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Roman Myths and Religion

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  • 0:02 Constructing a Faith
  • 0:51 Greek Influences
  • 2:03 Building Roman Traditions
  • 3:22 New Wave of Religions
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

This lesson compares Roman gods to their Greek predecessors and enumerates the similarities and differences between Greek and Roman religion. Finally, Roman religion's relationship with mystery cults, especially Christianity, is briefly explored.

Constructing a Faith

When it came to be the quintessential ancient empire, the Romans had it all. They had a massive army, built really impressive structures, and had a language with such breadth and depth that it has only been in the last 100 years that some knowledge of it hasn't been mandatory for being considered 'educated.'

However, the Romans did not build all that themselves. Like many other deeds of the Romans, they simply took what was best from their neighbors, touched it up with some new details to make it more Roman, and then were not closed-minded when someone came up with something new. In fact, this is a pretty useful paradigm through which to examine the development of Roman myths and religion. In this lesson, we'll look at how Rome's religion was transformed throughout the centuries before becoming the classical myths we still read today.

Greek Influences

Perhaps no other culture influenced the Romans as much as the Greeks. When you really think about it, this isn't a surprise. From the earliest days of Roman civilization, they always sought to take the most sophisticated ideas possible from their neighbors. In the beginning that meant the Etruscans, which we'll come back to in a minute. But for the formative years of Roman culture, that meant borrowing from the Greeks.

Luckily for the Romans, they didn't have to go that far. The Greeks had built a massive colonial presence in what is now southern Italy and Sicily, which they collectively referred to as Magna Graecia. This meant that there was plenty of first-rate Greek civilization occurring just a short journey away from Rome, and the Romans wanted in on it.

As a result, eventually the Romans had adopted a great deal of Greek religion. Of course, they updated it and put a Roman spin on it, all by changing the names of many of the gods, goddesses, and other figures. For example, Zeus - the Greek king of the gods - was now Jupiter, or even Jove, depending on what myth was being alluded to. Ares - the Greek god of war - was now Mars, but the Romans tended to view him in a more positive light. Heracles became Hercules. Some of the myths were even adopted with little more than a name change.

Building Roman Traditions

Of course, the Romans would not have thought of themselves as having worshiped Greek gods. Instead, they were Roman gods. To prove this, the Romans needed to look no further than one of their great national epics, The Aeneid. This work told the story of Aeneas, the ancestor of the mythical founder of Rome, Romulus. It turns out that Aeneas was himself Greek but was tasked with fate to found a civilization whose destiny was to rule the world. In this, the Romans acknowledged that the Greeks had been the first to worship that set of gods, but that it was sheer destiny for the Romans to worship them as well.

Other earlier influences became part of the Roman religious belief, especially from the Etruscans, a group that had lived where the Romans did and heavily influenced their culture. Notably, Rome had multiple gods of war. Of course there was Mars, who showed up in all the myths; but there was also Janus, a two-faced god who was believed to assist Roman armies on campaign. Also, there were the Vestal Virgins, who were loosely linked to the Greek Pantheon. The Vestal Virgins were a group of unmarried women who tended to the holy fire of Rome. In any event, the Romans took what was attractive about other mythologies and made it their own.

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