Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices

Prev | Next | Contents


We have now reached the end of the period of the Republic; but before I go on to the age of Augustus, with which I must bring these lectures to an end, I must ask attention to a movement which can best be described by the somewhat vague term Mysticism, but is generally known to historians of philosophy as Neo-pythagoreanism. The fact is that such tendency as there ever was at Rome towards Mysticism--which was never indeed a strong one till Rome had almost ceased to be Roman[804]--seems to have taken the form of thinking known as Pythagorean. The ideas at the root of the Pythagorean doctrine, the belief in a future life, the conception of this life as only preparatory to another, the conviction of the need of purgation in another life and of the preparatory discipline and asceticism to be practised while we are here,--these are truly religious ideas; and even among Romans the religious instinct, though it might be hypnotised, could never be entirely destroyed. When it awoke from time to time in the minds of thinking men it was apt to express itself in Pythagorean tones. With the ignorant and vulgar it might find a baser expression in superstition pure and simple,--in the finding of portents, in astrology, in Dionysiac orgies; but with these Pythagoreanism must not be reckoned. These, as they appeared on the soil of Italy, were the bastard children of quasi-religious thought. But the movement of which I speak marks a reaction, among men who could both feel and think, against the whole tendency of Roman religious experience as we have been tracing it; against the extreme formalism, now meaningless, of the Roman State religion; against the extreme scepticism and indifference so obvious in the last century and a half of the republican era; against the purely intellectual appeal of the ethical systems of which I have been recently speaking. Stoicism indeed, as we shall see, held out a hand to the new movement, simply because Stoicism had a religious side which was wanting in Epicurism. But the thought that our senses and our reason are not after all the sole fountains of our knowledge, a thought which is the essence of mysticism, was really foreign to Stoicism; and when this thought did find a soil in the mind of a thinking Roman of this age, it was likely to spring up in a transcendental form which we may call Pythagoreanism.

South Italy was indeed the true home of the Pythagorean teaching. There its founder had established it, and there, mixed up with more popular Orphic doctrine and practice, it must have remained latent for centuries.[805] "Tenuit magnam illam Graeciam," says Cicero of Pythagoras, "cum honore disciplinae, tum etiam auctoritate; multaque saecula post sic viguit Pythagoreorum nomen, ut nulli alii docti viderentur."[806] To South Italy Plato is said to have travelled to study this philosophy, and to learn the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; and the story is generally accepted as true.[807] But of any missionary attempt of Pythagoreanism on Rome we know nothing--and probably there was nothing to tell--till that mysterious plot to introduce it after the Hannibalic war which I mentioned in a recent lecture.[808] That war brought Rome into close contact with Tarentum and southern Italy, and it is likely enough that the attempt to connect King Numa with the philosopher, both in the familiar legend and in the alleged discovery of the stone coffin with its forged manuscripts, had its origin in this contact. The Senate could not object to the legend, but it promptly stamped out this grotesque attempt at propagandism. Then we hear no more of the doctrine for a century at least; but in the last century B.C. we know that there appeared a number of Pythagorean writings, falsely attributed to the founder himself or his disciples,[809]--a method of propagandism which, like that of the previous century, may perhaps be taken as marking the religious nature of the doctrine, which needed the ipse dixit of the founder or something as near it as possible.[810] But of the immediate influence of these writings we know nothing. The person really responsible for the tendency to this kind of mysticism was undoubtedly the great Posidonius, philosopher, historian, traveller, who more than any other man dominated the Roman world of thought in the first half of the last century B.C., and whose writings, now surviving in a few fragments only, lie at the back of nearly all the serious Roman literature of his own and indeed of the following age.[811] Panaetius, there can be little doubt, had done something to leaven Stoicism with Platonic-Aristotelian psychology,[812] the general tendency of which was towards a dualism of Soul and Body. The Stoics, in the strict sense of the name, "could not be content with any philosophy which divided heaven from earth, the spiritual from the material." "They rebelled against the idea of a transcendent God and a transcendent ideal world, as modern thought has rebelled against the supernaturalism of mediaeval religion and philosophy."[813] In their passion for unity they would not separate soul and body. But when once Panaetius had hinted at a reversion to the older mode of thought, it was natural and easy to follow his lead in a society which had long ago abandoned burial for cremation, and bidden farewell to the primitive notion that the body lived on under the earth: in a society, too, which had always believed in that "other soul," the Genius of a man, as distinct from his bodily self of this earthly life.[814]

Now as soon as this dualism of body and soul was suggested, it was taken up by Posidonius into what we may call his neo-Stoic system, and at once gave mysticism,--or transcendentalism, if we choose so to call it--its chance. For in such a dualistic psychology it is the soul that gains in value, the body that loses. Life becomes an imprisonment of the soul in the body; the soul seeks to escape, death is but the beginning of a new life, and the imagination is set to work to fathom the mysteries of Man's future existence, nay, in some more fanciful minds, those of his pre-existence as well. This kind of speculation, half philosophic, half poetical, is the transcendental side of the Platonic psychology, and in the last age of the Republic was able to connect Platonism and Pythagoreanism without deserting Stoicism.[815] We can see it reflected from Posidonius in the Dream of Scipio, the beautiful myth, imitated from those of Plato, with which Cicero concluded his treatise on the State, written in the year 54 B.C., after his retirement from political life. In this, and again in the first book of his Tusculan Disputations, composed nearly ten years later, Cicero is beyond doubt on the tracks of Posidonius, and therefore also of Pythagoreanism.[816] Listen to the words put into the mouth of the elder Scipio and addressed to his younger namesake: "Tu vero enitere et sic habeto, non esse te mortalem, sed corpus hoc; non enim tu es, quem forma ista declarat; sed mens cuiusque is est quisque, non ea figura quae digito demonstrari potest."[817] Here is the body plainly losing, the soul gaining importance. But he goes still further: "deum igitur te scito esse: si quidem deus est qui viget qui sentit qui meminit: qui providet, qui tam regit et moderatur et movet id corpus cui propositus est, quam hunc mundum ille princeps deus, et ut mundum ex quadam parte mortalem ipse deus aeternus, sic fragile corpus animus sempiternus movet."[818]

With such a view of the soul in relation to the body, we can understand how in this myth it is described as flying upwards, released from corporeal bondage, and ascending through heavenly stations to pure aether, if at least (and here we may note the characteristic Roman touch) its abode on earth has been the body of a good citizen.[819] All that is of earth earthy, all old ideas of burial, all notions of a gloomy abode below the earth, are here fairly left behind. So too in the first book of the Tusculans, written after the death of his beloved daughter, Cicero would persuade himself and others that death cannot be an evil if we once allow the soul to be immortal: for from its very nature it must rise into aethereal realms, cannot sink like the body into the earth.[820] Into its experiences in the aether I do not need to go here. Enough has been said to show that, as it were, the heavens were opened, and with the psychological separation of soul from body the imaginative faculty was released also; not indeed that any Roman, or even Posidonius himself, could revel in cosmological dreams as did Plato, but they found in him all they needed, and it would seem that they made much use of it. Plato's Timaeus was made by Posidonius the subject of a commentary,[821] and by Cicero himself it was in part at least translated, about the time when he was writing the Tusculans, and still deeply moved by his recent loss. Of this translation a fragment survives; and in the introductory sentences he indicates a second stimulus to his Pythagorean tendencies, besides Posidonius. He tells how he had met at Ephesus, when on his way to his province of Cilicia, the famous Pythagorean Nigidius Figulus, and had enjoyed conversation with him.[822] Nigidius was an old friend, who had helped Cicero in his consulship; he was one of those "polyhistores" who are characteristic of the age, like Posidonius and Varro, and wrote works on all kinds of subjects of which but few fragments remain. But his reputation as a Pythagorean survived for centuries;[823] and this mention of him by Cicero is only another proof of the direction the thoughts of the latter were taking in these last two years of his life.

Clearly, then, Cicero in his philosophical writings of these years was affected by the current of mysticism that was then running. But to me it is still more interesting to find it moving him in a practical matter of which he has himself left the truth on record; for Cicero is a real human being for whom all who are familiar with his letters must have something in the nature of affection, and with whom, too, we feel genuine sympathy in the calamity which now fell upon him. It was early in 45 B.C. that he lost his only and dearly loved daughter, and the blow to his sensitive temperament, already hardly tried by political anxiety, was severe. We still have the private letters which he wrote to Atticus after her death from his solitude at Astura on the edge of the melancholy Pomptine marshes;[824] and here, if our minds are sufficiently divested of modern ideas and trained to look on death with Roman eyes, we may be startled to find him thinking of her as still in some sense surviving, and as divine rather than human: as a deity or spirit to whom a fanum could be erected. He makes it clear to Atticus, who is acting as his business agent at Rome, that he does not want a mere tomb (sepulcrum), but a fanum, which as we have seen was the general word for a spot of ground sacred to a deity. "I wish to have a fanum built, and that wish cannot be rooted out of my heart. I am anxious to avoid any likeness to a tomb, not so much on account of the penalty of the law, as in order to attain as nearly as possible to an apotheosis. This I could do if I built it in the villa itself, but ... I dread the changes of owners. Wherever I construct it on the land, I think that I could secure that posterity should respect its sanctity."[825] The word here translated sanctity is religio; we may remember that all burial places were loca religiosa, not consecrated by the State, yet hallowed by the feeling of awe or scruple in approaching them; but Cicero is probably here using the word rather in that wider sense in which it so often expresses the presence of a deity in some particular spot.[826]

Atticus was a man of the world and probably an Epicurean, and his friend in two successive letters half apologises for this strong desire. "I should not like it to be known by any other name but fanum,--unreasonably, you will perhaps say." And again, "you must bear with these silly wishes (ineptiæ) of mine."[827] But this only makes the intensity of his feeling about it the more plain and significant; he really seems to want Tullia to be thought of as having passed into the sphere of divinity, however vaguely he may have conceived of it. Perhaps he remembered his own words in Scipio's dream, "Deum te esse scito." The ashes of Tullia rested in the family tomb, but the godlike thing imprisoned in her mortal body was to be honoured at this fanum, which, strange as it may seem to us, her father wished to erect in a public and frequented place. She does not fade away into the common herd of Manes, but remains, though as a spirit, the same individual Tullia whom her father had loved so dearly.

I long ago explained the old Roman idea of Manes,[828] a vague conception of shades of the dead dwelling below the earth, and hardly, if at all, individualised. But in Tullia's case we meet with a clear conception of an individual spirit; and this alone would lead us to suspect a Pythagorean influence at work, such as that under which Virgil wrote the famous words "Quisque suos patimur Manes," which simply mean "Each individual of us must endure his own individual ghosthood."[829] This process of individualisation must have been gradually coming on, but the steps are lost to us; we only know that the earliest sepulchral inscription which speaks to it, in the vague plural Di Manes so familiar in later times, is dateable somewhere about this very time.[830] My friend Dr. J. B. Carter would explain it, in part at least, by the Roman conception of Genius to which I alluded just now, and doubtless this must be taken into account. For myself I would rather think of it as the natural result of the growth of individualism in the living human being during the last two centuries B.C. Surely it was impossible for personality to grow as it did in that period without a corresponding growth of the idea of individual immortality in the minds of all who believed in a future life of any kind at all. The Epicureans did not so believe; but Roman Stoics instructed by Panaetius and Posidonius might not only believe in immortality but in an immortality of the individual.

Let me take this opportunity of noting that there was, of course, no sort of restriction on a man's belief about this or any other religious question. It was perfectly open to every one to hold what view best pleased him about the state of the dead: all that the State required of him was that he should fulfil his obligations at the tombs of his own kin. No dogma reigned in the necropolis, only duty, pietas,--and that pietas implied no conviction. The Parentalia in February were originally, so far as we can discern, only a yearly renewal of the rite of burial on its anniversary;[831] this implies civilisation and some kind of calendar, but not a creed. Later on, in the Fasti of the City-state, the day was fixed for all citizens without regard of anniversaries; and here the rites become a matter of ius, the ius Manium, to the observance of which the Manes are entitled. Still there is no creed, though Cicero speaks of this ius as based on the idea of a future life.[832] As a fact these rites are a survival from an age in which the dead man was believed to go on living in the grave, but that primitive idea was no longer held by the educated. Each man was free in all periods to believe what he pleased about the dead, and as the Romans began to think, this freedom becomes easy to illustrate. Cicero himself is usually agnostic, as is in keeping with his Academic tendency in philosophy; even in one of these very letters he seems to speak of his own non-existence after death.[833] So, too, the excellent Servius Sulpicius, in the famous letter of condolence written to Cicero at this time from Athens, seems to be uncertain.[834] We all know the words of Caesar (reported by Sallust), which are often quoted with a kind of holy horror, as though a pontifex maximus might not hold any opinion he pleased about death, and as though his doubt were not the common doubt of innumerable thinking men of the age.[835] Catullus wrote of death as "nox perpetua dormienda"; Lucretius, of course, gloried in the thought that there is no life beyond. In the following century the learned Pliny could write of death as the relapsing into the same nothingness as before we were born, and could scoff at the absurdities of the cult of the dead.[836]

But when a man like Cicero was deeply touched by grief, his emotional nature abandoned its neutral attitude, and turned for consolation to mysticism. As I have said, he was persuading himself that Tullia was still living,--a glorified spirit. We can gain just a momentary glimpse of what was in his mind by turning to the fragments of the Consolatio which he was now writing at Astura.

This was a Consolatio of the kind which was a recognised literary form of this and later times,[837] though in this case it was addressed by the writer to himself; to write was for Cicero second nature, and he was sure to take up his pen when he had feelings that needed expression. It is unfortunately lost, all but one fragment, which he quotes himself in the first book of his Tusculans, and one or two more preserved by the Christian writer Lactantius, a great admirer of Cicero, who came near to catching the beauty of his style. The passage quoted by himself is precious.[838] It insists on the spiritual nature of the soul, which can have nothing in common with earth or matter of any kind, seeing that it thinks, remembers, foresees: "ita quicquid est illud, quod sentit, quod sapit, quod vivit, quod viget, caeleste et divinum, ob eamque rem aeternum sit necesse est." And in the concluding words he hints strongly at the divinity of the soul, which is of the same make as God himself,--of the same immaterial nature as the only Deity of whom we mortals can conceive. His daughter, therefore, is not only still living in a spiritual life, but she is in some vague sense divine; that word apotheosis, which he twice uses in the letters, has a real meaning for him at this moment; and in a fragment of the Consolatio quoted by Lactantius he makes this quite plain; "Te omnium optimam doctissimamque, approbantibus dis immortalibus ipsis, in eorum coëtu locatam, ad opinionem omnium mortalium consecrabo."[839]

Undoubtedly Cicero is here under the influence of the Pythagoreans as well as of his own emotion. In another chapter Lactantius seems to make this certain;[840] he begins by combining Stoics and Pythagoreans as both believing the immortality of the soul, goes on to deal with the Pythagorean doctrine (or one form of it) that in this life we are expiating the sins of another, and ends by quoting Cicero's Consolatio to that effect: "Quid Ciceroni faciemus? qui cum in principio Consolationis suae dixit, luendorum scelerum causa nasci homines, iteravit id ipsum postea, quasi obiurgans eum qui vitam poenam non esse putet." Another lost book, the Hortensius, which was written immediately after the Consolatio, March to May 45,[841] shows in one or two surviving fragments exactly the same tendency of thought and reading.[842] Our conclusion then must be that Cicero, always impressionable, and in his way also religious, had in this year 45 a real religious experience. He was brought face to face with one of the mysterious facts of life, and with one of the great mysteries of the universe, and the religious instinct awoke within him. How many others, even in that sordid and materialistic age, may have had the like experience, with or without a mystical philosophy to guide their thoughts? In the last words of the famous Laudatio Turiae, of which I have written at length in my Social Life in the Age of Cicero,[843] we may perhaps catch an echo of a similar religious feeling: "Te di Manes tui ut quietam patiantur atque ita tueantur opto" (I pray that thy divine Manes may keep thee in peace and watch over thee). These words, expressing the hope of a practical man, not of a philosopher, are very difficult to explain, except as the unauthorised utterances of an individual. They hardly find a parallel either in literature or inscriptions. We must not press them, yet they help us to divine that there was in this last half-century B.C. some mystical yearning to realise the condition of the loved ones gone before, and the relation of their life to that of the living. This religious instinct, let us note once for all, is not identical with the old one which we expressed by the formula about the Power manifesting itself in the universe. The religious instinct of the primitive Roman was concerned only with this life and its perils and mysteries; the religious instinct of Cicero's time was not that of simple men struggling with agricultural perils, but that of educated men whose minds could pass in emotional moments far beyond the troubles of this present world, to speculate on the great questions, why we are here, what we are, and what becomes of us after death.

But what of the ordinary Roman of this age--what of the man who was not trained to think, and had no leisure or desire to read? What did he believe about a future life, or did he believe anything? This brings us to a curious question about which I must say a very few words--did this ordinary Roman, as Lucretius seems to insist, believe in Hades and its torments? Not in one passage only does Lucretius insist on this. "That fear of Hell" (so Dr. Masson translates him) "must be driven out headlong, which troubles the life of man from its inmost depth, and overspreads everything with the blackness of death, and permits no pleasure to be pure and unalloyed."[844] I need not multiply quotations; evidently the poet believed what he said, though he may be using the exaggeration of poetical diction. And to a certain extent he is borne out by the literature of his time. In fact Polybius, writing nearly a century earlier of the Romans and their religion, implies that such notions were common, and that they were invented by "the ancients" to frighten the people into submission.[845] Cicero, though he of course thinks of them as merely the fables of poets, seems to suggest that the ordinary man did believe in them; thinking of his own recent loss, he says that our misery would be unbearable when we lose those we love, if we really thought of them as "in iis malis quibus vulgo opinantur."[846] Of course all these fables were Greek, not Roman. There is no reason to believe that the old Romans imagined their own dead experiencing any miseries in Orcus--the old name, as it would seem, for the dimly imagined abode of the Manes, afterwards personified after the manner of Plutus.[847] No doubt they believed that the dead were ghosts, desiring to get back to their old homes, who, in the well-ordered religion of the City-state, were limited in this strong desire to certain days in the civic year.[848] But their first acquaintance with Hades and its tortures may probably be dated early, i.e. when they first became acquainted with Etruscan works of art, themselves the result of a knowledge of Greek art and myth.[849] Early in the second century B.C. Plautus in the Captivi alluded to these paintings as familiar;[850] and we must not forget that the Etruscans habitually chose the most gruesome and cruel of the Greek fables for illustration, and especially delighted in that of Charon, one likely enough to strike the popular imagination. The play-writers themselves were responsible for inculcating the belief, as Boissier remarked in his work on the Roman religion of the early empire.[851] In the theatre, with women and children present, Cicero says in the first book of his Tusculans, the crowded auditorium is moved as it listens to such a "grande carmen" as that sung by a ghost describing his terrible journey from the realms of Acheron; and in another passage of the same book he mentions both painters and poets as responsible for a delusion which philosophers have to refute.[852] I need not say that the Roman poets too continually use the imagery of Tartarus; but they use it as literary tradition, and in the sixth Aeneid it is used also to enforce the idea of duty to the State which is the real theme of the poem.

As Dr. Masson truly observes, we have the literature but we have not the folklore of the age of Cicero and Virgil; and it must be confessed that without the folklore such scanty literary evidence as I have just mentioned does not come to much. Dr. Masson indeed concludes on this evidence that the fear of future torments played a considerable part in the religious notions both of the common people and possibly of some of the educated. I think it may have been so, but on other grounds, which I must briefly explain.

From all that I have said in these lectures about the religious ideas represented in the earliest calendar, i.e. those of the governing Romans of the earliest City-state, it will be plain that a gruesome eschatology was an impossibility for them. Just the same may be said of the Greek ideas represented in the Homeric poems; for with the exception of the Nekuia of the Odyssey, which almost all scholars agree in attributing to a later age than the bulk of the two Homeric epics, in this poetry il se fait grand jour.[853] This is not the first time that I have compared the religion of the Roman patricians to that of Homer;[854] and there is a growing conviction among experts that we have in each case the ideas of a comparatively civilised immigrant population, whose religion, though it has developed in very different ways, has the common characteristic of cleanness and brightness. In Italy it is practical, in Homer imaginative; but in both it is free from the brutal and the grotesque. Even the eschatology of the eleventh Odyssey is not cruel, it is comparatively colourless; and, as I said just now, this also may be said of the Roman ideas of Orcus and the Manes.

In each case it is life, not death, that is of interest to the living; death is rather a negation than anything distinctly realised. The state of the dead in Homer is shadowy and triste, a state not to be desired, as Achilles so painfully expresses it in a famous passage; but the life of the Achaean in the poems is vivid--nay, such a vivid realisation of life can alone account for the production of such poems. So, too, the immigrant population at Rome, to whom is due the regulation of the religion as we know it, and the inspiring force that made for ordered government and warlike enterprise, was too full of practical if not of imaginative vitality to be apt to dwell upon the possibilities of existence after death, to conceive of such existence as either happy or miserable, the reward or the punishment for things done in this world.

But in each peninsula this immigrant race was living in the midst of a far more primitive population; and it is perhaps to this population that we must look for the origin of the more detailed and imaginative notions of the life of the dead. Of the Greeks in this matter I have not space here to speak, nor am I competent to do so. But the conviction is steadily gaining ground that in early Rome we have to recognise the existence of two races; whether the older of these was Ligurian, as Prof. Ridgeway thinks, or primitive Latin, i.e. old Italic, as Binder believes, does not matter for our present purpose;[855] nor are the arguments drawn from religion which these writers have used at all convincing to my intelligence. But they have not noticed what is to me a really valid argument, viz. the double festival of the dead in the calendar of Numa. In February we find the cheerful and orderly festival of the Parentalia, the yearly renewal of the seemly rite of burial; in May, on the other hand, the student of the calendar is astonished to find three several days called Lemuria, the rites belonging to which are never mentioned, except where Ovid treats us to a grotesque account of the driving out of ancestral spirits from the house.[856] No one doubts, I think, that the Lemuria represents an older stratum of thought about the dead than the other festival,[857] but no one, so far as I know, has ventured to claim the Lemures and their three days as belonging to the religion of the more primitive race. If I make this suggestion now, it must be taken as a hypothesis only, but as a hypothesis it can at least do no harm. If I am asked why Lemuria should have been admitted into the patrician calendar, I answer that I have long held that a few of the non-patrician religious customs were absorbed into the religion of the city of the four regions, the Lupercalia, for example;[858] and nothing could be more likely than that the old barbarous ideas about the dead should win this amount of respect, seeing that by the limitation to three days in the year order and decency might be brought into their service. I may repeat, with a slight addition, what I wrote ten years ago about these two Roman festivals of the dead: "If we compare Ovid's account of the grotesque domestic rites of the Lemuria with those of February, which were of a systematic, cheerful, and even beautiful character, we may feel fairly sure that the latter represent the organised life of a City-state, the former the ideas of an age when life was wilder and less secure, and the fear of the dead, of ghosts and demons, was a powerful factor in the minds of the people. If we may argue from Ovid's account, it is not impossible that the Lemuria may have been one of those periodical expulsions of demons of which we hear so much in the Golden Bough, and which are performed on behalf of the community as well as in the domestic circle among savage peoples. It is noticeable that the offering of food to the demons is a feature common to these practices, and that it also appears in those described by Ovid."[859] To this I should now add the suggestion above made, that the Lemuria represents the ideas of the older race that occupied the site of Rome, while the Parentalia is originally the festival of the patrician immigrants.

But what has all this to do with the eschatology which Lucretius attributes to the common people at Rome in his own day? Simply this, that the ideas at the root of the Lemuria may well have provided the raw material for such an eschatology, while those at the root of the Parentalia could not have done this. Dr. Westermarck has recently shown that primitive religions do spontaneously generate the idea of moral retribution after death, e.g. the notion that the souls of bad people may reappear as evil spirits or obnoxious animals.[860] We have no proof whatever of the existence of such notions at Rome; but I contend that the permanence of this type of belief about the dead which is represented by the Lemuria--a permanence which is attested by Ovid's description--raises a presumption that the lower stratum of the Roman population, if the chance were given it, would the more readily understand the pictures of Etruscan artists and the allusions of Greek playwrights, and the more easily become the prey of the eschatological horrors which Lucretius describes as terrifying them. The material was there from the earliest times, and all that was needed was for Greeks and Etruscans to work upon it.

Before leaving this point it may be worth while to remember that though the well-to-do and educated classes cremated their dead, the poor of the crowded city population of the period I am now dealing with enjoyed no such orderly and cleanly funeral rites. The literary evidence is explicit on this point, and has been confirmed by modern excavation on the Esquiline, where we know from Varro and Horace that the poor and the slaves were thrown en masse into puticuli, i.e. holes where it was impossible that any memorial ceremonies could be kept up.[861] Horace's lines are familiar (Sat. 8. 8):

huc prius angustis eiecta cadavera cellis conservus vili portanda locabat in arca. hoc miserae plebi stabat commune sepulcrum, etc.

It is dangerous to be too confident about the effect on the religious imagination of different ways of dealing with the dead; but it is at least not improbable that any inherited tendency to believe in a miserable future for the soul would be confirmed and maintained by so miserable a fate for the body. The mass of the population had little chance of ridding itself of eschatological superstition.

Thus I am inclined to come to Dr. Masson's conclusion, though on somewhat different grounds. I think it quite possible that the uneducated in the age of the poet may have really been inoculated with these ideas of cruel retribution, and that in many cases this may have resulted in despair or at least discomfort. Only we must remember that in a great city like Rome, as in Paris or London to-day, both the miseries and the enjoyments of life would tend to accustom the minds of the lower strata to consider the present rather than the future; the necessities and pleasures of the moment are with them the only material of thought. Neither comfort nor remonstrance could reach them from pulpit or from missioner; neither fear nor hope could largely enter into their lives. In fact I half suspect that most of them were, after all, so long as they were healthy and active, much what Lucretius would have them be--free from all religious scruple; but, alas, utterly destitute of the intellectual support which he claimed from the study of philosophy. We can well understand how it was among the lower population of the great cities that early Christianity found its chance. They had no education or philosophy to stand between them and the gospel of redemption.

I must say one word about another kind of transcendentalism which was pushing its way into favour in Roman society at this time--I mean astrology. One may call it transcendental because it was based, in its original home in the East, on a mystical notion of sympathy between the phenomena of the starry heavens and the phenomena of human life;[862] and that this notion was carefully inculcated by those who taught the "science" at Rome is shown by the long and wearisome poem on astrology written by Manilius in the succeeding age. But it is not likely that this form of mysticism had become really popular before the period of the Empire, and in any case it can hardly be called a part of Roman religious experience. I only mention it here as helping to illustrate the way in which men's minds were now beginning to turn with interest to speculations altogether beyond the range of that practical ethical philosophy which was natural and congenial to the Roman, altogether beyond the horizon of man's daily prospect in this world. The growing interest in Fortuna, both as natural force and deity, which became intense under the Empire, is another indication of the same tendency.[863]

As soon as Rome had come into close contact with Greece, which had long before been overrun by the eastern astrology--by the Chaldaeans or mathematici, as they are so often called--these experts began to appear also in Italy. We first hear of them from old Cato, who advises that the steward of an estate should be strictly forbidden to consult Chaldaei, harioli, haruspices, and such gentry.[864] In 139 B.C.--a year in which there happened to be in Rome an embassy from Simon Maccabaeus--Chaldaeans were ordered to leave Rome and Italy within ten days; but I think there is some evidence that these were really Jews who were trying to propagate their own religion.[865] For some time we hear nothing more of these intruders; but they probably gained ground again in the course of the Mithridatic wars, which were responsible for the introduction of much Oriental religion into Italy. They are mentioned in 87, together with [Greek: thytai] and Sibyllistae, as persuading the ill-fated Octavius to remain in Rome to meet his death, as it turned out, at the hands of the Marians.[866] But no Roman seems to have taken up astrology as a quasi-scientific study till that Nigidius, of whom I have already said a word, was persuaded thus to waste his time and brains. He is said to have foretold the greatness of Augustus at his birth in 63 B.C.;[867] and from this time forward the taking of horoscopes or genethliaca became a favourite pursuit at Rome--unfortunately for the people of Europe, who caught the infection and kept it endemic for at least fifteen centuries.

Astrology is in no sense religion, and I must leave it with these few remarks. It represents the individual and his personal interests, not even the advantage of the community, and it was for this reason that the Chaldaei were disliked by the Roman government. The individual is not satisfied with legitimate Roman means of divination; he is employing illegitimate ways when he entrusts himself to these Orientals, who, most of them doubtless, well deserved the scathing contempt which Tacitus has contrived to put into six words: "Genus hominum potentibus infidum, sperantibus fallax," adding, with no less contempt for the Roman authorities who had to deal with them, that they will always be forbidden, and always will be found at Rome.[868]

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]