In ancient Hellenic religion, it was understood that the Gods reside in an eternal state of happiness. This eternal bliss is one of the many unique features distinguishing the Gods from mortal-kind. Thus, happiness should be seen as an integral part of humanity’s service to the divine as the most appropriate attitude one should have when providing the Gods with worship. In this essay, I will argue that, similar to Judaism, happiness is key to receiving the presence of divinity in Hellenic religion, being a vital component of Roman concept of the Pax Deorum. Not only is a happy state of mind seen as something mortals need to maintain a healthy relationship with the Gods, but in line with the reciprocal nature of Hellenic religion often denoted as do ut des, it is something, in turn, gifted to humanity by the divine. I will argue this by addressing two primary points: first, the nature of divine happiness in ancient Graeco-Roman religion. Second, the consequences of how divine happiness influenced spectacle in the Roman world. I will conclude by discussing its implications for contemporary Hellenic religion, and how happiness is an essential value in how we approach the divine in worship.
The conception of divine happiness
We first need to look into conceptions of happiness that were present in the Graeco-Roman world and how this affected Rome’s religious atmosphere, especially when it came to civic religious duties. The topic of divine happiness in Hellenic religion is frequent in Graeco-Roman literature. The Gods were frequently understood as being in an eternal state of blessedness, a feature of divinity which distinguished the Gods from mortal-kind. It was discussed by Graeco-Roman authors such as Aristotle and called makariotes (Latin: beatitudo), or blessedness (Bodeus 2000, 117). The idea of the Gods’ eternal happiness played an essential role in Epicureanism regarding the nature of the Gods, with happiness being intimately connected to virtue, reason, the human form, and ultimately the form the Gods hold. Gaius Velleius tells us of some of this Epicurean doctrine in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, relating to us that “the gods are supremely happy, and no one can be happy without virtue, and virtue cannot exist without reason, and reason is only found in the human shape, it follows that the gods possess the form of man” (Cic. Nat. Deor. 1.48). In the same text, though Velleius’ opponent, the Academic Skeptic Cotta, protests against his assertion that the Gods hold human form, Cotta likewise concedes that happiness is a fundamental nature of the Gods: “You assumed that the gods are happy: we grant it. But no one, you said, can be happy without virtue. This also we give you, and willingly” (Cic. Nat. Deor. 1.89). Likewise, Graeco-Roman cults put an emphasis on people approaching the divine in happiness. In Titus Maccius Plautus’ play Poenulus the character Hanno presents the Gods with a prayer of thanksgiving: “all you gods and goddesses, I deservedly give great thanks to you, since you have blessed me with this very great happiness and these joys, that my daughters return to me and into my possession” (Rüpke 2007, 242; Pl. Poen. 5.4). Rupke describes this prayer as “not a mercenary or legalistic act of exchange, but rather a heartfelt act of happiness and joy” (Rüpke 2007, 243). A devoted worshiper of the Magna Mater declared that he performed the taurobolium “for happiness’ sake” (Rüpke 2007, 283). Graeco-Roman polytheistic conceptions of divine happiness are even recorded outside of Graeco-Roman polytheistic sources, as it came to be commented on by Christians hostile to paganism such as Augustine of Hippo. In his The City of God, a Christian polemical piece of anti-pagan propaganda aimed at trying to discredit the religious traditions indigenous to Rome, Augustine tells us that Roman Gods are worshiped through “all . . . things which are associated with joyfulness” (August. De civitate Dei, VIII.13).
This allows us to infer that divine happiness was very important in the ancient Hellenic religion. What may have inspired such a religious atmosphere were efforts to avoid words and actions of ill omen (Gell. Noctes Atticae, 1.6.4). In Rome, the avoidance of ill-omen can be seen with the Roman calendar, which had “black days” called religiosi that were declared when some calamity occurred, whether it be a natural disaster, a major defeat, or the unfortunate passing of an individual (Beard, North, and Price 1998, 156). Here, a day of public mourning would be declared, and the event’s annual anniversary would also be considered a day of bad luck (Beard, North, and Price 1998, 156). Nothing new was supposed to be started on these days (Forsythe 2014, 30). The Roman people were not supposed to perform sacrifices or open the temples’ doors, nor go on adventures or get married, among other things (Forsythe 2014, 30). In short, omens of ill fortune were drowned out as much as possible in Roman society, and it is possible that the emphasis on happiness in Graeco-Roman religious life was at least in part aimed towards helping with this effort.
Roman concept of divinely-granted happiness could often be found in various Goddesses that embodied certain virtues related to good fortune. One of these is Felicitas, or “blessedness,” a Goddess often conflated with Tykhe (Latin: Fortuna) (Prusac 2011, 75). The function of Felicitas reflected eudaimonia, yet while eudaimonia typically denoted a more personal form of divinely granted happiness, Felicitas denoted more of “a kind of civic happiness . . . connected to the welfare, prosperity and fertility” (Prusac 2011, 75). This civic function often saw Felicitas featured on forms of Roman propaganda from the Late Republican to Imperial eras, such as coins. Felicitas played an important role as it could be used to initiate change in the socio-political hierarchy. Rupke writes that “one feature of the transition was the attribution to the ruler of a special divine gift of good fortune in war (Felicitas)” (Rüpke 2007, 246).
Happiness and ancient spectacles
Here we can begin to understand how divine happiness often found itself being connected to spectacles. An example is the performative politics of the later republican and the imperial eras, seen in figures such as Sulla. When Sulla took over Rome as a dictator after an intense and bloody civil war, he legitimized his new authority through this means by asserting that his victory had been proof that he enjoyed the Felicitas of the Gods. Sulla stressed his divinely granted felicitas to paint his regime as prosperous, taking on the cognomen Felix and possibly dedicating a temple to Venus Felix (Murphy 1986, 418). This can be understood as a form of performative politics, itself a spectacle, that allowed Sulla to build himself a public image. These actions helped establish a powerful precedent for Roman rulers that would be continued under the later Roman Empire, with Felicitas becoming an imperial virtue of the Emperors. An example of this can be seen in propaganda relating to the Pax Augusta, which on coinage could also be referred to as the Felicitas Saeculi (Brent 2010, 191). Rufus writes that Emperor Claudius’ imperial propaganda presented his Pax Augusta as embodying “in itself all those Virtues which secured the well-being and felicity of the human order: Concordia, Felicitas, Victoria, Salus, and that Pudicitia . . . so essential to maintaining the pax deorum” (Reasoner 2013, 68). Roman leaders performed political spectacle by presenting themselves as being divinely granted with Felicitas that encouraged prosperity under their regime.
Another way that we can understand how concepts of divine happiness were hand-in-hand with spectacle is by looking at how games were often intertwined into religious festivities. Early Christians often understood these events as explicitly Pagan, and I will argue that this was not without reason. Many of these events were associated with Graeco-Roman Gods, and often coincided with holidays. This served the purpose of making the populace happy as a means of getting them in the appropriate attitudes to worship the Gods. This is alluded to in Augustine’s The City of God. Here, while writing against the Pagan author Cornelius Labeo, Augustine tells us that “now Labeo thinks . . . good deities [are to be propitiated] with plays, and all other things which are associated with joyfulness” (August. De civitate Dei, VIII.13). The Christian saint Isidore of Seville, meanwhile, reinforces this when he tries to speculate that the etymology of ludus is from luses, amusement, as they were festival days where performers would entertain the populace “with the excitement of games” (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi). It is “the amusement of young people in connection with festival days, temples, and religious ceremonies” (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi), and hence the origin of these spectacles, aimed at exciting and making a populace happy, was “idolatry” (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi). These spectacles are fundamentally connected to paganism, as a synonym for them are Liberalia, in honor of the God Liber (i.e., Dionysos) (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi). “For this reason,” Isidore claims, “you should take note of the stain of the origin of spectacles, so that you may not consider as good what took its origin from evil” (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi), which from his point of view was Hellenic polytheism. He then goes over four categories of spectacle that are connected to paganism: gymnastic, circuses, gladiatorial games, and theatrical performances. It is important to note that Isidore of Seville is drawing these claims from actual pagan sources such as Marcus Terentius Varro (Isidore. Orig., XVIII.xvi). We can thus conclude that spectacles such as ludi were aimed at amusing a populace during times of religious festivities to put them in the right collective mindset for worship, which would be essential for maintaining the Pax Deorum.
The most apparent example of how religious ideas of divine happiness were intertwined with public spectacles are the Ludi Saeculares, a spectacular event featuring theatrical performances along with sacrifices dedicated to different Gods each day (Forsythe 2014, 30). The purpose was to act as the opening ceremony to a new age of abundance and happiness, ushering in a new golden age of Saturn (Barker 1996, 435). An example of this is Augustus’, which celebrated his Pax Augusta and a new era of peace in the Roman world (Barker 1996, 435). The importance of inspiring happiness during this Ludi Saeculares was so important that people could be asked to put aside their private mourning for relatives when the ludi was occurring, demonstrated when Augustus issued a decree authorizing women to suspend mourning and enjoy festivities (Beard, North, and Price 1998, 14): “Since, insofar as it accords with proper custom, and in like manner has been observed in numerous precedents, whenever there has been a rightful cause for public celebration, it has been decided that the mourning of women should be suspended; and since it seems that it is appropriate both to the honour of the gods and to the remembrance of their worship that that should apply to the time of solemn rites and games and that it should be scrupulously observed – therefore we have decided that it is incumbent on us to issue to women a decree by edict, that they should suspend mourning.”
Overall, we can conclude that divine happiness was an important value in Roman religious life. It was the proper attitude one was supposed to undertake when approaching the divine, and was likewise gifted to mortals through divine blessing. Happiness in the form of civic-minded Felicitas thus held a central importance in the relationship between the Gods and mortals that defined the Pax Deorum, as well as an important product of the Pax Augusta, where Rome saw an unprecedented era of peace. This gave happiness an importance in spectacles, both in terms of performative politics, with Felicitas becoming an imperial virtue that leaders expressed in themselves, as well as ludi, which were intertwined with Roman religious festivals and intended to bring people joy during a time of festivities, which would have put people’s minds in the right mood that was integral to the daily worship essential to maintaining the Pax Deorum.
In short, this tells us that happiness is the expected attitude and essential element when receiving the presence of the divine. This is because it is understood that the Gods live in an eternal state of perfect bliss and blessedness (Bodéüs 1992, 117), which is one of the many features that distinguish God from man (in addition to the Gods being immortal, immaculate, perfectly beautiful, all-powerful, etc.). As such, happiness is an important value in Hellenism, especially in the context of our worship of the Gods. In order for humanity’s service of the divine to be complete, it must be completed in a joyful manner. Happiness is thus the most appropriate attitude when engaging in Their worship.
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