Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 44 (1913) pp. xxxv-xxxvii  (NB: NOT 35-37)


10. Tertullian and the Pagan Cults, by Professor Gordon J. Laing, of the University of Chicago.

This study is based upon a collection of all the references to pagan cults in Tertullian's writings. Its aim is to show what pagan divinities or rites are singled out by him for attack, and to what extent his representation of Roman gods agrees with the facts.

He pays especial attention to the Sondergötter, ridiculing their ubiquity and the highly elaborate system of division of labor under which they operated. His longest description of them is found in ad Nationes, II, 11 : dividentes omnem statum hominis singulis potestatibus ab ipso quidem uteri conceptu, etc.; but there are references also in other parts of his works. The idea that every stage in a child's growth or a man's life and every step in every process should be under the special protection of some deity seems to him too absurd to be considered seriously. But did these Sondergötter play the part in the religion of the people which Tertullian assigns to them? Examination proves that our chief sources of information in regard to them are Tertullian himself and St. Augustine, who in turn seem to have drawn most of their information from Varro's Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum. Some of Varro's material doubtless goes back |xxxvi to priestly records, but many details of explanation and classification have been added by himself. In a word, although there is, in certain fields, evidence of a tendency among the Romans to postulate divine supervision for even the minutiae of some actions and processes (cf. the genuine Sondergötter given by Fabius Pictor and the Arval Inscriptions), Tertullian's account of this characteristic of Roman religion is based not on his own observation of the religious practices of his time, but on the book theology of Varro, or at best of the pontiffs. And the unfairness of his attack consists in attributing to the belief a prominence it never had.

The Jupiter of Tertullian's writings is not the Jupiter of the old Roman religion; he is not even a hellenized Jupiter. Nor is he the Zeus of Greek religion. He is the Zeus of mythology, of folk-lore, and of the lighter forms of literature. For, when Jupiter was identified with Zeus, the vast mass of legend connected with the latter was transferred to the former. The transfer did not affect the ritual of Jupiter to any great extent, but it resulted in large accretions to the mythology which was attached to his name and which became one of the staples of Roman literature. The cult of Jupiter contained many fine religious conceptions, but in current mythology he was credited with qualities and escapades anything but divine. Tertullian is concerned chiefly with the latter aspect of the god. To the nobler side of the cult he does not refer. For the most part he depicts only the Jupiter of Greco-Roman mythology. His references to ceremonies or ritual are rare, and in the most important of these, namely the reference to the alleged human sacrifice to Jupiter Latiaris (Apolog. 9), he is in error.

The treatment of Hercules is another clear-cut example of Tertullian's method. With the exception of two contemptuous references to the tithes of the Ara Maxima (Apolog. 14 and 30), he passes over the significant and important features of the cult of the demigod, and fastens on the culpable and immoral elements of the legends of his labors and wanderings. Yet both in Greece and Rome the story of Hercules had its moral significance. The hero persistently appears on the right side of things. This is seen not only in the story of his choice, but in the main drift of the other legends. When his cult was introduced into Rome, the two most salient characteristics of the worship were (1) the offering to him of tithes of booty procured in war or of profit gained in trade and (2) the use of the altar in the taking of oaths and the making of contracts. These were the aspects |xxxvii of the cult best known to the Roman masses, and it was with fair-dealing in business agreements that Hercules of the Ara Maxima was most closely associated. But to these characteristics of the Hercules cult Tertullian pays no attention. His comment on the decima in Apolog. 14 is that the god was probably cheated. For the rest, he details episodes of immorality or stupidity that appear in the mythology of Hercules.

In Tertullian's references to the cult of Aesculapius also we fail to find any appreciation of the good which was in it. He mentions it in ad Nationes, n, 14, where he recounts with noticeable zest Pindar's statement in the third Pythian that Aesculapius' death by lightning was merited, insomuch as he had, from motives of cupidity and avarice, carried on an extremely doubtful kind of medical practice. Cf. also Apolog. 23. Only in one passage does he treat the cult with any degree of respect, namely in de Corona, 8, where he attributes the belief that Aesculapius discovered medicine to the idea that men had that anything of great value must be derived from some god.

Tertullian's criticism of the cults mentioned is typical of the method which he follows throughout his polemics. The details of his attacks upon other di indigetes and di novensides need not be given here. Of the sacra peregrina he assails especially the cults of Cybele and Attis, Isis, and Mithra.


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