Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices

Prev | Next | Contents


I said at the beginning of my first lecture that Roman religious experience can be summed up in two stories. The first of these was the story of the way in which a strong primitive religious instinct, the desire to put yourself in right relation with the Power manifesting itself in the universe, religio as the Romans called it, was gradually soothed and satisfied under the formalising influence of the settled life of the agricultural family, and still more so under the organising genius of the early religious rulers of the City-state. This story I tried to tell in the last few lectures. The second story was to be that of the gradual discovery of the inadequacy of this early formalised and organised religion to cope with what we may call new religious experience; that is, with the difficulties and perils met with by the Roman people in their extraordinary advance in the world, and with the new ideas of religion and morals which broke in on them in the course of their contact with other peoples. This story I wish to tell in the present course of lectures. It is a long and complicated one, including the introduction of new rites and ideas of the divine, the anxious attempts of the religious authorities to put off the evil day by stretching to the uttermost the capacity of the old forms, and the final victory of the new ideas as Roman life and thought became gradually hellenised.

[*] This Lecture was the first of a second and separate course.

I propose to divide the story thus. In the latter part of this first lecture I will deal with the first introduction of Greek rites into the State worship under the directions of the so-called Sibylline books. Then I will turn to the efforts of the lay priesthoods, pontifices and augurs, to meet the calls of new experience by formalising the old religion still more completely in the name of the State, until it became a mere skeleton of dry bones, without life and power. That will bring us to the great turning-point in Roman history, the war with Hannibal, to the religious history of which I shall devote my fourth lecture; and the fifth will pursue the subject into the century that followed. In the next lecture I hope to sketch the influence on Roman religious ideas of the Stoic school of philosophy, and in the seventh to discuss, so far as I may be able, the tendency towards mysticism prevalent in the last period of the life of the Republic. My eighth lecture I intend to devote to the noble attempt of Virgil to combine religion, legend, philosophy, and consummate art in a splendid appeal to the conscience of the Roman of that day. Then I turn to the more practical attempt of Augustus to revive the dying embers of the old religion; and in my last lecture I shall try to estimate the contribution, such as it was, of the religious experience we have been discussing, to the early Christian church.

We shall shortly hear so much of petrifaction and disintegration, that it may be as well, before I actually begin my story, to convince ourselves that the old religion was in its peculiar way a real expression of religious feeling, and not merely a set of meaningless conventions and formulae. It was the positive belief of the later Romans that both they and their ancestors were religiosissimi mortales,[510] full to the brim, that is, of religious instinct, and most scrupulous in fulfilling its claims upon them; for the word religio had come, by the time (and probably long before the time) when it was used by men of letters, to mean the fulfilment of ritualistic obligation quite as much as the anxious feeling which had originally suggested it.[511] Cicero, writing in no rhetorical mood, declared that, as compared with other peoples, the Romans were far superior "in religione, id est cultu."[512] This is in his work on the nature of the gods; in an oration he naturally puts it more strongly: "We have overcome all the nations of the world, because we have realised that the world is directed and governed by the will of the gods."[513] Sallust, Livy, and other Roman prose writers have said much the same thing[514]; the Aeneid as a whole might be adduced as evidence, and in a less degree all the poets of the Augustan age. Foreigners, too, were struck with the strange phenomenon, in an age of philosophic doubt. Polybius in the second century B.C. declared his opinion that what was reckoned among other peoples as a thing to be blamed, deisidaimonia, both in public and private life, was really what was holding together the Roman state.[515] Even in the wild century that followed, Posidonius could repeat the assertion of Polybius, and in the age of Augustus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, then resident at Rome, looking back on the early history of Rome, stated his conviction that one needed to know the pietas of the Romans in order to understand their wonderful career of conquest.[516] Aulus Gellius, in a curious passage in which he notes that the Romans had no deity to whose activity they could with certainty ascribe earthquakes, describes them as "in constituendis religionibus atque in dis immortalibus animadvertendis castissimi cautissimique,"--a rhetorical but happy conjunction of epithets. He means that they would order religious rites, though ignorant of the numen to whom they were due.[517]

It might be argued that these later writers knew really little or nothing about the primitive Romans, and that these passages only prove that this people had an extraordinary scrupulosity about forms and ceremonies in this as in other departments of action. But the argument will not hold; the survival of all this formalism into an age of disintegration really proves beyond a doubt that there must have been a time when these forms really expressed anxieties, fears, convictions, the earliest germs of conscience.

May we not take the constant occurrence in literature of such phrases as dis faventibus, dis iuvantibus or volentibus, as evidence of an idea deeply rooted at one time in the Roman mind, that nothing should be undertaken until the will of the deities concerned had been ascertained and that early form of conscience satisfied? Let us remember that the whole story of the Aeneid is one of the bending of the will of the hero, as a type of the ideal Roman, to the ascertainable will of the powers in the universe.

And we have abundant evidence that as a matter of fact the good-will of the divine inhabitants of house and city was asked for whenever any kind of work was undertaken,--even the ordinary routine work of the farm or of government. In the household every morning some offering with prayer was made to the Lar familiaris in historical times, and again before the cena, the chief meal of the day.[518] On Kalends, Nones, Ides, and on all dies festi a corona was placed on the hearth, and prayer was made to the Lar; we know that this was so in the old Roman home, because in the second century B.C. Cato instructs the vilicus to discharge these duties on behalf of the absent or non-resident owner.[519] Before the flocks were taken out to summer pasture, and doubtless when they returned, some religious service (so we should call it) was held,[520] just as in the Catholic cantons of Switzerland the blessing of God is asked when the cows first ascend to the alpine pastures, and again when they leave them for the valleys. Before a journey the later Romans prayed for good fortune;[521] in the old times travelling was of course unusual, and when it did occur the traveller was surrounded by so many spiritual as well as material dangers that special religious measures must have been taken, as by fetials or armies on entering foreign territory. The survival of the same kind of belief and practice is also seen in private life in the religious commendations of some authors at the outset of their literary work; Varro, for example, at the beginning of his work on agriculture, calls on all the agrarian deities (iis deis ad venerationem advocatis) before he goes on to mention even the bibliography of his subject.[522] Livy in the last sentence of his preface would fain imitate the poets in calling on the gods to bless and favour his undertaking. And in all time of their tribulation, even if not in all time of their wealth, the pious Romans sought help from the deities from whom help might be expected; if, at least, the many instances occurring in Roman poetry may point to a practice of the ordinary individual and family.[523] So too, if we may judge by many passages in the plays of Plautus and Terence,[524]--if here we have genuine Roman usage, as is probable,--the feeling of dependence on a Power manifesting itself in the affairs of daily life is shown also in the expression of thankfulness which followed success or escape from peril. Gratitude was not a prominent characteristic of the Roman, but I have already remarked on the presence of it in the practice of the votum, and there is at least some evidence that it was recognised as due to benignant deities as well as human beings.[525]

In public life, throughout Roman history, the forms of religious rites were maintained on all important occasions. When Varro wrote a little manual of Senatorial procedure for the benefit of the inexperienced Pompeius when consul in 70 B.C., he was careful to mention the preliminary sacrifice and auspicatio, performed by the presiding magistrate, who also had to see that the business de rebus divinis came first on the paper of agenda.[526] At one time every speaker invoked the gods at the beginning of his oration, as well indeed he might in a situation so unusual and trying for a Roman before the days of Greek education; and the earliest speeches preserved in the literary age, e.g. those of Cato and the Gracchi, retained the religious exordium.[527] We have a trace of the Gracchan practice in a famous passage at the end of the work called Rhetorica ad Herennium of circ. 82 B.C., where the death of Ti. Gracchus is graphically described.[528] But there is no need to multiply examples of public religious formalism on occasions of all kinds, on entering on an office, founding a colony, leaving Rome for a provincia, and so on; some of them I have already mentioned, others are familiar to all classical students.

So let us not hesitate for a moment to give this people credit for their religiousness. True, their neighbours, Greeks like Polybius, approved of it only with an ironical smile on their lips, as we may smile at the devoted formalism of extreme Catholic or Protestant, while we secretly--if we have some sympathy with strangely varying human nature--admire the confidence and regularity that we cannot ourselves claim. At the moment where I have thus paused before beginning my second story, at the end, that is, of the regal period, I believe that this religious system, though perhaps beginning to harden, still meant a profound belief in the Power thus manifested in many forms, and an ardent and effective desire to be in right relation to it. I believe that it contained the germ of a living and fruitful growth; but that growth was at this very moment arrested by the beginning of a process of which I shall have much to say in the next two or three lectures.

But it is hard to realise this better side of the religion of a hard and practical people, and all the more so since it is the worse side that is almost always presented to us in modern books. It is hard to realise that it was not merely a system of insurance, so to speak, against all kinds of material evils,--and here again all the more so because there is a tendency just now to reduce both religion and law to an origin in magic, leaving the religious instinct, the feeling of dependence, the progenitor of conscience, quite out of account. One must indeed be thoroughly familiar with Roman literature and antiquities to overcome these difficulties, to discover the spiritual residuum in the Roman character beneath all its hardness and utilitarianism. Before we pass on to the task before us, let me make two suggestions for the help of those who would endeavour to find this spiritual residuum. The first is that they should consider the history and true meaning of three great words which Latin language has bequeathed to modern speech,--religio, the feeling of awe, taking practical shape in the performance of authorised ceremonies; sacrum, that which by authoritative usage is made over without reserve to the divine inhabitants of the city; and last but not least, pietas, the sense of duty to god and man alike, to all divine and human beings having an authorised claim upon you. And this word pietas shall introduce my second suggestion--that there is no better way of getting to understand the spirit of the Roman religion than by continual study of the Aeneid, where the hero is the ideal Roman, pius in the best and widest sense. What makes the Aeneid so helpful in this way is the poet's intimate and sympathetic knowledge of the religious ideas of the Italians, in which we may see reflected those of the Roman of the age we are now dealing with: his love too of antiquity and of all ancient rites and legends; and his conviction that the great work of Rome in the world had been achieved not only by virtus but by pietas. What has been won by virtus must be preserved by pietas, by the sense of duty in family and State,--that is the moral of the Aeneid. In no other work of Roman genius is this idea found in anything like the same degree of prominence and consistency; and when a student has steeped his mind well in the details of the Roman worship, and begins to weary of what must seem its soulless Pharisaism, let him take up the Aeneid and read it right through for the story and the characters. I will venture to say that he will think better both of the Romans and their poet than he ever did before. But of the Aeneid I shall have more to say later on; at present let us turn to the less inspiring topics which must occupy us for the next few lectures.

The last fact of Roman religious history which I mentioned last year was the building of the great Capitoline temple of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and I then explained why this constituted a religious revolution. The next temple of which tradition tells us was destined for another trias, Ceres, Liber, and Libera; the traditional date was 493 B.C., the cause a famine, and the site was at the foot of the Aventine, the plebeian quarter outside the pomoerium, close to the river where corn-ships might be moored.[529] Ceres, Liber, and Libera are plainly neither more nor less than the three Greek corn deities, Demeter, Dionysus, and Persephone, in a Latin form,[530] whose worship was prominent in South Italy and Sicily; and unless we throw tradition overboard entirely, as indeed has often been done, the inference is obvious that this trias came from the Greeks of the south with an importation of corn to relieve a famine which pressed especially on the plebs. It is a fact that the temple and its cult remained always closely connected with the plebs; they were under the charge of the plebeian aediles, who also in historical times had the care of the corn-supply necessary for the city population.[531] Thus, though we need not accept in full Livy's statement that the very next year corn was imported from Etruria, Cumae, and Sicily, it cannot be denied that there is a strong consensus in the various traditions about the temple, which taken together suggest a Greek, non-patrician, and early origin. That the cult had at all times a Greek character is undisputed fact.

But I am not so much concerned with the temple itself as with the date and the manner of its foundation. It was said to have been founded in the year 496, and dedicated in 493, in obedience to directions found in "the Sibylline books," which books, according to the well-known tradition, had been acquired by the last Tarquin, after some haggling, from an old woman, and placed in the charge of duoviri sacris faciundis. The story itself is worthless in detail; but the question for us is whether it can be taken as showing that the Sibylline influence then pervading the Greek world gained a footing at Rome in any form so early as this. Was the temple really founded in 496, or at some time thereabout? And was it founded in obedience to some Sibylline direction? These questions are of real importance, for upon our answer to them depends the date of the beginning of a gradual metamorphosis of the Roman religious practice. The so-called Sibylline books and their keepers were responsible, as we shall see directly, for the introduction at Rome of what was known as the Graecus ritus,--for the foundation of temples to deities of Greek origin, and for other rites which initiated an entirely new type of religious feeling. We need to be sure when all this began.

In the first place, so far as I can judge, it is almost impossible to dissociate the origin of the temple from Sibylline influence. As we have seen, the cult was Greek, and all such Greek cults of later times were introduced by the keepers of the Sibylline books; and further, the records of temple foundations were among the most carefully preserved facts in Roman annals.[532] I think it is hardly possible to suppose that a cult which came, not from Latium or southern Etruria, like those of Diana, Minerva, and the Capitoline deities, but from some Greek region to the south, and probably from Sicily, could have been introduced by Roman authorities unaided by Greek influence. If that be so, and if we can show that the temple really belongs to this early age, then we have a strong probability that the Sibylline influence gained a footing at Rome at the very beginning of the republican period.[533]

There is one curious fact in connection with the temple that in my opinion goes far to prove that the traditional date is not far out. Pliny tells us explicitly that the two Greek artists who decorated the temple, Damophilus and Gorgasus, inscribed their names on the walls, and he added that the work of the former would be found on the right and that of the latter on the left.[534] Nothing more is known about them; but I am assured that the fact that they signed their names and added these statements suits the character of Greek art in the archaic age 580 to 450 B.C. No signatures of artists are known earlier than about 580; then comes a period when signatures are found, sometimes with statements such as these. And lastly, about 450, we begin to find simple signatures without any other words.[535] Thus the presumption is a strong one that the temple belongs to a time earlier than 450; and if that be so, then I think the inference holds good that the Sibyl first gained a footing at Rome about the same time. There are indeed some reasons why we should not put this event in the period of the kings;[536] but if we accept the traditional date of the temple we may put it any time between 509 and 496.

I have purposely used vague terms, such as Sibylline influence, instead of speaking in the old manner of Sibylline books or oracles, because it is almost incredible that at so early a date it could have been possible to divulge any contents of a store of writings such as must have been most carefully treasured and concealed. This has been shown conclusively to be out of the question in Diels' now famous little book "Sibylline Leaves." But we may also follow Diels in assuming that about the end of the sixth century some kind of Greek oracle or oracular saying did actually arrive at Rome, purporting to be an utterance of the famous Sibyl of Cumae.[537]

But what was this Sibylline influence which thus penetrated to Rome, if I am right, at the beginning of the fifth century? It is no part of my design to discuss the history of Greek mysticism, though we shall hear something more of it in a later lecture. It will be enough to remind you that in the sixth century Greece was not only full of Orphism and Pythagoreanism, but of floating oracular dicta believed to emanate from a mystic female figure, a weird figure of whom it is hard to say how far she was human or divine; and of whose origin we know nothing, except that her original home was, as we might expect, Asia Minor. She was inspired by Apollo,[538] it was said, like the Pythia, and like her too became [Greek: entheos] (possessed) when uttering her prophecies; this is the earliest fact we know about her, for a famous fragment of Heracleitus represents her as uttering sayings "with frenzied lips,"[539]--a tradition of which Virgil has made good use in the sixth Aeneid:

non vultus, non color unus,

non comptae mansere comae; sed pectus anhelum, et rabie fera corda tument.

But more to our purpose is the sober judgment of Plato a century after the first Roman experience of her, who in the Phaedrus classes her among those who have wrought much good by their inspired utterances.[540] This passage may help us to understand how ready men were at that time to turn for aid in tribulation to what they believed to be divine help, to an inspired wisdom beyond the range of the local deities of their own city-states.

This Sibyl became gradually localised in certain Greek cities, and thereby broke up, as it were, into several Sibyls. One of these Sibylline homes was at Cumae in Campania, the oldest Greek city in Italy, and this enables us to explain easily how the name and fame of the Sibyl reached Rome. Dim as is all early Roman history, the one clear fact of the sixth century is, as we have seen, the rapid advance of the Etruscans, their occupation of Rome, Praeneste, and other Latin cities, and their conquest of Campania, which is now ascribed to that same age.[541] Legend told in later days how the last Etruscan king had taken refuge at Cumae after his expulsion from Rome, and it is just possible that it may here be founding upon some dim recollection of a fact. However this may be, it is plain that it was through the great Etruscan disturbance of that period that Rome came to make trial of Sibylline utterances. In a moment of distress--the famine of which I spoke just now, and which I take to be historical because the remedy, the temple under the Aventine, was so closely connected with the corn-supply--she sent for or admitted an utterance of the Sibyl of Cumae, with whom she had come into some kind of contact through her Etruscan kings.

Let us consider that this foreign dynasty must have brought a new population to the city on the Tiber, the chief strategic point of middle Italy,--a new element of plebs, whatever the old one may have been.[542] We have seen signs, even in the religious history of this age, that commerce and industry were increasing, and that their increase was due to a movement from without, rather than to the old patrician gentes. When the Etruscan dynasty fell and the old patrician influence was restored, the government must have been face to face with new difficulties, and among them the supply of corn for an increasing population in years of bad harvest. With a fresh source of supply from the south came the cult of the Greek corn-deities at the bidding of a Sibylline utterance; and henceforward that remedy was available for other troubles. But the patrician rulers of Rome were true, it would seem, as far as was possible, to the old ways, and for a long time they used this foreign remedy very sparingly. At what date the utterances were collected in "books" and deposited in the Capitoline temple we do not know, nor have we any certain knowledge of their original nature or form. Tradition said that the collection dated from the last king's reign, and that it was placed in the care of duoviri sacris faciundis, as we have seen, who in 367 B.C. gave way to decemviri, five of whom might be members of the plebs. I am myself inclined to conjecture that this comparatively late date may be the real date of the origin of a permanent collection and a permanent college of keepers, and that the earlier duoviri were only temporary religious officers, sacris faciundis, i.e. for the carrying out of the directions of Sibylline utterances specially sought for at Cumae. They would thus be of the same class as other special commissions appointed by the Senate for administrative purposes;[543] while the decemviri, though retaining the old title, were permanent religious officers appointed to collect and take charge of a new and important set of regulations for the benefit of the community, and one which concerned the plebs at least as much as the patricians.

But I must turn to the more important question how far, down to the war with Hannibal, when I shall take up the subject afresh, the Roman religion was affected for good or harm by these utterances and their keepers. They took effect in two ways: either by introducing new deities and settling them in new temples, or by ordering and organising new ceremonies such as Rome had never seen before.

The introduction of a new deity now and again was not of great account from the point of view of religion, except in so far as it encouraged the new ceremonies; the Romans had never taken much personal interest in their deities, and the arrival (outside the pomoerium in each case) of Hermes under the name of Mercurius, or Poseidon bearing the name of the old Roman water numen Neptunus, or even of Asclepios with a Romanised name Aesculapius, would not be likely to affect greatly their ideas of the divine. These facts have rather a historical than a religious significance; Hermes Empolaios, for example, suggests trade with Greek cities, perhaps in grain,[544] and belongs therefore to the same class as Ceres, Liber, Libera, of whom I have already spoken. The arrival of Poseidon-Neptune may mean, as Dr. Carter has suggested, a kind of "marine insurance" for the vessels carrying the grain from Greek ports.[545] The settling of Aesculapius in the Tiber island in 293, as the result of a terrible pestilence, is interesting as being the first fact known to us in the history of medicine at Rome; the temple became a kind of hospital on the model of Epidaurus, where the god had been brought in the form of a snake by an embassy sent for the purpose, and the priests who served it were probably Greeks skilled in the healing art.[546] This last case is a curious example of new Roman religious experience, but it can hardly be said to have any deep significance in the religious history of Rome. Of the obliteration of the old numen Neptunus by the Greek god who took his name we know nothing for good or ill; we are ignorant of the real meaning of the old numen, and cannot tell whether the loss of him was compensated by the usefulness of his name in Roman literature to represent the Greek god of the sea.

Let us turn to the much more important subject of the new ceremonies ordered by the Sibylline "books." The first authentic case of such innovation occurred in 399 B.C., during the long and troublesome siege of the dangerous neighbour city Veii; I call it authentic because all the best modern authorities so reckon it, though it occurred before the destruction of old records during the capture of the city by the Gauls. The circumstances were such as to fix themselves in the memory of the people, and in one way or another they found their way into the earliest annals, probably those of Fabius Pictor, composed during the Second Punic War.[547]

The previous winter, Livy tells us,[548] was one of extraordinary severity; the roads were blocked with snow, and navigation on the Tiber stopped by the ice. This miserable winter was followed too suddenly by a hot season, in which a plague broke out which consumed both man and beast, and continued so persistently that the Senate ordered the Sibylline books to be consulted. This persistence is the first point we should notice; "Cuius insanabili pernicie quando nec causa nec finis inveniebatur,"--so wrote Livy, evidently meaning to express an extremity of trouble which would not give way to ordinary religious remedies. We may compare his account of the next recorded consultation of the books (Livy vii. 2), when neither the old rites nor even the new ones were sufficient to secure the pax deorum and abate another pestilence, and recourse was had to yet another remedy in the form of ludi scenici. The times were out of joint,--the peace of the gods was broken, and thus the community was no longer in right relation to the Power manifesting itself in the universe. The result was a revival of religio, of the feeling of alarm and anxiety out of which the whole religious system had grown. The old deities might seem to be forsaking their functions, since the old rites had ceased to appeal to them. Mysterious and persistent pestilence is a great tamer of human courage; it is a new experience that man knows not how to meet, and in ancient life it was also a new religious experience.

The remedy was as new as the pestilence, and almost as pernicious. During eight days Rome saw three pairs of deities reclining in the form of images on couches, before which were spread tables covered with food and drink. Whether in this first case they were taken out of the temples and exposed to view in certain places, e.g. the forum, is not clear; later on, in the days of supplicationes, of which more will be said presently, they were visited in procession. The three pairs were Apollo and Latona, Diana and Hercules, Mercurius and Neptunus; all of them Greek, or, as in the case of Diana, Mercurius, and Neptunus, Roman deities in their new Greek form. We cannot trace the special applicability of all of them to the trouble they were thus invoked to appease,--another point that suggests a complete revolution in the Roman ways of contemplating divine beings. These are not functional numina, but foreigners whose ways were only known to the manipulators of the Sibylline utterances. They seem like quack remedies, of which the action is unknown to the consumer.

New also, but better in its effect, was the publicity of these proceedings, and the part taken in them by the whole population, patrician and plebeian, men, women, and children. If we can trust Livy's further statements, every one left his door open and kept open house, inviting all to come in, whether known or unknown; all old quarrels were made up, and no new ones suffered to begin; prisoners were freed from their chains, and universal good-will prevailed. These eight days were in fact kept as holidays, and doubtless by the novelty of the whole scene the astute authorities hoped to inspire fresh hope and confidence, and to divert attention from the prevailing misery, just as our soldiers in India are induced to forget the presence of cholera in a station by constant games and amusements. That this was really one leading object of the whole show is not generally recognised by historians; but it seems fully explained by the fact I mentioned just now, that in the similar trouble of 349 B.C. recourse was had for the first time to ludi scenici in order to amuse the people. In the history of the Hannibalic war we shall have plenty of opportunity of noting this kind of expedient. The Roman people, we must remember, were getting more and more to be inhabitants of a large city, and, as such, to seek for entertainment, like all citizens in all ages. The religious rites of the old calendar were perhaps by this time getting too familiar, losing their original meaning; whether they had ever been very entertaining to a city population may be doubted. Something more showy was needed; processions had always been to the taste of the Roman, and banquets, such as the epulum Iovis, which I have already noticed, often accompanied the processions.

Now, this love of show and novelty, of which we have abundant evidence later on as a Roman characteristic, taken together with the anxiety and alarm--the new religio--arising from the pestilence, will sufficiently explain the lectisternia, as these shows were called. We have here in fact the first appearance, constantly recurring in later Roman history, of a tendency to seek not only for novelty, but for a more emotional expression of religious feeling than was afforded by the old forms of sacrifice and prayer, conducted as they were by the priest on behalf of the community without its active participation. Those old forms might do for the old patrician community of farmers and warriors, but not so well for the new and ever-increasing population of artisans and other workmen, whether of Roman or foreign descent. It would seem, indeed, as if the sensitiveness of the human fibre of a primitive community increases with its increasing complexity, and with the greater variety of experience to which it is exposed; and in the case of Rome, as if the simple ancient methods of dealing with the divine inhabitants of the city were no longer adequate to the needs of a State which was steering its way to empire among so many difficulties and perils. It is not indeed certain that the new rites, or some points in them, may not have had their prototypes in old Italian usage, though the lectisternia, the actual display of gods in human form and in need of food like human beings, are almost certainly Greek in origin.[549] But so far as we can guess, the emotional element was wholly new. True, Livy tells us in two passages of his third book of occasions when men, women, and children flocked to all the shrines (omnia delubra) seeking for the pax deorum at the invitation of the senate; but the early date, the great improbability of the senate taking any such step, and the absence of any mention of the priesthoods, makes it difficult to believe that these assertions are based on any genuine record. We must be content to mark the first lectisternia in 399 as the earliest authentic example of the emotional tendency of the Roman plebs.[550]

If we can judge of this period of Roman religious history by the general tendency of the policy of the Roman government, we may see here a deliberate attempt to include the new population in worship of a kind that would calm its fears, engage its attention, and satisfy its emotion, while leaving uncontaminated the old ritual that had served the State so long. If this conclusion be a right one, then we must allow that the new ceremonial had its use. Dr. Frazer has lately told us in his eloquent and persuasive way, of how much value superstition has been in building up moral habits and the instinct of submission to civil order. His thesis might be illustrated adequately from the history of Rome alone. But from a purely religious point of view the story of the lectisternia is a sad one. The old Roman invisible numen, working with force in a particular department of human life and its environment, was a far nobler mental conception, and far more likely to grow into a power for good, than the miserable images of Graeco-Roman full-blown gods and goddesses reclining on their couches and appearing to partake of dinner like a human citizen. Such ideas of the divine must have forced men's religious ideas clean away from the Power manifesting itself in the universe, and must have dragged down the Roman numina with them in their corrupting degradation. According to our definition of it, religion was now in a fair way to disappear altogether; what was destined to take its place was not really religion at all. Nor did it in any way assist the growth of an individual conscience, as perhaps did some of the later religious forms introduced from without. It was of value for the moment to the State, in satisfying a population greatly disturbed by untoward events; and that was all.

Closely connected with the lectisternia, and following close upon them in chronological order, were the processional ceremonies called supplicationes. The historical relation between the two is by no means clear; but if we conclude, as I am fairly sure we may, that the lectisternia were shows of a joyful character, accompanied, as Livy describes the first one, with private entertainments, and meant to keep up the spirits of the plebeian population, and if we then turn to the early supplicationes, in which men, women, and children, coronati, and carrying laurel branches, went in procession to the temples, and there prostrated themselves after the Greek fashion, the women "crinibus passis aras verrentes," we shall be disposed to look on them as, in origin at least, distinct from each other.[551] We may conjecture that the appearance of the gods in human form at the doors of their temples suggested to the plebeian women a kind of emotional worship which was alien to the old Roman feeling, but familiar enough to those (and they must have been many) who knew the life of the Greek cities of Italy. It may be that they had tried it even in earlier times; but anyhow, in the fourth and third centuries B.C. advantage was taken of the pulvinaria to use them as stopping-places in the procession of a supplicatio, and the phrase becomes a common one in the annals, "supplicatio ad omnia pulvinaria indicta." The lectisternia were ordered five times in the fourth century;[552] by that time, it would seem likely, the supplicationes had become an authorised institution, and had perhaps embodied the practice of lectisternia in the way suggested above. We shall meet with them again when we come to the religious history of the war with Hannibal.

One word more before I leave this subject for the present. In all this innovation we must not forget to note the growth of individual feeling as distinguished from the old worship of civic grouping, in which the individual, as such, was of little or no account. I pointed out the first signs of this individualism when speaking of the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter, and we shall have reason to mark its rapid growth further. We are now, in fact, and must realise that we are, in a period in which, throughout the Graeco-Roman world, the need was beginning to be felt of some new rule of individualistic morality. The Roman population, now recruited from many sources, was but reflecting this need unconsciously when it insisted on new emotional rites and expiations. The Roman authorities were forced to satisfy the demand; but in doing so they made no real contribution to the history of Roman religious experience. It was impossible that they should do so; they represented the old civic form of religion, "bound up with the life of a society, and unable to contemplate the individual except as a member of it."[553] The new forms of worship, the supplicatio and lectisternium, could not be, as the old forms had in some sense been, the consecration of civic and national life. They were to the Romans as the worship of Baal to the Jews of the time of the Kings; and, unlike that poisonous cult, they could never be rooted out.[554][555]

Prev | Next | Contents

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]
[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]