HOW IMPORTANT WAS RELIGION IN THE LIFE OF A ROMAN SOLDIER, AND WHAT PURPOSE DID IT SERVE
A soldier’s career began when he swore the sacramentum, the oath that would bind him to a term of service in the Roman army. Originally a man was selected from the new recruits to recite the oath, which was quite long. ‘Then the others come forward and each in his turn takes his oath simply that he will do the same as the first man’. The transition from Republic to Principe saw a change in the oath from the swearing of loyalty to the state to loyalty to the leader, the Emperor. The oath was also ‘abridged so that each man could recite it easily’.
Epictetus writes that this oath was sworn ‘to value the safety of the emperor above everything’. In the Roman Empire the emperor was revered as a god on earth, sometimes literally (in the case of Gaius), so swearing this oath would have been equivalent to someone entering the clergy today. The oath was taken very seriously, repeated symbolically at the beginning of every year. Grant says that breaking the sacramentum ‘was the gravest step that could be taken’.
The oath referred to sacred observances and so was considered sacred in itself. Crimes from thieving to desertion flew in the face of everything the oath stood for and were severely punished, often by death. Once a soldier was assigned to his unit he would move to the camp of that legion.
John Helgeland writes that since the legendary foundation of Rome, walls has been regarded as sacred’. The same was true of the walls of a fort or fortress of the Roam army. He also notes that the soldiers believed gods called ‘Lares’ protected their walls and cites evidence of graffiti at the Dura camp indicating that the walls ‘came under the special province of a god’. The walls were a division between the alien world outside them and the ordered Roman world inside. They were a barrier protecting the soldiers from negative influences, both physical onslaught and moral corruption from exposure to local customs.
Helgeland notes that ‘everything inside the walls of the camp was considered a religious space’. The main focus of the army’s religious practices was the praetorium at the center of the camp. This was where the commander was stationed; it was the first structure to be erected when a camp was made, signifying its importance. Here the shrine (sacellum) which housed the standards, along with the bust and effigy of the emperor, would be placed. The religious ceremonies were held in front of the praetorium. This space, encompassing the shrine, forward area and legionary bank, was considered sacred.
Tacitas writes of MunatiusPlancus seeking sanctuary by ‘clasping the standards and the eagle’. This is akin to a church in Christian society, a place where criminals could not be harmed. Making the camp a religious space would doubtless have encouraged the soldiers to protect it against alien onslaught. They would not want the ground desecrated by barbarians. Giving a place a religious significance would inspire the men to feats of bravery and promote training in readiness for any occurrence that might endanger the sacred space. On a hygiene note, it could also encourage the men to keep the camp clean so as not to disrespect their deities.
The FerialeDuranum was discovered at Dura-Europus and provides a list of dates and festivals observed by the Roman army. Helgeland says ‘the calendar reflects Augustus’s concern that religion and piety is cultivated throughout the empire’. Each camp was a like a microcosm of Rome, representing its values out to its frontiers. This idea was cemented by the festivals themselves, which were held on the same day in Rome as in the camps. The religious calendar was a link back to the heart of the empire and served to remind the soldiers of their duty and of the emperor himself, their commander-in-chief. The individual festivals also served to remind the soldiers of the former glory of their empire and army.
Deified emperors and military heroes were celebrated annually, instilling the current generation with pride and giving them an example to both emulate and outstrip. An example of this is the birthday of the divine Claudius on August first. Not only are the dates and people listed but the appropriate sacrifice also. Male gods such as Jupiter and Mars received sacrifices of male animals, particularly bulls, while Juno and Minerva were offered female animals such as cows (January third). Another festival is that of the Eternal City of Rome, remembered April twenty-first. Personifying the city for which the soldiers fight may serve to instill them with pride and consolidate their loyalty. The emperors were deified and worshiped in conjunction with the gods. This served to persuade the soldiers that their leader was worthy of any sacrifice, and make them fight with the conviction that their orders were sanctified. It was not only the emperors but also the imperial family that were celebrated on festival days. It was a sign of respect and reverence, but one cannot escape the political undertones of the emperor choosing to have the whole empire recognize members of his extended family.
In order to cement an alliance the emperor might venerate someone, making that person more inclined to help the emperor at some subsequent occasion. In fact, one should not attempt to separate religion from politics in the Roman world. Religious fervor could be exploited for political gain. It is interesting to note that Nock considers the intention of creating so many festivals for observance was to give the troops regular holidays.
Helgeland points out that ‘there is hardly a two week period in the entire year without a festival’. This fact might endear religion to the men, as it would be the reason for days off from boring and tiring fatigues. Free meat and wine were distributed at each festival also. In fact, the regularity of these free meals may even encourage the poorer young men of the empire to join up because they would not ordinarily be able to afford such fare.
It was important that the soldiers were eager to observe the religion of the army in order to secure their loyalty. The standards of the legion played an important role in its religious ceremonies and were often the focus of worship. They were not simply inanimate signifiers for use in battle; they were thought to embody the esprit de corps. There was the eagle (aquila), which was carried by the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer, known as the aquilifer.
There were other totemic standards, depicting fierce creatures like wolves, which were probably carried to instill an animalistic ferocity in the troops. These were phased out during the Marian reforms (particularly in 104BC) in order to unite the whole army under one banner, the eagle. Not only was the eagle a symbol of the emperor but of Jupiter himself, thus equating the commander with divinity and inspiring the soldiers to fight to the best of their ability. Imaginiferi carried images of the emperor. These gave the impression of imperial omnipresence and kept the legions ever mindful of their duty to their leader.
Tertullian says ‘the entire basis of the religious life of soldiers is to worship the military standards, swear by the standards, and place the standards ahead of all other gods’. During festivals the standards would be ‘anointed with precious oils and decorated with garlands; special battle honors and laurel wreaths may have been added’. They also get their own festival on May thirty-first, proving the importance of the standards to a soldier’s religious life.
In 55BC the legions were reluctant to disembark on Caesar’s first campaign to Britain. To encourage the men the standard bearer leapt off his ship saying jump down, comrades, unless you want to surrender our eagle to the enemy’. At this the other soldiers leapt from their ships to avoid disgrace. The loss of a unit’s standard was the ultimate shame, just as it would be to lose the regimental colours in the Napoleonic war. This event could result in the disbanding of the unit. The only way to redeem the unit would be the recovery of the standard.
After the Varun disaster (AD9) it took years but each of the eagles was recovered, so important were they. These religious icons inspired the men to feats of bravery and to work together, making the unit perform as a whole and thus leading them to greater success. Soldiers were known to raise monuments to the standards to incur good will from the gods. Helgeland also notes that whenever territory was acquired, whether by conquest or settlement, the land had to be ‘cosmicised’ [made ordered as opposed to chaotic] before being inhabited…After the ritual the new territory belonged to Rome and was religiously safe for the habitation of Roman citizens. It appears that religion was a means by which Roman soldiers felt safe at the edge of the empire where they were confronted by strange terrain and hostile peoples.
A stable religion that permeated the army helped to avoid soldiers becoming disorientated in new lands. The confines of the camp were familiar and the religious practices provided constancy. Helgeland notes that ‘ritual behaviour…served to dissipate the unconscious impulse of fear’. Not only were religious ceremonies familiar to the geographically displaced soldier, but they also provided him with a varied occupation from military fatigues, giving him little time to dwell on fear. The army had their own gods, personifications of virtues a soldier should possess. These included Honos, Virtus, Pietas and Disciplina. The religion of the army was a tutor that taught a man how to be an ideal soldier’. Religion could be used as an educative tool to discipline the men and teach them the required methods of soldiering. These gods that were peculiar to the army could also serve to indoctrinate non-Roman conscripts into Roman military practices.
Provincials who might not be willing to worship Roman deities would not refuse to recognize the gods of the army and would thus be brought in line with the practices of the army avoiding social discrepancies. Perhaps this is why such an emphasis was placed on making the troops religiously loyal; they would not rebel against their leaders if they thought the gods supported them.
I have already said that a legion’s standard was the esprit de corps, the soldiers believed the legion had a distinct spirit which instilled the soldiers with a collective identity. The soldiers also believed that every place had its own spirit which…must be pacified lest harm come to them’. This betrays something quite ancient about the belief structure of the common soldier, instilling inhuman objects and places with identities. Commanders, who could con their men into working and fighting harder in order to placate any number of spirits and deities, could have exploited these superstitions. There were other gods that were not officially recognized by the Roman army.
The worship of Mithra, a Persian god, appealed to the centurions and high-ranking non-commissioned officers because its seven-tiered system reflected the Roman army’s own ranked system through which they were progressing. ‘The dualism of Mithraism also appealed to soldiers – the struggles between light and darkness, with Mithra fighting on behalf of the light. Still another attractive feature was that it did not accept women and was therefore closer in spirit to the camp than to the home’. Once again, it is seen that religion is a source of comfort for the soldier far from home; giving him a means to direct is attention away from the home life he might be missing.
Another popular god was JuppiterDolichenus, associated with the forging of iron weapons. Once again, the object of worship is related to the practices of the army, sanctifying military actions, making them more palatable. There was also evidence of legions incorporating local gods into their observances. For example, altars exist exalting Apollo in conjunction with the native British god Maponus. This could be an effort for the soldiers to integrate themselves into local society, thus making living, trade and policing easier. It may not be this political, the soldiers could simply have agreed with the local religious doctrine and incorporated it into their own practices. The commanders were tolerant of personal cults as long as they did not interfere with the running of the camp or the established religion. It could be argued that the suppression of these small but strong cults could have led to mutiny; therefore they were tolerated to avoid uprisings.
This brief exploration of military religious practices has shown that just as the soldiers attempted to pacify the spirits they believed inhabited every aspect and place of their lives, so the commanders pacified the soldiers by allowing them to observe their superstitious ways. Equating the emperor with divinity ensured loyalty and encouraged heroic acts, which equaled success for Rome.
In short, religion was a tool by which the legions were controlled. That is not to say that the commanders did not believe in this religion simply that the opportunity for manipulation existed. Yet the fact remains that ‘the Romans attributed their dominion over the world to their piety and care for the gods’. Religion served to motivate, occupy and unify the Roman army and was as important to the soldiers as their campaigns.
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