The Religion of Ancient Rome

Laura

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Because of issues on another thread, I decided to share here some text I wrote a couple of years ago. The footnotes will not be included.
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THE ANCIENT RELIGION AND THE ANCIENT CITY

In 1864, a brilliant French historian named Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, published a remarkable work entitled “THE ANCIENT CITY”. Wikipedia tells us:

…he showed forcibly the part played by religion in the political and social evolution of Greece and Rome. The book was so consistent throughout, so full of ingenious ideas, and written in so striking a style, that it ranks as one of the masterpieces of the French language in the 19th century. By this literary merit Fustel set little store, but he clung tenaciously to his theories. When he revised the book in 1875, his modifications were very slight, and it is conceivable that, had he recast it, as he often expressed the desire to do in the last years of his life, he would not have abandoned any part of his fundamental thesis. The work is now largely superseded.
Notice the “he clung tenaciously to his theories” and the last sentence: “this work is now largely superseded.” I have searched the literature and have found no justification for the tone of this online nonsense. Indeed, there was a furor of criticism aimed at Fustel, but it was primarily ad hominem and the only serious critique I could find was some other expert quibbling over the tense of a Latin verb. Perhaps we can get a glimpse of the reason for the attacks against him in another sentence from the above cited article:

His minute knowledge of the language of the Greek and Roman institutions, coupled with his low estimate of the conclusions of contemporary scholars, led him to go directly to the original texts, which he read without political or religious bias.
However, immediately after making this fair estimate, the article takes away with the other hand by saying:

When, however, he had succeeded in extracting from the sources a general idea that seemed to him clear and simple, he attached himself to it as if to the truth itself.
Having made such bold criticisms, one might wish to know the authority of the encyclopedist not to mention his proofs. Alas! There is no identity and no proofs. Well, the present moment is not the one for arguing the case for the enduring substance of The Ancient City; I merely suggest that the reader avail themselves of this marvelous book which is eminently readable and judge for him or herself. I will suggest that one of the reasons Fustel’s work was buried was that he denied that there had ever been a “conquest by barbarians”. He’s right, there wasn’t. He opened a huge gap in the standard historical explanations that he was unfortunately, unable to bridge due to the fact that he spent almost the rest of his life defending himself from relentless attacks of the authoritarian follower academics.

Here I should mention that there are a whole lot of theories about history. For example, Jared Diamond (geography and physiology) wrote “GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES” in 1997 to present his ideas that differences in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops. Then, there is the earlier Annales school founded by French historians Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1929 which rejects an emphasis on politics and war as being the prime movers of history. Instead, geography, material culture, and what later Annalistes called mentalités, are the important matters. There is Marxism which postulates that economics is the key to history. A subset of Marxism is Functionalism vs. Intentionalism which deals mainly with the history of Nazi Germany. The Great Man theory (I like to call it the “Big Chief Theory”) proposes that history can be explained by the impact of influential or charismatic individuals. The opposite to that is the claim that great men are the products of their societies and the societies themselves – the masses and the slow or fast evolution of social constructs – drive the great men. One of the nuttier ones is American exceptionalism. This proposes that the United States is "qualitatively different" from other nations. For the authoritarian follower believers in this one, the United States is the biblical shining "City upon a Hill", the new “chosen people”, and exempt from historical forces that have affected other countries. They miss the point that Rome was the original holy “city on a hill”, the original “chosen people” long before the Jews made up their own history, and this “theory” is exactly what the Romans thought about themselves; look what happened to them. So much for being exempt from historical forces.

According to most of these theories, particularly Marxist and related ideas, religion, morals and culture, are created and used to justify the distribution of economic power. Fustel de Coulanges however, had declared that religious beliefs were the fundamental reality in ancient Greece and Rome, and he pretty well demonstrated that all the other aspects of the Graeco-Roman civilization followed from its religion including its perception of economics. Using the information conveyed by the ancient writers about rituals, customs, folk beliefs, ancient laws and language, Fustel de Coulanges was able to infer the most likely ancient beliefs of the Romans (and Greeks). Despite the highly speculative nature of his results, he apparently captured many of the essentials about early Greek and Roman beliefs as recent archaeology has demonstrated.

According to Fustel, the belief of the ancient Indo-Europeans that was foundational to the religions of both Greece and Rome, was essentially a cult of the dead – ancestor worship – and this, itself, was based on a fear of the dead: what they could and would do to the living if they were not kept happy under the earth and taken care of by descendants. There was an element of benevolence, as well: if the dead were happy, they would act as guardians of the family. But the more general tone of the matter was that it was absolutely essential for a family to continue to provide worship and material sustenance for its ancestors to keep them in their graves. The spirits of the dead fathers werere associated with their bodies which are buried on the family’s property, which then became a holy place to that family alone, and this gave rise to the concept of private property. Each family was an exclusive cult of its ancestors, who often were associated with gods and heroes, and had its own specific rituals, and its own high priest, the father - paterfamilias. To participate in the worship of an ancestor-god was a privilege allowed only to family members which strengthened the idea of the clan and private property and boundaries, because if a person were to trespass on the holy place where someone else’s ancestors were buried, dire things might happen. There are curious elements about this boundary business that I discussed in Comets and the Horns of Moses, so we don’t need to be diverted by it here.

The role of family high priest was passed from father to eldest son along with ownership of the property and its tombs which was the sacred enclosure where the dead had to be confined and kept happy. It could be said that the eldest son was given to the ancestors at birth to maintain the worship and pass it on for the safety of the entire family. It was a huge responsibility and you have to understand how seriously these people took this conceptualization. Just as little Catholic children begin training in Catechism at a very young age, so did the first-born son of the Roman family begin his training to become the priest of the family worship. It was enforced and reinforced, that this was very, very important and everything else the family did, all its successes and prosperity, and all other laws stemmed from this urgent necessity of appeasing of the dead and associated gods and heroes. Because of this personal responsibility to keep your dead ancestors under control, it was understood that no external power had the right to regulate or change a family’s private cult without risk of angering their dead and bringing on some dire result. There was no other priest but the father and there was no hierarchy. In later Roman Republic times, the Pontifex might ascertain if a father was performing his religious duties for the safety of others, but had no right to modify them in any way.

Extended families, members of which shared a worship of the same ancestors, could become very large and powerful. This was called a “gens”. If a family died out in the male line, there was no more high priest to conduct the worship of the ancestors and they might get loose and wreck havoc on society, so rules of inheritance were formulated so that a male relative could succeed to the priesthood if necessary and thus, laws of Agnatic primogeniture and inheritance came to be the foundation of civil inheritance laws.

Closely intertwined with the ancestor worship was the worship of fire; so closely, in fact, that it is probably not possible to separate them or to determine if one came before the other. The ancients so closely associated the fire worship with the worship of the ancestors, that they were actually one religion. The fire was linked to the ancestral spirits, the lares and Penates (household gods) and it seems that these were something like the souls of the dead to whom the Romans attributed a supernatural power. In a passage in the AENEID, Hector tells Iowans that he is going to entrust to him the Trojan Penates, and it is the coals of the hearth-fire that he commits to his care. Aeneas, speaking of the sacred fire he transports across the waters, designates it by the name of the Lar of Assaracus, or the soul of his ancestor.

The fire itself was divine and was a benevolent being that maintained the life and health of the family. The fire was a moral being, chaste and shining; it could think, had a conscience, knew men’s hearts and duties, had sentiments and affections, it enjoyed what was good and beautiful, and nourished the soul of man. They made offerings to the fire of whatever they thought the fire might like: flowers, fruits, incense, wine and, of course victims. One of the Orphic hymns is a prayer to the fire:

Render us always prosperous, always happy O fire; thou who are eternal, beautiful, ever young; thou who nourishes, thou who are rich, receive favorably these our offerings, and in return give us happiness and sweet health.
This fire in the home represented the eternal life of the family (not the individual) and the rule was that there should always be a few live coals on the hearth. Obviously, the fire that warmed the home and cooked the food was something more than a material phenomenon. The evidence for this was the fact that the fire may only be ignited with the aid of certain rituals and using certain implements and must be fed with certain kinds of wood. Preparing of meals with the holy fire was a religious act. The god lived in the fire; the god cooked the bread, the meat, warmed the home. Before the family ate, they gave a portion of their meal to the fire. Before drinking, they poured out a bit of wine for the fire. Every meal was sacred communion with the fire, the god. This fire, as a tutelary god, was pure and it was forbidden to throw anything unclean into it or to commit any unacceptable act in its presence. In the worship of all other gods, which was carried out with the aid of the fire, the first and last invocation was always addressed to the fire itself. As Fustel pointed out, we read the same thing in the RG VEDA: “Agni must be invoked before all the other gods. We pronounce his venerable name before that over all the other immortals. O Agni, whatever other god we honor with our sacrifices, the sacrifice is always offered to thee.”

It seems that, in the most ancient of times, the dead were buried under the floor of the house. Putting grandpa under the hearth may have been seen as a way to keep him close and involved with the family. After a time, the dead were buried in tombs or cremated and their ashes put in tombs, so without going too much further into detail, let’s just leave it at the fact that the dead and fire were rooted so deeply in the minds of these people that even great myths and fantastical stories of gods and heroes could not replace the dedication of the Romans to their fire and ancestors.

From groups of such families that acknowledged one another as holding these basic beliefs, and with whom intermarriage was approved, the earliest cities were formed. The city was a union of families, not of individuals. The city itself was a religious body – there was no other form of organization – with agreed-upon gods, an agreed-upon cult exclusive to citizens who could only be members of the accepted families, and its own high priest (the king).

The second half of THE ANCIENT CITY describes how, as time passed, the customs that had emerged from the ancient religion became harder to justify. This was mainly due to the fact that the oligarchy of the city of Rome and the institutions they had created, excluded a large segment of the population. These were the plebs, the people without recognized ancestral gods who did not belong to families participating in the civic cult. Fustel doesn’t really explain why it should be that some families had gods as ancestors, and some did not. It would seem that anybody who knew who his father or grandfather was and was capable of making a fire, could have his own ancestors and religion. But that wasn’t the case and one suspects something more to this situation and we may discover a clue in the fact that there is actually more to this Roman religion business than Fustel de Coulanges imagined.

PORTENTS AND PRODIGIES

Suzanne Rasmussen writes in “PUBLIC PORTENTS IN REPUBLICAN ROME”:

In my view, public portents have not received adequate attention from modern scholarship on the Ancient World. Accounts of portents are often inserted as quaint little items that can enliven dry, historical subject matter, serving as entertaining examples of concepts such as irrationality or political manipulation, deception, and humbug. Many a discussion has dwelled upon the question of how on earth the Romans could put their faith in portents based on entrails, blood raining from the sky, sweating statues of deities, seasick hens that refused to eat, and so on and so forth. As this study will demonstrate, in certain areas the research in this field seems to bear a disquieting resemblance to St. Augustine’s presentation of the pagan (mal)practices of divination. …

I am primarily concerned with examining social, religious, and political behavior, as well as the significance and functions of public portents as an institution in a variety of social and religio-political contexts. … this study’s repetitive use of the term religion-political is meant to underscore the indissoluble connection existing in the Roman res publica between the two categories of religion and politics...
In essence, what seems to be the case is that, in addition to keeping the fire happy and preventing the dead from coming back to haunt them, the Romans were very, very concerned with a whole host of things that they considered to be direct messages from the gods or things that would terribly offend the gods and cause one of those unpleasant “direct messages.” So, to protect themselves, it seems that they created the Holy City of Rome as a place where the accepted families could gather to appease mainly the gods of the sky. Their dedication to doing this, their concern that nothing that anybody in their society did should offend the gods, came to be the ruling dynamic in the life of the city-state in all respects in its earliest period and lasting for a very long time.

Well, certainly, while writing in COMETS AND THE HORNS OF MOSES about ancient Greece and its emergence from a Dark Age following obvious cataclysmic events, I was wondering how those same events acted on the Romans. What seems to be the bottom line is that the Roman family religion and the City Religion that dealt specifically with Public Portents, were both forged in catastrophes that must have made indelible impressions on the psyches of the Romans. One of the curious things about Roman religion was its almost total lack of mythological material from either the early Latins or Etruscans. The closest thing they have to such religious underpinnings are the stories of their early kings. They were not concerned with any stories of individual deities and the surviving material leaves a puzzle as to what were the actual motivations and explanations of why they did what they did and believed they had to do what they had to do. Because, in the end, the portents were all about methodological diligence in following the prescribed procedures for getting the information “from the gods”, so to say, and then, taking religious actions as advised by the authorized experts so as to perform the correct ritual to expiate the fault.

Here we can note that the Greeks were far more imaginative than the Romans in respect of creating myths about comet gods and then transforming those gods into their ancestors and finally, separating the mythical events from celestial events entirely . The Romans were more pragmatic and conservative and thus, their worship in the ancient style lasted far longer than it did in Greece, though the beginnings were substantially the same. It could be said that these differences may have reflected an early tribal separation due to personality differences between rival chieftains who then impressed their own personalities on their family/tribe by virtue of genetics and conditioning. This may, in fact, have been at the root of the founding story of Romulus and Remus.

Unfortunately, most histories of Rome or academic discussions about same, completely exclude this aspect of the Roman state. Their narrow-minded exclusion is based on thinking that the reports of prodigies were some sort of collective hysteria and that portents were solely a means of political manipulation. They sometimes interpret portents and prodigies as possibly even literary embellishment by later writers who were adding flavor to their accounts. However, one may notice that Livy includes these records into his work in a stiff and formulaic style which contrasts with his usual elegant prose, thus suggesting that the events must be copied directly from the Annales Maximi, published in the 120s BC by P. Mucius Scaevola, who compiled his list from the tabulae pontificum, the annual records of the pontifex maximus of Rome.

In any event, most – if not all – historians discard these important elements of early Roman history as irrelevant to the religious and political institutions of Rome. But the facts seem to be quite the opposite: they were a significant element in the perception and construction of reality of the Roman people. Portents and prodigies played a far more important role in terms of history and politics, religion and sociology, than is acknowledged by the gentlemen historians, and a careful study reveals that they were not the by-product of mass hysteria or aberrant psychological conditions of a few crazies nor were they the product of the superstitious Roman mind ignorant of natural laws.

Georges Dumezil seeks to explain prodigies as mass psychosis around the time of the Second Punic War:

It was in fact a true psychosis, with outbursts of terror and paroxysms of panic, which possessed the Roman mob during these terrible years. While magistrates and priests calmly administered sacred affairs, this psychosis was generating secret mysteries in a kind of anarchy; the proliferation of prodigies announced in good faith was an almost yearly symptom of this disease…
Indeed, Livy notes connections between times of war and the increased reporting of prodigies but if one reviews the annual reporting of portents throughout the history of the Republic, one discovers that the “psychosis” from which Rome was suffering lasted over 800 years down to the end of the reign of Domitian. What such scholars miss entirely is the fact that the entire Roman governing system was set up as the social and religio-political means of maintaining equilibrium between Rome and the gods who were, obviously, upset rather often. Further, there are numerous “heavenly prodigies” that are not linked to martial activity and wars that are not linked to prodigies.

Those historians who think that the extraordinary phenomena reported by the Romans were just a means of political mass manipulation also miss the point. Overall, it seems that it wasn’t just the masses who believed – the magistrates and senate were as preoccupied with the indications of wrath as everyone else. Portents weren’t used to control the masses although, in the later Republic it is obvious that they were used for political purposes in the conflicts within the ruling aristocracy itself, (and Cicero had his hand in that, too, as we will see). This process was described by Toynbee:

The observation of a meteorological portent, or even the formal announcement, by a public officer, that he was scanning the sky on the chance that a meteorological portent might catch his eye, was enough to place an embargo on all political activities. This shameless misuse of the official Roman religion for political purposes raises, once again, a question that has been touched upon [earlier]. During the last two centuries of the republican period of Roman history, did the Hellenically-educated members of the Roman “Establishment” disbelieve completely in the truth and efficacy of their ancestral religion? In continuing to make an outward show of respect for it, where they utterly insincere? In manipulating it for political purposes, did they have their tongues in their cheeks?
Toynbee was influenced by the Greek Polybius’s view that the purpose of Roman religion was to control the passions and violent anger of the masses. His idea was naturally conditioned by his own culture; to Polybius, the linking of res publica to public divination was preposterous. Nevertheless, it is true that there was a growing Hellenization in Rome and thus, there appears to be some validity in this idea at least toward the end of the republic and among a few of its politicians, though not all by a long shot!

In any event, it’s very gratifying to find that someone else has been searching through the sources for the same types of events that I have been assembling for years now though for quite different reasons. Rasmussen’s book is a sociological study and not an inquiry into what might have been going on in the planetary and cosmic environment. As Rasmussen notes (as I did some time ago as well) with my extensive tabular arrangement of the data (she uses tables too), the ancient sources for portents and prodigies exhibit a striking agreement in respect of such things and these reports do not appear to be embellished in any way. Further, there is agreement among the sources as to the firmly established procedures for responding to the intruding events. Rasmussen details the sources, discusses who relied on whom, and the usual chain of evidence type analyses; she then notes:

There are traces of a partial pattern which has been emphasized repeatedly by scholars, namely the occurrence of large numbers of prodigies in times of crisis. Of course this pattern could reflect an actual increase in the number of reports.
What is important is to know that there was an ancient system guiding the Romans in their activities via augurs, haruspices, and portents. Very early, probably during an extended period of environmental stress and celestial activity, there was an agreement between some Latins and the Etruscans and many elements of Etruscan practices became “Roman” so it is difficult to distinguish sometimes which were which. In general, however, extispicy – reading the entrails of sacrificed victims – was an Etruscan science performed by their haruspices.

Auspices, on the other hand, was linked to Jupiter was a Roman form of divination as opposed to Etruscan extispicy. Roman public augury recognized only a limited range of bird omens in contrast to non-Roman augury which utilized any species. The system of interpretation was apparently well-established. Apparently, no public actions were taken without first taking the auspices.

All the ancient literature about Rome confirms how crucial their augural science was to all political activity. Public actions such as passing laws and conducting assemblies, elections, Senate meetings, etc, could only take place after auspices had been taken. It was a traditional part of the religio-political process. Thunder and lightning and bird omens revealed the approval or disapproval of the gods and without the approval of the gods, nothing could be undertaken. The objective of public augury – as a traditional institution – was to determine if the gods were favorable to state business and public ceremonies including the inauguration of places, people and things. A decision of the senate could not be legally valid without the blessing of the augurs and it had to be done in the correct location as designated by the augur as well.

The pomerium was Rome’s sacred augural boundary within which auspices on behalf of the city could be taken. Certain political assemblies could only take place within the pomerium, and others – including all military events – had to be kept outside the pomerium.

A number of ancient writers some of whose other works have survived, were augurs and wrote works on augury including Lucius Julius Caesar, Appius Claudius Pulcher and Cicero himself.

In respect of Cicero and his war against change, a particular type of prodigy comes to the fore as significant: incestum of the Vestal Virgins; that is, breaking of the vows of chastity by any of the virgins put in charge of tending the sacred fire of the temple of Vesta. Such a “prodigy” consists in a violation of sacred law by human beings: incorrect behavior that could anger the gods towards the entire populace. This would constitute a tangible violation threatening the welfare of Roman society and the security of the state militarily and politically.

There were a number of such episodes of incestum on the part of the Vestal virgins, though not so many as might be expected over the very long life of the institution. One of the earlier events was in 216 BC when the Vestal Virgins Opimia and Florionia were accused. Livy then notes that a very un-Roman expiation was undertaken, to wit, a Gallic man and woman, and a Greek man and woman, were buried alive at the Forum Boarium . Then, one of the virgins involved committed suicide and the other was buried alive while at least one of the men involved, a scriba pontificius named L. Cantilius, was flogged to death – a very usual Roman procedure. We can also note that 216 BC was the year in which Hannibal defeated Roman forces at the Battle of Cannae. In numbers of Romans killed, this was the second greatest defeat of Rome, after the Battle of Arausio.

In short, in addition to celestial phenomena, meteorological phenomena, the birth of deformed infants, talking cows, rains of blood and milk, fertile mules, incorrect human behavior could be adjudged as prodigies by the senate, and therefore requiring public expiation. At the same time, some prodigies could be interpreted as favorable.

According to the tradition, auspicia were originally a patrician prerogative whereas plebeian magistrates, assemblies, and plebiscite were usually appointed or approved without any prior taking of auspices. The traditional patrician monopoly on auspices raises a number of questions, especially about how plebeians accessing patrician offices were handled with respect to the patrician auspices. The sources indicate considerable social, political, and religious changes in the relationship between patricians and plebeians from around 500 BC until the passing of the Licini-Sextic laws in 367 BC granting plebeians access to the consulate, and the lex Ogulnia in 300 BC which gave them access to the college of augurs and the college of pontifices.

The right to take auspicia was transferred through the election of magistrates and, according to Varro, the patrician auspices could be divided into two categories: auspicia maxima and auspicia minora. Auspicia maxima related to consuls, praetors, and censors, whereas asupicia minora related to the other types of magistrates. In other words, there were various auspices depending on magisterial rank and the right to take auspices was relinquished at the end of one’s magisterial term. If the succession of consuls was interrupted, the auspices reverted to the senate until new consuls were elected. In war, the right of auspicy was transferred to the commander by means of lex curiata.

Apparently, the different priesthoods had different specialties that were complementary and they appear to have worked together without competition. The four priesthoods relating to official Roman divination were:

1) The Roman Quindecimvirii sacris faciundis: they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate. This collegium also oversaw the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome. Originally these duties had been performed by duumviri (or duoviri), two men of patrician rank . Their number was increased to ten by a Licinio-Sextian law in 367 BCE, which also stipulated that half of these priests were to be plebeian. During the Middle Republic, members of the college were admitted through cooption. At some point in the 3rd century BC, several priesthoods, probably including the quindecimviri, began to be elected through the voting tribes.

2) The Roman pontifices, who interpreted prodigia: The pontifices duties and privileges included listing reports of prodigies and consulting the libri pontificii. These books included annual chronicles, lists of magistrates, wars, important events, rituals performed and results, commentary on all of these things, and responses and decreta on religious matters. The original number of pontifices was three but this was increased to six, nine, fifteen, and finally sixteen by Julius Caesar. The college was opened to plebeians in 300 BC. Cicero’s speech De domo sua reveals the decisive role the pontifices played in treating prodigies. The expertise of this priesthood was crucial to the Senate’s decision in the religious dispute over Cicero’s house which had been razed during his exile and consecrated to the gods. Cicero wanted the land back.

3) The Roman augures, who interpreted auspice: he augural college was parallel to the pontifices in number and expansion of those members. There were originally three members – one for each tribe – and then six, opened to plebeians and expanded to nine and then increased by Sulla to 15 and Caesar adding a 16th.

4) The Etruscan haruspices, who interpreted exta and prodigia: The haruspices were recruited from aristocratic Etruscan families and were a very prestigious group. Etruscan principes early intermarried with Patrician families and the Etruscan institution was internalized in these noble families and passed down father to son. Cicero mentions a senate decree stating that sons from the most prominent families were to study haruspicy to prevent the discipline from dying out. Their principal duty was to “read the entrails” of the victims. Another haruspex group appears to have been linked to the sacrifices performed by the magistrates. They often went along on military campaigns as well. There were also, it seems, wandering “street-corner” haruspices specializing in private “readings” whom Cicero, Cato and others considered to be charlatans. The haruspices do not seem to have been members of an actual Roman priesthood nor did they have a collegium, but they were highly respected as experts nevertheless as the sources show that the Roman authorities systematically made use of these Etruscan priests in the interpretation of public prodigies. In recounting Postumius’ speech on the Bacchanalia affair in 186 BC, Livy places the haruspical responsa on a par with pontifical responsa.

The sources emphasize interpretations and calculations on the part of haruspices, so different criteria must have determined who was called in. Cicero points out several instances in which the haruspices and Quindecimviri gave identical responses. According to Cicero, the Romans adopted haruspicy because it was handy for getting omens for individual activities. In volume one of his DE DIVINATION, Cicero discusses how the signs in the entrails can possibly occur. He presents two theories: either the selection of the sacrificial animal is subject to an omnipresent force, or changes take place in the entrails before the sacrifice is carried out. However, in his second book of DE DIVINATION, Cicero declares against such possibilities in strong terms – calling it absurd - as well as arguing against the idea that some divine force pervades the whole world. (We’ll come back to Cicero’s DE DIVINATION futher on when we find him using public portents as a propaganda tool.)

In the beginning, the priests were selected, then the Lex Domitia de sacerdotiis in 104 BC abolished this co-optive election and replaced it with elections in 17 tribes chosen by lot. This law was repealed by Sulla in 81 BC, but restored in 63 BC through the Lex Labiena. This was important to the election of Julius Caesar as Pontifex Maximus. Members of the colleges of pontifices and were elected for life. However, they could forfeit their offices if sentenced in court, though augurs appear to have been immune to this.

In Rome, the struggle for political power was not in any way a fight to “control the gods” because in Rome, augury and auspicia was not at all about “gaining control over the gods or forces of life”. On the contrary, in the Roman view of things, human beings were subject to the will of the gods and the religio-political desire was, above all, to be in harmony with the gods while one’s opponents could be accused of being in disharmony. To the Roman mind, the wish to exercise control over the gods would, itself, constitute a violation of the pax deorum. Neglecting the auspices could be fatal, as the ancient sources exampled time and time again.

In short, the function of auspices and augury was to examine and confirm that Roman society was in good relationship to the gods in respect of planned political, religious and military undertakings, offices, and individuals, were concerned. If such confirmation was not forthcoming, the reason or error had to be determined using the augural science and expiation undertaken which could reestablish the balance.

Cicero tells us that the idea of interpreting and then performing rituals to expiate prodigies and portents came from the Etruscans. A public prodigy or portent was one that was reported to the senate and approved by that body as a prodigium publicum, a portent relevant to the society as a whole and which would require the entire society to contribute to the ritual expiation. Whatever it was, it was an indicator that the pax deorum had been disturbed. There was a distinction between private and public prodigies though private prodigies that occurred in respect of public individuals could be adjudged as public portents. But the procedure that had to be followed for the declaration to be made and the expiation performed, demonstrates that it was solely the purview of the senate to approve the prodigy as public. Further, it seems clear that what was or was not determined to be a public prodigy does not indicate any sort of religious development on the part of the Romans. They were singularly rigid and conservative right up to the end of the republic at which point, Cicero, in a desperate bid to “save the republic”, fought viciously against those who would set aside the strict powers of the senate to declare prodigies and expiations.

Despite the senate’s status as the ultimate decision-making authority in public portent matters, there is no doubt that the official augurs did wield considerable power being the only religious specialists authorized to advise on the interpretation of auspices relevant to the welfare of the Roman state. According to the rules of the ideal state, Cicero tells us in De legibus, that those leading negotiations must observe the auspices and obey the public augur. Furthermore, in the event of a conflict between the magistrates and the official priesthoods’ observations and expertise in matters of public portents, the regard for religio is always identified with the regard for the welfare of the res publica. This places the response from the official priesthoods over and above the individual magistrate’s actions, opinions and schemes.

It is fairly clear that these offices were held by men from the most wealthy and powerful families meaning noble patrician families and ennobled and wealthy plebeian families: the political elite of Rome. The same group of people combined the roles of handling religious affairs as well as making political decisions in the interests of the state. As we can see from Cicero’s writings, he saw absolutely nothing wrong with this and from his perspective, an ideal social and religio-political establishment featuring the same people was not only acceptable, but highly desirable. This, of course, leads to the consideration that the formal distinction between priesthoods and magistracies was only a technical detail that meant nothing in practice. Not all priests were magistrates, nor all magistrates priests, to be sure; Cicero did not become an augur until ten years after his consulship. Further, the pontifex maximus could order a person who was simultaneously serving as priest and magistrate to pay a fine for putting his magisterial duties above his religious duties. This highlights the fact that, at some point in time, it must have been seen as needful to put measures in place to ensure that politics yielded to religion because the latter was seen as the preeminent concern of the political state. Nevertheless, it is clear that certain individuals did hold multiple offices and would have discussed religio-political affairs among themselves.

Rasmussen describes the fixed procedure for determining prodigies based on the sources. Anyone could report an observation of an unusual event to the senate. The consuls would normally present the reports along with eyewitnesses who corroborated the event. Some reports were submitted in writing. The senate then had to decide if the event was a prodigium publicum. There were three options available to them at this point:

1) Refusal to approve the event as a prodigy. This could be justified on the grounds that there were too few witnesses or the witnesses were of dubious reliability.
2) Approve the event as a prodigy, but not relevant to the public welfare. It would be declared to be a “private portent.”
3) Approve the event as important to the public welfare and then undertake to find out from specialists what form the expiation must take.

For the latter part of the process, the three groups of experts used were: the decemviri sacris faciundis, the pontifices, and the haruspices. The determination of the priests were given in the form of responsa and decreta which the senate could then choose to comply with or not. They could also decide whether or not to report the prodigy and responses to the public. At that point, the senate could authorize the recommended actions which was the formal responsibility of the consuls who frequently were the ones required to perform the expiatory sacrifices themselves. This will be important further on, so keep it in mind. For the moment, notice that Livy reports several cases where prodigies were reported and had to be expiated after new consuls had been elected and before the old consuls had left to take up governorships in their assigned provinces as was the general order of things. Apparently, prodigies could be collected up and expiated all at once, but some of them were so serious that expiation was required as quickly as possible. The timing and swiftness could ensure a good beginning for the next year. The delays imposed on consuls due to prodigies reveals quite clearly that the manner of dealing with public portents certainly exerted a powerful influence on the political establishment itself, and was not necessarily a tool for mass manipulation. The sources are very clear on the fact that prodigies were high priority items on the senatorial agenda. Issues relating to the gods were always dealt with before matters relating to human affairs. Rasmussen writes:

The Roman Senate is commonly characterized by its primarily moral power, auctoritas, its advisory function, and its lack of any real powers. Yet in connection with matters relating to public portents and religio-political disputes involving portents, the sources and the religio-political procedure demonstrate that in practice, the Senate was the decision-making body….

There can be no doubt about the mutual interaction between the prodigies on the one hand and political and military actions on the other. What is more, the possibility of achieving a religious legitimization of political matters is incorporated into the procedure itself….
Another bit of evidence of the importance of prodigies was the fact that, in 208 BC, the pontifices raised an objection to the consecration of a temple to two deities: Honos and Virtus, on the grounds that it would be impossible to know which deity to appeal to in expiation in the event the temple was struck by lightning!

It seems that, in the year 193 BC, according to Livy, the Senate made a decision to stop accepting prodigy reports because they were too numerous. Rasmussen speculates that this was not so much evidence of political manipulation but that the high incidence of earthquakes and other prodigies of the time obstructed political life entirely. The prodigies prevented the departure of the consuls, prevented the convening of the senate, the transaction of any public business, etc. The Sibylline Books were consulted and the necessary rituals performed, after which the senate said “that’s enough.” The fact that the senate had to take this extreme measure is evidence of the essential role of prodigies in the political life of Rome. Once a prodigy had been reported, the senate was obliged to deal with it according to traditional, fixed, procedure. If, as some scholars would like to think, portents held no real significance at the political level, the senate could easily have chosen to ignore or reject them. Instead, they pursued the policy of a singular expiation as advised by the priests and the Sibylline books, and were assured thereby that they could stop accepting further reports and being required thereby to deal with them.

On another occasion that Livy reports, a violent wind knocked over a pillar and statue in front of the temple of Jupiter in 152 BC. The haruspices interpreted the prodigy to mean death among the magistrates and priests upon which announcement, ever single one of them resigned!

The point of this brief survey is that environmental factors, human behaviors, and unusual phenomena had decisive, even controlling, influences on social, political, and military affairs in the Roman Republic right down to the time of, and including the actions of, Cicero, as I will show further on. Indeed, we will see that political manipulation of this tradition took place, but the tradition, the system, had to exist first – and in a significant way – for such manipulation to be implemented – as it was by Cicero.

The modern mind is shocked when considering all this Roman business of killing critters and splattering blood everywhere every time they turned around, along with all the other apparently silly rituals, one begins to think that these people were simply nuts. You ask yourself: how could anybody believe that nonsense?! And when you consider that our own civilization is considered to be modeled on that one, that great thinkers of the Renaissance attributed to such as Cicero enormous powers of intellect and rationality, how the heck do we deal with the fact that these people – including Cicero – were regularly peering at the guts of freshly dead animals in order to decide whether or not they should take a trip, make a speech, pass a law, make war, or execute prisoners?

Obviously, we cannot judge them by the standards of our own time. Perhaps they would be more justifiably appalled at our nebulous astralized belief systems that don’t seem to have anything at all to do with reality. Obviously, rationality is a culture-bound and context-related concept. As Rasmussen says:

Roman divination represents a series of assumptions and institutionalized behavioral patterns that attribute rational qualities (in the modern sense) to that which is irrational (in the modern sense). This is done by establishing causal contexts based on the systematic observation of signs/portents that are interpreted according to specific rules and patterns. … based on the sources dealing with public portents in Roman religion, it is possible to regard divination as a scientific discipline that is first and foremost characterized by its reliance on the systematic organization of actual observations. I define the term “scientific discipline” as an institutionalized body of knowledge that builds on systematic, empirical examinations of connections that seek and understanding of the world and include the establishment of profane and sacred contexts. …

Cicero’s DE DIVINATION emphasizes that as far as scientific divination is concerned, the many years of continued observation have allowed the experts to amass large amounts of knowledge concerning the connections between the occurrence of certain signs and subsequent events. Cicero declares that although mortals cannot explain why each individual thing happens, it is sufficient to establish that the things do happen. He makes the comparison that if one were to claim a magnet is a stone that attracts iron without being able to explain why, it is not the same as denying the existence of the phenomenon….

Roman public portents are concerned with the registration, systematization, interpretation, and potential expiation of present phenomena relating to future events, based on past experience.
 

Laura

Administrator
Administrator
Moderator
FOTCM Member
THE VESTAL VIRGINS

In Rome, the embodiment of the fire was Vesta, the symbol of moral order. Ovid says of her that she occupied the first place in the religious practices of men. The Vestal Virgins were very important in the Roman religious scheme of things. They were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, the personification of the communal hearth which symbolized the collective hearths of the citizens. The tradition told that the Vestals were instituted by King Numa Pompilius, the legendary second king of Rome. There were six of them, they were appointed while young children between the ages of six and ten years old, and had to be daughters of respectable citizens, born in wedlock, in Italy, preferably Rome. In practice, since the earliest “citizens” (those who had ancestors and a family altar) turned into the oligarchy, that meant only daughters of such families were usually selected. The position was one of great honor and certain advantages. After inauguration, a Vestal virgin passed from the control (tutela) of her father to that of the pontifex maximus. She served for a minimum of 30 years which meant she might retire as early as the age of 36, but she could stay on voluntarily for life. If she chose to retire, she could marry, (but 36 was a bit old for having children).

The Vestal virgins had a pretty easy job: they just kept the fire going in the temple, made daily sacrifices, kept the temple clean, and presided over a number of religious ceremonies throughout the year. The persons of the Vestal virgins were sacred and anyone who raised a hand against them was executed. This meant that their presence was a guarantee against violence and they could appeal on behalf of an accused person; a chance encounter with a Vestal could save a condemned man from execution. Finally, they were permitted to own property and could will it to whom they chose, a quite advantageous legal privilege. Obviously, it can be seen that their position was one which invited potential corruption.

These women had a pretty decent life but there was one thing they could not ever, ever do: lose their virginity. A non-virgin polluted the sacred rites and called down the anger of the goddess and probably other gods. If they had sexual intercourse with anyone, the crime was considered to be incest, not just adultery or wantonness. The penalty was death for both the Vestal and the paramour. The Vestal would be forced into a pit with a few days food and water, and the pit closed with stones or bricks and a mound of earth. The man would be flogged to death with rods. This punishment was actually carried out on at least 11 occasions up to 113 BC. Plutarch writes:

[The Pontifex Maximus] was also the overseer of the holy virgins who are called Vestals. For they ascribe to Numa also the dedication of the Vestal Virgins and generally the care and worship of the inextinguishable fire which they guard, either because he considered the nature of fire to be pure and uncorrupted and so entrusted it to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies or else because he compared its fruitlessness and sterility to virginity. In fact, in all of Greece wherever there is an inextinguishable fire, as at Delph and Athens, virgins do not have the care of it but women who are beyond the age of marriage.
Plutarch was obviously a bit nonplussed that in Rome, the tenders of the fire had to be virgins. We can note that the unique legal status of the Vestals freed them from usual family ties which made it possible for them to incarnate the collective spirit of the state. The virginity of the Vestals probably represented the purity of this collective; the absence of any evil spiritual influence. In ancient times, feminine virtue was the yardstick of the moral health of a society, and for the Romans, this was a historical reality. Throughout the history of Rome, there are numerous occasions where charges of sexual impurity in women (violation of their vows by the Vestals, or adultery in wives) were declared to be responsible for danger to the state.

This series of strange incidents, spanning a thousand years of Roman history, reveals a world-view deeply rooted in sympathetic magic, where women in their strictly limited societal roles emboedied the state, and the inviolability and control of women was objectified as the iviolability and control of the community.
The virginity of the Vestals wasn’t just the symbol of the state’s safety, it was the guarantee; virginity symbolized the intact state of boundaries and the unity of all families within those collective boundaries. The Vestals, by preserving their virginity, were magically preserving the state. Her unique legal status was less a privilege than a magical function. She was taken away from her family, legal ties dissolved, but she did not become a member of any other family. She did not stop being a woman, but she ceased being like “other women.”

The exchange of women to seal interfamilial bonds and political ties was a marked feature of Roman society. Thus, if the Vestal Virgin was to represent the society as a whole, she must be exterior to all families. Since a basic principle of Roman law was that a woman always belonged to someone, the procedure to free the Vestals from ownership was both complex and comprehensive. … prevented her from being an orphan [which would have damaged her perfect nature] while still guaranteeing that legally and religiously she had no family. … Her masculine rights and privileges were side effects of the act of freeing her from all masculine ownership. … The Vestal was thus the totem of Rome… Her virginity is a type of binding spell familiar from ritual observances in many cultures. … Thus, as long as the Vestal remained intact, so did Rome.
If, and when, a Vestal strayed from the path, she was ritually sacrificed as mentioned above. This was basic scape-goating: deflecting onto the victim the danger of violence. In the historical record, there is a total lack of any protest – even from the Vestals themselves – against the sacrifice of a Vestal Virgin. The Vestal Aemilia, when the sacred fire had been allowed to go out, prayed to Vesta “If anything unholy has been done by me, let the pollution of the city be expiated by my punishment.” In the time of Domitian, Pliny witnessed the execution of the Vestal, Cornelia who was reported to have said on her way to be buried alive: Does Caesar think that I have been unchaste, when he has conquered and triumphed while I have been performing the rites?” Pliny hated Domitian and suspected him of ulterior motives in this case and wrote “I don’t know whether she was innocent, but she certainly acted as if she were innocent. The murder of the Vestal was clearly a form of human sacrifice that was intended to unite the society in a unanimous act of violence that would not result in reciprocal vengeance. And, interestingly, anthropological studies indicate that such a victim should be fundamentally innocent for the sacrifice to be efficacious. However, ritual measures had to be taken to overlay an aura of guilt on the victim in order to engage the unanimity of the society toward the sacrifice. The victim would be charged with grave crimes – generally the more hideous the better – which actually amounted to unloading the collective crimes of the society onto the innocent victim. In short, Rome maintained at all times, in the institution of the Vestal Virgins, both perfect priestesses who, if needed, were at-the-ready perfect victims for the ultimate sacrifice. An example from Livy writing about ancient Rome in 483 BC:

War with the Veii then broke out and the Volsci resumed hostilities. Roman resources were almost more than sufficient for war against an external enemy, but they were squandered by the Romans fighting amon themselves. Adding to everyon’e mental anxiety were heavenly prodigies, occurring in Rome and the countryside, which showed the anger of the gods almost daily. The prophets, after consulting first the entrails and then the birds about both the public and the private omens, announced that there was no other reason for the gods being so moved, except that the sacred rites were not being performed correctly. These terrors finally resulted in the Vestal Virgin Oppia being condemned for incestum and executed.
The Vestal accused of incestum was not just a sinner, but a criminal also. A trial guaranteed the guilt of the surrogate victim and increased the sacrificially necessary guilt. She was made responsible for all the evils that occurred in a time of crisis. However, the death must be left to a natural force so that the polluting presence will be removed without committing a polluting act: thus, being buried alive. No one is personally responsible for the death and thus, no one else is tainted. The Vestals were buried alive with a few days supply of food which Plutarch explicitly says was done so that the death of a sacred person could not be attributed to anyone but herself. Paradoxically, after her death, the executed Vestal Virgin was thought to guard the city she had betrayed. This is further evidence of the practice being a kind of holy sacrifice following strict ritual norms. The Vestal Virgin was devoted, sacrificed, on behalf of the people, to expiate the anger of the gods.

The Vestals were not the only women in Roman society who were sacrificed. Controlling women and their sexuality was equivalent to controlling the state. Dangers made manifest toward the state, either outside or inside, could only be dealt with by the punishment of women. In 331, there was a plague and 20 patrician wives were charged with a poisoning conspiracy. They were forced to drink drugs – a trial by ordeal – and died. A further 170 married women were executed after an investigation. In 296, the cult of Plebeian Chastity was founded and the following year an unknown number of Roman matrons were found guilty of adultery and fined. In 215, following the disaster at Cannae, the Oppian law was passed and the Vestal Virgins Floronia and Opimia were executed together with additional human sacrifices. In 213, an unspecified number of citizens wives were exiled for adultery. In 204, there was a trial by ordeal of Claudia Quinta who was charged with adultery. In 186, the Bacchanalia scandal erupted when thousands of women were executed by their family courts or the state itself. In 184, further trials of those accused of poisonings (men and women). In 180, Hostilia Quarta was condemned for poisoning her husband and three thousand other people were found guilty of poisoning. In 154, Publilia and Licinia were strangled after being tried in family tribunals after being accused of poisoning their husbands. In 113, there was the above mentioned trial and execution (buried alive) of Vestal Virgins.

These eruptions of rage against women reveal a profound fear at the core of Roman society. …the very interchangeability and exchangeability on which Rome was based necessitated that a woman still be attached to, and be a member of, her father’s family for her to have value as an exchange. As a result, she was still a stranger in her marriage family and feared as a stranger… a potential traitoress… This fear, though best known to folklore as centering on the figure of the step-mother, was not confined to her. Rather, since for Rome the children were the husband’s both legally and biologically, all mothers were stepmothers, fostering another’s children. … According to Plutarch the laws of Romulus specified that a husband may divorce his wife only for poisoning his children, counterfeiting his keys, or adultery. This very marginality of women makes them the perfect victims. In times of panic, the society can easily be restored to health by the sacrifice, exile, or punishment of wives, who are central to the family yet not fully members of it; who are necessary to produce children yet expendable… the charge of adultery was the betrayal of all her male relatives, both by birth and by marriage. … We hear not of individual women put on trial but masses. We are told not of monstrous women acting alone but in consort… they formed an anti-society… a witch-world whose values were distorted parodies of the values of patriarchal society… The unpenetrated virgin and the well-regulated wife both embodied the city in the symbolic universes of sympathetic magic .
Obviously, something happened during the formation of the Roman state, and throughout its existence, that made what they were doing entirely rational. My suggestions as to the conditions suffered by peoples around the world in the ancient, formative, Dark Ages are, of course, described in some detail in my previous book, “COMET AND THE HORNS OF MOSES” so I won’t go into that in any detail here. However, I can note here that the cosmic threats were responded to by various peoples according to either their inherent natures or instructions given them by someone.

It was claimed that the Roman religious institutions were established by the legendary king Numa. Plutarch thought he detected a Laconian influence, attributing the connection to the Sabine culture of Numa, for "Numa was descended of the Sabines, who declare themselves to be a colony of the Lacedaemonians." Dionysius of Halicarnassus devotes a much longer space to Numa's religious reforms. In his account the institution of eight priesthoods is attributed to him: curiones, flamines, celeres, augurs, vestals, salii, fetials, pontiffs. Minute prescriptions about the ceremonies and sacrifices were certainly written down in order to perform them correctly and Plutarch records some of these. Plutarch, in like manner, tells of the early religion of the Romans, that it was imageless and spiritual. He says Numa "forbade the Romans to represent the deity in the form either of man or of beast. Nor was there among them formerly any image or statue of the Divine Being; during the first one hundred and seventy years they built temples, indeed, and other sacred domes, but placed in them no figure of any kind; persuaded that it is impious to represent things Divine by what is perishable, and that we can have no conception of God but by the understanding". This last bit seems rather Pythagorean, but the suggested link with the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) made me think of Traveling Salvation Shows.

If you think that itinerant revival preachers, tent evangelists, or faith-healing meetings are a Christian phenomenon, think again: such activities have their roots in the ancient Orientalizing influences on Greece. They were, it seems, a very special kind of traveling skilled artisans whose importance and influence suggests to us the seriousness of the environment in which such could develop and prosper. Seers and doctors were mentioned by Homer as “migrant craftsmen”, individuals which communities were anxious to attract and keep, as the two activities appear to have been closely connected. The fact that these individuals were seen as specialists of a particular craft – partly hereditary, partly acquired by learning and initiation, reveals the important place that religious therapies for individuals, groups, cities and nations held.

The Derveni papyrus, written in about 340 BC by the circle of philosophers that included the ill-fated Anaxagoras who we met in the previous volume, describes individuals who specialize in initiations as “He who make the sacred his craft”. Strabo, too, refers to the “Dionsiac and Orphic crafts”. Even Hippocrates, who was at pains to differentiate between medicine as a science, and psychological catharsis, admitted that migrant seers and healers presented themselves as bearers of special knowledge.

It seems that in those times, as today, charismatic technicians of other-worldly interactions could become widely sought-after personalities. In fact, it appears that they represented the intellectual elite of that time. We get a hint of this in the regard that even Heraclitus had for Pythagoras who was certainly just such a technician. Their special status gave them the ability to freely cross borders and thereby transfer cultural knowledge from one place to another. In the Amarna correspondence from the time of Akhenaten, the kings of Ugarit and Hatti request physicians and seers from the Egyptians. Obviously, they were not yet aware of the fact that Egypt, itself, was falling into dire straits and none of its psychic specialists seem to have been able to counter the deleterious effects of the regime of the last members of the 18th dynasty.

In 670 BC, it is said that Thaletas of Gortyn (Crete), a charismatic musician, delivered Sparta from a plague. Apparently, the presence of an epidemic (epidemia: temporary sojourn), could attract migrant seers as well as physicians. Before him, there was the legendary Karmanor, the priest who purified Apollo after the god had slain the Delphic dragon. Karmanor himself was later killed by Zeus with a thunderbolt. Walter Burkert notes that the name does not appear to be Greek.

I will be going into this in much more detail later, for now, suffice it to say, that it seems to me that there must have been one of these Traveling Salvation Shows at some point back in the mists of time, who gave the Romans their cultic solutions to environmental carnage. And whoever it was, I think we can safely say that we detect schizoidal psychopathy in the implied schizoidal declaration: “Human nature is so bad that order in human society can only be maintained by a strong power created by highly qualified individuals in the name of some higher idea.”

Obviously, the Greek influence can’t be the whole thing. Theodor Mommsen points out that Greece was permeated by cultural influences from the East while Etruria, Latium and Campania “faced West”. So, although the Greeks and the Romans may have had distant ancestors in common, their historical development was dependent on other factors once they had established themselves on the Greek and Italian peninsulas, respectively.

Now that we have a broad overview of the religious underpinnings of Roman society...
 

thorbiorn

The Living Force
FOTCM Member
In a scanned version on archive.org of a copy of The Ancient City from 1877 I found the rules for becoming a member of a family in ancient Rome: From page 51-52 in the chapter on The family.
The members of the ancient family were united by something more powerful than birth, affection, or physical strength; this was the religion of the sacred fire, and of dead ancestors. This caused the family to form a single body, both in this life and in the next. The ancient family was a religious rather than a natural association; and we shall see presently that the wife was counted in the family only after the sacred ceremony of marriage had initiated her into the worship that the son was no longer counted in it when he had renounced the worship, or had been emancipated; that, on the other hand, an adopted son was counted a real son, because, though he had not the ties of blood, he had something better—a community of worship; that the heir who refused to adopt the worship of this family had no right to the succession; and, finally, that relationship and the right of inheritance were governed not by birth, but by the rights of participation in the worship, such as religion had established them. Religion, it is true, did not create the family; but certainly it gave the family its rules; and hence it comes that the constitution of the ancient family was so different from what it would have been if it had owed its foundation to natural affection.
Considering the rules to be followed in our days, it one wishes to get residency or citizenship of another country, as is a common practice today, the ancient perspective is interesting. Today it is about either having enough money to invest or setting up a business or employing people, which is good enough for some countries, or being related by marriage or family and having stayed there long enough, being able to speak the language and follow the secular laws.
 
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