Ten Things the Romans Thought about God

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we study Pliny’s Natural History. In this course, we study the Roman philosopher’s classic work on nature, but in chapter 5 of the second book, he speaks of God, giving us a window into the religious ideas of wise men as the Church was beginning to preach the Gospel through the Roman empire. Let’s consider ten things that Romans of the first cenrtury thought about God.

1. God, in his essence, is not knowable.

“I consider it, therefore, an indication of human weakness to inquire into the figure and form of God.”

2. Polytheism is the result of human weakness.

“To believe that there are a number of gods…indicates still greater folly. Human nature, weak and frail as it is, mindful of its own infirmity, has made these divisions, so that every one might have recourse to that which he supposed himself to stand more particularly in need of.”

3. The way to immortality is by living virtuously.

“To assist man is to he a God; this is the path to eternal glory.”

4. God is not concerned with human affairs.

“It is ridiculous to suppose, that the great head of all things, whatever it be, pays any regard to human affairs.”

6. While atheism is evil, superstition is also to be avoided.

“We observe some who have no respect for the Gods, and others who carry it to a scandalous excess…[who] torment themselves with their superstitions to no purpose.”

7. Fortune is the only god worshipped by all men.

“All over the world, in all places, and at all times, Fortune is the only god whom every one invokes; she alone is spoken of, she alone is accused and is supposed to be guilty; she alone is in our thoughts, is praised and blamed, and is loaded with reproaches.”

8. Man’s condition is wretched, and death is his chief good.

“This alone is certain, that there is nothing certain, and that there is nothing more proud or more wretched than man. So numerous are the evils of life, death has been granted to man as our chief good.”

9. God has no solution for man’s mortality.

“The Deity cannot do everything. He cannot procure death for himself. Nor can he make mortals immortal, or recall to life those who are dead.”

10. God and the power of Nature are one.

“The power of Nature is shown to be what we call God.”

The religious beliefs seen in Pliny’s Natural History reveal a 1st century mind prepered for the Gospel. The vanity of human superstition and inability for man to know God reveal man’s need for divine revelation. This divine revelation was soon to come in ancient Rome, and these “Christians” were arriving in Pliny’s territory, and the Romans knew that there was something different about them. Even when threatened with execution, Pliny wrote that it was known that:

“None of those who are really Christians can be forced to worship the image of the emperor or the statues of the gods, or to curse Christ.”

Find this study interesting? Join us in studying Pliny’s Natural History and many more ancient works in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.

God bless,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

2 thoughts on “Ten Things the Romans Thought about God”

  1. I read “Consequences of Secular Occupations”, and have some more fabulous questions/comments for you:

    1. Over the years, I’ve had a weak, but persistent on-again-off-again interest in religious life … I once asked a priest about the idea, and he said a lot of things that I found quite discouraging. I wonder how many other *priests* ACTIVELY DISCOURAGE possible religious vocations. Granted, I was a newly-minted convert, when I talked to him, and my interest in religious life was partially piqued by fear and depression, but still ….

    2. I think another HUGE obstacle to modern religious vocations is PERVASIVE IGNORANCE about what religious life is like, *in the 21st century!* When I think of religious, I think of men and women in habits, saying a lot of prayers, and hand-copying important books, c. 400-1300 AD! What do men and women religious do NOWADAYS??? I know why the world needs healthy Catholic marriages. I know why the world needs the Catholic priesthood. But WHY EXACTLY does the modern world need men and women religious?

    3a. Let’s say that a 16-25-year old man or woman believes that God is calling him or her to the religious life. Another important question I have is, “HOW does a young man or woman ACTUALLY JOIN a religious order???”

    3b. But wait! HOW does a young man or woman interested in religious life FIGURE OUT *WHICH* religious order to join???

    4. Bonus round: I know that some special men are called to BOTH the priesthood AND the religious life! Should such a man become a priest first, or should he become a religious first?

    5. An idea for “how to solve overpopulation”, without resorting to immoral birth control or abortion: God calling a gazillion people to celibate vocations, but willing that the remaining people marry and have large families, to keep the human race from going extinct. Could this be the godly answer?

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