by Stephanie Davies
The role of religion in the Roman military was important throughout the republic and impacted the military in a variety of ways, as reflected in source materials. Religion was a part of the psychology of the Roman military and its leaders, and a means by which leaders could receive divine guidance and learn in advance the outcome of a battle. Additionally, religion was used to influence the outcome of a battle through vows to the gods and also as an explanation for unfavourable outcomes during warfare. Each of these actions was shaped by the Roman states’ religious practices and made religion a component of the Roman Republic’s warfare throughout its lifetime.
Religion as a part of the military’s ideology
Religious ideas were a core component of the ideological beliefs of the Roman Republic’s military and its leaders. Several sources reveal how deeply ingrained religious ideology was in the Roman military culture and the minds of its leadership and soldiers. Rome’s military leaders used religious practises and appeal to prepare and lead the army through the battles that they fought throughout the Republic era, and the soldiers’ mindset before and during combat was influenced by their religious beliefs. This started from recruitment where troops were to attend a roll call after being armed, sworn in and returned home, with the only instance permissible for failure to appear at the roll call being ‘adverse omens or absolute impossibility.’ Even from the beginning of their service the Roman military leaders modelled to their troops the importance of following divine prophecy above all other messages. There is also evidence of religion being a key responsibility for military leaders. A tablet found at Rome dedicated by Lucius Mummius in 142 BC describes the army’s capture of Archaea and its destruction of Corinth. This was done under Mummius’ ‘leadership, auspices, and command’. By listing auspices alongside the other central roles of leadership and command that Mummius had as a part of his responsibilities as a military leader, the role of the auspices in leadership would seem to be as critical as the other two skills in commanding the army. In addition to Lucius Mummius, sources show examples of other Roman military leaders who also led using religion as part of their leadership. Julius Caesar, a Roman military general, writes of himself appealing to the ‘goodness of the immortal gods’ in speaking to his troops following a battle they had after chasing off a Gaul army during the Gaelic Wars. This is a clear example of a prominent military leader utilising religion within his leadership and crediting the troops’ success to the gods. Another source, Dio Cassius, describes a time when Julius Caesar was gifted a golden sceptre and golden crown alongside a throne by Cleopatra. Dio Cassius tells of Caesar accepting them as a ‘good omen’, indicating Caesar’s own adherence to religious ideologies by his belief in them. Caesar also displays the value he knew his troops placed on omens when he voyaged to Hadrumetum in 47 BC and tripped as he stepped onto land. He slipped, which the soldiers cried was a bad omen, and so Caesar stretched out his hands ‘as if he had fallen on purpose, [and] he embraced and kissed the ground, crying out: “I have thee, Africa!”’, so as to plant instead a good omen within the minds of his men. Furthermore, Roman military leader, Publius Scipio, was a prominent military commander during the Second Punic War, and several sources show that he also utilised religion within his leadership. According to Polybius, Scipio himself recognised the role that religion played in the psychology of the warrior, as he saw that ‘most men neither readily accept anything unfamiliar to them, nor venture on great risks without the hope of divine help’. This shows that the religion of the men was so important to them that it could overcome other mental faculties such as caution when making decisions in war. Polybius records an instance during the war when Scipio referred to the Roman god Neptune in a speech that he gave to his men to give them renewed courage to fight by the water. This shows how religion was integral to warfare and the organisation of the Roman Republic’s military. Through these sources, religious ideas are seen to play an important part in the duty of military leaders towards their men, and the minds of the soldiers going into battle.
Religion for the military’s prophecy
Not only was religion used as a form of warfare in the Roman Republic, but it was also practiced for prophetic purposes. Historical sources also shed light on the use of religion by the Roman Republic’s military to receive guidance before battles took place as a part of the Roman Republic’s military tactics. Records show that chickens were used as a ‘mobile divination kit’ for the army. It was believed that if, when the chickens received food, they gorged themselves, it was a good omen. Conversely, if the chickens didn’t eat, it was a bad omen. Several sources describe occasions where chickens were used as prophecy. Publius Claudius Pulcher in 249 BC used the auspices before the fleets battle at Drepanum, where the fleet was destroyed and had been predicted beforehand by the chickens’ refusal to eat. His colleague Junius also lost a fleet in a storm when the auspices had provided beforehand a bad omen to indicate that the battle would be lost, an outcome which was realised. Furthermore, in 217 BC Gaius Flaminius, before the battle of Lake Tresimene, ignored the auspices resulting in a poor outcome for the Roman army. The army was ambushed and 15,000 men were lost. Cicero, who detailed this account makes the point that the ‘empire was extended by commanders who obeyed the dictates of religion’ by highlighting the military outcome for those who chose not to and affirms the widespread use of religion within the military. In this way, sources indicate that religion was practised for the use of prophecy on behalf of the Roman Republic’s military efforts.
Religion to influence the outcome of a battle
In addition to the Roman’s using religion to learn the outcome of battles before they began, they also utilised it to influence them. Sources indicate that the Roman Republic’s military would also use vows and promises to the gods in order to gain favourable outcomes during warfare. These promises were made by both leaders and soldiers. Before the Republic and during the Sabine-Rome which lasted from 672 and 641 BC, Tullus Hostilius, the third
King of Rome, vowed to the gods Cronus and Rhea that should they conquer the Sabines, they would receive public festivals in their honour that the Romans would celebrate every year. In offering to the gods his and Roman peoples’ favour, the King was hoping to gain the gods’ favour in return and influence the war. Evocatio was a ritual used by the Romans to deprive their enemy of divine support. It was used during the sack of Veii in 396 BC. Livy gives an example of the dictator Camilius, who after taking the auspices and making a vow to Pythian Apollo, stated that should ‘Queen Juno, who now dwells in Veii choose instead to go with the victors to their city, she would receive a shrine there. This she did after Rome defeated and sacked Veii, and is another example of the Romans promising favour to a god with the desire that the god in recompense would favour them and give their divine support to Rome. In this way the Romans utilised religion in an effort to influence battles.
An explanation for unfavourable outcomes
As previously mentioned, religion was used to determine prophetically whether the outcome of a battle would be favourable. Sources indicate that religion was also used as an explanation for unfavourable outcomes in war. In the case of the battles at Drepanum and Lake Trasimene, those losses can be explained by the military’s decision to ignore the bad omens given by the auspices. Unfavourable outcomes were also put down to the will of the gods, with Julius Casear referring to them as able to ‘grant a temporary prosperity and a longer impunity to make men whom they purposed to punish for their crime smart the more severely from a change of fortune’ during his effort to make peace with the Celtic tribe Helvetii around 58 BC. These examples emphasise the role religion played in the military’s understanding of war.
While most scholarship on the religion of the Roman army tends to look at religion during the time of Imperial Rome, there are few studies on the role of religion within the military during the Republic. At this time it was described as being shaped by the cultic actions that came from the Roman’s state religion. The elements of the state religion that became a part of army practise were present in recruitment, such as the service oath of the soldiers and the commander’s use of the auspices. Further observation and interpretation of signs other than the auspices have also been expressed as important parts of the Roman Republic military’s religion. As politics and religion worked hand in hand, so too did the connection between Roman politics and military service. Therefore, it is expected that religion would play as great a part in the military as it did in politics with the crossover of personnel.
Religion had a significant impact on the Roman Republic’s military and its soldiers, and was practised within the army to both receive counsel from the divine before battles, and to influence them during combat. Religion also served as an explanation in hindsight for events that occurred in warfare. The importance of religion in the military can be explained by the import it had in the state and crossover of personnel. Thus, religion served an important role within the military of the Roman Republic.
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Dillon, Matthew and Lynda Garland. Ancient Rome: Social and Historical Documents from the Early Republic to the Death of Augustus. Oxon: Routledge, 2015.
Stoll, Oliver. A Companion to the Roman Army. Edited by Paul Erdkamp. Victoria: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007.