Historical Reprints Religion Religious Experience Of The Roman People

Religious Experience Of The Roman People

Religious Experience Of The Roman People
Catalog # SKU1709
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name W. Warde Fowler


The Religious Experience
Of The Roman People

From the Earliest Times
to the
Age of Augustus


This is one of the most exhaustive studies of the Roma Religions we have come across. The western world has maintained the Roman government, Roman law, Roman architecture, Roman thought, Roman history --- but we seldom consider the effect on our current society of the Roman Religions.

I was invited to prepare these lectures, on Lord Gifford's foundation, as one who has made a special study of the religious ideas and practice of the Roman people. So far as I know, the subject has not been touched upon as yet by any Gifford lecturer. We are in these days interested in every form of religion, from the most rudimentary to the most highly developed; from the ideas of the aborigines of Australia, which have now become the common property of anthropologists, to the ethical and spiritual religions of civilised man.

Yet it is remarkable how few students of the history of religion, apart from one or two specialists, have been able to find anything instructive in the religion of the Romans-of the Romans, I mean, as distinguished from that vast collection of races and nationalities which eventually came to be called by the name of Rome. At the Congress for the History of Religions held at Oxford in 1908, out of scores of papers read and offered, not more than one or two even touched on the early religious ideas of the most practical and powerful people that the world has ever known.

This is due, in part at least, to the fact that just when Roman history begins to be of absorbing interest, and fairly well substantiated by evidence, the Roman religion, as religion, has already begun to lose its vitality, its purity, its efficacy. It has become overlaid with foreign rites and ideas, and it has also become a religious monopoly of the State; of which the essential characteristic, as Mommsen has well put it, and as we shall see later on, was "the conscious retention of the principles of the popular belief, which were recognised as irrational, for reasons of outward convenience."

It was not unlike the religion of the Jews in the period immediately before the Captivity, and it was never to profit by the refining and chastening influence of such lengthy suffering. In this later condition it has not been attractive to students of religious history; and to penetrate farther back into the real religious ideas of the genuine Roman people is a task very far from easy, of which indeed the difficulties only seem to increase as we become more familiar with it.


We must remember that the religion of the Romans is a highly technical subject, like Roman law, the Roman constitution, and almost everything else Roman; it calls for special knowledge as well as a sufficient training in Roman institutions generally. Each of these Roman subjects is like a language with a delicate accidence, which is always presenting the unwary with pitfalls into which they are sure to blunder unless they have a thorough mastery of it.

I could mention a book full of valuable thoughts about the relation to Paganism of the early Christian Church, by a scholar at once learned and sympathetic; who when he happens to deal for a moment with the old Roman religion, is inaccurate and misleading at every point. He knew, for example, that this religion is built on the foundation of the worship of the family, but he yielded to the temptation to assume that the family in heaven was a counterpart of the family on earth, "as it might be seen in any palace of the Roman nobility." "Jupiter and Juno," he says, "were the lord and lady, and beneath them was an army of officers, attendants, ministers, of every rank and degree."

Such a description of the pantheon of his religion would have utterly puzzled a Roman, even in the later days of theological syncretism. Again he says that this religion was strongly moral; that "the gods gave every man his duty, and expected him to perform it." Here again no Roman of historical times, or indeed of any age, could have allowed this to be his creed. Had it really been so, not only the history of the Roman religion, but that of the Roman state, would have been very different from what it actually was.

The principles then on which I wish to proceed in these lectures are-(1) to keep the subject in continual touch with Roman history and the development of the Roman state; (2) to exercise all possible care and accuracy in dealing with the technical matters of the religion itself. I may now go on to explain more exactly the plan I propose to follow.

It will greatly assist me in this explanation if I begin by making clear what I understand, for our present purposes, by the word religion. There have been many definitions propounded-more in recent years than ever before, owing to the recognition of the study of religion as a department of anthropology. Controversies are going on which call for new definitions, and it is only by slow degrees that we are arriving at any common understanding as to the real essential thing or fact for which we should reserve this famous word, and other words closely connected with it, e.g. the supernatural. We are still disputing, for example, as to the relation of religion to magic, and therefore as to the exact meaning to be attributed to each of these terms.

Among the many definitions of religion which I have met with, there is one which seems to me to be particularly helpful for our present purposes; it is contributed by an American investigator. "Religion is the effective desire to be in right relation to the Power manifesting itself in the universe."5 Dr. Frazer's definition is not different in essentials: "By religion I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life;" only that here the word is used of acts of worship rather than of the feeling or desire that prompts them.

The definition of the late M. Jean Rèville, in a chapter on "Religious Experience," written near the end of his valuable life, is in my view nearer the mark, and more comprehensive. "Religion," he says, "is essentially a principle of life, the feeling of a living relation between the human individual and the powers or power of which the universe is the manifestation. What characterises each religion is its way of looking upon this relation and its method of applying it."

And a little further on he writes: "It is generally admitted that this feeling of dependence upon the universe is the root of all religion." But this is not so succinct as the definition which I quoted first, and it introduces at least one term, the individual, which, for certain good reasons, I think it will be better for us to avoid in studying the early Roman religious ideas.

"Religion is the effective desire to be in right relations with the Power manifesting itself in the universe." This has the advantage of treating religion as primarily and essentially a feeling, an instinctive desire, and the word "effective," skilfully introduced, suggests that this feeling manifests itself in certain actions undertaken in order to secure a desired end. Again, the phrase "right relations" seems to me well chosen, and better than the "living relation" of M. Rèville, which if applied to the religions of antiquity can only be understood in a sacramental sense, and is not obviously so intended. "Right relation" will cover all religious feeling, from the most material to the most spiritual.

Think for a moment of the 119th Psalm, the high-water mark of the religious feeling of the most religious people of antiquity; it is a magnificent declaration of conformity to the will of God, i.e. of the desire to be in right relation to Him, to His statutes, judgments, laws, commands, testimonies, righteousness. This is religion in a high state of development; but our definition is so skilfully worded as to adapt itself readily to much earlier and simpler forms. The "Power manifesting itself in the universe" may be taken as including all the workings of nature, which even now we most imperfectly understand, and which primitive man so little understood that he misinterpreted them in a hundred different ways. The effective desire to be in right relation with these mysterious powers, so that they might not interfere with his material well-being-with his flocks and herds, with his crops, too, if he were in the agricultural stage, with his dwelling and his land, or with his city if he had got so far in social development-this is what we may call the religious instinct, the origin of what the Romans called religio.

The effective desire to have your own will brought into conformity to the will of a heavenly Father is a later development of the same feeling; to this the genuine Roman never attained, and the Greek very imperfectly.

If we keep this definition steadily in mind, I think we shall find it a valuable guide in following out what I call the religious experience of the Roman people; and at the present moment it will help me to explain my plan in drawing up these lectures. To begin with, in the prehistoric age of Rome, so far as we can discern from survivals of a later age, the feeling or desire must have taken shape, ineffectively indeed, in many quaint acts, some of them magical or quasi-magical, and possibly taken over from an earlier and ruder population among whom the Latins settled. Many of these continued, doubtless, to exist among the common folk, unauthorised by any constituted power, while some few were absorbed into the religious practice of the State, probably with the speedy loss of their original significance. Such survivals of ineffective religion are of course to be found in the lowest stratum of the religious ideas of every people, ancient and modern; even among the Israelites, and in the rites of Islam or Christianity.

They form, as it were, a kind of protoplasm of religious vitality, from which an organic growth was gradually developed. But though they are necessarily a matter of investigation as survivals which have a story to tell, they do not carry us very far when we are tracing the religious experience of a people, and in any case the process of investigating them is one of groping in the dark. I shall deal with these survivals in my next two lectures, and then leave them for good.

Softcover, 6¾" x 8¼", 540+ pages

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