Roman Religion & Pompeii

In many societies, ancient and modern, religion has performed a major role in their development, and the Roman Empire was no different. From the beginning, Roman religion was polytheistic. From an initial array of gods and spirits, Rome added to this collection to include both Greek gods as well as a number of foreign cults. As the empire expanded, the Romans refrained from imposing their own religious beliefs upon those they conquered; however, this inclusion must not be misinterpreted as tolerance, this can be seen with their early reaction to the Jewish and Christian population. Eventually, all of their gods would be washed away, gradually replaced by Christianity, and in the eyes of some, this change brought about the decline of the western empire.

As the empire expanded across the Balkans, Asia Minor and into Egypt, Roman religion absorbed many of the gods and cults of conquered nations, but the primary influence would always remain Greece. With only a few exceptions, most of the Roman gods had their Greek counterparts. This Roman mythology would have a significant influence on the empire, politically and socially, as well as on the future of western civilisation.

Besides the worship of these gods, there were several cults, Bacchus, Cybele, Isis, Sarapis, Sibyl, and most of all the Imperial Cult. Some were readily accepted by Roman society while others were feared by those in power. The Imperial Cult was Roman society while others were feared by those in power. The Imperial Cult was based on the idea of deification of the emperor, which came during the time of Emperor Augustus. He resisted the Senate’s attempts to name him a god during his reign as he thought himself the son of a god, not a god. Upon his death, the Roman Senate rewarded him with deification which was an honour that would be bestowed upon many of his successors. Often, an emperor would request his predecessor to be deified. Of course, there were a few exceptions, notably, Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian, who were considered too abhorrent to receive the honour. Caligula and Nero believed themselves living gods while Domitian thought himself the reincarnation of Hercules.

To the local residents, Vesuvius was just a large hill. It was very fertile and would have been covered with vineyards and small villages. The volcano was lying dormant and had not erupted for hundreds of years. The first indication of the disaster ahead was in 62 AD. A destructive earthquake occurred which caused streams and wells to dry up, and damaged many buildings in Pompeii. Major repair works had to be undertaken, including the Forum Baths and the Villa of Mysteries, where a pile of lime indicates that work had not finished by the time of the eruption fifteen years later. The first of the completed repairs and reconstruction was the Temple of Isis, showing both it’s cultural, societal, and religious significance to the population of Pompeii.

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