Arnobius, Against the Pagans V.24

The role of religious rites in Roman self-definition
Name of the author: 
Arnobius of Sicca
297 CE to 310 CE
Sicca Veneria (near Carthage, North Africa)
Literary genre: 
Apologetic and Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
Against the Pagans

For a general introduction to Arnobius and Against the Pagans, please see the commentary on I.5.

In this very brief extract from chapter 24 of book V, Arnobius relates what is likely an imaginary conversation invented for rhetorical purposes, with a certain individual who responds to his criticisms of certain religious rites. Immediately prior in chapters 22 and 23, Arnobius has mocked the inconsistency of some of the stories about Jupiter with the fact that he is believed by the Romans to be the father of the Gods, and the all-powerful ruler of the universe. For Arnobius, it is surely hugely sacrilegious that Jupiter is said, for example, to have been a slave to his base passions for various females, such as Ceres, Danae, and Europa, and that he is understood as essentially a lustful, brutal criminal. In the present passage, however, Arnobius claims that his Roman opponent wishes to distance himself from some of his criticisms by claiming that “these are not the rites (sacra) of our state (res publica).” Arnobius then proceeds to make the point that it does not matter whether such stories are repeated by a Roman or a representative of somewhere further afield; the distinction seems to be made here between “Roman” in the sense of someone who is native to Italy, and someone from another part of the empire, who of course could also potentially identify as a Roman citizen. The fact that certain myths or religious rites might originate from outside Rome/Italy really makes no difference because the peoples responsible for their creation are “on [Rome’s] side,” and moreover, the Romans themselves have invented traditions which are arguably equally as contemptable. The argument of Arnobius’s imagined pagan interlocutor, i.e. that certain Roman rites are strange due to them having a foreign origin, is not the only defensive argument made. Elsewhere, it is claimed that the outlandish adventures of the gods, which Arnobius criticises, have been exaggerated by the poets who record them (see Henri Le Bonniec, “Arnobe témoin et juge des cultes païens,” p. 210-211. Le Bonniec also considers the fact that Arnobius’s focus is mostly Graeco-Roman deities, even though he lived within an African locale, p. 205, and criticises particularly the anthropomorphism of the gods, such as Jupiter’s various indiscretions, p. 207-208).

Arnobius’s criticism of his Roman opponent here draws on the fact that one element which characterised the Roman empire was its acceptance of and openness to the religious beliefs of the places that it conquered, which often became intermingled with and evolved within Roman religion. Essentially, as far as Arnobius is concerned, the Romans have largely given up any right to claim that their own state and their identity as a people is bound up with specific religious rites (which in any case are “foul” and “base”). They have not thus far clearly separated their own traditions from those inherited from the nations which have been incorporated into the empire, and so cannot now credibly defend themselves from Arnobius’s criticisms of pagan religion by suggesting that certain beliefs are non-Roman in origin. Although brief, then, in this extract our ex-pagan author makes a strong point about the role of religion in for the self-definition of the Romans, and implies that Rome’s attitudes have actually weakened, rather than strengthened its social and political cohesion. In a way, Arnobius critiques the absence of any sort of official “dogma” in Roman religion. Moreover, we can understand this passage in light of Caracalla’s granting of Roman citizenship to most free members of the empire almost a century earlier (212 CE), as well as Decius’s persecution slightly later, which arguably centred largely around the issue of whether the Roman gods were still on Rome’s side (for a discussion of this, see the commentary on Papyrus Rylands 12 and 112a). In both cases, we see an attempt to define the Roman people, and in the case of the latter, this is specifically in religious terms, around certain cults and deities. Arnobius’s implication is that this attempt has failed.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Arnobius and Lactantius”

Nicholson, Oliverarticle-in-a-bookCambridge History of Early Christian Literature Lewis Ayres, Frances Young, Andrew Louth259-265“Arnobius and Lactantius”CambridgeCambridge University Press2004
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