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Religion and the Roman Empire

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The Roman Empire is credited with many things due partially to their ability to share, spread, and adapt culture. Rome was successful because it both conquered and shared the fruits of conquest with the conquered. Religion was one part of the culture that demonstrated the tolerance of Romans. For example, at the time of Jesus’ birth, paganism could be divided into three spheres: the official state religion, the traditional cults of the hearth and countryside, and the new mystery religions from the East. Even though the official religion in the Roman Empire began as Pagan, it ended as Christianity when Emperor Theodosius declared it as the official religion in A.D. 380. The following examines two works of fiction that deal with religion during the Roman Empire.

The Golden Ass, by Apuleius, is a story of Lucius who talks his lover, the servant of a witch, into stealing him a potion that will temporarily turn him into an owl. Unfortunately it is the wrong potion and he is turned into a jack ass. The antidote for this dilemma is to simply eat roses, but he is dragged off by robbers before he can eat any. After a full year, and many trials and tribulations, he is finally saved by the Egyptian goddess Isis and immediately starts down the path to become initiated into the deepest mysteries of her religion. The interesting part of this story is the description of the initiation ceremony:

“Then the High Priest ordered all uninitiated persons to depart, invested me in a new linen garment and let me by the hand into the inner recesses of the sanctuary itself, I have no doubt, curious reader, that you are eager to know what happened when I entered. If I were allowed to tell you, and you were allowed to be told, you would soon hear everything; but, as it is, my tongue would suffer for its indiscretion and your ears for their inquisitiveness.”

Not being allowed to tell others what the initiation ceremony entailed is just one of the reasons these are called mystery religions. As Buckler, Hill, and McKay put it, “Once [those who joined] had successfully undergone initiation, they were forbidden to reveal the secrets of the cult. Consequently, modern scholars know comparatively little about their tenets”. The story of Lucius underscores this point. He describes briefly some of the tasks he must accomplish during the ‘period of preparation’, but does not go into detail a...

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...h others beliefs and their respect has been forged through the battles they have faced during the past 15 years together.

The Golden Ass and King Arthur are both fictional stories, which describe the culture and religions during the Roman Empire. The cultural tolerance of religions is part of what allowed the empire to flourish. The symbiotic relationship noted in the words of Marcus Aurelius as he is writing about the Gods may partially explain why this tolerance existed:

“As physicians have always their instruments and knives ready for cases which suddenly require their skill, so do you have principles ready for the understanding of things divine and human, and for doing everything, even the smallest, while remembering the bond which unites the divine and human to one another. For you will not do anything well affecting humans without at the same time referring to things divine; or the contrary.”

Historians will continue to work to understand the religions of the Roman Empire. The truth will continue to evolve as new archeological evidence is discovered, new translations are formed, and the human race as a whole continues to better understand this important time in history.
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