Happy Solstice, or Sol Invictus Day! Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun, was a popular Roman solar deity which gained preeminence in the later Roman Empire courtesy of the Emperor Aurelian (and before him the Emperor Egalabalus). In fact, the first Christian Emperor Constantine initially was a worshiper of Sol Invictus as well. The ‘radiant crown’ of Sol Invictus was transferred to Christ and remained popular with Constantine and Christian Roman emperors thereafter in iconography and coins. December 25th (which used to be the solstice) was the celebratory date of Sol Invictus, and this date is still popular today as it was adopted by Christianity in the late 3rd century. So what other deities and religions were popular during the Roman Empire?
The Imperial Cult
The best way to start describing this cult is by the word Apotheosis, which means to become divine, or to reach divine status. In the summer of 44 AD, after the death of Julius Caesar, a great comet was seen in the sky. Using this imagery his adopted son Octavian (soon to be Augustus) developed a divine cult for Julius Ceasar, including temples and priests. Octavian himself was divi filius (“The son of a deified one”). This concept was common in Greek and Roman religion. Hercules himself had joined the Gods on Olympus after his death, and so did Julius Caesar. Octavian, when he became Emperor (or Princeps of the Republic), allowed cult temples made in the honor of his own divine genius. This genius, or divine spirit, is what was worshiped around the empire. Empresses too and the offspring of the Emperor would also be considered worthy of divine status. Of course this made sense to people in the empire, especially in the East. The Emperor ruled over most of the known world, and anyone wielding such power would of course be divine!
So when Messala tells Ben-Hur that the Roman Emperor Tiberius is God, the “only God” for the power he wields on earth, this is exactly what he means! Failure to worship the Gods of Rome (including the Emperor) is what led Christians into trouble in the 1st and 2nd centuries because lack of worship meant that this person (or persons) did not want to reap the benefits of divine favor to the Empire. It was considered political and social defiance. The Jews, because of their ancient religion, were exempt from worshiping the Imperial Cult and Roman Gods, but the Christians were not.
Some megalomaniac Emperors took this imperial cult worship a step further and declared themselves actual gods (not just the worship of their genius) while they were still alive. Such notables would be Caligula (whose memory was condemned), and Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, who posthumously regained his divinity during the reign of Septimus Severus.
The modest and humorous Emperor Vespasian summed this all up best, I think, with his death-bed exclamation: ‘Vae, puto deus fio’ – ‘oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god. ’ (Suentonius, The Twelve Caesars)
The traditional Gods of Ancient Greece were still the most popularly worshiped Gods in the Roman Empire. Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Hera, Artemis, Mars and the like all had temples throughout the Empire in various manifestations. Many Middle Platonist‘s rationalized the worship of many Gods or the properties of God in their various guises or manifestations of the one God Logos, or Truth (see Plotinus, for example). The world is a place teeming with variety, so it makes sense that several aspects of Nature and Human Emotions and Passions are represented by the many Gods of Olympus.
Messala and Ben-Hur remember childhood games when they evoke “Down Eros, Up Mars!” to each other. Mars, or Ares, the God of War, would surely have appealed to a militaristic solider like Messala, as he was the god of strife and war. However it seems Eros, the god of sensual love and desire, could perhaps be the God Messala really wants to summon here?
Messala also offers praise to Jupiter before the chariot race begins. “The Roman people worshiped Jupiter more extravagantly and more frequently than all other gods; therefore, the worship of Jupiter is almost monotheistic. Jupiter was the most powerful and the greatest of the gods so much so that the Romans sometimes called him Jupiter-Optimus-Maximus. The Romans considered Jupiter to be the protecting entity of their empire, and they even believed that Jupiter would provide them with the greatest empire the world had ever seen.” (https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Roman_Culture/Roman_Myths/Jupiter)
Philosophy could sometimes take on the trappings or demeanor of religion as well. If we take Marcus Aurelius, played so brilliantly by Alec Guinness in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, and his Meditations, you can get a glimpse of some of the amazing philosophies of the late Roman Empire. Stoicism, founded by Zeno in Athens in 313 BC, matched the Roman mentality very well. Stoics were seekers after the Unknown God. They believed in Fate and Providence (hence they paid particular heed to Oracles and Omens). The God of the Stoics was the Creator of all Things, and obeyed the ‘natural law’. They valued above all things moderation, courage, justice, prudent self control and practical intelligence. Reason and living in agreement with Nature were the basic tenants of Stoicism. There is a world weary tone in The Meditations, but also hope behind the belief of a coherent, ordered, purposeful Universe.
If then, whatever the time may be when thou shalt be near to thy departure, neglecting everything else thou shalt respect only thy ruling faculty and the divinity within thee, and if thou shalt be afraid not because thou must some time cease to live, but if thou shalt fear never to have begun to live according to nature—then thou wilt be a man worthy of the universe which has produced thee, and thou wilt cease to be a stranger in thy native land, and to wonder at things which happen daily as if they were something unexpected, and to be dependent on this or that. (Meditations, 12.1)
Last but not least we come to the mysterious Roman cult of Mithras, which displayed the Persian trappings of the ancient Zoroastrian God from Persia. The worship of Mithras seems to have come to Rome around the reign of Domitian and continued well into the 3rd century. Like the Eleusinian and Isis mystery cults, Mithraism also maintained secrets oaths and a hierarchy of ascension (seven ‘grades’ of initiation – Crow, Numphus, Solider, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus and Father). The grades of this hierarchy mirrored the regiments and order of an army, so this religion because popular with the Roman troops, especially on the Danube and the Rhine. The cult excluded women. It revolved around Mithras and his ritual sacrifice of a bull (called a tauroctony), as the giver of ‘seed’ and procreation. This sacrifice and be seen in many statues around the Roman world, showing Mithras (wearing a Persian cap), holding a knife and wrestling the bull. Out of the blood from the bull ears of corn or trees can be seen growing from the ‘gift’ of this sacrfice. Because of the celestial aspects of Mithraism, equinoxes and solstices also were important dates of worship including, once again, December 25th, the day if the solstice during Roman times. The ceremonies for Mithras were mostly performed in caves or underground chambers, many of which can still be seen today.
Religion is only obliquely referred to in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. For example, the Emperor is a Stoic; his Greek counselor Timonides is a quiet Christian (he can be seen wearing the “chi-rho” symbol around his neck). However, our hero Livius’ religion is never revealed. In my opinion it’s most likely that Livius would have been a follower of Mithras. As a solider on the Danube, Livius would have been exposed to this religious sect and most of his troops were likely followers as well. Most telling of all, Livius’ friend, the Emperor Commodus, was “admitted among the adept and participated in their secret ceremonies.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra). Once the cult of Mithras found favor in the person of the highest imperial power it truly gained a reputation and following from the common solider to the highest aristocracy. “Until the downfall of paganism the aristocracy remained attached to the solar god that has so long enjoyed the favor of the princes.” (Franz Cumont, the Mysteries of Mithra)
“…Mithras had a militant character, always ready for battle, prepared to assist others in their fight for good and to bring them victory. One of the grades in the mysteries was called Miles, the soldier. The Mithraic cult was a form of military service; life on earth a campaign led by the victorious god. It is therefore little wonder that soldiers of all ranks in the Roman legions, orientals included, felt the lure of Mithras. Observance of the cult guaranteed assistance to all who pledged their lives to the Roman eagle. The assurance of divine aid on the battlefield, the military discipline and the taking of an oath as part of that discipline, were very important factors in the spread of the Mithras cult and its official recognition.” (http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Religions/iranian/Mithraism/m_m/pt3.htm)
So Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to everyone out there! And from me, a nod of recognition to the Ancient Gods – whether it be Sol Invictus, Mithras, Augustus or Zeus – as Messala would say, “In the Name of All the Gods!”