In order to understand the religious environment into which the church was born, ancient Roman beliefs and practices must be evaluated, since they consisted of three principal components: the pantheon, imported mysteries, and imperial cult. Most inhabitants of the empire also retained familial, providential, or trade deities as part of their worship. Adherents met in temples to pay tribute, and since the imperial cult provided little or no assistance in daily life most people turned to traditional gods or goddesses. As a result, religious freedom varied according to emperor, and some were more lenient than others with regard to foreign traditions.
Even though the state-sponsored pantheon identified the empire, most popular cults were imported from the East, a feature that made them particularly suspicious. It was common for Rome either to adapt or to amalgamate foreign deities in order to accommodate its belief system. Hence, in order to annex a kingdom its gods were conquered, and this often resulted in hyphenated divine titles. In contrast, the mysteries offered specialized rites and rituals that promoted meaning and exclusivity. Consequently, religion was a patriotic duty expected of all subjects of the empire, because Rome attributed success in war as well as its policies to these deities; hence, to reject the gods of the state was an act of treason.
While Rome and Greek mythology shared a great deal in common, significant differences existed based on the independent traditions of each culture. Roman myths lacked continuity and sequence in comparison to those of Greece, and in its place was an extensive alliance of related gods and goddesses. Both celebrated those responsible for the foundations of particular cities, but the pantheon of Rome gradually changed as foreign religious traditions were introduced. Some imported deities influenced every aspect of the natural world as well as human affairs in ways not previously experienced among the Romans, whose ancestors and founders established the cults.
Temples served as visible manifestations in the religious annals of history and institution, and they were landmarks as well as sacred sites. Participation was required of every class and occupation, and its traditional rituals came to represent national identity. The state benefited from the acknowledged pantheon, and deities such as Vesta represented the empire. A trinity consisting of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva was central to most Italians; however, the Romans honored gods and goddesses governing all aspects of society and daily life. As a result, those who did not embrace the acknowledged pantheon were called atheists, and this was the chief charge against Christians.
to be continued …