Tag Archives: roman religion

The Emperor Julian and Divination

Julian in the ‘Thermes de Cluny’ — not my photo because my blog still won’t actually display uploaded media in posts

I just finished the second volume of J C Rolfe’s Loeb Classical Library edition of Ammianus Marcellinus’ (d. AD 390) history, the Res Gestae. What caught my mind the most in this volume was the Emperor Julian (called ‘the Apostate’), who died in AD 364 during his invasion of Sassanian Persia. Julian is called ‘the Apostate’ because of his conversion to paganism from Christianity in his youth. I am no Julian scholar, but there is a possibility that his conversion was in part driven by his response to the slaughter of his entire family and extended family save himself and his brother Gallus by the Emperor Constantius II when he was a boy in the ‘Summer of Blood’ (which is the title of a good article by R W Burgess). Whatever the causes, he was a strong adherent to traditional Graeco-Roman religion, the thing he is best remembered for.

Julian sported a beard like a philosopher emperor of old – indeed, he is compared to the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) by Ammianus on several occasions. He kept pagan philosophers around him and composed some of his own philosophical and poetical works of a traditional nature. He also sacrificed animals to the gods on a regular basis, besides reopening many of the temples closed in decades since Constantine (r. 306-337) converted to Christianity in 312. His zeal for traditional religion also involved the banning of Christians from teaching rhetoric, a move of which the pagan Ammianus disapproved.

What struck me throughout Ammianus’ narrative of Julian’s brief reign was divination, the foretelling of the future, whether through omens or haruspicy (examination of entrails) or augury, etc.

Before his rise to the principate in AD 360 by acclamation of his troops in Paris (hey, I’m there right now!) and his gaining of sole rule in 361 upon the death of Constantius II (r. 337-361), he was already secretly practising traditional religion, including the arts of divination which foretold that he would rise to become Augustus (the formal title of the Roman emperors).

However, in 363, Julian decided that the best move for him to take was an invasion of the Persian Empire, partly in retaliation for some Persian activities on the frontier, partly in a show of one-upmanship to the deceased Constantius, who had only engaged the Persians in defensive warfare. He would take the battle to the Sassanians themselves.

As a good pagan with interest in divination, he made his consultations, and the omens turned up bad. In fact, all sorts of bad omens turned up. Julian chose to ignore the official augurs and haruspices and listen to the court philosophers instead, who gave lucky interpretations to the variety of omens that kept on happening or dismissed them as simply natural phenomena.* Whether or not every single omen discussed by Ammianus actually occurred cannot be said for sure, but I think that if one lived in a culture with omens as a regular part of daily life and plan-making, they could be found anywhere and everywhere.

So, despite the omens, Julian set out. And as he went, time after time, bad omens fell, such as his horse falling down and scattering its royal raiment. Time after time, the official diviners told him to go home. Time after time, he ignored them and pressed further and further into Persian territory, going so far, eventually, to burn ships and supplies, thus effectively stranding his armies a vast distance from the Roman border (a move that St Augustine of Hippo decried as a very dull-witted move in The City of God).

And then, one night, there was a shooting star – which Ammianus rightly notes could not possibly be an actual star, but he had no concept of other pieces of space debris that could appear in the heavens. Anyway, Julian consulted the Etruscan haruspices, and they said that:

any undertaking at that time must be most carefully avoided, pointing out that in the Tarquitian books, under the rubric “On signs from heaven” it was written, that when a meteor was seen in the sky, battle ought not to be joined, or anything similar attempted. When the emperor scorned this also, as well as many other signs, the soothsayers begged that at least he would put off his departure for some hours; but even this they could not gain, since the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination, but since day had now dawned, camp was broken. (Amm. Marc., Res Gestae 25.2.7-8, trans Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library)

The next day, the Emperor Julian was stabbed and died of his wounds later on, discussing philosophy with the court philosophers to the end, after the manner of Socrates.

The statement in the Ammianus passage above is interesting, that ‘the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination’. This is by no means an accurate statement based on Ammianus’ other evidence for Julian’s behaviour, including a discourse about Julian’s own skills in that art. Rolfe says in his footnote that this opposition came only when divination conflicted with Julian’s plans.

And here’s what I think most interesting about Julian’s relationship with divination. This is a man wholly committed to his own philosophy and religion. He engaged during his rule in a campaign of reconsecrating temples, recommencing sacrifices, desecrating Christian churches, barring Christians from certain professions, fostering pagan philosophical schools, and making himself out as a mythological figure adopted by the gods themselves. His devotion to traditional Roman religion combined with the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity can not remain in doubt. He was as sincere a pagan as Augustine was a Christian, even if Ammianus felt him superstitious rather than a legitimate observer of sacred things.

Yet, when push comes to shove, personal desires can trump belief. Julian wanted to invade Persia. The auspices, the auguries, the haruspices, the various omens, the Sibylline Books – none of these mattered. All that mattered was his own wish, and he would ignore or reinterpret the omens to fit his own vision, regardless of his personal piety.

There is a lesson here, I’m sure. Certainly a lesson in human nature, that all of us, even the sincere, can trump our own beliefs by other passions and drives. And perhaps that is lesson enough.

You can read Ammianus Marcellinus online here.

*The dismissing of an omen as a natural phenomenon is to ignore the essence of what an omen is, if you ask me. The point of an omen is that the supernatural is impinging upon the natural world to send a message using the available stuff that we see all around us. Notably, this is why the Carolingian obsession with astronomical phenomena as omens is not the same as astrology per se nor necessarily a pagan holdover – they believed the God of the Christians was communicating with them all the time, and the heavens were amongst his methods. A good essay on Carolingian star-gazing is P E Dutton ‘Of Carolingian Kings and Their Stars’, in Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age.

Doctor Who: ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ & The Chariots of the Gods

I actually contemplated writing a proper ‘article’ on this subject for a little while, then I decided not to. But, having just rewatched ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ tonight, I can’t help from at least blogging about it. Three bits follow — a synopsis, a discussion of Roman religion, and then the TARDIS of the Gods. Each has a heading in bold if you’d like to skip ahead.

First of all, for those of you haven’t watched the episode, go now. Donna is my favourite of the Doctor’s companions in the 2005 reboot. So she’s obviously worth watching.* And it’s an episode about ancient Roman stuff. So it’s obviously worth watching. And it’s Doctor Who. So it’s obviously worth watching. (Here are my thoughts on the greatness of Doctor Who).

Second of all, watch it. Now.


Third of all, if you’re really determined not to watch it or you’ve forgotten stuff, here’s a brief run-down of the episode. If you remember the episode or don’t care to read the synopsis, skip ahead to the next bold text. The Doctor and Donna, intending to visit ancient Rome, accidentally end up in Pompeii the day before Vesuvius erupts. Caecilius (qui est pater) buys the TARDIS when the Time Lord’s not looking, and when the Doctordonna go to rescue it, they discover that the local augur and Caecilius’ daughter, herself a member of the Sibylline Sisterhood, have actual psychic and prophetic abilities; this goes for all of Pompeii’s fortune tellers and suchlike.

These two in particular say things that make sense and come true. They know that the Doctor is from Gallifrey and Donna, called Noble, is a daughter of London. It turns out that this is because there are creatures called Pyroviles living in Mt Vesuvius and the whole city of Pompeii’s hypocausts (Roman central heating) are connected to the molten core of the volcano, and dust from the Pyroviles is being inhaled by everyone, especially the fortune tellers, who purp0sefully inhale the vapours of the hypocausts. The Pyroviles are enabling Pompeiians to lock into latent human psychic capability; there’s also a rift in time enabling them to see into the future with said capability.

Long story short, in order to save the whole earth from the Pyroviles, the Doctor must sacrifice Pompeii. At Donna’s insistence, he rescues Caecilius and family.** At the end of the episode, we see young Quintus sacrificing to the Household Gods, who are represented by the Doctor and Donna, the TARDIS in the middle.

Doctor Who and Roman religion

What currently interests me in this episode is its relationship to ancient Rome. The religion of ancient Rome, at its ‘primeval’ (I guess?) root, is a religion centred around the numinous. To the Roman mind, the universe is populated by a great variety of numina, of spiritual beings of various sorts (I’ve blogged about this in relation to St Augustine, in fact).

A numen is not necessarily a personalised being or hypostasis, persona, in the way we imagine the Greek Pantheon to be. Vesta is as much the spirit of the hearth as the hearth fire as a personal goddess, for example. Anything and everything could/did have a numen or possibly a genius, if a person or a city. A genius is more of a protecting spirit than the spirit of something itself. So sacrificing to the genius of Rome or of the Emperor is not entirely the same thing as sacrificing to Rome or the Emperor, although I imagine the categories in everyday life and ordinary human speech were not as clear as we want to make them.

A helpful term for this is possibly polydaimonic — many spirits, not many gods, which is polytheistic as we find in Greece. This polydaimonic aspect helps set Rome apart from Greece and helps explain why Romans did not think it quite so strange as post-Judaeo-Christian folks do that such luminaries as Romulus, Julius Caesar, and Augustus were divinised; the gods are at base spiritual creatures — and human persons have spirits of their own, liberated from this mortal coil upon death.

However, by AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted, the worldviews of Greek myth and religion had been assimilated into the worldview of traditional Roman cult surrounding the numinous. Various Roman gods took on the attributes of Greek counterparts, and in some literature lost any ‘Romanness’ at all.

Those are general remarks.

Amongst the numina of the Roman world are the household gods — the lares and penates. Part of daily life was rituals of thanksgiving/appeasement/propitiation/what-have-you of these divinities. To the Roman, completing the rituals exactly was important; if you screwed up, you had to start all over again, otherwise the thing would work. And if it did not work, things would not go well for you, either incurring the wrath of the gods or at least losing their favour. This is why Romans covered their heads when sacrificing — to prevent being distracted; thus this statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus:

The household gods turn up in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, both when Quintus express reluctance concerning propitiating them and at the end when he gives thanks to the Doctor and Donna as gods at the home shrine. Although there are various rituals associated with Roman household gods, this basic daily interaction with said numina is probably at the heart of the religious life of the average Roman — although, with most pre-modern peoples, where does ‘religion’ end and ‘ordinary’ life begin?

Lucius est augur. Caecilius est pater.

Another important part of Roman life was divination — astrology, taking auspices from birds, reading omens in sacrificed animals, discerning various other omens everywhere and at all times, consulting oracles (such as the Cumaean Sibyl, so popular from Vergil’s Aeneid Book VI), at some point the sortes Vergiliana which involve using random lines from Vergil’s poetry to make decisions, and (to give a non-exhaustive list) consulting oracular texts written long ago (or forged in the name of long ago) and contemplating their meaning (Sibylline Oracles or Orphic literature, par example).

‘The Fires of Pompeii’ has this most assuredly. It is the driving force of the action in the story — an official augur and a cult of Sibylline Sisters whose predictions are precise and correct. Although the Doctor refers to Lucius, the local augur, as representing the ‘official superstition’, it is the case that many Romans took the world of divination very seriously, right up to Ammianus Marcellinus, the Emperor Julian, and the pre-conversion Augustine in the fourth century. The numinous, the divine, has left its imprint in the visible world, and this imprint can be assessed and discerned for forecasting future events.

Why Romans (and Greeks — just read Xenophon’s Anabasis for a divination-obsessed guy) were so into divination and omens is a concern for another time. But they were, and the show basically gets this right, although there was never a Sibylline Sisterhood. Sibyls were a non-institutionalised (as opposed to the famous Oracle at Delphi) bunch of mortal, virgin, female seers of far antiquity who were born with the ability to predict the future. They were never organised and, as far as we know, never had a cultus surround them beyond the literature handed down in their names.

‘The Fires of Pompeii’ takes these two basic aspects of daily Roman religion to tell a tale of the destruction of worlds and the burden of the Time Lord.

Chariots (TARDIS) of the Gods?

I must admit that I’ve never read Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? But the argument of the book is that our mythology and concepts of gods are derived from our ancient, primeval contact with aliens. We mistook technology for the supernatural.

This is the basic premise of ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ — and not just the Doctor and Donna as household gods at the end. The Pyroviles are seen by their devotees as gods. Lucius the augur considers them as Vulcan when he meets them. The Sibylline Sisterhood simply refer to them as ‘the gods’.

This is a not uncommon theme for science fiction, and it recurs in Doctor Who in an alien culture with Series 7’s ‘The Rings of Akhaten,’ or similarly in Series 2’s ‘The Satan Pit’. When the Marvel superhero god Thor became a film in Thor (2011), rather than simply being the Aes we knew him to be from The Prose Edda, he was, rather, a member of an extremely long-lived race with an advanced civilisation, mistaken for gods by puny mortals. See also the films/TV shows Stargate (1994), Prometheus (2012), Star Trek: TNG ‘Who Watches the Watchers’ (1989), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and the Wormhole Aliens of Star Trek: DS9, amongst others.

And sometimes God is the final manifestation of Multivac. But that’s something else.

Anyway, point is, this is a not-unheard-of thread in science fiction. Related is the fact that magic is just science that Henry Pym hasn’t explained yet.

What it points to here, when coupled with the Doctor’s reference to augury as ‘official superstition’, is a downplaying of the potential of a vibrant presence of the numinous in our midst. If something’s going on, there will be a materialist explanation for it in most science fiction.

This makes for great stories, and a lot of fun science fiction. But it is still based on the philosophical presupposition of materialism — that matter is all there is. Yet what if it is not?

In the end, although I find a lot of Bajorans really annoying and wished more of Star Fleet had kept themselves skeptical, this is one of the important contributions of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that Doctor Who sometimes approaches (though not here), as in ‘The Satan Pit’ (which is ambiguous) and the stories involving pyschics — the question is left blurry. Are these beings what a modernist materialist would recognise as matter or energy, or are they somehow spiritual? How does something exist outside of linear time? Or what if the material can be utterly spiritual? Will new religions not possibly arise, as in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion?

Important questions — which is one of the points of Science Fiction.

The verdict on this episode? A none-too-bad representation of Roman religion in daily life with an imaginary cult and the unsurprising TARDIS of the gods for a lot of good old-fashioned fun, cutting into deep questions not only represented here but also the burden of the Time Lord and why the Doctor needs Donna.

*Actually, sometimes Wilfrid is my favourite.

**Almost wrote ‘et familia’, but that would have implied that he also saved Grumio and the other household staff. He did not.

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.