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of the Orient with which they had come in contact, notably those of Mithras of Persia and the goddess Komana of Pontus, originally Mâ of Cappadocia, who was equated with Atargatis and Kybele, and who was assimilated to the ancient war-deity, Bellona, whom she supplanted and whose name she assumed, though distinguished as MâBellona.1 About the same time, the partially Hellenized Egyptian divinities, Isis and Serapis, came from Southern Italy. These Eastern religions had encouraged a taste for the sensational, and the people came to care more for Bellona and Isis than for all the gods of Numa." The devotees of the various Oriental cults were inclined to give expression to their exuberant enthusiasm for these emotional religions; but as they became aggressive and gave offense, sharp measures were taken to suppress them. The altars of Isis were repeatedly destroyed by orders of the Senate and as often restored by the zeal of her followers, until finally the Triumviri adopted a pliant attitude.20 The doctrines brought in by these cults were strange to the Occident and made a strong appeal to the imagination, especially those of the Asianic cults. Underlying the orgiastic features, emphasized by fanatical followers, was a serious content that appealed to the conscience, gratified the cravings of the heart, and possessed an irresistible personal charm for those who penetrated their mysteries."1
Further decline of the Roman religion.
The emotional attractions and demoralizing influences of these Oriental religions, as well as the scepticism of Greek philosophies, had weakened the State religion,
18 Carter, op. cit., pp. 137 ff.
21 Cumont, op. cit., pp. 28, 30.
subjected as it was to politics and debauched conditions, and hastened its decline as an effective agency of government.22 The people had grown indifferent toward it, and those who had supervision over it were themselves doubters, fast losing faith in its efficacy. The priesthoods, no longer avenues of advancement, fell into partial, and some into complete, neglect. The administration of the temples had grown lax; the priests shirked their duties; and many flaminia became vacant and were not refilled. Sacrilege and thefts of statues and other sacred objects occurred; many temples were neglected and in ruins; the cults losing their vitality, failed to uphold their obligations to State and people. Without standards for uprightness and incentives for accord, came a general lowering of personal morality. Corruption was cultivated as a science, wickedness in high places was unashamed, and a strong proletariat was drifting into turbulence.23
Although scepticism was rife among the educated and influential classes of Roman citizens, the various peoples of the city, gathered at their several altars, worshipped their own gods in their own fashion, or as it has been expressed by a Christian controversialist (Minucius, Octavius, vi, 1): "Other cities worshipped their own gods, but the Romans worshipped everybody's."" Gibbon states, 25 in a well-known passage, that
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the
22 Carter, op. cit., pp. 124 ff.
23 Fowler, in ERE x, 838-839; also Carter, The Religious Life of Ancient Rome, pp. 53-56.
24 Moore, The History of Religions, p. 576.
25 The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, i, 30-32; cf. Toutain, Les Cultes paiëns dans l'empire romain, i, 232.
philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. Thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. . . . The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their local and respective influence; nor could the Roman who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements, were the same throughout the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and allegory.. Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves, that under various names, and with various ceremonies, they adored the same deities. The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost regular form, to the polytheism of the ancient world.
The reforms in religion and politics which were urgently demanded (Horace, Oda, iii, 6; Epodæ, xvi), were planned by Iulius Cæsar, but the task of guiding the disordered State fell upon Augustus. He at once endeavored to reestablish the authority of the State religion; he solicited and received the aid of historians and poets (Horace, Odæ, iii, 6); he drew the attention of the people to their old familiar deities and sought to restore their sense of religio and pietas," to renew the appreciation of
26 Wissowa, op. cit., p. 235; Fowler, Religious Experience, pp. 8-9,
their duty of service to the gods and their obligations of loyalty to their ancestors and the State. It was too late to bring back the simplicity and content of the old faith, but he effected, so far as possible, the appearance of a return to the religion of the forefathers. He rebuilt the temples (Ovid, Fasti, ii, 59) and revived the ancient cults and forms of worship, as well as the venerable sacrificial priesthoods and sodalities, all under the direction of the recognized authority of the colleges of Pontifices, Augures, and Quindecemviri. Apollo had become the official god of prophecy, and Augustus had adopted him as his personal and family deity. He erected a temple to him on the Palatine and, exercising his prerogative as Pontifex Maximus, he directed the Sibylline books to be copied and the originals (the books as rewritten after the fire of 81 B.C.) to be removed from the custody of the temple of Iupiter to that of Apollo on the Palatine, thus making this shrine the headquarters of the new GræcoRoman religion. Heretofore the Greek divinities had been subordinated to the Roman deities, but now Apollo was brought into direct rivalry with, and made equal, if not superior, to Iupiter Optimus Maximus," who, though the great national deity, had always been more of a political than a religious god. Augustus depended on religio, 'that which binds,' to revive the waning sense of morality and public duty, and to secure tranquillity and stability to the State. The old Roman religion had been rehabilitated in large measure; and after his death, his successors on the throne conscientiously endeavored to continue his policies and make them effective.
Growth of Oriental influences.
Rome was drifting under the influence of doubt and of the philosophic platitudes of Neo-Platonism, then current 27 Carter, Numa, pp. 164-169.
among her citizens high in authority; while the middle and lower classes, wearied and careless of the cold, prosaic, and impersonal faith, were feeling the strong attractions of the sensational Oriental cults. Roman religion was beset by enemies; and the spirit of a new era, now under the nominal direction of imperialism, was evolving momentous religious activities that were beginning to excite the passions of the Occident and were destined to submerge the old order that Greece and Rome had zealously built up. The conservative Romans, little concerned by this undercurrent, remained officially faithful to their ancient gods. The temples were kept in repair, and the flamines continued to observe the old forms of worship in all their minutiæ for upwards of two centuries before they yielded to the subtile influence of the Orient. Antoninus Pius was honored for his care of the antique rites, but even then the vital spirit of Roman religion was gone.
During this imperial period, the Oriental faiths and customs (the ritus peregrini), were steadily making headway in Rome and the Latin provinces." These religions were first confined to the foreign minority, principally slaves and freedmen; but by degrees converts were attracted from the better classes, beginning with soldiers and sailors, their officers, and minor government officials. The worship was individual, and the ceremonies were attended, usually in secret, by small but enthusiastic groups at private altars in cellars or small underground chapels (spelæa). They gave little outward evidence of activity; but as they grew stronger, some cults (notably
28 Toutain, op. cit., vol. ii; also Frazer, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, i, 298312; A. C. Pearson, "Mother of the Gods (Greek and Roman)," in ERE viii, 850-851; Cumont, op. cit., pp. 22 ff.