The Romans made efforts, even at an early period, to treasure up such counsels, and copies of the leaves of the soothsaying priestess of Apollo, the Cumaean Sibyl, were accordingly a highly valued gift on the part of their Greek guest-friends from Campania. For the reading and interpretation of the fortune-telling book a special college, inferior in rank only to the augurs and Pontifices, was instituted in early times, consisting of two men of lore (-duoviri sacris faciundis-), who were furnished at the expense of the state with two slaves acquainted with the Greek language. To these custodiers of oracles the people resorted in cases of doubt, when an act of worship was needed in order to avoid some impending evil and they did not know to which of the gods or with what rites it was to be performed. But Romans in search of advice early betook themselves also to the Delphic Apollo himself. Besides the legends relating to such an intercourse already mentioned,(16) it is attested partly by the reception of the word -thesaurus- so closely connected with the Delphic oracle into all the Italian languages with which we are acquainted, and partly by the oldest Roman form of the name of Apollo, -Aperta-, the "opener," an etymologizing alteration of the Doric Apellon, the antiquity of which is betrayed by its very barbarism. The Greek Herakles was naturalized in Italy as Herclus, Hercoles, Hercules, at an early period and under a peculiar conception of his character, apparently in the first instance as the god of gains of adventure and of any extraordinary increase of wealth; for which reason the general was wont to present the tenth of the spoil which he had procured, and the merchant the tenth of the substance which he had obtained, to Hercules at the chief altar (-ara maxima-) in the cattle-market. Accordingly he became the god of mercantile covenants generally, which in early times were frequently concluded at this altar and confirmed by oath, and in so far was identified with the old Latin god of good faith (-deus fidius-). The worship of Hercules was from an early date among the most widely diffused; he was, to use the words of an ancient author, adored in every hamlet of Italy, and altars were everywhere erected to him in the streets of the cities and along the country roads. The gods also of the mariner, Castor and Polydeukes or, in Roman form, Pollux, the god of traffic Hermes--the Roman Mercurius--and the god of healing, Asklapios or Aesculapius, became early known to the Romans, although their public worship only began at a later period. The name of the festival of the "good goddess" (-bona dea-) -damium-, corresponding to the Greek --damion-- or --deimion--, may likewise reach back as far as this epoch. It must be the result also of ancient borrowing, that the old -Liber pater- of the Romans was afterwards conceived as "father deliverer" and identified with the wine-god of the Greeks, the "releaser" (-Lyaeos-), and that the Roman god of the lower regions was called the "dispenser of riches" (-Pluto- - -Dis pater-), while his spouse Persephone became converted at once by change of the initial sound and by transference of the idea into the Roman Proserpina, that is, "germinatrix." Even the goddess of the Romano-Latin league, Diana of the Aventine, seems to have been copied from the federal goddess of the lonians of Asia Minor, the Ephesian Artemis; at least her carved image in the Roman temple was formed after the Ephesian type.(17) It was in this way alone, through the myths of Apollo, Dionysus, Pluto, Herakles, and Artemis, which were early pervaded by Oriental ideas, that the Aramaic religion exercised at this period a remote and indirect influence on Italy. We clearly perceive from these facts that the introduction of the Greek religion was especially due to commercial intercourse, and that it was traders and mariners who primarily brought the Greek gods to Italy.

These individual cases however of derivation from abroad were but of secondary moment, while the remains of the natural symbolism of primeval times, of which the legend of the oxen of Cacus may perhaps be a specimen,(18) had virtually disappeared. In all its leading features the Roman religion was an organic creation of the people among whom we find it.

Religion Of The Sabellians

The Sabellian and Umbrian worship, judging from the little we know of it, rested upon quite the same fundamental views as the Latin with local variations of colour and form. That it was different from the Latin is very distinctly apparent from the founding of a special college at Rome for the preservation of the Sabine rites;(19) but that very fact affords an instructive illustration of the nature of the difference. Observation of the flight of birds was with both stocks the regular mode of consulting the gods; but the Tities observed different birds from the Ramnian augurs. Similar relations present themselves, wherever we have opportunity of comparing them. Both stocks in common regarded the gods as abstractions of the earthly and as of an impersonal nature; they differed in expression and ritual. It was natural that these diversities should appear of importance to the worshippers of those days; we are no longer able to apprehend what was the characteristic distinction, if any really existed.

Religion Of The Etruscans

But the remains of the sacred ritual of the Etruscans that have reached us are marked by a different spirit. Their prevailing characteristics are a gloomy and withal tiresome mysticism, ringing the changes on numbers, soothsaying, and that solemn enthroning of pure absurdity which at all times finds its own circle of devotees. We are far from knowing the Etruscan worship in such completeness and purity as we know the Latin; and it is not improbable--indeed it cannot well be doubted--that several of its features were only imported into it by the minute subtlety of a later period, and that the gloomy and fantastic principles, which were most alien to the Latin worship, are those that have been especially handed down to us by tradition.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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