Sean Hill Final Take Home Essay: Comparison of Greek and Roman Religion
The societies of Greece and Rome have had an incalculably large affect on modern culture. The signature and perhaps the lifeblood of both of these societies was their emphasis on religion. Comparing Greek and Roman religions, we can see how the two were related and yet each one was unique.
A basic idea behind the nature of Greek and Roman gods was that they permeated everything. In Roman religion, this idea was known as “numina.” The numina were formless, divine manifestations that inhabited all life on earth. The fact that the Romans had a plethora of gods and goddesses can be directly related to this idea of everything being inhabited by numina. This belief should not be confused with anthropomorphism, which is the attribution of human characteristics to a god. Numina were not believed to have human behaviors or personalities. In Greek religion, there was a similar principle. The 12 Olympian gods had connections to every significant area of life in the ancient world. For example, Apollo was the god of the sun and music, Dionysus was the patron of wine, agriculture and theater, and Artemis was the goddess of animals, chastity and childbirth.
Deities played crucial roles in the government and politics of ancient Greece and Rome. Something that was similar in both societies was the concept of appeasing the
gods to bring about peace and prosperity. In ancient Rome this idea was known as the “pax deorum.” If a god or goddess was angry, bad fortune would come upon the people, but if the god or goddess was kept happy, they would have good fortune. There were many methods the Romans used to appease the gods. Animal sacrifice, prayer, daily rituals, and public festivals were some of the main things they did. Romans did all these things in an effort to avoid “ira deorum,” anger of the gods. The Emperor or “Pontifex Maximus” was the head or responsibility for keeping the pax deorum. Examples of this in Greek society would include the father of a household sacrificing to the three household gods, Zeus Ktesios, Zeus Herkeios, and Apollo Agyieus, or the Athenian festival for Poseidon.
Similarities in Christianity’s appeal to the Latin western Roman Empire and the Greek eastern Roman Empire include how it caught on and spread in both places. Christianity promotes charity, has a strong sense of organization within the church, and many people have died as witnesses for it. Strangely, it’s intolerance of other religions attracted pagans in both east and west since there is a sense of security in people who are so confident in what they believe. Because of these reasons, Christianity spread throughout both halves of the empire. Perhaps the major difference in the appeal of Christianity between the east and the west came about when Galerius issued the Edict of Toleration in 311, and Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD. The fact that the threat of persecution had been lifted offered a great change in the way Christianity was viewed. Not only was the threat of persecution gone, but also Christianity became
the official religion of the Western Roman Empire. This ushered in the first era of Caesaropapism, which is the concept of the political leader also being the leader of the Christian church. At the same time, the persecution of Christians throughout the eastern empire before the Edict of Toleration had a much different, but just as strong effect. How appealing a religion is depends greatly on if it is the official religion, or an illegal one. Ironically, Christianity did not spread as furiously when it was the official religion as it did under persecution. An elementary part of Christianity is the principle of sacrifice, selflessness and unity of the church and under persecution, these things became something that every Christian had to exhibit. The fact that many pagans were disturbed by the persecution of Christians was also a difference in how the religion was accepted.
Greeks and Romans were very similar in the way they viewed the nature of the gods and made religion very relevant to their politics and government. The similarities and differences in the way Christianity was accepted in the eastern and western halves of the empire are characterized by the Edict of Toleration and Constantine’s conversion. After many centuries, Greek and Roman religion is still well known and studied today.