The Church Lives Within the State
European history’s relationship to religion has been . . . fraught at best. Papacies, religious communes, theocracies, crusades, inquisitions, etc. set state sovereignty against the spiritual. Religious relationships in Europe have been hierarchical. Political bodies exist separate from the church or below the church — for example, Christendom’s fealty to the pope and the Holy See transcended nationality. The Church placed itself above earthly affairs and would hand its dictates down to governments.
Later on, this “two worlds” idea gives rise to our present separation between church and state. In the words of Jesus himself, the modern world “[Gives] to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Roman law and practice was not strictly hierarchical in that way; religion was a function of the state. Indeed, senators, consuls, and other officials would simultaneously perform priestly rites and offices would confer religious duties.
Painter: Louis de Silvestre, 1757 Photographer: akg images, Gemäldegalerie
Consider the position of consul, the highest political position during the Roman Republic. Two reigned at any one time and they were elected annually. The most famous consulships (or infamous, depending on your opinion) belonged to Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Among their sizable commander-in-chief roles and legal powers, consuls made sacrifices before battles, dedicated temples, and performed the sacred task of marking the age of the Republic.
That last practice is especially peculiar. According to the historian Livy, consuls would fasten nails to the walls of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (a title for an aspect of the god which translates to “Greatest, Most High Jupiter”) to represent the passage of years since the Republic’s founding. This was dedicated to Minerva, goddess of numbers (among other things).
There is perhaps no better example of the synthesis between Rome and its religions than the doors of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings. The set of double doors to that god’s temple represented Rome’s status abroad: open, Rome was at war; closed, it was at peace. A holy icon represented the spirit of the state.
It’s also the best example of Rome’s relationship with the rest of the world. The doors of Janus were only closed twice over the course of a thousand years.
Credit: Rabax63 via Wikipedia Commons
Students and popular culture often mischaracterize the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons, giving the impression that their gods and goddesses are somehow identical, that Zeus and Jupiter are essentially the same god with different names. In truth, this is the result of something called syncretism.
Rome assimilated regions like the British Isles into its empire, and it assimilated belief systems as well. Some of the reasons behind these assimilations could be personal, as in the case of Cybele and women’s increasing infertility, or an instrument of dominance. The blending of Roman and Greek pantheons is an example of the latter.
These data show a major difference between Rome’s treatment of religion and our own. The spiritual did not live apart from daily life and surfaced in surprising ways.