Annourbis.com
Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices
Google

Prev | Next | Contents


LECTURE XV - AFTER THE HANNIBALIC WAR



The long and deadly struggle with Hannibal ended in 201 B.C., and no sooner was peace concluded than the Senate determined on war with Macedon. This decision is a critical moment in Roman history, for it initiated not only a long period of advance and the eventual supremacy of Rome in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also an age of narrow aristocratic rule which remained unquestioned till revolution broke out with Tiberius Gracchus. But we cannot safely deny that it was a just decision. Hannibal was alive, and his late ally, Philip of Macedon, now in sinister coalition with Antiochus of Syria, might be capable of invading exhausted Italy. To have an enemy once more in the peninsula would probably be fatal to Rome and Italy, and one more effort was necessary in order to avert such a calamity; an effort that must be made at once, while Carthage lay prostrate.

It is necessary to grasp fully the danger of the moment if we are to understand the part played by religion (if I may use the word) in bringing about the desired result. It was most difficult to persuade a people worn out by one war that it was essential for their safety that they should at once face another. Historians naturally look on the success of the Senate in this task as due to its own prestige, and to the skilful oratory of the Consul in the speech to the people which Livy has reproduced in his own admirable rhetoric. But a closer examination of the chapters at the beginning of the historian's thirty-first book will show that religion too was used, in accordance with the experience of the late war, to put pressure on the voters and to inspire their confidence. As we saw in the last lecture, they had been constantly cheered and braced by religious expedients,--their often-recurring religio had been soothed and satisfied; now the same means were to be used positively rather than negatively, to help in urging them to a definite course of action. Some sixty years later Polybius, writing of the extreme religiousness of the Romans, expressed his conviction that religion was invented for political objects, and only serves as the means of bridling the fickle and unreasoning Demos; for if it were possible to have a State consisting of wise men only, no such institution would be necessary.[706] The philosophic historian is here thinking mainly of the way in which religion was turned to account by the Roman authorities in his own lifetime. We cannot have a better illustration of this than the events of the year 200 B.C.

Already, in the autumn of the previous year, the ground had been prepared. To the plebeian games in November there had been added a feast of Jupiter (Iovis epulum), as had been done more than once during the late war.[707] Jupiter, in the form of his image in the Capitoline temple, lay on his couch at the feast of the outgoing plebeian magistrates, with his face reddened with minium as at a triumph, and Juno and Minerva sat each on her sella on either side of him; and to give practical point to this show, corn from Africa was distributed at four asses the modius, or at most one quarter of the normal price. When the new consuls entered on office on the ides of the following March, further religious steps were at once taken; the political atmosphere was charged with religiosity. On the first day of their office the consuls were directed by the Senate, doubtless with the sanction of the pontifices, to sacrifice to such deities as they might select, with a special prayer for the success of the new war which Senate and people (the latter by a clever anticipation) are contemplating. Haruspices from Etruria had been adroitly procured, and no doubt primed, who reported that the gods had accepted this prayer, and that the examination of the victims portended extension of the Roman frontier, victory, and triumph.[708] Yet, in spite of all this, the people were not yet willing; in almost all the centuries, when the voting for the war took place, they rejected the proposal of the Senate. Then the consul Sulpicius was put up to address them, and at the end of Livy's version of his speech we find him clinching his political arguments with religious ones. "Ite in suffragium, bene iuvantibus dis, et quae Patres censuerunt, vos iubete. Huius vobis sententiae non consul modo auctor est, sed etiam di immortales; qui mihi sacrificanti ... laeta omnia prosperaque portendere." Thus adjured, the people yielded; and as a reward, and to stifle any religio that might be troubling them, they are treated to a supplicatio of three days, including an "obsecratio circa omnia pulvinaria" for the happy result of the war; and once more, after the levy was over,--a heavy tax on the patience of the people,--the consul made vows of ludi and a special gift to Jupiter, in case the State should be intact and prospering five years from that day.[709]

Exactly the same religious machinery was used a few years later to gain the consent of the people for a war of far less obvious necessity,--that with Antiochus of Syria. It was at once successful. The haruspices were again on the spot and gave the same report; and then, solutis religione animis, the centuries sanctioned the war. The vow that followed, of which Livy gives a modernised wording, was for ludi to last ten continuous days, and for gifts of money at all the pulvinaria, where now, as we gather from these same chapters, the images of the gods were displayed on their couches during the greater part of the year.[710]

We may realise in accounts like these how far we have left behind us the old Roman religion we discussed in earlier lectures. That religion did not any longer supply the material needed; it was not suited to be the handmaid of a political or military policy; it was a real religion, not invented for political purposes, to use Polybius' language, but itself a part of the life of the State, whether active in war, or law, or politics. In the ceremonies I have just been describing almost all the features are foreign,--the pulvinaria, the haruspices, perhaps even the Iovis epulum; and we feel that though the religio in the minds of the people is doubtless a genuine thing, yet the means taken to soothe it are far from genuine,--they are mala medicamenta, quack remedies. Such is the method by which a shrewd, masterly government compels the obedience of a populus religiosus. After long experience of such methods, can we wonder that Polybius could formulate his famous view of religion, or that a great and good Roman lawyer, himself pontifex maximus, could declare that political religion stands quite apart from the religion of the poets, or that of the philosophers, and must be acted on, whether true or false?[711]

The reporting of prodigia goes on with astonishing vigour in this period, and seems to have become endemic. I only mention it here (for we have had quite enough of it already) because the question arises whether it is now used mainly for political purposes, or to annoy a personal rival or enemy. This does not appear clearly from Livy's accounts, but in an age of personal and political rivalries, as this undoubtedly was, it can hardly have been otherwise. Certain it is that the interests of the State were grievously interfered with in this way. The consuls at this time, and until 153 B.C., did not enter on office until March 15, and they should have been ready to start for their military duties as soon as the levies had been completed; instead of which, they were constantly delayed by the duty of expiating these marvels. In 199 Flamininus, whose appointment to the command in Macedonia had of course annoyed the friends of the man he was superseding, was delayed in this way for the greater part of the year, and yet he is said to have left Italy at an earlier date than most consuls.[712] Thus the change to January 1 for the beginning of the consular year, which took place in 153 B.C., was an unavoidable political necessity. Even the Sibylline books came to be used for personal and political purposes. In the year 144 the praetor Marcius Rex was commissioned to repair the Appian and Aniensian aqueducts and to construct a new one. The decemviri sacris faciundis, consulting the books, as it was said, for other reasons, found an oracle forbidding the water to be conveyed to the Capitoline hill, and seem on this absurd ground to have been able to delay the necessary work. Our information is much mutilated, but the real explanation seems to be that there was some personal spite against Marcius, who, however, eventually completed the work.[713] Nearly a century later a Sibylline oracle, beyond doubt invented for the purpose, was used to prevent Pompeius from taking an army to Egypt to restore Ptolemy Auletes to his throne. But all students of Roman history in the last two centuries B.C. are familiar with such cases of the prostitution of religion or religious processes, and I have already said enough about it in the lecture on divination.[714]

I do not, of course, mean to assert that personal and political motives account for all or the greater number of prodigia reported. There is plenty of evidence that the genuine old religio could be stirred up by real marvels, which the government were bound to expiate in order to satisfy public feeling. Thus in 193 B.C. earthquakes were so frequent that the Senate could not meet, nor could any public business be done, so busy were the consuls with the work of expiation. At last the Sibylline books were consulted and the usual religious remedies applied; but the spirit of the age is apparent in the edict of the consuls, prompted by the Senate, that if feriae had been decreed to take place on a certain day for the expiation of an earthquake, no fresh earthquake was to be reported on that same day.[715] This delicious edict, unparalleled in Roman history, caused the grave Livy to declare that the people must have grown tired, not only of the earthquakes, but of the feriae appointed to expiate them.

Let us turn to another and more interesting feature of this age, which is plainly visible in the sphere of religion, as in other aspects both of private and public life: I mean the growth of individualism. Men, and indeed women also, as we shall see, are beginning to feel and to assert their individual importance, as against the strict rules and traditions, civil or religious, of the life of the family and the State. This is a tendency that had long been at work in Greece, and is especially marked in the teaching of the two great ethical schools of the post-Alexandrian period, the Epicureans and Stoics. The influence of Greece on the Romans was already strong enough to have sown the seeds of individualism in Italy; but the tendency was at the same time a natural result of enlarged experience and expanding intelligence among the upper classes. The second century B.C. shows us many prominent men of strong individual character, who assert themselves in ways to which we have not been accustomed in Roman history, e.g. Scipio the elder, Flamininus, Cato, Aemilius Paulus and his son, Scipio Aemilianus; and among lesser and less honourable men we see the tendency in the passionate desire for personal distinction in the way of military commands, triumphs, and the giving of expensive games. This is the age in which we first hear of statues and portrait busts of eminent men; and magistrates begin to put their names or types connected with their families on the coins which they issue.[716]

In religion this tendency is seen mainly in the attempts of the individual, often successful, to shake himself free of the restrictions of the old ius divinum. I pointed out long ago that it was a weak point in the old Roman religion that it did little or nothing to encourage and develop the individual religious instinct; it was formalised as a religion of family and State, and made no appeal, as did that of the Jews, to the individual's sense of right and wrong.[717] The sense of sin was only present to the Roman individual mind in the form of scruple about omissions or mistakes in the performance of religious duties. Thus religion lost her chance at Rome as an agent in the development of the better side of human nature. As an illustration of what I mean I may recall what I said in an early lecture, that the spirit of a dead Roman was not thought of as definitely individualised; it joined the whole mass of the Manes in some dimly conceived abode beneath the earth; there is no singular of the word Manes. It is only in the third century B.C. that we first meet with memorial tombstones to individuals, like those of the Scipios, and not till the end of the Republican period that we find the words Di Manes representing in any sense the spirit of the individual departed.[718]

In practical life the quarrel of the individual with the ius divinum takes the form of protest against the restrictions placed on the old sacrificing priesthoods, these of the Flamines and the Rex sacrorum, who, unlike the pontifices and augurs, were disqualified from holding a secular magistracy.[719] These priesthoods must be filled up, and when a vacancy occurred, the pontifex maximus, who retained the power of the Rex in this sphere, as a kind of paterfamilias of the whole State, selected the persons, and could compel them to serve even if they were unwilling. But the interests of public life are now far more attractive than the duties of the cults,--the individual wishes to assert himself where his self-assertion will be noted and appreciated.

These attempts at emancipation from the ius divinum were not at first successful. In 242 a flamen of Mars was elected consul; he hoped to be in joint command with his colleague Lutatius of the naval campaign against Carthage. But the ius divinum forbade him to leave Italy, and the pontifex maximus inexorably enforced it.[720] Of this quarrel we have no details; but in 190 a similar case is recorded in full. A flamen Quirinalis, elected praetor, who had Sardinia assigned him as his province, was stopped by the ius divinum administered by another inexorable pontifex maximus; and it was only after a long struggle, in which Senate, tribunes, and people all took part, that he was forced to submit. So great was his wrath that he was with difficulty persuaded not to resign his praetorship.[721] Naturally it became difficult to fill these priesthoods, for it was invidious to compel young men of any promise to commit what was practically political suicide. The office of rex sacrorum was vacant for two years between 210 and 208;[722] and in 180 Cornelius Dolabella, a duumvir navalis, on being selected for this priesthood, absolutely refused to obey the pontifex maximus when ordered to resign his secular command. He was fined for disobedience, and appealed to the people; at the moment when it became obvious that the appeal would fail, he contrived to escape by getting up an unlucky omen. Religio inde fuit pontificibus inaugurandi Dolabellae; and here we have the strange spectacle of the ius divinum being used to defeat its own ends. Such a state of things needs no comment.[723]

But the most extraordinary story of this kind is that of a flamen of Jupiter,--a story which many years ago I told in detail in the Classical Review. Here I may just be allowed to reproduce it in outline. In the year 209 a young C. Valerius Flaccus, the black sheep of a great family, was inaugurated against his will as Flamen Dialis by the pontifex maximus P. Licinius.[724] It was within the power of the head of the Roman religion to use such compulsion, but it must have been difficult and unusual to do so without the consent of the victim's relations. In this case, as Livy expressly tells us, it was used because the lad was of bad character,--ob adolescentiam negligentem luxuriosamque; and it is pretty plain that the step was suggested by his elder brother and other relations, in order to keep him out of mischief. For, as we have seen, the taboos on this ancient priesthood were numerous and strict, and among the restrictions laid on its holder was one which forbade him to leave his house for a single night. Thus we learn not only that this priesthood was not much accounted of in those days, but also that for the cura and caerimonia of religion a pure mind was no longer needed. But it might be utilised as a kind of penal settlement for a libertine noble; and it is not impossible that a century and a quarter later the attempt to put the boy Julius Caesar into the same priesthood, though otherwise represented by the historians, may have had the same object.[725] But the strange thing in the case of Flaccus is that this very cura and caerimonia, if Livy's account is to be trusted, had such a wholesome disciplinary effect, that the libertine became a model youth, the admiration of his own and other families. Relying on his excellent character he even asserted the ancient right of this flamen to take his seat in the Senate, a right which had long been in abeyance ob indignitatem flaminum priorum; and he eventually gained his point, in spite of obstinate opposition on the part of a praetor. Some years later, in 200, this same man was elected curule aedile.[726] This was clearly the first example of an attempt to combine the priesthood with a magistracy, for a difficulty at once arose and was solved in a way for which no precedent is quoted. Among the taboos on this priest there was one forbidding him to take an oath; yet the law demanded that a magistrate must take the usual oath within five days of entering on office.[727] Flaccus insisted on asserting his individuality in spite of the ius divinum, and the Senate and people both backed him up. The Senate decreed that if he could find some one to take the oath for him, the consuls might, if they chose, approach the tribune with a view to getting a relieving plebiscitum; this was duly obtained, and he took the oath by proxy. In his year of office as aedile we find him giving expensive ludi Romani; and in 184 he only missed the praetorship by an unlucky accident.[728] In this story we find the self-assertion of an individual supported by Senate, consuls, and people in breaking loose from the antiquated restrictions of a bygone age, and we cannot but sympathise with it. But Roman history is full of surprises, and among these I know none more amazing than the successful attempt of Augustus two centuries later to revive this priesthood with all its absurdities.[729]

The self-assertion of members of the great families against the ius divinum was inevitable, and in the instances just noticed the attitude of compromise taken up by the government was only what was to be expected in an age of stress and change and new ideas. But in less than twenty years after the peace with Carthage this government found itself suddenly face to face with what may be called a religious rebellion chiefly among the lower orders, including women; and the authorities unhesitatingly reverted to the position of conscientious guardians of the religious system of the City-state. They began to realise that they had been holding a wolf by the ears ever since the beginning of the Hannibalic war; that they had a population to deal with which was no longer pure Roman or even pure Italian, and that even the genuine Romans themselves were liable to be moved by new currents of religious feeling. During the war they had done all that was possible to meet the mental as well as the material troubles of this population, even to the length of introducing the worship, under certain restrictions, of the great Phrygian Mother of the gods. But now, in 186, the sudden outbreak of Dionysiac orgies in Italy showed them that all their remedies were stale and insufficient, and that the wolf was getting loose in their hands.

Dionysus had long been housed at Rome, under the name of Liber, in that temple of Ceres, Liber, and Libera which was discussed in detail in my eleventh lecture.[730] But it is not likely that many Romans recognised the identity of Liber and Dionysus, and it is quite certain that the characteristic features of the Dionysiac ritual were entirely unknown at Rome for three centuries after the foundation of the temple. That ritual, as it existed in Greece from the earliest times, retaining the essential features which it bore in its original Thracian home,[731] has lately been thoroughly examined and clearly expounded by Dr. Farnell in the fifth volume of his Cults of the Greek States, and the student of the Roman religious history of this period would do well to study carefully his fifth chapter. In most Greek states, as at Athens, in spite of occasional outbreaks, the wilder aspects of the cult had not been encouraged, but at Delphi and at Thebes, i.e. on Parnassus and Cithaeron, the more striking phenomena of the genuine ritual are found down to a late period. Dr. Farnell has summed these up under three heads at the beginning of his account: "The wild and ecstatic enthusiasm that it inspired, the self-abandonment and communion with the deity achieved through orgiastic rites and a savage sacramental act, and the prominence of women in the ritual, which in accordance with a certain psychic law made a special appeal to their temperament."[732] It meant in fact exactly that form of religious ecstasy which was peculiarly abhorrent to the minds of the old Romans, who had built up the ius divinum with its sober ritual and its practical ideas of the supernatural powers around them. We found nothing in our studies of this religion to lead us to suppose for an instant that it had any mental effect such as "the transcending of the limits of the ordinary consciousness and the feeling of communion with the divine nature."[733] The Latin language indeed had no native words for the expression of such emotions.[734]

But it would be a great mistake to suppose that there was no soil in Italy, or even at Rome, where such emotional rites might take root. We may believe that the dignity and sobriety of the Roman character was in part at least the result of the discipline of ordered religion in family and state; but this is not to say that the Romans were never capable of religious indiscipline,--far from it. The Italian rural festival, then as now, was lively and indecorous, so far as we can guess from the few glimpses we get of it; and at Rome the ancient festival of Anna Perenna, in which women took part, was a scene of revelry as Ovid describes it,[735]--of dancing, singing, and intoxication, and we need not wonder that it found no place in the ancient calendar of the ius divinum. And we have lately had occasion to notice, in the new ritual instituted under the direction of the Sibylline books, and more especially during the great war, clear indications that the natural emotions of women, even of Roman women, had to be satisfied by shows and processions in which they could share, and that the ideal dignity of the Roman matron had often given way under the terrible stress of public and domestic anxiety and peril. No wonder then that when Roman armies had been for years in Greece, and Greeks were flocking into Rome in larger numbers every year, the Dionysiac rites should find their way into Italy, and no wonder too that they should instantly find a congenial soil, exotics though they were.

The story of the Bacchanalia is told by Livy in his best manner, and whether or no it be literally true in every particular, is full of life and interest. It is the fashion now to reject as false whatever is surprising; and the latest historian of Rome dismisses Livy's account of the discovery of the mischief as "an interesting romance."[736] Fortunately we are not now concerned with this romance, if such it be; I only propose to dwell on one or two points more nearly concerned with our subject.

First, let us note that the seeds of this evil crop were sown in Etruria, the most dangerous neighbour of the Romans from a religious point of view; for it is hardly too much to say that all Greek influences that filtered through Etruria on their way to Rome were contaminated in the process. According to the story,[737] a common Greek religious quack (sacrificulus et vates, as Livy calls him), of the type held up to scorn by Plato in the Republic,[738] came to Etruria and began to initiate in the rites; drunkenness was the result, and with drinking came crime and immorality of all kinds. From Etruria the mischief spread to Rome, and was there discovered accidentally. According to the evidence given, it began with a small association of women, who met openly in the daytime only three times a year. Then it fell under the direction of a priestess from Campania,--Rome's other most dangerous neighbour in regard to religion and morals,--who gave it a sinister turn. The meetings were held at night, and were accompanied not only by the characteristic features of the old Thracian ritual, but, as in Etruria, by the most abominable wickedness. It was said to have infected a large part of the population, including young members of noble families; for with the true missionary instinct, young people only were admitted by the hierophants. We need not necessarily believe all this; but it is certain, from the steps taken by the government, about which there is no doubt, that it is in the main a true account. The storm and stress of the long war with Hannibal would be enough to account for the phenomena, even if they were not in keeping with well-known psychical facts.

Let us now turn for a moment to the attitude of the government in this extraordinary episode of Roman religious experience. The danger is dealt with entirely by the Senate and the magistrates; the authorities of the ius divinum as such have nothing to do with it. It is characteristic of the age that it is not dealt with as a matter of religion merely, but as a conspiracy--coniuratio.[739] This is the word used by Livy, and we find it also in the document called Senatusconsultum de Bacchanalibus, part of which has most fortunately come down to us. This is the word also used, we may note, of the conspiracy of Catiline in the century following, and it always conveys the idea of rebellion against the order and welfare of the State. In this case it was rebellion against the whole body of the mos maiorum, the [Greek: êthos] of the City-state of Rome. For it was an attempt to supersede the ancient religious life of that State by externa superstitio, prava religio--prava, because deorum numen praetenditur sceleribus; and hence, as Livy expresses it in the admirable speech put into the mouth of the consul, the Roman gods themselves felt their numen to be contaminated.[740] All the speeches in Livy, except perhaps the military ones, are worth careful study by those who would enter into the Roman spirit as conceived by an Augustan writer; and this is one of the most valuable of them.

Lastly, let us note the steps taken by the government in this emergency. It is treated as a matter of police, both in Rome and Italy; the guilty are sought out and punished as conspirators against the State, and a precedent of tremendous force is hereby established for all future dealings with externa superstitio, which held good even to the last struggle with Christianity. Where foreign rites are believed to be dangerous to the State or to morality, they must be rigidly suppressed in the Roman world; when they are harmless they may be tolerated, or even, like the cult of the Magna Mater, received into the sacred circle of Roman worships.[741] But there is yet another lesson to be learnt from the conduct of the government at this crisis. Who would have suspected, while reading the horrible story, and noting the almost arbitrary energy with which the coniuratio was stamped out, that the Dionysiac rites would even now be tolerated under certain conditions? That this was so is a fact attested not only by Livy, but by the Senatusconsultum itself.[742] The government was now forced to recognise the fact that there were Romans for whom the ius divinum no longer sufficed, and who needed a more emotional form of religion. If any one (so ran in effect the Senatusconsultum) felt conscientiously that he could not wholly renounce the new religion, he might apply in person to the praetor urbanus; and the praetor would lay the matter before a meeting of the Senate, at which not less than a hundred must be present. The Senate may give leave for the worship, provided that no more than five persons be present at it; and that there be no common fund for its support, nor any permanent priest to preside at it. These clauses, says Aust,[743] are a concession to the strong spiritual current of feeling which sought for something fresher and better to take the place of the old religion of forms; and on the whole we may agree with him. All religious revivals are liable to be accompanied by moral evil, but they all express unmistakably a natural and honourable yearning of the human spirit.

Not long after this, in 181, the government put its foot down firmly on what seems to have been another attempt, though in this case a ludicrous one, to introduce strange religious ideas at Rome. We have the story of this on the authority not only of Livy, but of the oldest Roman annalist, Cassius Hemina, from whose work Pliny has preserved a fragment relating to this matter.[744] Cassius must almost certainly have been alive in 181, and would remember the event;[745] and though his account and Livy's differ in details, we may take the story as in the main true. A secretary (scriba), who had land on the Janiculan hill, dug up there a stone coffin with an inscription stating that the king Numa was buried in it. No remains of a body were found, but in a square stone casket inside the coffin were found books written on paper (charta) and supposed to be writings of Numa about the Pythagorean philosophy. These writings were read by many people, and eventually by a praetor, who at once pronounced them to be subversive of religion. That anything supposed to emanate from Numa should have this character was of course impossible; and it is plain that the writings were believed even at the time to be absurd forgeries, drawn up with the idea of investing strange doctrines with the authority of Numa's name; for the legend of a religious connection between Numa and Pythagoras must have been known at the time. The discoverer appealed to the tribunes, who referred the matter to the senate; and the senate authorised the praetor to burn the books in the Comitium, which was done in the presence of a large assembly.

In a later lecture I shall have something to say of the revival of Pythagoreanism in the time of Cicero, and I need not now attempt to explain what such a revival might mean. All we need to note is that something subversive of the Roman religion was believed to be circulating in 181 in Roman society under the assumed authority of Numa's name, and that the senate, warned by recent experience, determined to stamp it out at once. They seem to have suddenly become alive to the fact that Greece, and in this instance mainly Magna Graecia, was sending clever agents to Rome for the propagation of ideas which might make the people less tractable to authority. In the stress of the great war, indeed for years afterwards, they had probably never had leisure to reflect on the inevitable result of the writings of a man like Ennius, who was not improbably responsible for the propagation of these very Pythagorean notions.[746] Now a reaction seems to set in against the flowing tide of admiration for everything Greek;[747] but it was too late to arrest the flood. All that could be hoped for was that in the lives and minds of the wiser Romans the new Greek civilisation might so leaven the old Roman ignorance that no permanent harm should be done to the instincts of virtus and pietas: and to some extent this hope was realised. But for the masses there was no such hope. What Greek teaching reached their minds was almost wholly that of the ludi scenici; and I must now say a word in conclusion about this unwholesome influence--unwholesome, that is, so far as it affected the old religious ideas.

I had occasion, when dealing with Dr. Frazer's notion that the Roman religion admitted such ideas as the marriage of the gods with all its natural consequences,[748] to point out that his evidence was almost wholly derived from the play-writers of the very period on which we are now engaged. I said that he seems to be justified in concluding that there was a popular idea of such a kind, which the State religion did not recognise; but that it can very easily be explained as the natural effect of a degenerate Greek mythology, popularised by Greek dramas adapted to the Roman stage, upon certain peculiarities of the Roman theology, and especially the functional combination of male and female divine names in Italian invocations of the deities. Nothing could be more natural than that playwrights should take advantage of such combinations to invent or translate comic passages to please a Roman audience, "now largely consisting of semi-educated men who had lost faith in their own religion, and a host of smaller people of mixed descent and nationality." We do not know enough of the older comedies to be at all sure how far they had gone in this direction, though we are certain, to use the words of Zeller,[749] that it was impossible to transplant Greek poetry to Roman soil without bringing Greek mythology with it; or, as I should put it, without subordinating the old reasonable idea of the Power manifesting itself in the universe to the Greek fancy for clothing that Power in the human form and endowing it with human faults and frailties.

But of the two great literary figures of the age we have now reached, Ennius and Plautus, we know beyond all doubt that they taught the ignorant Roman of their day not only to be indifferent to his deities, but to laugh at them. Just at the very time when the forged books of Numa were being burnt in the Comitium, Ennius' famous translation of the Sacred History of Euhemerus was becoming known at Rome, in which was taught the doctrine of the human origin of all deities; and though we have hardly a fragment left of the comedies of Ennius, we may presume that he would not have hesitated for a moment to make the gods ridiculous on the stage. It was he who wrote the celebrated lines in his tragedy of Telamo:[750]

ego deum genus esse semper dixi et dicam caelitum, sed eos non curare opinor quid agat humanum genus,

which (as I have said elsewhere)[751] strike a direct blow at the efficacy of sacrifice and prayer by openly declaring that the gods did not interest themselves in mankind. This is the same Epicurean doctrine afterwards preached by Lucretius, and I must return to it in the next lecture. At present let us select a couple of specimens of the more explicit evidence of the extant plays of Plautus, which began to be exhibited at Rome just about the end of the war with Hannibal.

Here is an example of the way in which the family relationships of Greek gods could be made amusing under Roman names. Alcesimarchus in the Cistellaria wishes to make a strong asseveration, and begins:[752]

at ita me di deaeque, superi et inferi et medioxumi,

but immediately goes on to specify these deities more particularly by their names and relationships--and gets the latter wrong. Melaenis corrects him in a way which (as Aust notes)[753] could only have seemed comical to a Roman audience if they had already some acquaintance with the divine family gossip.

itaque me Iuno regina et Iovi' supremi filia itaque me Saturnus eiius patruos--ME. ecastor, pater.

AL. itaque me Ops opulenta, illius avia--ME. immo mater quidem.

Perhaps it was the fancy of the age for divine genealogy that is here being made fun of rather than the gods themselves; but in any case the passage shows how irrecoverably lost was the real impersonal character of the old Roman numen, and how impossible it must have been in such an age to believe that anything was really to be gained by the once solemn rites of the ius divinum.

But the most remarkable evidence is in the Amphitruo,[754] where Jupiter and Mercurius are among the dramatis personae. This comedy is extremely amusing, and was quite capable of entertaining the Parisians in the form given it by Molière; but for them it could hardly have been so funny as for the Greeks in the age of the New Comedy and their disciples the Romans of Plautus' day, who saw Zeus and Hermes, Jupiter and Mercurius, brought by their own misdoings into absurd and degrading situations. Jupiter personates Amphitruo, and so gains admission to his wife, Alkmene! Comment is needless, unless we take the last line of the play as a comment:--

Nunc, spectatores, Iovi' summi causa clare plaudite!

I do not propose to follow further the downfall of the old Roman ideas about the objects of worship, or the neglect and decay of the ius divinum. They do not fall within the scope of my subject--the religious experience of the Roman people. So long as there was any life in these ideas and in the cult which was the practical expression of them, they formed part of that experience. But I think I have sufficiently proved that the life has gone out of the ideas, and that the worship has consequently become meaningless. Ideas about the divine may be discussed by philosophers as the Romans begin to read and in some degree to think; and the outward forms of the cult may be maintained in such particulars as most closely concern the public life of the community; but as a religious system expressing human experience we have done with these things.



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]