Did the Romans Believe Their Myths?

The Moon-goddess Selene accompanied by the Dioscuri.
Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

The Romans crossed the Greek gods and goddesses with their own pantheon. They absorbed the local gods and goddesses when they incorporated foreign peoples into their empire and related the indigenous gods to pre-existing Roman deities. How could they possibly believe in such a confusing welter?

Many have written about this, some saying that to ask such questions results in anachronism. Even the questions may be the fault of Judaeo-Christian prejudices.

Charles King has a different way of looking at the data. He puts the Roman beliefs into categories that seem to explain how it would be possible for the Romans to believe their myths.

Should we apply the term "belief" to the Roman attitudes or is that too Christian or anachronistic a term, as some have argued? Belief as part of a religious doctrine may be Judaeo-Christian, but belief is part of life, so Charles King argues that belief is a perfectly appropriate term to apply to Roman as well as Christian religion. Furthermore, the assumption that what applies to Christianity doesn't apply to earlier religions puts Christianity in an unwarranted, favored position.

King provides a working definition of the term belief as "a conviction that an individual (or group of individuals) holds independently of the need for empirical support." This definition can also be applied to beliefs in aspects of life unrelated to religion -- like the weather.

Even using a religious connotation, though, Romans would not have prayed to the gods had they lacked belief that the gods could help them. So, that's the simple answer to the question "did the Romans believe their myths," but there's more.

Polythetic Beliefs

No, that's not a typo. Romans believed in gods and believed that the gods responded to prayer and offerings.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which also focus on prayer and ascribe the ability to help individuals to the deity, also have something the Romans didn't: a set of dogmas and an orthodoxy, with pressure to conform to the orthodoxy or face ostracism. King, taking terms from set theory, describes this as a monothetic structure, like {the set of red objects} or {those who believe Jesus is the Son of God}. The Romans didn't have a monothetic structure. They didn't systematize their beliefs and there was no credo. Roman beliefs were polythetic: overlapping, and contradictory.

Example

Lares could be thought of as

  1. the children of Lara, a nymph, or
  2. manifestations of deified Romans, or
  3. the Roman equivalent of the Greek Dioscuri.

Engaging in worship of the lares didn't require a particular set of beliefs. King notes, however, that although there could be myriad beliefs about myriad gods, some beliefs were more popular than others. These might change over the years. Also, as will be mentioned below, just because a particular set of beliefs wasn't required doesn't mean the form of worship was free-form.

Polymorphous

Roman gods were also polymorphous, possessing multiple forms, personae, attributes, or aspects.

A virgin in one aspect could be a mother in another. Artemis can help in childbirth, the hunt, or be associated with the moon. This provided a large number of choices for people seeking divine help through prayer. In addition, apparent contradictions between two sets of beliefs could be explained in terms of multiple aspects of the same or different gods.

"Any deity could potentially be a manifestation of a number of other deities, though different Romans would not necessarily agree about which deities were aspects of one another."

King argues that "polymorphism served as a safety valve to defuse religious tensions...." Everyone could be right because what one thought of a god might be a different aspect of what someone else thought.

Orthopraxy

While the Judaeo-Christian tradition tends towards orthodoxy, Roman religion tended towards orthopraxy, where correct ritual was stressed, rather than correct belief.

Orthopraxy united communities in ritual performed by priests on their behalf. It was assumed the rituals were correctly performed when everything went well for the community.

Pietas

Another important aspect of Roman religion and Roman life was the reciprocal obligation of pietas. Pietas isn't so much obedience as

  • fulfilling obligations
  • in a reciprocal relationship
  • over time.

Violating pietas could incur the wrath of the gods. It was essential for the survival of the community. Lack of pietas could cause defeat, crop failure, or plague. Romans did not neglect their gods, but duly conducted the rituals. Since there were so many gods, no one could worship them all; neglecting worship of one in order to worship another was not a sign of disloyalty, as long as someone in the community worshiped the other.

From - The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs, by Charles King; Classical Antiquity, (Oct. 2003), pp. 275-312.

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Gill, N.S. "Did the Romans Believe Their Myths?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2018, thoughtco.com/did-the-romans-believe-their-myths-121031. Gill, N.S. (2018, February 27). Did the Romans Believe Their Myths? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/did-the-romans-believe-their-myths-121031 Gill, N.S. "Did the Romans Believe Their Myths?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/did-the-romans-believe-their-myths-121031 (accessed May 28, 2018).