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Rome during the third and second centuries BC
Rome during the third and second centuries BC was open to the importation of Greek culture. When the situation required it, the Romans of the second and third centuries BC were willing to import foreign religions. 205BC saw the transportation of the Magna Mater from Asia Minor to Rome, as instructed by the Sibylline Books, a collection of Greek Oracles (Livy, 29.10.4-8). Bought from the Sibyl of Cumae by Tarquinius Superbus, they were consulted by a group called the Decemviri, at the request of the Senate, to receive an explaination for extraordinary events (Gruen, 1990, 7). The Romans would usually consult a god or oracle in order to find signs of encouragement or a warning against a certain planned course of action (Scullard, 1973, 26). This was a time of war for Rome, with Hannibal and his army still at large within Italy, and Rome had a history of consulting foreign gods in times of crisis. At the beginning of the third century, the Greek deity Aesculapius was transported from Epidaurus in order to combat a plague that had taken hold of the country (Livy, 10.47.6-7). In 249, the chthonic gods Dis Pater and Proserpina were brought to Rome (Livy, Per. 49). When the war with Hannibal turned against Rome, the Senate ordered the Decemviri to consult the Sibylline Books. Q. Fabius Maximus had aske this of the senate after proving that the gods were angered by Caius Flaminius' neglect of ceremonies and auspices. The Books asked that a vow to Mars be taken again, and that games be dedicated to Jupiter. It also asked that a temple to Venus Erycina be built, and Marcus Aemilius was given the task of fulfilling these requests (Livy, 22.9.7-10).
This trend to rely on foreign religion would culminate with the establishment of the Roman cult of the Magna Mater on the Palatine hill. Through the use of Hellenic religion, Rome shows its eagerness to be associated with the Hellenistic world (Gruen, 1990, 21). Gruen goes on to say that Rome is articulating its heritage, having accepted the Hellenic and Trojan roots given to it by the Greeks. Rome had already created ties with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the most famous of the Hellenic oracles. After the defeat at Cannae at the hands of Hannibal in 216, Rome sent Q. Fabius Pictor to Delphi to ask for aid in appeasing the gods. This association was to become more permanent, as Delphi was promised a share of the spoils after Hannibal's defeat. Rather than being a temporary association during a time of crisis, this event would have long term effects. Pictor wore a laurel wreath given to him at Delphi on his return home, and he then placed this on the altar of the Roman temple of Apollo, linking the two gods and their temples (Livy, 23.11.1-6). Rome had taken instruction from, and created ties with, one of the most sacred sanctuaries of the Hellenic world, and could now claim "Hellenic sanction" for the war against Carthage (Gruen, 1990, 10). Rather than being a sign of religious development in Rome, this shows that the Romans were trying to establish a place within the Greek world.
The importation of foreign religious practices to Rome also had a political side. Fabius Maximus took advantage of the establishment of the Roman cult of Venus Erycina, and made a public vow to personally build the temple to Venus, as the Sibylline Books had assigned that task to the man with the greatest imperium in Rome. When the Sibylline Books instructed the Romans to bring the Magna Mater to the city, the war had moved to being in Rome's favour. P. Cornelius Scipio had returned from Spain, having spent five years fighting against Carthage for control of the peninsula. With Spain now in Roman control, the war against Carthage could be moved to a new location, that of Africa itself. Scipio reasoned that an attack on Carthage would drive Hannibal from Italy to defend his home city. However, this plan was opposed by Fabius Maximus, to whom the majority of the senate gave their support. Fabius Maximus' strategy against Hannibal had earned him the name cunctator, the delayer. Fabius had also prevented Scipio from celebrating a triumph (Scullard, 1973, 75). He wished to expel Hannibal from Italy before making an attack on Carthage. The decision had not been made when the sibylline books advised the transportation of the Magna Mater from Asia Minor. Both groups, the Fabians and the Scipiones, could use the oracles to their own advantage. Fabius Maximus saw this as indication that Hannibal must be driven out first, but this would be countered by Scipio's interpretation of the oracle given at Delphi shortly after, that Rome's great victory would be in Africa. Both parties used the situation to their advantage, but it would be Scipio that would win this struggle.
The oracle at Delphi also instructed that the Magna Mater should be received in Rome by the optimus vir, or "best man". This honour was given to P. Scipio Nasica, who planned to take the war to Africa. This choice kept the public attention on Scipio's planned expedition, boosting his ambitions. His receiving the sacred stone of the Magna Mater could be seen as giving the mission to Africa divine favour. However, the apparent politics behind his appointment do not supply a complete explanation. The young Nasica held no political office, and so was in no position to exert the political authority of the Scipionic group, or threaten his rivals. Also, by the time Nasica was chosen, Scipio had finished his preparations for the invasion of Africa. He was accompanied by Claudia Quinta in order to show unity among the roman elite, as she belonged to a family unconnected with, and often in opposition to, that of Scipio (Gruen, 1990, 25).
The transportation of the Magna Mater in 205 reveals a number of central themes in the cultural and political history of Rome at the end of the third century. It showed that Roman religion was still developing, and was being integrated increasingly with Hellenic religions. The growing western power of Rome was forming associations with the Greek east, both intellectually and diplomatically. The Roman elite had realised the use of manipulating public opinion through the use of religion and the divine.
Despite the willing integration of foreign cults into the body of Roman religion throughout the third century, the second century saw the full power of the state directed against a single Hellenistic cult. In 186, a scandal erupted which would become known as the Bacchanalian conspiracy. This conspiracy is said to have involved seven thousand people, although this is likely an exaggeration (Balsdon, 1962, 41). This cult of Bacchus, according to Livy, corrupted its worshippers. According to Livy, after feasting and drinking, the worshippers would engage in sexual acts, violence and secret murders (Livy, 39.8.6-8).There are a number of theories for the cause of this attack on the cult of Bacchus. It could be interpreted as an outburst of anti-Hellenistic emotion, led by Cato and the Roman conservatives against the philhellenic Scipionic faction (Gruen, 1990, 56). However, there is little evidence to support this. The recent transportation of the Magna Mater from Asia Minor would indicate support for Hellenism, rather than show opposition to Hellenic cults. Rome had also recently freed Greece from the control of Antiochus III. There is no evidence for Cato's involvement beyond the title for a speech, de coniuratione; however, it is not known what conspiracy or plot this refers to. The content of this speech has been lost. Gruen also notes that the suppression of the Bacchanals has no trace of Scipionic involvement, despite the faction holding much power in the beginning of the second century. Weidenfeld (1992, 29) claims that the Bacchic cults were banned because their rituals were said to encourage female sexuality. This would promote the idea that the cult had a detrimental influence on Roman society and culture. Following the reliance on foreign religion in the second Punic war, Roman religious tradition was altered by a greater knowledge of all things Greek (Rawson, 1991, 80). The Romans also became aware of the need to keep Roman religion free from foreign religious practices. Following the Bacchanalian conspiracy, the Books of Numa were suppressed in 181, and philosophers and rhetors were expelled from 161. The destruction of Numa's books came at the end of a period in which the Senate's power was continually being asserted due to various claims of public obligation and personal rights (Goldberg, 1995, 127). One of the instigators of the destruction of Numa's books, Q. Petillius, was also the man who queried L. Scipio's financial conduct, starting the famous trials of the Scipios (Goldberg, 1995, 125). The Petilli were views as agents of Cato at this time, showing Cato's hostility to Greek things.
Another interpretation of the events is that the cult was seen as a threat to the leadership of the state. The cult would have appealed to the poor, creating a fear among the Roman elite that the gatherings would promote social change. With many of the poorer Romans unhappy with the changes to Rome brought about due to the Hannibalic War, including the policies of Fabius Maximus which destroyed a large amount of farmland, the membership of the cults of Bacchus increased. The membership of a great number of discontented poor, as well as a number of ambitious equestrians would have given the state an excuse to make their move against the cult (Gruen, 1990, 58). Livy's account contradicts this, as the courtesan Hispala observes that many members belong to the aristocracy (Livy, 39.13.14). The treatment of the Bacchanalian Conspiracy in 186 shows Rome's wish for security (Forde, 1975, 187). The cult was presented as a conspiracy so that the senate could deal with it as a threat to the public security of Rome. However, the cult may not have been Greek in origin. Livy's account places the blame for the corruption of the cult of Bacchus on Paculla Annia, a Campanian (39.13.9). Greek thinking and religion, including Orphism and Pythagoreanism, had spread from the south, especially Magna Graecia, into Latium. Even the elder Cato, a firm opponent to Hellenization, is believed to have come under the influence of Pythagorean philosophy (Plut. Cato, 2). Forde continues to say that to associate the Bacchic cult as a result of eastern conquest would be a mistake, as it came to Rome through relations with Italian cities. It can also be claimed that foreign policy at the time had little to do with the degradation of Roman society and culture. The Roman citizens were no longer content with their traditional religion and chose to follow other forms of worship. The blame for the decline of traditional religion was caused by the inability of Roman religion to satisfy its worshippers.
It was not only foreign religions that were brought into Rome. The Greeks had given the city a number of Hellenic origins, even mixing the indigenous traditions with their own ideas (Gruen, 2006, 460). Rome reacted by accepting and reshaping these ideas. Naevius, a third century poet, was able to write about the Trojan origins of Rome in his epic poem, the Bellum Punicum, because the Romans were aware of these myths (McDonald, 1970, 113). By placing the trojans as the ancestors of the Romans of his day, he turns the gods found in epic poetry into the driving force behind Rome's power and greatness (Goldberg, 1979, 56). The Roman reaction is interesting, because they accepted the foreign ideas surrounding their origin. However, rather than choosing to accept Greek origins, the Romans chose to be descended from Aeneas, a prince of Troy. The Trojans belonged to the heroic past, but were not responsible for the decadent and weak Hellenistic kingdoms that the Romans disliked so much, preferring their ancient counterparts (Balsdon, 1979, 30). Despite being linked with the barbarians of the heroic Greek past, Rome accepted Trojan origins. The use of Trojan origins allowed Rome to accept Greek cultural influences without giving up its own identity (Goldberg, 1995, 50). This would eventually lead to complete acceptance of Trojan origins for Rome. However, the historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing in Augustan Rome, composed a history of Rome which gave the city greek origins. His Roman Antiquities began with Rome's mythical beginnings, and ended at the second Punic war. His account of the origins of Rome suggests that the city was Greek from the beginning (Hill, 1961,88), and many of Rome's institutions were also of Greek origin (Hill, 1961, 89). This went against the Augustan policy of Trojan origins, as found in Virgil's Aeneid. Hill (1961, 90) goes on to say that even though the Aeneas myth was preferred by Romans before the Trojan hero was officially adopted by Augustus, it was equally possible at that time for other greek heroes to be accepted, such as Hercules, Evander or even Odysseus. Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey has strong Italian associations, as many of the events that form Odysseus' wanderings take place within Italy. Regions of Italy have taken their names from figures from the epic. Misenum and Baiae were associated with Odysseus' men, Misenos and Baios (Goldberg, 1995, 50). These ties to Greek heroes existed on a familial level also. The Mamilii claimed descent from Odysseus' son, Telegonus, who married Mamilia and founded Tusculum (Farney, 2007,61).Similar genealogies appear across Italy, possibly invented by the Greeks for the Italians they came into contact with, or by the Italians themselves to form a link to their greek neighbours (Farney, 2007, 199). These links to the heroic age of Greek mythology helped to establish Rome's place within the Greek world.
Cato the Elder wrote a history in Latin. In doing this, he broke away from the tradition of Greek historiography, as well as emphasising his reputation as an anti-Hellenic spokesman. Plutarch (Cato, 12) tells of how Cato mocked Postumius Albinus for writing in Greek, then apologising to his audience for his incomplete command of the Greek language. Despite his traditionalist stance, Cato's Origines contained an Aeneas myth, showing that even Cato accepted the Hellenic versions of the origins of Rome. He also acknowledged foreign origins for other peoples (Gruen, 2006, 462). He traced the Sabine people, who were known for their moral virtues, back to the Spartans. The Romans imitated the moral character of the Sabines, who inherited their austerity from the toughest of the Greeks. This shows that disassociation from foreign elements was not required when establishing a national image (Gruen, 2006, 462). Instead, the Roman elite acknowledged how their country was seen by the Greek world, and accepted this version of their origins in order for Rome to find a place within the Greek Mediterranean.
Another popular story in Rome claimed that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, had studied under the Greek philosopher Pythagoras at Croton (Gruen, 2006, 463). Pythagoras is said to have taught Numa the proper ways of worshipping the gods, and this was then transferred to Rome through its king. However, this story cannot be true, as there is a significant time difference between Numa Pompilius' death and Pythagoras' birth. The Roman acceptance of this legend is revealing. It shows that Rome was willing to view its second king and lawgiver as a student of a Greek. The customs introduced into Rome by Numa were the result of Greek tuition. This further shows that the national image of the Romans was adapted to fit in with the rest of the Greek world. Cicero recognised the significance of this. He believed that Romans wished to find in Numa a counterpart to the traditional Greek wise man (Tusc. 4.2-3). Roman involvement in Magna Graecia and familiarity with Pythagoreanism led to Numa and Pythagoras being linked. As stated earlier, even the anti-Hellenist Cato the Elder is said to have received instruction from a Pythagorean philosopher at Tarentum (Plut. Cato, 2). During the Samnite wars, the Romans erected a statue to the bravest and the wisest of the Greeks, according to the instructions of the oracle of Delphi. Alcibiades was chosen as the bravest, and it was decided that Pythagoras was the wisest. However, Pythagoras may have been chosen to appeal to the southern Greeks, whose aid would prove useful in the wars (Pliny, NH, 34.12).