The elitist – or how the world has (not) changed

Most of the surviving information on ancient Roman religion was produced by the Roman elites. This is especially true with regard to written sources, which preserved theological notions, rituals and interpretations of religious practices. Yes, interpretations: since Roman religion had no orthodoxy, whatever bits and pieces of theology have come down to us are necessarily a point of view and not the mandatory interpretation of religion. We know what the Roman elites thought and did, but the plebeian version is mostly a mystery. A rare glimpse was preserved by Seneca, who described what common folks did in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus: telling the god the time of day and names of His worshipers, bathing or pretending to bath His statue, mime-acting. But the description wasn’t done with the intent of preserving alternative beliefs or practices. Rather the goal was to condemn what people did as inappropriate, ridiculous or superstitious. This, of course, was the point of view of a member of the elite, but no doubt lower social strata had a different opinion.

Why am I writing about this? Because often people forget how much of the surviving information on ancient Roman religion is not only fragmentary, but also biased. And I don’t mean as in written by Christians or someone with an anti-polytheist agenda. I mean biased as in socially discriminatory: it reflects the views of the higher social groups, which had large villas, grand rural properties and could therefore reproduce and maintain private cults that reflected – and sometimes supplied a model for – public religion, with its grand temples, processions and feasts. That was a world apart from the daily life of ordinary Romans, most of which lived in small dwellings or apartments, had little wealth and limited room for a religious life at home. Yet oddly enough, some – dare I say many? – modern cultores seem to forget that and expect people to do what the Roman elites did. That, they would argue, is how things must be done, the right way to worship. These are the elitists of our days, forgetful of how the upper classes were only part ancient Rome and that our modern lives are in many ways as limited as those of the ancient lower social strata.

A lot if not most of us today live in cities, modern cities, which don’t always have a rural setting just a couple of blocks down the road. Most of us today live in apartment buildings or small dwellings, not a country house or a large mansion with a surrounding plot of land. A balcony is perhaps the closest thing to a yard we often have and even a backyard or a terrace may be shared with the neighbours. At the risk of stating the obvious, most of us don’t use fire at home on a daily basis because electricity has largely replaced the role it had in the past. Some don’t even use fire to cook anymore, having replaced it with electrical appliances. And we generally don’t live in places with the usual layout of an ancient Roman villa, where certain home shrines were traditionally placed in a given room. In this and other things, modern life is similar to that of ordinary Romans, but whereas they could resort to public temples and festivities and thus sort of go around the limitations of their domestic life, modern polytheists have no such luck. Today, it basically comes down to what we can do at home. Occasionally we use parks at the risk of having our ceremonies disturbed or outright interrupted. Sometimes we resort to a shared yard or terrace, though that has its risks also. We may drive or take a bus to a nearby woodland, beach or rural plot of land, but that’s hardly a solution for daily rites, not to mention when the weather doesn’t help. Home is where our shrines usually are and home is where we perform a lot if not almost all of our ceremonies. That’s okay, for there is such a thing as domestic religion, but it has little or no public options to complete it and it’s a modern home, often urban, not an ancient Roman villa.

Roman polytheists should worship celestial deities facing east? Sorry, but that’s not always possible: some people have a fireplace, yes, but it might be in another quadrant of the house. The same goes for a kitchen stove and windows, which are a good option on a sunny day when you want to burn offerings without filling your home with smoke. In many cases, one may simply have to do away with the whole idea of burning food in a ritual fire and satisfy him/herself with a candle and sticks of incense. Modern apartments aren’t built with Roman religion in mind. Your Lararium should be in the entry hall or living room? I’m afraid a lot of people can’t do that: some modern houses don’t even have a hall anymore, in other cases it’s a very small one and some of us share flats with family or friends, which makes it harder for common rooms to be religiously personalized. A cultor should have certain objects in his/her home shrine made from this and that material? Again, a lot of us may not have enough room for it and alternative items may be cheaper. Like the common Romans of old, we may not have the financial means of the elites.

Now I’m not saying that the surviving information, biased as it may be, should be ignored. As a reconstructionist, historical data is to me a reference, a solid basis on which I start building my religious practices. I’ll stress: start building. It’s not the whole of my life as a cultor and most certainly not in a world that has changed a lot since the fourth century. Put things into perspective. Be mindful of History together with a practical sense. Not everyone in the past lived in a villa or was a nobleman and often people had to adapt using standard traditions as a reference. No reason why it shouldn’t be any different today and despite the occasional tendency to look at what the elites did as “the right way”. Preferable at best, but not the only way.


8 thoughts on “The elitist – or how the world has (not) changed

  1. You are discussing a very relevant and interesting topic. In my opinion it’s extremely difficult to apply some modern social categories or analytical perspective (i.e. elite) to the ancient world and in particular to the Roman world highly based on the “quality” differences among individuals, gentes, free or slave people, and so on. They had no idea of social class, working class, nation, egualitarism and so on. The same idea of Justice, Freedom or Democracy (also the sense ofr value of Life and Death) was completely different from the modern ones.

    However historys is always written by the “winners” or “certain” kind of men and women who have the power to write and transmit “history”: in the past as well as in the current times. Billions of common people, peoples, nations and cultures desappeared throughout the ages. Just in recent times we have discovered the violent end of the so-called Roman Paganism: how many men and, above all, women were killed just because they had a different religion! Conventional history just cancelled them with a trait of a pen. The same happened in America with the native communities and nations: just cancelled.

    That said, it is extremely difficult for us modern to “live” the Roman Traditional Religion exactly as it was in the past just thinking that 2000 years have passed since then. We have nothing in common with the Ancient Roman, maybe just few linkages trasmitted by traditional knwoledge. We thus have to live that tradition in a modern perspective giving more emphasis to the meaning and deep sense of certain rites than their practical execution itself. Dressing like a Roman Augur doesn’t make you an Augur. Years and years of studies, spiritual exercises, and a real “spiritual illumination” are necessary to achieve such a result even you commonly wear a T-shirt and blue jeans.

    This is the real difference between the “inner cult” and the “formal cult”: of course both are necessary in our religious life. Nonetheless, it means that our inner disposition towards the Deities, Nature, the Universe is a necessary pre-condition in being a Cultor: no matter if you live in an apartment in a big city or in the country. The first Lararium we have to build is inside our soul: the rest will come naturally…

    • Difficult as it is to apply modern social categories to the past, it is a fact that ancient Roman society had higher and lower social strata. Call them elites, aristocracy, nobility, plebes, commoners or whatever: there were those who had wealth and political power and those who did not, often by right of birth, though there were exceptions (Pompey being one such case). And then as today, family or personal finances were a factor in how ellaborate and rich one’s religious life was.

      Having sais this, you’re last sentence is spot on: “The first Lararium we have to build is inside our soul: the rest will come naturally…” Absolutely true!

  2. Good point, and good reminder. Whatever the terms,there were definitely haves and have-nots in Roman society, as there’ve been in most others.

    In Kemeticism, we deal with the same sort of issue with regard to ritual purity among other things, except that not only is our surviving information skewed toward the elites, it’s skewed towards the way *priests* did things in state-run temples. This comes up particularly in discussions about ritual purity, which was originally applied (in the surviving sources) to priesthoods with far more space, money, and personnel than even most ancient Egyptians had, let alone moderns.

    • I suspected it applied to other forms of polytheism and I can totally see what you’re saying. Information filtered by the elites is a problem, but when it goes through a priestly elite it can be even worse. Is there any considerable amount of information on what the common people did at home?

      • As far as I know, not at a lot. Most people were illiterate, and on top of that, the Egyptians only built temples and tombs out of durable stone. For human dwellings, from the lowliest hovel to the highest palace, they used the far more fragile mud brick.

      • Yup. Giving up acting like a priest in one’s bedroom or apartment and adapting is liberating and lets one get to the actual business of worshiping the gods. xD

  3. Pingback: The Elitist – or How the World Has (Not) Changed « WiccanWeb

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