Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Household altar in Herculaneum, Italy. Click for attribution and to enlarge

“Everything is Full of Gods”

Sledpress has mentioned Greek Heraclitus who stated that “everything is full of gods.”

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Pandemonism (or animism, see below), common to both Indo-Europeans and non Indo-Europeans, was fundamental also in the original Roman religion.

We have seen in our last writing how the Romans invoked the goddess of Fever, Febris, in order to be saved from malaria. They believed that fever itself (febris in Latin) was (or housed) a power that could therefore be invoked in order to escape death.

Deeply en-rooted in the rural areas such animistic polytheism never faded when the Romans met other folks and cultures and their religion became more complex. It was spread to the lands controlled by Rome (mixing with other forms of animism / polytheism) and it survived both the end of the Empire and the advent of Christianity – in the case of Febris we have seen how the goddess almost seamlessly became Our Lady of the Fever.

Such religious attitude went all throughout the Middle Ages thanks to the cult of saints, relics and miracles, and only from the Renaissance onwards some Christians abandoned it  – Calvinists and the Reformed churches especially, while Lutherans and Anglicans were possibly a bit more tolerant about it as far as I know.

Many Protestants engaged in a ‘war against the idols’ seeing the saints (with some right) as successors of the pagan gods.

The foot reliquary of St James, Namur, Belgium. The spirits of the saints were said to actually remain in the bodily remains.

Roman Pandemonism. A closer Look

Pandemonism – from Greek pan (πάν, all) + demon (δαίμων, spirit) – implies that there is a power or will in any object, action, idea or emotion. By worshipping such power (called numen by the Romans) man strove to bend nature to his purposes.

The religious practices regarding Roman numina were extremely complicated (and in case of an error in the ritual the ceremony had to be restarted,) the exact rites and words were known only to the pater familias, the priest of the family, a sacred entity, and handed down from father to son.

Outside the family – the state, another sacred entity – the rites and the words (regarding public, non domestic numina this time) were known originally to the kings and their priests only and later to the pontifices and other colleges of priests. They also were passed on from generation to generation and became immutable.

Speaking generally of the Roman numina R. H. Barrow [The Romans, Penguin 1949; the preceding paragraph owes something to him] observes that many household gods “have passed into the languages of Europe: Vesta, the spirit of the hearth-fire; the Penates, the preservers of the store-cupboard; the Lares, the guardians of the house. But there were many others.”

‘Many others’ is a bit of an understatement. They were in the hundreds and concerned every aspect of human life: household (there including every part of the house – door, hinges, threshold etc. – with its specific guardian god,) conception, pregnancy, love relationships (very rich this Wikipedia article on Roman birth and childhood deities), all phases of a person’s life; not to mention, on a more public sphere, agriculture (the priest of Ceres for example evoked twelve spirits at the start of the sowing season,) State (with public gods more or less corresponding to domestic gods,) commerce, war and so forth.

Tutelary Spirits of Child’s Development

As for child’s developement (Gordon J. Laing), without appropriate rites to Lucina, there was no good birth. No rites to Vagitanus? No first cry of the baby. Were Cunina or Rumina neglected? No security in the cradle or no breastfeeding respectively. No rites to Cuba? No sleep for the child in bed. Or, was Fabulinus disregarded? The child didn’t talk. And, if Statanus wasn’t correctly propitiated the child didn’t stand.

Moreover:

Abeona and Adeona attended him in his first ventures from the house; as he grew to maturity Catius sharpened his wits, Sentia deepened his feeling, while Volumna stiffened his will. And so he was passed from god to god and the long line of divine relays only ended when Viduus [at the end of his life, MoR] parted body and soul.”

[Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, Longmans, Green and Co., New York 1931, where I took the list of the above tutelary spirits and other information]

Roman Fortuna holding in her arms Plutus, god of wealth. Istanbul

Also Bigger Gods were Specialized

Not only such small deities were part of the Roman pandemonism but the Pantheon of medium and bigger gods as well, such as Fortuna, Diana, Juno and the like, whose cult titles and epithets are evidence of a high level of specialization.

Fortuna for example – see a Roman statue above -, a medium goddess not as big as Juno but considered very powerful by the Romans, ramified into Fortuna Virginalis (fortune of the virgins), Fortuna Privata (fortune of the private individual), Fortuna Publica (fortune of the people), Fortuna Huiusce Diei (fortune of the present day or luck right now), Fortuna Primigenia (fortune of the first-born: a huge temple in Praeneste, today’s Palestrina, still surviving – just a few km from Rome – saw parents in the thousands bringing their first-borns to Fortuna Primigenia), Fortuna Bona (or good fortune), Fortuna Mala (bad luck), Fortuna Belli (fortune in war), Fortuna Muliebris (fortune of the married women), Fortuna Virilis (luck of women with men) etc.

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Next time we will try to better understand how this “departmental idea of divinity” (to quote Gordon J. Laing) survived in the veneration of saints.

Italian translation

Related posts:

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna
Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

The Roman Jews (2). ‘Segregated In The Ghetto Because Of Their Own Guilt’

[see The Roman Jews (1)]

A millenary presence

There’s evidence of the millenary presence of the Jews in the city. Of the over 40 imperial Rome catacombs unveiled 6 are Jewish. At the end of the catacomb period a Jewish cemetery rose around Porta Portese. We also know of at least one synagogue in Ostia antica and of several in Trastevere.

The arch of Titus is also an indirect sign of presence. The Roman generals in triumph were usually followed by the captives in fetters, although on one arch panel we see only the head of the procession – but someone says it shows also prisoners – with the riches looted in Jerusalem, among which the seven-branched menorah.

The Menorah carved on the Arch of Titus. Detail from a copy of the original arch panel. Click for larger picture and credits

By the way, where is the splendid gold menorah gone? Oh so many speculations and legends flourished! [see Lanciani at the foot of the page]

From both Josephus and the panel we guess it was brought to Rome, then possibly kept in the Temple of Peace until the Vandals stole it in 455 AD.

One legend is told by Giggi Zanazzo (1860 -1911), our source on Roman culture written in the Roman dialect (full text):

“The candelabrum we see carved under the arch of Titus was all in gold and was brought by the ancient Romans to Rome from Jerusalem, when this city was sacked and burned by them. It is said some turmoil occurred and they came to blows when someone tried to steal it. Since they happened to pass over the Quattro Capi bridge [pons Fabricius – see below – the most ancient bridge surviving, built in 62 BC] it was thrown into the river so nobody had it and the water now is enjoying it.”

Pons Fabricius, also called Quattro Capi, is the most ancient bridge in Rome (62 BC.) It connects the Tiber Island with the Jewish ghetto. Click for credits

It was said that under Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) the Jews asked permission to drain the river at their own expense, but the Pope refused fearing that stirring up the mud would generate the plague [Lanciani.]

Did the Jews live so long with the Romans that some paganism brushed on them? Zanazzo writes that the Holy Mary was evoked in ways that remind me of Juno Lucina, the Roman goddess of childbirth:

“When the Jewish women are about to give birth, during the hardest labour pains, in order for their childbirth to be successful, they ask our Madonna for help. When all is finished quickly and well they get a broom and sweep the floor saying: “Fora, Maria de li Cristiani (out, Mary of the Christians).”

4th century AD. The Tiber Island with pons Fabricius leading to the left bank and the D-shaped theatre of Marcellus. Behind, Porticus Octaviae big rectangle

From the right to the left bank

Since they had arrived to Rome the Jews had mainly lived on the right bank of the Tiber, in the Transtiberine district, where the harbour was.

After Christianity split into Protestants and Catholics (from the 16th century on) and an epoch of religious fanaticism began, the Jews were forced to settle down on the left river side, in a district called rione S. Angelo [see above the area at the times of emperor Constantine; see below as it is today.]

On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV issued a Bull that cancelled all the rights of the Jews and segregated them in a walled area, il Serraglio delli Hebrei, as it was called (i.e. the ghetto,) an unhealthy place subject to floods and too small for its inhabitants.

The Fabricius bridge leading from the Tiber island to left bank and the ghetto (rione S. Angelo) with its synagogue. Click for credits and larger pict

The ghetto: ‘Condemned for their fault’

Heavy gates were kept open only from sunrise till sunset.

The Bull Cum nimis absurdum took its name from its first words. It decreed that the Jews had to be separated from the rest ‘through their own fault’ [Latin, propria culpa]:

“Since it is absurd and utterly inconvenient that the Jews, who through their own fault [e.g. having caused the death of Christ] were condemned by God to eternal slavery, have access to our society and even may live among us […] we ordain that for the rest of time […] all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

The Bull encouraged the creation of walled ghettos in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.

More than 3 centuries later part of the Roman ghetto was demolished after Italy’s unity in 1870. Among the disappeared places was via Rua, where the most prominent Jewish families lived.

Well, if this was a sort of main street, one has an idea of the poverty of the entire place! Look at this watercolour by Ettore Roesler Franz (ca 1880 .)

Tormented cohabitation

The Jewish obstinacy in keeping their own traditions increased the mistrust of the Christians. Constrained since centuries to be second rate traders, they were additionally impoverished by segregation, which added to the idea that God had punished them. All this favoured humiliation and violence.

“The men had to wear a yellow cloth (the “sciamanno”)- we read in the Wiki – and the women a yellow veil (the same colour worn by prostitutes). During the feasts they had to amuse the Christians, competing in humiliating games. They had to run naked, with a rope around the neck, or with their legs closed into sacks. […] Every Saturday, the Jewish community was forced to hear compulsory sermons in front of the small church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi, just outside the wall.”

We have to say that strictness in Rome was always tempered by the laxity and good-nature of its inhabitants. The yellow colour often became indistinguishable, some covert movements were possible, hate or mistrust were not seldom replaced by warm solidarity. Moreover the Roman people, popes included, needed the arts of the Jews – the astrology & medicine they had learned from the Arabs, and their trade skills.

There were never pogroms in the city, like elsewhere in Europe. And never the Jews from here were tempted by another diaspora.

In short, they were tolerated. So they remained in Rome.

The Roman Jewish ghetto in October 2004. Click to enlarge and for credits

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Note. For an in-depth analysis of the Jews’ presence in ancient Rome see the 6th chapter from the splendid Rodolfo Lanciani’s New Tales Of Old Rome (1901) [full text].

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See the previous installment:

The Roman Jews (1). Are They the Most Ancient Romans Surviving?

See also:

A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (1) The Roman Jews
A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?