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Religion in the Different Phases of Roman History
More than 1500 years had passed after the decline of the Roman Empire. But the whole world is still in awe of what the Romans had done. They changed the course of human history. There are commentators who will undoubtedly point to Rome’s military might in order to explain their success. However, it can be argued that religion played a major role in shaping ancient Rome, Byzantine Empire and the Holy Roman Empire and in the process help transformed their respective political landscape, culture and traditions.
Anthropologists and archaeologists were able to trace Rome’s early development in obscurity (Morris, p. 4). What they lacked in numbers they made up in resourcefulness, tenacity and the willingness to adopt the culture and practices of neighbouring tribes, taking the best that they could find and incorporated it into their belief system.
Even their early religious system was not complicated. According to noted historians religion played an important part in ancient Rome (McKay et al., p.133). Nevertheless, the simplicity of their religious belief system made the early Romans practical in all their dealings whether in politics or in warfare.
In a particular commentary one can read the following: “The gods of the Romans were not loving and personal … they were stern, powerful, and aloof” and “The Romans honoured the cults of their gods, hoping for divine favour” (McKay et al., p.133). In these two statements alone one can easily surmise the kind of impact religion had had on ancient Rome.
It can be argued that the early Romans feared and honoured the gods for the simple reason that they wanted to receive favour and nothing more. This view was strengthened by a commentary made by a famous Roman poet named Ovid who wrote:
Not greedy are the gods who haunt the Styx below.
A roof tile covered with a sacrificial crown,
Scattered kernels, a few grains of salt,
Bread dipped in wine, and loose violets –
These are enough (McKay et al., p.14).
It can be said that their religious views made ancient Rome a very practical society. This enabled them to pursue nation building at an accelerated pace and viewed their religion with a utilitarian purpose (Adkins & Adkins, p.274).
Their gods are there to help them secure the needed victory and the necessary resources as well as favourable weather to increase the nation’s strength. The personality of their gods as being stern, aloof, and powerful reflects how Romans see themselves and it gave them the correct platform needed to build an empire.
In addition, the Romans believed that they descended from a war god named Mars (Morris, p.4). The worship of this war god was an important contributor in shaping their identity. This is an added impetus for them to consider themselves as warriors destined for greatness.
It is very clear that ancient Rome is affected by a religious system that influences the behaviour of the people. But more importantly their religion, in conjunction with their myths, played an instrumental role in developing a fierce warrior-culture that empowered a small association of people to build an empire.
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The Byzantine Empire
Christianity was a persecuted sect during the early years of the Empire and Rome was a difficult place for Christians until the 4th Century (Adkins & Adkins, p.276). In the same period, Christianity became the official religion of the empire. Constantine established Constantinople and this new seat of government paved the way for the creation of the Byzantine Empire.
During this period, religion is not a mere after thought to more pressing matters of politics and warfare. In the Byzantine Empire, religion is the foundation of everything that they do. Religious principles, religious doctrines and dogmas guided religious leaders, politicians, and the rest of the people.
In ancient Rome religion served a utilitarian purpose as seen in the following statement, “Official Roman religion was never a matter of belief or ethics but of publicly celebrated rituals linked to the good of the state” (McKay et al., p.170). But the same thing cannot be said in the Byzantine Empire. In the East Roman Empire Christianity is the reason for existence.
Christianity played a central role in policy making and the Emperor of Byzantine acted on the basis of his religion. In fact, the reason why an Eastern Roman Empire was established was a reaction to the way Christianity was practised in Rome. The decision to create a second Rome is the most compelling evidence that in the Byzantine Empire religion comes first.
The most important impact of religion on the Byzantine Empire is the belief that the emperors are Christ’s representative on earth. This is a radical idea as far as Christianity is concerned because spiritual and temporal power rests in one man. This is also a problematic issue when it comes to absolute control and checks and balances.
In the greater scheme of things the question remains, to whom will the emperor answer to? This is of course a non-issue for the most part of ancient history and even mediaeval Europe, but now the emperor does not only have control over land, taxes and armies but now he has even the power over people’s souls. It is a terrifying prospect especially if someone is under the authority of an evil emperor.
The impact of this doctrine was immediately felt in the Byzantine Empire especially for the members of the clergy, the priests, and the bishops who knew what it felt like to be in Rome wherein the Church had a great degree of independence from secular powers. In the Byzantine Empire they knew fully well that the emperor is absolute ruler.
John Chrysostom, a popular figure in Christian history, spoke against the excesses of the empire but his criticisms was not heard and instead he was banished twice (McKay et al., p.201). If this type of treatment was levelled against a man of God, there is no need to imagine what could have been done to those who dared speak against the emperor.
Religion therefore has given the emperor the justification to assume dictatorial powers. It is not what was said in official language but the mere fact that he is a representative of a heavenly being is enough to demonstrate his claim on absolute control over his domain. This is a bad sign for those who have dissenting ideas; however, it was a good set-up in terms of creating an empire that is united under one God and under one emperor. This is perhaps the reason why the Byzantine Empire withstood repeated attacks while Rome fell so easily.
In contrast to ancient Rome, religion’s role in the Byzantine Empire is more pronounced. This is made more evident when one looks at the court of the emperor. An eyewitness will be surprised to find out that the court also looks like a shrine because religious icons are present. It is not hard to imagine that the emperor does not look like Julius Caesar with his battle dress, in Byzantium the emperor’s outward appearance denotes that he is also a representative of the heavenly realms.
Holy Roman Empire
When it comes to the Holy Roman Empire, religion also plays a central role in people’s lives. Religion is also a major influence when it comes to politics. Religion in the Holy Roman Empire was a far contrast to the religion in ancient Rome. Religious beliefs are part of the political and social arena.
Religion becomes the driving force that allows for the establishment of a society that obeys God. Religion is not utilized to appease the anger of the gods. Religion is seen as a way of life. Aside from the fact that religion is the justification to attack and defend the empire, religion is seen as a tool to unite people. In fact, religion is seen as mechanism to rule over a large domain.
In contrast to religion’s role in the Byzantine Empire – wherein the emperor dominates the ecclesiastical and civil realms – the Holy Roman emperor stands in equal footing with the pope. This is of course the source of conflict between the Pope of Rome and the Holy Roman emperor. But as far as Christianity is concerned the issue of checks and balances had been resolved. There are cases wherein the pope led in the creation of strategies and schemes to stymie an emperor and force him to consider his ways.
Religion is the law of the land. The emperor can be seen as an executive officer but the real source of authority comes from religion. This is made clear in the very beginning when an emperor is not recognised as a legitimate ruler without the approval of the pope.
Religion during the time of the Holy Roman Empire is no longer part of the superstitious beliefs and the simple by-product of mythology. In this era, religion is seen not just a mere belief system but a source of authority as well as knowledge on how to govern nations. It is indeed important to see the evolution of religion from the days when it was just affecting the spiritual aspect of the community to the time when it has become the most powerful and significant force in the land.
Religion in the time of Holy Roman Emperors is part of the political and social spheres. There is nothing that is not affected by religion. Religion occupies a central role. Everything finds meaning in the idea that the religion is indeed the reason why everything is in existence and allowed to perpetuate. God is in all things and that it is the duty of the Holy Roman Emperors – to expand the kingdom and domain of God.
The reason for the success of the Roman Empire can be attributed to how religion was viewed and utilised by the people as well as the political leaders. In the early phase, religion was seen as the means to sustain a good life, bountiful harvests and the protection from natural disasters. But when Christianity became the official religion of Rome, religion broke through the line that separates mythology and politics. In the Byzantine Empire religion is the lifeblood of the whole society.
Rules and regulations were derived from religion. Everything existed because of religion and in fact the emperor is believed to have been the representative of Christ on earth. In the time of the Holy Roman Empire, religion was seen as a bridge to connect the glory days of Rome and what has remained in the Holy Roman Empire. Religion gave meaning and colour to everything. If one will take out religion then the empire will collapse because it finds no motivation and no meaning to continue.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Facts on File, 2004.
McKay, John et al. A History of Western Society. 10th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Morris, Ting. Ancient Rome. MN: Smart Apple Media, 2007.