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Roman Mythology

The Emperor-God and Foreign Borrowings

How did the Christian narrative and tradition fit into and come to dominate the Roman mythological tradition?

In the New Testament Book of Acts (14:11–13), we are told that when Saint Paul and his companion Barnabas were traveling as Christian missionaries performing curings in what was then the Roman province of Laconia in southern Greece, the people said, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.” They called Barnabas Jupiter, and the primary speaker, Paul, they saw as Jupiter’s messenger and called him Mercury. The local priest of Jupiter even appeared with the intention of making sacrifices in honor of the two “gods.”

As we have seen, myths and rituals of death and resurrection were well known in Rome before the advent of Christianity there, so although early Roman converts to Christianity were persecuted for not accepting Roman religion as a whole, Christianity, with its central emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus, believed by Christians to be both human and divine, would not have been a jarring prospect for the Roman mythological mind. In the end, Christianity became more appealing than the myths of other sacrificed man-gods such as Attis and Osiris and Mithras. Perhaps the significant moment leading to the eventual hegemony of the Christian stories and rituals in Rome came in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October of 312 C.E., when the emperor Constantine attributed his victory not to Hercules or Mars or Mithras, but to the god of the Christians. By 341, “pagan” sacrifices were prohibited and soon after the temples of the old gods were closed, having been replaced by the churches of the new one.



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