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Religion as a tool for Roman Imperialism by Harry Ferrigno

Defining ‘religion’ and ‘imperialism’

Firstly, this article refers exclusively to how Roman paganism was used as an instrument for imperialism and thus covers both the Republican period and the Imperial period up to the advent of Christianity in the 4th century AD.

It is important to note that ‘religion’ in the roman world differed greatly from our modern conceptions of what constitutes a religion. Roman religion was not canonical, like Christianity for example, as it lacked an overarching doctrine. Consequently, there was no religious scripture or dogma, but rather an emphasis on following a series of practices which aimed to establish a relationship with the gods. This would include visual demonstrations of showing reverence towards the gods such as through ritual, myth, prayer and sacrifice. 

Religion and the Roman state were intertwined. The Senate functioned as the ultimate authority on religious ceremony. It could decide what cults to create and dictated the nature and timing of religious festivals. There did, of course, exist a college of augurs and pontifices which claimed to be a separate institution from the Senate, however, they were simply an advisory body comprised mostly of Senators. Thus, the Senate had undisputed control of religious policy within Rome and across the empire. 

‘Imperialism’ similarly is open to a great deal of interpretation. For some scholars, imperialism must entail the direct militaristic intervention of one nation into another whether this is through annexation, colonialization, vassalizing etc. For others, imperialism can take a subtler more indirect approach where one nation exerts a sphere of influence over the recipient nation. In this way, a more informal empire is created where the imperial power will only subjugate its subordinate where necessary. Religion was used as a tool by the Romans for both types of imperialism but particularly for the latter. 

Pantheon, Rome [Temple to all the Gods]

Religion as a justification for Imperial conquests

Religion was used to legitimize Rome’s conquests both abroad and within the Italian peninsular. A famous example is Augustus’ use of the Centennial Games in 17 BC to reinforce Rome’s dominance over its Latin neighbours. This was primarily conveyed through a prayer about Rome’s conquering of the Latins which was repeated 8 times to accompany various sacrifices. The prayer itself reportedly opened with a request to the gods that Rome’s authority would be maintained and that the Latins would always stay subdued. Moreover, there was a concerted effort by Augustus to ensure that as many people as possible witnessed this religious propaganda. The Senate was ordered to temporarily suspend Augustus’ prior legislation that had forbidden unmarried people from attending games. In this way, Augustus was attempting to maximise the coverage of his legitimising message across Italy.

Overseas, Rome used a ritual called ‘evocatio’ (literally translated as ‘summoning forth’) to justify their conquests. Essentially, a Roman general or magistrate would ask the patron deity of a foreign city to defect from its current home to enjoy a superior quality of worship at Rome. This was typically carried out before the Romans began a siege of a hostile city and if the city then fell then this was interpreted as the god expressing its approval to be moved to Rome. This transference was both spiritual and physical as any surviving statues of the deity found in the besieged city would be moved to Rome. An example of this can be found in the siege of Veii in 396BC where the Veientine goddess Juno Regina had her cult statue transferred to a temple honouring her in the Roman forum. The evocatio ritual was ingenious as it implied that Rome’s plundering and razing of cities was divinely ordained and thus exempted them from accusations of sacrilege when they desecrated religious sites. Ammianus Marcellinus used this exact line of reasoning when he justified Constantine’s removal of an obelisk from Egypt to Rome on the basis that Rome was now the temple of the world. Therefore, religion had a direct role in justifying Rome’s imperialism. 

Augustus later took the title of Pontifex Maximus in 12AD, National Museum, Rome

Religion as a tool for incorporating the defeated 

The ever-expanding nature of Rome’s empire in both its Republican and Imperial periods meant that its provinces became increasingly multicultural. This led the 3rd century AD writer Tertullian to claim that, “each province and city has its own god: Astarte in Syria, Duscares in Arabia, Belerius in Noricm, Caelestis in Africa” (Tertullian Apology 24.7-8). Such a variety of deities and cults would need to be incorporated into the empire and Rome had two solutions for this. 

The most immediate one was the polytheistic nature of Roman paganism. There were of course the primary gods of the Roman Pantheon such as Jupiter and Venus as well as numerous minor deities. Within roman religion divine status could be attributed to virtually anything of significance such as Favonius, god of the West Wind, or Trivia, goddess of the crossroads. Therefore, a foreign god could quite easily become absorbed within Rome’s paganism without threatening the stability of the pre-existing system. 

The second solution was a process called ‘interpretatio romana’ (‘roman translation) whereby a native deity would be equated to a similar Roman god and given the latter’s characteristics. This would often result in the name of a local god being combined with the name of a Roman god or with the Roman god completely replacing their name but retaining the local god’s role. For example: Mars Albiorix, Mars Camulus and Mars Intarabus. Through this process Rome could enact a form of cultural imperialism by reengineering the local deities to conform with Roman traditions. This also ensured that the conquered territories would be more easily annexed into the empire which in itself was an imperialistic action. 

Concluding thoughts

Roman religion was polytheistic in nature and lacked the restriction of being tied to a specific doctrine or scripture. This provided the Senate of the Republican period and the later Emperors of the imperial age with an effective tool to legitimise and maintain their imperialism. 

Religion could be used to demonstrate to conquered subjects that Rome deserved to be the dominant power. Equally, religion could be used to justify Rome’s conquests, and subsequent sacking of cities, by creating a narrative that the patron god of the city requested it. Finally, the process of integrating defeated communities was made simpler by assimilating their local deities and customs into the flexible Roman religious system.

Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon

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