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Pagan Regeneration, by Harold R. Willoughby, [1929], at



THERE is a vague but widespread impression that the age that saw the emergence of Christianity was religiously destitute and morally decadent. The general and orthodox conviction of today is that all pagan religions current in the first century A.D. were in a bad state of degeneration. Originally they may have started with a modicum of light and revelation from above, but that original good had been corrupted by false beliefs and evil practices to such an extent that in the first century the gentile world was in a worse state than it had ever been before. People of all classes, wearied of the apparent futility of contemporary cults, were quitting them wholesale, or were giving them a merely formal adherence. In an abandon of atheism they were surrending themselves to unrestrained indulgence in immoral practices. Approximately this is still the popular impression of religious conditions in the Graeco-Roman world.

This misconception, so far as it has any basis at all in ancient sources of information, results from a piecing together of notions derived from certain readily accessible writings, pagan and Christian. On the one hand, philosophical writings in Greek and Latin record the rationalist criticism to which the polytheistic systems of the Gentiles were subjected. Furthermore, the Roman satirists of the early imperial period, superlatively skilful in the practice of their art, painted the immoralities of the upper classes in Roman society in colors that could not be forgotten. On the other hand, the later Christian apologists delighted to represent their pagan competitors in as unfavorable a light as possible. They pilloried the faults and failures of gentile religions and sought to establish the point that the inadequacies of paganism were a part of the providential preparation of the world for the outburst of true revelation in Christianity itself. This admittedly apologetic position, familiar alike in ancient and modern times, was given its classic statement in the Praeparatio Evangelica composed early in the fourth century A.D. by Eusebius of Caesarea.

Concerning the literary sources involved it is sufficient to observe, first of all, that the Greek and Roman authors cited represent the attitudes and customs of limited classes in contemporary society: the skepticism of the intellectuals and the excesses of the nouveaux riches. As to the Christian sources, they betray a frank bias both in the selection of discreditable data and in the utilization of that data to serve a polemic purpose. Because of this misuse of inadequate materials the point of view which posits a dearth of real religion in the Graeco-Roman world is itself clearly discredited.

Completely contradictory to such an estimate was the judgment of the earliest Christians concerning rival religious movements. They, who knew competition with gentile cults as a matter of vivid present experience, did not question the strength or reality of gentile loyalties to heathen systems. Not because Gentiles were irreligious but because they were so incurably and tenaciously religious, Christian propagandists actually made little headway with them at first. In face of this discouraging situation the missionaries explained their early failures as due to the infatuated devotion of Gentiles to gods who were really demons. The earliest historian of Christianity, writing at the end of the first century, represented Paul, the outstanding missionary to the Gentiles, as saying to a typical pagan audience, "Men of Athens, from every point of view I see that you are extremely religious."

During the last quarter-century the detailed researches of specialists in the field of Graeco-Roman religions have fully confirmed this ancient appreciation of pagan piety. The propagandist vigor of diaspora Judaism in seeking for proselytes from among the heathen was fully understood before the beginning of our century; but recently discovered non-literary papyri and similar unpretentious remains have revealed a not less vigorous gentile propaganda carried on by members of voluntary religious associations. That the princeps of the Roman Empire was responsible for an official revival of antique Roman religion was well known to earlier generations than our own; but only recently have students been aroused to a realization that the developing imperial cult, focused on the person of the princeps, was an expression of genuinely religious hopes and appreciations and interests on the part of the people of the empire. That Graeco-Roman philosophy came to a religious climax in Neo-Platonism has long been a matter of common knowledge; but only in our generation have serious scholars given sympathetic attention to the mystical literatures of similar systems previous to Plotinus. The net result of all this fresh investigation in new fields has been to prove that the Mediterranean world in which early Christianity emerged was indeed "extremely religious." It is perhaps not exaggeration to affirm of the first century A.D., as Francis Legge does of the six centuries from Alexander to Constantine, "there has probably been no time in the history of mankind when all classes were more given up to thoughts of religion, or when they strained more fervently after high ethical ideals" than at just this period. To this extent do the actual records of gentile religious experience in the first century belie the traditional estimate of the age.


Fundamentally the weltanschauung generally prevalent during the early imperial period was emphatically a religious view of the universe and of life. By far the majority of people in all strata of society held a supernaturalistic conception of the universe that presupposed the existence of a spirit world above and beyond the world known to ordinary sense perception. In the presence of the mystery which lies back of all human experience, even the most ordinary, there were few in the Julian or Flavian periods who were content to maintain a position of agnosticism and say, "The mystery cannot be understood: therefore it may be ignored." The more curious majority sought in one way or another to penetrate the mystery and were satisfied that it held the key to an understanding of the meaning of existence. Furthermore, so far as the ordering of the universe was concerned, the supernatural realm was conceived to be far more important than the natural world; for the ultimate forces which controlled all things were believed to be the occult spiritual powers above and not the forces of nature operative in the world below. Only a very few strenuous thinkers had attained to anything approximating the modern scientific conception of natural law, i.e., the uniform sequence of natural events apart from the ordering of a will or mind responsible for the succession. Most men in the first century tended rather to think of events as the result of the more or less capricious activities of spirits or demons who peopled the supernatural area. Some, to be sure, personalized these spiritual powers but ostracized them completely from effective human relationships. This was the Epicurean way. Others depersonalized and rationalized all supernatural power, connected it most intimately with the world of experience, and made it the very essence of things, the ordering mind of the universe itself. This was the Stoic way. Between these rival camps the masses of men continued to think of the supernatural powers as personal beings who governed the affairs of men in ways that were whimsical and freakish.

A person's attitude toward the supernatural powers and his conception of them varied considerably according to his particular circumstances in life. To many minds it seemed that experience was chiefly characterized by the element of uncertainty. Nature was sometimes hostile and sometimes kind. Business was now a success and now a failure, with no fully apparent reason for either result. A man who had such experiences, if he were skeptical of the traditional gods of paganism, was likely to hold chance responsible for the inexplicable permutations of fortune. Still others were more impressed by the orderliness of the universe. The fortunes of men might vary, but the processes of nature continued in a more or less invariable sequence over long periods of time. To them the universe seemed not conspicuously friendly, perhaps, but at least it could be depended on. Under such circumstances it was reasonable to attribute the ordering of events to a stern and inflexible Necessity, and the corresponding religious attitude was to be submissive to the rulings of Fate. In general, when one's lot in life was notably favorable and success crowned one's efforts, one could easily maintain an optimistic attitude toward the universe and regard the supernatural with equanimity. Providence was obviously kind to the prosperous man and it was his religious duty to be correspondingly grateful.

The masses of humanity in the Graeco-Roman world were not so well situated as this, and consequently they found it difficult to maintain an attitude of grateful appreciation toward the powers controlling the universe. To be sure society was more stable in the first century of the empire than in the last century of the republic; but the injustices of that social order were flagrant, the mood of the princeps was changeable, and the uncertainties of life were great. Experience seemed to indicate that on the whole the supernatural powers were more likely to be unfriendly than favorable. Accordingly, the ordinary man of that time was inclined to regard the spirits and demons of his universe with fear and blank terror even. Out of this unfortunate attitude there developed irrational beliefs and absurd practices, difficult to understand at this distance in time, but broadly intended to establish and maintain safe relationships with man's spiritual environment.

The growth of superstition in the Roman Empire during the first century A.D. was immense. All classes in society from the princeps down were infected by it to a greater or less degree. Augustus, when a thunderstorm arose, used to retire to the cellar, and Caligula by preference crawled under the bed. Nero, like Orestes, only more deservedly, was haunted by the furies of his murdered mother just as Otho, later, was tortured by the unquiet spirit of his predecessor Galba. The Flavian emperors were not less addicted to superstition. Domitian, the last of the line, had the worst experiences of them all. During the last months of his life he was in constant terror while the lightning struck, one after the other, the Roman Capitol, the Flavian temple, the imperial palace. The very men of letters, Suetonius Dio Cassius, who regale us ad nauseam with these and similar tales, confess their own credulity by the way in which they handle their narratives. Petronius and Apuleius introduce us to more superstitions of the same sort in their romances of society life in Cumae and village life in Thessaly. Almost anywhere that a test is made in contemporary Mediterranean life, the result is to disclose a fantastic assortment of grotesque superstitions.

The prevalence of superstition in the Roman world together with concomitant evils caused real concern on the part of intelligent and conscientious religionists. In the last century B.C. the enthusiastic Epicurean, Lucretius, faced the problem squarely and proposed a rigorous remedy. He identified superstition and religion, and emphasizing the disquieting character of fears inspired by supernaturalism, he unhesitatingly pronounced religion a curse on the human race. In his account of religious origins in relation to the development of human society he burst out in passionate invective:

"O unhappy race of mankind, to ascribe such doings to the gods and to add thereto bitter wrath! What groans did they then create for themselves, what wounds for us, what tears for generations to come! It is no piety to show oneself often with covered head, turning towards a stone and approaching every altar, none to fall prostrate upon the ground and to spread open the palms before shrines of the gods, none to sprinkle altars with the blood of beasts in showers and to link vow to vow; but rather to be able to survey all things with mind at peace."

To Lucretius the remedy seemed obvious: to do away altogether with contemporary supernaturalism and to substitute instead rational views of nature. Because Epicurus in his philosophy had accomplished this very thing and so freed mankind from unnecessary fears, Lucretius expressed his unbounded admiration for the achievement.

Plutarch, of Chaeronea, facing essentially the same problem in the first century A.D., took a more moderate position. He contrasted religion with superstition on the one hand and with atheism on the other. The latter he defined as insensibility to the gods, and the former he characterized as the excessive and irrational fear of the gods. In origin the two were closely related. A fundamental misconception of the gods as malignant beings gave rise to the fears of superstition, and these in turn caused the extreme reaction of atheism. Of the two the latter was certainly preferable. But for himself Plutarch preferred to choose neither. The remedy, as he saw it, was at just a happy medium between the two; and this was the position of true religion. The gods, in Plutarch's judgment, were the friends of mankind and chiefly concerned with their welfare. Hence they should be approached without dread, but with gratitude and confidence. Plutarch's own testimony was: "What we esteem the most agreeable things in human life are our holidays, temple-feasts, initiations, processions, with our public prayers and solemn devotions." In the "golden mean of true piety" Plutarch found the antidote for both the practical atheism of the Epicurean and the terrors of the superstitious. The miscellanarian of Chaeronea did not stand alone in this position, but was typical of a large number of sane, thoughtful, conservative Gentiles who were his contemporaries.


Broadly speaking, the religious situation in the Graeco-Roman world was as varied and complex and syncretistic as Mediterranean society itself was at this period. All peopIes included as citizens or provincials within the limits of the empire and all previous ages of religious experience in the Mediterranean area made some characteristic contribution to the religious life of Roman times. Prominent in the complex, and thoroughly typical of the particular races and geographical areas involved, were the survivals of the nationalistic type of religion in vogue before the Roman and Macedonian conquests. The Jahvism of the Jews is the best known of this group, and the propagandist vigor of Judaism in the early Roman Empire is unquestioned. All the world was missionary territory for the Jews. In their zeal for proselytes they "scoured land and sea to make one convert." But equally the Roman world was mission-territory to the devotees of Syrian Baals, to the priests of Egyptian gods, and to the Magi of Ahura Mazda. If the missionaries of polytheistic systems were less exclusive than the rabbis in their demands for religious loyalty, at least they were not less sincere in their devotion to their own particular cults. Outstanding among the traditional survivals and providing the standard paganism of the day was the merged Olympian-Capitoline system, the joint contribution of Greece and Rome. It has become a habit to think and speak of these cults as practically dead when Christianity came to birth. A close study of the archaeological and literary remains of first-century life, however, shows that not only were the traditional religions of Greece and Rome surviving, but they were also actually functioning with considerable vigor; perhaps not as robustly as at an earlier period, but still vitally enough to make them a noteworthy element in the Graeco-Roman situation as a whole.

A peculiarly Roman current in contemporary life was the religion of the home magnified in adaptation to the needs of the state. In its primitive development Roman piety was the cult of a household living in a rural environment and engaged in ritual practices intended to placate the powers on which the welfare of the family was chiefly dependent. The paterfamilias of the household was the high priest of the family cult, the mater was the priestess of the Penates, and the daughters who tended the hearth fire, were the ministrants of Vesta. So Rome, grown to a city-state, then to a republic, and finally to an empire, continued to maintain both the organization and the practices of the domestic religion. The pontifex maximus, the official head of the state religion, was the "father of his people," and the vestal virgins, the daughters of the state, kept the fire burning on the public hearth in the Forum. But the antique Latin religion, developed in a rural setting and essentially conservative in character, could not possibly be enlarged to meet the needs of the expanding Roman state. So the attempt was made to supplement Latin religion from the outside. The numina of primitive thought were personalized and individualized; di novensiles were imported from south Italy and Greece and the Orient, and they almost crowded out the di indigetes; Greek rites were introduced to supplement the native Roman rites, and, finally, the Olympian and Capitoline pantheons were merged, with the Hellenic elements distinctly dominant in the combination.

It is true that there was a pitiful decline of Latin religion during the last century of the republic. But that is not the end of the story. Simultaneous with the establishment of the principate by Augustus there was an official revival of state religion under his immediate direction. Just why Augustus, who was both cynical and superstitious, should be interested in doing this is still a matter for debate. The probability is that his motives were mingled. In part to cloak his actual autocracy and make the principate a safe and secure office; in part to further the fortunes of himself and his family, and to stimulate patriotism at the same time; and in part, surely, to reinculcate the old Roman type of virtue, he sought the renaissance of the primitive Latin religion. He restored decayed sanctuaries and built new temples. He revived priesthoods that had lapsed and filled colleges with men of distinction. He himself carefully observed all the required forms of religion and gave special prominence to cults associated with his own career or his family. In 17 B.C. he had the "secular games" celebrated in honor of the new order of things and appointed Horace to write the Carmen Saeculare for the occasion. This and other literature of the Augustan age, particularly the poems of Vergil, give the impression of a religious revival actually in progress. Following the chaos and excesses of the last century of the republic, the old Roman character asserted itself once more and reverted anew to the familiar religio.

It is quite probable that in all this Augustus was less a leader and more a follower of public opinion than he is usually supposed to have been. Notwithstanding the scantiness of literary records there are yet data enough to prove that the ancient Latin religion was still a considerable factor in Italian life. Originally developed to meet family needs in a rural type of society, it continued to function in country districts and in cities, even, where family life survived. The charming pictures of the actual operations of the religion of Numa in Marius the Epicurean are just as true of first-century Italy as of the age of the Antonines. They can be matched by a dozen delightful sketches in the minor poets of the Augustan age and by more serious representations in Cato's treatise on agriculture. Also in the city milieu the religious routine of family life, the offerings to Vesta and the Penates at mealtime, and the celebrations at birth, marriage, or death, continued to be observed to the very end of paganism. In the Theodosian code of the late fourth century are the following prohibitions: "Let no man in any place in any city make sacrifice or worship the Lar with burnt offering, or the genius with wine, or the Penates with perfumes--let them light no lamp, burn no incense, hang no garlands." Conscientious Romans habituated to the religious customs of family life were ready to give support to such a revival as history associates with the name of Augustus.

The cults devoted to the Olympian gods of Greece were far more widely influential over the Mediterranean area, than Roman religion ever was. Originally the various Olympians had been local divinities merely, charged with the protection of people living in a given territory. Gradually, the Hellenes came to associate together in larger political and social units, certain of the local cults acquired significance for the Greeks generally and then a society of Olympian gods was organized paralleling in its main features the social organization of the Greeks themselves. By the conquest of Alexander the Olympian cults were disseminated throughout the east and by a process of peaceful penetration they came to dominate the Capitoline pantheon in the West. The very conquests which brought disaster to other national and racial systems brought a new accession of influence to the calm Olympians. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods the gods of Greece stood out before the world as the personifications of Hellenic ideals and as departmental deities representing important interests in life.

It is only fair to recognize that among the traditional religions of the day the Olympian cults possessed certain distinct advantages not enjoyed by other systems. There was, first of all, the aesthetic monopoly they held. The most impressive public buildings in the Graeco-Roman world were consecrated as temples to them and the most beautiful statues wrought by Greek artists were their cult images. They were the inspiration of the best literature as of the finest art: the epics of Homer and Vergil, the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides, the Homeric Hymns and the odes of Pindar, the lyrics of Sappho, and the poems of Horace. The greatest public festivals of the time were celebrated in their honor--witness the Olympian games. Their temples were banks as well as sanctuaries, and the records of dedications and mortgages and sacred manumissions suggest the influence they had in the control of economic processes. In a variety of ways the Olympian cults dominated important phases of contemporary life.

Concerning the traditional religions generally, it may be said that the extent of their popularity and influence in the first century was dependent on their capacity to meet real social needs. There was still a demand for cults to take care of the larger group and community interests of Mediterranean peoples. This condition obtained even after the Greek city-states had lost their political identity and the native kingdoms of Anatolia had given way to Roman provincial units. The economic prosperity of cities as well as of individuals must be assured. The health of large aggregations of humanity living in restricted areas was an ever serious problem. Homes and the food supply must be protected against destruction by fire and flood and earthquake. In all such instances religion seemed to furnish the best guaranties of security. By the very circumstance of their local genesis the traditional survivals were well equipped to meet this range of community needs; and the civic pride manifested in the first century in the maintenance of particular cults attests the fact that they had functional value. The author of Acts, in a vivid scene, reflected the pride of Ephesus to be the "temple-keeper" for Artemis. and the Christian prophet of the Apocalypse, in his bitter words about "Satan's throne," rebuked the satisfaction that the Pergamenes took in the great altar of Zeus. Typically the gods of Greece continued to function as municipal saviors for cities widely scattered over the eastern half of the Mediterranean world, older local divinities frequently adopting the names and symbols of the Olympians. Altogether a greater vitality must be granted to established cults in their communal functioning than is usually allowed.


It was a characteristic Roman conviction that the primary function of religion was to serve the interests of the state and that as a guaranty of political prosperity the rites of religion were potent in the extreme. There was nothing individualistic about Roman religio. The individual had significance only as a member of a household and the household had significance only as a unit in the state. Just as the welfare of the family group was considered to be mainly conditioned by the preservation of pax with the numina, so the prosperity of the state was conceived to depend mainly on the maintenance of right relations with spiritual powers. Accordingly the Romans made their ius divinum as much a part of their civil law as the Jews did. Again and again during the centuries that saw Rome's rise to greatness and empire, the idea was emphatically expressed that her success was due to the scrupulous way in which the Romans observed their religious obligations. " 'Tis by holding yourself the servant of the gods that you rule," said Horace, addressing the typical Roman of his day. Livy composed his history and Vergil his epic to enforce the point. Equally when disaster befell the Roman state, the tragedy was attributed to the neglect of religious rites. According to the best Roman traditions political developments were, in the last analysis, determined by religious observances.

Because the Romans believed so strongly in the political efficacy of religion they made the extended effort, covering long centuries of their history, to adapt the religion of the home to the uses of the state. In this they signally failed. But in the first century A.D. the Romans were responsible for a unique religious development that temporarily seemed to meet their political needs with marked success. This was the Roman development of the oriental cult of the monarch, focused in imperial times on the person of the deified princeps.

During the century which began with Augustus and ended with Domitian, the cult of the ruler had its greatest growth and became an effective force throughout the Mediterranean world. Through the first half of the century the personal policy of the princeps himself in regard to apotheosis was marked by strange retroversions, each emperor almost invariably reversing the policy of his predecessor. With Augustus the divinization of the ruler became an established fact in the popular mind, even though it was not officially authorized in Rome and Italy. Tiberius encouraged the deification of Augustus, but was modest about claiming like honors for himself. Then Caligula became so insane in his demand for apotheosis that he incited serious race riots in the Semitic portions of his empire. Claudius, by contrast, practiced the reserve of Tiberius in the matter. By the beginning of the second century, however, the worship of the ruler was such a well-established and generally accepted phase of imperial policy that the growing Christian movement found itself seriously involved and its loyalty to the state definitely challenged because of non-participation in the cult. So important had ruler worship become in the minds of patriotic Roman citizens.

The political usefulness of the imperial cult in providing a religious sanction for the unification of the various races living within the Roman empire has not been seriously questioned either in the early Christian centuries or in our own. An exaggerated importance, however, has been assigned to this function, and the religious significance of the cult has been largely ignored. Nevertheless in the first century the primary meaning of the imperial cult was religious and only incidentally did it serve the practical purpose of a political expedient. When the student of history views the imperial cult in relation to the contemporary desire of Mediterranean peoples for peace and security and also in relation to similar quests conspicuous in the Orient from the very beginning of the historical period, he comes to a realization of what concrete and widespread cravings were met and answered by imperial religion.

The current belief in the ancient world was that the evils of present experience were too stupendous for human management. If they were to be cured, the remedy must come from beneficent spiritual powers above. Out of this fundamental conviction grew a great yearning for a heaven-sent, divinely equipped savior who could deliver men from their wretchedness. From early times this desire for a savior was associated with and found appropriate expression in the cult of the ruler. The Babylonian legend of the divine king Marduk who vanquished the monster Tiamat was a mythological reflection of this association. In the Jewish anticipation of a Messianic deliverer the idea was projected into the future. Egyptian and Assyrian and Hebrew prophets who contrasted the distressful conditions of the immediate present with the blessings certain to be realized under an ideal ruler gave iteration to the same yearning for a kingdom of God here on earth.

At the beginning of the Christian era these ancient hopes came to an impressive culmination with the reorganization of the Roman empire by Augustus. Wearied beyond expression by the continuous wars of the last hundred years and more, large numbers of people actually hoped and believed that Augustus himself would bring the iron age of strife to an end and usher in the new golden age of Saturn. In the well-known Fourth Eclogue of Vergil, in the sixth book of the Aeneid, and over and over again in the Odes of Horace, this confidence was repeated. Provincial inscriptions in honor of Augustus were keyed even higher in their expressions of appreciation and expectation. This mass of literary and epigraphic evidence cannot fairly be treated as fulsome compliment intended to flatter an egotistical prince. It is nearer the truth to regard it as a sincere expression of gratitude for real benefits. Augustus gave the world what it most needed at the time: peace and stable government. The people and especially the provincials responded by according him divine honors. So with the successors of Augustus, when the ruler was an able prince and the benefits realized were substantial, the apotheosis of the ruler was a popular expression of gratitude in religious terminology. The deified princeps was, to the Roman people, a symbol of social safety guaranteed by supernatural power.


Genetically related to the Roman imperial cult, yet persisting in an independent line of development and meeting a distinctive range of religious needs, were the various hero cults of the Greeks. It was a typical Hellenic point of view of great social and ethical significance that humanitarian activity was one of the surest ways of attaining divinity. Deus est mortali iuvare mortalem et haec ad aeternam gloriam via, wrote the elder Pliny, probably translating Posidonius. The hero-gods of the Greeks were the personifications of this great idea. They were divine beings of the second order, less than the gods yet more than men. Usually they were thought of as descended from at least one divine parent, as having lived on earth and performed some signal service for mankind, in consequence of which they had risen to rank as demigods after death. Heracles was one of the best loved of these Greek heroes. By his twelve labors he had proved himself the friend of humanity and in the end had been welcomed to Olympus. "Heracles has passed into the number of the gods," wrote Cicero. "He would never have so passed if he had not built up that road for himself while he was among mankind." In this laborious way the mortal son of Zeus and Alcmene became the immortal husband of the Olympian Hebe. The number of similar demigods thus revered by the Greeks was legion.

This is not the place to debate the question as to which element was primary in this combination, the divinity of the god or the humanity of the hero. Were these demigods originally gods who had degenerated to the level of glorious mortals, or were they able men and women who became minor gods? Suffice it to observe that in the development of these cults believers found in divine parentage a reasonable explanation for exceptional ability and in the beneficient activity of heroes an ethical justification for their apotheosis.

It is more important to note the distinctive functioning of these demigods in comparison with other divinities during the Alexandrian and imperial eras. The great gods of Olympus and the Capitol looked out for the protection of cities and states. But even in Periclean Athens the individual was not completely submerged by the polis. As an individual he was conscious of personal needs and interests that were outside the scope of his responsibility as a citizen. He was naturally ambitious to succeed in his vocation. There were times in life when he felt acutely the need for personal guidance or for recompense from disaster. Health must be conserved. He felt that he had a right to a full share in the good things of life, and he was not adverse to having special privileges, even, not shared with his fellowmen. In the cosmopolitan environment of Hellenistic and Roman times, such personal demands became more emphatic than ever before and religion was expected to serve these special purposes. It was here that the hero cults came in to take care of the more minute personal concerns of everyday life. Because the hero-gods had been human themselves they were very sympathetic with human needs and were experienced in meeting them. In their intimate, personal functioning the demigods of antiquity resembled the Roman Catholic saints of today.

This group of religions came to prominence in the Hellenic world about the fifth century B.C. During the Hellenistic age the cult nexus had an amazing growth, and again in the early imperial period there was a pronounced revival of hero worship. Hence it is possible by studying the cults of real persons in the historic period to form a vivid impression of the actual operations of this type of religion and of the kind of interests represented by it.

In classical times when civic interests were predominant in Greek states the founders of cities and colonies, and men otherwise pre-eminent in public service, were honored by divinization. Plutarch told of an annual commemorative service for the Greeks who fell at Plataea, which was celebrated down to his own day, and Pausanias noted that the heroes of Thermopylae and Marathon were accorded a like religious reverence. Later, as political interests tended to recede somewhat, more refined, cultural interests became prominent in connection with hero worship. Literary skill and intellectual acumen were given their meed of recognition by apotheosis. By command of the Pythoness herself Pindar was awarded equal first fruits with Apollo at Delphi. Homeric cults were practiced by the litterati at Smyrna and Alexandria. Schools of philosophy adopted the custom. So scientific a thinker as Aristotle consecrated at Stagira an altar in honor of Plato. Even Epicurus made provision in his will for regular memorial services of a religious character. While the imperial cult was at its height in Roman times there was a persistence of hero cults in private practice as well. No one was more extravagant in observances of this sort during the early second century than was the Emperor Hadrian in ordering the worship of his dead favorite Antinous. Strangely, this exotic cult continued for more than a hundred years after the emperor's death. The saintly Marcus Aurelius was not only the object of the usual official apotheosis, but his own statues were given a place among the household penates in many a pious Roman home. That the ambition for apotheosis might amount to a suicidal mania in a given instance was shown by the self-immolation of Perigrinus at Olympia. There is no doubt that he was quite as eager to become an immortal as were his Cynic brothers to hail the event. Famous instances indicate that hero cults in great variety were widely popular in imperial times.

By far the most popular of the hero-gods of Greece was Asclepius, the divine patron of the healing art. His cult was concerned with such fundamental and practical matters that it could not be otherwise than of general interest. Problems of sickness and health are universal, vital, precarious. Ancient theories usually attributed disease to the wrath of a justly angry god or to infection by a malignant demon. On either theory, the cure of disease was a concern of religion and the remedy must be supplied by beneficent spiritual power. Asclepius was the hero-god who specialized in operations of this kind and his sanctuaries were the sanitoria of the Graeco-Roman world. The most famous of them was at Epidaurus on the east coast of Greece, but there were others of great repute: at Athens close under the Acropolis, at Pergamum and Smyrna in Asia Minor, on Cos and other islands of the Aegean, tnd at the imperial capitol on the Tiber island. Indeed the Asclepius cult was ubiquitous in the Roman world.

At the various Asclepeia healings were accomplished in different ways. There was a good deal of thaumaturgy involved, doubtless, but there was also much sound and scientific medical practice as well. Archaeological remains make it plain that a healthful location, a pleasing environment, a sane regimen, a variety of recreational activity, and a great confidence in the power and benevolence of the god, all contributed to the results obtained at the Asclepius sanctuaries.

So great was the gratitude of the Graeco-Roman world to this hero-god for his beneficence that there was a spontaneous movement to make him a god of the first rank and to identify him with the supreme god, Olympian Zeus himself. To quote the words of one of his enthusiastic devotees, Asclepius was "the one who leads and controls all things, the savior of the whole world, and the guardian of mortals." In art the bearded Asclepius type became canonical and there are cases in which it is difficult to determine whether the god represented was Zeus or the human son of Apollo. Thus by his healing activity the man-god won a place for himself at the very head of the Olympian pantheon. Because the benefits guaranteed by the hero-gods were concrete and generally desired, hero worship was a popular religious usage among Gentiles.


It is a curious circumstance that the very cults which were most widely and genuinely popular in the Graeco-Roman world are the least known in detail to religio-historical students today. The mystery religions of Greece and the Orient which came the nearest to satisfying the religious needs of the average man in the early imperial era are today still much of a mystery, and it is altogether likely that they will remain so. Under the circumstances it could not be otherwise; for the only people in a position to give dependable information concerning these cults were the initiates themselves, and they were pledged to absolute secrecy concerning the essential features of the mystery system. Almost without exception the vow was conscientiously observed, being enforced both within the brotherhood and from the outside with a rigor that amazes the inquisitive modern mind. The uninitiated, even, resented the illegitimate disclosure of matters supposed to be kept secret and united with the initiated to prevent such a violation of sacred things.

There are historical incidents that illustrate the reverential attitude of the ancients toward the secrets of the mysteries. Andocides, the Attic orator, and Alcibiades, the spoiled favorite of the Athenians, were both implicated in the serious charge of profaning the mysteries. The former was condemned to forfeit certain civil rights and went into exile, while the latter was recalled from the ill-fated Sicilian expedition to stand trial for his impiety. Widely traveled and well-informed Greeks like Herodotus and Pausanias might have written much about the mysteries--and in fact they did tell something. But invariably, when they were on the verge of some significant disclosure, they would stop short and follow the traditional custom of maintaining a propitious silence. "I could speak more exactly of these matters," Herodotus acknowledged regarding the Egyptian mysteries, "for I know the truth." Then he quickly added, "But I will hold my peace." In like manner, Pausanias, after conducting his reader to the very portal of the Eleusinian precinct, there left him disappointed with the unsatisfying explanation: "My dream forbade the description of the things within the wall of the sanctuary, and the uninitiated are of course not permitted to learn that which they are prevented from seeing." Lucius Apuleius, of Madaura, who detailed an extensive account of his own initiation without telling precisely what was said or done, could affirm of his narrative: "I have told you things which, although you have heard them, you cannot know the meaning." When he himself was on trial for magical practices he stoutly declared that he could not be compelled to disclose to the uninitiated what he had received under vow of secrecy. This in its bare simplicity was the typical pagan attitude toward the privacy of the mysteries. To the modern scholar it is inconvenient and annoying. At the same time it is worthy of admiration.

As a result of this ancient conspiracy of silence, the actual literary remains of the mystery cults are scanty and fragmentary in the extreme. Here and there obscure formulas are quoted; a few hymns and prayers have been preserved in part; a comic poet parodies an initiation and a devotee describes the process in figurative language; Christian propagandists denounce the mysteries wholesale as a part of the Satanic system of paganism. The other literary remains of these cults are but chance references and vague allusions from which little can be learned. When all these literary data are assembled and combined with the equally slight amount of archaeological material extant, the sum total of it all seems meager and unimpressive, particularly when compared with the great monuments of traditional paganism, literary, epigraphic, and artistic.

Although sources of information concerning the mystery cults are notably defective in quantity, yet the popularity of these religions and their widespread influence in the Roman world cannot be doubted. Indirectly this is proved by the blistering vigor of Christian denunciations leveled against the gentile religions of redemption. From Paul to Augustine the mysteries bore the brunt of the Christian polemic against paganism. The fathers of the early church knew these cults as the strongest rivals that Christianity had, and with sour eloquence they testified to the popularity of the mysteries among gentile religionists.

Very directly the scattered fragments of mystery literature--the testimony of initiates and eyewitnesses--attest the strength and quality of mystery influence. One cannot read the Odes of Pindar, devout Orphic that he was, or the prayers of a fervent Isiacist like Lucius, or the Consolatio of a serious-minded Plutarch, or the encomia of Aristides and Julian, without realizing that the mysteries were real means of grace to many a convinced and sincere pagan. These cults had their apologists; Ianmblicus, for example, and Porphyry, and Proclus. If their testimony has to be reduced somewhat in evaluation because of its apologetic character, full value must be allowed to the objective statements of disinterested witnesses like Cicero and Epictetus. Mystery literature may be defective in quantity, but it is truly impressive for its fervor and the undoubted tone of sincerity that pervades it.

A realistic impression of the extent of mystery influence in the ancient world may be secured by observing the distribution of mystery chapels and other archaeological remains. For the most part the tangible monuments of the mysteries were very unpretentious in character, and were concentrated at the centers of population. The inscriptions which glimpse the group life within gentile religious brotherhoods have been found in a majority of cases in the great seaports. Mystery chapels have been unearthed in cities all over the Roman empire. They vary all the way from great and world-famous shrines, like the Eleusinian, to small chapels in private houses. In Rome a subterranean pagan basilica was recently discovered near the Porta Maggiore; and Rome had also her temple to the Phrygian Mother crowning the Palatine itself. It is a familiar fact that the limes of the Roman Empire can be roughly sketched simply by marking the mithraea located in the frontier camps of the Roman army. And it is also a matter of common knowledge that Rome's nearest seaport, Ostia, was thickly dotted with mithraic chapels. In view of the distribution of mystery monuments and the character of mystery sources generally, we may conclude, in the words of a well-known historian, "It would not be a mere rhetorical figure if one were to designate the religious history of the Mediterranean world in the early imperial period as the age of the mysteries."

When the reason for the immense popularity of this group of religions is sought, it is found in their capacity to meet the most insistent religious demands of the age. They gave assurances to the restless, questing masses of people in the Roman empire such as neither philosophy nor ethics nor traditional religion could give. More particularly they answered to the demand of the individual man for special and unusual privileges in his religious relationships. The public performances of traditional religion, the healings accomplished by Asclepius and the oracles vouchsafed by Apollo, the omens interpreted by the augur and the charms formulated by the magician--these were more or less common property shared by all who could pay the price. But the average individual in the Roman Empire was not satisfied with these common goods. He desired unique religious privileges, made certain through personal attachment to a particular god who was especially interested in him. Dulled by the monotony and discouragements of everyday experience, he felt the need for emotional stimulation and uplift. Depressed by the injustices and defeats of life, he craved the assurance of recompense in the future. The demand for emotional stimulation and for the assurance of a happy immortality were among the most important religious needs that the mysteries aimed to satisfy.

There were other less important and more superficial reasons for the success of these cults. Their rites were exceedingly attractive. The pageantry and processionals of the public celebrations appealed to Mediterranean tastes and had no little propaganda value, while the intimate rites of the esoteric services were designed to stimulate a varied and richly emotional type of religious experience. The doctrines of the mysteries, cast in mythological forms, were to a degree satisfying to the intellect. They gave a comprehensive and intelligible explanation of the universe, and provided pictorial answers to inevitable questionings as to the how and why of things. The very antiquity of the mysteries was in their favor and there was a tendency for each cult to claim precedence on the basis of greater age. Also the secrecy and esoteric character of the gentile religions further enhanced their reputation. Finally, it should be asserted that the mystery religions, particularly in their Roman development, were readily responsive to the ethical demands of the age. In summarizing the reasons that account for the remarkable diffusion of mystery cults throughout the Roman world, Cumont concludes:

"These religions gave greater satisfaction first of all to the senses and emotions, in the second place to the intelligence, and finally and chiefly to the conscience.... They offered, in comparison with previous religions, more beauty in their ritual, more truth in their doctrines, and a superior good in their morality."

A great variety of mystery religions flourished in the Roman empire. Almost every separate geographical area east of the Adriatic developed and contributed to the mystery group a typical cult of its own. The Phrygian plateau and the plains of Thrace, where emotionalism ran high, seem to have been the great primitive centers for this type of religion. Thrace was the homeland of the Dionysian and Orphic movements, which spread broadly over Hellas and Magna Graecia in recurrent tides of religious revival. To Eleusis in Attica the world was indebted for the evolution of the Eleusinian mysteries, the very finest product of the religious genius of the Greeks. Nor should the Samothracian or Andanian mysteries be forgotten, for they were well known both to Greeks and to Romans. Anatolia gave to Rome the cult of the Great Mother of the Gods and Syria shared with the empire in devotion to a goddess who was known simply as Iasura, i.e., the Syrian goddess. Also there flourished in the east Mediterranean territory the cult of Aphrodite and Adonis, a divine pair known to Phoenicia as Ashtart and Eshmun and to Mesopotamia as Ishtar and Tammuz. On the Iranian plateau the mysteries of Mithra had their initial growth and in the Nile valley the cult of Isis and Osiris originated, each embodying characteristic phases of Persian and Egyptian culture. These were only the most famous of the Graeco-Oriental mysteries. Apart from them many an ignored local cult functioned significantly in its own day and place.

As a result of their diversity of origin, the Graeco-Oriental mysteries exhibited many differences in detail. In fundamental character, however, they were alike, and so markedly differentiated from contemporary systems as to warrant grouping them together under the common classification of mystery religions. By contrast with the established gentile cults they were purely individualistic in character, concerned not with the material welfare of a particular race or nation or city, but with the salvation of the individual soul instead. It is but a complementary statement to add that because of this individualistic emphasis the mysteries came to assume the character of cosmic religions to a degree that was impossible for other gentile systems. Furthermore, the mystery cults were outstanding as religions of redemption par excellence. The salvation they had to offer was spiritual and other-worldly. The individual could not hope to attain it as a result of his own unaided efforts. What the mysteries guaranteed was that on account of the devotee's attachment to the lord of the cult his salvation could and would be fully accomplished for him. Uniformly, the mystery deities were conceived as hero-gods of the dying and rising type, who had suffered to an exaggerated degree the ills to which flesh is heir; but in the end they had gloriously triumphed. Because of this archetypal experience of the god, the initiates might feel sure of a similar victory over the evils of human experience. "Be of good cheer, you of the mystery. Your god is saved. For us also there shall be salvation from ills." This in exact mystery terminology was the guaranty of each cult. The mysteries were also distinguished as sacramental religions wherein salvation was conditioned upon participation in a prescribed ritual. By means of initiatory rites which included ablutions and purifications the candidate was made a fit person to approach deity. Finally, in culminating rites of communion and revelation and deification, the union of divinity and humanity was experientially accomplished. But the chief distinction of the mysteries in comparison with other gentile cults was the fact that they were eschatological religions which had to do with the ultimate issue of death itself. When the imperial cult promised a kingdom of God on earth and the state religions granted,in Elysian land to the favored few, the mysteries gave to the ordinary man the prized assurance of immortality of soul in a happy hereafter.

Because of these common characteristics and the nonexclusive religious habits of the Gentiles and the eclectic tendencies of the age, it was inevitable that the mysteries should undergo a considerable degree of fusion during the Graeco-Roman period. None of the mysteries demanded an exclusive religious loyalty on the part of its adherents. Hence it was a common custom for initiates to belong to more than one religious brotherhood at the same time. Lucius Apuleius actually bankrupted himself in order to secure initiation into various secret cults, and Tatian, in his quest for truth, joined one mystery after another. Plutarch's friend Clea, to whom the treatise on Isis and Osiris was inscribed, was equally a devotee of the Delphic Dionysus and the Egyptian Isis. Among the clergy as well as the laity non-exclusive religious practices were in vogue. An Attis of the Phrygian Mother might at the same time be a Father in the Mithraic mysteries. Lucius, before his Isiac initiation, was assigned to the tutelage of a mystagogue who bore the significant name "Mithra." A more striking case of varied clerical functioning was recorded in a Latin inscription which designated one and the same man as Pater Patrum Dei Solis invicti Mithrae, Hierofanta Hecates, Dei Liberi Archiboculus, taurobolio criobolioque in aeternum renatus.

Under conditions such is these an interchange of formulas and symbols and beliefs and practices was the natural consequence. There was a theocrasia in the mystery group of religions corresponding to that accomplished between the Capitoline and Olympian systems. The likenesses of the various pairs of mystery divinities were unmistakable, the mother goddess embodying all the powers of nature and the suffering son or lover exhibiting life in action. So the Phrygians recognized their Magna Mater in the Syrian goddess and the Greeks saw Dionysus in the person of Osiris. This tendency to identify deities with one another culminated in the assertion, not infrequent in mystery documents, that a given god or goddess represented the totality of the divine nature. Picturesque rites, even, passed from one cult to another. The taurobolium, historically the great sacrament of the Magna Mater, was so conspicuously appropriated by the Mithraists that it is popularly associated with the Persian rather than with the Phrygian cult.

To a greater or less degree all the mystery religions were subject to the process of fusion, but none to a greater extent than the Orphic movement, which in Roman times largely lost its identity. In fact the process of syncretism, which was characteristic of almost every phase of Graeco-Roman thinking, cannot be studied more effectively than by investigating the development of the mysteries in Hellenistic and Roman times.

The fact of fusion among the mysteries causes peculiar problems to the modern student. This is the dilemma: either to study the various cults separately, as Loisy does, for example, or to view them en masse as a single great religious system. The latter is the method of Reitzenstein, in whose latest volume the "mystery religions" become "the Hellenistic mystery religion." The former method is apt to give a false impression of the whole religious situation in the Graeco-Roman world and to picture it as more chaotic than it actually was. On the, other hand, the synthetic study of the mysteries is apt to neglect the distinctive contribution of each to the religious life of the age and, at the same time, to attribute to a given cult phases of some other system. Under the circumstances, the most nearly exact procedure would seem to be to emphasize those fundamental aspects of the mystery type of religion which were characteristic of all the cults in common and to balance this with a detailed investigation of the idiosyncrasies of each particular cult.

For membership in each and all of the mysteries there was one absolute sine qua non--participation in special rites of initiation. Membership in national religions was an involuntary matter. The accident of birth into a given race or nation made one automatically a member of the state church. In the case of the mysteries, however, membership was a volitional matter. It was contingent, first of all, upon the individual's own personal choice and his further willingness to submit to the prescribed rites. Thus it was that mystery initiation came to be considered a matter of very great importance by many gentile religionists. Without this single prerequisite there could be no share in the religious privileges that the mysteries and the mysteries alone could guarantee.

What, more precisely, was the central meaning of mystery initiation for the individual neophyte? What difference did it make for the person who shared in the rite? What, if anything, was actually accomplished by the antique liturgy? In view of the general social situation in the Graeco-Roman world, what was the functional significance of mystery initiation in relation to contemporary social processes generally? These are fundamental questions that can be answered, if at all, only after a detailed study of actual initiation experiences in the various cults, together with an equally analytical investigation of the social milieu in which the mysteries operated.

Next: Chapter II: The Greater Mysteries At Eleusis