One of the IE cultures that the most change can be seen is that of the Romans. Much of the change occurred culturally and religiously as they went from mostly agrarian to a militarized nation that became bent on ‘world’ domination. As an agrarian culture many of the Roman deities centered on land and agricultural figures. This however changed as the nation encountered other IE and non-IE nations.
An example of this evolution given by Damen is that of Mars. Damen says “…who was originally associated with vegetation and could easily have passed into oblivion as well. Instead, however, when later Romans began to militarize, Mars managed somehow to shed his agrarian trappings, flee the silo and head out onto the battlefield, by morphing himself into a war-god…”
As the Romans encountered the Greeks, their gods became associated with those from the Hellenic religion. Much of this may have been due to the overwhelming popularity and wide spread literature of the time such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Homeric Hymns and the like. However according to Damen these changes were “…a change of name but not core values. Indeed, if any enduring "theology" guided early Rome, if there was an abiding moral principle that governed the burgeoning super-power, it was patriotism.”
Much of the Roman moral and religious belief was centered on self-sacrifice for
the betterment of the state over that of the individual. However even this
strong cohesion began to falter and devolved into civil war that tore the
nation into smaller “Romes” much like the city states in Greek. Damen goes on
to talk about how some of the early emperors tried to unify the fragmented
nation into a single system of religion and state in what we call today
It might be this very effort of unification that opened Rome to so many varying cults. Damen talks about three main cults that were major influences on Rome being the Cybele cults, the Isis cults and that of Mirthas.
The Cybele cults originated in Asia Minor and centered on the earth-mother Cybele. Cybele was attributed with protecting her followers in war. This aspect would have been very important to Rome at the time as they were engaged in the Punic Wars from 264 BCE to 146 BCE. The aspect of her as an earth-mother and fertility goddess would speak to their recent past as an agrarian culture. Cybele’s consort was a young male named Attis who died each year only to be reborn in the spring. This belief must have spoken of an eternal afterlife that would have soothed the trouble spirits of those fighting in wars. Strangely enough, this seems very similar to the ideology behind the Hellenic Eleusinian Mysteries. Over time, the Roman government decided to attempt outlawing the Cybele cults as they tended to be an affront to the very sensible nature of Rome with their ecstatic rituals and eunuch priests. But it is easy to see how this set the stage for a less dramatic faith to one day take hold.
The cult of Isis found its way into the Roman heart because as Damen puts it… “… one much less manic and more attractive to the prim-and-proper set…” Though Isis embodied the symbols of renewed life and fertility, much of her worship was wrapped up in Mysteries. One of the key sets of beliefs that may have won the Romans over could have been that Isis “…promised her worshipers immortality and personal communion with the goddess.” This is something that would have appealed to Romans who wanted to be the model of civilization but it would have also feed the growing independence and need for personal importance which Romans were beginning to express as their selflessness for the state grew.
The Cult of Mithras is perhaps the most wide spread and long lived within the Roman Empire. This might very well be due to the fact that it was mostly soldiers and working class men. What is known of the rites of Mithras, as it was a Mystery cult as well, is that there was a ritual feasting and a baptism of blood from a sacred bull. Though there are various time frames in which Mithras appears, it is in this “male” dominated cult that we have the most knowledge. It could be said that when the cult was imported from the Asia Minor regions that it gave soldiers and the working class man a place of standing and importance within a religious context. This would have satisfied the growing need for self-importance that seemed to be growing ever more important the Roman citizen.
It is not hard to see how Christianity was able to become the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. It satisfied the individual’s need to be important and commune with a deity on a personal level. It also promised immortality in an afterlife through its brand of Mysteries.
With the histories we have of Rome and its empire, we can see the influences of religious and cultural ‘invaders’ over time. We can see how this IE culture changed and evolved as the world around it changed. Perhaps it was the most malleable of the IE cultures since it seemed to shift and morph as its boarders grew to encompass
Damen, M. (2013). Section 12 - Roman Cults and Worship. Retrieved 7 1, 2014, from Utah State University: http://www.usu.edu/markdamen/1320hist&Civ/chapters/12CULTS.htm