Back to Inquiry Set

6.7.3b Representation of Zeus/Jupiter Serapis

Marble head from a statue of Jupiter Serapis, wearing a kalathos (basket used in religious processions) decorated with branches of olive. The bust is modern. The face was originally coloured red.
2nd century
The British Museum
Representation of: Zeus/Jupiter Serapis. Sculpture. 2nd century. The British Museum, 1805,0703.51
This passage explains to us why it was important for the Romans to respect and even adopt other peoples’ gods. When the Romans conquered a group of people, the Romans adopted and honored the other people’s gods and cultures. The Romans mixed other peoples’ gods and beliefs into Roman religion. This mix of religious beliefs is called religious syncretism. The Roman Empire tolerated the religions of the conquered people and tried to integrate them peacefully into the empire. However, when the Romans thought that a cult or religion was a threat to the empire, they persecuted its worshippers severely. How is the Roman syncretic religion different from modern religion? Visual caption for object: When Romans learned about gods of other peoples, they often noticed the similarities with their own gods and identified them as the same deity. In this case, Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian god, merged with Roman Jupiter, as both of them were kings of the gods. The grain measuring cup on his head symbolizes his power over nature. The Romans then named the cult (the worship) Jupiter Serapis, built new temples, and added statues and artifacts to old temples in order to show the new name and association.
Many scholars think cultural flexibility and respect toward foreign gods and customs were among the reasons for the Romans’ success as empire builders. Marcus Minucius Felix (died ca. 250) was one of the earliest Christian Apologists (defenders of Christianity) to write in Latin. His work Octavius is written in the form of a dialogue between the pagan Caecilius Natalis and the Christian Octavius Januarius. The work defends Christianity so as to appeal to educated non-Christians, and the “pro-pagan” arguments, one of which is cited in the excerpt, are borrowed mostly from the writings of Cicero. This argument for Roman syncretic religion demonstrates the way in which religious tolerance and political goals were connected in the Roman culture. However, it is also important to remember that Roman tolerance did not extend to religions that were perceived as threats to public order or to the state. The Romans persecuted Christians and Druids, and sometimes Jews. Certain pagan cults and rites were also banned from time to time.
Representation of: Zeus/Jupiter Serapis, 2nd century. Greek & Roman Antiquities, The British Museum.