It is difficult for us today to visualize a thought-world which contained a heaven populated with dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of gods. Yet most people in the Roman world, apart from Jews and Christians, lived with the conviction there was a variety of gods, all requiring worship. All had their temples, their priesthoods, their followers. Each had a particular role to perform. Some people argued there could be only one god, but their influence was slight.

Three types of gods had their place in the Roman pantheon. There were the gods of civic religion, such as Janus, Jupiter, and Mars, inherited from Italy’s ancient inhabitants. There were the newly created gods, the emperors deified after their deaths—and sometimes before. And there were the gods of the mystery religions, Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and others, oriental cults brought to Rome by travelers, soldiers, and imported slaves. The God of the Jews and the God of the Christians were quite separate, but otherwise the various cults—civic, imperial, and oriental—dwelt more or less happily together.

The role of the civic cults was to reinforce the cohesion of the state. The Roman matrons had their own, as did the aristocratic families in general. There were cults for tradesmen and cults for soldiers. Each had its own meeting place, and their festivals brought people together socially and strengthened the bonds between them.

None of this had much to do with personal religion. Perhaps for the majority of people the external acts associated with the civic or imperial cults were enough to satisfy whatever need they felt for religious observance.

But there were those for whom it was not enough. They felt the need for assurance of personal salvation in a world increasingly filled ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.