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Greco-Roman Religion

Doctrines Religion in both Greece and Rome was polytheistic, embracing a multitude of gods and goddesses, especially in the Roman Empire which tended to absorb the deities of the countries it conquered. Below are the main Greek deities and their Roman names; the first twelve are the traditional Olympic deities:



ZeusJupiterFather of the gods, sky god
HeraJunoWife of Zeus, goddess of marriage, childbirth & women
AphroditeVenusgoddess of love & beauty
AresMarsgod of war
AtheneMinervagoddess of war & wisdom
ArtemisDianagoddess of hunting, fertility & childbirth
Apollo god of the sun, music, prophecy, archery
HermesMercurymessenger of the gods, healing, communication
HephaestusVulcangod of fire, volcanoes, blacksmiths, crafts
PoseidonNeptunegod of the sea, causes earthquakes
HestiaVestagoddess of the hearth, family & home, goddess of Rome
DemeterCeresgoddess of corn and crops
HadesPlutogod of the underworld
DionysusBacchusgod of wine, fruit, and ecstasy

Two important mystery cults thrived in Greece - the Eleusinian and Orphic Mysteries. There is considerable speculation regarding the nature of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were a closely guarded secret, punishable by death by the Athenian court if anyone probed them. The Mysteries were said to have originated somewhere around 1800BC and provided the Greeks with a mystical system equivalent to anything the Egyptians had to offer at the time. When the mysteries were at their height, three grades were involved: the Small Mysteries, the Great Mysteries, and Epoptism. Every respectable citizen of Athens who was not ritually impure and could afford the initiation fee endeavoured to become initiated at the higher or more secret levels, and the Eleusis temple was built to hold 10,000 people; but there was also a public side of glorious pageantry. The lesser mysteries were celebrated towards the end of winter, in the town of Agra, a suburb of Athens and anyone, including foreigners, was allowed to attend these. The Greater Mysteries were held in September/October, between the time of harvesting and sowing the new seeds; they were celebrated in Eleusis itself, involving processions and sacrifices of pigs to Demeter, and the enactment of the Demeter/Persephone legend, but there is much disagreement among scholars and historians regarding what actually took place. Epoptism was considered the highest and most secret initiation to be undergone; Plutarch wrote that one could not hope these mysteries until late in life.
The cult of Dionysus was tied to wine-making and involved plays and phallic processions. Beginning in the rural areas, it was later incorporated into city life in Athens, and the Orphic mysteries then added a new mysticism to the worship of Dionysus, who became the god who is destroyed, who disappears, who relinquishes life and then is born again.
The temple-cult of Asclepios, god of healing, was usually set up in times of need, especially by city-states threatened by disease. Poor people were not required to pay for their cures, but the rich rewarded the cult with wealth to such an extent that it thrived, becoming the most widespread of all the newer cults with centres at Pergamon, Corinth, Epidauros and Kos.
To the Romans, the gods were functions, assigned a precise office which was what was worshipped rather than the personalities of the stories. Religion was related to the basic agricultural economy, with the city of Rome personified as the main deity; they accepted some foreign gods, especially Greek, into their pantheon, modifying the deities to fit their functional need. According to Livius, the first offering to a Greek deity in Rome was in 399BCE. Three of the oldest deities, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were worshipped in a large temple dedicated to Jupiter the Best and Greatest (Jupiter Optimus Maximus)situated on the Capitoline hill.
Roman religion was essentially state controlled religion, families maintaining household shrines dedicated to fertility and plenty, but the individual citizen playing no part in the religious ritual of the state which was carried out by pontiffs, augurs and flamens (special priests). This extended until, with the exception of the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the state cult gave way to the cult of the emperor. Imperial deification began after the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BCE when the Roman Senate proclaimed him as a god and the deification of strong emperors continued, though most preferred to rule under the aegis of a greater deity than themselves, the most popular being Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

History The Ancient history of Greece covers around 6,000 years, from the first permanent settlement until Greece was absorbed by Rome; the ancient history of Rome on the other hand, begins in the 8th century BCE and extends into the 5th century CE. The Minoans of Crete seem to have worshipped bulls and sacrificed them; bull leapers performed acrobatics over a bull for religious purposes. Their chief religious symbol was the double-headed axe, probably used for animal sacrifice. The Mycenaen age ended in destruction in 1100BCE, to be followed by the more popularly recognisable Classical Greek civilisation. However, the Greeks tended to look to Egypt for learning and culture rather than to their own forebears, until at the end of the 6th century there was a new arousal of interest in the old legends of Greece, which were retranslated in a new and more spiritual light, whilst the growth of the Greek cities and Hellenization of the Mediterranean led to the declaration of the divinity of rulers such as Alexander the Great (356-323CE). After the death of Alexander the Great, his successor, Ptolemy I revealed the importance of Egyptian religion to Greece by incorporating the Egyptian cults of Isis and Osiris (now called Serapis) into Greek religion in the 4th century BC. The cult spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean and from there throughout the Roman Empire, reaching as far from Egypt as Britain, with centres in London and York.
Rome first grew from a few villages into a city in the 6th century BCE, influenced by its Etruscan overlords whom the Romans expelled in 510 BCE, establishing a Republic in their place. Political upheaval in the Mediterranean in the 4th century BCE allowed Rome to bring all Italy south of the River Po under their role within a century, as towns joined together in mutual support against the surrounding tribes (Sabines, Aequi, Volsci and Samnites). Roman citizenship was extended to all the conquered peoples, and with this increase in manpower and territory, Rome became a potential world power. Rome captured Sicily and Corsica (238BCE) and later Spain (201BCE) from the Carthaginians, and then moved into Greek territories; Italy became united under Roman rule, and once the whole of the Mediterranean fell under her control, the Empire expanded North and West into Europe.
At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from Hadrian's Wall in Britain to the Persian Gulf. When Diocletian came to power in 284CE, the Empire was too diverse and weak in structure, and could no longer be ruled by one Emperor; power was divided between two rulers and two subordinates, but although theoretically these rulers were joint, the Empire gradually broke into an Eastern and Western half, and outlying provinces fell to barbarian invaders. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410) and the Vandals (455), and the Emperor Justinian's attempt to reunite the Empire was successful only for a short period.
The persecution of early Christianity ended with the proclamation of the Edict of Milan (313 CE) which allowed Christians to worship freely, and in 324CE the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and imposed it on the Empire. All other religions were proscribed by Theodosius I just over fifty years later, in 381CE. After the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410CE, the imperial government was removed to Ravenna until the western empire ceased to exist altogether in 476CE, leaving the city of Rome in the hands of the Christian church and its bishop, Leo the Great, who assumed the title of pontifex maximus (Supreme Pontiff). The Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), however, lasted another thousand years until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.

Symbols Some of the important symbols of Greek religion, later incorporated into Roman religion, were:
Ears of Corn
sacred to Demeter/Ceres, ears of corn symbolized fertility and fecundity.
The Caduceus
sacred to Mercury/Hermes, the caduceus is a wand with two serpents twined round it, surmounted by two small wings or a winged helmet, representing the story in which Mercury intervened in a fight between two serpents whereupon they curled themselves round his wand. For the Romans the caduceus served as a symbol of moral equilibrium and good conduct - the wand represents power, the two snakes, wisdom, the wings diligence and the helmet lofty thoughts. The caduceus also signified the integration of the four elements, the wand being earth, the wings air, the serpents fire and water As the staff of the god of healing the caduceus has now been appropriated by the medical profession
The Cornucopia
the cornucopia (or horn of plenty) was fashioned from the horn of the goat Amaltheia, whom Zeus placed in the heavens as the constellation of Capricorn in gratitude for his help. It was said to contain an inexhaustible supply of whatever food or drink was required and as such represents the inexhaustible or infinite flow of energy in the universe, and teaches the importance of giving and receiving.
The Thyrsus
sacred to Dionysus, the ivy-twined, pine-cone tipped staff is an obvious phallic symbol though it was thought to have magical properties which could be used to obscure the identity of the carrier.
Adherents No Known Contemporary Adherents

Headquarters Major religious centres were to be found at important cities throughout the Greek Mediterranean and the Roman Empire, including Rome, Athens, London.