Investigative Question

How did other societies (the Greeks, Hellenistic states, Han China, Parthian Persia) influence and affect the Romans?

Rome defeated its nearby neighbors in a series of wars and partially incorporated them into the young state, which ensured a steady supply of soldiers for the growing army. Expansion around the Mediterranean rim began in the third century BCE, when Rome defeated the maritime state of Carthage in the Punic Wars. By devastating Carthage, Rome gained thousands of square miles of wheat land in Sicily and North Africa, as well as a windfall of Spanish silver. In the decades before and after the turn of the millennium, Rome also conquered the Hellenistic kingdoms of Greece and Egypt. …

Rome, at its height, was at the center of a web of trade routes by land and sea. Huge plantations, through slave labor, produced grain to feed the population in Roman cities. Uniting the diverse environments of Egypt, North Africa, Syria, Anatolia, Greece, and Europe gave Romans access to vast resources. Roman roads united the empire, and trade routes by land and sea connected it with eastern Asia. Wealthy Romans dressed in silk imported from China and jewels imported from India.

The Romans could not expand to the east because they could not defeat the Persian Empire, first under the Parthians and then under the Sasanians. In the first century BCE, Roman attacked the Parthians from their base in Syria. This resulted in a catastrophic military defeat for Rome and confirmed the Parthian empire as Rome’s chief rival for control over Mesopotamia. The Parthian and Sasanian Persian emperors promoted the religion of Zoroastrianism to strengthen the power of their state and build up a national identity. Fighting continued between the two empires along the border in a bitter conflict. However, religious ideas and trade products were exchanged between the two enemies. Many Romans began to follow Mithraism, a religion from Persia and the east. Christianity spread back and forth across the Roman–Persian border.

This source set uses religious examples to show the influence that other cultures and civilizations — especially Greece (and Hellenistic culture in general), Persia, and Egypt — had on Rome. The Romans imposed themselves on other cultures by conquering them, absorbing their wealth, and changing their societies, but Rome also borrowed deities and practices (and many other things) from those cultures. The influence, therefore, goes in multiple directions. The set also introduces students to the concept of religious syncretism, or the blending of deities and practices from many different sources, in the ancient world. The teacher can help students to understand the spread of the cults (that is, practices of worshipping a certain god) and gods by tracing place-names on a map of the empire.

There was a melting pot of cultures around the Mediterranean. Roman civilization belonged to Hellenistic culture from at least the sixth century BCE, several centuries before Rome conquered Greece. The first two sources provide opportunities for the students to compare the Romans’ traditional animistic spirits with the more familiar anthropomorphic (humanlike) gods such as Diana (Source 2), who inherited her features and family from the Olympic gods. Blending deities and practices was natural, because as Paul Veyne states, “in the pre-Christian world all gods were true, and Jupiter was everywhere Jupiter just as an oak is everywhere an oak, except that the names had to be translated from one language to another, from Zeus in Greece to Tinia in Etruria” (1979). The Romans also claimed foreign gods by associating Jupiter with Tinia or Serapis (as in Source 3). That is, the Romans would rename the cult “Jupiter Serapis,” build new temples, and add statues and artifacts to old temples to emphasize the new name and association. At the same time, the Romans were selective about which gods they adopted and which they rejected. The Romans controlled most of the cultures around them, and they used their power to reject and persecute religions they did not like, such as Christianity and the Druid religion, or, in connection with rebellions, Judaism.

Roman religion changed drastically with the conquests of the empire, as conquered people brought their own customs and beliefs to Rome. Some gods, such as Jupiter Serapis and Cybele, were approved by the Roman Senate and included in the official Roman pantheon and public cult (public rituals). Some groups, called mystery cults, were never official; individual Romans chose to join them. The fusion of cultures in the ancient world, started by Alexander’s conquests and continued by Roman empire building, brought together a variety of religious and philosophical ideas that produced a religious synthesis in the Roman world.

Religion and politics were deeply intertwined in Rome. Romans believed in omens, and some foreign cults entered Rome at times of social or political crisis. The cult (or worship) of Cybele, a goddess from Asia Minor, was officially imported during the Second Punic War (Source 4), when Rome’s traditional gods seemed unable to secure a victory over Carthage. The Romans were so powerful that they forced this transfer of Cybele, against the preferences of her worshippers in Asia Minor. On the other hand, among the political methods they used to take over and control conquered areas, the Romans included respect and acceptance of the area's deities (Source 3). Public participation in the official cult was largely impersonal, a mark of support for the Roman regime.

The Roman army promoted and spread the cult of Mithras. However, most eastern cults never became official. Probably introduced by slaves, foreign merchants, and other easterners, these cults often provided a more spiritual, intimate experience, such as a personal connection with the deity and happiness in the afterlife. Roman citizens chose whether or not to join these cults. One popular eastern cult was that of Isis (sources 5 and 6), which reached Rome from Egypt early in the first century BCE. The Romans were tolerant unless cults were perceived as threats to public order within the empire. For example, Augustus tried to oppress the cult of Isis during his war with Anthony and Cleopatra, since it came from Egypt, and Cleopatra used the epithet “the new Isis.”

Perhaps there is no better place that demonstrates Roman cultural and religious diversity than Dura-Europos, a city located in modern Syria. It was founded by the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire around 300 BCE, conquered first by the Parthian Persians in 113 BCE and then by the Romans in 165 CE, when it became an important military garrison on the Roman eastern frontier. Dura-Europos was located on a major east–west trade route, and its population was multicultural. Archaeological excavations of Dura-Europos have revealed temples to Greek, Roman, and Palmyrene (Syrian) gods, a Jewish synagogue, a Christian house-church — and a Mithraeum, quite expected in a military city, as Mithras was very popular among the soldiers (Source 7). This archaeological site shows that the religions of Rome were diverse and syncretic, including local cults and deities along with those from the multiple cultures that changed Roman religion, particularly the Greek Hellenistic, Persian, and Egyptian cultures.

This excerpt comes from a text written by Seneca, a Roman philosopher and writer, around 65 CE. Although the text is called a letter, it is more like an essay in its expansive and formal style. The excerpt is confusing to the reader because the sentences are long, the subject is abstract, and the style and vocabulary may be unfamiliar. To help students both understand Seneca’s text and, more importantly, think about the historical significance of the piece, the text has been broken down into its functional parts and is followed by questions to spur further thinking and discussion. Before the class begins this sentence deconstruction activity, you may want to refer to the Sentence Deconstruction Strategy handout.


1.  For each passage, first define the bold-faced terms (or others that are unfamiliar to your students) and then have students complete the related sentence deconstruction chart in pairs or groups of three.

grove: a small forest

intertwining: branches of different trees woven in together

loftiness: tall height seclusion: the state of being quiet and without people

unbroken shade: complete shade with no sunlight coming through

divine: of the god(s), holy

venerate: worship

deem: consider, regard

immeasurable depth: the lake is so deep that no one can measure or know where the bottom is

2. As a whole class, go over each completed chart to make sure students understand how the parts of the text function and give meaning.

3. After students complete the first four columns of the chart, have them use that information to discuss the questions in the last column.

4.  Discuss with the students the purpose of this text in relation to the investigative question How did other societies (the Greeks, Hellenistic states, Han China, Parthian Persia) influence and affect the Romans? It is the first source and it describes the earliest Roman religion. The investigative question addresses change over time, as the Romans were changed by the influences from other societies. We have to begin with what the Romans believed before the influences — the original Roman religion. This source will give us evidence to answer part of the investigative question: What was the earliest Roman religion like? What did Romans believe? What were their gods like? The rest of the sources will give us evidence about the influences from other societies and how they changed Roman religion.


6.7 Religious Influences on Rome Student Handout

6.7 Religious Influences on Rome Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.


  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.