Religion and the Roman Army


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Lecture from week 10 of the Later Roman Empire module at the University of Liverpool.

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Religion and the Roman Army

  1. 1. RELIGION AND THEROMAN ARMY + KEYSOURCESDr Jamie WoodCLAH266 – week 1030th November 2012
  2. 2. Structure1. Religion in the Roman Army a. Summary so far b. Empire, victory and religion c. Military cults d. Christians (sometimes martyrs) in the army e. Christianity in the Roman army f. An angry God2. Break3. Seminar on key sources for late 4th and 5th centuries
  3. 3. Religion and the military so far The Empire (built on conquest) is god- given:  Aureus, Octavian (first Roman Emperor, also known as Augustus) 29-27 BCE: goddess Victoria standing on a globe, holding a wreath in her right hand and a vexillum on her shoulder Mid 3rd century:  Romans suffer defeats at hands of barbarians and internal civil wars; armies make and unmake (i.e. kill) many emperors  ‘Persecution’ as a means of re-establishing relationship between empire and gods 312:  Constantine is victorious over Maxentius because he has a better ‘god of war’ (according to some sources)
  4. 4. Eusebius, Life of Constantine,1.28-29 “Accordingly he called on him with earnest prayer and supplications that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honoured with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after- time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.”
  5. 5. Calendars Read the calendar on your handout and think about the following questions:  What events/ people are the soldiers celebrating in this calendar?  What is being offered to the Gods?  What do you think would have been the effects of these celebrations on the troops?
  6. 6. Religion in the military Military religion is a communal matter  Brings people together to engage in cult/ ritual acts  Emphasises their loyalty to the empire  Improves group cohesion (socially and religiously) It is also an individual matter  Individual soldiers engage in cult acts to specific gods with military associations (next few slides)
  7. 7. Gold solidus of Constantine IIVICTORIA (337-340) with Victoria on reverse ‘To the victory of our Emperors and of Legion I Adiutrix Loyal and Faithful Antoniniana, Publius Marcius Sextianus, son of Publius, from Ephesus, [set up this] at public expense through the decree of the town council, dedicated by Egnatius Victor, legate of the Emperors with propraetorian power, and Claudius Piso, legate of the fifth legion, on 13 June, in the consulship of Aper and Maximus.’  CIL 3. 11082, inscription, Arrabona (Györ), Upper Pannonia, 207 CE:
  8. 8. DOLICHENUS An eastern cult from Commagene popular in army, possibly due to link with iron and with Jupiter Decline in late 3rd century (after Commagene taken by Sassanids)  ‘To Jupiter Best and Greatest, of Doliche, and the spirits of the Emperors, for the welfare of Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrian Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of the fatherland, and of Legion II Augusta, Marcus Liburnius Fronto, centurion of the same legion, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.’  CIL 7. 506 = RIB 1330, inscription, Condercum (Benwell), Britain, 2nd century CE
  9. 9. MITHRAS  Ancient Iranian spirit of light; attributes include that of a successful warrior; increasingly popular with troops from late 2nd C CE  Connection to Sol Invictus?  ‘To the invincible Sun-god Mithras, Everlasting Lord, Publicius Proculinus, centurion, on behalf of himself and his son Proculus, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow, in the consulship of our lords Gallus and Volusianus.’  CIL 7. 646 = RIB 1600, inscription,Mithras altar from frontier fort at Vercovicium (Housesteads),Osterburken in Germany Britain, 252 CE
  10. 10. Military martyrs Idea developed in Christian discourse of 2nd and 3rd Cs that martyrs are soldiers of Christ (miles Christi) Army as place where persecution began because of need to sacrifice  e.g. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 7.15.1-5 Tension between oath taken to enter army and Christian oaths means Christians shouldn’t really be in the army  Tertullian, On the military crown, late 2nd/ early 3rd C Martyrdom in general and military martyrdom in particular – contribute to idea that victory can be gained by dying for the faith
  11. 11. Christians in the 2nd C army:The thundering legion‘It is reported that Marcus Aurelius Caesar […], being about to engage in battle with the Germans and Sarmatians, was in great trouble on account of his army suffering from thirst. But the soldiers of the so- called Melitene legion, through the faith which has given strength from that time to the present, when they were drawn up before the enemy, kneeled on the ground, as is our custom in prayer, and engaged in supplications to God. […] The lightning drove the enemy to flight and destruction, but a shower refreshed the army of those who had called on God, all of whom had been on the point of perishing with thirst. […] Among these is Apolinarius, who says that from that time the legion through whose prayers the wonder took place received from the emperor a title appropriate to the event, being called in the language of the Romans the Thundering Legion.’  Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.5
  12. 12. The military oath Read the oath on the next slide  What does the military oath entail?  What happens before it?  What is the purpose of the military oath?
  13. 13. The military oath“when recruits have been carefully selected who excel in mind and body, andafter daily training for four or more months, a legion is formed by order andauspices of the invincible Emperor. The soldiers are marked with tattoos in theskin which will last and swear an oath, when they are enlisted on the rolls.That is why (the oaths) are called the “sacraments” of military service. Theyswear by God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, and by the Majesty of the Emperorwhich second to God is to be loved and worshipped by the human race. Forsince the Emperor has received the name of the “August”, faithful devotionshould be given, unceasing homage paid him as if to a present and corporealdeity. For it is God whom a private citizen or a soldier serves, when hefaithfully loves him who reigns by God’s authority. The soldiers swear thatthey will strenuously do all that the Emperor may command, will never desertthe service, nor refuse to die for the Roman State.” (Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, 2.5; late fourth century)
  14. 14. Prayers for victory Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, 2.18:  “If anyone, therefore, desires the defeat of the barbarians in an open battle, let him seek in all his prayers, that by the will of God and the Invincible Emperor’s policies, the legions may be reinstated with new recruits. Within a brief space of time, recruits carefully selected and trained every day, not just in the morning but even in the afternoon, in every skill of arms and art of warfare, will easily match those soldiers of old who conquered the entire terrestrial sphere.”
  15. 15. Prayer and battle Maurice, Advice for Generals , 2.8 and 12.6 (late 6th century)  ‘Instead of the shout, prayers should be said in camp on the actual day of battle before anyone goes out the gate. All, led by the priests, the general, and the other officers, should recite the “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) for some time in unison. Then, in hopes of success, each meros should shout the “Nobiscum Deus” (God is with us) three times as it marches out of camp.’  ‘When ranks have been properly closed, and the line is about one bowshot from the enemy, and the fighting is just about to begin, the command is given: “Ready.” Right after this another officer shouts: “Help us.” In unison everyone responds loudly and clearly: “O God.”’
  16. 16. Victory given by God Battle of the Fridigus in 394  Eugenius, usurper in the west, sympathetic to pagans  Theodosius, emperor in the east, staunch Christian  E placed a statue of Jupiter on the edge of the battlefield and applied images of Hercules to banners  T prays for a storm; arrows of E’s forces blown back at them Decisive victory for Theodosius Interpreted as further proof of power of Christian God to grant victory over pagan gods
  17. 17. Defeat as God’s punishment Victories of barbarians over imperial armies interpreted as divine punishment  E.g. death of Emperor Valens at hands of the Visigoths at Adrianople (378):  ‘his punishment should bear even greater witness to, and provide an even more terrible example of, Divine Wrath for future generations, he did not even have a common grave.’ (Orosius, Histories) Similarly, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths (410)  Some pagans argue that it is punishment for the abandonment of traditional cults in favour of Christianity  Refutation of these opinions is one of reasons for Augustine writing his famous City of God
  18. 18. Chastising an erring people Isidore of Seville, History of the Goths 28-29 (early 7th century):  “It should be noted that, while every battle is damaging to the peoples involved, the Huns actually served a purpose by perishing. This is because they had been raised up for the discipline of the faithful, just like the nation of the Persians. For they were the rod of the wrath of God. As often as his indignation went forth against the faithful, he punished them with the Huns, so that, chastened by their suffering, the faithful would force themselves away from the greed of this world and from sin and claim the inheritance of the celestial kingdom.”
  19. 19.  Empire – religion – militarySummary victory are interconnected from the start  The army is a highly religious institution (as are many individuals within it)  Stages:  Initially Christians are seen as threat to divine support for Roman armies  Later this switches:  the Christian God is on the side of the Romans and gives them victory  religious practice within the army thus shifts to demonstrate strong support for Christianity
  20. 20. Seminar: key sources for thelate 4th-5th centuries Based on the research that you did at home and reading the extracts from the text(s) in the rest of this booklet, please answer the following questions:  What kind of source is it?  When was it written?  Why is it important?  What are its strengths and weaknesses?  What do the extract(s) provided tell us about the functioning of the later Roman Empire?  What do the extract(s) provided tell us about the fall of the Roman Empire or how contemporaries interpreted the problems facing the empire?
  21. 21. Some key sources(click on links to go to scans of the in-class work)  Ammianus Marcellinus, Histories  The Theodosian Code  Priscus, History  Hydatius, Chronicle  Gildas, On the Ruin of Britain
  22. 22. Summary
  23. 23. Homework Read and make notes on  Lee, A. D. "The army“, in Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey, eds., The Late Empire, A.D. 337–425 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 211-237. [available on VITAL]