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Changes of Roman religion during great conquests

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Reverse of a Roman coin showing a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus
Reverse of a Roman coin showing a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

One of the most breakthrough periods in the history of Roman Empire were the years of wars with Carthage. The First Punic War began in 264 BCE and ushered in a new chapter in the history of Rome, the so-called period of the great conquests. The very rapid spread of the territorial power of the Romans influenced many aspects of the internal life in their country, including religion, which underwent significant transformations during this period.

Most likely even earlier, because during the war with the king of Epirus, Pyrrhus (282-272 BCE), the Romans began drawing myths from other religions and tells of creating their own, legendary tales about the origins of the Eternal City. An extremely important mythical figure borrowed by the Romans was their alleged progenitor or Aeneas, son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. His cult was known in Italy much earlier, even in the middle of the 5th century BCE. This is evidenced by the figures of Aeneas from the Etruscan city of Veii. For the Etruscans, however, a fugitive from Troy was never the founder of any city. Such was the character of the cult of Aeneas in the Avalanche in Lazio, which was to be founded by Aeneas after marrying his daughter Latina, Avalanche. It should be emphasized that the Avalanche was a strongly Hellenized centre. It was from this city that, probably at the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, the cult of the Trojan hero was transferred to Rome. As is known, the adoption of the figure of Aeneas into the Roman pantheon was of great importance for the later Roman tradition. The inhabitants of the eternal city became the children of Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite), so it favoured the role of this goddess. Roman literature of the later period eagerly proclaimed that Rome was the new Troy, as did Fabius Pictor and Nevius, among others. Originally, history was derived directly from Aeneas as the founder of the city. Later, however, another, much more complicated, canon was adopted, namely that Aeneas was associated with the figure of Romulus.

The canon was as follows: The Avalanche was founded by Aeneas himself three years after his arrival in Italy. Thirty years later, his son Ascanius began building a new city called Alba Longa, which would be ruled by eleven generations of kings. The twelfth generation was Numitor and Amulius. The elder was Numitor, so he was the one with royal power, but he was expelled and his brother Amulius took over. Amulius then made Numitor’s daughter Rhea Sylvia a Vestal virgin to ensure that she would have no offspring. However, Rhea was raped by Mars, and as a result gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. When Amulius found out about it, he ordered the boys to be drowned in the Tiber. Ultimately, however, the babies settled on the dry bank of the river and were saved by a she-wolf that fed them with her milk. Then the twins were found by a certain Faustulus. He took them and gave them up to his wife Larentia for upbringing. When Romulus and Remus grew up, they overthrew Amulius, then handed over power to their grandfather. They decided to found a new city exactly in the place where a she-wolf had saved them. However, a serious problem arose, as Romulus and Remus were twins, so it was not known to whom to delegate the royal power. In order to select a new ruler, it was decided to arrange fortune-telling from the flight of birds. Initially, Remus saw 6 vultures, then Romulus saw 12. As a result, both were proclaimed kings by their supporters. In a bloody clash, Romulus killed his brother and eventually became king of the newly founded city (according to the historian Livius, Romulus killed Remus when his brother leapt pomerium around the demarcated city).

It is assumed that the consolidation of this legend took place at the end of the 4th century BCE or at the beginning of the 3rd century. However, the first author to mention Romulus and Remus was the Sicilian historian Alchimus. You can ask yourself why: the Romans traced their origins to Romulus? Undoubtedly, thanks to the myth, they obtained a divine ancestor which was Mars, the father of the ancestor of the Romans. However, if you think about it, you can conclude that Romulus was very far from the ideal, even taking into account the ancient morality of the time. While Aeneas was an almost flawless figure, Romulus was not necessarily.

An example of the negative reception of Roman legend can be the attitude of some Ethols to Romulus and the Romans. During the Roman period of expansion, they believed that the Romans were not descendants of the Trojans, but descended from commoners, brother murderers, and female kidnappers. In the context of propaganda, the reference to Troy and Aeneas had a greater chance of success than to Romulus. The importance of this propaganda aspect can be illustrated by the situation in 263 BCE; it was then that the Sicilian city of Segesta took the side of Rome against Carthage during the First Punic War. According to the Romans, this alliance was the result of the common Trojan genesis of Rome and Segesta, in the vicinity of which Aeneas himself had to establish the temple of Aphrodite. The Romans were to refer to their Trojan origin also in the later stages of the conquests. Summarizing the issue of Aeneas and Romulus, it can be stated that the foundations of the myths about the origins of Rome began to form in the period preceding the conquests, while during their duration they were significantly deepened and permanently inscribed in the propaganda and ideological program of expansion.

In the near future, in the period before the Second Punic War, the image of the Roman religion took on a much more gloomy form, as human sacrifice began. The first historically certified case of human sacrifice occurred in 228 BCE. This event took place during a serious threat to Rome from the Insubres and other Celtic tribes. In Rome, panic broke out in connection with the approach of the Celtic tribes to the city. According to Plutarch’s account, the Romans turned to the Sibylline books for oracles. As a result, a couple of Greeks and a couple of Gauls were buried alive. The use of this victim may be controversial not only in terms of brutality but also in its very meaning. As far as it is understandable to sacrifice the Gauls, the current enemies, but for what purpose should this be done to the Greeks? There is a hypothesis that this sacrifice was based on the Etruscan ritual, according to which the enemies from the north, i.e. the Gauls, and from the south, i.e. the Greeks, were sacrificed. This sacrifice was repeated in 216 BCE after losing the battle of Cannae.

The greatest changes in the Roman religion very often took place in the context of great defeats in the military field. The Second Punic War was therefore a period of intense religious activity to appease the gods. In 218 BCE, after the Battle of the Trebia, Hannibal crossed the Po River and entered Italy. According to Livy, various types of prodigia (fortune-telling) were observed in and around Rome at the same time. After this event, a series of atoning ceremonies and sacrifices were ordered in Rome. The more and more used atoning rite, supplicatio, deserves special attention. This ritual was ordered by the senate. Men, women and children went to all the temples in a great procession to pray to the gods.

There is no doubt that such great events as the First and Second Punic Wars greatly influenced the image of Roman religion. The enormous emotions accompanying these events, such as the fear of the city’s destruction, or the great joy after the final victory with Hannibal, must have influenced the imaginations of the inhabitants of the Eternal City. This, in turn, manifested itself in the nature of Roman rituals, often very brutal.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Jaczynowska M., Religie Świata Rzymskiego, Warszawa 1987
  • Beard M., Religie Rzymu, Oświęcim 2017

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