For all writing of history was associated with the calendar and the book of annals; and, as from the organization of the Roman courts of law no tradition could originate in these courts themselves, it was necessary that the knowledge of legal principles and procedure should be traditionally preserved in the college of the Pontifices, which alone was competent to give an opinion respecting court-days and questions of religious law.


By the side of these two oldest and most eminent corporations of men versed in spiritual lore may be to some extent ranked the college of the twenty state-heralds (-fetiales-, of uncertain derivation), destined as a living repository to preserve traditionally the remembrance of the treaties concluded with neighbouring communities, to pronounce an authoritative opinion on alleged infractions of treaty-rights, and in case of need to attempt reconciliation or declare war. They had precisely the same position with reference to international, as the Pontifices had with reference to religious, law; and were therefore, like the latter, entitled to point out the law, although not to administer it.

But in however high repute these colleges were, and important and comprehensive as were the functions assigned to them, it was never forgotten--least of all in the case of those which held the highest position--that their duty was not to command, but to tender skilled advice, not directly to obtain the answer of the gods, but to explain the answer when obtained to the inquirer. Thus the highest of the priests was not merely inferior in rank to the king, but might not even give advice to him unasked. It was the province of the king to determine whether and when he would take an observation of birds; the "bird-seer" simply stood beside him and interpreted to him, when necessary, the language of the messengers of heaven. In like manner the Fetialis and the Pontifex could not interfere in matters of international or common law except when those concerned therewith desired it. The Romans, notwithstanding all their zeal for religion, adhered with unbending strictness to the principle that the priest ought to remain completely powerless in the state and--excluded from all command-- ought like any other burgess to render obedience to the humblest magistrate.

Character Of The -Cultus-

The Latin worship was grounded essentially on man's enjoyment of earthly pleasures, and only in a subordinate degree on his fear of the wild forces of nature; it consisted pre-eminently therefore in expressions of joy, in lays and songs, in games and dances, and above all in banquets. In Italy, as everywhere among agricultural tribes whose ordinary food consists of vegetables, the slaughter of cattle was at once a household feast and an act of worship: a pig was the most acceptable offering to the gods, just because it was the usual roast for a feast. But all extravagance of expense as well as all excess of rejoicing was inconsistent with the solid character of the Romans. Frugality in relation to the gods was one of the most prominent traits of the primitive Latin worship; and the free play of imagination was repressed with iron severity by the moral self-discipline which the nation maintained. In consequence the Latins remained strangers to the excesses which grow out of unrestrained indulgence. At the very core of the Latin religion there lay that profound moral impulse which leads men to bring earthly guilt and earthly punishment into relation with the world of the gods, and to view the former as a crime against the gods, and the latter as its expiation. The execution of the criminal condemned to death was as much an expiatory sacrifice offered to the divinity as was the killing of an enemy in just war; the thief who by night stole the fruits of the field paid the penalty to Ceres on the gallows just as the enemy paid it to mother earth and the good spirits on the field of battle. The profound and fearful idea of substitution also meets us here: when the gods of the community were angry and nobody could be laid hold of as definitely guilty, they might be appeased by one who voluntarily gave himself up (-devovere se-); noxious chasms in the ground were closed, and battles half lost were converted into victories, when a brave burgess threw himself as an expiatory offering into the abyss or upon the foe. The "sacred spring" was based on a similar view; all the offspring whether of cattle or of men within a specified period were presented to the gods. If acts of this nature are to be called human sacrifices, then such sacrifices belonged to the essence of the Latin faith; but we are bound to add that, far back as our view reaches into the past, this immolation, so far as life was concerned, was limited to the guilty who had been convicted before a civil tribunal, or to the innocent who voluntarily chose to die. Human sacrifices of a different description run counter to the fundamental idea of a sacrificial act, and, wherever they occur among the Indo-Germanic stocks at least, are based on later degeneracy and barbarism. They never gained admission among the Romans; hardly in a single instance were superstition and despair induced, even in times of extreme distress, to seek an extraordinary deliverance through means so revolting. Of belief in ghosts, fear of enchantments, or dealing in mysteries, comparatively slight traces are to be found among the Romans. Oracles and prophecy never acquired the importance in Italy which they obtained in Greece, and never were able to exercise a serious control over private or public life. But on the other hand the Latin religion sank into an incredible insipidity and dulness, and early became shrivelled into an anxious and dreary round of ceremonies. The god of the Italian was, as we have already said, above all things an instrument for helping him to the attainment of very substantial earthly aims; this turn was given to the religious views of the Italian by his tendency towards the palpable and the real, and is no less distinctly apparent in the saint-worship of the modern inhabitants of Italy. The gods confronted man just as a creditor confronted his debtor; each of them had a duly acquired right to certain performances and payments; and as the number of the gods was as great as the number of the incidents in earthly life, and the neglect or wrong performance of the worship of each god revenged itself in the corresponding incident, it was a laborious and difficult task even to gain a knowledge of a man's religious obligations, and the priests who were skilled in the law of divine things and pointed out its requirements--the -Pontifices- --could not fail to attain an extraordinary influence. The upright man fulfilled the requirements of sacred ritual with the same mercantile punctuality with which he met his earthly obligations, and at times did more than was due, if the god had done so on his part.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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