Discuss the representation of religious belief and/or the gods in Latin poetry.
There are many notable writers of Latin poetry from the Roman era and a substantial quantity of poetry from the period survives today. The most notable of these are literary epic poems, an interpretation of the Roman writers own take on the Greek tradition started by Homer, which portray among other themes the idea of divine intervention in human lives and give the impression of the national importance of their narrative, often due to the underlying moral message. This essay will discuss three of the greatest poets of the late republic and early principate, Lucretius, Virgil and Ovid, each of whom have very different writing styles and portray the divine figures in their works as holding different positions in relation to the mortal world. It also includes how the poets represent the creation of the world and discusses their viewpoints on the afterlife. In some cases their outlook is due to personal belief, in others it is taken in order to enhance the readability of their poetry.
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Lucretius was writing in the first half of the first century BC. He is a very interesting writer to explore as his ideas are in many respects very advanced, and his distinctive stance on the position of divinities within the world is contrary to what we normally expect to find in epic poetry. He was, as put by Wormell (1965: 46) attempting to write an epic, which was simultaneously philosophical, a new concept for the Romans.
In De Rerum Natura, Lucretius' theme is man's position within the universe (Wormell 1965: 35). He begins the poem with an invocation to Venus (Lucretius 1.1-57), which initially is misleading, as Lucretius believed in Epicurian gods. These gods did not care about the occurrences of the world and they are merely passive figures (Lucretius2.646-648), indeed he goes on to say that it is nature that created the world without any contribution from the gods (Lucretius2.1090-1092). Therefore introducing Venus at the beginning of the poem must be examined more closely in order to discover the purpose behind this. Summers (1995: 49) believes that Venus can be viewed as a symbol for the positive side of the world's equilibrium. In lines 1.29-30 of De Rerum Natura she is described as being able to prevent war and destruction in the world. Wormwell (1965: 39) explains this by saying that symbolically Mars and Venus were a father and mother to the Romans. He believes that for Lucretius the life force of Venus contrasts with that of Mars, her creative nature balances his destructive one (Wormell 1965:39).
Townend (1965: 99) puts forward the idea that despite the viewpoint of Lucretius, he still uses certain gods in a traditional way for example Bacchus and Neptune. However there is a passage in which Lucretius describes the ocean and the way in which its different components can be separated, where he calls the sea ‘Neptune' (Lucretius 2.471-475). This shows that perhaps he is portraying Neptune in the same way as he does with Venus, incorporating the familiar Roman gods into his belief system as elements of nature, which is the supreme power of his universe.
Lucretius (5.1195-1197) in De Rerum Natura portrays the idea that people put themselves through much difficulty in trying to appease the gods. People were intimidated by the idea of the gods controlling their lives (Summers 1995:53). This idea would have been supported by other epic poets such as Homer, Virgil and Ovid, in whose works, the gods play a much more active role in the fate of humanity. Lucretius is very critical of certain religious rituals which he deems impious andthat have led humans down a path that is morally wrong. For example when he describes the sacrifice of Iphianassa (Lucretius 1.82-101) he describes it as ‘evil'.
In any belief system it is essential to understand the creation of the universe; humanity has always had a great curiosity about its origins, hence the importance of classical and archaeological study. Instead of gods creating the world, Lucretius (5.837-848) describes how the earth began to make living beings, but how initially they were unsuccessful as each of them had some sort of disability. Lowenstein (1965: 13) believes that this shows signs of a sort of evolutionary theory, which is very advanced for the time. However Lucretius' idea that animals were born from wombs in the earth (Lucretius 5.807-808) returns to the more mythological ideas often found in Roman poetry.
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According to Lucretius (3.117-120) the soul is a material part of our body, which he describes as being part of our membra or frame. This contrasts with most religious views that imply you can continue to the afterlife because the part of you makes this journey is not material. Lucretius believes that the body dies when the soul leaves it (Lucretius 3.122-123).
This is explained in that Lucretius does not believe in an afterlife, he describes how nature makes living beings from atoms and that when they die, they are dissolved back into atoms (Lucretius 1.56-57). He also says that because humans feel nothing before they are born they will feel nothing after they die (Lucretius 3.830-842). Wormell (1965: 55) believes that by the second half of the poem people are comforted by this idea, having been freed from the fear of death and the gods. However for people who were used to the idea of gods controlling their lives, the prospect of a godless world with a definitive end to their being and soul may have seemed strange and bewildering.
Farrington (1965: 19) believes that in many ways Lucretius is a didactic poet. Although the views he gives are not originally his own, he uses De Rerum Natura to educate people about his belief system, which was different from the majority of people living at the time. Lucretius, in following the Epicurean belief, tried to encourage others to adopt it, by reaching out to individuals and showing them examples of the rules he followed in life (Wormell 1965: 42). This is probably why he goes into such great detail on each subject and repeatedly uses different examples to emphasise his points. For example he talks about the process of being created from and dissolved back into atoms at1.56-57, and then again at 2.62-63.
Virgil was writing in the mid to late first century BC. When examining the Aeneid, it is easy to see how keen he was on the subject of the gods and the workings of the world. With Virgil we have a more traditional portrayal of the gods, where the idea put forward by Thornton (1976: 150) that the causes of events in the Aeneid are due to interference from gods and the dead is very prominent. Indeed Glover (1903: 37) believes that the gods of Virgil are stronger than Homer's had been, taking more direct action within the lives of men. This can be shown from the outset of the Aeneid when Virgil says that Aeneas encountered problems on his journey because of the anger of Juno (Aeneid 1.3-4). Thornton (1976: 156) points out that this reflects the general view of Romans in Virgil's time, that obstacles such as those made by Juno are punishments for wrongdoings by angry divinities. Though many of the gods have an impact in the travels of Aeneas the outcome of events are generally decided upon by Jupiter as we see in the speech (Aeneid 1.257-296) he gives to Venus when she comes to him upset that he might have changed Aeneas' destiny.
Glover (1903: 36) believes that in the Aeneid the relationship between the gods and the hero is more formal than in Homer and that Virgil is wary in his handling of them. He also highlights the fact that in the Aeneid, Aeneas is distinctly outside the direct guidance of the gods (Glover 1903:35). Both of these ideas are supported by the fact that Aeneas has to visit a prophetess, in order to talk to Apollo through her (Aeneid 6.42-97). He has no direct contact with the god himself but the god gives him the commands that Aeneas knows he must obey. This also reflects the fact that unlike in Homer's epics, Virgil is writing from a period far distant from an age where gods could allegedly be encountered on earth (Glover 1903: 36), perhaps this is the reason that his human characters in the Aeneid also feel more distant from the gods, because Virgil feels that in his age a more formal approach needs to be taken in regard to divinities.
It is Thornton's opinion (1976: 69) that Virgil uses Anchises' first speech (Aeneid 6.713-751) to explain the way scholars of his time viewed life and death. As it is his personal opinion of how the afterlife worked, perhaps this explains the use of Anchises as the person who tells his audience of the process. Anchises is the father of the hero of the epic, which gives him a certain feel of authority and the fact that in the Aeneid he is already dead and has experienced the afterlife himself, serves to enhance that authority.
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Throughout the Aeneid the gods guide Aeneas towards the future and educate him in morals. An example of the gods directing him through life to his future without his knowledge is in the final lines of book 8 (Aeneid 8.729-731) after he has received a shield made by the gods and depicting the future of his descendants, the Romans.
Thornton (1976: 152) believes that when considering Virgil's presentation of the gods in the Aeneid we must ask ourselves if Virgil is using the gods merely as a means of structuring his epic or whether it is the gods' part in the story that is important. Although the gods are undoubtedly useful in breaking up the events of the Aeneid and encouraging the audience to engage with the poem by viewing events from a different perspective, it would seem that the Aeneid was also used as a means for Virgil to convey thoughts on his own personal interest. The Aeneid also shows the fascination held by many poets of the time with the human qualities reflected in the interrelationships of the gods and their interactions with humans. It is also important to view the journey of Aeneas as a divine plan.
Ovid was the latest of the three poets examined here to write his epic, writing from between the end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD. He is similar to Virgil in that he has a comparable belief that the gods direct the actions of humanity, however as Griffin (1977: 69) puts, unlike Virgil, Ovid is more interested in reality than myth. Griffin (1977: 61) is of the opinion that the Metamorphoses is principally about love. This would seem to be the case because the gods that are included in the epic appear the majority of the time, when experiencing this emotion. However the poem is also about transformations, mystical events that only occur at the will of a god and this shows that gods have a purpose in the Metamorphoses other than to experience the emotion itself. An example of this is the tale of Daphne (Metamorphoses 1.544-552) who is turned into a tree by her father, the river god Peneüs, as she is about to be raped by Apollo.
Kenney (1973: 145) claims that it is the humanity of the gods that affect the audience the most in the Metamorphoses. Griffin (1977: 61-2) supports this, as he asserts that we should think about the gods in this epic as more like the people of Ovid's time in a mythological guise. It is true that many of the problems suffered by the gods in their interactions with human and divine alike were probably reflected in the society of the day, for example the anger and sadness of Juno in discovering her husband's affair with Io (Metamorphoses 1.723-733). This may have been the reason Ovid chose to write in this style, because if the tales of the gods were something the audience could relate to, they would be more likely to remember these stories and thus Ovid himself.
Ovid differs from Lucretius and Virgil because he shows no real interest in philosophy (Wheeler 1995: 97) and unlike in the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses does not seem to have any great moral purpose (Griffin 1977:69). The Metamorphoses is unlike any epic poem written before it and perhaps all these factors come together to show that Ovid was trying to break away from tradition and into his own personal style.
The way in which Ovid presented his world was new; he introduced art as a means by which the world was created as though the universe has been crafted (Wheeler 1995: 104). This is shown when Ovid describes chaos as initially unstructured (Metamorphoses 1.6) and then goes on to describe the creative elements of constructing the universe, using verbs such as ‘secrevit' or ‘he disentangled' (Metamorphoses 1.23) and ‘coegit' or ‘he collected' (Metamorphoses 1.33).
‘Chaos' in Ovid can be compared to the void mentioned in Lucretius. In Ovid it is the gods who control chaos to make the universe, whereas in Lucretius the void cannot be controlled. It simply coexists with the divinities, neither having anything to do with the other and humanity comes into existence due to chance.
The three poets collected here are by no means the only individuals with clear ideas on the aspects of religion that I have discussed. Overall the perspective of Lucretius contrasts massively to those of the later two poets, however there are still smaller discrepancies between Ovid and Virgil. Each poet is writing for a different purpose, Lucretius to educate people about his beliefs and gain support from them, Virgil to educate the Romans on their noble past and moral values, and Ovid to gain recognition for his work. Each of the poets helps the modern audience to understand in various ways how the fear and power of the gods affected Roman society as a whole. The important feature of each poem is that all of them confirm the existence of gods. Even where Lucretius dismisses the interference of gods in the real world, he still alludes to a higher force, calling it ‘nature' from which life has been created. The soul is also a feature of each poet, whether it be material or immaterial. In an Empire ever increasing in size, where new peoples were constantly being integrated into Roman society , there needed to be sources of information from which they could learn about their new heritage. Historical accounts are for the most part based on fact, so it was left to the arts, where mythology could be freely incorporated, to provide the answers.