Reflections - Part VIII - Religion, Mystery and Mysticism

© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017

   Almost from the very beginning, 'The Story of Gracchus' is suffused with elements of 'classical' religion, mystery
and mysticism - and the immortal gods have a central role in scheme of things

Part VIII of
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For people living in the 'classical world' - particularly at the time at which the Story of Gracchus is set, every aspect of life was hedged around with the beliefs and rituals of religion.
The Latin term 'religiō', origin of the modern term 'religion', is of ultimately obscure etymology.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
It is recorded beginning in the 1st century BC, i.e. in Classical Latin, at the beginning of the Roman Empire, notably by Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the sense of  'scrupulous or strict observance of the traditional cultus'.
The classical explanation of the word, traced to Cicero himself, derives it from 're'- (again) and 'lego' in the sense of 'choose', 'go over again' or 'consider carefully'.
Modern scholars, however, favour the derivation from 'ligo' - 'to bind or connect', probably from a prefixed 're-ligare', i.e. 're' - (again) and 'ligare' or 'to bind.


Sacrifice of a Gladiator at a Munera
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Death During a Munera
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Within the system of what we would now call 'Roman religion', the term 'religio' originally meant an obligation to the gods (this is important), something expected by them from human beings, or a matter of particular care or concern as related to the gods,  - 'reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety'. (those killed in a Munera or Ludi were considered to be an obligation to the gods, and not just an entertainment).
In this sense, 'religio' might be translated better as 'religious scruple' than with the English word 'religion'.
Another definition of 'religio' offered by Cicero is 'cultus deorum', 'the proper performance of rites in veneration of the gods'.
'Religio' among the Romans was not based on 'faith', but on knowledge, including and especially correct practice. (it is here, in the Story of Gracchus' that Novius has a special position)
Religio (plural religiones) was the pious practice of Rome's traditional cults, and was a cornerstone of the 'mos maiorum', the traditional social norms that regulated public, private, and military life - so beloved of Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus - a love that he successfully passed on to Marcus.
To the Romans, their success was self-evidently due to their practice of proper, respectful 'religio', which gave the gods what was owed them, and which was rewarded with social harmony, peace and prosperity.
Religious law maintained the proprieties of divine honours, sacrifice and ritual.


Impure sacrifice and incorrect ritual were 'vitia' (faults, hence 'vice', the English derivative); excessive devotion, fearful grovelling to deities, and the improper use or seeking of divine knowledge were 'superstitio'; (this included most forms unregulated divining, including astrology and many forms of magic).
The neglecting of the 'religiones' owed to the traditional gods was considered to be 'atheism', a charge levelled during the Empire at Jews, Christians, and Epicureans.
Any of these 'moral' deviations could cause divine anger (ira deorum), and therefore harm the State.
Mausoleum of the House of Gracchus
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Mausoleum of Augustus - Rome
'Religiosus' was something pertaining to the gods, or marked out by them as theirs, as distinct from 'sacer', which was something or someone given to them by humans.
Hence, a graveyard was not primarily defined as sacer, but a 'locus religiosus', because those who lay within its boundaries were considered belonging to the 'di Manes' (the gods of the after life - infernal dieties) - so the the mausoleum built for the House of Gracchus at Cumae was a 'locus religiosus'.
Places struck by lightning were taboo because they had been marked as 'religiosus' by Jupiter himself.


Not to believe in the gods was considered reprehensible - and also incomprehensible, and could attract a charge of 'atheism' (see above) - the punishment for which could range from a fine, to banishment to execution.


According to legends, most of Rome's religious institutions could be traced to its founders, particularly Numa Pompilius, the Sabine second king of Rome, who negotiated directly with the gods.
In addition, many of the religious traditions of the Romans derived from the religion of the Etruscans.


This archaic religion was the foundation of the 'mos maiorum', 'the way of the ancestors' (see above) or simply 'tradition', viewed as central to Roman identity.
The priesthoods of Roman religion were held by members of the 'elite classes'.
There was no principle analogous to separation of 'church and state' in ancient Rome.
During the Roman Republic (509–27 BC), the same men who were elected public officials might also serve as 'augurs' (reading omens in the flights of birds) and pontiffs (priests).
Priests married, raised families, and led politically active lives.
Julius Caesar became 'pontifex maximus' (high priest) before he was elected consul.
The augurs read the will of the gods and supervised the marking of boundaries as a reflection of universal order, thus sanctioning Roman expansionism as a matter of divine destiny.
The Roman triumph was at its core a religious procession in which the victorious general displayed his piety and his willingness to serve the public good by dedicating a portion of his spoils to the gods, especially Jupiter, who embodied just rule.
Roman religion was thus practical and contractual, based on the principle of  'I give, that you might give'.
Religion depended on knowledge and the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, not on faith or dogma, although Latin literature preserves learned speculation on the nature of the divine and its relation to human affairs.
Even the most sceptical among Rome's intellectual elite, such as Cicero (see above), who was an 'augur', saw religion as a source of social order.
For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life.
Temple of Vesta - Rome
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Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family's domestic deities were offered.
Neighbourhood shrines and sacred places, such as springs and groves dotted the city.
The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances.
Women, slaves, and children all participated in a range of religious activities.
Some public rituals could be conducted only by women, and women formed what is perhaps Rome's most famous priesthood, the state-supported Vestals, who tended Rome's sacred hearth for centuries.


The Romans are known for the great number of deities they honoured.
Domestic Shrine to Apollo
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
The presence of Greeks on the Italian peninsula (around Neapolis) from the beginning of the historical period influenced Roman culture, introducing some religious practices that became fundamental, such as the cult of Apollo - which is an important feature in the Story of Gracchus.
The Romans looked for common ground between their major gods and those of the Greeks (interpretatio graeca), adapting Greek myths and iconography for Latin literature and Roman art. Etruscan religion was also a major influence, particularly on the practice of augury.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema - 1871
Imported mystery religions, which offered initiates salvation in the afterlife, were a matter of personal choice for an individual, practised in addition to carrying on one's family rites, and participating in public religion.
The 'mysteries', however, involved exclusive oaths and secrecy, conditions that conservative Romans viewed with suspicion as characteristic of 'magic', conspiratorial (coniuratio), or subversive activity.
Sporadic, and sometimes brutal attempts were made to suppress religions that seemed to threaten traditional morality and unity, as with the Senate's efforts to restrict the Bacchanals in 186 BC.

The most familiar Roman gads known to us today are those the Romans identified with Greek counterparts (interpretatio graeca), integrating Greek myths, iconography, and sometimes religious practices into Roman culture, including Latin literature, Roman art, and religious life as it was experienced throughout the Empire.
Many of the Romans' own gods, however, remain obscure, known only by name and function, through inscriptions and texts that are often fragmentary - particularly those who belong to the archaic religion of the Romans dating back to the era of kings, the so-called 'religion of Numa, (see above), perpetuated or revived over the centuries.
Some archaic deities have Italic or Etruscan counterparts, as identified by ancient source.

The Main Gods of Ancient Rome
  • Jupiter: The mighty king of the gods. Roman god of the earth. Also god of law, order, justice, governance and strength. Most important god of the Romans and usually had the highest divine authority over other gods. Husband of Juno.
  • Neptune: One of the brothers of Jupiter, one of the prime gods and ruler of the seas. The patron of sailors and the protector of ships.
  • Juno: Queen of the gods and wife of Jupiter. Goddess of Marriage and Women. Protector and Counsellor of Rome.
  • Mars: God of War, Spring and Justice. Patron of the Roman Legions and divine father of Romulus and Remus.
  • Venus: Goddess of Love and consort of Mars. Divine mother of Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans.
  • Bellona: Goddess of War, Conquest and Peace.
  • Minerva: Goddess of Wisdom, Divine Counsel, Useful Arts, Crafts and Later War.
  • Janus: God of Beginnings, Endings, Transition, Doorways and Keys.
  • Vesta: Goddess of the Home and the Hearth. Matron of Rome.
  • Archaic Triad: Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus.
  • Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva
  • Plebeian or Aventine Triad: Ceres, Liber, Libera, dating to 493 BC

Sabine Gods

Varro, who was himself of Sabine origin, gives a list of Sabine gods who were adopted by the Romans:

Feronia, Minerva, Novensides, Pales, Salus, Fortuna, Fons, Fides, Ops, Flora, Vediovis, Saturn, Sol, Luna, Vulcan, Summanus, Larunda, Terminus, Quirinus, Vortumnus, Lares, Diana, Lucina

Dii Consentes

Titus Livius
Varro uses the name 'Dii Consentes' for twelve deities whose gilded images stood in the forum.
These were also placed in six male-female pairs.
Although individual names are not listed, they are assumed to be the deities of the lectisternium.
The lectisternium was an ancient Roman propitiatory ceremony, consisting of a meal offered to gods and goddesses. The word derives from lectum sternere, 'to spread (or drape) a couch.' The deities were represented by their busts or statues, or by portable figures of wood, with heads of bronze, wax or marble, and covered with drapery. These figures were laid upon a couch (lectus), the left arm resting on a cushion (pulvinus, whence the couch itself was often called pulvinar) in the attitude of reclining. The couch was set out in the open street, and a meal placed before it on a table.
A fragment from Ennius, within whose lifetime the lectisternium occurred, lists the same twelve deities by name, though in a different order from that of Livy:  - Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars, Mercurius, Jove, Neptunus, Vulcanus, and Apollo.

The 'Dii Consentes' are sometimes seen as the Roman equivalent of the Greek Olympians.
The meaning of the term 'Consentes' is subject to interpretation, but is usually taken to mean that they form a council or consensus of deities.

The references to twelve Etruscan deities are due to later Roman authors, writing long after the influence of the Greek pantheon had become dominant.
Arnobius states that the Etruscans had a set of six male and six female deities which they called 'consentes' and 'complices' because they rose and set together, implying an astronomical significance, and that these twelve acted as councillors of Jupiter. 
Evaluation of this account is dependent on the hypothesis that the Etruscans originally immigrated to Italy from Anatolia.

More generally, Varro grouped the gods broadly into three divisions of heaven, earth, and underworld:

'di superi',-  the gods above or heavenly gods, whose altars were designated as 'altari'.
'di terrestres', - terrestrial gods, whose altars were designated as 'arae'.
'di inferi', the gods below, that is, the gods of the underworld, infernal or chthonic gods, whose altars were foci, fire pits or specially constructed hearths.

Honour Paid to the  'di inferi'
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017

(The 'di inferi' figure in the Story of Gracchus in the aftermaths of the 'Munera' - when the bodies of the slain fighters are cremated, and sacrifices are made on their behalf.)

Imperial Cult

In addition there was the 'Imperial Cult' which identified Emperors, and some members of their families, with the divinely sanctioned authority (auctoritas) of the Roman State.
Temple to the Comet Star - Julius Caesar
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
Its framework was formulated during the early Principate of Augustus, and was rapidly established throughout the Empire and its provinces, with marked local variations in its reception and expression.
Banquet on the Birth-date of the Divine Augustus - Villa Auri
© Copyright Vittorio Carvelli 2017
A deceased emperor held worthy of the honour could be voted a state divinity (divus, plural divi) by the Senate, and elevated as such in an act of apotheosis.
The granting of apotheosis served religious, political and moral judgement on Imperial rulers, and allowed living Emperors to associate themselves with a well-regarded lineage of Imperial 'divi' from which unpopular or unworthy predecessors were excluded.
This proved a useful instrument to Vespasian (a character who appears in the Story of Gracchus) in his establishment of the Flavian Imperial Dynasty, following the death of Nero, and the civil war (which forms an important event in the early part of the 'Story of Gracchus').
Gnaeus Octavian Gracchus honoured Octavian, great nephew of Julius Caesar (who was granted divinity on his death), as the Divine Augustus, and regularly held a Munera on Augustus' birth-date.

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2017
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