De Natura Peiorum

Christians have historically had one literary disadvantage against Roman Polytheists. To be a Christian — a good one anyway — it has until recently been broadly held that one must believe at least certain parts of Christian mythology to be true. (Not all Christians do or ever have, to be sure.) Greek and Roman polytheists of the 1st centuries BC and AD, though, suffered no such problem, and were free to take their mythologies less seriously and more creatively.

Romans of the late Republic and early Empire had no dearth of myths that they genuinely entertained as true, such as that of Romulus and Remus. It was a deeply superstitious society in many respects. Most believed in the supernatural to one degree or another, and even skeptics like Cicero set great social value on religious observance and ritual.

But many of the mythological trappings of Roman literature were myths almost as much to Romans as they are to us. The divine council, where gods behave like human beings (complete with having different rooms on Olympus where they hide, consort, conspire, screw each other, screw with each other, screw each other over, and act screwy with each other) is a Greek idea, probably much inspired by the Divine Councils of Near Eastern religions. Much else of the lore-store we associate with "Roman Mythology" was not widely believed in either. The "world-stream" Ōceanus encircling all the world (personified as a Titan) was not just false but obviously so to Romans of the day who knew, no less than you do, that the earth was spherical. During Rome's classical period, very few, in Greek or Latin, had entertained a flat earth cosmology for half a millennium or so. One such person is Lucretius, who found a spherical earth preposterous mostly because he had no idea what gravity was. (St. John Chrysostom, when he claimed that one could not be a Christian unless one believed in a flat earth, was committing a rank embarrassment for a literate Greek speaker.)

Nor did Romans seem to see much reason to care about such things. Not exactly. As a rule, religion for Romans was of social, not psychological or philosophical, importance. What you believed was not so important as what you did, whom you did it with, and whom you did it for. This is why Judaism could be tolerated more easily than Christianity once it caught on, and why Druids in particular were hunted down and persecuted not for beliefs about the cosmos but for having supposedly incited people to disobey the Senate.

This idea was inherited and — with some qualifications — maintained by many Christian emperors before Justinian. Rulers such as Constantine seem also to have cared less about the contents of anybody's head than about public ritual and public speech.

Suffice it to say that the idea of Roman "pagans" stubbornly clinging to their childish beliefs in childish gods who sit on a mountain somewhere is a Christian conceit. Intellectuals such as Cicero opined that only children and ignoramuses actually believed that these things and beings were literally real. There is all sorts of evidence of wide-spread skepticism, or agnosis, about the reality of the place the Greeks called Hades. Later sources are on record insisting on the metaphorical or monistically symbolic nature of mythological accounts. This was not so much a problem for Romans, for whom matters of what we call "faith" (a non-concept for Mediterranean polytheists) did not form the basis for social order or morality.

Traditional Greek lore did, though, form an appealing backdrop for literature and the visual arts. It is above all else here — in art forms patronized and practiced by an often quite skeptical elite — that celestial matters are taken over most fully from the Greece of five centuries earlier, and where Roman gods are most fully identified with Greek ones (or behave in other ways irreconcilable with Roman religion). This is not all that strange. Most English-speakers no longer believe in magic, werwolves, vampires, witchcraft, dragons, mermaids, haunted houses, fairies, gnomes, elves or unicorns either, and yet happily make and watch movies set in worlds where these things are real, just as they enjoy films about zombies, voodoo, genies and other fantastical or supernatural elements unknown to them until recently. Myths that many English-speakers still believe, or want to believe, are another matter. It is a truism of Near Eastern Archaeology that the Jewish Exodus out of Egypt and Joshua's conquest of Canaan are about as historical as King Arthur or Robin Hood. But piety still dictates considerable restraint when portraying such things.

It is in literature that Mars, equated with Ares, is an irascible war-god who takes pleasure in stirring shit up. This literary figmentation Virgil could call "impius Mars" in the end of his first Georgic. The Mars of Roman religion had a wild side to be sure, but was always more friend than faux. Though the equation of Mars with Ares did give the former a warlike aspect, this made him less a god of combat and gore than of what Americans would call Homeland Security and National Defense, and whether he was real or not was respectable as a personal matter of agnosis.

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