Few years ago, I wrote a brief essay on what was the Graecus ritus in the concept of the Roman religious practice (you can find it here). Today I would like to touch the matter of a more general perspective, the concept of polytheism or the gods and goddesses in Greece and Rome. For quite few educators of Roman history, Roman religion is similar with the ancient Greek and more specifically the Roman gods and goddesses a copy of the Greek. As I underlined on the matter of Graecus ritus and ritu Romano the two religions are different with very few common aspects of their liturgical processes. There is, therefore, evidence that Romans had also a different structure of their gods and goddesses when compared with the Greeks. Thus, Roman and Greeks had a dissimilar perspective of polytheism.
Polytheism in antiquity, and especially in Greece, had less to do with the assumption that there are many gods. In fact there is a more structural and hierarchical concept in the Greek polytheism which during the Hellenistic times became canonical. That is to say the Olympian Gods, with, regardless of a number of variations, Their internal hierarchical structure, and specialized functionalities as well as of a standardization of Their interaction with each other and with the world. This can be compared with a map constructed by the Homeric epics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns as well as by Hesiod (see Gladignow, 1998). On the contrary, Roman polytheism was very different from the Greek. Roman deities such as Mars, Venus and Jupiter have a more non-hierarchical structure and it seems to have been placed on the same level. Roman stories and mythology is grandly pointing out of new divinities that have been introduced throughout time rather than to elucidate the structure, relations and functionality of the older gods and goddesses. Their personalities varied and were identified as complex and unstable.
The Roman polytheism is in reality a mirror of the Roman society, its ruling aristocracy, the civil wars, the conquered foreign lands and richness of its trade and the fearful military power (see Jörg Rüpke 2001). The Romans have a complex pantheon with thousand minor deities, divinized ancestors and foreign gods and goddesses that is not visible in Greece, not even during the Late Antiquity era. There are the Romans who possessed the vision of daemones, a large group of spirits coexisting with the humans – a concept which was very much used by the first Christian communities.
- Jörg Rüpke, (2001), Die Religion der Römer (Verlag CH Beck: Munich)
- Gladignow, B. (1998). 'Polytheismus' Handbuch religionswissenschaftlicher Grundbegriffe, 4, 321-330