Roman polytheism was the religion of the Etruscans, Romans, and most of their subjects.
The Romans originally followed a rural animistic tradition, in which many spirits were each responsible for specific, limited aspects of the cosmos and human activities, such as ploughing.
The early Romans referred to these as numina. Another aspect of this animistic belief was ancestor, or genius, worship, with each family honoring their own dead by their own rites.
Rome had a strong belief in gods.
When they took over Greece, they inherited the Greek gods but fused them with their Roman counterparts.
Based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology, Roman religion came to encompass and absorb hundreds of other religions, developing a rich and complex mythology.
In addition, an Imperial cult supplemented the pantheon with Julius Caesar and some of the emperors.
Eventually, Christianity came to replace the older pantheon as the state religion of Rome, and the original Roman religion faded, though many aspects of its hierarchy remain ingrained in Christian ritual and in Western traditions.
Religion during the Roman Republic:
During the Roman Republic, there was a strict system of priestly offices under the governance of the College of Pontiffs, with at its head the Pontifex maximus, which was the most important office. Flamens took care of the cults of various gods, while augurs were trusted with taking the auspices. The rex sacrorum, or "king of sacred things" took on the religious responsibilities of the deposed kings. As contact with the Greeks increased, the influence of Greek religion was increasingly felt. The old Roman gods became associated and sometimes syncretized with Greek gods. Therefore the supreme sky-god Jupiter was perceived as being the same deity as Zeus. Mars was associated with Ares, Venus with Aphrodite, and the sea-god Neptune with Poseidon. Mercury, god of merchants and circulation, became associated with the Greek Hermes. Vesta, goddess of the hearth whose fire in her temple was not permitted to go out, was identified with Hestia. However, Jupiter had a distinctive Italic flavour that Zeus did not and Juno retained as much of her Etruscan forebear as she borrowed from the Greek Hera. Some gods were adopted from Greek religion. The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities to Roman Gods, and the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance and political influence remained. Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to centre on the imperial house, and several emperors were deified after their deaths.
Changes under the Roman Empire:
Under the Empire, religion in Rome evolved in many ways. Numerous foreign Religeon grew popular, such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis and the Persian Mithras. The importance of the imperial Religeon grew steadily, reaching its peak during the Crisis of the Third Century. Also, Christianity began to spread in the Empire, gaining momentum in the second century. Despite persecutions, it steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I. All cults except Christianity were prohibited in 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I. However, even in the fourth and fifth century Roman paganism kept its vitality. Temples were still frequently visited, ancient beliefs and practices continued.
Imperial Religeon (Ancient Rome):
The divinity of the emperor and the Religeon surrounding him were a very important part of religion in the Roman Empire. In an effort to enhance political loyalty among the populace, they called subjects to participate in the Religeon and revere the emperors as gods. The emperors Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus were deified, and after the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, few emperors failed to receive this distinction. The Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to center on the imperial house. Especially in the eastern half of the empire imperial Religeon grew very popular, and the cult complex became one of the focal points of life in the Roman cities. As such it was one of the major agents of romanization. The central elements of the Religeon complex were next to a temple; a theatre or amphitheatre for gladiator displays and other games and a public bath complex. Sometimes the imperial Religeon was added to the Religeon of an existing temple or celebrated in a special hall in the bath complex. Evidence for the importance of the imperial Religeon include the "Achievements of the Divine Augustus" (Res Gestae Divi Augusti), written upon two large bronze pillars once located in Rome, Roman coins where the Emperor is portrayed with a halo or nimbus, and temple inscriptions such as "Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea..." (Roman Temple Inscription in Myra, Lycia).
Absorption of foreign Religeon:
As the Roman Empire expanded, and included people from a variety of cultures, more and more gods were incorporated into the Roman religion. The legions brought home Religeon originating from Egypt, Britain, Iberia, Germany, India and Persia. The Religeon of Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus were particularly important. Some of those were initiatory religions of intense personal significance, similar to Christianity in those respects.
Spread of Christianity:
Christian missionaries traveled across the empire, steadily converts and establishing Christian communities. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 64, Emperor Nero (56-68) accused the Christians as convenient scapegoats who were later persecuted and martyred. From that point on, Roman official policy towards Christianity tended towards persecution. The Roman authorities suspected Christians of disloyalty to the Emperor and of committing various crimes against humanity and nature. Persecution recurred especially at times of civic tensions and reach their worst under Diocletian (284 to 305). Constantine I (324-337) ended the persecutions by establishing religious freedom through the Edict of Milan in 313. He later convened the historic First Council of Nicaea in 325, a year after ending the civil war of 324 and emerging as the victor in the war of succession. This First Council of Nicaea was formed to oppose Arius who had challenged the deity of Jesus Christ. The result was the branding of Arianism as a heresy. Catholic Christianity, as opposed to other religious groups, became the official state religion of the Roman empire on February 27, 380 through an edict issued by Emperor Theodosius I in Thessalonica and published in Constantinople. All cults, save Christianity, were prohibited in 391 by another edict of Theodosius I. Destruction of temples began immediately. When the Western Roman Empire ended with the abdication of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476, Christianity survived it, with the Bishop of Rome as the dominant religious figure.
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Decline of Graeco-Roman polytheism:
When Constantine became the sole Roman Emperor in 324, Christianity became the leading religion of the empire. After the death of Constantine in 337, two of his sons, Constantius II and Constans took over the leadership of the empire. Constans, ruler of the western provinces, was, like his father, a Christian. In 341, he decreed that all pre-Christian Graeco Roman worship and sacrifice should cease; warning those who still persisted in practicing ancient Graeco-Roman polytheism with the threat of the death penalty. Lay Christians took advantage of new anti-Graeco-Roman polytheism laws by destroying and plundering the temples. Temples that survived were converted into Christian churches: the Pantheon is the most notable example, having once been a temple to all the gods and later becoming a church in honor of all the saints. Many of the buildings in the Roman Forum were similarly converted, preserving the structures if not their original intent. Later on, the emperor Julian the Apostate attempted to reverse the process of Christianization and bring back the native forms of polytheism, but his death in Persia caused the empire to once again fall under the power of Christian control, this time permanently.
The distinctions among philosophy, religion, cult and superstition that would be made by an educated Roman of the 1st century BC can be read in Lucretius, a philosopher following Epicurus. Most educated Romans were Stoic in the outlook on life. The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities of Greek gods to Roman ones, and perhaps even more, the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance remained. Nevertheless, the positions of pontifex maximus and augur remained coveted political posts. Julius Caesar used his election to the position of pontifex maximus to influence the membership of the priestly groups.
Before the rise of Christianity in most Religeon orthopraxy (doing the right things), was more important than orthodoxy (believing the right things). This is the case in Roman religion too. Daily life was impregnated with religious practice.:
The Roman religious calendar reflected Rome's hospitality to the cults and deities of conquered territories. Roman religious festivals known from ancient times were few in number. Some of the oldest, however, survived to the very end of the pagan empire, preserving the memory of the fertility and propitiatory rites of a primitive agricultural people. New festivals were introduced, however, to mark the naturalization of new gods. So many festivals were adopted eventually that the work days on the calendar were outnumbered. Among the more important of the Roman religious festivals were the Saturnalia, the Lupercalia, the Equiria, and the Secular games. Under the empire, the Saturnalia were celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to December 23, during the period in which the winter solstice occurred. All business was suspended, slaves were given temporary freedom, gifts were exchanged, and merriment prevailed. The Lupercalia was an ancient festival originally honoring Lupercus, a pastoral god of the Italians. The festival was celebrated on February 15 at the cave of the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, were supposed to have been nursed by a wolf. Among the Roman legends connected with them is that of Faustulus, a shepherd who was supposed to have discovered the twins in the wolf's den and to have taken them to his home, in which they were brought up by his wife, Acca Larentia. The Equiria, a festival in honor of Mars, was celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. Horse races in the Campus Martius notably marked the celebration. The Secular games, which included both athletic spectacles and sacrifices, were held at irregular intervals, traditionally once only in about every century, to mark the beginning of a new saeculum, or "era". They were supposed to be held when the last person who had witnessed the previous Secular games died, marking the beginning of a new era. The tradition, often neglected, was revived as a spectacle by Augustus and honoured by the poet Horace with a series of odes.
The imperial cult in ancient Rome was the worship of the Roman Emperor as a god. This practice became a very prominent element of religion in the Roman Empire during the Principate. The cult soon spread over the whole extent of the Empire. It was only abandoned in the Dominate, after the emperor Constantine I started supporting Christianity.
From Julius Caesar to Hadrian:
Julius Cæsar allowed a statue of himself with the inscription, Deo Invicto (Latin "to the unconquered god") in 44 BC. In the same year, Cæsar declared himself dictator for life. Julius Cæsar's nephew and adopted son, Augustus Cæsar caused a temple to be built in Rome to Divus Julius, the "divine", or "deified" Julius. As the (adopted) son of the deified Julius, Augustus was already titled divi filius - son of a god. Between 29 and 19 BC Virgil, befriended to Augustus, wrote the Aeneid.
In other words: through the poetry of his friend, as through other channels, Augustus sanctions the cult of his adopted father - and so also prepares his own. Note that in these 1st century BC mythological developments, that tied the gens Julia to Iulus, Julius Caesar was portrayed as descending from several gods, amongst which were Venus and Jupiter. Tacitus describes (Ann. IV, 37-38 and 55-56) that Augustus and Tiberius had each allowed a single temple to be erected in their honor during their respective lifetimes: such a temple would, however, not only contain a statue of the ruling emperor, that could be venerated in a god-like fashion, but the temples were also dedicated to the Roman people (the "City of Rome" in Augustus' case; the "senate" in Tiberius' case). Both temples were situated in the Asian part of the Roman empire: Augustus' temple was situated in Pergamon; Pressed from several sides, Tiberius would not allow any other temple or statue in his honor, than a single one in Asia, following his predecessor's example. Tiberius declared before the senate he'd rather be remembered for his acts than by stone, but consented in 26 that the senate chose Zmyrna out of eleven candidate-cities for erecting "his" temple. The several temples and statues dedicated to Caligula (on his own instigation) were all destroyed immediately after this emperor's death. Claudius appears to have allowed a single temple in his honor, following Augustus' and Tiberius' example again, this time in Britain, after his successful conquest there. Generally Roman emperors avoided claiming the status of a deity in their own lives, even if some critiques insisted they should, and not doing so would be considered a sign of weakness. Other Romans would ridicule the notion that a Roman emperor was to be considered a living god, or would even make fun of the deification of an emperor after his death: Seneca the Younger's only known satirical writing, the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, shows bitter sarcasm regarding Claudius' foreseeable deification, which, according to Tacitus, however was already effectuated at the Emperor's funeral in 54 (Ann. XII, 69). Most often, deceased emperors were the subject of worship during this period at least, the ones who did not become so unpopular with their subjects that the populace considered their assassination a relief. Most emperors benefited from a speedy deification of their predecessor: if that predecessor was a close relative (even if only by adoption), that meant that the new emperor could count on a "near to deified" status of being a divi filius, without needing to be too presumptuous regarding his own godhead status. A famous deathbed remark, allegedly by Vespasian, claims that his last words were puto deus fio "I think I'm turning into a god." For females of the Imperial dynasties, acquiring the title of Augusta, only exceptionally granted, was generally regarded as the essential stepstone to the status of divinity.
Civil religion until abolishment by Constantine:
After Hadrian, the power of the emperors had become so absolute and consolidated that the later emperors could claim divinity during their own lives. To the extent that participation in the imperial Religeon became a loyalty test, the imperial Religeon was a particularly aggressive sort of civil religion. Loyal citizens of the Empire were expected to make a periodic offering of incense to the genius, or tutelary spirit, of the Emperor, and upon doing so they received a certificate that they had in fact demonstrated their loyalty by sacrificing. Christians, of course, refused to worship the Emperor, considering the cult to be idolatry. The sacrifice was used as a law enforcement tool to ferret them out. The imperial Religeon was abandoned when Constantine I - who had adopted the christian religion - became Emperor. From then on high religious claims by Roman and Byzantine emperors, no longer stated in terms of godhead of the Emperors, but in terms of challenging the religious authority of the highest non-secular leaders of the Church, would be indicated as Caesaropapism.
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