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A (pedantic?) little note on a word used in A History of Medieval Europe

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    A (pedantic?) little note on a word used in A History of Medieval Europe

    We started Davis's Medieval Europe today, and read the Introduction. In it Davis states that the Romans believed their gods and and the gods of the people they conquered were the same deities, only called by different names, a belief that fostered a uniformity of religious belief that was beneficial to the peaceful functioning of society in the ever-expanding empire. But in the 5th line of the last page (p.9 in the 3rd edition), Davis states, "But this belief depended on pantheism."

    I rather think the word Davis had in mind is actually polytheism, so much so that he goes on to remark on the number of gods and goddesses of the Roman religious landscape and to observe how the disruption brought by Christianity lay in its uncompromising claim of a single, true God.

    That's all!
    DS (14)
    DD (13)
    DS (6)

    #2
    Hello.

    I surveyed a couple of our people, and I thought you might be interested in their answers to this question:

    1) Dustin Warren (who wrote our Medieval History and Modern Europe study guides and teaches at HLS:
    Pantheism's typical definition is a belief in a God that is everything, but it can also refer (though a lesser-known definition to be true) to toleration of other gods or all gods, hence Davis's comments afterward. To be fair, that lesser definition has been forgotten. Though it could be wrongly used there, I'm assuming Davis meant the now more rare definition out of charity and trust. (Considering his academic credentials, along with his British context of teaching at Oxford in the mid-1900s, it wouldn't surprise me he would use that lesser-known definition)

    That's my two cents, though Jon might have a better/alternate view.

    2) Jon Christianson (our Latin Director and also a teacher of Latin and classical studies):
    Yes, pantheism and polytheism are different both in definition and in conventional use. Using pantheism here is misleading in relation to how the term is most typically used.

    Polytheism is a much broader term encompassing any belief system with multiple distinct divinities. Pantheism, both as a belief in all things being God and as a toleration of all gods, exists first and foremost in reference to a number of post-classical syncretic religious movements, largely in the East. Describing the Roman's Interpretatio Romana (the conflation of conquered peoples' gods with their own) as pantheism, even if similar by comparison, would be a misapplication of the term. You wouldn't call Pythagoras a hippie, even though there are plenty of comparisons that can be made there. Just so, pantheism is too encumbered with its association with other distinct religious movements.

    To be as precise as possible, the Romans did not believe that every people they encountered had equally real gods as theirs; they believed that many/most of the gods they encountered in other faiths were local cults to a limited set of gods with which they were already familiar. "Hey, Egyptians, that Ammon of yours? We're pretty sure he's just Jupiter." "You Celts, stop calling her Sulis, that's actually Minerva! Okay, fine, we'll call her Sulis, too." That's a far cry from, "You have Ammon? We have Jupiter! Let's worship both."

    I hope you enjoy!

    Tanya

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      #3
      Interesting, thank you, Tanya et al.!
      It may be quite likely that the book is old enough that the choice of pantheism over polytheism would have sounded less perplexing at the time it was written (1956 for the first edition).
      I understood Davis as implying that the Romans recognized that other peoples' deities often represented the same, or very similar, concepts/realities - there always seems to be a head of the divine universe, a divinity for the earth, time, love, etc. - and concluded that toleration of local religious customs brought them benefits with few social costs. The Jews were the first different kind of people they met, I guess, and they were quite a thorn on the Romans' side, but then Christianity takes things to a whole new level.
      But now how do I get out of my head the image of Pythagoras as a hippie...
      Last edited by Mrs Bee; 01-12-2021, 06:41 PM.
      DS (14)
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      DS (6)

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        #4
        Originally posted by Mrs Bee View Post
        It may be quite likely that the book is old enough that the choice of pantheism over polytheism would have sounded less perplexing at the time it was written (1956 for the first edition).
        I understood Davis as implying that the Romans recognized that other peoples' deities often represented the same, or very similar, concepts/realities - there always seems to be a head of the divine universe, a divinity for the earth, time, love, etc. - and concluded that toleration of local religious customs brought them benefits with few social costs. The Jews were the first different kind of people they met, I guess, and they were quite a thorn on the Romans' side, but then Christianity takes things to a whole new level.
        Social-political utility as the basis of of religious toleration for local epithetical cults is a reasonable inference, especially in late Republican and Imperial Rome, as observance of the Roman religion was so tied up in civic decorum that the zealous pagan and the compliant citizen are difficult to differentiate. However, since this association of like god with like god began long before Rome took the spotlight in the Mediterranean, a largely utile basis for epithetical association of this kind is unlikely in the early ages. Greeks and Romans were still filling in the edges of the map, both geographically and cosmologically, and every new people they encountered who also had a sun-god or a war-god was more likely to be treated as a religious discovery than a political opportunity.

        Moreover, recent study of the shared linguistic and ritual roots of different ancient religious traditions increasingly suggest that, oftentimes, gods like Astarte and Aphrodite actually WERE the same gods - or rather, that long before the Greeks and the Mesopotamians were distinct peoples, their religious traditions came from the same place but diverged as language and geography intervened. Thus, the Romans' conflation of one god with another might not just be a discovery, but a REdiscovery - not of religious revelation but of shared anthropological origins.

        The Jews were indeed a unique puzzle to Roman aspirations at a unified religiosity in the Empire - not because there were no other monotheistic faiths in the world, but because the God of Abraham defied an easy alignment with their own existing deck of cards. The most popular candidate for a Roman identity of God was Dionysus/Bacchus, a comparison that strains comprehension. This difficulty of association, plus the Judeans' famous intransigence in the face of Roman authority, did indeed make them (and their faith) a nuisance to the emperors. While secular historians downplay the significance of Judea in Roman history, recall that there were several substantial Jewish-Roman wars in which the emperors were personally involved. The siege of Jerusalem and the plunder of the Temple by Titus was a celebrated campaign, not an afterthought.

        Originally posted by Mrs Bee View Post
        But now how do I get out of my head the image of Pythagoras as a hippie...
        You don't!

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          #5
          This is fascinating, Jon Christianson, thank you. The taking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple were huge events for all involved - an Arch was built in Rome to immortalize the victory, and for the Jews, the apocalyptic words chosen by Jesus for His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem give us an idea of the catastrophe it was for them.
          DS (14)
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