By Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin
Rome-one of the great empires and cultures of antiquity-was as important in the development of world religion as it was in many other spheres. Originally, the Romans worshiped a pantheon of traditional tribal gods in their isolated city-state in central Italy. Then, as ancient Romans began to interact with surrounding peoples, they occasionally absorbed religious ideas and practices from their neighbors, especially the Etruscans. But it was during their phase of military expansion and empire (c. 150 BC – 350 AD) that the Romans permanently transformed the religious character of the Mediterranean world.
Paradoxically, two simultaneous fundamental characteristics of Roman religion were extreme conservatism and widespread syncretism-the coalescence of two religious systems into one. Maintaining ancient traditional norms was fundamental to Roman religious thought, so fundamental that they often preserved archaic practices that had lost their original meaning after centuries of merely formal celebration. And if the ancient gods of Roman Italy required strict observance of traditional norms, the ancient gods of other peoples deserved no less.
While ruthless in usurping political and economic power from conquered peoples, the Romans were nonetheless scrupulous in protecting and even participating in most traditional religious beliefs and practices. (A notable exception was human sacrifice among conquered Celts, which the Romans suppressed.) These attitudes help explain the otherwise paradoxical fact that the Romans were tolerant of Jewish religious beliefs-though not of their aspirations for political independence-while at the same time persecuting early Christians. This makes sense when we realize that, from the Roman perspective, tolerance for Judaism was required because it was a religion with over a thousand years of respected tradition behind it, while Christianity was seen as an innovative heresy.
Furthermore, as the Romans conquered their vast empire they not only respected and honored the gods of the newly conquered lands but often brought these foreign beliefs and practices with them back to Rome. In part, this was a function of the fact that widespread slavery, military colonization, free trade, and secure travel made the Roman imperial period one of exceptional migration of peoples throughout the Mediterranean. Additionally, however, from the Roman perspective foreign gods were simply different manifestations, with different names, of the standard Roman gods.
Thus, Jupiter, the head of the Roman gods, was not only the equivalent of the Greek Zeus, but also of the Egyptian Amon-Re and the Syrian Bel (Baal). In conquered Egypt, the Romans worshiped Jupiter as he had always traditionally required-according to Egyptian rituals and beliefs. The result of this was widespread syncretism, with conquered peoples adopting Roman beliefs and practices while the Romans themselves adopted the beliefs and practices of those peoples. As a consequence, in the name of religious tolerance and respect for all ancient traditions, the religious makeup of the Roman Mediterranean was radically transformed to the point that a Roman from the second century BC would not have been able to recognize the Roman religion of the third century AD as his own.
Thus, for most Romans, when Constantine established Christianity as the imperial cult in the early fourth century, he was not a radical innovator but was simply continuing the longstanding tradition of a Roman emperor selecting a particular god as his patron. (The emperor Elagabalus [218-222], for example, had introduced the Syrian sun-god El Gabal as the supreme god of Rome, serving as El Gabal’s high priest.)
While some Romans did object to Constantine’s actions as rank apostasy, many religious Roman citizens were quite willing to worship Constantine’s new patron god-while syncretizing that worship into their traditional beliefs as they had been doing for hundreds of years. Thus, the merger of Roman religion with Christianity was simply the final phase of a syncretism that had begun nearly half a millennium earlier. In a very real sense, Christianity, in its triumphal imperial form in the fourth century, was as much a Roman as a Jewish religion.
Paradoxically, imperial Christianity’s exclusivism-its refusal to tolerate religious rivals whether within or without-resulted both in the ultimate suppression of other Roman religions and the absorption of many elements of Roman belief and practice, transformed, into Christianity itself. (For example, one of the titles of the pope, Pontifex Maximus, originally belonged to the high priest of the Roman state religion, an office held by Julius Caesar and all subsequent Roman emperors.)
In some ways, the Roman imperial age notably parallels our own, with a combination of widespread religious tolerance and global migration resulting in an ongoing radical transformation of the religious makeup of the world.
Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 1998)
Robert Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire (Blackwell, 1996)