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A Discussion on the Concept of Religious Tolerance in Ancient Rome

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Religious Tolerance in Ancient Rome

The polytheistic and polymorphic nature of Roman Religion makes it an extremely flexible one from the outset. The lack of dogmatic ritual and rigid structures meant countless forms of spiritual practices could be found. Nevertheless, elites dominated the discourse which drew the boundaries between the acceptable and unacceptable. Unacceptable religious practices were seen by the Romans as falling within the realm of superstitio – an identity-defining, supernatural force which corrupted men. This concept, however, as we will see, was not a fixed one in Roman society. Nevertheless, the Roman state’s struggle to accommodate a national identity in the context of an expanding empire meant it was these practices, perceived as drastically outside Roman tradition, that were seen as dangerously subversive. An analysis of the structures of Roman religio, the Bacchanalia and Christianity will show us how even though not all that was considered superstitio was the subject of state action, the religions that were acted upon were considered to be out of the realm of acceptable religio within the context of the Roman State’s struggle for a central imperial identity.

Roman Religion was characterized by its loose structures, which allowed for intricate webs of belief connecting different peoples and cultures within the Republic and Empire. As Mary Beard points out, the rhetorical term used to describe ‘acceptable’ forms of practice, religio, bonded people with each other and their gods in an organic way. This ‘binding’ process was constituted of two mutually inclusive principles which illustrate the fluidity of Roman Religion. Paganism’s polymorphic nature allowed for different people to worship their gods in different ways; this means there was no need for individual or collective dogmatic commitments to any particular deity or form of worship. Implicit in this, the polytheistic nature of Roman religion meant Roman citizens could worship more than one god at any one time. The Roman Poet Catullus’ prayer to Diana, which shifts the deity’s identity in line with her various spheres, helps to illustrate how the polymorphic and polytheistic characteristics of Paganism worked together effectively to create a fluid and dogma-free religious environment in Rome. Having said that, however, it must be established that belief was a fundamental part of Paganism – as Charles King points out, belief (as distinguished from religious dogma), was crucial to Roman prayer and implicit in the worship of the distinct deities that formed the Roman pantheon. The combination of dogma-free belief, polymorphism and polytheism allows us to view Roman Paganism as a largely unrestrictive system of belief which appealed directly to individuals, and did not valorize centralized religious institutions.

This seemingly inclusive system of belief, however, was occasionally subject to regulation. Political elites used of the rhetoric of ‘Roman identity’ to do this. As Mary Beard argues, the boundaries of the acceptable were set by elites who had their own personal attitudes toward belief and worship. It is at this point that a distinction between religio and superstitio becomes vital. Superstitio, in contrast to its ‘organically binding’ counterpart religio, was a term used to describe those practices which were individually considered “un-roman” or beneath the ‘standards’ of the empire. Literally meaning “standing over”, the term superstitio was applied to practices which were perceived to determine the identity of individuals. It should be noted, however, that these were mere terms in discourse and that their fluidity, rather than tell us about the official criteria the state had for religious persecution, illustrate the personal prejudices held by individuals in certain localities. For example, while the use of magic was seen as “an inferior form of religion” by most, its secret use was revived and widespread among all strata of Roman society in the Empire.

The traditional forms of worship which we usually associate with Roman paganism – votive offerings, public festivals, ect. – are also all connected by their public and communal nature, something which is implicit in the organic and binding purpose of religio as defined by these elites. The public conviction of two Vestal Virgins following the loss of the Battle of Cannae suggests of how Romans used their traditional religious rites as public acts of social cohesion, illustrating how the elite’s distinction of religio and supertitio also lay along the private/public dichotomy. The mere existence of these polar terms allowed political elites an opportunity to use them at will to regulate and attack systems of belief that they considered somewhat to the state and/or themselves. In this sense, we shall see how the language of alienation is used through supertitio to promote and justify the State’s purely political motives in controlling and persecuting certain religious systems.

The case of the Bacchanalia in Rome allows us to see how political fears over organized religion were influenced by and condemned in terms of the superstitio. The political threat posed by the Bacchanalia is evident almost at first sight. The cult cut across class and gender lines to initiate disparate members of Roman society. Such limitless inclusivity, combined with the secrecy of the rituals, likely was seen by political elites as a force for group-consciousness which could define itself against the State and/or its norms. At a time in which the Roman Empire was expanding rapidly and required loyalty from all its citizens, this would have been unacceptable. John A. North identifies the Bacchanalia as the “first religious group”, drawing on the secret and insular nature of the movement. The concept of a group solely devoted to religion would have been alarming to the political elite as an identity-forming institution over which they had no control, and regarding which they knew little. This fear of Bacchic institutionalism is implicit in the Senatorial Decree regulating the Bacchanalia, wherein a special emphasis is made in dealing with treasurers and organizational appointments within cults generally. This fear in external identity-formation, however, is implicitly also a fear or condemnation of superstitio. It is easy to see how the political elite would have identified the Bacchanalia as being outside the realm of religio: as the God of wine, madness and theatricality, Dionysus was often worshipped by devotees through orgies and secret alcohol-fueled festivals. In his damning account of the rites, Livy intimates that they were a clear departure from the traditional decorous forms of worship in Rome. Nevertheless, the fact that the Bacchanalia never induced citizens to violence suggests that the main impetus for regulating them lay elsewhere. It is likely that, as North suggests, the 186BC senatorial decree was a form of “propaganda” aimed at reasserting the political elite’s rhetorical control of religious identity in a time of geographical expansion. The treatment of the Bacchanalia tells us that the state primarily feared institutions that could shape political identities in some shape or other, and that these fears were intrinsically connected and communicated through the official perception of the Bacchic Rites as falling within the realm of superstitio.

A study of the Roman state’s attitude toward Christianity also points to the Roman political elite’s fear of the irrational and superstitio as it sought to maintain sociopolitical cohesion. It was primarily the power of Christianity to shift alliances that would have worried Roman politicians. A monotheistic religion, Christianity required its followers to withdraw their spiritual loyalty toward the Emperor so that it be preserved for God. Beyond this clear political implication of Christianity as a subversive force, the nature of Christian worship within made it alien to Romans and susceptible to allegations of superstitio. It is easy to see how Romans would have found the belief in transubstantiation and holy miracles part of a subversive magical tradition engineered to differentiate itself from common Paganism. Like the Bacchanalia, Christianity was and is constituted by a rigid system of structures and beliefs which aimed to influence the identity and attitudes of followers. In Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan he refers to Christianity as a “superstition” and suggest the “contagion” must be “stopped” from spreading across villages. Pliny’s rhetoric here is one which identifies Christianity as intrinsically un-Roman; yet the political dimension of his condemnation is highlighted when he mentions that, after repeated interrogation, only those who “persisted” in asserting their Christian identity he “ordered executed” – it is clear that, rather than Christianity’s particular beliefs, it was its ability to capture minds and identities that worried the Romans most. The strength of the emergence of Christianity, together with its ability to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries helps to explain why the State’s reaction towards Christians was more forceful and decisive than their “propagandist” approach to the Bacchanalia.

It seems clear that Roman religious intolerance derived primarily from political fears in Ancient Rome. It was the ability of organized religions to institutionalize belief and shape identities that made Romans uneasy. Furthermore, however, Roman political fears were deeply influenced by a more fluid skepticism of the ‘un-Roman’ – as we have seen with the Bacchanalia and Christianity, the language of religio and superstitio was used to stigmatize those systems of belief which seemed to depart from the principles that defined Roman paganism. As a result, we might say that the Romans’ primarily political motives behind religious intolerance were somewhat influenced by a fear of what they perceived to be irrational. In conclusion, therefore, I believe it is fair to say that instances of religious regulation during the Roman period were intrinsically related to the political elite’s fear of systems which could institutionalize identities and, thus, shift loyalties. These fears, however, were indeed expressed through a fluid language of opprobrium which mainly sought to chastise the seemingly ‘un-roman’ – this once again points us to the struggle between the overlapping boundaries of institutionalized belief and national identity.

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A Discussion on the Concept of Religious Tolerance in Ancient Rome. (2018, October 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/a-discussion-on-the-concept-of-religious-tolerance-in-ancient-rome/
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