The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity

Course No. 2852
Professor Hans-Friedrich Mueller, Ph.D.
Union College
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Course No. 2852
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover how polytheism helped the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean thrive.
  • Learn the many ways the Roman Empire incorporated other religions into its own.
  • Understand how polytheistic practices formed community before Christianity.

Course Overview

At home and on the battlefield, the leaders of ancient Rome knew their world was filled with signs from the gods, messages they needed to obey if they wanted success. Yes, they developed a well-oiled political and military machine, but they never made big decisions or went to battle without their priests and diviners.

As the famous Roman historian Livy put it: “This city was established with auspices. Who does not know that in war or peace at home or on military campaign all our affairs are conducted with auspices?” What were these auspices so crucial to the affairs of an empire? Auspices—from the Latin, meaning “one who looks at birds”—were signs from the gods revealed in the patterns of bird flight, as interpreted by the augur, a priest.

When we think about the Roman Empire, we tend to visualize massive armies conquering and plundering the peoples of the Mediterranean world. In fact, many have attributed the empire’s 1,000-year reign directly to their well-organized military might. But that’s not what the Romans thought; Roman leaders consistently ascribed the foundation of their success directly to their superior skills in religious practices.

In The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity, you will meet the fascinating, polytheistic peoples of the ancient Mediterranean and beyond, their many gods and goddesses, and their public and private worship practices, as you come to better understand the foundational role religion played in their lives. Professor Hans-Friedrich Mueller, of Union College in Schenectady, New York, makes this ancient world come alive in 24 lectures brimming with captivating stories and intriguing personalities, as well as artifacts, illustrations, and detailed quotes and descriptions from a treasure trove of original sources.

Fascinating Picture of Ancient Polytheistic Life

In the ancient Mediterranean world, religion was not separate from daily life. To the contrary, religion was daily life. These polytheists believed they had a strict contract with their deities: If they took care of their gods, their gods would take care of them. That meant following numerous rules and regulations that circumscribed almost all aspects of life both inside and outside the home. Consequently, their religion makes a wonderful lens through which to achieve a deeper understanding of their world.

Unlike modern religions that describe and even compel specific behavior between individuals, these gods weren’t as interested in policing morality. So, what about care for fellow humans? Or limits on sexual activity? Or even faith itself? Often these were not major concerns. Where the state took an interest, appropriate laws were passed and enforced. But the gods themselves traditionally judged these mortals primarily by the quantity and quality of their worship.

Those rules became the foundation of the state religion because leaders knew they could not be successful if their subjects were displeasing the gods. Consequently, they built extraordinary temples to honor their many deities, brought food and wine to them, sacrificed animals for them, and held sacred meals in the gods’ names—anything and everything to keep them happy.

Architecture, particularly remnants of temples, provide one source of our knowledge about these peoples and their practices—from the sanctuaries of Asklepios and Apollo to the Parthenon to the Caves of Mithras, and beyond. Professor Mueller, a scholar of Greek, Latin, and ancient history, is passionate about this period of history. In The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity, he discusses these extraordinary temple constructions and gives detailed descriptions from primary sources of intriguing personalities, including:

  • Art—Statuary, friezes, painting, mosaics, and vases throughout the Roman Empire;
  • Inscriptions—Pyramid texts and coffin texts found in Egypt ; and
  • Literature—Writings of philosophers, historians, and politicians, such as Cicero, Euripides, Homer, Lucretius, Livy, Ovid, Plato, Sophocles, and the Rigveda (a text that would become an integral part of Hinduism).

The Benefits of Divination

The many gods of this ancient world were everywhere, with spirits inhabiting every crack and crevice of life. Names of the many gods included:

  • Vesta, goddess of the family hearth;
  • Venus, goddess of sex;
  • Mars, god of the agricultural and military fields;
  • Maia, goddess of nature;
  • Limentinus, god of the threshold; and
  • Cardea, goddess of the door hinges.

Who could interpret the signs from all these deities? Even the common person could understand some. For example, did someone sneeze? Did the sacrificial animal walk willingly to the altar? If not, the gods were not interested. Did the altar burn brightly or did the flame sputter, full of smoke? Did the chickens eat greedily before the battle? Did Jupiter cause thunder and lightning in the midst of a political assembly … on a sunny day? These and other portents were viewed as a serious form of communication between humanity and the divine.

In addition, the Roman Empire had a panoply of priests, pontiffs, and augurs to interpret signs and hired Etruscan haruspices who were specially trained to “read” the entrails of sacrificed animals, particularly the livers. This was crucial; knowing how to compare what was seen inside the sacrificial animal to what was seen out in the world brought mortals and their gods into communion.

But the leadership didn’t always agree on the interpretation of signs. And at this intersection of religion and politics, there were definite benefits of divination. The difficulty of interpreting portents and signs provided a forum for discussion and debate. Those conversations fostered creative approaches to a range of possible solutions. Rather than divide society, religious debate helped move people toward consensus.

Acceptance of Other Religions

It may feel like the modern, technology-driven world of today invented globalism. But the ancient peoples of the Near East, Greece, Asia Minor, and the entire Mediterranean had already created globalism as they traded with one another, spoke with each other, borrowed (and stole) ideas, and knew each other’s cultures well. And nowhere is this more apparent than in religious practices.

For example, Roman leadership took a pragmatic position toward the unfamiliar faiths they incorporated into their territory. The newly conquered were allowed to practice their former religion—as long as their worship did not clash with the state-sanctioned religion or Roman rule. Conquest also led to rich innovations within religion as Roman society incorporated new gods and practices from the religions of their conquered peoples, including:

  • Worship of the Greek gods (with new Latin names);
  • The cult of Isis, which originated in Egypt and spread throughout the empire;
  • The cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia and was particularly popular among the Roman soldiers; and
  • Manichaeism, which also originated in Persia and addressed the duality of good and evil.

Rome did not accept all religions, however; they would not tolerate practices that went directly against the law of the land. Consequently, problems were bound to arise between the authority of the state and the worshippers of Bacchus, Druids, Jews, and Christians—something history has since proved.

We know that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam still exist in the present day—but so do some ancient, polytheistic religions, at least in some forms. Not only has there been some resurgence in the interest and practice of pagan and polytheistic religions in modern times, but the Rigveda, a collection of hymns from this ancient period, eventually became one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism—one of the most populous and influential religions of the world today. Monotheism may have become predominant in much of the world, but ancient practices and beliefs live on in our culture and many others—in stories and myths as well as in practice and faith.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia
    Explore the ways in which the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia tried to understand, worship, and cultivate supernatural forces in the world around them. Learn how the Enuma Elish, the great Mesopotamian creation myth, mirrors human concerns we still address today-power struggles, gender issues, family discord-as it explains the origin of the world, its organization, and humanity's place in it. x
  • 2
    The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India
    While most of the early religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome have been supplanted over time, the early religions of India are still thriving today. Explore the ancient Rigveda, one of the four sacred texts of modern Hinduism. An ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, it is alive with riddles, paradoxes, and as-yet-unsettled doctrines that leave plenty of room for stimulating speculation. x
  • 3
    State Religion in Ancient Egypt
    Explore how the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a pyramid inscription reveal the existence of Atum, the creator god who rose from primordial chaos to create himself and nine additional gods. But what happens to Atum when the cities of Memphis and then Karnak rise to power? Learn how political power and religion were interwoven in ancient Egypt. x
  • 4
    From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities
    While the modern world often thinks of the Greek gods and goddesses as myth, they formed the basis of religion in ancient Greece. Learn about this relationship between myth and religion and explore the fascinating puzzle of Zeus. Could Zeus have been a single god with many persons," perhaps somewhat similar to the single god of Christianity which exists in three persons? Or were there many different gods, each known as Zeus?" x
  • 5
    Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece
    The daily life of the average ancient Athenian family wasn't dominated by the gods who lived on Mt. Olympus, but by the gods who protected their front door and hearth and blessed the marriage bed. Discover the many ways in which these household gods were woven into the fabric of daily life and who was responsible for the household religious activities. x
  • 6
    Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion
    From the Mediterranean regions to ancient India, animal sacrifice played a central role in the relationship between people and their gods. Learn about the required elements for a proper honorific, atoning, or sacramental animal sacrifice. Discover the many ways in which the sacrifice benefitted the peoples involved-and what the gods required of the animal. x
  • 7
    Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens
    For these ancient peoples, signs from the gods existed everywhere-from the shape of sacrificial animal organs and the properties of smoke when they were burned, to the sudden appearance of birds in the sky, dreams, and more. Explore the many ways in which the people and their gods communicated with each other, and why no army would move forward to the battlefield without their soothsayers and priests. x
  • 8
    Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries
    Major sanctuaries attracted people from all cities and states and served to unite the Greek world. Explore the fascinating Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. In addition to the expected altars, you might be surprised to learn about the sporting events, libraries, hospitals, and even racetracks at these significant shrines. x
  • 9
    Cults and Mystery Religions
    Public worship celebrations-such as the annual Panathenaic festival honoring the goddess Athena-provided a political benefit in unifying citizenry. But in addition, some gods were worshipped in private cults requiring membership and initiation rites. Learn about the benefits of such membership, both in this world and the next, particularly for women. x
  • 10
    Philosophical Critiques of Paganism
    While most ancient Greeks worshipped, sacrificed, and celebrated as the state preferred, others had their own ideas. Explore the fascinating outlier philosophies of the Pythagoreans, Orphics, Stoics, Epicureans, and more. Most of these small, isolated groups were not a threat to the state's status quo. But if the state felt threatened, it reacted forcefully, as in the execution of Socrates. x
  • 11
    Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife
    The ancient Greeks considered it a solemn religious duty to prepare the bodies of their dead, burn the bodies, and then bury them with a variety of household or military objects. Even long after burial, people continued to bring offerings to the dead, including food and drink. Explore why these rituals were significant to the state and became a powerful force for conservative values opposed to innovation. x
  • 12
    Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion
    Egyptian religion had a significant impact on the religions of the Mediterranean world, particularly Greek and Roman. Based on pyramid texts, coffin texts, and spells written on papyri, learn what these ancient peoples believed about the potential for a soul to become immortal, the location of the afterlife in the West, and why the dead needed nourishment from the living. x
  • 13
    Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship
    How did the descendants of the shepherds and criminal outcasts who founded Rome on the hills above malaria-infested swampland conquer the entire Mediterranean? According to the Romans themselves, their single greatest strength was their religion. Learn about the cultus deorum and how precise relationships with dead ancestors, as well as the gods, allowed the conservative Roman culture to flourish. x
  • 14
    Gods of the Roman Household
    Roman gods were involved with every aspect of daily life. Explore the great pantheon of gods that influenced everything from doors hinges to meals to sex. Learn how women's religious activities reflected their societal roles in that patriarchal culture-from the involvement of four goddesses and two gods to oversee the consummation of marriage, to the use of terra-cotta uteruses as votive offerings. x
  • 15
    Gods of the Roman State
    Rome was remarkable in antiquity in that this sexist, classist, and slave-owning culture incorporated conquered peoples into the Roman body of citizens. Discover how they also incorporated the gods of the conquered in a practice known as interpretatio Romana. Of course, summoning a deity from an enemy city was a formal process, as you'll see through the fascinating stories of Juno and others. x
  • 16
    Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic
    Whose responsibility was it to care for the plethora of Roman gods and goddesses, maintaining appropriate worship and relationships? Learn what roles the four collegia of priests, the pontiffs, and the Vestal Virgins played in Roman religion. They played a crucial role in maintaining stability by calming the deities and keeping them on the side of Rome. In fact, the state's survival depended on them. x
  • 17
    Religion, Politics, and War in Rome
    Is it possible that one of the world's greatest empires was based in great part on the art and science of birdwatching? Absolutely. The calls of the raven and owl, flight patterns of eagles and vultures, the eating styles of chickens-all were signs from the gods. Explore the college of priests, the Sybilline Oracles, and the detailed rituals of divination required before state officials could take any decisive action. x
  • 18
    Rome's Reactions to Foreign Religions
    Rome incorporated many of the gods of its conquered peoples. But it could not tolerate people assembling on their own to worship without state supervision, or sexual activity that could undermine property rights. Examine the Bacchanalia, and see why Rome considered worshippers of Bacchus an existential threat to the state, and why the practice was violently suppressed. x
  • 19
    The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days
    The college of pontiffs was responsible for keeping track of all the gods and their holidays; the necessary public festivals and the seasons; as well as the days, weeks, months, and cycles of the Moon. But by historical times, the calendar was completely out of sync. Learn how and why Julius Caesar reorganized the calendar into a version very close to what we use today. x
  • 20
    Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion
    Julius Caesar began his public religious career as a teenager, and early in his political career announced that he was descended not only from kings, but from the gods Venus and Mars. Learn how he used his priesthood and political success (based in part on disregard for constitutional conventions) as well as military and financial success (primarily drawn from plunder and the slave trade) to become a dictator and have the Senate declare him a god after his death. x
  • 21
    Emperor Worship in Rome
    The deification of Julius Caesar represented a turning point in Rome's religion. The polytheistic, state-sanctioned pantheon made room for new gods: the Caesars. Learn how and why Octavius, Caesar's adopted son, instituted a monarchy that appeared to be a republic, and how the worship of his family and his personal authority transformed traditional religion. x
  • 22
    Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians
    Before Christianity, two major monotheistic religions existed in the ancient Mediterranean area. Explore the similarities and differences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and emerging Christianity, and how the empire initially accommodated their teachings and actions. You'll also learn about the grievances on all sides. x
  • 23
    Popular Religions of Late Antiquity
    In late antiquity, even after the initial emergence of Christianity, the majority in Rome and Italy held to the traditional religion and ancient gods. Explore the relationships between paganism, Manichaeism, and Isis worship at the time of the rise of Christianity and learn why Rome's rulers could not accept or tolerate Christianity. x
  • 24
    The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire
    Individually, it was relatively easy for people to convert to Christianity because it offered many familiar aspects of traditional religion-life after death, community gatherings, a sacred meal, etc. But at the state level? Explore the many fascinating reasons why, after so many centuries of success with its own state-sponsored religion, the Roman Empire finally adopted Christianity as its official faith. x

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Hans-Friedrich Mueller

About Your Professor

Hans-Friedrich Mueller, Ph.D.
Union College
Dr. Hans-Friedrich Mueller is the Thomas B. Lamont Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He earned his M.A. in Latin from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in Classical Philology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before coming to Union College, he taught at The Florida State University and the University of Florida. Professor Mueller won the American...
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