Table of Contents
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Religious Tolerance In Ancient Rome
Introduction of topic
Roman Religion has always been flexible due to its polytheistic nature. There were countless spiritual practices because there was no rigid structure or dogmatic ritual. Despite this, the elites controlled the discourse and set the boundaries for what was acceptable. Romans believed that unacceptable religious practices belonged to superstitio — a supernatural power which distorted the minds of men. We will learn that this concept wasn’t a constant in Roman life. The Roman state struggled to create a national identity within the context of an ever-expanding empire. This meant that these practices were perceived as being dangerously subversive.
Religious Tolerance in Ancient RomeAnalysis will reveal how, even though the Roman state did not act on all religions considered superstitious, it did take action against those that were perceived as being outside the scope of acceptable religious tolerance within the context that the Roman state was struggling to create a central empire identity.
Roman Religion had loose structures which enabled complex webs connecting people and cultures in the Republic. Mary Beard has pointed out that the rhetorical word used to define ‘acceptable practices’, religio, bound people together and with their gods organically. This bind was formed by two principles that were mutually inclusive and illustrates the fluidity of Roman Religion.
The polymorphism of paganism allowed different people to worship different gods. This meant that there was no requirement for individuals or groups to adhere to a particular form of worship or deity. This polytheistic aspect of Roman religion allows Romans to worship several gods simultaneously. Catullus’ prayer to Diana by the Roman poet illustrates the way polymorphic, polytheistic Paganism helped create a religious atmosphere in Rome that was free of dogmas and dogma.
However, it is also important to establish that Paganism included a strong element of belief. According to Charles King, the belief of Romans was fundamental for their prayer and implicitly in the worship of deities who formed the Roman Pantheon. Combining dogma-free beliefs, polymorphism, and polytheism, we can view Roman Paganism in a way that is largely non-restrictive and appeals directly to individuals.
This system of beliefs, which seemed to be inclusive, was, at times, subjected to regulation. To achieve this, political elites used rhetoric about ‘Roman Identity’. Mary Beard claims that elites set the limits of what was acceptable based on their personal views about belief and worship. Here is when the difference between superstitio versus religio becomes critical. In contrast to its organically binding’ equivalent religio, superstitio was used to describe practices that were considered to be “un-roman”, or below the’standards,’ of the Empire.
The word superstitio means literally “standing up” and refers to beliefs that are perceived as defining an individual’s identity. This is not to say that the terms were not fluid, but rather that they did not reflect the official criteria of the state for religious persecution. They do, however, show the prejudices that people in particular localities held. While magic was considered by many to be “an inferior religion”, its secret use spread throughout the Roman Empire.
We usually associate Roman paganism with votive offerings, festivals publics, etc. These public and collective aspects are all a part of the definition and organic purpose of religio by these elites. Two Vestal Virgins were publicly condemned after the Battle of Cannae, showing how Romans used religious rites to promote social cohesion.
Simply having these terms in existence gave elites the ability to use them freely to attack or regulate religious systems which they considered important for themselves, their state, and/or the nation. We will see in this way how supertitio is used to justify and promote the state’s political motives for controlling and persecuting religious systems.
In Rome, the Bacchanalia case shows how superstition was used as a tool to influence political concerns about organized religion and then condemned. Bacchanalia’s political impact is apparent almost immediately. The cult transcended gender and class to enlighten disparate Romans. Politicians likely saw in this limitless inclusivity and secrecy the power of group-consciousness that could act against State norms or the state itself. This would not have worked at a moment when the Roman Empire grew rapidly and required all citizens to show loyalty.
John A. North claims that the Bacchanalia was the first religious group, in reference to its secrecy. Politicians were concerned by the idea of a religious group that was independent and had no authority. The Senate Decree that regulates the Bacchanalia reveals this fear of Bacchic institutionalism. It places a particular emphasis on treasurers, and the organization of cults in general.
The fear of external identity formation is also an implicit fear or condemnation superstition. The political elite could easily have thought of the Bacchanalias as outside the realms of religion. Dionysus as the Gods of Wine, Madness and Theatre was often worshipped through secret alcohol-fueled festival and orgies. Livy says in his condemning account that these rites are a radical departure from Rome’s traditional, decorous form of worship.
However, the fact the Bacchanalias never led to violent acts by citizens suggests the real reason for the regulation of them was somewhere else. North suggests that it was likely a “propaganda’ to reinforce the political class’s rhetorical authority over religious identity, during an era of geographical expansion. The treatment given to the Bacchanalia indicates that the state feared institutions capable of forming political identities.
The Roman elite was also afraid of superstition and the irrational, as they tried to maintain social cohesion. Roman politicians were worried about Christianity’s power to change alliances. Christianity, a monotheistic faith, required that its followers withdraw their spiritual allegiance to the Emperor for God’s sake. The Romans were alienated by the Christian religion and its worship, which was a clear subversive political force. It is not hard to imagine how Romans could have perceived the belief that transubstantiation was a part of subversive magic designed to separate itself from common Paganism.
The Bacchanalia and Christianity are both rigid systems of structures and belief that aim to influence followers’ attitudes and identity. Pliny, in a letter to Trajan, calls Christianity “superstition”, urging that “contagion’s” spread be “stopped”. Pliny uses rhetoric that describes Christianity as “intrinsically anti-Roman”. Yet the political element of his condemnation can be seen when he states that after repeated interviews, only those that “persisted”, in asserting their Christian Identity, were “ordered execution”. The Romans were more concerned about the ability of Christianity to penetrate minds and cultures than its particular beliefs.
The Roman intolerance towards religion is clearly rooted in political fears of ancient Rome. Romans felt uncomfortable because organized religions could institutionalize their beliefs and help shape identities. Roman political fear was also heavily influenced by the fluidity of their skepticism. We have seen this with Christianity and Bacchanalia. We can say, therefore, that Roman political fears were primarily influenced by their fear of the irrational.
ConclusionIt is therefore fair to conclude that religious regulation in the Roman era was intrinsically linked to the fear of the political elite of systems which institutionalized identities and, hence, shifted loyalties. These fears were expressed in a fluid language that aimed to criticize the un-roman – pointing out the conflict between institutionalized beliefs and national identities.