A MYSTERIOUS OCCURRENCE IN THE EARLY HISTORY OF ROME
In his book The City of God (Civitas Dei) (VII,34), St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the great Father of the Western Church and theologian, mentions an episode reported by the Roman historian and polymath Varro ( 116-27 BC), himself the author of a work on the nature of the ancient Roman religion.
Varro, in his book On the Worship of the Gods, relates the following:
A man named Terentius had a farm near the Janiculum. His ploughman was driving his plough near the tomb of Numa Pompilius - the second king of Rome - when he turned up the books of that author which dealt with the reasons for the established ceremonies of the Roman religion. He immediately took them to the city and handed them to the magistrate ( praetor). The magistrate took a look at the opening passages and then reported the find to the Senate, as a matter of great importance. When the leading senators had read some of the reasons given by King Numa for various religious practices, the senate approved the action of the deceased king, and as pious men, decreed that the magistrate should burn those books.
Here is an intriguing question. What was in those books? What were the reasons - set out by King Numa Pompilius in the books which he had had buried next to himself - the reasons for the religious rites and ceremonies which he, as a pious and virtuous lawgiver and High Priest, bequeathed to the Roman people?
This is not an idle question to raise at the beginning of my talk. It is not idle because King Numa was credited by the Roman people with having set up the ancestral forms of worship which were distinctive of their race and their civilisation. Of course, before King Numa, the second king, came the first king of Rome, indeed, its founder, Romulus, who apparently gave his own name to the city (Romulus=Roma). Romulus himself was both king and priest - it was Romulus who introduced the cult of the sacred fire and appointed holy virgins, the Vestals, who kindled the sacred fire. Romulus was also a diviner and so carried for this purpose the lituus a crooked staff used by the auguries, those who observed the flights of birds in the sky for purposes of divination, the reading of the omens, to mark out the regions of the heavens. Furthermore according to one tradition Romulus did not actually experience physical death but was caught up in heaven during a thunderstorm and so became a god. ( Nothing unprecedented in this of course. Think of Enoch and Elijah in the Bible. They too were taken up into heaven bodily while still alive. (Indeed, think of the dogma of the Assumption, proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church as recently as 1951, which teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary was both in body and soul, during her own earthly life asssumed into Heaven.) However, all this notwithstanding, it was King Numa whom the Romans saw as laying down the foundations of the res publica, the state, by the institution of his religious ceremonies. The religion of Numa became an expression whereby the Roman people referred to its most ancient and cherished usages, cults and traditions. (You may find it rewarding to read the first chapter of that fine book by Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean, entitled just that, "The Religion of Numa".)
So, again, why was it that the senators of Rome, after having inspected Numa's books, decided to have them destroyed?
It is a fascinating puzzle, a real enigma. St Augustine of course jumps to conclusions. He infers straightaway that King Numa, led on by an unlawful curiousity, had discovered certain secrets of the demons, which he himself had committed to writing to assist his memory. But although he was king and had no reason to fear any man, he did not venture to pass on the information to anyone...he did not want anyone to know, for he shrank from passing on a lesson in corruption...the senate, for its part, recoiled from the prospect of condemning their ancestral religion, and therefore felt obliged to approve of Numa's action; but the Fathers decided that the books were so dangerous that the outrageous documents had to be consigned to the flames, for they believed it essential that those ceremonies should continue.
Here one must observe that for St Augustine virtually the whole of pagan religion, hence also the Roman religion, was of demonic origin. I personally also suspect that Augustine, by ìthe secret of the demonsî, had something specific in mind, and I will say something about that later. King Numa ( originally a Sabine, from the city of Cures), held regular sessions with Egeria, a nymph or goddess, (a goddess of fountains, who possessed the gift of prophecy ) - or maybe she was just a young maiden who had the spirit of divination. Be that as it may, Egeria was his counsellor, maybe his consort as well. Numa would meet in a field on the Aventine Hill, at night , in a place where a sacred spring arose afterwards. Egeria granted him all sorts of revelations and instructions, and it may well be that this is what St Augustine had in mind. (The saint also accuses Numa of the magical practice of hydromancy, divination by water, probably because this connection with the spring.) However, we also know that Numa was a Pythagorean, a mystic and a peace-loving man, rather hostile to war-making - somewhat unusual for a an ancient Roman; for them war was a way of life - and these traits of his personality should be noted here.
Although amongst the Romans sacred books did not have the same key role as, say, in Judaism, prophetic, inspired writings, such as the famous Sibylline Books, were held in very high regard by them. These books were collections of oracular utterances of great antiquity, composed originally in Greek. They eventually made their way to Italy, to a place called Cumae, according to tradition, where the local prophetess, the Cumaen Sibyl who had once prophesied to Aeneas , the protoancestor of the Roman race - sold them to King Tarquin the Proud, the last King, who had them preserved in a vault beneath the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol. (They were actually destroyed during the burning of the Capitol in 83 BC but the Senate had new collection made, and they survived until the year 405 AD.) King Tarquin had a special body of men, the duumviri, originally two but gradually increased to 15, the quindecimviri (the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis, Fifteen men for celebrating the sacred rites), appointed to inspect the Sibylline books. The books were not actually consulted in order to foretell the future but on the occasion of calamities, like pestilences, plagues, earthquakes and so on. The Books contained the rites of atonement or expiation necessary to appease the Gods. These religious rites were then made public but never the oracles themselves. The actual meaning of the oracles, I ought to note, was not self-evident. Like the Christian Bible, the words of the Books had to be interpreted. For example, on one occasion, towards the end of the second war with Carthage (204 BC), the oracles identified by the quindecimviri was "The mother is missing". This was interpreted to mean that the Books demanded the introduction into Rome of the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother, a Goddess of the powers of nature and of the art of cultivation, from Phrygia. The rites of Cybele, I ought to stress, were not, at least at first, pleasing to the Romans - during the processions in honour of the Magna Mater the priests, the Corybantes, in a frenzy would mutilate themselves - but the oracles had to be obeyed, it was a matter of the Divine Will. The PAX DEOROM, the Peace of the Gods, and with the Gods, had to be kept.
Later on in this paper I will come back to this interesting, and mysterious, question: what were Numa's books about?
Before I launch myself into my subject matter - Ancient Roman Religion - let me make a couple of basic, preliminary points. First, my interest in my theme is not a merely antiquarian one. I am not a classical scholar, or an archealogist, or a historian. I am what I am. If I had to give myself a label I would call myself a sophiologist, a student of the science of Wisdom. Timeless, perennial wisdom, not the adulterated, ersatz pabulum which passes for wisdom to day, not the trimming opportunism of our Zeigeist, or the low cunning of the here and now. I wish to contend that acient Roman religion embodies values, principles and ideas which are relevant to any consideration of spiritual and transcendental and indeed ethical and political matters at all times - if by such one means what Plato meant in his Republic when he set out to give an ideal picture of the Good Life, the Good Life of the well-ordered person, and of the well-ordered community in action. Maybe the state of putrefaction of our society and our public mindset today is such that we can't even recognise such true transcendental values but so much the worst for our times.
Second, I want to suggest that a key category necessary to understand Ancient Rome and its religion is the category of FORM. By form I do not mean merely the general shape or configuration of my subject. By FORM I mean the very soul of what I am talking about. (Unlike the human soul, however, which one acquires at birth, Form in my sense is something rarely inborn. A man, a woman, an artist, a civilisation, achieve their form through a process, a complex, often difficult process which includes struggle, contradiction and paradox). The soul, the animating principle, the living essence of an entity, says Aristotle, is the agent which provides a being with its unity and determinate individuality, a principle of structure and organisation. It can also mean the highest function, the work and purpose of the object considered.. Aristotle's Form is not as an abstraction, a mathematical formula, nor even a disembodied spirit, an ectoplasm or a computer programm or whatever, but a living, organising and dynamic reality. To paraphrase Aristotle, if Ancient Rome was an animal, say, a wolf, that which makes the wolf a wolf would be the Wolf's Form. Clear? Heads are shaking? Good, it does not have to be clear. It would not be a good thing if it was pellucid. Really important, vital things are complex. The truth is seldom simple. Maybe it will become just a little less unclear as I go on.
Before that, however, let me say that I believe that we all - al least most of us - become what we are, we all acquire our soul, our animating principle, as a the result of a struggle to achieve FORM. We are born with the potentiality for receiving Form but we do not all achieve it.( Maybe I should say that some have perfect Form, others an imperfect one) And each one of us can become what he is meant to be if he seriously wrestles, like Jacob wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok ford in the Book of Genesis, with reality, with the Shadow, with the lowest drives of our nature in order to achieve FORM.
I should also add, as I have mentioned Aristotle, that for that philosopher Form - the most distinguishing feature of his ontology - is contrasted with matter - morphe with hyle. A house, for example, is an instance of a union of matter and form, bricks and mortar arranged in a definitive way to achieve a certain goal, a human habitation . Rome too achieved its own characteristic Form by wrestling with a certain matter. The bricks and mortar of a nation, a people, include human protoplasm, genetic codes, DNA, racial and ethnic components, the ensemble of traditions, customs, mores, myths, dispositions, virtues, vices, institutions, metaphysical beliefs, religious cults etcetera. All these features - and more - are not of course mere disparate elements in a cocktail. They are forged into a distinct shape, a style, a temper, a spirit, a Form through a historical and above all a spiritual process. The Form of the Roman nation and the Roman religion is peculiar to itself and consitutes its destiny. Unlike the writer Oswald Spengler, for example, who believed that cultural forms like a civilisation were unique and unrepeatable, like individual living organisms, I believe that the Form of Roman Religion and Roman civilisation ( Religion was ìthe cement which bound together the Roman State ì, according to the Greek historian Polybius. Religion was so embedded in the culture of the ancient world that it is impossible to consider the one without the other) is not dead but very alive indeed. The Romans are amongst us.
It might seem the natural thing to do at this stage to talk about the Roman Gods. In fact, I want to start not from the Gods but from their Priests.
This is so partly because it suits me but also because, as already stated, the religion of the Ancient Romans was an intensely patriotic, civic affair ( ìReligion is the cement of the Roman Stateî, Polybius) and its priests were not only a sacerdotal caste in the Christian sense - they were also religious magistrates. There was distinction at Rome between Caesar and God. The Gods of Rome were the patrons and protectors of the Roman State and the priests were also state officials. This does not mean that Roman religion was devoid of mystery and mystical fervour. There was plenty of that and I'll come back to it later.
Let us say that at Rome this impressive state religion was under the management of several Colleges of Priests. In the early days of Rome, in the time of the seven kings, the superintendence of the entire religious ritual and worship belonged to the Kings, among whom, as we know, Numa held a special place. The most important priesthoods originating from this archaic time were:
THE FLAMINES, THE AUGURES, THE VESTALES, THE SALII, THE FETIALES, THE PONTIFICES, THE LUPERCI, THE FRATRES ARVALES AND THE CURIONES.
( One could add the septemviri epulones, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis and so on but I am trying to keep this list short) The whole state religious ritual was presided over by the College of Pontiffs, itself headed by the Pontifex Maximus.
THE FLAMINES, ( cf. Sanscrit: Brahmin) can be seen as part of as part of the Collegium Pontificum, or College of Pontiffs. There were 3 Major Flamines ( Flamines Majores) and 12 Minor Flamines ( Flamines Minores) The three Major Flamines were a) The Flamen Dialis (The High Priest of Jupiter); b) The Flamen Martialis (The High Priest of Mars); c) The Flamen Quirinalis (The Priest of Quirinus). The twelve minor Flamines looked after minor deities, like Carmenta, Ceres, Falacer, Pomona and others.
The Augurs should be mentioned next. They came second as a college. Traditionally they had been established by Romulus, the first King. They the knew the appropriate procedure for "taking the auspices," by observing the flight of birds - and for their interpretation when taken. Their number historically varied from 3 to 15 and held their office for life. They were religious officials expert on auguria - signs encouraging or discouraging a particular course of action. An approved action was fas or propitious, favourable, religiously permitted. By contrast, an unfavourable action was nefas, not permitted. No business, public or private, could be transacted on a day which was nefas. Augury was a science, a science the knowledge of which was cointained in special books.
The augurs' procedure for taking the auspices is worth describing in detail.
Immediately after midnight, or at the dawn of the day on which the official act was to take place, the augur, in the presence of the magistrate, selected as high spot with as wide a view as possible. Taking his station there, he drew with his staff two straight lines cutting one another, the one from the North to the South, the other from East to West (the Sign of the Cross in a priestly blessing?) . Then to each of these straight lines he drew two parallel lines, thus forming a rectangular figure, which he consecrated according to a set prayer. (Some elements of this procedure may well put you in mind of some ideas of Madame Blavatski in her Isis Unveiled, which today live on, for example, in the paintings of the Dutch painter Mondrian) This space, as well as the corresponding space in the sky, was called a templum. At the point of intersection in the centre of the rectangle was erected the tabernaculum. This was a square tent, with its entrance looking South. Here the augur sat down and asked the Gods for a sign according to a prescribed formula, and waited for an answer.
Complete quiet, a clear sky, and an absence of wind were necessary conditions for observation. The least noise was sufficient to disturb it, unless indee the noise was occasioned by omens of terror ( dirae, from which the English word ìdireî is derived), supposing the augur to have observed them, or to intend doing so.
As he looked South the augur had the East on his left, the West on his right. Accordingly the Romans regarded signs on the left side as of good omen, signs on the right side as unlucky: the East being deemed the region of light, the West that of darkness.
In his observation of birds the augur actually did not confine himself to noticing their flight. The birds were distinguished in two main categories (alites and oscines) One group were birds like eagles and vultures, which gave signs by their manner of flying. The other group were birds which gave signs also by their cry, as well as their flight, like ravens, owls and crows. There were also birds sacred to some particular God ( eg owl=Minerva), and the mere appearance of which was an omen of good and evil.
The augur's report was expressed in the words aves admittunt, "the birds allow it", if favourable, or alio die,"on another day", ie the augury is postponed. The magistrate was bound by this report.
I should also mention, very briefly, the haruspices. These were originally Etruscan soothsayers. ( In the days of the kings and of the early Republic these soothsayers were summoned to Rome by the Senate on the occurrence of prodigies which were not catered for in the Sybilline books.) They interpreted the divine will from the entrails of sacrificial victims, animals. Their business was to intepret the signs, to ascertain which deity, if angry, demanded an expiation, and to indicate the nature of necessary offerings. Emperor Claudius established a College of Haruspeces, consisting of 60 members and this college went on existing till the beginning of the 5th Century AD. If you remember your Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar , before his assassination, a servant tells him that the priests "would not have you stir forth today. Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, they could not find a heart within the beast". Plutarch, in his more ancient version of this incident, tells us that it was Caesar himself as Pontifex Maximus, who offered the sacrifice and could not find the heart.
FETIALES, SALII, FRATRES ARVALES, VESTALES.
Of the other priestly colleges, I shall mention very briefly the FETIALES, who were a college of 20 members elected for life, whose job was to maintain the form of international relations between Rome and its neighbours. No war or peace could be declared or concluded without the sanction of the Fetiales. In case of conflict with other nations, they gave an opinion, based on the merits of the case. on the question of war and peace. If war was declared, the PATER PATRATUS, the head of the Fetiales in the presence of three witnesses, uttered the appropriate formula and threw a bloody lance into the enemy's territory. In later days this ceremony was performed at the Column of War near The Temple of Bellona, the Goddess of War.
These were a college of priests of Mars or leaping priests. (Think of the Whirling Dervishes.) Twelve high-born young men. They had both a praesul ( a leader in the dance) and a vates (a leader in the song), and looked after the holy shields (ancilia). Obviously they were connected with war ceremonies. In March, at the beginning of the campaigning season, THEY CONDUCTED A PROCESSION THROUGH THE CITY, EACH OF THEM dressed in battle armour and once before the altars, they danced a war dance, singing martial songs and beating their shields with staves ( the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey too were strongly connected with warlike rites and practices, the military campaigns of the Ottoman Turks).
THE FRATRES ARVALES
These were 12 priests, life-members, who performed the worship of Dea Dia, ( The Bright Goddess?) Acca Laurentia?) an agricultural Goddess, patroness of cornfields. Its members were persons of high rank, even Emperors belonged to it. They wore a wreath of ears of corn. Their chief festival was in May. Again they both danced and sang. Their hymn is one of the oldest writings we possess in Latin.
VIRGINES VESTALES (Vestal Virgins)
These were priestesses of Vesta. The Roman Goddess of the hearth and of its fire.( ch Greek Hestia). Her cult has been brought into Rome by King Numa from the city of Lavinium, where Aeneas, the mythical forerunner of the Roman race, has brought the sacred fire from Troy. Roman consuls, on taking up office always sacrificed at the Temple of Vesta in Lavinium.
The Vestal Virgins were 4 at first but gradually their number grew. Their duty was chiefly to maintaining and keep the eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta. Eligible girls had to be between 6 and 10, without personal blemish, from respectable families, whose parents lived in Italy. The choice was made by lot out of a number of 20, nominated by the High Pontiff. No exception was granted. The Virgin chosen immediately relinquished family ties and was placed under the authority of the Goddess. She was dressed entirely in white. The time of service was 30 years, ten of which were set aside for learning, ten for performing and ten for teaching the duties. At the end of their stint they were allowed to leave and marry but they seldom took advantage of this privilege. They were punished by the High Pontiff if they ever allowed the sacred fire to go out and if one violated her vow of chastity, she was carried on a bier to the campus sceleratus , the field of transgression, beaten with rods and buried alive. ( Her seducer did not fare much better: he was scourged to death.)
The Vestals, however, enjoyed many distinctions and privilegies.Whenever they went out they were accompanied by a lictor, an attendant carrying rods, for protection, to whom even consuls gave place. They had the place of honour at public games; they were entrusted with important wills and public treaties; could dispose of their property; death was the penalty for injuring their person. To meet them by chance saved the criminal who was led away to his punishment. In sum, they were indeed most sacred persons.
However, the most important priestly College was the Pontifical College, already mentioned. This was presided over by a Rex Sacrorum , or King of Sacred Rites and Sacrifices. This title had been held by the Kings under the monarchy. During the Republic he had to be a patrician and was elected for life by the High Pontiff (Pontifex Maximus ). He could of course be married - celibacy was not a requirement for the Roman priesthood, apart from the Priestesses of Vesta, the Vestal Virgins - and so had a Regina Sacrorum by his side.After the Rex Sacrorum came the Pontifex Maximus. The name Pontifex could mean "maker of bridges", from the root "Pons", bridge in Latin.( However, Plutarch says that it could derive from potens, meaning powerful, because the pontifices were employed in the service of the Gods, who are powerful. Another intriguing hypothesis is that it comes from what is possible, the lawgiver enjoining on the priests the performace of only those rites as were possible, and finding no fault with them if any serious obstacle prevented.)
The High Pontiff presided over a college of minor pontiffs ( numbers varied: 4 initially, 14 later on ), a sort of college of cardinals - but cardinals who were also state magistrates - ruled over by a Pope. (The Title of Pontifex Maximun has actually passed over into Christianity and is now held by the Bishop of Rome, the Pontiff, since the end of the fourth century AD.)
The High Pontiff was the custodian of the religious tradition and would be consulted as to the contents of the pontifical books (libri pontificales ), which were kept secret, which included the forms of prayer for various occasions, including curses, the rules for ritual and so on. The College of Pontiffs was also in charge as to the regulation of the calendar, concerning the right time for holy days, and above all for lawful and unlawful days (fasti and nefasti) for civil and legal transactions.
To the High Pontiff fell to appoint the offices of Flamen, Vestal and Rex Sacrorum. He had the right to take auspices, holding assembies of the people and publishing edicts. He in fact exercised a real jurisdiction over the flamines and the Vestals, like a father (pater familias)
The High Pontiff of course had to pay a price for his high office and power.At least originally, he had to be an old man. He was not allowed to leave Italy; he had to have a wife beyond reproach, might not enter into a second marriage and may not see or touch a dead body.
It was, all considered, a very important and coveted office. Julius Caesar himself early in his career became candidate for the office of High Pontiff. According to the Roman historian Svetonius, Caesar bought his way into it by lavish bribes. Indeed, he paid so much in bribes that he got into debts and so, Svetonius relates, when he took leave from his mother and kissed her before going into the assembly for the lections, he said he would either return as Pontiff or not at all. All the Roman emperors from the time of Augustus claimed the Pontificate for themselves, even Christian emperors, until the year 382 AD.
Roman Priest .
Characteristic dress. They usually wore long hair and white vestments. Their ornaments might include garlands from the leaves of various trees. They carried a staff and usually lived within the Temple enclosure.
They derived their livelihood from the revenue of the Temple property, their share of the animal sacrifices and actual offertories. They were physically inviolable, had a seat of honour at assemblies and the theatre and were exempt from military service.
THE SECRET OF THE NAME
Amongst the mysteries - the secret rites - of the Roman religion, to which the High Pontiff was privy, one of the most fascinating is that of the secret name of Rome. We know that Rome did have such special name apart from its common name, because of a tantalisingly brief reference by Piny the Elder. May I quote it in Latin:
cuius alterum nomen discere nisi arcanis caeromoniarum nefas habetur
"the other name of Rome which is sinful to reveal, except during the celebration of the mysteries".
Pliny also goes on to tell of a certain Valerius Soranus, who was put to death because he had committed the unforgivable crime of disclosing the secret of the name.
What was the name then? Straight answer: we do not know. The secret was well kept. The ancient mysteries on the whole have remained mysterious. (We often know only the vaguest descriptions , eg the mysteries of Isis ellyptically referred to by Apuleius in the Golden Ass.) In fact, as far as we gather, only one person is known to have squealed, so to speak, Valerius Soranus, and he paid with his life. Do I know the name? Well, if I did, I would not tell you, because I was born in Rome, I am a Roman, and so if I disclosed the name to you I would transgress most grievously - hence I would go the way of Valerius Soranus, I would be killed, and I do not wish to suffer that! Parentitically, I shall also add that I thought I knew the name, but in fact I did not. How do I know the name I knew was not the real name? Because it was too easy. (Though some of you may remember E.A. Poe's story, The Purloined Letter. The object everyone has been desperately searching for was under their very nose all the time. Hence maybe, who knows, not so implausible to speculate that Rome's real name may be hidden behind Rome itself...)
However, sterling work has been done to cast at least some dim light on this enigma by an acquaintance of mine in the States, a writer called Horace LaBadie. This learned gentleman has written a paper - available on the Internet ( website supplied on request) - - on the puzzle of the secret name. My account here is heavily dependent on his views.
Mr LaBadie points out that the name of an entity was considered a magical word of power. The Romans, in common with many other nations of antiquity, believed that to know the real name of a being was to have power over that being, or at least to be in special, exclusive relationship with him. (Think of God's most Holy Name revealed by God to Moses in Exodus). One might command or injure the being whose name was evoked. As a city or nation was supposed to have a tutelary deity presiding over it, to know the name of that God would give power over that city - one might persuade the God to abandon the city and so the city might be taken. ( Rome was once sacked by the Gauls in 293 BC. Mr LaBadie wonders whether the Gauls might have come to know the ineffable name...) Mr LaBadie has traced Valerius Soranus origins to the city of Soracte, 25 miles northeast of Rome, member of a college of priests of Samnite origins, called Hirpini, or Hirpi Sorani, the wolves of Soranus.( It was an unconfortable priesthood to belong to in a way, because we know that it was the duty of the priests one a year to walk barefoot over a bed of live embers.)
The genius or tutelary deity of Rome was known as Dea Roma, and so depicted on coins. She also had the public name of Angerona and her festival was celebrated on April 21, the traditional birthday of the city of Rome, the anniversary of its foundation. Angerona's statue represented the Goddess with a bandage over her mouth, to prevent her from revealing her name presumably, and also to warn her devotees not to do it. Mr LaBadie suggests a kinship between Angerona and the God worshipped at Soracte through which Valerius Soranus came to know the secret name. He also comes up with a conjectural name - the secret name - but it is no more than that: a conjecture.
How many people knew the secret name? Well, probably the priests members of the special college of the Goddess, the Pontifex Maximus and the chief Vestal Virgin. They have all long since gone. Wait a minute, no, with one exception. The High Pontiff is still with us. he is the Pope, one of whose formal titles is exactly that: Pontifex Maximus. So maybe the Holy Father at Rome, amongst the many secrets he must privy to, like the third secret of Fatima, perhaps he also knows the Secret of the Name.
ROMAN RELIGION: GODS
Who and how many were the main Gods of the Romans? They were almost innumerable. Some of course, will be well-known to you. Most of you will have heard of:
JUPITER, JUNO, MINERVA, MARS, DIANA, VENUS, HERCULES, MERCURY, VULCAN. Less well-known, I suspect are, ORCUS, BELLONA, LIBER PATER,VITUMNUS (who gives life to the fetus), SENTINUS (who gives sensibility), JANUS, PICUS, FAUNUS, TIBERINUS, VICTORIA, TELLUS, THE LARES AND THE PENATES. Even more gloriously obscure, I trust, are ALTOR, RUSOR, AGENORIA, STIMULA, CLOACINA.They also had rather abstract deities, like VICTORIA, FELICITAS, FORTUNA, JUVENTUS, OPIS and so on.
Clearly the Romans luxuriated in their innumerable Gods. Indeed, St Augustine comments that "the Romans assigned a separate God to each human activity". AGENORIA to arouse to action (agere), a goddess STIMULA, to stimulate to extraordinary action, a goddes STRENIA, to make man especially strenuous, even a goddess MURCIDA, to make a person extremely inactive ( murcidus, slothful and inert) and so on.
You do not necessartily have to assume that educated Romans of the days of the later Roman Republic literally believed in all these Gods. The writer Cicero in his De Natura Deorum,- On the Nature of the Gods- has a character say that "there are many aspects of divinity which have been rightly named and recognised in accordance with the great benefit they confer....whatever brought great benefit to the human race the wise Greeks and Romans thought to be the expression of some divine benevolence towards mankind, So they named the various divine gifts as though they were gods in their own right. For example", he says "we call the corn Ceres and the wine Liber."( Book II,62). Clearly here Cicero is saying that the name of certain gods stand for some aspects of nature which are particularly important for human existence and well-being. He believes in them only in a figurative, metaphorical sense. ( The beliefs of ordinary people probably were far more literal and earthy of course.)
St Augustine has an easy task here in making fun of what he calls "a mob of demons". He points out the inconsistencies, the obvious difficulties which any polytheistic system is bound to encounter: what if the various Gods are in competition or disagree with each other? Or where are the exact boundaries between the province of a God and another, say, if Jupiter is Supreme Power, is Victory a separate Goddess? And if Victory is a Goddess why not TRIUMPH? Why isn't Triumph a God? If Felicitas and Fortuna are both Goddesses, how do you distinguish them? What is the point of reckoning them both as Goddesses? Is there any difference between Felicity and Fortune? And how dignified is it to have a Goddess of sewers and filth, like Cloacina?
A comment: the appeal of polytheism versus monotheism could be seen, logical considerations apart, as aesthetic. What I mean, put very simply, is this. Do you have a taste for desert landscapes, to cite the American logician Willard Quine? Are you a theological minimalist, a Brancusi or a Mondrian of religion? Do you dislike a populuous, richly proliferating, teeming divine universe, like the facade of some Hindu temples? Do you worship at the altar of the Goddes Simplicity? (Simplex sigillum veri) If you are so, then the Roman Pantheon will have no aesthetic or emotional appeal to you. It will confuse, disorientate, even disgust you. However, you may be have a different kind of aesthetic taste. You may rejoice in the lush sensibility, even the aesthetic ontology, of the Baroque, as illustrated for example in the facade of some Portuguese Cathedrals or the ceiling of the Church of St Ignatius in Rome, with its triumph of multitudinous prancing angels, archangels, saints, puttis and so on, larking about in a holy riot.You may even enjoy the ambiguity of a cult which offers an innumerable variety of divine or quasi-divine helpers, protectors and guardians, such as to satisfy every human need, fear and aspiration. You may also feel that Goddess Simplicity is a little too stark, too devoid of lure, too simple to attract. Complexity will be more your thing. After all, how many people would like to be described as "simple"? One of the most flattering compliments I ever was paid was when someone described me as "complex".
Of course, I can imagine someone getting really bothered at this stage and say: "But surely the point here is not aesthetic preference or taste but truth?" That is to say, the basic, most vital difference between polytheism and monotheism is that the former is false - the Gods of the Roman Pantheon, major and minor alike - do not exist, whereas monotheism, the worship of the one true God is indeed true.
It would be difficult for me to disagree with this argument. However, may I remind you that it is not simple as that. Language has a referential function - it is used to refer to something, to pick our, or fail to pick out, entities of all kinds, spatiotemporal ones, tables, chairs, mountains, men, stars and microbes, as well as nonspatiotemporal, such as, for example, mathematical entities. Language has also what may be called an expressive or semantic function - what the German logician Gottlob Frege called the Sinn, as opposed to the Bedeutung. The Gods of Ancient Rome may not have existed, they certainly had a meaning, and meaning is not the same as reference. The story of St George and the Dragon has a meaning, a reich meaning - the intrepid fight of a pure knight against the forces of darkness - a meaning which is not affected by the fact that there are no dragons and that St George as an historical person is rather dubious. The meaning is independent of the reference.
Many of St Augustine's strictures are justified, I think. However, some distinctions are in order here.
First, similar strictures could be raised against, say, the Christian cult of Saints. There are various patron saints presiding over several activities. For example, St Camillus de Lellis and St John of God are both patron saints of nurses and the sick. Is there a division of labour amongst them?
Second, the two main Latin words to refer to the deity in Latin are Deus and Numen. The Romans used these words often interchangeably but the point to be grasped here is that, for example, the famous household gods, the Lares and the Penates, were certainly not thought of by the Romans as major divinities. They were rather more in the nature of Spirits, Guardian Angels, Genii, and so on.
First, let me take the chief of the Gods, Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Zeus.
Jupiter, an interesting name. The Romans, of course, were an Indo-European people, belonging to the same branch of language and civilisations to which Latin, Germanic and Slavic peoples and races belong.
JUPITER is really the Latin version of Zeus Pater (Father Zeus). Indo-European peoples, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, Hindus, and so on were patriarchal - the father was the figure of overwhelming importance and authority
in the family, the Roman pater familias, the head of the family was no figurehead, he was an awesome figure - and hence the word father is incorporated in the word for their chief deity, the sky-god Zeus, Jupiter, - in Sanscrit that is also a Diaus pitar - the Indo-European word for the chief god is preserved in the name of the third day of the week, Tuesday (Tues day -the day of Zeus ).
The word for this supreme god, it may interest you, is also preserved in the name of a very important goddess, Diana, the Roman counterpart of Greek Artemis,the virgin huntress of the Roman Pantheon, Diana is simply again, Zeus, Diaus, Deus. The Romans, though basically patriarchal, were very happy to have a female version of a male god, they simply turned the name into a feminine grammatical gender, and lo and behold, you have a goddess.
The so-called Capitoline Triad or Trinity consisted of Jupiter, Juno, the Greek Hera, (his wife, but also his sister, a symbol of the highly dignified Roman matron) and Minerva (the Roman counterpart of the Greek Athena, the Goddes of Wisdom). Two female deities and one male god. Juno's name itself is rather interesting. Etymologically, it is also again related to "Deus", "dyaus", "Zeus", an old Indo-European word for God. Juno may also lie behind the name of the month of June (Junius). The Roman writer Cicero thought that both Jupiter and Juno were derived from the Latin word iuvare, meaning "to help".
The God Liber ( female counterpart Libera) is the counterpart of the Greek Dionysus, God of wine, frenetic music and orgies. One epithet of Dionysus was Eleutheros, or the Liberator, a Liberator presumably from conventional social and moral restraints. The festivals of the Liberalia were held on 17 March, at the beginning of Spring. The poet Virgil tells us in his Georgicae of Dionysiac behavior during this Festival, with lascivious dancing, singing, drinking (Liber, the Romans called wine Liber) and primitive mummery. Apparently at this time also a gross, dissolute Roman farce, the Farsa Atellana was also performed.
Liber gives rise etymologically to Libertas, liberty. It is no coincidence, I think, that liberty can easily degenerate into licence, an abuse of freedom , and indeed licentiousness.
Liber, his female counterpart Libera and Ceres, the Goddess of Agriculture, the ripening of corn (whose name is preserved in the English word cereal - whenever you eat your cerals in the morning you are indirectly acknowledging the goddess Ceres - constituted a Trinity, whose cult was introduced by the Sybilline Books, which I have mentioned before.
Which takes me back to the beginning. What was the content of the books by King Numa, dug up much later on under the Republic? Let me first tell you what I think St Augustine thought the books were about.
I strongly suspect that St Augustine believed the books to have contained unseemly, obscene rituals, like Priapic, phallic, pornographic symbols and emblems and suchlike. My grounds for believing that is that, as Mr LaBadie again put it, "St Augustine would have put the worst possible, or least generous construction on the reports of Numa's books". his is partly because you do not have to be obsessed with Freudian, psychoanalitic modes of psychological interpretation to accept that St Augustine was exceedingly sensitive - some would say morbidly so - to the sins of the flesh. Indeed, the in the chapters in the City of God which precede the episode of the discovery of Numa's books, St Augustine makes several disparaging references to the putatively perverted character of many pagan rites and practices, such as indeed the rites the already mentioned Liber and Priapus; the orgiastic rites, along with self-mutilation by the priests, of the mysteries of Attis; the presence in Carthage, when Augustine was a young man, of the transvestite eunuch priests of the Magna Mater, the Great Goddess. I would also invite you to look up Plutarch's Life of Romulus, in his Parallel Lives, for a very significant episode in this context, concerning how the handmaiden of the King Tarchesius gave birth to the holy twins (Plutarch 2:3-6).
(In all fairness to St Augustine one should note that he wasn't the only one to feel revolted by the lewd character of some ancient rites. It wasn't just a matter of his personal or Christian hang-ups. Many Romans of the old school strongly disapproved of them as well, considering them corrupting oriental influence on Roman youth. The historian Livy tells us that when the rites of Bacchus (The Bacchanalia, Bacchus is the name applied to the Greek God Dionysus ) first crept into Rome, the Senate had them brutally suppressed - many of the Bacchantes, the worshippers of Bacchus, were killed or thrown into prison. Their places of worship were demolished and destroyed.
Against St Augustine's inferred pejorative interpretation of the contents of the books, I would urge:
a) Numa was a Pythagorean, a mystic and a peace-loving ruler. Pythagorean thought had no interest in orgiastic matters but was ascetic, monastic, austere and philosophical;
b) Numa was a Sabine of aristocratic origin. The Priapic and pornographic ceremonies mentioned by St Augustine tended to be associated with demotic, plebeian, emotional ìpopularî religion ( the word ìcthonicî may be mentioned here), which drew the lower strata of the ancient world. Priapus was a lower God, a rustic, gross deity which had little appeal to the religiously sophisticated. Now, the official original religion of Rome was firmly anchored in the ethos and traditions of the Patrician class - indeed the priests initially had to be patricians. Numa's books would have been unlikely to contain references to the ceremonies and rites favoured by the plebeian, lower strata of the population.
WHAT WERE THE BOOKS ABOUT THEN? Well, of course, I do not know for sure but I can suggest what they might have been about.
a) Again, Numa was said to be a Pythagorean. Maybe his books contained harmless Pythagorean spiritual teachings and dietary prescriptions, such as abstaining from eating beans, not to let swallows share one's roof and not to step over a crossbar. Who knows, maybe teachings about reincarnation, or the transmigration of souls;
b)We know that Numa's inspired confidante was Egeria ( whoever she actually was, Goddess or Mortal Woman). Some the books contained formulas, prayers, magic spells, incantations given to him by Egeria. Maybe, as again Mr LaBadie suggests, even the magic formula - which Jupiter himself gave him - whereby the King could call down lightening from Heaven.
c) Maybe the Books contained what we shall never know about. The contents of Numa's books then, like the secret of Rome's mysterious name, is destined to remain secret for ever.
d) Maybe the books were a hoax. But to what effect? It would take me too far afield to dilate upon this. I hope it will be the subject of another paper.
But why then, did the Roman magistrate, Praetor Petilius, handed over Numa's writings to the Senate and why did the Senate determined upon their being destroyed? Why, unless they were somewhat dangerous to then security of the State?
Well, of course, if you found a surefire formula for causing the death of people by cursing them, or invoking lightening unto their heads, I hope you too would be alarmed and would not wish such secrets to be generally divulged. (The Romans, incidentally, strongly believed in the efficacy of curses. When the Roman General Crassus set out on the war against the Parthians, a tribune, incensed because Crassus was waging aggressive war against a people who had not attacked first, called some dreadful punishment on Crassus'head by using ancient curses ("naming strange and horrible deities", Plutarch tells us). Crassus was eventuallyy defeated by the Parthians at the battle of Carrhae, he was killed and his amy wiped out.)
So maybe that is why the Senate acted the way it did. The curses therein were too dangerous to be be made known to all and sundries.
On the other hand, it could be, that Numa's peace-loving tendencies were a bit embarassing for the Roman people - a most warlike nation who has not often been at peace in its history ( Rome was described as an armed camp in the midst of the surrounding nations ). Maybe his books contained some wholesale condemnation of war. This, again, would have been a sound reason for not wanting the boks to become common knowledge. Maybe their content was felt to be unpatriotic, so to speak.
THE ROMAN FORM
I have already alluded above to my ideas about the Roman Form. The shape, the spirit, the distinctive ethos of Roman religion and the Roman people. Religion, religere, to tie together, to bind, a tying together of Heaven and Earth, men and the Gods. Rome, founded by Romulus, was a warlike nation. After Romulus, came Numa, a mystical, contemplative, spiritual figure. Numa tempers and civilises the fierce bellicosity of the Roman race with the sobering dictates of celestial rites and pieties. After Numa came King Tullius Hostilius, who appears to have been the very opposite of his predecessor, a most warlike man he was, and having steered the ship of the State again towards war. Tullius was succeeded by Ancus Martius, who apparently combined both tendencies.
The fact is that war for the Romans was inescapable. It was forced upon them by the circumstances. Their institutions and national character reflected that. At the same time, the Romans never forgot the piousness of Numa, the blessings of Peace, PAX, the PAX DEORUM, The Peace of the Gods and with the Gods. Virgil has his hero Aeneas, say that the Roman people is the most pious, religious people in the whole world- the piety of the Roman people even exceeds the piety of the very Gods.
This is not merely a case of the Romans having a high opinion of themselves. A non-Roman istorian, the Greek Polibyus, witnessed that the Romans were exceedingly scrupulous and assiduous in their religious practices, more than any other race Polibyus knew. Another Greek historian, Dionysos of Halicarnassus, vouchsafes that because the Romans had conducted their state affairs with such immense religious piety, they always "had the Gods on their sides in times of danger".
The Roman Form certainly incorporates both peace-loving religion and the martial virtues. Roman Rule over her vast empire was part of Rome's destiny but the Romans were also keen of affirming the PAX ROMANA and one of the greatest merits of Augustus as a ruler was the PAX AUGUSTA. Augustus had put an end to the age of civil wars which had torn Rome apart, restored the ancient rites and practices and established his Peace on a sure footing. He could only do that because he was ready to fight if necessary, As the old Roman saying has it, Si vis pacem, para bellum , "If you wish for peace, be prepared for war".
ROMAN RELIGION TODAY
Often Protestant writers when wanting to attack Roman Catholic Christianity have accused that Church of paganism, of continuing the forms of the ancient Roman Religion under a veneer of Christianity. Obviously, their aims are slanderous. The Pope may well carry the title of Pontifex Maximus, but he hardly sees himself as the successor of the ancient Flamines and the faith and beliefs he holds are wholly different. Some writers like Dante have seen in the Roman Empire a providential entity brought about by the One True God in order to pave the way for the coming of Christ - Dante even referes to Christ as "most High Juppiter who for our sake suffered upon the Cross" - but, again, this seems poetic license.
More interesting to me is the case of English religion and, especially, of the Church of England. The ideological roots of the British Empire and of the expansion of the English, Welsh and Scottish nations all over the globe may well be traced back to the Puritan belief - given poetic ardour and glory by the poetry of John Milton - of a God-appointed role for the English nation, the English as a peculiar people, chosen to bear the standard of Reformed Christianity before all the world. The English would therefore have a special position before God and the other nations as well. It is the high self-conscious sense of a mission, of a divinely appointed role, of a God-driven will to world-power that would establish an analogy between Roman and British empires. (This attitude was abandoned later on, at least consciously, but survived in other ways, maybe in the attitude of "splendid isolation", which has been for such a long time a decisive factor in British foreign policy.) Like Rome, England (Britain) felt a responsibility, both before God and the world, to serve for the welfare of the world and the welfare of her neighbour by establishing her own rule, the PAX BRITANNICA. (cf Franz Altheim's book).
However, the problem is, I suppose, that Protestant, Puritan Christianity largely lacks the highly ritualist, I would say sacramental features of much of old Roman religion. A better example to me is that of the Church of England. Here is a Church which historically has been in full symbiosis with the State. Thanks to the Establishment, the Church of England is - or until recently was - the Church of the English, the Church of the English Nation, an intensely patriotic national Church. Indeed, historically speaking, the Church of England has given its full contribution to the adventurous exploits, the endevours which resulted in the British Empire. The Head of the Anglican Church ( I should say Governour) is the Monarch - the King is also the Pontifex Maximus, if you like (indeed Henry VIII probably would have been happy to consider himself a sort of English Pope and Parliament, the English Senate, was for a long time a sort of Lay Synod of the Church of England). Through this monarchic headship, both Church and Nation are offered the opportunity of feeling themselves both closely united and connected with heavenly realities and so given a firm sense of special identity and purpose as a people.
The Church of England is sacramental, has its rites, ceremonies and mysteries, its pontiffs - the Bishops - its flamines, priests - its enthusiastic corybantes in the modern evangelicals and charismatics. Indeed, the Anglican Church even has its own specially appointed ceremony for uttering curses. In the Anglican Prayer Book of 1962 you will find the Service of Commination, or the denouncing of God's Anger Against Sinners - which is just that, a book of curses.