Good Religions And Cults Of Ancient Rome Research Paper Example

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Religion, Rome, History, Cult, Middle East, Christians, Egypt, Jesus Christ

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2021/02/24

[Class Title]

The cults and religion in ancient Rome is a reflection of its cultural diversity. Through military conquest, the small city-state in Italy grew out to become one of the world’s largest empires, incorporating all the major cults and religion in the ancient world within its territory. Ancient Rome was initially a pagan society wherein different cults and religions thrived. Among the significant religions that have infiltrated Rome are the oriental cults, which also include Judaism and Christianity. It should also be noted that the ancient Roman Empire, in its peak, encompasses a vast territory and has colonized people of different cultures. There were the Anglo-Saxons and the Gauls in the north and western portion of the empire; there were the Egyptians and Africans in the south; and there were the Greeks, the Anatolians and Jews in the East. Prior to the establishment of Rome, people in the pre-roman era are already practicing religion based on polytheistic and pantheistic beliefs. Among the early settlers of Rome are the Etruscans and the Italians, who were heavily influenced by the Hellenic culture. Accordingly, these people who were already practicing some form of animism adopted the Greek gods and goddesses and incorporate it on their own revised version (Johnston 120). It is interesting to note how the many cults and religions in Rome intertwined and on how they are gradually incorporated in to the greater Roman culture. Perhaps it is also because religion has not been fully developed yet but it is evident that the early Roman society is tolerant of religious practices and does not follow a single belief. It is also worth noting how the Romans incorporate the religious practices of other cultures as their own. Evidently, there was a transfer or assimilation of religious practices between the ancient societies of the Mediterranean nations that may have occurred gradually over a long time.

The Cult of Cybele and Attis

One of the most important and oldest cults in ancient history that has infiltrated Rome is the cult of Cybele. Cybele is a goddess of Asia Minor, a region in the extreme west of Asia that corresponds to modern day Turkey (Ciglenečki 22). According to Ciglenecki, the worship of Cybele in Asia Minor dates back to prehistory where the Hittites, a member of ancient people of Turkey, have been known to depict the goddess in their culture as early as 2000 B.C. (Ciglenečki 23). On the other hand, some historians believe that the worship of Cybele may have gone as far back as the Neolithic period around 6,000 to 5,000 B.C. as relics of “enthroned and naked motherly goddess with felines at her side” were highly visible in central Anatolia (Johnston 8). Also known as the Mother of Pessinus, it is believed that the cult of Cybele has originated from Pessinus, an ancient city of Phrygia (present day Turkey). (Ciglenečki 23). With the adoption of the cult by the Greeks, the myth of Cybele has intertwined with ancient Greek mythology, making the myth of Cybele one of the most Hellenized oriental cults. Cybele is often depicted in ancient religious relics as two reclining lions and a tree, which is the symbol of Attis, the goddess’ lover (Ciglenečki 22). According to Johnston, the symbol of the two standing felines may have originated with the Greeks who abandoned the former frontal representation of the goddess to a more symbolic representation (Johnston 7). As a mother goddess, Cybele is also associated with the symbol of the bull, which historians believe to represent agriculture and perhaps sustenance (Johnston 8). The Greeks also associate Cybele with Rea, the mother of Zeus although there are other versions where Cybele is depicted as inferior to Zeus. But despite the fact that the myth of Cybele has varied versions and confusing genesis, it has of no important consequence to the early Romans. Greatly influenced by the Greeks, the early Roman societies are very much tolerant of religious practices and do not recognize any single truth. The Roman version of Cybele’s story, for example, has it that the goddess fell deeply in love with the shepherd Attis. However, because of his infidelity, Cybele got angry and made Attis insane. Driven by his insanity, Attis castrates himself and bled to death. But seeing Attis die, Cybele was filled with remorse and called upon Zeus to allow Attis’s body to be preserved. Zeus turned Attis’s body into an evergreen pine tree and legends has it that he was reborn and reunited with Cybele (Ciglenečki 24). Being associated with Rea, the Greeks and the Romans refer to Cybele as the ‘Great Mother’or ‘Magna Mater’ (Johnston 7; Ciglenečki 24).
The cult of Cybele is characterized by excessive form of worship and is very riotous. As observed by Berens, “At her festivals, which took place at night, the wildest music of flutes, cymbals, and drums resounded, whilst joyful shouts and cries, accompanied by dancing and loud stamping of feet, filled the air” (Berens 18). Most historians believe that the worship to Cybele was introduced to Rome during the second Punic war in 204 B.C. when Hannibal, the Carthagian general was encroaching upon Rome although there is a huge possibility that the cult of Cybele may have already reached Rome earlier because of their contacts with the Greeks, whom historians believed to have embraced Cybele worship as early as the 8th or 7th century B.C. (Berens 18; Johnston 7). Worship for Cybele further spread into the territories of the Roman Empire because of the support of the Emperor Claudius in the first century B.C. (Ciglenečki 24). The Romans may not have approved of the cult of Cybele because of its violent and riotous nature of worship. However, the primary reason why this cult may have strived in Rome is because of its doctrine regarding an afterlife which appealed much to the marginalized population of Roman society such as the women, the poor and the slaves. As observed by Ciglenecki, “Her two most important aspects were fertility and the protection of life, and her cult was centered on dying as well as upon awakening stagnant nature to spring life” (Ciglenečki 23).

The Cult of Isis

It is quite difficult to pin point the origin of the deity, Isis, but most scholars believe that the cult of Isis have originated in Lower Egypt during the middle of the second millennium B.C. (Schaefers 2). Just like most of their deities, the Roman version of the goddess Isis is believed to have undergone several changes until it was eventually synthesized into the cult of Isis as practiced in the Roman Empire. Accordingly, there are two major version of Isis, the Egyptian version and the Hellenic version of Isis; the later version being the version that was closely adopted by the Romans. The Egyptian account of Isis is evidently related with the political landscape of ancient Egypt. Interestingly, it also laid out the foundation of the divinity of kings which will later on be adopted by Roman emperors as well. According to Egyptian mythology, Isis’s brother and husband, Osiris, was killed and chopped into pieces by his brother Set (Mackenzie 24). However, Isis was able to put Osiris back together and bring him back to life. For the same reason, Isis is regarded in ancient Egypt as life-giver among many of her attributes. But central to the character of Isis is her son, Horus, where the successions of Egyptian Pharaohs are believed to have originated. According to scholars, Isis was primarily depicted as the “compassionate and divine mother of Horus and protector of family life” and she is also portrayed as the loving wife (Schaefers 3). The cult of Isis was assimilated into the Roman culture through the Greeks who first come in close contact with Egyptian culture through the conquest of Alexander in Egypt. One of Alexander’s general, Ptolemy, established his rule in Egypt, which made it a center of Hellenistic culture during the 3rd century B.C. (Schaefers 4). Accordingly, the assimilation process did not occur in an instant but was rather a long process of assimilation that started from the Greek historian, Herodotus, during the 5th century B.C. and eventually reaching its final form during the imperial ages (Bogh 228; Pachis 166). It can be said then that the Roman version of the cult is already a hybrid of the original cult of Isis that was practiced in ancient Egypt. The Hellenization of the cult has been depicted by the association of Egyptian gods and goddesses to their Greek counterparts. Gradually, the cult of Isis began to assimilate with Hellenistic culture wherein the deity was closely associated and identified with the Greek goddess Demeter; her son, Horus, associated with Apollo; and her husband Osiris became associated with Serapis, which, according to scholars, is a blend of Osiris, Zeus, Dionysus and Ptah (Schaefers 4).
Unlike the loud and aggressive nature of the cult of Cybele, the religion of Isis was clouded in mystery and secret rituals. Even so, the Romans were known to be skeptical of foreign religions and attempted to discourage the entry of the cult in Rome; however, these attempts were largely unsuccessful. As observed by Boak, “A determined but unsuccessful attempt was made by the Senate during the last century of the republic to drive from Rome the cult of Isis, the second of these religions to find a home in Italy, and in 42 B. C. the triumvirs erected a temple to this goddess” (Boak 293). However, when Rome became an empire, its first emperor, Augustus, tried to banish the cult but his successors failed to follow through. The Romans, who loved magic and mystery, are evidently drawn to the Isis religion. Also, the Isis cult provided a more dignified way of worshipping that appealed to the Romans. The worship of Isis became one of the thriving cults in Rome especially during the reign of Vespasian and Titus in the first century C.E. (Schaefers 6).

The Mithras Cult

Historians believe that the Mithras cult is the most important polytheistic cult that overshadowed all the rest of the Roman cults prior to Christianity. Also one of the oriental cults that infiltrated Rome, the cult of Mithra was believed to be a hybrid of Zoroastrianism, also known as Mazdaism, an ancient religion of the Iranian people of Central Asia (Pearse 1; Skjærvø 1). Some scholars believe that the religion of Zoroastrianism has already been practiced even before the split of the Iranians and the Indo-Aryans at around 2000 B.C. (Skjærvø 1). The religion has been practiced so long that according to observers, “to give the exact origin of this cult and to determine exactly where Mithra came from would be merely conjecture” (A Study of Mithraism 213). In Iranian theology, Mithra is depicted as an angel or a chief agent of the supreme god of light, Ormuzd in his battle against the god of darkness, Ahriman (Boak 293). In the Hindu scripture, on the other hand, Mithra is depicted as the god of order and justice also known as ‘Mitra-Varuna’ (Teth 3). It is believed that the rise of the Persian rule was instrumental to the spread of the Mithra cult. According to scholars, most Persian kings grew fond of the Mithra religion and have sponsored its worship (A Study of Mithraism 214). In the Persian book, Avesta, Mithra has been attributed with supreme god-like qualities such as the instigator of celestial light. As observed, “He is not sun or moon or any star, but a spirit of light, ever wakeful, watching with a hundred eyes. He hears all and sees all: none can deceive him” (A Study of Mithraism 214). Mithra was an all-seeing, all-knowing deity and is also worshiped as the god of fairness and justice.
Just like any other Roman deities, Mithra and his myth has been greatly influenced by several cultures. Before reaching its final form in the Roman Empire, Mithraism has been influenced by its contact with the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia as well as the influenced of Greek mythology. These attributes, according to scholars, have made Mithra a very desirable god for the Romans. As observed by Boak, “Under Babylonian and Greek influences Mithra was identified with the Sun-god, and appears in Rome with the title the Unconquered Sun-god Mithra” (Boak 293). It is believed that the Romans first encountered the mysteries of Mithra between 73 and 36 B.C. when the Roman General Pompey successfully won a war against the Persian king Mithridates VI (Teth 5). During their contact, Pompey’s soldiers have been exposed to the religion of the Persians, which they would eventually take back to Rome. One of the primary attributes of the cult of Mithras is his strong association as a patron of soldiers and a god of war. It should be noted that the Ancient Roman society is far from being peaceful. At all sides of their Empire, the Romans would have to contend with several barbaric tribes as well as foreign threats that continuously challenges or rebel against their rule. For the same reason, an all-seeing, all-knowing god who is the keeper of order and justice would come in handy.

Judeo-Christian Religion

Judaism and Christianity are two of the religions that existed in Ancient Rome that claims similar origins. But what is most peculiar of these two religions as compared to the foreign religions that infiltrated Rome is that they are monotheistic. Judaism traces its origin to its patriarch Abraham, whom scholars believe to have existed somewhere during the Bronze Age at the height of the Babylonian empire. However, Judaism has a level of exclusivity that makes it quite a restrictive religion. Although Jewish laws suggest that conversion is possible, most Jews discourage conversion unless the person is really willing to become a member of Judaism; but not after he undergoes a long conversion process. For the same reason, unlike Christianity, Jewish membership and population has remained steady; increasing in part due to marriage and procreation. Christianity, on the other hand, has made a prolific conversion campaign since Christ was teaching in his life time; so much more when he died. While Rome is beset by internal troubles, a religious upheaval is happening in one of its conquered territory in the east and it is no other than the Christian religion, which would later end all the cults that was adopted by the Roman Empire. The history of the Christians started with the birth of Jesus Christ in Nazareth, a town in the lower portion of Galilee in present day Israel. As narrated in the gospels of the Christian bible, Jesus started a religious revolution in the land of the Jews by claiming that he was the messiah or the Jewish savior.
Although not a major religious movement, Christianity became enormously popular after the death of Christ through the works of his disciples, most notably of Saul of Tarsus who was later known as the apostle Paul. Paul’s evangelical works as well as the works of other disciples were documented in the Christian bible. Christianity’s golden era was when it was adopted by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in 395 A.D. as the official religion of the Roman Empire. After which, as the Roman Empire declined, Christianity, on the other hand, rose to prominence as it was adopted by powerful Monarchs in Mediterranean and Europe as their official state religions. It should be noted though that the elements of assimilation are manifested in the Christian tradition as well. Among the peculiar similarities of the Christian religion in Rome’s ancient religions is the depiction of the Virgin Mary, which is very similar to Cybele of the Anatolians and the Isis of the Egyptians. Isis and Cybele, who were also regarded as mother of god, queen of heavenly realms and giver of love and prosperity, can be closely associated with the attributes that were given to Mary by the Christian religion starting in the second century (Schaefers 8). Perhaps the Romanized version of Mary is to facilitate the conversion of the Romans, who were already familiar with the mother-goddess worship.


It is quite evident that there were a plethora of ancient cults and religions that has infiltrated the Roman Empire since its establishment as a republic up to its decline. Among the most influential are the oriental religions of the Anatolians such as the cult of Cybele and the cult of Mithras. Egyptian influence is also notable with the inception of the cult of Iris as one of the major Roman religions. However, all these ancient cults have been put aside with the rise of Christianity, whose roots can be traced back to another ancient oriental religion, Judaism. Still, the influences of ancient cults and religions on Christianity are quite evident, which suggest that there is indeed a culmination of the good attributes of all the major cults of ancient Rome into one single and universal religion that is Christianity.

Works Cited

A Study of Mithraism. 1949. April 2015 <>.
Berens, E.M. Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome. 23 August 2007. April 2015 <>.
Boak, A. A HISTORY OF ROME TO 565 A. D. 1921. April 2015 <>.
Bogh, B. The Graeco- Roman cult of Isis. n.d. April 2015 <>.
Ciglenečki, S. Late Traces of the Cults of Cybele and Attis. The Origins of the Kurenti and of the Pinewood Marriage (“Borovo Gostüvanje”). 1999. April 2015 <>.
Johnston, S. Ancient Religions. 2007. April 2015 <>.
Mackenzie, D. EGYPTIAN MYTH AND LEGEND. 2002. April 2015 <>.
Pachis, P. "Manufacturing Religion" in the Hellenistic Age: The Case of Isis-Demeter Cult*. n.d. April 2015 <>.
Pearse, R. History and Development of the mysteries of Mithras, and the scholarship about it. n.d. April 2015 <>.
Schaefers, K. An Isis Timeline. 2010. April 2015 <>.
Skjærvø, P.O. Zoroastrianism. 2009. April 2015 <>.
Teth, A. Origins of the Mithras Cult. n.d. April 2015 <>.

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