Geographical origins of Roman religion

Religion in the Roman civilization was strongly influenced by the cultures of its primary ‘interest zones’, which in turn seem to have been most strongly influenced by the ‘biogeographical’ zones from which they derived. The progress can be illustrated by the following animated map which dates its territories, influence and influences. You will need to click the map to start the animation! (source: Wikimedia Commons):


The civilization’s origins appear to have arisen from the Etruscan civilisation’s tendency to follow the Greek tendency and to unite the tribal structure of Iron Age Italy under a more centralised civic theocracy – tribal temporal power being united and mobilised through a shared centralised theocracy, based on notions of immanent polytheism (gods presiding over all natural phenomena) then prevalent in the Northern Mediterranean spiritual landscape, particularly in Magna Graecia (which included southern Italy). Success in trade (aided by climate and geography) supported success in the conduct of warfare leading to stability and expansionism, increasingly centred in Latium (the western coastal midlands of Italy) and from around c.500 BCE at its heart in Rome on the river Tiber. This gave rise to the cultural identity we know as ‘Roman’, under a leadership that mutated from Kingship (Res) to Republican rule (Res Publica) with the public aspects of religion overseen and directed by the Patrician class.

The story of this transition was also a story of the transition from conservative agrarian/pastoralist Bronze Age and Iron Age Italic cultures, ruled by the rhythms of nature and sense of place in the landscape, to one focussed on temporal power and influence and creating a new identity giving it a place in the wider scheme of the world. To this end, Roman civilisation began to affect the philosophies, Gods and cultural ideas of its subjects and neighbours. As its reach expanded and these neighbours became its subjects, the process of multi-cultural conflation would become in itself an identifier of Roman culture, and under Roman economic and religious control. Intellectual cultural threats to a spiritual and cultural morass which borrowed rhetoric and ideas from the conquered would be difficult to deflect.

As it distanced itself from the independent tribal style of culture at its origin, and increasingly followed on the footsteps of the Hellenes in its acquisition of oriental territory and ideas, Rome’s religion began to differentiate from that of its Western European origins. It’s ‘frontier zone’ of this difference had, before the 1st century BCE been limited to Gallia Cisaplina (modern North Italy) and Gallia Narbonensis (modern Mediterranean France) which represented the former interface of the Etruscans (and Greeks) with the Gallic tribes further north, and had been the corridor linking its territories in the formerly Celtic provinces of Hispania, the conquest of which were completed in 19BC, and the Romanised peoples of which were to achieve greatness within the Imperium itself (the Senecas, Lucan, and Emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius among others). There is no evidence from ancient Roman or Greek writers supporting a doctrine of metempsychosis among the Celtic Iberians, although further west (in Anatolia, now modern Turkey) the Galatians were rumoured to follow the doctrine of druidism, imported from their supposed original homelands in Gallia Narbonensis.

As the 1stC BCE progressed, Rome’s influence would extend from the East to the West of the Mediterranean ‘biogeographical zones’, and its culture had been busy incorporating and transferring religions, ideas and peoples within its boundaries to suit its new multi-ethnic domain. Its attempts to expand into and change the Atlantic part of northern Europe would mark the start of some fundamental changes that would secure the fate of religion in the West for another 2000 years.

Lucan on metempsychosis

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (d.65 CE) – otherwise known as Lucan – was a poet and author with close ties to the imperial court of Rome. He is best known for his description of the Roman Civil War in the 1stC BC, albeit more for its poetic rather than historical merit. Like Caesar, he commented on the druidic belief in the transmigration of souls:

While you, ye Druids, when the war was done,
To mysteries strange and hateful rites returned:
To you alone ’tis given the gods and stars
To know or not to know; secluded groves
Your dwelling-place, and forests far remote.
If what ye sing be true, the shades of men
Seek not the dismal homes of Erebus
Or death’s pale kingdoms; but the breath of life
Still rules these bodies in another age —
Life on this hand and that, and death between.
Happy the peoples ‘neath the Northern Star
In this their false belief; for them no fear
Of that which frights all others: they with hands
And hearts undaunted rush upon the foe
And scorn to spare the life that shall return.
(Translation by J.D. Duff: “Lucan: The Civil War”, Loeb Classics Library, London, 1928.)

It is possible he was quoting from Julius Caesar, yet almost a century after Caesar’s murder it still appears that the apparently core druidical doctrine of metempsychosis was contentious to Romans such as Lucan. The politics of the day was that the focus of the druidic religion had been pushed back into the Atlantic islands of Britannia and Hibernia, and Rome was in the process of its campaign of subjugating the former. Both Caesar and Lucan’s attitude towards the reincarnation doctrine was mirrored by other Roman writers such as Pomponius Mela (De Situ Orbiis c.43CE) who (like Lucan and Seneca) was from Roman Spain. These authors, along with Pliny the Elder, provided rhetorical accounts unkind to the religion of the druids during the period that Rome’s armies were pushing up through Britannia. A political reason to attack the core doctrine was that it was perceived that it rendered believers fearless of death.

Romans had no objection to the veneration of native gods in the territories they conquered, and must have actually created many as they went. The large number of remaining inscriptions and statuary items dedicated to these ‘Romano-Celtic’ deities in Britain is proof of this. It is a matter of conjecture, though, if these represented ancient original cults, especially as Roman historians and literary commentators during the first 100 years of Roman subjugation in Atlantic Europe indicated a Roman campaign against fundamental tenets of this style of religion, particularly the doctrine on metempsychosis.

It is quite likely that Romano-Gallic and Romano-British ‘deities’ were the result of an active campaign of interpretatio romanum designed to change the fundamental nature of local pagan belief to match one acceptable to the Mediterranean mindset of Rome (centred around their idea of ‘proper veneration’ of the ‘eternal gods’) and to the (often non-Roman) troops and auxiliaries it employed to do its dirty work in frontier provinces.

In Lucan’s time (middle of the 1stC CE) Ireland and the western and northern reaches of the ‘Britannic Isles’ would still have followed the doctrines that Julius Caesar wrote of after he had started to purge them in the 1stC BCE.

Caesar on Celtic Religion

Julius Caesar’s memoir Commentarii De Bello Gallico (‘Commentary On the Gallic War’) was an account of the Roman army’s subjugation of Gaul in 51BCE and which he himself led.

The work is famous for its descriptions of the enigmatic priestly caste of the Gauls: the Druids. These were leaders of the ancient religious system then common to Gaul, Britannia and Hibernia/Scotia (Ireland). He says very little about the religion itself, being more interested in expressing the Druids’ political and social importance, but he does give a few tantalising details… (Translations by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn)

They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.

… and about their gods he has this to say:

All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, and say that this tradition has been handed down by the Druids.

As well as naming ‘Dis’, Caesar used the convention of giving Roman names for the rest of the gods of the Gauls and describes ‘Mercury’ as their chief deity, as well as Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva. As war is perhaps the least satisfactory arena in which to study cultural anthropology, his is probably a very rough and unreliable overview of the reality of Gaulish religion. After all, this was an era where even the Romans were confused about their own gods and religion: To contemporary intellectuals (such as followers of the 4thC BCE Hellenic philosopher Plato) gods were scientific expressions of universal phenomena, not to be taken literally. To the masses, they were a literal truth – an unseen power made visible and understood through images and ceremonies. Religion was diversifying at an alarming and unsustainable rate. His appraisal of the Gauls and the contradistinction he makes with the German tribes in chapter 21 (where he claims that they had no druids and worshipped only what they saw – the sun, fire and the moon) have underpinned the study of European paganism ever since, but it is likely that the Gauls, Britons, Irish and Germans probably shared very similar beliefs, which the mediterranean mind found it difficult to conceptualise.

The thing is… there is very little evidence of the exact nature of Pre-Roman/Pre-Hellenic religion among Iron Age ‘Celtic’ or German tribes. What exists is – like Caesar’s account – seen from a very jaded Roman or Greek viewpoint. There is ample evidence of Romanised ‘Celtic’ deities from the next 5 centuries after Caesar, and even before he took Gaul its southern part was under the cultural influence of the Hellenes (and was probably itself influential upon the Greek world). Familiar attested names of ‘gods’ such as ‘Toutatis’, ‘Taranis’, ‘Belenos’, ‘Cernunnos’ and so forth remain as popular totems that have scant evidence linking them to a systematic beliefs, and perhaps the biggest problem is that folklore from the more modern celtic world that preserves obvious and fundamental pre-chistian beliefs does not offer much support for a Roman-style pantheon of gods. The reasons for this need to be and will be investigated in my writing.

The most important key belief that Caesar mentions is that the soul flies free of the body after death and returns to another corporeal existence in time. Such a belief is the core of an ancestor-based religion. Also the Gaulish god Caesar calls ‘Dis’ (to the Romans a psychopomp or conductor of souls, and guardian of the earth’s fertility and mystery) was believed to be the racial forefather, thus making him/it the key archetype god for this soul-belief. When he omits mentioning ‘Dis’ in his assessment of Gaul’s most important totem gods in the previous chapter, he is probably seeking to discourse on something the Romans knew more about. Roman ‘Mercury’ (Hermes to the Greeks) was also a psychopomp (conductor of souls) and Caesar may well have been using the names ‘Mercury’ and ‘Dis’ (as well as ‘Mars’, ‘Apollo’ and ‘Jupiter’) to refer to the same important progenitor divinity, and I will present evidence for this in due course. His intention with the interpretatio romanum was also possibly an attempt to orientate his Roman readers to similarities between them and the Gauls, especially as many would own Gaulish slaves as a result of his campaign. The core domestic (and plebian) religion of Rome was, after all, based upon ancestor-spirit worship (of ‘Lares’ and ‘Genii’ as well as ‘Lemures’, ‘Larvae’ and ‘Manes’) and veneration of the ‘eternal gods’ (Jupiter etc) was generally seen as a more high-minded and public affair, albeit open to fads and trends, and imperial decree. The Roman beliefs in disincarnate souls therefore showed a distinct commonality with their ‘Celtic’ neighbours, and is in evidence among Rome’s Etruscan forerunners.

In christian times, it seems that stubbornly tenuous pagan ideas about discarnate ‘souls’ were to become identified with ‘fairies’ – spirits who inhabited an inverted parallel world to our own, their daytime being our night, and vice versa… Fairy belief was to become a cultural shibboleth of Atlantic Celtic peoples.

Atlantis? … or Atlantic?

“…For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them. By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them…”

The above quote is from Plato’s narrator Critias (4thC BCE) on the people of ‘Atlantis’, who the ancient Egyptians claimed were the children and followers of Poseidon and who were supposed to have once lived ‘beyond the Pillars of Herakles’ – an ancient name for the Straights of Gilbraltar. (Translation by Benjamin Jowett.)

The Sea, the Sun and the West

The sea is the most defining part of Atlantic Europe, and perhaps the ultimate destination of the cultural idea called ‘Celtic’ has found its true expression facing west into the setting sun upon Atlantic shores.
Many central European countries, have identified their history with Iron Age Celtic culture at one time or another, and it remains a potent nationalistic icon for asserting provincial identity, even in cultures no longer (or even ever) considered ‘Celtic’. For those that still maintain a Celtic identity, the main identifiers are language, custom and traditions – particularly (in modern times) in the arts.
The ‘Celtic Provinces’ today are: Gallicia, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland, including the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands (which have regional flavours somewhat different to the mainland). All of these are bathed in Atlantic currents and Atlantic sunsets, scoured by Atlantic wind and rains. They are provided for, challenged and protected by the great Ocean.

So, beyond the ethnic identifiers of language, genetics, dress, music and art there is a deeper ‘Atlantic’ culture pervading these regions – a geological, climatic and biological fountainhead from which they (and their neighbours) feed and from which their customs and traditional beliefs of ancient provenance are shaped as allegories of the great Atlantic European or Atlantean world…


Key: The ancient (light green) and modern (dark green) Celtic provinces.
The yellow region represents what archaeologists have identified as the core heartland of an identifiably ‘celtic’ European material culture during the early Iron Age.

Indigenous Religion and Philosophy

An indigenous people are those whose ‘root, branch, leaf and seed’ are deeply connected with the land they inhabit. They are made of the soil and they return to the soil that makes them, connecting them to future and past generations through the land. Their culture reflects this closeness and sympathy with their environment, and through the transmission of traditions, aphorisms, beliefs, stories, songs and art they are connected to a ‘vanishing point’ in the past where the idea of the land and the people are merged as one. From this place they develop their legends and dreams – their philosophies and models of the temporal and spiritual – the physics and metaphysics by which they describe their past, present and future existence. It is the ultimate expression of connectedness. It is their unique art and unique gift – the most precious thing they own, next to their children.

The cultural aspects of indigenous habitation are so deeply linked with the land that indigenous culture and belief has a strong biogeographical component: Land and climate determines plant life, plant life determines invertebrate life, and this in turn determines the patterns of habitations by vertebrates, including humans. Each type of life then negotiates the position of each other form and this in turn ultimately re-shapes the geography. It is the web of life. Here is a map of the patterns of plant life in Europe (credit: Wolfgang Frey and Rainer Lösch – image from Wikimedia Commons). Note how it relates to historic cultural zones of indigenous Europeans:Image

You may notice that the ‘Atlantic’ zone corresponds most strongly with peoples who have maintained a cultural identity of ‘Celtic’ in more recent times, although when considering the eastern part of the biogeographical zone (modern Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark and Norway) it is notable that archaeological evidence of pre-Iron Age material cultures is often very similar to that in the western part of the ‘Atlantic’ zone.

Before the invasion of Northern Europe by middle-eastern literary religious philosophies during the early centuries of the ‘Common Era’ (CE), religion and belief was a matter of interpretation of nature and man’s place in it. It was a system of what might be called ‘Natural Philosophy’ which explained the origins, mechanics and inter-relations of natural phenomena, employing ‘spiritual’ ideas to explain supra-rational and metaphysical concepts. These ideas and concepts were illustrated and transmitted in a deliberately non-didactic manner using story, poetry, aphorism, drama, music, song, dance and other similar types of non-literary transmission. ‘Gods’ and ‘spirits’ were therefore an artistic means of expressing aspects of what we today refer to as ‘Science’,’Knowledge’ and ‘Philosophy’. As with all ‘art’ it was a plastic mode of expression based upon a synthesis of inductive reasoning and empirical knowledge attained through the survival of generations of indigenous peoples with a deep spiritual link to the land of their birth and of their ancestors. It was a self-contained, self-explaining worldview whose authority was written in the landscape and by the forces which controlled and modelled it – something that no book would be able to do.

Pagan religion grows from the land which sustains it. Anciently, it was one with ‘philosophy’, art and the practicalities of daily living.