Augustine and the lesser gods of ancient Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

I am auditing a class on St Augustine of Hippo, most especially to get my mind around his Christology so I can comment on Leo’s intelligently. Nonetheless, all sorts of other interesting things are arising on the way (so far, no Christology, in fact), such as his discussion of Roman gods in City of God, Book IV.

In this book of his monumental work (the introduction to my volume [Penguin Classics] calls it the last great work of classical Latin; I, of course, am not so sure),  Augustine is attacking the ‘official’ and common religion of the Roman world through a frontal assault upon the divinities of the Roman world themselves. The usual anti-pagan polemic about the lascivious mythology surrounding the gods (as old as Justin Martyr of the 2nd century) comes up, as do discussions of more sophisticated visions of deity such as Jupiter is all the gods or a vision of pantheism/panentheism (apparently a Stoic thing).

Along the way, he mentions multitudinous divinities for the many aspects of life, from birth to death, and everything in between. He gives a catalogue of all the many divinities involved in the growing and harvesting of crops. He discusses so many gods that the list is exhausting — but by no means exhaustive. What Augustine has tapped here is the rich vein of the numinous that Romans traditionally find everywhere.

The English word numinous is from the Latin numen. A numen is the spirit of a thing. Not necessarily the spirit as a disembodied, metaphysical soul, although that can be the numen. More like the energy or force or power that lies behind and within something, that is associated with it. Before it became coalesced with Greek visions of deity — something that is almost complete by Virgil’s Aeneid — this was the primary encounter with the ‘spiritual’ that Romans had.

Everything was numinous. Beings we may call ‘less divinities’ were everywhere — the divinity/spirit of the hearth (Vesta), the divinity/spirit of all fire (Vulcan), the divinity/spirit of warfare (Mars), the divinity/spirit of water (Neptune), the divinity/spirit of abundant harvest (lots of choices, e.g. Ceres), the divinity/spirit of marriage (Juno), the divinities/spirits of the household (Penates), the divinities/spirits of the household who are ancestors (Lares), the divinity/spirit of the heavens & rain (Jupiter). And so forth.

In oldest Roman religion, these divinities were not always fully hypostasised personalities like their Greek counterparts Hestia, Hephaestos, Ares, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Zeus. Vesta is both the spirit of the hearthfire and the hearthfire. The Vestal Virgins keep her fire burning both as a ritual that is symbolic of the goddess and as a way to keep the goddess herself burning. The numinous is all around the ancient Roman.

And since the numinous is everywhere, watching your every move, you perform your rituals very carefully. You walk backwards spitting beans out of your mouth on the right day at the right hour to keep the Penates of your household happy. If you screw up, you start over again or risk the displeasure of the Penates. This is why, when we look at sculptures of the Emperor Augustus as a priest, he has his head covered. They would cover their heads with their togas like that when performing sacred rituals to prevent anything in their peripheral vision from distracting them from their task at hand.

This ritualistic element persists throughout all of Roman paganism, to the bitter end. Even upper-class Neo-Platonists who believe that there is only the One Who is Good, or Stoics who believe only in the World Soul, will engage in these rituals that are the lifeblood of Roman religion.

Augustine’s listing of them may be tiresome, but it is part of his attack on the entire Roman pagan metaphysical artifice. If these gods are not worthy of belief, then why sacrifice to them at all? Why call the One ‘Jupiter’ if you don’t believe any of the stories about Jupiter?

I think that having so many numina around made things difficult for the average, thoughtful Roman once their religion began to be Hellenised, let alone by Augustine’s age, as mentioned above. If these are individuated hypostaseis who live not in the temples but on Mt Olympos or in the heavens, why make statues or tend fires or sacrifice bulls? It seems a bit strange. And so they move along into Stoicism or Epicureanism or some form of Platonism.

Roman religion. The undercurrents of its pre-Hellenistic roots are visible even in St Augustine. Go read some classics.


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