officials, people who are well integrated into the state. Something unique is that all of the members of the cult are men, it was popular for middle ranking men in society. The groups of cult followers typically stayed small and would break up if their following became too large in one location.
Warrior’s selections on magic cover the ritual, binding spells, magical cures, sorcery and witchcraft, and astrology. The Romans seemed to have utilized these methods to explain why one man was more successful than another, for example in 12.4 a farmer had a vastly more abundant crop than his neighbors so they set a day for his trial. I think that magic gave people explanations to why things were not always the same for two people who were doing the same thing. It gave them a way to blame an prosecute someone who they thought were cheating at life. This magic also seemed to be a bit centered on women, maybe giving them a power source, or blaming them, for things that were happening that men did not like.
Hermes Trismegistos, “Thrice Greatest Hermes,” is the Greek name for the Egyptian God Thoth. He is accredited as a great writer, and many works associate him with the skills of astrology, alchemy, spells, and medicine. The basic Hermetic perspective on the cosmos and human beings was very similar to what is known as the “gnostic” view. The Hermetic tradition saw the material world as corrupt and inferior. Additionally, humanity contains within itself an element from a higher level of existence to which people should strive to return (Rives 167). Thus, the idea of salvation for Hermetic worshipers was found in the ability to free their spirit from their material body. This separation was accomplished through the acquirement of certain knowledge that is hidden within the human spirit. If one learns the all-important fact that he is originally from life and life, he “shall advance to life once again” (Rives 179).
The dialogue between the divine Hermes and his student Tat in the Corpus Hermeticum elaborate in greater detail these points on the Hermetic conception of the human condition and salvation. In addition to confirming the condemned state of the material world, Hermes reveals to Tat that those who are born from God are also themselves God. Knowledge is not taught, but remembered whenever God wills it (65). Thus, for Hermetic worshipers the knowledge necessary for salvation and detachment from the physical cannot be imparted to them from an outside source; it must be found within them because it already exists hidden and silent within them. Hermes then instructs Tat to cleanse “himself from the torments of the material world which arise from the lack of reason” (67). There are twelve torments in total which Hermes addresses barriers towards salvation: Ignorance, sorrow, intemperance, lust, injustice, greed, deceit, envy, treachery, anger, recklessness, and malice. Each of these torments is overcome by ten powers of God that are imparted during the process of rebirth, with knowledge listed as the foremost power among the ten. After singing a hymn of thanks and praise for receiving the rebirth and salvation from the powers of God (70), Hermes gives Tat one final order. “And now that you have learnt this from me, keep silence about this miracle and reveal it to no one the tradition of rebirth, lest we be called betrayers” (71). This condition of secrecy is peculiar in light of the early statement made by Hermes that knowledge cannot be taught, but rather is only recalled according to God’s will. If the salvific knowledge can’t be taught, then Tat’s words should carry no consequence. Nevertheless, those who have been reborn must exercise the utmost secrecy.
Out of the various models of religious esoterica the Rives outlines in his chapter, the Hermetic tradition most obviously falls under the allure of salvation. This is best captured by a quote from Hermes, where he instructs Tat that “the visible body born of nature is far different from that of spiritual birth. For the one can be dissolved and the other cannot; the one is mortal and the other immortal. Do you not know that you have become divine and that you are a son of the One? So also am I” (68). The Hermetic tradition offers a means to not just merely continue on in the afterlife with a somewhat comfortable existence, as is the case with Isis worshipper Lucius (Rives 174). Instead, those who acquire the saving knowledge become immortal spirits, who eventually become like god (Rives 179). The Hermetic tradition seems to also fall under Rives model of religious intensification quite well. The imparting of the ten powers of God is an extremely intimate exchange. That the Corpus Hermeticum is in the format of a discussion also lends to prove how this tradition contained the advantage of an intense and personal religious experience.
In the selections on the Sibylline Books Warrior helps us understand how the Romans used these oracles, and why they were treated with such reverence. According to Warrior (speaking of the Sibylline books), “This collection was said to consist of utterances of the Sibyl of Cumae…”, who was said to be an Apollonian oracle. As such, the Romans used this collection in times of panic and anxiety when the established political order might not have been capable of doing so. Such emergencies could have been an upcoming military engagement, plague, or domestic political strife. In sections 8.9 & 8.10, Livy and another anonymous author discuss the Sibylline Books being summoned to help end a devastating plague. The books heeded the advice that Aesclapius should be summoned from Epidaurus, and once completed the plague was quickly subsided. Those in charge of these oracles, the quindecimvirs, were sacred members of the Roman society and were able to be exempt from serving the military or civil responsibilities.
In my reading of the sections on magic, it seems that most of the topics covered problems faced by an individual. There were sections dealing with a dislocated hip joint (12.6), immobilizing a woman (12.10), memory loss (12.17), and even impotence (12.18). Furthermore, there are several sections that deal with harsh punishments for using a spell on your neighbors’ crops, or even knowing magic at all. It is likely that there was such a high amount of interest for these individualized supernatural services because of the largely communal aspect of religious life in Rome. As most cults and rituals were designed to benefit the entire city or empire, there was a large demand for a more personal and individual system.
Besides magic, there were other forms of worship that had a more personal feel to them to counter the large and communal aspect of most Roman religion. Namely, the cult of Mithras, which found popularity in the military ranks as well as the lower classes, who largely would have been left out of the influence religion brought the upper classes of Roman society. To ensure a small and intimate bond, if a group expanded to a certain size it was broken up into two different groups in order to maintain the individual community. Each group had seven groups of initiation, which formulated a strict hierarchy.
The Hermetic tradition focuses in on the god Hermes Trismegistus. This gods name means Thrice Great Hermes and is the name that the Greeks gave to the Egyptian god Thoth. The tradition teaches that “the material world is corrupt and inferior, and that humanity contains within itself an element from a higher level of existence to which people should strive to return.”(Rives, pp. 167)I had a hard time finding specific aspects that the god possess, but I think that he is associated with this higher aspect of humanity. The Hermetic tradition teaches that salvation is possible through learning this true nature. The text Poimandres says, “life and light are god and father, from whom the man came to be; so if you learn that you are from light and life, and you happen to come from them, you shall advance to life once again”.(Rives, pp. 179)
In the Corpus Hermeticum XIII dialogue, Tat learns that the material world and the material body are illusions, something lesser than the true form. By knowing this truth the lower form can be escaped and the higher level can be entered into. Hermes makes it clear that this knowledge is a gift from the creator god and is already present in man, “This kind of knowledge is not taught, O son, but through God it is remembered, whenever he wills.”(Corpus Hermeticum XIII.3) To achieve this Hermes tells Tat that he must retreat into himself and separate himself from the material world. “Make idle the senses of the body and the spirit will be born” (Corpus Hermeticum XIII.7). This enlightened state of mind is described as a sort unity or presence with all things. To have “Nous”, Hermes says is “to no longer picture oneself with regard to the three dimensional body” (Corpus Hermeticum XIII.13).
This text fits into Rives discussion of religious esoterica in Chapter 6 fairly neatly. The text offers a divine wisdom and interaction with the divine that Rives lays out on page 162. The Hermetic tradition offers a path to salvation that seems similar to me to the Gnostic tradition, a point that Rives also makes. To go a bit further, when removed from contextI don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that some of the passages sound a bit Christian in general. The advantage of the dialogue genre has when discussing salvation is that the knowledge of salvation and how to attain it can be shown to come directly from the source. If this knowledge is shown in a text as coming right from a god or divinity then I think that would go a long way to making it more credible.
The healing god Asclepius’ sanctuary is surrounded on all sides by boundary markers and within these markers no birth and no death is to take place. Inside the sanctuary are people devoting themselves to the god in hopes of being cured of their health problems. They eat sleep and live at the sanctuary giving dedications to the god and hoping for a vision telling them what to do to be cured. (Warrior 6.26-27) All around the sanctuary are inscriptions detailing past cures given by the God such as mutes given speech, the blind given sight, and women getting pregnant when they could not before. Athens and rome would be interested in having Asclepius in their cities for two reasons. First their citizens would want Asclepius in their city for their own individual sake. Getting sick in the ancient world was a scary thing and a big deal, so the closer they could be to a healing god, the better. The second reason that they would want Asclepius in their cities is for the health of the sate. Livy records in Periocha, “When the state was troubled by a plague, envoys were sent to bring the image of Asclepius from Epidaurus to Rome.”(Warrior, 14.27)
The relationship that Asclepius has with Aristides is one of dreams and visions. Aristides at the beginning of the sacred tales says about the God, “he revealed somethings openly in his own presence, and others by the sending of dreams, as far as it was possible to obtain sleep…Therefore in view of this I decided to submit truly to the God, as as to a doctor and to do in silence whatever he wishes.” (Sacred Tales, 1.3-4) Asclepius appeared to Aristides as he did to many who sought his help and guidance, in his dreams. When Aristides was ill it was Asclepius’ council that was the most valuable and he would do what ever the god would tell him to. Another characteristic of the relationship is that it is personal. When Aristides has a problem he seeks out Asclepius on his own and expects to get a direct and individual answer. This relationship is different from those of the Classical age in this aspect. He does not go to a festival, or worship at an altar in a great crowd. Aristides’ ailments are his own and so is his relationship with Asclepius.
The impression of the state of medical knowledge at the time of Aelius Aristides was certainly not advanced. Medical knowledge was not very deep at the time and seeing a doctor seems like it would have been almost as much of a gamble as praying to Asclepius and going to his sanctuary for healing. In this quote from the The Sacred Tales, Aelius Aristides has a tumor on his groin and he is trying to heal himself. The doctors, give many and varied consultations as to what he should do, “At this point, the doctors cried out all sorts of things, some said surgery, some said cauterization by drug, or that an infection would arise and I must surely die. But the God gave a contrary opinion and told me to endure and foster the growth. And clearly there was no choice between listening to the doctors or to the God.”(The Sacred Tales, 62-63) This quote also does a good job of establishing the relationship between medicine and religion at the time. While Aelius seeks the opinions of doctors about his malady the thought of not doing what his vision guided him to do is unthinkable to him. The guidance his vision of Asclepius gave him has the final say.