The Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism
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Pages (PDF): 203
Publication Date: 1911
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This is a very detailed review of what is known about the eastern religions which were absorbed into Roman Paganism during the late Republic and Imperial periods. Topics include the cults of the Magna Mater, Cyblele, Isis, Astarte, Mithrism and Zoroastrianism, as well as a study of astrology and how it became part of Roman beliefs. Extensive footnotes.
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WE are fond of regarding ourselves as the heirs of Rome, and we like to think that the Latin genius, after having absorbed the genius of Greece, held an intellectual and moral supremacy in the ancient world similar to the one Europe now maintains, and that the culture of the peoples that lived under the authority of the Cæsars was stamped forever by their strong touch. It is difficult to forget the present entirely and to renounce aristocratic pretensions. We find it hard to believe that the Orient has not always lived, to some extent, in the state of humiliation from which it is now slowly emerging, and we are inclined to ascribe to the ancient inhabitants of Smyrna, Beirut or Alexandria the faults with which the Levantines of to-day are being reproached. The growing influence of the Orientals that accompanied the decline of the empire has frequently been considered a morbid phenomenon and a symptom of the slow decomposition of the ancient world. Even Renan does not seem to have been sufficiently free from an old prejudice when he wrote on this subject: "That the oldest and most worn out civilization should by its corruption subjugate the younger was inevitable."
But if we calmly consider the real facts, avoiding the optical illusion that makes things in our immediate vicinity look larger, we shall form a quite different opinion. It is beyond all dispute that Rome found the point of support of its military power in the Occident. The legions from the Danube and the Rhine were always braver, stronger and better disciplined than those from the Euphrates and the Nile. But it is in the Orient, especially in these countries of "old civilization," that we must look for industry and riches, for technical ability and artistic productions, as well as for intelligence and science, even before Constantine made it the center of political power.
While Greece merely vegetated in a state of poverty, humiliation and exhaustion; while Italy suffered depopulation and became unable to provide for her own support; while the other countries of Europe were hardly out of barbarism; Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria gathered the rich harvests Roman peace made possible. Their industrial centers cultivated and renewed all the traditions that had caused their former celebrity. A more intense intellectual life corresponded with the economic activity of these great manufacturing and exporting countries. They excelled in every profession except that of arms, and even the prejudiced Romans admitted their superiority. The menace of an Oriental empire haunted the imaginations of the first masters of the world. Such an empire seems to have been the main thought of the dictator Cæsar, and the triumvir Antony almost realized it. Even Nero thought of making Alexandria his capital. Although Rome, supported by her army and the right of might, retained the political authority for a long time, she bowed to the fatal moral ascendency of more advanced peoples. Viewed from this standpoint the history of the empire during the first three centuries may be summarized as a "peaceful infiltration" of the Orient into the Occident. This truth has become evident since the various aspects of Roman civilization are being studied in greater detail; and before broaching the special subject of these studies we wish to review a few phases of the slow metamorphosis of which the propagation of the Oriental religions was one phenomenon.
In the first place the imitation of the Orient showed itself plainly in political institutions. To be convinced of this fact it is sufficient to compare the government, of the empire in the time of Augustus with what it had become under Diocletian. At the beginning of the imperial régime Rome ruled the world but did not govern it. She kept the number of her functionaries down to a minimum, her provinces were mere unorganized aggregates of cities where she only exercised police power, protectorates rather than annexed countries. As long as law and order were maintained and her citizens, functionaries and merchants could transact their business, Rome was satisfied. She saved herself the trouble of looking after the public service by leaving broad authority to the cities that had existed before her domination, or had been modeled after her. The taxes were levied by syndicates of bankers and the public lands rented out. Before the reforms instituted by Augustus, even the army was not an organic and permanent force, but consisted theoretically of troops levied before a war and discharged after victory.
Rome's institutions remained those of a city. It was difficult to apply them to the vast territory she attempted to govern with their aid. They were a clumsy apparatus that worked only by sudden starts, a rudimentary system that could not and did not last.
What do we find three centuries later? A strongly centralized state in which an absolute ruler, worshiped like a god and surrounded by a large court, commanded a whole hierarchy of functionaries; cities divested of their local liberties and ruled by an omnipotent bureaucracy, the old capital herself the first to be dispossessed of her autonomy and subjected to prefects. Outside of the cities the monarch, whose private fortune was identical with the state finances, possessed immense domains managed by intendants and supporting a population of serf-colonists. The army was composed largely of foreign mercenaries, professional soldiers whose pay or bounty consisted of lands on which they settled. All these features and many others caused the Roman empire to assume the likeness of ancient Oriental monarchies.
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