Religious authority in a virtual republic
This turbulent week has been a period of growth for me. I continue to think about the nature of religion on the Internet, and I watch with interest a proposal in Nova Roma to require the election of Pontifices, as well as the indifference in New Roman Republic to Celetrus’ charge that the revival of the public rites in a virtual state is impious and illegitimate.
A closely related question is the constitutional basis for the power of the Pontifices to supervise the sacra publica.
What authority are we talking about when we discuss the Pontifices?
“The pontifices have authority over the most important matters in the Roman state. They serve as judges in all religious cases involving private citizens or magistrates or ministers of the gods. They make laws concerning religious rituals which have not been recorded or handed down by tradition, but which they judge as appropriate to receive the sanction of law and custom. They closely scrutinize all the magistracies which have duties involving any sacrifice or ministry of the gods. They also scrutinize all the priesthoods, and watch carefully their servants and ministers whom they employ in the rituals to make sure that they commit no error in regard to the sacred laws. For private citizens who are not knowledgeable about religious matters concerning the gods and divine spirits, the pontifices are explainers and interpreters. And should they learn that some people are not obeying their injunctions, they punish them, examining each of the charges. They themselves are not liable to any prosecution or punishment, nor are they accountable to the senate or people, at least concerning religious matters.” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2.73.1, 2)
From Marinus in Nova Roma, I find this interesting observation:
“In Roma Antiqua, the pontifices could make an argument of an ‘unbroken chain’ going back to the time of the Kings. This chain of co-optation could, arguably, support the notion that the pontifices of, say, 700 auc held their ius pontificum by membership in that unbroken chain going back to the kings. Even so the Romans of antiquity eventually concluded that it was better to elect their pontifices as proof-positive that the ius pontificum was being bestowed by the Quirites. But Nova Roma never had a king. We’ve had a Pontifex Maximus for six and a bit years, and he just arrogated the ius pontificum to himself. We can argue that the fact people have joined NR is proof of his tacit approval, but that’s really shakey. It gets even shakier when we consider that he’s been sharing out the ius pontificum with the rest of [the Collegium Pontificum], and that ius pontificum was never bestowed by anyone. Not a king, nor a comitia, placed the ius pontificum into the person of any of our pontifices. I’m not sure what that makes you guys before the Gods, but I have a hard time seeing how they’d be convinced you have the ius pontificum and the right to bind them into a pact with us.”
Marinus is highly regarded by my Materfamilias, and I count him an honest man even though the politics of Nova Roma frequently place us on opposite sides of any given issue. His point here was to advocate the election of Pontifices. Because the citizens of Nova Roma are largely non-practitioners, many of them hostile to the religio, I can’t agree that the citizens should elect Pontifices or that such an election would confer any particular legitimacy.
Marinus is arguing here that the ius pontificum derives from the Quirites, the people of Rome. Although the ultimate power in Rome following the Republican revolution was vested constitutionally in the comitia, I think this discussion has suffered from a blurring of constitutional and historical arguments. Historically, there is no doubt that the ius pontificum belonged originally to the kings and that it predated the comitia curiata. Scaurus argues that the Lex Domitia and the election of pontifices is “a late epiphenomenon of Republican factional politics.” Constitutionally, the Republican revolution shifted the theoretical basis of all power from the kings to the people (Livy, 1.59, 2.1). The revolution made the Pontifices ultimately answerable to the people as their delegates for the proper execution of the public rites and thus for maintaining Rome’s contract with the gods. Yet, I none of this interesting debate really answers the question of fundamental legitimacy before the gods themselves.
For the Romans, legitimacy was organic. In the quote from Marinus’ above, he notices the unbroken continuity that gave legitimacy to the ancient Collegium Pontificum, no matter how its theoretical basis might have shifted and despite varying practices over the centuries of its existence. What happens in a virtual republic is that one man, or small group of men, assume a mantle of authority and set up something akin to an apostolic succession with themselves as the font. (I see this pattern in other reconstructionist groups as well.)
To break out of this self-perpetuating illegitimacy, I think we need to follow the example set by the historic process rather than looking to re-create, full-blown, its result. Instead of establishing a Roman state, we should be gathering the “Roman people,” the practitioners. The religio evolved initially from the collective and private rites of the patres, those antique heads of Roman families who were the original members of the Comitia Curiata. From the collective practices of this curia patriae, with due attention to historical practice, it would be possible to re-create the foundation of a collective religio, which in time might (sure, it might) become the foundation for a new Roman state.
Where Nova Roma and New Roman Republic made their mistakes, the same mistake in each case, was in founding their republics by fiat. They should, instead, have assembled a group of practitioners, who as patres could have elected Pontifices to form a collegium presiding over the rites of a village, not of a full-blown state.
A few days ago I incautiously suggested to Celetrus that there might somehow be room in the world for more than one Rome. I had not then thought through the implications, I was merely rambling, and he has correctly heaped scorn on the very idea.
A moment’s reflection will show that no citizen of Roma Antiqua could have owed allegiance to two states, both claiming to hold the Pax Deorum. Competing factions, rebellious generals wanting to be Emperor, yes. Two states, no.
Celetrus offers an amusing scenario to illustrate the point:
“A sweaty, dusty messenger is ushered in to the Senate by burly lictors of very little brain. He reads from a scroll written by the commander of the ___ Legion. It tells of a State in the incertus that is building temples to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Juno and Minerva, indeed to all Dii Consentes, claiming that They have abandoned Rome and the Pax Deorum belongs to this them. What would happen? The might of Rome would swiftly fall on these people. Legions from the other side of the Empire would clamor to send detachments so that all could take part in the utter and complete destruction of this State. The destruction of Carthage would look like an urban renewal project in comparison.”
The legacy of Rome is an attractive prize, even so long after the Fall. After 410 CE, the government in the East claimed to be Rome’s heir, and Constantinople became Nova Roma, the New Rome. After Byzantium fell in 1453, the Grand Prince of Moscow claimed the title of Caesar (Czar) and asserted that Moscow was the Third Rome. In the west, the Pope crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as Emperor in 800, and his successors down to 1806 claimed the title “Holy Roman Emperor.” French Revolutionaries saw themselves as successors to Roman ideals, and Napoleon sought self-consciously to revive the Empire, even creating his infant son King of Rome. But these ersatz Romes, real enough states, might be heirs to empire but they are not heirs to Rome itself. Rome-on-the-Tiber went its own way, and still continues, while others argue for the right to call themselves the heirs of its former glory.
Now, we find Rome-on-the-Internet. And, not just one Rome, but several. Can one belong to all of them? I rashly suggested that maybe someone could. It would be nice, I thought, if the Ambrosii could exist as a single gens across the different groups, showing by example that we can be amicable folk even while disagreeing on some fundamental issues. What I did not think through properly is that, while a single gens could perhaps exist across different republics, a single individual cannot.
If Rome can exist in a virtual state at all, it remains a fact that only one of them can be Rome. There might be honest disagreement about the legitimacy of this Rome or that one, but a private citizen must choose one of them. Hedging bets might be a human failing, but it should not be standard practice for someone who wants to re-establish the Pax Deorum. (I don’t apply this line of reasoning to SVR, which does not take the form of a Roman state.)
I am going through a period of examining the philosophical foundations of Roman reconstruction, and I am doing so as a citizen of Nova Roma. I thought there might be good arguments for also becoming a citizen of other virtual states, but as soon as I look at that proposition, I see it as folly. Others might choose other states, but I have already chosen Nova Roma, and there I intend to stay until I am either fully persuaded that the micronational model is illegitimate, or until I leave as part of an emigration en masse by the faction to which I belong. I will be resigning my citizenship in New Roman Republic.
Restoring the religio
In 394 CE the Emperor Flavius Theodosius intimidated the Roman Senate into removing the altar of Victory, thereby ending the Pax Deorum and sealing a new covenant with the Christian god. A few months later the gods ended the Emperor’s life, and in 410 CE the western Empire came to an end. Other cities claimed Rome’s glory, and now they too are gone.
Rome, as a city, continued to exist, but the city and people of Rome have moved on. They are Christians now and the Pontifex Maximus is the head of the Roman Catholic church. Actually, the Romans have done pretty well for themselves, considering that they abandoned their ancient contract with the gods. I don’t buy the argument that Byzantium or Moscow is the successor to Rome, any more than I buy Charlemagne, the Habsburgs or Napoleon. Heirs to the Imperial dream, sure. Heirs to Rome, no.
But, Rome-on-the-Tiber has breached its contract with the gods. Where does that leave its citizens? Where does that leave the gods? Certainly, the gods are still with us. As Celetrus says, “they didn’t go into hibernation back in 375, waiting to be awakened when the old ways were restored.” We know next to nothing about late survivals of the religio in Christian times. Some of the old gods entered the Christian pantheon as saints, and there are hints here and there of what might have been a religious survival in a nominally Christian culture. In fact, I would be very surprised if there have not always been a few scattered folk who paid honor to the gods. (I include in this number the more enthusiastic of the amateur scholars of the Renaissance and the 18th century.)
With Caracalla’s grant of citizenship to just about everyone in the Empire in 212 CE, a good number of Europeans must still be citizens of the old Empire, although none of them can prove it. Any number of them could reconstitute the religio in the modern era just as their ancestors constituted it in the beginning.
The religio grew out of the private and community rites of the patrician gentes, and this is the path to revival: re-form the gentes with a view to organizing a patrician curia. Delegate supervision of the community rites and instruction in the private rites to the curia. Work on building a community. When the community is large enough, a comitia curia will become necessary. Only then will we will be at a point to consider consuls and the other trappings of a non-religious government.
The patrician curia would, of course, work with an eye to historic practice. They would order the religious life of the community. Confirm sacerdotes and, if necessary, elect a pontifex. Deal with the divisive issues that confront modern practitioners: Can a woman be a pontifex? Are animal sacrifices necessary or even allowable? And, coming right down to basics — Is the tria nomina really a necessary element of the religio? What about wearing togas? The curia’s legitimacy in the eyes of other practitioners would be largely defined by its answers to such questions.
What I like about this scenario is that it would rebuild the religio from the ground up rather than the top down. It is consistent with the Republican view that constitutional authority rests with the comitia curiata, by placing religious authority in the hands of the only type of curia that can claim any legitimacy. This is far preferable, in my opinion, to creating historic priesthoods and then looking for people to fill them; a practice that makes the religio little more than an RPG.
Further, it would place the religio in the hands of people who do not pretend to govern Rome; instead, they would credibly govern the religio. It would be the “religio in exile” rather than the “government in exile.” Of course, it is always open to anyone to argue that when Rome violated the Pax Deorum, its government lost legitimacy, therefore any group of Romans can now seize power to re-constitute Rome and the religio some other way. But, when I read about any person or group claiming to embody the new Roman state, I am reminded of the many foreigners who have also claimed to be the heirs of Rome.
What is problematic about this approach is that it leaves Rome as the center of the religio, but not a fully restored religio. There is a parallel for this in Judaism. For some 1900 years, Jerusalem was the center of Jewish religion even though there was no Jewish state and the Jews themselves were in exile. Similarly, practitioners hold the real Rome in their heart as the center of the religio even though the city is not governed by practitioners.
Moreover, there are certain rites of the religio that should be performed on behalf of the state but there is no state on whose behalf to perform them. Other rites, such as those of the flamines, should properly only be performed in Rome. So, this approach would leave part of the religio un-restored until such time, with the favor of the gods, Rome itself restores the religio. A loss, to be sure, but again there is a parallel in Judaism. The temple cannot be rebuilt and the ancient sacrifices of Judaism cannot be resumed because one of the holiest Muslim shrines stands on the site. I am confident that the Jewish god understands why the sacrifices have not resumed, just as the Roman gods understand why certain rites are presently not impossible.
Despite these problems, the essence of the religio is the worship of the Roman gods, not the connection to a Roman state. At least this is my opinion. The gods did not cease to exist when Rome broke its covenant with them in 394 or after they punished the city in 410. The gods have demonstrated that they do not need Rome, or perhaps that they are punishing it still. In either event, our task must be to restore their worship as we are able without a Roman state, and if that effort pleases them, perhaps they will then restore the state.
In summary, the civil authority of the Roman government cannot be arrogated by a virtual entity, even if the object is to please the gods. I have sketched, briefly, an alternative for restoring the religio by using a process with its roots in Roma Antiqua. (An alternative that owes as much to Celetrus’ vision as to mine.) For now, the gods know, as we do, that we are not the government of Rome. Both sides must be content with the religio itself. And, I fancy that if this religio in exile proves worthy, it will be favored by the gods, who just might give it greater prominence in the future.