The Roman New Age: Ours Isn't The First
Today, we are in the midst of a significant spiritual ferment, here in the West, which is known as the "New Age." If it has not yet changed our collective consciousness or way of life, it is, nonetheless, having an undeniable impact upon our civilization and pointing us, ever so slowly, towards new horizons. Just where is it that this New Age is taking us? Of course, it is impossible to say for sure. And yet, if there is any truth in the age-old wisdom that the secret of what is going to happen may be found in the knowledge of what has already happened, then perhaps we can gain some insight by looking back to a "New Age" which already took place. For, of course, ours is not the first "New Age" to ever unfold upon this troubled, seeking planet. Over twenty centuries ago, ancient Rome also experienced a New Age, and it might do us some good to consider what happened then.
The Original Roman Religion
Decline Of The Original Roman Religion
The Roman New Age: Astrology And Witchcraft
The Roman New Age: Sun Worship And Isis Worship
The Roman New Age: The Greek Mystery Religions
The Roman New Age: Christianity
The Roman New Age: Its Impact On Rome
The Roman New Age: Lessons For Us
The Original Roman Religion
Naturally, it is far beyond the scope of this article to explore the development of Roman religion in detail. But it may be said that from a mixture of local "Latin" beginnings, Etruscan beliefs and practices, and Greek religion, Roman religion gradually developed its classic shape and form. A series of official priests and religious bodies were created to supervise the spiritual life of the community. First, there was a College of Pontifices, or priests, headed by the Pontifex Maximus, whose duties included overseeing official, public observances of religious occasions, and managing the calendar, which contained many important festival days. This College also devised codes of sacred law, meant to provide guidance to individuals regarding their relationships with various deities and spirits. The codes were elaborate, even scholarly, and often "above the heads" of the common people, who had not time or appetite for such complexities.
Next, there was a College of Augurs. Augury, or the art of divination, was learned by the Romans from their Etruscan neighbors to the north, and generally relied upon the interpretation of signs and omens derived from nature (such as lightning strikes or storms), and especially upon observations of the flights of birds, to arrive at predictions of what the future might hold. The augurs were often consulted at times of important decisions, to see if certain courses of action proposed by the political leaders of Rome would meet with the favor of the Gods, or not. (If not, these actions might have to be delayed, or altered.) Etruscan haruspices might also be consulted. These religious figures would sacrifice animals, and study their entrails, which were considered to be "maps of the future." (In much the same way that a palm-reader makes interpretations based upon the physical features of a subjectís hand, so the haruspices followed a traditional framework for interpreting the features of the extracted organs, through which, it was believed, the Gods would send them the appropriate message.)
Besides this, there was a College of Fifteen Flamens: priests in charge of supervising sacrifices to the God which they represented (each flamen represented one God). Of these, the most important three priests were those who tended to the cityís relationship with Jupiter, Lord of the Sky and King of the Gods, the mightiest and most powerful of Romeís divine protectors; Mars, the God of War, crucial for the success of an ambitious military power; and Quirinus, which was the name for Romulus, the cityís founder, once he was believed to have become a God.
There were also the famous Vestal Virgins, who tended to a sacred fire kept burning in honor of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth. As each home had a hearth, the center of the household and the family, so the city had a hearth, and it was considered vital to keep it lit. When the Romans designated these women as "virgins", they werenít kidding. Any one of these priestesses who dared to violate her vow of chastity before her thirty years of service to the Goddess was at an end - thereby endangering the welfare of the city by estranging Vesta - was quickly buried alive. In the early days of Rome, "duty" came before "pleasure", no ifs, ands, or buts.
Finally, there was the Board of Fifteen for the Performance of Sacred Rites, a body of experts which, in times of national stress, was called upon by the Roman government to provide advice based upon the prophecies in the Sibylline Books. These books were a collection of the utterances of the ancient Sibyls, or priestesses, from the ancient oracle at Cumae. Cumae, a town settled by the Greeks in the days when Greek colonists had populated large areas of southern Italy, before the rise of Rome, was famed for these priestesses, who were essentially mediums, open to being "possessed" and spoken through by the God Apollo (much like the priestesses of Delphi). Sometimes sought out and consulted, the "Sibyl of Cumae" would deliver prophetic messages while standing on a rock, or from within her cave; or, at other times, suddenly be overcome in a spiritual ecstasy, and begin spouting forth mysterious messages, which were believed to contain profound truths within their outer form of madness. Attentive observers - priests, in general - made a point of recording all of the Sibylís utterances, and these recordings became the basis for the Sibylline Books, which were kept locked in a guarded vault below the Temple of Jupiter, and consulted in times of need, long after the phenomenon of the living Sibyls had died out. The ancient Roman leaders took these books so seriously, as a repository of divine insights which could alter the course of history, if properly understood and applied - as a kind of psychic secret weapon (far more potent than the prophecies of Nostradamus are viewed today) - that any unauthorized use of them was punishable by death.
Outside of, and below, this official state religious structure, meaningful to the collective life of Rome and respected by the citizenry, if not emotionally overpowering to them, was a more personal level of spiritual belief, centered on numina, or spirits, which were viewed as supporters of the individual and his family. For example, the spirits who watched over the familyís store of food (each family had a repository for these vital supplies) were known as penates. The lar familiaris was the spirit that watched over the family, including its servants, providing protection and well-being for all members. The head of the household, the all-powerful father, or pater familias, was the "head priest" of his house, leading his family in its worship of these spirits, and presiding over household rituals and prayers.
The Romans did believe in ghosts, and revered their ancestors. And they held varying degrees of belief regarding the nature of the afterlife, ranging from hopes for some kind of post-life bliss in the Elysian Fields (a kind of paradise, as opposed to the darker realms of Pluto where the wicked went), to the unpleasant concept of a shadowy, desolate netherworld, where even the souls of the heroic and the great flitted about, thirsty, deprived, and diminished, missing the blood and strength of life.
And this was the state of religion for which Rome was known best. Although, even in the beginning, there was a powerful connection between politics and religion in ancient Rome, and, therefore, a very strong public dimension to the practice of Roman religion, it is likely that there was also a real personal link between Roman individuals and the Gods they worshipped, in early times. It is likely that Jupiter meant something to the average Roman, and Mars, also. Back To Top
Decline of the Original Roman Religion
However, as time went on, the power of the classic forms of Roman religion began to fade. Much as has happened in our society, wealth, power, and success began to take the eyes of the Romans from the spiritual world. Distractions abounded: material possessions, glory, fame, or at least the dream of attaining these things, or sharing in these things, as the triumphs of others gave birth to beautiful public buildings, and exciting entertainments, which even the poor could enjoy (as they fantasized "making it" themselves, maybe through some business of their own, or through participation in a successful military campaign which might provide them with booty from a foreign land, or through gambling at the chariot races). Life on the earth began to offer so much that it began to seem like everything, and the Gods became more a facet of materialism, a means to gaining success in the material world, than real spiritual forces in peopleís lives. People sacrificed to them and prayed to them not to gain in spiritual strength, but to gain in earthly rewards, until the means were finally eclipsed by the end, and the Gods became less than what they could win.
As the power of Romeís material success began to diminish the force of its spiritual awareness, the same emphasis on reason and rationality which is at the center of our scientific mentality, today, began to take hold. The process of seeking to explain the material world in terms of itself and principles related to its own properties, or natural laws of the Universe not rooted in divine forces - a process initiated long before by the ancient Greek philosophers, beginning with the Milesians - was expanded and deepened. The practical, problem-solving mentality of the Romans was well-suited to interpreting reality in this way, and was naturally inclined to seek concrete and tangible explanations, rather than mystical ones, for every obstacle that was encountered. Until spirituality began to seem more and more irrelevant, even an impediment to achieving the concrete, material aims of a goal-oriented society.
Then, there was the influence of the Greek philosophy of Epicurus, introduced into Rome, which also played its part in this cultural shift. Epicurus was actually a brilliant and wise philosopher, though his beliefs were not always well-understood or applied. He believed that the highest good in life was pleasure. By "pleasure" he did not mean self-indulgence, reckless orgiastic behavior, or wanton overconsumption, however, but the absence of pain; and by that, he really meant freedom from fear. Epicurus believed that "superstition" - terrible fears of the unknown - severely degraded the quality of life on the earth, and so, he sought to rescue Humanity from these torments, by providing a more rational understanding of the Universe and how it worked. Although he did believe that Gods existed, he did not believe that they controlled the affairs of men, or interacted significantly with men on the earth (no punishments, curses, etc.), but that they existed more as examples, or ideals, to inspire more elevated standards of human conduct. Epicurus was, himself, a moral and thoughtful man, who, among other things, placed great value upon the ideal of friendship. And his general thrust was later reinforced by the Latin philosopher, Lucretius, famous for his work De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things"). However, Epicureanism, enlightening and liberating though it was for some, was naturally misapplied by others, and, as a result, much of Rome fell under the sway of a more shallow version of it, a misunderstanding, really, which weakened peopleís bonds to the spiritual world, while increasing their dedication to more tangible and direct forms of personal pleasure, such as eating, sex, and the acquisition of material goods. Not sins, by any means, but tendencies prone to excess once the moderating effects of spirituality were lost.
By the time of the Second Punic War, 218-201 BC - or about 550 years after the legendary founding of Rome - a Roman augur, while being carried by porters, drew down the blinds of his litter so that he would not have the opportunity to see any discouraging signs or omens along the way. This was in the midst of Romeís desperate struggle to save its very life from the genius of Hannibal, the Carthaginian mastermind who for 17 years kept Rome on the brink of destruction. The augurís action, while definitely indicating a degree of continued belief in the power of his occult art, also indicated the beginning of a shift away from it, an effort to shut out the spiritual world and replace it with the world of the human will, daring to rebel from its destiny, daring to make its own fate by means of its determination and its mastery of material forces. It was not long afterwards that the art of augury - so strange to the material sensibility that was gradually gaining strength in Rome - became an object of outright ridicule. With legions of trained warriors, brilliant engineers, roads, bridges, catapults, and vast fortunes to employ, why should political decisions any longer take into account the flight patterns of birds - whether an eagle appeared on the left hand or right hand of the Consul, as he was on his way to the Senate? In 83 BC, the Sibylline Books were destroyed in a fire, and another pillar of Romeís esoteric heritage was lost. And it was not long after that that an outright atheist assumed the position of Pontificus Maximus, the chief religious figure of Rome! (Around this same time, "street punks" and vandals began to deface and desecrate once-revered statues of Gods, with increasing frequency. The Gods had become merely statues.) Perhaps an ancient inscription from these times describes the new Roman ethos best of all: "Eat, drink, and be merry. The rest is nothing." Faith was gone, the Gods were gone, only the earth remained.
Of course, it was a natural response that once the quality of life on the earth began to decline, once life on the earth ceased to be so mesmerizing, and so captivating, that the need for spirituality would begin to be felt once again.
This did not happen all at once, but little by little. On the one hand, it must have begun as the adventure, the dream of Rome began to stagnate and lose its power. Up until then, the man who stood before death knew that some part of him, his children, would remain, would carry on, to triumph against his extinction. This was the "immortality" which the rational world provided. Beyond this, Rome, the society which the courageous citizen struggled to build and keep alive and project into the future, would survive his own personal death, preserving some part of his life, his effort, and his heart and soul in its continuation, as well as providing the shelter which would protect the life-extending legacy of his offspring. The Roman of rational days, therefore, was able to live without a deep longing for personal immortality in the spiritual sense, because non-spiritual forms of achieving immortality seemed to be within his reach, as long as he was able to engender offspring, and to take part in the construction of an all-powerful, everlasting empire which would forever contain his life and dreams in its texture, forever contain the drop of his soulís blood running through its veins. This, plus the distractions of earthly struggles destined to bear fruit, was enough to dull the pain of living without God, or connection to God, or a powerful conviction of life after death.
However, as Rome aged, as its vigor began to decline, and its dream to unravel, so the non-spiritual vehicle for escaping the anguish of personal extinction and death began to fail. People began to trust and respect Rome less to guard and preserve the meaning of their lives into the future. Whereas in the past, Rome had exuded vitality, and grown by leaps and bounds - each generation adding an adventure, a legend, a conquest, a victory of its own - after the decisive defeat by Germanic warriors in the Teutonburger Wald in 9 AD, the spirit of expansion was replaced by the spirit of retention, and the Roman Empire ceased to be a growing, expanding organism. It was, instead, forced to confront its limits for the first time, and to settle on defensive perimeters, formed by natural barriers such as the Danube and the Rhine, backed up by strings of outposts, fortresses, and garrisons; or sometimes man-made barriers such as Hadrianís Wall in England. While the period that followed, characterized by minimal wars and holding actions on the edges of the empire, is admiringly referred to as the Pax Romana - or Roman Peace - and considered, by many historians, to have been a paragon of political stability and imperial tranquility, the truth of the matter is that this change in attitude and demeanor also had a devastatingly powerful impact upon the soul of the individual Roman. Perhaps it is, as Bob Dylan once said: "He not busy being born is busy dying." For no longer did the empire seem to have a great purpose left, no longer did it seem to offer to the individual citizen quite the same space for making his own life count, for making his own generationís input special, and therefore meaningful and beyond deathís power. Instead, it now seemed that the purpose of those who were alive was to preserve the accomplishments of the dead, which did not give them an opportunity to live. Rome was frozen, stunted at a point in its past, and, in an emotional sense, only capable of preserving the lives of those who had already lived, not capable of allowing new lives to be fused into its immortal texture. It was like a ship, already full of passengers, that could carry no more.
Besides this subtle shift, which undermined the ability of Roman politics and Roman materialism to take the place of spirituality, other changes were also at work. The connection between the individual and Rome became somewhat less personal as the empire grew, larger in numbers, more deeply divided by class, and more culturally diverse. For many, Rome became less a "tribe" capable of receiving and enshrining their blood, and carrying it into the future, and more a kind of giant bureaucracy, in which the individual was frequently swallowed up, lost, abandoned, and disregarded. Seeing that not that many people genuinely cared about him even in his own day, it was difficult for the individual to believe the future could, in any way, be capable of cherishing and preserving him. (Poor people and slaves must have felt this way, especially.) Many Romans - just like some older people in our own day - must also have lamented the changes they saw taking place before their very eyes, as the virtues of "their own times" seemed to be eroded by declining values: as material excesses proliferated, with wild orgies, bloodthirsty and extravagant public spectacles, riots by the poor, civil wars, citizens no longer willing "to fight for their country", which necessitated the hiring of mercenaries, occasionally insane emperors, and repulsive banquets, in which the rich ate until they could eat no more, went to the "vomitorium" - a special room added to the houses of the wealthy, which was designed specifically for the act of vomiting - and afterwards returned to the banquet, to continue eating. They must have shaken their heads, and said, "Whatís Rome coming to?" Patriots or not, they must have lost the emotional sense that Rome, as it was becoming, was still capable of preserving and embodying the meaning of their lives, and the values which they held sacred, to the end of time. While others, more pessimistic still, must have begun to see Rome in the same way that a physician sees a dying man, who is well past his prime and suffering from an incurable disease. They must have seen the death of Rome, and come to realize that they could not save themselves by giving everything to Rome, by imbedding themselves in Rome, and facing the darkness of the great night as atoms of Rome.
It is only natural that as peopleís faith in Rome diminished, they began to hunger for new sources of immortality, new sources of personal meaning: and it is from this emotional need - for a time suppressed by Romeís mesmerizing might, but now freed by Romeís decline - that the Roman New Age was born. Back To Top
During the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) - as Rome still sat high upon her world throne - an effort to inject some new life into religion, in times of skepticism, was made in the form of the introduction of "Emperor-Worship." Borrowing from previous traditions (the Pharaohs of Egypt, and Alexander the Greatís deification, in some parts of his empire), Augustus initiated the cult of emperor-worship in Rome, essentially deifying himself. Of course, it was a political act, at heart, a means of reinforcing his political power by adding a religious dimension to that power. Now, his authority was to be seen as not only deriving from earthly sources, such as money and armies, but also from divine sources, commanding an additional level of obedience and respect. Perhaps Augustus was motivated by the following quotation from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, made many years before: "If there exists in a state an individual so pre-eminent in virtue that neither the virtue nor political capacity of all the other citizens is comparable with hisÖ, he should not be regarded as a member of the state at all. For he will be wronged if treated as an equal when he is thus unequal in virtue and political capacity. Such a man should be rated as a god among men." (Fuller, 138-139) Within Rome, itself, already rational, skeptical and spiritually diminished, it is not likely that many took Augustus, or any of the subsequent emperors, seriously as a God. While in some other countries, there is evidence that the cult of emperor-worship was taken at face value, in Rome, itself, it is likely that this deification was seen only as a kind of Aristotelian demand for respect, and that emperor-worship translated into an act of citizenship, a public expression of obedience, loyalty, and patriotism to Rome and its Emperor, and nothing more. Certainly, this new cult could not have fulfilled any of the deeper spiritual longings and needs being awakened in the bosom of Rome, at this time. For that vacuum to be filled, something more would be needed. Back To Top
The Roman New Age: Astrology and Witchcraft
Very much in the way that our own, contemporary New Age has drawn upon the diverse spiritual traditions of the globe, in an effort to enrich our own faltering sense of spirituality, and to find forms of belief and seeking which resonate with our inner needs, today, so the Roman New Age drew heavily upon the spiritual beliefs, traditions, and practices of foreign lands. This was only natural. Having drawn most of the "ancient world" within its reach, either by conquest or by trade - having gathered with its huge tentacles the treasures of the earth - it is not surprising that the treasures of the worldís spirit were sought as well, especially as gold and silver ceased to satisfy, their inadequacy exposed by the very act of possessing them. Very fortunately for its own spiritual needs, Rome had long followed a policy of (relative) religious tolerance in other lands, allowing subject peoples to continue practicing their original religions, as long as they made appropriate signs of submission to Roman rule, and, after the implementation of emperor-worship, paid appropriate homage to the Emperor, as well. (For polytheistic religions - religions which believed in a multiplicity of Gods - this was not much of a problem, for believers could keep their old Gods, while adding the Roman Emperor to the divine pantheon. For monotheistic religions - such as Judaism, and later Christianity, which believed in only one God - and especially among dedicated followers of these faiths - this could, however, create deadly conflicts.) Romeís overall policy of religious tolerance - ruthlessly discarded in some cases, as you know, and as I will go on to discuss - proved crucial to the development of the Roman New Age, for it preserved the great diversity of the worldís spiritual traditions intact, and alive as seeds for its own religious reawakening.
Just as in our own day, astrology has surged into the heart of our skeptical material culture as a "New Age" force to be reckoned with, so astrology also made a major appearance in ancient Rome. Originally important among the priesthoods of ancient Sumeria and Babylon, it eventually filtered into Rome as a result of Roman activity in the Middle East, and captured the imagination of many then, as it has captured the imagination of many, today.
There was also a renewed interest in magic and witchcraft - forces known to the Greeks and early Italians, also, but strengthened, during the Roman New Age, by new links with Asia. This interest may be seen in the upsurge of importance of Hecate, a goddess of the moon, the earth, the dead, and sorcery, around this time, and in the popularity of The Golden Ass of Apuleius, a classic Roman story filled with tales of witchcraft. The fascination with magic, during the Roman New Age, closely parallels our own fascination with magic in this New Age, including the rise of Wicca, and the availability of many new books dealing with spells and enchantments.
On a psychological level, the rise of astrology during the Roman New Age seems to suggest that many may have felt disoriented and lost, before this time, and, therefore, been in search of a way to reestablish their bearings in the void. The commitment to astrology - even if this occult art does not deal with other, more fundamental, spiritual issues - seems to represent a search for cosmic structure and guidance, a rebellion against emptiness and uncertainty. While some might regard it as a sign of diminishing will and confidence in oneself, it could just as easily be seen as the reaction of human beings, disempowered by their disconnection from the Universe, to restore some of that power by reconnecting with the Universe. Not as demanding as a full-scale spiritual belief system, and easy to approach as a game, at first - which could be a way of sneaking back to the spiritual world past the internalized, contemptuous gaze of the rational world - astrology may have been a doorway, then, as it is now, through which the de-spiritualized person was able to begin the journey back into the world of spirit. As for the rebirth of magic, it is likely that its new life in ancient Rome was partially due to boredom, and the desire for excitement, spice, and adventure; as well as to a widespread sense of personal powerlessness, which magic sought to remedy; or corruption, which magic sought to enhance. (We can see some of the same dynamics at work today, as some approach magic with the joy of children who just want to have a good time, and see something different happen; as some approach it with the desire to secure love, luck, and prosperity for themselves, and/or to help and heal those around them; and as others approach it as a means of empowering their egotism, anger and hate.)
However, complete spiritual belief systems, which reached even more deeply into the core of human needs and fears, were on the way (some of which contained their own attendant forms of magic and their own promised access to miracles). Back To Top
The Roman New Age: Sun Worship and Isis Worship
From the East - from Persia and Egypt - came sun-worship, which actually made important inroads in Rome during the Roman New Age - especially as some emperors, for a time, attempted to link emperor-worship to sun-worship.
A far more powerful Egyptian import, however, was Isis-worship, which generated an enormous following during the Roman New Age, and came very close to becoming the most influential spiritual force in ancient Rome. (But for a twist of fate, might we all be worshipping Isis today?) What Isis-worship offered that, until then, had been lacking in Roman religion, was a very personal and loving connection with a divine force, that was as intense and intimate as the all-powerful bond between mother and child. It was a perfect religion for people feeling lost, abandoned, insignificant and uncared for, in the midst of a gigantic and increasingly impersonal civilization. The new Isis cult surely satisfied the growing interest in magic which was spreading through Rome, for Isis was a master of magic and spells of various kinds. Far more important than that, however, Isis possessed a beautiful heart, filled with loyalty, love, courage and devotion. This was displayed, first, by her dedication to her husband Osiris, who was once, according to Egyptian tradition, the divine ruler of Egypt. While Osiris was away from his palace, seeking to spread the light of civilization to others, Isis held his throne for him, and ruled with fairness, justice, and compassion. When, after his return, Osiris was tricked by his jealous brother Set, locked inside a chest, and cast into the waters of the Nile, and thereafter, carried out to sea, Isis searched faithfully and tirelessly for him. Seeking out the testimony of children, whose imagination and openness gives them special access to sights neglected by men, busy and lost in their work, Isis received invaluable clues as to the whereabouts of her husband, and finally tracked down his body, which she brought back to Egypt. Set discovered the place where she was keeping it, however, and once again attacked it, this time dismembering it, and scattering the pieces of the Godís body across the earth. Once more, Isis set about rescuing her husband, gathering together the pieces, one by one, putting them back together with the help of magic, and bringing Osiris back to "life" - not life in this world, however, for he was now beyond that - but "life" in the realm of the dead. Osiris was now eternal master and lord of the dead. Transformed, but not destroyed.
Besides this moving story of devotion, Isis also proved the power of her love and loyalty with respect to her son, Horus, who, some say, she was able to conceive with the dead Osiris by means of magic. Horus, of course, almost immediately became the object of Setís fear, for Set had taken control of Egypt after Osirisí death, and knew that Horus, if he survived childhood and grew to maturity, might well launch an attempt to overthrow him. Isis, recognizing Setís murderous intentions upon her son, had no choice but to flee into the wilderness with him. And thus began another phase of her life, also characterized by intense devotion, love and sacrifice. For the sake of her child, Isis hid in the marshes, and endured poverty, oftentimes reduced to begging, and forced to depend upon the goodwill of the people among whom she hid. This was a goddess intimately connected with the people, living in their midst, and a magnificent example of the heroic single mother, battling all odds to keep her child alive, never abandoning him in spite of all the despair and hardship that protecting him brought upon her. Among the many ways she has been portrayed in ancient paintings, Isis is often depicted in her motherly role, suckling and nurturing the baby Horus. How could the spiritually hungry masses of Rome not respond to this beautiful image - a Goddess who really cared about people, a mother for all the lonely, lost, and unloved souls of the earth? This powerful "human" dimension, combined with Egyptian religionís strong belief in an afterlife and the possibility of personal immortality, helped to turn the Isis cult into a major spiritual presence during the Roman New Age. (Isisí devotion, by the way, eventually enabled Horus to recapture the throne of Egypt from Set, which he held for many years until finally entrusting it to the Pharaohs.) Back To Top
The Roman New Age: The Greek Mystery Religions
Also of significance at this time in Roman history, were the "Greek mystery religions", cults imported from Greece that went far beyond the classic forms of Greek religion, which had influenced the development of Roman religion in its early days. Foremost among these was a cult based upon the Earth Goddess, Demeter, and her daughter Core (Persephone), and centered upon the Eleusinian Mysteries - a series of mysterious rites held at Eleusis, a sacred site in Greece. What the city of Mecca and the Hadj - the holy pilgrimage - is to the Muslim, so Eleusis, and initiation into its mysteries, was to the ancient Greek and Roman followers of this cult. Even today, historians are not absolutely certain as to what transpired during these mysteries, for the initiates were sworn to secrecy regarding their experiences, and seem to have loyally guarded the expected silence, almost to a man, for fear of losing what they had gained: some deeply-needed promise of spiritual salvation. (Some say the initiates were bound to silence under penalty of death, but it is doubtful that this threat could have been enforced at all times and places, outside of the templeís zone of political influence.) The basic outer structure of the mysteries seems to have been several acts of purification - including bathing (in the baptismal sense) and fasting - followed by a 14-mile procession along the Sacred Way, from Athens to Eleusis, which ended by placing a statue of Iacchus (Demeterís son by Zeus, representing her fertility) inside the sacred temple of the Goddess - and finally, concluded by a series of sacred songs and dances, and various other rites. At a later time, usually a year after, those who had successfully undergone this process, came back, and participated in the heart of the mystery-ceremonies in the Hall of Initiation. From various "leaks", comments, and hints, it seems likely that the substance of the mysteries revolved around the story of Demeter and her daughter Core (Persephone), who was kidnapped by Hades, the God of the Underworld at Eleusis, and brought down into the world of the dead. It was a typical case of Olympian abduction, driven by passion and the harsh Godís desire to possess and brighten up his dark world with the beauty of Demeterís innocent daughter. Demeter, heartbroken and depressed by the disappearance of her beloved child, at once began to wander about the earth in search of her, neglecting her duties as Goddess of Fertility, and allowing the earth to become barren and to wither, just like her desolate heart, until she finally discovered what had happened: how powerful Hades had seized her daughter from a meadow, and carried her off in his chariot, down into the dark chasms of the underworld. Zeus, King of the Gods, seeing how Hadesí lust was leading to the destruction of the world, was compelled to broker a deal, wherein Persephone - who had eaten of the food of the dead while Hadesí prisoner, an act which would never allow her to be completely free - must live for several months of the year with the God of the Dead in his dark underground universe, but could spend the rest of the year with her mother, up on the sun-drenched, life-filled surface of the earth. According to the ancient Greeks, whenever Persephone was taken from her, to pass the months she was condemned to live with Hades, Demeter would lose all her radiance and will, and consumed with sorrow, lose her power to make the earth blossom. But when her daughter was returned to her, her heart would open like a closed bud touched by the sun, and the whole earth would follow suit, proliferating with life, animated by Demeterís joy and love. Thus the Greeks explained the winter and the spring.
With this story as the raw material, it seems that the initiates at Eleusis underwent some kind of profound ceremony - perhaps centered on a sacred play - which helped to connect them personally to the power of the drama, and to internalize it as a symbol of their own lifeís journey. As Persephone (Core) was taken from the earth into darkness, and as the plants of the earth withered, so each human being must one day lose his spring and summer, and age and die. However, as the story showed, death was not the end. For as Persephone rose back up from the dead to return to the earth, and as the vanished vegetation of the earth rose again, from the places where it had died in the autumn, so the human being, extinguished from his existence - suffocated by tragedy - was destined to awaken to eternal life. It seems that during the course of the ceremony, the pilgrims handled ears of grain, symbols of the fruits of the earth, and the power of what fell (in the winter) to be reborn (in the spring). They may also have been led through a series of underground passageways representing Hades (Death), back up into a chamber filled with light, representing resurrection: a sacred chamber in which certain holy relics, further bolstering the pilgrimsí belief in the possibility of rebirth , were displayed. By the end of it all, the initiate was filled with hope and conviction that his life would not end at death, that he would continue to live forever and escape the heartless fate of extinction in a world where life no longer had enough life in it to stand up to death, and therefore required immortality in order to be consummated.
The second Greek mystery religion to acquire prominence during this time was the Orphic Cult, based upon the life of the legendary Greek musician, Orpheus, who attempted (but failed) to save his lover, Eurydice, from the realm of Death; and who ended up the victim of a fierce attack by the Maenads - wild Thracian women, drunk on wine, ecstatic followers of the God Dionysus - who mobbed him and tore him to pieces. Some perceive in this legend, traces of some distant religious conflict, and see, in Orpheus, a courageous spiritual teacher and heroic martyr, destroyed for attempting to bring a new spiritual sensibility to the world, perhaps one less euphoric and savage than some of those in place at the time of his tragic life. Central to the popularity of the Orphic Cult was, once again, the concept of personal immortality. Members of this cult were viewed by some as being somewhat ascetic, and sought, through following a certain lifeway, to avoid afterlife punishments, which they believed in, and to attain some form of eternal bliss. The cult, actually, seems to have been fertilized by contact with the East (which occurred long before the Roman period), for it seems to have believed in reincarnation; and much like the Hindus (this cultís origins seem pre-Buddhist), it appears to have aimed for liberation from the wheel of earthly lives by means of spiritual growth, leading to a higher state of being/merging with the cosmos. Cult members also seem to have been vegetarians. Naturally, the emergence of this cult as an important spiritual movement during the Roman New Age reminds us very much of the appearance of Buddhism as a major spiritual influence in the West, during our own New Age. Back To Top
The Roman New Age: Christianity
But, of course, the final and ultimately most successful development of the Roman New Age was the emergence of Christianity, which, in its early days, was seen by old-fashioned Romans as just one more exotic "New Age" cult - some strange hybrid of Jewish and other mystical traditions, built around the life and teachings of a minor Middle Eastern prophet named Jesus. Christianity, which profited from the spiritual hunger in Rome at the time of its arrival, also suffered from the strength of the competition, for, as this article has made very clear by now, Christianity was far from being the only faith vying for the soul of Rome during the Roman New Age; and at the beginning, in fact, it must have lagged considerably behind other faiths, such as sun-worship, Isis-worship, and the Greek mystery religions, in terms of its appeal to the Roman masses.
And then, to top it all off, this new "cult" managed to get itself into disastrous trouble. It did not help that its great inspiration, Jesus, had been executed by Rome for creating unrest in the Middle East: a bad beginning, something like worshipping an outlaw, perhaps. Much worse than that, however, the Christians, being very serious monotheists (in their way), rejected the idea of Emperor-Worship. By refusing to accept the Emperor as a living God - which would have cleared the way for them to practice their own religion on the side - they outraged the leadership of Rome, which saw, in this refusal, a rejection of their duty to the Roman state, and an act of treason. Something like refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, only far worse, for Rome took this ritual of obedience very seriously. Spiritually hollow though it was, the institution of emperor-worship was politically pregnant with meaning - and the meaning of refusing to participate in it was that one placed oneself outside the authority of the state, which could be a prelude to rebellion, or, at least an incitement to others to disrespect the power of Romeís rulers. As the Christians were, at first, a rather small and isolated subculture of Roman society, it was not difficult to target them and make an example out of them, and this is, in fact, what occurred during the famous persecutions. Christians were arrested, deprived of their property, imprisoned, and frequently executed: sometimes crucified, sometimes fed to the lions, or other beasts of the arena, during the course of the Roman Games, sometimes, as in one spectacle staged by Nero - who used the Christians as scapegoats for a great conflagration which had devastated much of Rome - bound and set afire, like human torches in the night, while wild crowds - perhaps some who had lost their homes in the conflagration - cheered in delight. For some time, Christians were treated much as Jews in Nazi Germany, and many were forced to pray in secret, or to flee and go into hiding, down inside the dark mazes of tunnels and burial chambers beneath the city - just as the homeless, today, may sometimes be found living in graveyards, or in subway tunnels or even down amidst the pipes and passageways of city sewage systems.
Strange to say, the persecutions could not crush the Christian "cult." It seems that these early followers of Christianity were very much convinced of the truth of their beliefs, and deeply motivated to continue at any cost. There seems to have been a lot of solidarity and mutual support given from Christian to Christian during these days, a real sense of community and brotherhood, a spirit of sharing and caring, as well as a very solid organization, begun by Peter (St. Peter), which helped to hold the movement together during its moments of crisis. Besides this, the people of Rome began to be impressed. The public destruction and persecution of the Christians, meant to crush the movement and frighten people away from it, actually produced the opposite effect, for the people of Rome, seeing the courage and devotion of the Christians, who would rather face death than renounce their faith, or betray it, thought, "This religion must have something to it, or how else would people be so willing to die for it?" They saw Christians singing hymns as powerful lions were released into the arena to destroy them, and could not help but wonder: "What do these Christians know, that we do not, that allows them to face death in this way?" The power with which the Christians believed, convinced many that there must be power in their beliefs, and incited their curiosity to find out more. Spiritually starving, they saw, as the Christians died and faced persecutions, how well fed were the spirits of the Christians, and they began to desire this spiritual food, as well. As the persecutions were not methodical and sustained, but punctuated by lapses in rigor, the Christians were able to periodically surface, recruit, and extend their reach. And over time, Christianity was gradually able to assert itself as one of the major spiritual players of the Roman New Age.
What was it, within the religion itself, that made it so appealing to so many Romans? Once again, it was a religion which resonated powerfully with deep human needs and longings, at a moment that those needs and longings were in special need of satisfaction. Christianity promised immortality - escape from death, the bliss of forever, and the hope of being reunited with lost loved ones. Christianity offered justice - and perhaps, for this reason, was, at first, particularly well-received by Romeís slaves and by the urban poor - for it promised another measure of the value of a human being than that used upon the earth, would be set into place at a great judgment yet to come: it promised the righteous that, on that day, they would not be judged by their wealth or power or family connections, as on the earth, but by the purity of their heart and soul, and it offered hope that the last might become the first, that the bottom might become the top, that the oppressed might one day be free to rise above their oppressors. Christianity also offered the possibility of miracles and healing on the earth. And, in the manner of Isis-worship, it offered a loving protector with which to stand against the loneliness - even more than God, Himself, the compassionate image of Jesus Christ, tender and infinitely attentive to every wounded soul; and besides Jesus, Mother Mary, sweet, sad and radiant with her motherís love, ready to hold every injured human being in her arms, as she once held the broken, beautiful body of her murdered son. The emotional intensity and personal nature of the bond each individual was able to establish with Jesus and/or Mary, gave Christianity a "competitive edge" regarding many of the other New Age religions of ancient Rome.
Doubtless, the impact of a philosophy known as Stoicism also helped to nurture the spread of Christianity. This philosophy, originating from Greece but gaining a special strength in Rome, held that peace of mind came from accepting the will of the Universe, or God, or Fate, and ceasing to torment oneself about things that were beyond oneís power to control. Stoics believed that the purpose of life was to fathom the nature of what was just and right, and then to act accordingly: to seek to be virtuous, fair, courageous, and in all ways in harmony with Natureís or Godís innate laws of righteousness. This is what lay within oneís power to do. Other matters - worldly success, health, fame, life itself - did not lay completely within oneís sphere of power, for one could be thwarted from oneís aims by human resistance, persecution, disease, and misfortune. Such concerns, therefore, became secondary to the Stoic, who trained himself to accept the loss of what others regarded as essential, so that he could preserve what was essential to him: not life, but harmony with God for the time one lived; not wealth, but moral greatness. What this meant is that, for the Stoics, in some ways, oneís inner, moral world became more important than oneís public world of achievements and position. Conscience became more important than the law; and the individualís relation with God more important than the individualís relation with the state. Although the Stoics did not preach withdrawal from society, or revolution, they did cease to be ruled by the illusions of society, or imprisoned by the conventions and assumptions of society, and this laid the psychological foundations for the more widespread acceptance of Christianity, which, likewise, elevated God above State as the highest loyalty owed by the individual. Without these seeds first laid by Stoicism, perhaps this concept might have proved too alien for a world power like Rome, where the expression, "My country, right or wrong", first originated.
Eventually, as Christianity spread, it became more politically costly and unfeasible to suppress. Until it finally filtered up to high places, and reached more influential strata of society. In 313 AD, the Emperor Constantine, impressed and, he believed, aided by the "Christian God", extended legal protection to Christianity by proclaiming religious tolerance throughout his dominions. Before he died, he converted to Christianity himself, which gave the religion an additional boost, for who could look down upon a religion which even the emperor had embraced? While the Emperor Theodosius took things a step further, in 392 AD, by declaring Christianity to be the official religion of Rome!
And, unfortunately, that marks the beginning of the end of the Roman New Age. For it did not take long for the leadership of the Christian Church, once Christianity had received this official stamp of approval, to set to work to eliminate all other competitors from the spiritual map of Rome, outlawing and persecuting others as it, itself, had once been outlawed and persecuted. This is how the beautiful Isis religion was stamped out (though in our current New Age, it has had a small-scale resurrection). This is how the Greek mystery religions, and other forms of "pagan worship", were eradicated. This is how the brilliant and vibrant spiritual lives of other peoples, including the Celts and the Germans, would one day be trampled underfoot, as well, and their holy people burned as witches. A sad twist of fate, considering the long and painful journey of Christianity to be born, and the beautiful message of love that was at its heart. Back To Top
The Roman New Age: Its Impact on Rome
This, then, was the Roman New Age. Historians vary in their interpretations and assessments of it. For some, it represented yet one more contribution to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. They claim to see, in it, processes encouraging the individual to disassociate from the state - from the collective dream and vision of Rome - and to withdraw into a personal world of his own, centered on his own longing for immortality, rather than on the survival of his society. They claim to see in it an erosion of civic life by the intensity of a new, inner one, resulting in a decline in the overall effectiveness of the social group. They claim to see in it a surrender of the human will to the mentality of helplessness, and the substitution of faith in someone else (God) for faith in oneself. They claim to see in it a turning away from the real world towards a "fantasy world", born of unattainable wishes linked to the abandonment of reason; and see, in that, the loss of the clarity and resolve needed to maintain the viability of an empire coveted and pressured by many external enemies. Christianity, in particular, is accused of de-invigorating Rome, for the early Christians abhorred violence, and would not serve in the Roman army; nor did they uphold the patriotism needed for such a society to persist in its supremacy over other nations, for they placed the individual, and his inner connection with God, above allegiance to their country. And elevated hearts above borders.
Others, however, disagree. They are quick to point out the barbaric and cruel character of Roman civilization, which, in spite of its literature, its roads, its aqueducts, its buildings, its laws, and its administrative genius, was infused with a dark current of savagery. This was a civilization which fought wars of conquest, forced free peoples to submit and pay tribute, took slaves in vast numbers, massacred its most stubborn foes, sometimes destroyed entire cities, as when Carthage was razed and salt thrown upon the earth around it that no man might ever live there again; this was a civilization which crucified large numbers of its opponents, heroes as well as criminals, as when it erected hundreds of crosses along the Appian Way to which the bodies of Spartacusí rebellious slaves were nailed; this was a civilization in which physicians were once allowed to vivisect condemned criminals in order to further their knowledge of anatomy; it is also the civilization famous for its brutal public spectacles, including not only fights to the death between gladiators, and battles between trained warriors and beasts, but also mass killings of innocent and unarmed victims, thrown to the mercy of wild animals - lions, wolves, bears, even crocodiles. This was a civilization in desperate need of transformation, and, say these critics, rather than accusing the Roman New Age of destabilizing Rome, of undermining its power and will, and removing vital energy from its imperial projects and designs, the Roman New Age should be commended for helping to change a brutal societyís priorities, for deepening its perspective on life, and playing some role in humanizing it. This is not to say that the Roman New Age accomplished all that it could have or should have, only that it helped to move Rome in the right direction.
Although it is true that Rome did, finally, fall to barbarian invasions (476 AD), it is not fair to blame the Roman New Age for this collapse, for the downfall seems to have had much more to do with the egotism of Roman elites, which produced a poisonous class conflict in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, which the Roman political and social system could never recover from; and with the fact that the Roman Empire, built by imperial and aggressive instincts and methods, was unable to transform enough to be able to survive without those instincts. In other words, the transformation launched by the Roman New Age was incomplete. The hearts of many began to change, but the outer forms of their civilization remained, demanding aggression and brutality to survive. The people became gentler, yet continued to depend upon world domination, which is what made the civilization they knew possible. In this sense, the Roman New Age did not contribute to the collapse of Rome by emerging, but by failing to reach its full potential. It did not damage Rome by sapping the strength of the old order, but by failing to create a genuine new order in its place, so that Rome was left stranded between two possibilities: the brutal, ruthless old Rome, fed by the blood of warrior-heroes, and the compassionate, enlightened new Rome, withdrawn within sustainable geographical limits, made possible by changes in lifestyle and material expectations. Either possibility might have worked. But, in history, as in most other endeavors in life, "halfway" almost always produces mediocrity, if not disaster. Rome died because it became lost between two possibilities, outgrowing the one, yet never fully reaching the second.
Of course, regardless of the results for Rome, once one detaches from a specific identification with that city and that empire, and regards the evolution of the planet as a whole, then the benefits of the Roman New Age become even more clear, for out of that age a major world religion emerged, which, using Romeís influence as a platform, was eventually able to reach and affect many lands, including those which eventually conquered Rome, spreading its message of peace, hope, and love, across the earth. True, Christianity has been frequently betrayed, and misused to inflict terrible harm upon vast numbers of innocent people - behaving, in this way, like many other secular and religious powers. And yet, in spite of the damage it has done, Christianity has also laid the seeds of a great dream in mankindís heart - the dream of a world one day united in peace: a peace not pretending to come from a piece of paper, but radiating from the human soul; a peace built upon the love of man for God, and man for man. Here, in the West, the legacy of Christianity - the final product of the Roman New Age - is crucial to our search for a better future, whether we are Christians or not. Its simple heart, when not closed by doctrine, is a cultural endowment still filled with promise - enormous promise - a widely understood frame of reference, and a starting point for our own timeís journey towards a future that is both moral and sustainable. Back To Top
The Roman New Age: Lessons For Us
And now, doubtless, it is time to ask what lessons, if any, this story of the Roman New Age has for us, and for our own New Age. I am hopeful that in some of the last lines which I have written, the relevance of the topic has emerged into plain view.
First, though, let it be said, regardless of its effect upon histories and civilizations, spirituality is an inalienable right of each and every human being. Without it, a triumphant civilization is but a deathtrap of lost souls. With it, not even a collapsing civilization, not even a dark age, can destroy the meaning of a life. Since spirituality - true spirituality - hinges upon the individualís ability to connect to the Divine and to bond with the Universe, far more than it does upon his ability to adhere to a given doctrine - it follows that the foundation of true spirituality is the primal longing to connect, and the searching spirit that resides within each one of us. Our own New Age is nothing more than that drive to search, and the many outcomes and faces of that search, as varied as we, ourselves, are. In this sense, it is impossible to regard our own New Age as anything but positive, for it is the cultural context in which we are struggling to become truly alive and whole.
On the social and political front, of course, our New Age has been soundly criticized by some, in ways that cannot help but remind one of some of the criticisms leveled against the Roman New Age. There is the charge of irrationality. And the charge that this irrationality could lead to a blurring of our political vision, and to a collapse in our scientific and technical foundations, leading to an erosion of our power, and to our eclipse as a great nation.
To me, these fears miss the mark. Although it is crucial for individuals and nations, existing in a world such as ours, to maintain their ability to think critically, it is also imperative, in a world such as ours, for individuals and nations to be able to feel spiritually: for living outside of that inner layer of connection to the Divine, we are also disconnected from the consequences of what we are doing to other human beings, to nature, and to ourselves, and, therefore, prone to abuse, misuse, provoke, destroy, and be destroyed. If you look at our world today, it should be clear that it is suffering less from a lack of rational thought, than from a lack of spirit and heart to guide that rational thought in humanly rewarding directions. Far from jeopardizing our future, I think the social processes represented by the New Age are crucial to the renewal and survivability of our civilization.
For me, the greatest lesson of the Roman New Age for our own New Age is the lesson that a spiritual awakening too tentative or incomplete, too captivated or dependent upon what it is growing up in the midst of, may fail to transform a civilization sufficiently to save it. There is, first of all, the danger that a spiritual awakening will be absorbed and stolen by the cultural forms it is accustomed to, and become a mere prop of those obsolete and destructive forms, as Christianity, at times, became a prop of the violence Jesus abhorred, fueling holy wars; as Zen Buddhism, at times, became a prop of the ambition of feudal Japanese warriors, heightening their deadliness rather than leading them to the infinite compassion of the Buddha. In that case, the New Age will hardly take us from our destructive path. Then, there is the danger that the New Age will only transform us halfway, turning us into citizens unable to defend an empire, yet also unable to live without the benefits conferred upon us by that empire. In that case, we will eventually face the same dilemma as that encountered by ancient Rome, and either fall, or more likely, become involved in some kind of cataclysm provoked by the temptation of our weakness, countered by the desperate response of our last mighty weapons.
For me, the message of the Roman New Age to our own New Age is clear. If we do not take the work of personal transformation seriously enough to also affect and transform the cultural forms which surround us, we will become prisoners of those cultural forms, and be carried away by them to the day of their inevitable collapse - to the day of global environmental disaster, or the day of nothing left, or the day of deadly strife.
Whether something greater and better than us will evolve from our catastrophe is hard to say. But surely it would be better to create a new world out of foresight, than out of pain. Why donít we begin today? Back To Top
SOURCES: World Religions: From Ancient History to the Present. Edited by Geoffrey Parrinder.
Ancient Rome, Richard Mansfield Haywood.
Caesar and Christ, Will Durant.
The Life of Greece, Will Durant.
The Greek Myths, Robert Graves.
Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, TGH James.
The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt, Clive Barrett.
The Generalship of Alexander the Great, JFC Fuller.
A Military History of the Western World, Vol. 1, JFC Fuller
Weapons Of Depth Contents