The Drought-Driven Battle Of Gods In The Roman Republic

Ancient Rome’s philosophy toward religion often was to accept the gods of foreign cultures and tolerate their worship, at least as long as the practitioners of those religions also accepted the Roman gods and were not subversive to the state. This existence and toleration of various faiths in Rome was shown when devotees of many different religions felt safe enough to hold services and construct shrines during a drought around 428 BCE, hoping that their worship could end the natural disaster that was plaguing the city. Yet, as the drought persisted and crops, cattle, and people continued to wither away, the Roman leaders of that time apparently began to question their reliance on foreign gods for their salvation. If the cults of other cultures could not bring back the rain, Rome needed to find a way to appease the original Capitoline deities of the Roman people. In order to achieve that goal, the Roman government reportedly decided to make the fairly un-Roman move of temporarily banning the worship of all foreign gods in the city.

Livy, a Roman historian who lived from 59 BCE until 17 CE, explained the move from the point of view of the 5th-century Roman leadership. He wrote:

“Men’s minds fell sick as well as their bodies; they became possessed by all sorts of superstitions, mostly of foreign origins, and the sort of people who can turn other men’s superstitious terrors to their own advantage set up as seers and induced strange rites and ceremonies into private houses, until the debased state of the national conscience came to the notice of the leaders of society, who could not but be aware in every street and chapel of the weird and outlandish forms of prayer by which their hag-ridden compatriots sought to appease the wrath of heaven” (Livy, History of Rome, 4.30).

Livy’s imagery of shrines to foreign gods in many houses, and holy-men of foreign faiths setting up booths on every street corner demonstrates how accepting the general masses of Rome could be to outside religions. Yet, during the severe drought of 428 BCE, the Roman senators reportedly decided to severely restrict the amount of foreign religious interaction that could be found in the city. As told by Livy, the concerned Roman government decreed that only the traditional gods of Rome should be worshipped while the drought persisted, and that the religious ceremonies should only be carried out in the traditional way.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Figures worshipping the Magna Mater, by Joseph Heintz the Elder (Swiss, Basel 1564–1609 Prague), [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).

 

Sources:

  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
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