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Thread: Controversy over Roman Gods

  1. #1
    Let the wild rumpus start! rosepetal720's Avatar
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    Controversy over Roman Gods

    While doing research for my historical fiction of an ancient Roman priestess, I discovered that the Romans weren't as corrupt as everyone makes them out to be. They appear to be very devout and religious. Yet when I write about them being faithful and good, people criticise how much research I've done. They say if I truly understood Roman culture, I would know they don't take their religion as seriously as modern people do. No one so far has given me any evidence that they don't believe in their gods. People have given me examples of a handful of corrupt politicians, but I don't think that's enough to judge an entire culture.

    Can anyone present a historical argument against me?

    Here's my argument: The Romans spent a lot of time and effort for their religion. There were hundreds of temples, monuments, priests and priestesses, rituals, ceremonies and so forth, and every individual family had daily religious habits. Why would they go to all that work for their religion if they didn't fervently believe in it? It seems to me they took their religion a lot more seriously than we do.

    Let the arguing commence!
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    Wayward Wordsmith AlexPiper's Avatar
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    I will point out that much of our ancient 'the Romans weren't devout' source material comes from the early Christian era, when the church had every motivation to paint the older pagan faiths as debauched, shallow and generally unpleasant. That old adage about "the victor writes the history" isn't idle nonsense, after all.

    The truth is probably somewhere between the two.

    Keep in mind that the concept of 'separation of church and state' is a pretty recent one; various temples and cults could potentially have a very heavy influence in politics and society. So while there were doubtless a number of very faithful people, some people probably joined temples not out of faith but out of a desire to gain power. Become a noted benefactor of Temple X, then Temple X uses their influence to advance your cause with the people.

    See, for instance, the Temple of Vesta. (Which I assume is actually what you're writing about.) The Vestals were allowed to attend political meetings and trials, as they represented Rome's fortune/luck to many people. As such the Temple had a surprising amount of influence. Whether or not you believed in Vesta's power as a goddess personally, it behooved you to stay on the good side of the Temple as a politician.

    Moreover, 'ancient Rome' is a pretty darn wide range. Republican era? Late Republic? Early imperial? Etc. I suspect that faith in the Republic was to some extent a different matter than faith in the imperial era. After all, by the late Imperial era, gods were becoming a dime a dozen; Hadrian's young companion, Antinoos, drowned in a river (or was a voluntary religious sacrifice -- sources aren't clear on that) and the emperor not only deified Antinoos but paid to have statues of him put up ALL OVER.

    And I really mean /all/ over; I swear if you walk into any given collection of just random Roman statuary, you'll probably find at least two Antinoos statues, possibly more. Leading to what I refer to in my own travel journals as 'YAAS' -- 'Yet Another Antinoos Statue.' Occasionally, 'YAGAS' -- Yet Another Goddamned Antinoos Statue. This was actually so widespread that the early Christian church often used Antinoos as one of the examples about how debauched, shallow and opportunistic the non-Christian Romans were. Only twenty years after Antinoos' death, one Christian source (Justin Martyr) wrote: Antinous, who was alive but lately, and whom all were prompt, through fear, to worship as a god, though they knew both who he was and what was his origin. (And Justin was the /nice/ one, when it came to Christian references to the worship of Antinoos. Two hundred years later, Athanasius is brutal in his assessment.)

    But I digress!

    Conversely, in the early imperial era, religion was apparently enough of a power-base that Augustus had something of a vendetta against the cult of Isis (in no small part because they'd been a major backer of Marc Antony and Cleopatra). Several Isiac temples -- notably the one in Ephesus -- were damaged or entirely destroyed during the Augustan era, due to his dislike of the faith.

    So I suspect there's no one 'right' answer, and that the truth is somewhere between the two absolutes.
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    Noob Writers United Eddyz Aquila's Avatar
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    They were very devout, but keep in mind they did it for a number of reasons. And there's different categories of Romans who believed.

    1. The devout ones - priests, regular people who really believed in religion.

    2. The ordinary people - who prayed whenever they needed it.

    3. The "faithless devout" - Patricians, Senators, high ranking people, rich ones... they only followed the rituals just for the sake of following them and to show people that they were believers and not ignoring the all-powerful deities.

    There were many choices regarding the deities but overall they believed in esentially the same "set" of deities. And in Roman times religious tolerance wasn't quite welcome, the Christians are testament to that!
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    Teh doommobile, drivin' rite by you mscelina's Avatar
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    The Roman culture was one of assimilation. Throughout their history, they just usurped the deities and rituals of cultures they conquered--that's how they ended up with the Greek Pantheon, oriental deities like Mithras and, eventually, Christianity. A lot of the scuttlebutt about Roman religion originates with this tendency--they had so many religions operating side by side that they don't seem particularly devout with any specific one.

    I think it's fair to say that their familial devotions (ie--the Lares and Penates) were actually based in true devotion. These are the devotions they practiced in the home--a much more intimate and personal type of religious practice.

    In public however, the Romans worshipped from expediency. They followed their leaders. So when Constantine converted to Christianity, the upper classes of Rome followed blindly--as well they should have. Emperors had a tendency to toss non-believers into the Colisseum if you remember. And while there are instances throughout Roman history where blasphemy was dealt with severely (the cases of disgraced Vestal Virgins comes to mind) on the whole, especially in the Empire, religion was sometimes a matter of survival--both political and actual--and not actual devotion.

    And considering the broad expanse of time involved with Rome, I think it's a generality to state that Romans were either devout or corrupt.

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    Let the wild rumpus start! rosepetal720's Avatar
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    Wow! All of your discussions exceeded my expectations, thank you!

    I agree that it's definitely somewhere in the middle. The biggest problem is that the general public leans toward the extreme of corrupt, and I'm leaning toward the extreme opposite side. I think they're both valid perspectives, but like I said, no one's buying the whole "Roman faith" thing. I'm not sure what to do to make the story more balanced and believable without purposefully adding corrupt people, which would distract from the story. I welcome other thoughts and ideas you might have!

    PS The story takes place in the Republic during the Second Punic War, fyi.
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    Writing Anarchist DeleyanLee's Avatar
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    The other thing to think about regarding pre-Christian religions is that they aren't "faith-based" as Christianity is. They were generally "practice-based".

    What that means is that it didn't matter if you believed the gods or not. Your faith or devotion to them meant diddle-squat. What mattered was that you did the required rituals at the traditional times. You do the rituals, you reap the rewards, and that's all there was to it.

    In fact, in the Greco tradition, the entire point of the religion was to have the gods IGNORE you because those who were noticed by the gods were pulled out of their normal lives and had adventures. All those wonderful legendary heroes were warning posters: THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU! It was BAD BAD BAD in their culture to pull the gods' notice upon yourself.

    However, the vast majority of modern people can't conceive that a religion is anything outside of their experience of it--like anything else in history. People have their preconceived "knowledge" of an era, what they KNOW IS TRUE and anything written that doesn't agree has to be wrong. It's a build-in prejudice in the modern (American at least) reader. Anyone who writes fiction has to deal with it.

    If your story deals with any of this firmly-held misconceptions, then you have to make the choice whether or not you want to be historically correct or to go with what's KNOWN and tell your story without the reader backlashing you (see other threads on this subject). Purely the author's choice.

    And like any author's choice, some will applaud and some will condemn. It's just the nature of the profession.
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    volitare nequeo AW Moderator veinglory's Avatar
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    Being "devout" meant something very different when the Gods are personifications of wine, love and the powers of nature... amd most people were not citizens. A devout person could have sexual contect with (potential not very willing) slaves and prostitutes without in any way losing his status.
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    Swordsman zornhau's Avatar
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    It also depends on your era. Late Roman aristos were quite puritanical by our standards, with a dose of hypocracy thrown in. The philosophical currents that formed Christianity also shaped their world view.

    Earlier Romans... read the Satyricon.

    However, if I were you I'd ignore the views of anybody not a published writer, or an agent or publisher.
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    Blessed by the AW Gods Jessianodel's Avatar
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    actually I was taught everything they did was pretty much because of their religion...although mainly because they didn't want to be hit with natural disasters.
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    Another thing to keep in mind is that the pre-christian romans, as almost all polytheistic cultures, were actually quite tolerant with regards to religion. Already having multiple gods of their own, they saw no problem with other people worshipping their own. Which of course would seem quite irreligious to people accustomed to the monotheistic zeal of the three middle eastern religions.

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    Noob Writers United Eddyz Aquila's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lhun View Post
    Another thing to keep in mind is that the pre-christian romans, as almost all polytheistic cultures, were actually quite tolerant with regards to religion. Already having multiple gods of their own, they saw no problem with other people worshipping their own. Which of course would seem quite irreligious to people accustomed to the monotheistic zeal of the three middle eastern religions.
    This is actually an ironic situation. Christians were persecuted mercilessly but at the same time the Greeks, the Parthians, the Gauls (and so on and so forth...) either assimilated the Roman culture or they kept their own without the fear of persecution from the Roman authorities. Just goes to show how power-shifting Christianity turned out to be in the Roman Empire.
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    Well, a large part of the reason christians were persecuted was because the religions was absolutely intolerant, even back then. The romans had no problem with people worshipping their own gods, but they did have a problem with christians calling the roman pantheon false gods and telling people they'd burn in hell for all eternity if they didn't convert to christianity.
    (Well except for Nero's persecution of christians, he did it for the lulz)
    Last edited by Lhun; 09-29-2010 at 07:07 PM.

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    check out Seneca and Cicero (and even a bit of Cato (the younger))
    Last edited by Paul; 09-29-2010 at 06:11 PM.

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    Wayward Wordsmith AlexPiper's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lhun View Post
    Another thing to keep in mind is that the pre-christian romans, as almost all polytheistic cultures, were actually quite tolerant with regards to religion.
    They were up to a point. They respected Greece (and Hellenistic Egypt, up to a point) because that was where culture came from, to their minds. It was very /in/ to speak Greek, to have read the ancient Greek scholars, etc. So they embraced Greek religion and culture, trying to merge it into their own, and were somewhat accepting of Hellenistic Egyptian culture (until the whole Cleopatra/Marc Antony thing, anyway, after which Egypt was not the 'In' thing anymore, Hellenistic or no).

    They were, as another poster pointed out, rather less quick to embrace religion or culture that came from 'savage' or 'lesser' peoples, or religions that criticized Roman rule, Roman culture or just Rome in general.
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    Got the hang of it, here Maxx's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by AlexPiper View Post
    They were up to a point. They respected Greece (and Hellenistic Egypt, up to a point) because that was where culture came from, to their minds. It was very /in/ to speak Greek, to have read the ancient Greek scholars, etc. So they embraced Greek religion and culture, trying to merge it into their own, and were somewhat accepting of Hellenistic Egyptian culture (until the whole Cleopatra/Marc Antony thing, anyway, after which Egypt was not the 'In' thing anymore, Hellenistic or no).

    They were, as another poster pointed out, rather less quick to embrace religion or culture that came from 'savage' or 'lesser' peoples, or religions that criticized Roman rule, Roman culture or just Rome in general.
    That might be true of the early republican elite, but if Rome includes the Roman Army under the Emperors, then Roman Religion could include very heavy doses of such things as the cult of Mithras. That mystery cult was not Greek or Hellinic or Egyptian and its popularity and acceptanc might have opened the way for the popularity and acceptance of Christianity which was also a big part of Roman Religion in the later Empire.

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    figuring it all out JemmaP's Avatar
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    It's also worth noting that people in Roman times were people -- some people are more devout than others; some are more prone to placing faith or belief in concepts outside of themselves; some are pragmatic sorts who simply observe the niceties as a societal thing.

    I think it's a constant of humanity that in any time period, no matter the dominant religious meme of the time, that some people will be inclined to be more wholly devoted to it than others. IMO, religiosity is a state of mind, and whether or not you get into that is a product of not only your experience and childhood, but also your personality.

    While I wouldn't look at it for factual accuracy in terms of historical events, I really enjoyed HBO's Rome for some of its takes on daily life & culture and such -- I'm no expert on the time period, though, so it's possible I'm missing some glaring flaw. It's worth it just to see Titus Pullo and Vorenus fight side by side at the end of the first season, though. :P

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    Wayward Wordsmith AlexPiper's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Maxx View Post
    That might be true of the early republican elite, but if Rome includes the Roman Army under the Emperors, then Roman Religion could include very heavy doses of such things as the cult of Mithras. That mystery cult was not Greek or Hellinic or Egyptian and its popularity and acceptanc might have opened the way for the popularity and acceptance of Christianity which was also a big part of Roman Religion in the later Empire.
    Well, you're right that the Republic and Imperial Roman religious landscapes were fairly different; I tried to touch on that in my original post waaaay back above, but may not have done so clearly enough. However, mystery cults like that of Mithras can arguably be viewed as a different beast than open temples. We still don't understand most of them very well, but they tend to come across more like the Freemasons than like the Christian church. More of a secret society (often for political or social advancement) than anything else.

    But this is a discussion I could get into for /hours/, so I'll just point back to my original post about 'I think the truth falls somewhere between all the theories.'

    (I will, however, note that you can have a lot of fun with the Mithraic cult in an alternate Rome involving vampires. Speaking from my own writing experience. C'mon, you SLAUGHTER A BULL over a pit, while the initiates stand in the pit and are bled on from the dying bull above. Vampires would be all OVER that! Bathing in fresh blood, WHOO!)
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    Quote Originally Posted by AlexPiper View Post
    But this is a discussion I could get into for /hours/
    Heh, just watch when i get started on explaining how the Christian values adopted together with the religion were a major factor contributing to the fall of the Roman empire.

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    Writing Anarchist DeleyanLee's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eddyz Aquila View Post
    This is actually an ironic situation. Christians were persecuted mercilessly but at the same time the Greeks, the Parthians, the Gauls (and so on and so forth...) either assimilated the Roman culture or they kept their own without the fear of persecution from the Roman authorities.
    Quote Originally Posted by Lhun View Post
    Well, a large part of the reason christians were persecuted was because the religions was absolutely intolerant, even back then. The romans had no problem with people worshipping their own gods, but they did have a problem with christians calling the roman pantheon false gods and telling people they'd burn in hell for all eternity if they didn't convert to christianity.
    (Well except for Nero's persecution of christians, he did it for the lulz)
    Actually, no. He didn't do it "for the lulz". He did it because, according to their belief system, the Christians were committing treason of the highest order.

    See, it didn't matter whether or not anyone believed in the Roman gods. According to the Roman religion, the ACTS were what mattered. People were allowed to worship however they wanted, as long as certain mandatory rituals were done. Every religion was cool with including these rites into their own scope of affairs--except the Christians. They refused, thus they threatened the balance of Roman might and right--they committed treason against their Roman overlords.

    That's what that was all about. Rome didn't give two whits for their religion, it was Christianity's exclusivity that damned them to horrible deaths. If Christianity hadn't been hung up on the one and only god, there wouldn't've been a problem.

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul View Post
    check out Seneca and Cicero (and even a bit of Cato (the younger))
    You do know that the average reader hasn't got a clue who these people were, right? Even more, they don't care.

    Quote Originally Posted by AlexPiper View Post
    Well, you're right that the Republic and Imperial Roman religious landscapes were fairly different; I tried to touch on that in my original post waaaay back above, but may not have done so clearly enough. However, mystery cults like that of Mithras can arguably be viewed as a different beast than open temples
    Actually, I thought that the cult of Mithras was fairly well known since it was translated fairly well into early Christianity. And it wasn't a mystery cult, it was a military one. The catch was, when you stopped being military, you had to give it up. That didn't sit well with followers, so following the Roman mindset, they merged some gods into one (something the early Christian church was notorious for) and kept their religion with a new name.

    Nothing mysterious at all.
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  20. #20
    Wayward Wordsmith AlexPiper's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
    Actually, I thought that the cult of Mithras was fairly well known since it was translated fairly well into early Christianity. And it wasn't a mystery cult, it was a military one. The catch was, when you stopped being military, you had to give it up. That didn't sit well with followers, so following the Roman mindset, they merged some gods into one (something the early Christian church was notorious for) and kept their religion with a new name.
    Sorry, I probably wasn't too clear on that; I meant, we don't have a lot of information on mystery cults in general to be able to generalize how they worked. (Mithras is one of the few exceptions, where we do have records.) However, by the very nature of being 'initiated' into a mystery cult, meeting their requirements -- whatever they were -- you were now part of a separate group, some clique to which you had social ties. (Much like people view the Freemasons, hence my point.) Some cults -- like Mithras -- set the bar low, open to anyone in the military. Many that we know existed, we don't have a clue what the criteria were, or what the cult's mysteries were.

    I should also clarify that "mystery cult" is a specific term: the three types of religions as identified in Hellenistic cultures were imperial cult/ethnic religions (ones tied to a specific region/nation or ethnicity), philosophical religions (belief systems based on specific schools of thought), and mystery cults (those containing rituals -- known as 'mysteries' -- open only to the initiated and generally not shared widely outside the religion).

    Neoplatonism, Cynicism and similar systems are philosophical religions. And obviously, the Imperial Cult of Rome qualifies as an imperial cult. (The Imperial Cult being what the Temple of Vesta was part of, and which is referred to in earlier posts when it's mentioned that Christianity was seen as treason.) And Mithras was one of the mystery cults.

    Now, they weren't the only ancient mystery cult by a long shot, nor the longest-lived. (I think that longest-lived goes to the Eleusinian mystery cult, but I'm not 100% sure on that.) However, the Mithraic cult is the only one that we have many detailed historical records of, so it's probably the best known and one of the few mystery cults we understand reasonably well.
    Last edited by AlexPiper; 09-30-2010 at 04:27 AM. Reason: (You'd think I could remember how to spell 'Eleusinian'...)
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    Quote Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
    Actually, no. He didn't do it "for the lulz". He did it because, according to their belief system, the Christians were committing treason of the highest order.
    True for most christian persecutions in rome (or at least one possible take on the facts), Nero however started the persecution mostly because he needed someone to blame for the famous fire. (he possibly set himself) Blaming a minority group for some atrocity (or just making general accusations) is a time-honoured tradition to keep the domestic peace.

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    Let the wild rumpus start! rosepetal720's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DeleyanLee View Post
    The other thing to think about regarding pre-Christian religions is that they aren't "faith-based" as Christianity is. They were generally "practice-based".

    What that means is that it didn't matter if you believed the gods or not. Your faith or devotion to them meant diddle-squat. What mattered was that you did the required rituals at the traditional times. You do the rituals, you reap the rewards, and that's all there was to it.

    In fact, in the Greco tradition, the entire point of the religion was to have the gods IGNORE you because those who were noticed by the gods were pulled out of their normal lives and had adventures. All those wonderful legendary heroes were warning posters: THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU! It was BAD BAD BAD in their culture to pull the gods' notice upon yourself.

    However, the vast majority of modern people can't conceive that a religion is anything outside of their experience of it--like anything else in history. People have their preconceived "knowledge" of an era, what they KNOW IS TRUE and anything written that doesn't agree has to be wrong. It's a build-in prejudice in the modern (American at least) reader. Anyone who writes fiction has to deal with it.

    If your story deals with any of this firmly-held misconceptions, then you have to make the choice whether or not you want to be historically correct or to go with what's KNOWN and tell your story without the reader backlashing you (see other threads on this subject). Purely the author's choice.

    And like any author's choice, some will applaud and some will condemn. It's just the nature of the profession.
    This is interesting, because I've heard your whole argument the other way around. I've heard that most monotheistic people assume all pagan religions don't care one wit about their religion, most likely because we monotheistic folks have no respect for it. From what I've heard, it's more common to think what you do: that they did endless rituals solely for tradition, or fear, etc.

    I read several articles and books that discussed a revolutionary school of thought that even pagan belief systems are "religions" in every sense of the word that we perceive it: they sincerely cared about their gods, becoming better people, having faith, etc.

    I believe that there's no way to know what people thought, how many people thought it, why they thought it, etc., but I believe a person could make a firm argument in behalf of the Romans. The basic premise of my book is to shift people's focus from assuming only monotheistic religions "count," in a sense, and to give pagan religion just as much validity and just as much of a voice. I'm looking for reasons people disagree with me so I knew how to address those arguments in the book.
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    Let the wild rumpus start! rosepetal720's Avatar
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    P.S. The reasons Nero was blamed for the fire was because the Romans believed they were protected from all disaster as long as the Gods were pleased with them. When a large part of the city was destroyed, they turned to their major religious leader, who was Nero at the time. In fact, every Vestal Virgin in history was executed for losing their virginity during times of war, famine, disease, etc., not because they actually did the act, but because they were essentially scape goats. I see that as proof that Vestal Virgins were never guilty (or if they were, they never got caught). Nero used Christians as scape goats to save his own skin.
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    Quote Originally Posted by rosepetal720 View Post
    P.S. The reasons Nero was blamed for the fire was because the Romans believed they were protected from all disaster as long as the Gods were pleased with them. When a large part of the city was destroyed, they turned to their major religious leader, who was Nero at the time.
    That's an interesting theory. (i've never heard of that before) More commonly, it is believed that the people blamed Nero for the fire because he tactfully built a new palace and a 30m statue of himself in an area cleared by the fire. (and previously inhabited by common citizens) Nero then needed a way to divert attention from himself, so used the christians as scapegoats.

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    Returning to the OP...

    Quote Originally Posted by rosepetal720 View Post
    ...when I write about them being faithful and good, people criticise how much research I've done. They say if I truly understood Roman culture, I would know they don't take their religion as seriously as modern people do. No one so far has given me any evidence that they don't believe in their gods. People have given me examples of a handful of corrupt politicians, but I don't think that's enough to judge an entire culture.
    Quote Originally Posted by rosepetal720 View Post
    What you propose is a no-brainer for anybody who's read real history books on the Romans. Also, most people who stopped to think about it and didn't have an axe to grind would agree with you as well. (That said, it's worth getting the religion correct, since attitudes don't quite translate between our eras, and fervour was often reserved for particular events and cults - ask for bibliography, rather than opinions....)

    However, what really matters is how religion is treated in recently published historical fiction. I suggest you get hold of recent examples by the best selling authors who write about the Romans and see what they've done.
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    (Newly Agented but unpublished author. The usual caveats apply.)

    German Longsword in a nutshell: "I'd shake your hand... but I'm not sure where it landed."

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