Did the Romans believe their myths?

Blogger N.S.Gill is apparently asked some version of this interesting question often enough that she has compiled an FAQ on it.  She writes:

Almost every week I simplify a welter of contradictory stories for the Myth Monday.  … Some readers ask how the ancients reconciled seemingly unrelated versions of the same event.

Historian Charles King (The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs, by Charles King; Classical Antiquity, (Oct. 2003), pp. 275-312.) provides insights into how the ancient Roman polytheistic, pagan religion worked that make sense to me, so I’ve extracted ideas from his 39-page article into an FAQ – Did the Romans Believe Their Myths?

I imagine the question arises from people used to the Christian approach to life, where beliefs determine behaviour and worship. 

But I have read that the reverse was the case in paganism.  It didn’t matter what you thought personally — who cared? So long as the right rituals were carried out, the sun would come up in the morning.  Temples didn’t gather congregations; they were more about doing things like sacrifices.

In a sense an ancient temple was more like a nuclear power plant than a church.  It doesn’t matter whether you believe in physics in the former; only what you do.

I wonder if any ancient source actually says this?


One thought on “Did the Romans believe their myths?

  1. Let’s hear Julius Caesar, the greatest pontifex maximus of Rome, on the subject—Caes. BG 3.18: Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt (“In general men willingly believe what they want”).

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