Introduction to the Afterlife
A Brief History of Greco-Roman Religion

Historical Outline:

GREEK                                                     ROMAN

Mycenaean Age  c. 1400-1100 B.C.         Founding of Rome 753 B.C.

"Dark ages" c. 1100-800 B.C.                 Monarchy 753-509 B.C.

Age of Hellenism c. 800-323 B.C.             Republic 509-31 B.C.

Hellenistic Age 323-31 B.C.                     Empire 31 B.C.-A.D. 476


Late Greek becoming Late Roman A.D. 235-476

Byzantine A.D. 235-1453 becoming Medieval

I. Beginnings of religion

(NOTE: Most of the evidence in part I comes from Italy, but it is probable that the same ideas occur in Crete and Greece long before the Mycenaean age.)

A. Awareness of outside powers

Humans living an agricultural life in small villages are aware of external and internal forces they cannot control, though they attempt to do so through

1) magic (the power must obey if the ritual is followed correctly)

2) prayer (persuasion) and ritual

Continuity of the group depends on fertility - of the crops for the food supply and of mankind for reproduction. Thus most religions of the Mediterranean and elsewhere have a strong agricultural basis and symbolism.

B. Development of these powers

To the ancients the divine was everywhere - in every spring, tree and river as well as in the dramatic phenomena of nature like lightning and storms. (This is sometimes called ANIMISM..)

A vague divinity with power to help or harm (but with no distinct personality is called a "NUMEN (pl. NUMINA). Because both Greek and Latin are languages with gender (masculine, feminine and neuter), the name of a numen indicates whether the power is a god or a goddess.

Each person had an in-dwelling spirit (or soul) which in a man was called a *GENIUS and in a woman a *JUNO. The collective spirits of the ancestors were worshiped in the household cult and protected the family. Originally (at least in Italy) survival after death was collective, as part of the group, and not individual.

II. Anthropomorphic religion

A. Development

Numina develop feeling, will, and purpose, becoming quasi-human spirits (DAIMONES). These spirits may or may not be portrayed in human form.

(There is a continuing argument over whether or not the Greek gods appeared in animal or other non-human forms as a consistent practice before they were humanized.)

As the powers become more human in their reactions, they are thought of as dwelling in a community of gods just as humans live in a community on earth.

B. The gods

1. Local deities are bound to a particular place or tribe. Certain gods become more important - are universalized - and others become subordinate to more powerful divinities (as the sea-nymphs to Poseidon). Some become "heroized" and appear as humans (e.g. Hyacinthus, Ariadne).

2. Universal deities tend to be gods of important functions like fertility or weather. (Zeus is the same god even though he is worshiped under different names and with different rites in various places.)

C. Life on Olympus

As the poems of Hesiod and Homer and many of the myths show, the gods behave just like people - but they are more powerful, more beautiful and IMMORTAL. At first there is no criticism of the gods - they are so far above MORTALS that they cannot be judged. Neither Greek nor roman religion comes with ethics - a code of behavior or a system of conduct. The gods demand worship and sacrifices; they care only about ritual purity.

III. Speculation, philosophy, and mystery religions

A. The first questioning

By the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. many thinkers were saying that the gods could not be truly divine if they really behaved as Homer said they did. Many of the myths had lost their original religious significance and were just stories. (This questioning attitude affected the Romans about two centuries later; there is a distinct "cultural lag" before the time of the Empire.)

A few of the reactions were:

1) development of ethical and religious thought about the anthropomorphic gods, especially Zeus, Apollo and Athena (the road taken by Aeschylus & Sophocles.

2) scepticism about the deeds and characteristics of the gods (the way of Euripides and some of the philosophers)

3) philosophical speculation - part science, part ethics and religion (This trend reached its climax in Socrates, Plato, & Aristotle in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.)

4) *MYSTERY religions - unlike the traditional Olympian religion, the mysteries offered a sense of community in this life and a "special deal" in the afterlife.

B. Politics and religion

The career of Alexander the Great of Macedonia (died 323 B.C.) Changed the Greek world forever. With the collapse of the political power of the city-state went a great deal of the prestige of the gods. (Athena was so identified with Athens that when it lost, she lost too.)

The trend to large empires began with Alexander and ended with Rome (where the collapse of the traditional religion came later). The citizens of no longer independent cities in large empires began searching for answer to questions about life and death.

C. Varieties of religious experience

1) *DETERMINISM (or fatalism) -

The individual is of no importance really, just a speck of dust, unable to escape from fate so he might as well accept it.


The study of the stars offers explanations of why things happen but is also fatalistic.

3) Cult of Luck (Fortuna in Latin, Tyche in Greek) -

Life is a gambling game; one chance is as good as another.

4) Philosophy -

A way of life and a consolation to many, philosophy tends to be the answer of the educated upper classes.


By taking part in prescribed rites, the worshiper unites himself with the god or goddess, becomes part of a community, and receives the reward of a special kind of immortality.

The central myth of a mystery religion concerns the life of a savior-god or human hero whose experiences enable him or her to offer followers the knowledge and reward of salvation. Part of the ritual usually consists of the acting out of the myth, which is often connected with the agricultural cycle of the year, the basis of fertility and renewal of life.

An important point to remember is that with the exception of Judaism (and later Christianity) ancient religions were not exclusive. People continued to pay homage to the gods of the state in which they were born. Any mystery cult an individual joined was in addition to his native religion.

* terms found in the list of definitions

This material has been published on the web by Prof. Tom Sienkewicz for his students at Monmouth College. If you have any questions, you can contact him at

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