A recent game of Redactle led to a family discussion of Roman mythology. I had to flex some muscles unused since my last full semester at Rutgers, but I was pleased that the old learning is still there. One of the first things people notice about Roman mythology is its lackluster nature. Rather like current-day politicians, the Romans mostly lacked imagination when it comes to compelling stories. Roman religion consisted largely of cult—that is the enacting of sacrifices and learning how to read omens. They had no “Bible” and really no other collection of myths, apart from what they borrowed from the Greeks (who borrowed, in turn, much from Semitic mythology). They mapped their various gods—some from the Etruscans—onto the Greek pantheon and made do with other peoples’ stories.
Rome’s native myths largely focused on their own history and human characters—again, the parallels with Republican sanitized American history are apt—but also deal with serious issues. In the words of T. P. Wiseman, “How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous tyranny?” (I resist footnoting blog posts, but this is from the preface of his book The Myths of Rome.) Like modern politicians, they believed their origins were divine. The gods had chosen them to be a superpower. We might scratch our heads and ask ourselves where the Roman Empire is today, even as Italy elects hard-right leaders. We learn nothing from history. Nothing.
So let’s turn to mythology instead. Or at least religion. Roman religious writing was often kept secret—the purview of priests only. Some of this survived into early Roman Catholic ideas about keeping Scripture to the priests. Religious writings are dangerous if they get out there among hoi polloi (or “hot polo” as my autocorrect suggests). Ironically, those of us sent off to specialized schools to learn this stuff are, in these days, generally ignored. Roman officials were often anxious to know what oracles said. Today televangelists and their ilk seem to be the ticket. Anyone can be an expert if they talk loud enough. And yet the Romans admired the Greek intellectual life. The creativity with which they handled their gods. There was much to be emulated there. Roman Jupiter was the protector of the military (budget, one is prompted to write—forgive me if my Muse is a little unruly this morning). And yet it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus. We may indeed still learn something from Roman mythology.