Man even dealt in speculation with his god; a vow was in reality as in name a formal contract between the god and the man, by which the latter promised to the former for a certain service to be rendered a certain equivalent return; and the Roman legal principle that no contract could be concluded by deputy was not the least important of the reasons on account of which all priestly mediation remained excluded from the religious concerns of man in Latium. Nay, as the Roman merchant was entitled, without injury to his conventional rectitude, to fulfil his contract merely in the letter, so in dealing with the gods, according to the teaching of Roman theology, the copy of an object was given and received instead of the object itself. They presented to the lord of the sky heads of onions and poppies, that he might launch his lightnings at these rather than at the heads of men. In payment of the offering annually demanded by father Tiber, thirty puppets plaited of rushes were annually thrown into the stream.(12) The ideas of divine mercy and placability were in these instances inseparably mixed up with a pious cunning, which tried to delude and to pacify so formidable a master by means of a sham satisfaction. The Roman fear of the gods accordingly exercised powerful influence over the minds of the multitude; but it was by no means that sense of awe in the presence of an all-controlling nature or of an almighty God, that lies at the foundation of the views of pantheism and monotheism respectively; on the contrary, it was of a very earthly character, and scarcely different in any material respect from the trembling with which the Roman debtor approached his just, but very strict and very powerful creditor. It is plain that such a religion was fitted rather to stifle than to foster artistic and speculative views. When the Greek had clothed the simple thoughts of primitive times with human flesh and blood, the ideas of the gods so formed not only became the elements of plastic and poetic art, but acquired also that universality and elasticity which are the profoundest characteristics of human nature and for this very reason are essential to all religions that aspire to rule the world. Through such means the simple view of nature became expanded into the conception of a cosmogony, the homely moral notion became enlarged into a principle of universal humanity; and for a long period the Greek religion was enabled to embrace within it the physical and metaphysical views--the whole ideal development of the nation--and to expand in depth and breadth with the increase of its contents, until imagination and speculation rent asunder the vessel which had nursed them. But in Latium the embodiment of the conceptions of deity continued so wholly transparent that it afforded no opportunity for the training either of artist or poet, and the Latin religion always held a distant and even hostile attitude towards art As the god was not and could not be aught else than the spiritualizattion of an earthly phenomenon, this same earthly counterpart naturally formed his place of abode (-templum-) and his image; walls and effigies made by the hands of men seemed only to obscure and to embarrass the spiritual conception. Accordingly the original Roman worship had no images of the gods or houses set apart for them; and although the god was at an early period worshipped in Latium, probably in imitation of the Greeks, by means of an image, and had a little chapel (-aedicula-) built for him, such a figurative representation was reckoned contrary to the laws of Numa and was generally regarded as an impure and foreign innovation. The Roman religion could exhibit no image of a god peculiar to it, with the exception, perhaps, of the double-headed Ianus; and Varro even in his time derided the desire of the multitude for puppets and effigies. The utter want of productive power in the Roman religion was likewise the ultimate cause of the thorough poverty which always marked Roman poetry and still more Roman speculation.

The same distinctive character was manifest, moreover, in the domain of its practical use. The practical gain which accrued to the Roman community from their religion was a code of moral law gradually developed by the priests, and the -Pontifices- in particular, which on the one hand supplied the place of police regulations at a time when the state was still far from providing any direct police-guardianship for its citizens, and on the other hand brought to the bar of the gods and visited with divine penalties the breach of moral obligations. To the regulations of the former class belonged the religious inculcation of a due observance of holidays and of a cultivation of the fields and vineyards according to the rules of good husbandry--which we shall have occasion to notice more fully in the sequel--as well as the worship of the heath or of the Lares which was connected with considerations of sanitary police,(13) and above all the practice of burning the bodies of the dead, adopted among the Romans at a singularly early period, far earlier than among the Greeks--a practice implying a rational conception of life and of death, which was foreign to primitive times and is even foreign to ourselves at the present day. It must be reckoned no small achievement that the national religion of the Latins was able to carry out these and similar improvements. But the civilizing effect of this law was still more important. If a husband sold his wife, or a father sold his married son; if a child struck his father, or a daughter-in-law her father-in-law; if a patron violated his obligation to keep faith with his guest or dependent; if an unjust neighbour displaced a boundary-stone, or the thief laid hands by night on the grain entrusted to the common good faith; the burden of the curse of the gods lay thenceforth on the head of the offender. Not that the person thus accursed (-sacer-) was outlawed; such an outlawry, inconsistent in its nature with all civil order, was only an exceptional occurrence--an aggravation of the religious curse in Rome at the time of the quarrels between the orders.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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