The Influence of the Greek and Roman Deitiesby Rit Nosotro
Compare the Greek and Roman pantheon of deities.
The Greeks and Romans, despite worshipping many of the same deities, used fundamentally different approaches for intertwining their governments and religions. Headed by Zeus, the Greek pantheon was made up of super-powered yet fallible gods. These gods' natures were recorded in the many plays and manuscripts detailing their adventures. This pantheon diminished in importance over time as the Greek philosophers established man as the center of all things. The Romans, on the other hand, worshipped an exceptionally large, diverse, and unbalanced group of gods. When the Romans conquered another people, the native pantheon was often incorporated into the existing Roman deities. 1 This produced a somewhat haphazard collection of minor deities. The majority of Greek gods eventually ended up becoming the major Roman gods, except with different names. The Greeks often earnestly sought the guidance of these gods in many maters, primarily by visiting various oracles. 2The Romans, on the other hand, used religion more as a good luck charm or tool. Despite the similarities of the gods they worshipped, the Greeks are Romans took very different approaches towards the relationship between the gods and the state.
The Greeks believed that the gods were interested and active in the politics and actions of humans. The Romans believed that the gods were more passive, attempting to please them for good luck in their endeavors. Greek legends are full of stories such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, which show the gods personally directing the affairs of powerful humans. While the Romans did inherit many of the Greek legends, they were not widely heeded. Instead, the Romans believed that the gods operated more through luck. If you offered sacrifices to please the gods, then you would not run into problems doing whatever you had decided to do. Another primary Roman belief was that the Emperor was a god. The Greeks, on the other hand, believed that the gods would aid them as long as they did the god's will. Ignoring the gods, however, could anger them and cause them to side with your enemies. It was important to ask the gods about what you should do and listen to what they said. As Greek culture progressed, man-centric ideas presented by the philosophers as they attempted to "rid man of the burden of the gods" 3 slowly became prevalent, and the importance of the gods gradually declined. Eventually, the gods were mostly neglected. 4 The Roman gods stayed in focus longer, until they were eventually deposed by the spread of Christianity. The Greeks and Romans generally had opposite interpretations on the same gods.
The Greeks and Romans involved their deities in political and military ventures in different ways. Greek rulers would routinely ask the gods about what course of action they should take. They did this primarily through oracles. For example, an oracle would most likely be consulted before war was declared. Most Greek rulers would heed this advice. However, this was rare as the oracles usually gave highly ambiguous answers. In contrast, Roman rulers would often perform various rituals to please the gods and bless their endeavors with divine favor. Building or re-building new cities and temples and sending armies to war were some of the common activities that would be blessed. After the ritual, omens indicating that the god was pleased would be looked for, and if they were not found, the ritual would be repeated until the god was pleased. Because the Roman emperors were considered gods, they usually did not feel obligated to consult their fellow deities. Greek rulers were much more vulnerable to the displeasure of the gods. Oracles stating that the gods were displeased with a ruler often led to that ruler's deposition. These different methods of interacting with the gods illustrate the differences in the standard ruling mindset of each culture.
These differences in the interpretation of the power of the gods had many different impacts on other parts of the world. The other cultures conquered by these civilizations were obviously influenced by the will of the Greek and Roman gods through the actions of the military and political rulers. During Alexander the Great's conquests, Israel is said to have been spared his wrath because of a dream he had about the high priest and his reverence for God. 5 Later, under the Romans, the Jews were able to keep their ancestral religions due to Rome's policy of not forcing a certain religion on conquered nations. The infrastructure implemented by Rome allowed for the rapid spread of Christianity after Jesus' death, greatly helping the spread of the gospel. Alexander's grace to the Jews allowed them to remain in their ancestral lands so that Jesus could be born as prophesied. However, the Greeks later man-centric teachings eventually gave rise to secular humanism and other anti-God beliefs. Rome, however, was eventually dominated by Christianity and aided in its spread.
The Greek and Roman differences in attitude towards the gods spring from a fundamental difference in their understandings of the gods. The early Greeks saw the gods as powerful controllers of men. On the other hand, the early Romans saw their deities as more passive good luck charms. Some Roman rulers may have used the rituals more as crowd control devices than methods of pleasing the gods. From a biblical perspective, the Greeks were slightly closer to the correct idea of an omni-present, -potent, and -nescient god.
up2 Robert Parker, "Greek States and Greek Oracles," http://www.uark.edu/campus-resources/dlevine/Oxford4.html (6 October 2005).
up3 Charles Kimball, "Chapter 1: OVERVIEW: The Apostasy," in A Biblical Interpretation Of World History 1998, http://xenohistorian.faithweb.com/worldhis/Hist01.html (6 October 2005).
up5 Jona Lendering, "Alexander the Great visits Jerusalem," http://www.livius.org/aj-al/alexander/alexander_t35.html (6 October 2005).
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