Light from the East

views updated

Light from the East



Change within Tradition. Roman religion evolved along with Rome’s increasing political influence throughout the Mediterranean world. Gods from Greece, Asia, Egypt, and finally Palestine all took their places in Rome’s pantheon. Many cults, often emerging from the east and concerning self-sacrifice, death, and resurrection, began as private or as family religious practices and then assumed a public status. We also notice a general tendency toward imagery of the sun and monotheism.

Cybele, the Great Idaean Mother of Gods. Sometime in prehistory a meteorite struck the earth in Asia Minor, presumably near Mt. Ida. In a temple at Pessinus it was an object of religious awe and veneration. Over time it came to be identified with the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who was concerned with fertility, healing, prophecy, the protection of cities, and wild nature. This range of powers caused her to be worshiped as the Great Mother of the Gods. As Greek influence extended into Asia Minor, she came to be represented in human form, wearing a crown of a turreted city wall and seated in a chariot drawn by a pair of lions. During the third century b.c.e. tribes of invading Gauls from western Europe settled in that part of Asia Minor, thereafter named Galatia. The priests of Cybele were then known as galloi, Gauls.

Cybele Goes to Rome. King Attalus I of Pergamum in Asia Minor had defeated the Galatians, and, to secure his rule, he brought the meteorite to Pergamum and set up a new cult center there. He was also a firm defender of Roman interests in Asia Minor. During his reign, in 205 b.c.e., a consultation of the Sibylline Books at Rome revealed that Cybele should be brought from Pergamum and given a new home. Under the direction of Publius Cornelius Scipio, a member of Rome’s leading family at that time and one with strong connections to Attalus, the black stone was brought by ship. A new temple, along with public games, was dedicated to the Great Mother in 191 b.c.e. This location on the Palatine, and her own origin on Mt. Ida, was especially important to the Julian clan, for Venus and the mortal hero Anchises, so the myth said, had mated on Mt. Ida. Their offspring was the Trojan hero Aeneas, founder of the Roman people in Italy through his son lulus. Augustus, the first emperor and a member of the Julian family, established his home on the Palatine several centuries later, making the connection quite clear.


In what is perhaps his most remarkable poem, Catullus describes the ecstatic experience of Attis, a young man seized with the desire to worship Cybele. Like all galloi, Attis castrates himself; this change of anatomical gender is marked in the Latin by an actual change of grammatical gender that is almost impossible to represent in English, though it would have been arresting to its original Roman readers:

Attis, carried over the high seas in a swift ship, as he reached the Phrygian grove with eager desire and approached the goddess’s dark places shadowed in woods, there aroused by a mad rage, his mind wandering, he sheared off his genitals with a sharp flint. And then, as s/he perceived he/r limbs were left without manhood, even then spotting the soil of the earth with fresh blood, aroused, s/he took in he/r snow-white hands a light tambourine—your tambourine, Cybele, the instrument, Mother, of your mystery. And shaking the hollow bullhide with delicate fingers, trembling, s/he began to sing this song to he/r companions: “Come, Gallic women, go at once to the deep groves of Cybele, go at once, wandering flock of the Lady of Dindymus, you who, as exiles, seeking foreign places, quickly following my sect, under my leadership, companions to me, endured the destructive salt sea and the cruel ocean, and who have unmanned your bodies out of your excessive hatred of Venus, delight our Lady’s mind with your swift mistakes. Let your slow delay yield to your inclination. Go at once, seek the Phrygian home of Cybele, the Phrygian groves of the goddess, where the voice of the cymbals rings out, where the tambourines resound, where the Phrygian flute-player plays deep on the curved reed, where the ivy-bedecked Maenads toss their heads violently, where they carry out their sacred rites with piercing screams, where that errant herd of the goddess usually flits about; we must rush to that place with our swift dances.” (Catullus, Poems 63)

Source: The Poems of Catuttw, translated by James Michie (New York: Vintage, 1971).

The Worship of Cybele. Only part of Cybele’s worship was administered by Roman officials: they supervised her games, offerings, and the annual bathing of her cult statue. Other activities were considered indecent for a Roman. Cybele’s priests, the galloi, were eunuchs, that is, men who had castrated themselves in order to serve the goddess. Her cult was orgiastic, involving wild and uninhibited dancing by men and women, accompanied by clashing cymbals, rattles, and flutes. After about the mid second century c.e. a new element was added to her cult, the taurobolium. In this form of sacrifice a worshiper would lie in a pit dug in the ground, a kind of grave, while over him a bull would be slaughtered so that the devotee would be bathed in its blood. The bull would then be castrated and its testicles offered in sacrifice. In this way it was believed one was “reborn into eternal life.” Cybele’s cult incorporated the Near Eastern myth of the beautiful young man Attis, beloved of Cybele, who either was castrated by her out of jealousy or who castrated himself. In this myth Attis experiences the recurrent cycle of self-sacrifice, death, and resurrection. She and he eventually figured as lunar and solar beings, respectively.

Suppression of Foreign Religions. All the examples of foreign cults introduced to Rome should not disguise the fact that there were also many official suppressions and expulsions of them over the course of time. On several occasions soothsayers, philosophers, astrologers, and Jews were expelled from the city. In 186 b.c.e. the private worship of Bacchus had spread from Greece and Egypt to southern Italy and thence to Rome. It had already gained a large, and apparently fanatic, following there when the chief magistrates discovered its existence. Several thousand people were executed and strict limits were placed on its future practice. The causes of such strong reactions were moral, religious, and civil. Though it does not always seem so, the Romans were an extremely serious and moral people, concerned about proper and decent behavior. It greatly offended the Roman sense of propriety that, in the worship of Bacchus, for example, men and women were meeting, together, in secret and at night. Rumors of cannibalism, promiscuous sex, murder, and conspiracy to crime were taken seriously. In 17 b.c.e., on the other hand, when Augustus celebrated the recurrent Century Games, some parts of which took place at night with both men and women present, he formally authorized this activity in a decree, which still exists in the form of an inscription. Religion also played a part in such suppressions. Unless a deity had expressed through some prodigy or oracle his or her wish to be celebrated in Rome, the private or individual worship risked provoking the anger of the traditional gods of the people. Finally, the Roman state did not welcome free and private association of its citizens in large numbers. In such circumstances, they felt, revolutions and crimes against the state were plotted. Unauthorized private religious “clubs” were a type of illegal association. These attitudes explain the harsh measures taken against such foreign religions as that of Isis or Christianity.

Isis and Serapis. It took a long time for the Egyptian goddess Isis to become officially accepted at Rome. Isis was, like Cybele, a goddess who gradually accumulated many powers over different aspects of human life, especially that of women. Like Juno, she was concerned with marriage; like Diana, with pregnancy and childbirth; and like Ceres, with agricultural success. Her Egyptian mythology is old and varied. She was the sister and wife of the god Osiris, whom the god Set had murdered and dismembered, scattering the pieces of his body all around the world. Isis, weeping, went looking for the pieces; when she had collected them all she restored Osiris to life. The actual cult practice made this mythological labor a recurrent event, a dramatization of the natural cycle of birth, sacrifice, death, and rebirth. After the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.), Egypt came under the rule of the Ptolemies, a Macedonian Greek royal dynasty. By at least the third century b.c.e. there was a vigorous cult of Isis on the Greek island of Delos, an important trading center. Trade and traffic between Delos and the Greek city of Naples brought the worship of Isis to Italy by at least the second century b.c.e., and it was known at Rome by 80 b.c.e. Between the years 59 and 49 b.c.e. the private altar of Isis, and her Egyptian companion Serapis, on the Capitoline Hill was destroyed at least five times by the authorities, an indication of her enduring and increasing popularity. There was an official acceptance of the cult in 43 b.c.e., but because of the love affair between the Roman general Marcus Antonius and the Ptolemy queen Cleopatra in Egypt, and their ambitions to set up a rival empire in the East, the worship of Egyptian gods was suddenly forbidden. Augustus defeated Antonius and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 b.c.e., and three years later he still prohibited any private shrines to Egyptian gods within the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city of Rome. Thereafter, though, all Egypt became the private province of the emperor. Sometime in the reign of Caligula (37-41 C.E.) the cult was finally accepted as part of the public religion, and a joint temple to Isis and Serapis was constructed on the Campus Martius. The religion of Isis was of great importance throughout the Roman world. It played a significant part of life at the city of Pompeii before its destruction by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 c.e. and was the subject of a novel by Apuleius called Metamorphoses, in which he describes his transformation into a donkey by witchcraft and his restoration to human form by Isis.

Mithras. The cult of Mithras originated in ancient Persia, present-day Iran. It first came to the Romans’ attention when the general Pompey the Great (106-48 b.c.e.) was sent to destroy the fleets of pirates operating from Cilicia on the southwest coast of Asia Minor in 67 b.c.e. It was not of much importance at Rome until the mid second century c.e. From that point on, until the dominance of Christianity, its popularity was immense, especially in Rome and Ostia. Mithraism cut across all sections of Roman society and was widely practiced particularly among Roman soldiers in western Europe. Its popularity among the ruling class helps explain why it escaped official suppression.

The Practice of Mithraism. Mithraism was one of many “mystery” religions of the ancient world. The term “mystery”(Greek musterion, something that must be revealed) in this context means that worshipers progress by degrees in their knowledge of certain cult secrets. For each level or degree of advancement there were corresponding titles, costumes, and so on. In Mithraism, for example, an initiate began as a “crow,” and advanced through six degrees of knowledge until he became a “father.” There were tests, oaths, strict secrecy, and sacramental communion. We have abundant physical evidence of Mithraism, but because of the secrecy of the cult, there is hardly any literary evidence to help us interpret the physical remains. Mithraism was a kind of men’s religious social club. Their meeting places conformed to a standard type, which depended on the mythology of Mithras. Called spelaea “caves,” these were long narrow chambers, often underground or made of a natural cave, with a vaulted ceiling

Along each side ran a continuous bench on which the celebrants reclined when partaking of the ceremonial meal. At the far end of the hall was a statue or carved relief of the young hero/god Mithras, who is always depicted the same way: dressed in Persian clothing and hat, he is kneeling over a bull whose head he is pulling upward and whom he is stabbing with a knife. He is surrounded with mysterious symbols and animals associated with the cult. Above, a hole let sunlight illuminate the statue or relief. The “cave” was supposed to be a replica of the universe, arranged according to an astrological or zodiacal plan. As one advanced in the rites, he moved further up the bench in ever-increasing places of honor, a sign of his expanding knowledge of the secrets of the universe.

The Unconquered Sun God. At the same time that Mithraism was at its height, another Near Eastern religious cult gained great popularity in Rome, that of the Unconquered Sun God. It even combined with Mithraism in many instances, a process known as “syncretism.” In fact, the worship of the sun—and the moon as well—as a deity had a long history in Rome, perhaps beginning in the time of the kings. There were several temples to Sol and Luna in Rome, and it was understood that the Circus Maximus, where horse and chariot races were held, was part of the worship of the sun: as the sun appeared to go around the earth, so the horses and riders ran in laps around the Circus. Apollo and his sister Diana also came to be closely identified with Helios and Selene, the Sun and Moon, respectively. Augustus’s special devotion to Apollo and Diana established a long-lasting pattern of imperial cult of these two gods. In the time of the emperors Elagabalus (218-222 c.e.), who took this name from the Syrian name of the god, El Gabal, and Aurelian (270-275 c.e.), whose mother was a priestess of the Unconquered Sun God, this cult reached its high point. The emperor himself was represented as the sun in human form: seated on his throne with a radiant halo around his head. This iconography, or standard pictorial representation, was adopted by Christians, especially as Christianity attained imperial acceptance with Constantine the Great (272-337 c.e.)

Consistency. We have grown used to a distinction between “pagan” and “Christian,” meaning that Christianity was the end of the ancient Roman religion. This is partly true, but it is equally true that Christianity was also a continuation of Roman public religion. The history of Roman religion was a large pattern of change and innovation, but within the limits of a conservative tradition. Gods came and went, names and terms changed, but the elements of religious practice remained essentially the same.

Historical Background. The Hebrew people, a distinct ethnic group with a common religious tradition, inhabited a central part of what is today Israel, from perhaps as early as 2000 b.c.e. Their religion was strictly monotheistic and scripturally revelatory. This means that the people’s epic literature, composed over a long period of time, was regarded as a guarantee by their god, Yahweh, that they were a chosen people, destined to rule in their own land. The geographical location of this land, and the relatively small population of the Hebrew people, meant that they suffered frequent domination by larger and more powerful civilizations of the Near East. In the fifteenth century b.c.e., for example, the Jews were forced to migrate to Egypt as slave workers for the pharaohs.

They were led back by their prophet Moses. From the sixth to fourth centuries they were under the control of the Persian empire. The conquest of Alexander the Great followed. After his death in 323 b.c.e., Macedonian kings ruled large districts in that part of the world and imposed a Hellenistic, or Greek, culture on the native populations. Many aspects of this culture were deeply offensive to Jewish traditions, and there were a series of revolts against it. As Roman interests began to extend to Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Near East, especially after the campaign of Pompey the Great in 67 b.c.e., the Romans and Jews began a long, uneasy relationship. The Romans were very traditional people themselves and admired the antiquity and traditionalism of Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews. But they were baffled by the Jews’monotheism, especially their belief in a god who could not be represented by an image, and by their extreme reluctance to adapt. Jews were from time to time expelled from Rome.

The Historical Jesus. The person Jesus, later known as the Christ, “The Anointed One,” was born in Palestine to a Jewish mother during the reign of the emperor Augustus, perhaps as early as 4 b.c.e. Just at this time, in Rome and elsewhere in Rome’s empire, there were fervent expectations of the dawning of a new age. In 17 b.c.e., for example, Augustus had celebrated the Century Games, associated with the idea of palingenesis, that an old order of things in the world was passing away and the world was being renewed. Augustus himself promoted this belief by a kind of revival of traditional Roman religious customs, rebuilding of temples, and reinstituting of old priesthoods and establishing new ones. After a century of civil war, the Peace of Augustus did indeed appear to be the dawning of a new age. Among the Jews there was a strong belief that Yahweh was soon to fulfill his promise to his people. For many this meant political as well as religious renewal: the removal of the Roman military and government presence in Palestine and the appearance of the Messiah, the Savior whom their prophetic scriptures had long foretold. Some of the most traditional and conservative Jews were forming themselves into strict religious communities in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. It was into this political and religious fervor that Jesus was born. Sometime in his early adulthood, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 c.e.), Jesus began a life imitating the ancient Jewish prophets. He went about from town to town, working miracles, delivering sermons, and teaching. As he did so, he acquired a following of disciples. His popularity and notoreity increased, and he began to be regarded as a threat by the Jewish priestly classes. To them he seemed a usurper, a renegade, and a blasphemer. They eventually arranged to have him arrested and brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who sentenced him to death by crucifixion. According to eyewitness accounts, the body of Jesus was not in its tomb several days later, and Jesus began appearing to his disciples, instructing them to spread the message of his life and resurrection.

The Early Christian Church. After the death and reappearances of Jesus his disciples began to zealously preach his story to other Jews, soon even to the Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, throughout Palestine, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. The worship of Christ was popular chiefly among slaves and soldiers at first, but quickly gained favor among wealthier citizens and inhabitants. The early Christian community, as with other mystery religious groups, was a kind of social club, but it also was a form of welfare. Members often lived in communal arrangements, sharing food and property. They depended on written texts, later grouped together and called the New Testament, in which the mystery of Jesus the Anointed One and his resurrection were told and explained. The original disciples of Jesus, who now called themselves Apostles, “the ones who were sent,” were energetic in establishing new communities of believers. Peter, who had known Jesus, had even gone to Rome. Paul, at first a zealous Jewish persecutor of the new sect, who then miraculously converted after Jesus’ resurrection, was arrested and sent to Rome to plead before the emperor.

Rome and the Christians. Religious cults were common in the ancient world, and as long as adherents obeyed the law and honored the gods of Rome, they were left alone. But the Christians easily attracted attention. First, they greatly annoyed the priestly classes of traditional Jewish religion, who saw them not only as religious renegades but also as competitors for Roman acceptance. Secondly, they were regarded with suspicion as an overzealous new sect of Judaism at a time when other such groups were agitating for political independence from Rome. The historian Tacitus records that the emperor Nero blamed the great fire of 64 c.e., which destroyed much of Rome, on the Christians. Though he has little good to say about them, Tacitus remarked on the unusually cruel treatment of them by Nero: they were tied to poles and set on fire to illuminate public games he put on at night. As the early church grew, it experienced periodic spates of hostility from Jewish communities and from the Roman state. In 112 c.e. the presence of a cell of Christians was reported to the Roman governor of Bithynia in north central Asia Minor, Gaius Plinius Secundus. Their obstinacy and fanaticism caused him to write to the emperor Trajan for advice about the proper way to interrogate and punish them. Trajan’s reply is interesting:

In prosecuting the cases of those who have been reported to you as Christians, my dear Secundus, you have followed an appropriate course of action. For a procedure having, so to speak, a fixed form, applicable in all cases, cannot be established. They are not to be hunted out. If they are reported and convicted, they are to be punished, but in such a way that anyone who denies that he is a Christian and gives manifest evidence of this by giving thanks to our gods, although suspect in the past, he is to obtain pardon by his repentance. But anonymous written accusations are to play no part in any criminal case. For that sets a very bad example and is not in keeping with our age. (Pliny, Letters 10. 96 and 97)

Christianity and Greek Myth and Philosophy. After the Apostles died, a second generation of leaders took their place; they were typically wealthier and much better educated. These individuals began to organize the church communities in a more systematic way, to circulate the Apostles’ letters and their written accounts of Jesus’ life, and to explain the new religion to a population steeped in Greek literature and philosophy. These men, called collectively the Fathers, wrote voluminous works in which they argued how the miraculous life and death of Jesus was in fact not only in keeping with, but even the fulfillment of, the philosophical life so central to Greek culture. As for traditional Greek mythology, they explained it as God’s preparation of the minds of men for the mystery of the Christ. The historical Socrates and the mythological Hercules were examples of preparation. By integrating Greek philosophy and Christian belief, the Fathers—who wrote in both Greek and Latin, for readers throughout the Roman Empire—were able to attract converts from the upper levels of society and thus to make Christianity more respectable. This practice also served to make Greek philosophy more accessible to ordinary people.

Persecution and Acceptance. The followers of Christ were at first persecuted by the Jewish priestly classes. The latter informed against them to the Roman authorities, accusing them of cannibalism, promiscuous sex, corruption of morals, murder, and other criminal activities. The Christians countered these accusations, insisting that they lived virtuous and law-abiding lives and that the love that they expressed for one another was not of an immoral kind. The chief difficulty was that the Christians would not offer sacrifice and pray to the gods of the Roman people, in particular to the dead and deified emperors or to the divine powers that protected the person and family of the living emperor. This stand essentially was an act of treason. All that Rome wanted was a minimal show of respect for its religious traditions. It did not help that there were recurrent Jewish separatist revolts, for the Romans did not distinguish Christians from other Jews for some time. Gradually, however, Christianity made its way into the uppermost level of Roman society. The emperor Constantine the Great, whose mother and sister had already converted, ascribed his victory in battle over Maxentius in 312 c.e. to the miraculous appearance of the sign of the cross superimposed on the sun, and a heavenly voice that declared “Under this sign you will conquer.” In other words, the Cross was replacing the Sun (associated with Apollo) as the symbol of the emperor’s personal religion. Constantine did not himself convert until just before his death in 337, but his toleration had already made Christianity virtually an official religion. This acceptance was made decisive when the emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religious practices in 391. At this point the tables were turned: Christians began looting and destroying pagan temples and violently persecuting those who did not subscribe to the new creed.


Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 volumes (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).

Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, translated by Philip Krapp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

H. H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981).