Defetishising the Wall-Paintings

A tangential factor that contributed to the defetishising of the ancient wall-paintings, was the desire amongst nineteenth-century clergyman-academics and early twentieth- century scholars, to depaganise the ‘educated’ Roman by characterising him as someone who rejected idolatry, superstition and occult practices in favour of rational (Christian) thought. This view is problematical because it is based upon a selective reading of texts by intellectually and scientifically probing figures such as Pliny, Cicero, Seneca and Lucretius.

The clergyman-academics were not the first to do so; as early as the fourth-century theologians such as Saint Augustine attempted to depaganise Cicero by pointing to texts that appeared Christian in substance. Cicero may have had Christian-like tendencies, but, as the historian Altheim points out, his ideological position was governed by pagan beliefs. For example, Cicero’s Second Book of the Laws…..‘with their emphasis upon the concept of legislation sanctioned by sacred and divine will, very much place him in the patrician camp, which viewed state and ancestral religion as inseparable entities. Other works by Cicero also reveal a determined effort to connect Roman achievement with Roman theology, just as the Greeks had done in relation to their own theology.’ (Altheim 1938: 337-39)

Cicero’s On Divination questions the legitimacy of divination, while Lucretius in On the Nature of Things ridiculed superstitious beliefs, “…..seen often with veiled head turning towards a stone, approaching every altar, or lying prostrate on the ground and stretching out one’s hands before the shrines of the gods, sprinkling the altars with the streaming blood of animals and linking vow with vow.” (V, 1198ff.)

The fact that both Cicero and Lucretius felt the need to condemn superstitious rituals and bizarre fetish practices indicates their continuing presence amongst large sections of the population, including the elite. In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon took a slightly more sanguine view of Roman superstitious beliefs, “Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors…..” (Gibbon vol. I, ch. II)

Men such as Cicero, Lucretius and Seneca were the intellectual elite and therefore we cannot extrapolate from their intermittent scepticism that all educated Romans eschewed fetish or cult practices. In fact the weight of literary and visual evidence points to the opposite view. The desire amongst both senators and generals to have their decisions sanctioned by supernatural forces revealed by the Augers divinatory skill, is one of many examples that demonstrate that the educated elite never divested themselves of fetish practices.

Even Cicero’s scepticism did not deter him from joining the College of Augurs, whose job it was to ascertain if state arrangements or decrees had the approval of the gods. Since birds were considered to be the messengers of the gods, the augers carefully studied their movements in search of auspicious or inauspicious omens. Contemporary rationalists would not regard this as the action of a rational man. Augury was just one of the many rituals that the state deemed necessary in order to maintain the pax deorum – the continuing support of the gods.


The House as Sanctuary
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Wall-painting depicting worship at a rural shrine, originally located in the Villa Imperiale di Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase, c.60 BC., now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The many examples of wall-paintings depicting urban and rural shrines and the numerous examples of worship found within the houses of elite Romans runs counter to the view that they eschewed ritual worship.

Wall-painting depicting worship at a shrine