Clas 2007 Roman Myth and Religion Winter 2012

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CLAS 2007 Roman Myth and Religion Winter 2012

  • Dr. Ilse Mueller
  • Office: H 339
  • Tel. 474 3450 X 4423
  • Email:
  • Office Hours: Thursdays 10 - 12

Course Description

  • This course examines the origins and evolution of religious thought and practice in ancient Rome from its mythic foundation to the triumph of Christianity in late antiquity. Roman myth is examined in detail and situated in its appropriate historical, social, political, and religious contexts. Special attention is paid to the relationship between myth, politics, and religion as well as to the influence of mythic and religious traditions from other Mediterranean cultures on Roman religious thought and practice. This course may be credited towards Religions and Cultures.

Course Books

  • 1. T.P. Wiseman, The Myths of Rome, Exeter 2004, 
  • 2. Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass.  
  • 3. Additional Primary source material will be made available on the website

The Course Website

  • Dr. Mueller’s Home Page:
  • Check the website regularly for announcements, readings, lecture notes, assignment details and DUE DATES,
  • Lecture notes (outline and important terms) will be posted for review
  • Links to related sites for research and interest

Grade Distribution

  • Assignment# 1 (Primary Source evaluation)
  • Due Jan. 31 15%
  • 4 Quizzes (3 will count) 5 points each
  • Jan 19; Feb 9; Mar 1; Mar 15 15%
  • Research Essay – part 1: annotated bibliography
  • due Mar 19
  • Part 2: Research Essay – due April 5 25%
  • Final Exam (in exam period) 35%
  • Participation, attendance, preparedness 10%

How to succeed in this Course

  • Attend classes regularly
  • Complete your reading assignments before each class
  • make notes as you read; ask questions!
  • Take notes in class and go over them once on the same day and again before the next class
  • Start your assignments early; ask questions if in doubt on anything
  • Hand in your assignments promptly on the due dates
  • Engage with the material

Lecture Outline

  • 1. What is a Myth?
  • 2. Our Sources for Roman Myth and Religion
  • 3. The Context of Roman Myth: Geography, Time Line

What is a Myth?

  • mythos (from the Greek) = Word, speech, public speech; narration, news, intelligence; conversation, talk; thought, project, plan; advice, order; report, tale, story; affair, occurrence.” (Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary)
  • Plato made a distinction between mythos and logos – mythos became associated with traditional (irrational) stories as related by poets – distinct from logos as a rational account
  • Myth = “Traditional narrative embodying ancient popular belief or idea; fictitious person or thing; widely held but false idea.” (OED)
  • In short – a traditional story that has been handed down (orally) from one generation to another in any given culture
  • Traditional (from Latin tradere – to hand over)

Types of myths (modern categories)

  • Divine myths: characters and settings are outside human experience, example: the gods are immortal, Mount Olympos, the Underworld
  • Legends – characters and settings may be within human experience
  • characters are heroes or outstanding human beings, events fare back in time but with historical connection to the present time and to historical places
  • Not important whether true or not
  • Fairy Tales – characters and settings mixed - monsters, magic, instead of exceptional human beings – the underdog (most unlikely to succeed) i.e. Cinderella
  • Many myths are a combination of all three
  • Roman myths are primarily legends

The function of myths

  • Stories had importance for the community
  • Aitiological (aetiological) they explain something
  • examples: story of Trojan hero Aeneas explains the founding of the Roman race (story of Aeneas),
  • Story of Romulus and Remus: founding of the city of Rome;
  • Tale of the Rape of the Sabine Women: explains alliance between Sabines and Romans; promotes Roman virtues regarding family and marriage
  • Explanations of temple building, import/creation of a given cult, rituals, religious practices, cult places, founding of colonies, names, origins of festivals, and much more.

Myth, Religion, and Ritual

  • Myths are not simply entertaining stories
  • Myths are integral to religious life in the ancient world
  • Myths are tied to religious ritual (esp. to sacrifice)
  • What came first? The Chicken or the egg? Myth or ritual?
  • Myths explain the foundation of civic identity (i.e. Athena in Athens; Mars in Rome etc.)
  • Myths integral to a culture’s history and identity

What Can We Learn From Greco-Roman Myth?

  • the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  • How the Greeks and Romans understood the world around them and their place in it.
  • The moral and social values of Greek and Roman cultures
  • The influence of Greek and Roman myth and religion on later religious, intellectual and cultural developments.
  • Aspects of the human psyche and of human social, cultural, and intellectual life in general.
  • Roman Legends: what Romans considered important about their history, identity, their values and ideals

How Do We Study Roman Myth

  • By collecting and analyzing all the surviving evidence relating to myth from ancient Greece and Rome
  • By setting myths in their appropriate historical context (i.e. Myths change over time – see Wiseman)
  • Setting myths in their proper socio-political contexts (i.e. who benefits)
  • Setting myth in their cultural milieu – comparative mythology (i.e. analogous myths from other cultures)
  • Considering the multiple variations of the same myth
  • Note: How we approach the study of myth depends upon our scholarly intentions and objectives.

Our Evidence Primary and Secondary Sources

  • Primary Sources = Evidence from the time and place under investigation
  • Note: Always base your arguments and observations upon PRIMARY SOURCE EVIDENCE – WHY?
  • Secondary Sources = Scholarly articles and monographs (i.e. books) on a specific topic by authors of later periods, primarily (for our purposes) modern scholars. Secondary Sources represent findings, theories, arguments that are based on the authors’ examination and interpretations of the primary evidence.
  • For scholarly purposes you MUST ONLY use scholarly articles and books that are peer reviewed.
  • Note: websites such as Wikipedia do not represent scholarly articles and are NOT ALLOWES to be used for your assignments in this course.

Sources for Greco-Roman Myth

  • Ancient Literature (i.e. poetry, drama, novels, and more)
  • Ancient mythographers (ancient Greek and Roman scholars who selected and collected myths known to them – i.e. Hesiod, Apollodorus
  • Historiography (i.e. the works of ancient writers of history)
  • Philosophical texts – Often deal with questions of religion and myth and man’s place in the universe
  • Material culture (i.e. Art, Architecture, Sculpture and other works of art; votive items etc.)
  • Epigraphy (i.e. inscriptions; curse tablets, coins, etc)

Literary Sources: Some Examples Greek Myths

  • Homeric Epics: The Iliad and The Odyssey (ca. 750 BCE – 700 BCE)
  • Hesiod: Theogonis, Works and Days, Catalogue of Women (ca. 700 BCE)
  • Archaic Lyric Poetry: Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Simonides, Pindar, Bacchylides
  • Tragedy: the Athenian Playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides
  • Mythographical Compendia: i.e. Apollodorus, The Library (ca. 180 BCE – 100 BCE)
  • Historians: i.e. Herodotus, Histories (ca. 484 BCE – 425 BCE)

Greek and Roman Myths

  • Ancient Geographers: i.e. Strabo (ca. 64 BCE – 24 CE) The Geography, and Pausanias, Description of Greece (ca. 2nd Century CE)
  • Philosophical Writers: i.e. M. Tullius Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE), De Natura Deorum
  • Christian Polemics: i.e. Tertullian (ca. 150 CE – 230 CE), Apologeticus, St. Augustine (ca. 354 CE – 430 CE), City of God

Visual Sources: Vase Paintings: Orestes’ purification

(Sculpture) Romulus and Remus and the she wolf

POTTERY Satyr Feast/Orgy (associated with the god Dionyius)



  • Go to the bookstore and buy the books
  • Reading for Thursday: Chapter 1 of Wiseman
  • Questions for Chapter I:
  • 1. What is the purpose of Chapter 1?
  • 2. Who is Flora – what is her history and what does it tell you about Roman myths?

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