Strictly speaking, the Romans didn’t have a religion. There were gods, of course, and you had to keep them happy. Each of them had his own department: Mars handled war and Juno looked after women and Venus was in charge of love. If you did certain things or were about to do certain things, such as go to war or get married, you had to perform a sacrifice to the right one of them to keep them on your side. You didn’t want to slight a god. But if you “remembered” them—brought them a little offering in the stipulated way—they would comply and help you. If they wanted to, which was another thing.
It was all like a legal relationship.
Came the day when the Romans heard the Greeks talk about gods and they sat there with their mouths open. Apparently the gods were related. Juno, who the Greeks called Hera, was Jupiter’s wife. The other gods were brothers, cousins, and lovers, just like a human family. And they fought with each other sometimes too, and had little quarrels and spats. They were jealous and they gossiped and got together occasionally for family reunions on a mountain in Greece called Parnassus. The Romans knew all too well that gods sometimes got angry with humans and made life miserable for them; but wasn’t it a surprise to hear that they sometimes got angry with each other and did silly things and spiteful things. Sometimes they even used men as weapons or victims in these fights of theirs, like angry parents who throw their baby back and forth at each other while they scream.
“We never knew,” said the Romans when they heard these things. “It certainly throws a lot of light on a lot of things.” And though they didn’t believe some of the stories (“A lot of that is just mythology,” a few declared), they admitted that they were an ingenious way of talking about the gods.
In fact, the stories were just a bit too ingenious, too imaginative, for the Romans. They contained truth of a sort—poetic truth, allegorical truth, fuzzy truth; but that kind of truth wasn’t the Roman cup of tea. “Those Greeks go a bit far with their fantasies,” they said. “Here in Rome we like things clear and clean.” What they wanted was something useful. What you needed to know was how many sheep to sacrifice and what prayers to say and which birds flying which way meant what. Practical knowledge. All the theory—the theology—was for the specialists: you paid them to understand your god.
And the Greek myths, when it came to morality, were worthless, even harmful. They were full of all the wrong behavior. The gods were terrible examples. They drank too much and raped and fornicated and murdered and stole. Augustus wanted Romans to go back to the old morality as he imagined it. What was that?
From the first the Romans were very strict moralists. Very early they created the figure of the Censor Morum. He was an official who used to snoop around the neighborhood and find out who was naughty. His job was to denounce any misbehavior, to blow the whistle on any immorality going on. The old Romans knew what they wanted, which virtues. That was the one thing that set them apart from all other peoples in history, including the Greeks. Most cultures made a theology out of the elements or the forces of nature. They personified the wind or the seasons or the sun and the moon. Not the Romans. They got down on their knees before…..virtues! They actually built temples to and made sacrifices to them—to Concord, Truth, Charity, Good Faith, Bravery. They personified them: it was these virtues that you might offend and by which you could be punished.
Now when the historian Livy in the time of Augustus dreamed up his history of Rome and needed heroes and heroines to show the Romans, he natually went to the Greek historians for ideas—where else? And when he found good examples of virtue, he changed the names and circumstances and wrote them up as Roman forefathers. Each of his heroes was the paragon of some virtue: the Manlii and the Valerii were courage; the Lucretias and Virginias were purity; the Decii and Curtii were patriots; the Reguli and Fabricii were truthfulness. This was practical history, there to teach as well as entertain. Our ancestors may have been brutes but they were noble brutes. They knew how to live. The men were tough and brave and the women pure and faithful. Everyone worked hard. Not like now, in his time.
The Romans could never forget their morality lessons; and years later, when Rome had become rich and the censor was nowhere around, they had a bad conscience. Though all of them were proud of what Rome had become, they were also ashamed of her for offending the Virtues. One after another, they complained and worried. Some bickered, some railed like Old Testament prophets.
Seneca liked this subject. He too lived at the time of Augustus (which was also the time of Christ). Once he went to see the country house of Scipio Africanus, the general who had defeated Hannibal and saved Rome 200 years before. Seneca was surprised at the simplicity of the place. “I have seen the house,” he wrote in a letter, “and the tiny little bath, situated after the old-fashioned custom in an ill-lit corner, our ancestors believing that the only place where one could properly have a hot bath was in the dark. It was this which started in my mind reflections…. as I compared Scipio’s way of life and our own. In this corner the famous Terror of Carthage….used to wash a body weary from work on the farm! For he kept himself fit through toil, cultivating his fields by his own labour, as was the regular way in the old days. And this was the ceiling, dinghy in the extreme, under which he stood; and this the equally undistinguished paving that carried his weight.”
Seneca goes on comparing baths: the ones in his own time were places of great luxury. “Well, it did not make much difference to Scipio if this was the kind of bath he had; he went there to wash off sweat, not scent…….Yes, and what’s more, if you must know, he didn’t even have a bath every day…. ‘Obviously,’ someone will comment, ‘there must have been times when [those old Romans] were positively disgusting.’ And what do you think they stank of? I’ll tell you: of hard soldiering, of hard work, of all that goes to make up a man. Men are dirtier creatures now than they ever were in the days before the coming of spotlessly clean bathrooms.” (Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Penguin Classics, p. 148)