Of Gods And Romans
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History of the Roman Republic/EmpireOctober 27, 2000Of Gods and RomansThe Romans during the time of their Republic relied on their advanced technology, social structure, leadership and politics to achieve as much as they did. To these people, their gods affected all of these factors and the relationships mankind had with them. The contractual relationship between mankind and the gods involved each party in giving, and in return receiving services. The Romans believed that spirits residing in natural and physical objects had the power to control the processes of nature, and that man could influence these processes by symbolic action. The first is a primitive form of religious creed; the second a type of magic. The services by which the Romans hoped to influence the forces that guided their lives were firmly established in ritual - the ritual of prayer and the ritual of offering.
In either case, the exact performance of the rite was essential. One slip, and you had to go back to the beginning and start again. The very multiplicity of deities caused problems, as did the gender of some of them: 'wether you be god or goddess' was a common formula in Roman prayers. The motivations of the sacrifices are what of interest. Most of the time, sacrifices took place for purification, supplication, or celebration. The purification ritual was one that was performed before battle (285)
Asking for a deed to be done was very popular as well. One usually asked for victory and good fortune in battle (20). Celebration is the event that seems to be the most spectacular of all. Whether it is in joy of an enemies' death, such as Mithridates (201), the end of illness of a leader like Pompey (218), or simply the merriment that comes after large victory, we see this in Caesar's winnings in Gaul (264). Some sacrificial events took place in order to ask forgiveness and appeasement for defeat of a religious enemy (90 - 91).Any sacrificial routine was elaborate and messy.
The head of the victim was sprinkled with wine and bits of sacred cake made from flour and salt. Then its throat was cut and it was disemboweled to ensure there was nothing untoward about its entrails. If there was, it was not only a bad omen, but the whole process had to be repeated with a fresh animal until it came out right. The vital organs were burnt upon the altar and the carcass cut into pieces and eaten on the spot, or else laid aside. Then the priest, wearing something over his face to shut out evil influences from his eyes, would say prayers, speaking under his breath, while a flute was played to drown any ill-omened noise.
Any unintentional deviation from the prescribed ritual meant not only a new sacrifice, but also an additional one to absolve the error. In high occasions, on which a replay of the entire ceremony might be an embarrassment, a sacrifice was performed as a matter of course on the pervious day, to cover for any potential errors during the main ceremony. Multiple sacrifices were commonplace: the word hecatomb, which derives from the Greek, means the sacrifice of a hundred head of oxen. There was a distinction between signs that were solicited and those that appeared without invitation. At many times, an individual would see an omen that gave him/her confidence to continue a current course of action (52) other incidences produced warnings to change one's itinerary (55, 74 - 75). The more startling or unexpected the sign, for instance a sudden flash of lightning or an epileptic fit on the part of a member of an assembly, the more seriously it was taken.
It was not unknown for an interested party to throw a feigned fit in order to obstruct proceedings. Lightning which appeared while auspices were being taken was good news, but not so if it came otherwise. Certain omens such as scorpions fighting (55), sacrificing an animal that does not appear to have a heart (303), or bizarre natural occurrences (74 - 75) were signs of disaster. The gods also produced omens through the actions of men. When a child expressed a particular talent or a coincidence put them in a positive light, (50) more often than not this meant that he/she was destined for greatness. This flip side of this is that actions committed out of anger, avarice or lust will be a premonition of bad things to come. Examples of this would be a particular gruesome murder (60) or disobeying religious law for pleasures of the flesh (252 - 254).
Sometimes a god will use irony to convey a sense of acceptance or approval toward a given action. When rain came down after Curio surrendered to authorities out of thirst (84).Romans saw disasters as manifestations of divine disapproval, and unusual phenomena as portents of catastrophe. Reports of such phenomena could cause panic among a people for whom superstition was a way of life, especially at times of national uncertainty. These moments of doubt especially injured the political figures of the time. When walking up to the temple of Aphrodite, both Crassus and his son tripped and fell over each other (135).
Mithidates was struck by a crown from the mechanical hand of a statue of Victory (79). These two events are important because of the superstitions held by the populace. When an occurrence such as this takes place, it is treated as a very real sign from
heaven. Falling from a podium, stuttering one's words or over exaggeration by today's standards is nothing compared to what we today would consider bad luck or coincidence in the Roman era. Public opinion is just as essential then as it is today. Bad luck such as this could ruin a political career then just as image can do the same damage presently. Just as many politicians received the brunt of a bad omen, a few individuals harnessed this superstition.
Pompey dissolved the Assembly to his advantage, crediting an "inauspicious omen had been seen" (212). The ones to could twist the traditions of a people around the will of the leader will be successful more often than not, in any period of history. Principal leaders, as well as the regular populace, occasionally went to soothsayers or prophets for advice and possible prospects of the future. These viewers of the future sometimes worked as omen to provide their client with either encouragement or caution (20). Many great leaders surrounded themselves with these gifted speculators to help in the physical labor of seeking knowledge of future events through animal entrails (285 - 286). These individuals aided with political responsibilities and connections to the public to aid social acceptance of a particular person or issue. Just as there are soothsayers affecting the happenings in high-level decisions, many minister to the common citizen.
One can see the impact these observers have on picking out future leaders from humbler beginnings (50).Particular locations of religious importance held a great deal of significance to the men and women of the Roman republic. The "Field of Mars" is seen time and time again as a noteworthy location where training took place (47) and honorable burial (172, 213 - 214). It was not infrequent that the Field was used as a political-strategic tool, however. Other places such as Marica (53) were also religious locations that affected the lives of major figures. Along with locations, events were affective communicators of religious ideals. Festivals were a source of entertainment, socializing, sacrifice, and political figure heading.
During the "Woman's Goddess" festival, where no man could be in the presence of a woman, sacrilege was committed by Clodius (252 - 254). Many other happenings took place in additional events, such as the feast of Lupercalia were political relationships shaped (300).Many primitive societies practiced animism, the belief that natural and physical objects are endowed with mystical properties. The Romans took this cult so far that they could be said to have made it peculiarly their own. They invested trees, springs, caves, lakes, animals, even household furniture with numina (divine spirits). Stones could have spirits, too, especially the boundary stones between one person's property and the next. The word for a boundary stone was terminus. And there was even a great god Terminus, a massive piece of masonry that stood permanently in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, because, it was said, it refused to budge even for Jupiter. Although many details separate the Roman religion to many modern ideals, the action of prayer played a major role in this belief system just as it does today.
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