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Religious Toleration and the Roman Empire

August 30th, 2012
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Picked up another interesting post from one of my favorite blogs “History of the Ancient World” which is kind of a clearing house of papers and theses on various topics concerning ancient civilizations. This one caught my eye as particularly interesting, on religious toleration and the Roman Empire, detailing how Rome dealt with various religious groups across its vast empire, Christianity being one of the religious that kept bumping against Roman authority due to its recalcitrant attitudes about the whole “Emperor is God” thing. Here’s a summary of the thesis you can read here (give it some time to load).

“This thesis examines religious toleration in the Roman world throughout the republic and empire and its connection to Roman political power. While studies have examined the role religion played in Roman political success, few have looked at the reactions of the Romans in multiple situations involving religious groups that were incompatible with Roman society in order to draw broad conclusions about the nature of Roman religious toleration and how it was meant to maintain Roman supremacy. By examining a number of such groups, this study aims to outline the place of religion in the Roman political system, to show why certain religious groups were met with various forms of hostility, and finally to consider what these incidences reveal about Roman religious toleration and the place of religion in Rome’s political landscape. This study finds that Roman religion had very specific characteristics and was a pillar ofthe Roman state, so that when a religious group caught the attention ofthe Roman authorities and did not fit the requirements ofthe Roman state religion, it was perceived as a threat to Rome’s position of power. Each group examined received different treatment from Rome depending on other stresses endangering Roman political stability and the structure and practices ofthe group in question. Those that could be made into acceptable Roman cults were permitted to exist in their new form while others were completely rejected. Allowing groups to continue in any form, though, was done so under the supervision of the senate or emperor which shifted power back to the Roman state and re-established its control over the religious and hence political sphere. Such treatment of religious groups should not be called toleration and this thesis helps to correct such misjudgements which deny the importance that religion played in Roman political power.”

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  1. August 30th, 2012 at 20:51 | #1

    This is very interesting as I always thought that it was ‘tolerance’. The love-hate relationship with the Jews depended on who was in charge in Rome. According to the thesis, the Jews were always trying to get out from under the Roman rule. Sometimes this irritated Rome and at other times, not. Julius Caesar seemed to be ‘tolerant’, though, and even adjusted the corn deliveries for the day after the Sabbath.
    “…Also,various cities were required by the Romans to permit the residents there to carry out their
    traditional customs. 27 Privileges granted by Caesar were done so because he was
    grateful to the Jews for their assistance during his war with Pompey and Caesar’s actions served as important precedents to his successors who generally tried to imitate his
    treatment of the Jews. Caesar’s respect for Jewish rights formalized and legalized that the
    Jews should have religious liberty and established Judaism as an incorporated body with
    an authorized cult throughout the empire, a status that it held for over three centuries with
    the exception of restriction under Hadrian….”

    But there doesn’t appear to be even the above with the Christians. There are those countries in the world today that will use a religion/people if it benefits their system of government. etc. This seems natural as any pagan rule would be. In other words, the country’s leaders would use the religion/people for further advancement of their goals. It’s an interesting thesis but I would have liked it much more had she used the past data for the present world situations; that, of course, would be another thesis. JMO

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