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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Eastern Religions in the Roman World

Roman religion, both by native instinct and deliberate policy, was widely inclusive, comprised of different gods, rituals, liturgies, traditions, and cults. Romans, considered by Cicero as the religiosissima gens (the most religious peoples), not only worshipped their own traditional Latin gods and associated divinities imported from the culturally respectable and authoritative world of their Greek neighbors, but often acknowledged the gods of peoples they otherwise considered to be quite alien (such as, for example, the Semitic Aphrodite of Mount Eryx). They even annexed the gods of despised enemies, such as Carthage’s Tanit-Caelestis, in a process of evocation that assigned foreign gods Latin names. Between the late third century B.C. and the third century A.D., some eastern cults, such as those of Cybele (also known as Magna Mater), Isis, and Mithras, permeated the Roman world. These exotic cults differed from Judaism, another eastern religion, whose rites were “sanctioned by their antiquity” (Tacitus, Histories V.5) and which flourished throughout the Mediterranean world from the time of the Babylonian Captivity through the Roman diaspora and after. The cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras captivated Roman citizens with intriguing rituals and the promise of spiritual renewal in this world and salvation in the next.

Romans were particularly receptive to foreign cults at times of social upheaval, when old beliefs no longer provided answers to new uncertainties and fears. In 204 B.C., during the Second Punic War, the Romans consulted the Sibylline Oracles, which declared that the foreign invader would be driven from Italy only if the Idaean Mother (Cybele) from Anatolia were brought to Rome. The Roman political elite, in a carefully orchestrated effort to unify the citizenry, arranged for Cybele to come inside the pomerium (a religious boundary-wall surrounding a city), built her a temple on the Palatine Hill, and initiated games in honor of the Great Mother, an official political and social recognition that restored the pax deorum.

After Cybele and the foreign ways of her exotic priesthood were introduced to Rome, she became a popular goddess in Roman towns and villages in Italy. But the enthusiasm that accompanied the establishment of her cult was soon followed by suspicion and legal prohibitions. The eunuch priests (galli) that attended Cybele’s cult were confined in the sanctuary; Roman men were forbidden to castrate themselves in imitation of the galli, and only once a year were these eunuchs, dressed in exotic, colorful garb, allowed to dance through the streets of Rome in jubilant celebration (97.22.24). Nevertheless, the popularity of the goddess persisted, especially in the Imperial period, when the ruling family, eager to emphasize its Trojan ancestry, associated itself with and publicly worshipped Cybele, a goddess whose epithet, Mater Idaea, designated her as Trojan and whose cult was deeply connected with Troy and its origins.

Worship of the Egyptian mother goddess Isis was a popular alternative to the cult of Cybele (1991.76). By the middle of the first century A.D., with the political integration of the many lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean, the cult of Isis was transformed from a secret rite popular among the lower classes of Rome but not permitted within the sacred confines of the city, to a highly structured public cult closely associated with the emperors. During the reign of Vespasian, Isis was officially welcomed into the Roman pantheon, and a public temple within the sacred walls of the city was erected for her.

Although the cult of Isis, with its distinctive maternal and female characteristics, principally attracted women, the annual spring and autumn festivals held in her honor drew both sexes, of all classes, people celebrating different occasions and customs—springtime renewal, grief and joy. Plutarch describes the pervasive presence of the goddess and her exotic clothing: “the garments of Isis are dyed in rainbow colors, because her power extends over multiform matter that is subjected to all kinds of vicissitudes” (Isis and Osiris 77).

Unlike the public rituals and processions dedicated to Cybele and Isis in Imperial Rome, the worship of Mithras was secret and mysterious. At the end of the first century A.D., the Iranian god Mithras, creator and protector of animal and plant life, began to appear in Italy, becoming especially popular with Roman legionaries, imperial slaves, and ex-slaves. Not limited to the class of soldiers, however, Mithraists could also be found in the circles of the imperial households. In the absence of Mithraic literature, evidence of the cult, its rituals, and customs comes from archaeological finds and depictions of the god.

The religion of Mithras was practiced in small groups, with ten to twelve participants. Initiates into this secret cult immediately entered a priestly hierarchy, an order of seven grades, each with specific planets, costumes, rituals, and disciplines aimed at self-advancement. Members of the cult met in a mithraeum, an underground vaulted grotto with complex astronomical and planetary symbolism. The small space of the cavern, the cult practices, and the ritual meal were modeled on the original space and deeds of Mithras—the sacrifice of a bull and the eating of its flesh (1997.145.3).

The Roman pantheon presented a wide range of cults and gods with different functions, but foreign cults promised something different, something the traditional Roman cults could not—change, in everyday life and even, at times, in the afterlife. The selectivity and initiatory rituals of these new cults fostered a strong sense of community, focusing on the religious affiliation rather than on the public status or race of an individual within the state. As the Roman author Ovid reported, “who would dare to drive from his doorstep one whose hand shakes the sonorous sistrum [of Isis]… when, before the Mother of the gods, the flute-player sounds his curving horn, who would refuse him alms of a copper coin” (Letters from the Black Sea I:1:37ff.) (45.16.2). By the end of the fourth century A.D., the official cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, emblems of Roman paganism, were either completely suppressed or drastically altered and Christianity (an eastern cult as well, once called a “destructive superstition” by Tacitus) became the dominant religion of the Roman world.