Although modern visitors know Rome as the headquarters of Catholicism, the city also developed one of the world's most influential bodies of mythology.
During the days when Rome was little more than a cluster of sheepherder's villages, a body of gods were worshiped whose characters remained basically unchanged throughout the course of Roman history. To this panoply were added and assimilated the deities of other conquered territories (especially Greece) until the roster of Roman gods bristled with imports from around the Mediterranean. In its corrupted (later) version, the list grew impossibly unwieldy as more-or-less demented emperors forced their own deification and worship upon the Roman masses. After the Christianization of Europe, the original and ancient gods retained their astrological significance and provided poetic fodder for endless literary and lyrical comparisons.
A brief understanding of each of the major gods' functions will enhance insights during explorations of the city's museums and excavations.
Apollo was the representative of music, the sun, prophecy, healing, the arts, and philosophy. He was the brother of Diana (symbol of chastity and goddess of the hunt, the moon, wild animals, and later, of commerce) and the son of Jupiter (king of the gods and god of lightning), by a lesser female deity named Leto.
Cupid was the god of falling in love.
Juno, the wife of Jupiter, was attributed with vague but awesome powers and a very human sense of outrage and jealousy. Her main job seemed to be wreaking vengeance against the hundreds of nymphs seduced by Jupiter, and punishment of the thousands of children he supposedly fathered.
Mars, the dignified but bloodthirsty god of war, was reputed to be the father of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome.
Mercury, symbol of such Geminis (twins) as Romulus and Remus, was one of the most diverse and morally ambiguous of the gods. He served as the guide to the dead as they approached the underworld, and as the patron of eloquence, travel, negotiation, diplomacy, good sense, prudence, and (to a very limited extent) thieving.
Neptune, god of the sea, was attributed with almost no moral implications, but represents solely the watery domains of the earth.
Minerva was the goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts, and (occasionally) of war. A goddess whose allure was cerebral and whose discipline was severe, she wears a helmet and breastplate emblazoned with the head of Medusa (the snake-haired monster whose gaze could turn men into stone). During the Renaissance she became a symbol much associated, oddly enough, with the wisdom and righteousness of the Christian popes.
Venus, whose mythological power grew as the empire expanded, was the goddess of gardens and every conceivable variety of love. She was reportedly the mother of Aeneas, mythical ancestor of the ancient Romans. Both creative and destructive, Venus's appeal and duality are as primeval as the earth itself.
Ceres, goddess of the earth and of the harvest, mourned for half of every year (during winter) when her daughter, Proserpine, abandoned her to live in the house of Pluto, god of death and the underworld.
Vulcan was the half-lame god of metallurgy, volcanoes, and furnaces, whose activities at his celestial forge crafted super-weapons for an array of military heroes beloved by the ancient Romans.
Finally, Bacchus, the god of wine, undisciplined revelry, drunkenness, and absence of morality, gained an increasing importance in Rome as the city grew decadent and declined.
Rome is the world's greatest ecclesiastical center. Few regions on earth have been as religiously prolific -- or had such a profound influence on Christianity -- as Italy.
Even before the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the ancient Romans artfully (and sometimes haphazardly) mingled their allegiance to the deities of ancient Greece with whatever religious fad happened to be imported at the moment. After its zenith, ancient Rome resembled a theological hodgepodge of dozens of religious and mystical cults, which found fertile soil amid a crumbling empire. Eastern (especially Egyptian) cults became particularly popular, and dozens of emperors showed no aversion to defining themselves as gods and enforcing worship by their subjects.
In A.D. 313 the emperor Constantine, a Christian convert himself, signed the Edict of Milan, stopping the hitherto merciless persecution of Christians. Since then, Italy has adhered, in the main, to Catholicism.
Today the huge majority (99%) of Italians describe themselves as Roman Catholic, although their form of allegiance to Catholicism varies widely according to individual conscience. Despite the fact that only about one-third of the country attends Mass with any regularity, and only about 10% claim to receive the sacrament at Easter, the country is innately -- to its very core -- favored by the Catholic tradition. That does not always mean that the populace follows the dictates of the Vatican. An example of this is that, despite the pressure by the Holy See against voting in favor of Communist party members (in 1949 the Vatican threatened to excommunicate -- ipso facto -- any Italian who voted for Communist or Communist-inspired candidates), the Communist platform in Italy used to receive up to 33% of the popular vote in certain elections.
Modern Italy's adherence to Catholicism is legally stressed by a law enacted in 1848 by the Kingdom of Sardinia (later reaffirmed by the Lateran Treaty) which states: "The Catholic apostolic and Roman religion is the sole religion of the [Italian] State." The same treaties, however, give freedom of worship to other religions, but identify Rome as "the center of the Catholic world and a place of pilgrimage," and confer onto the State of Italy the responsibility of safeguarding the security of the pope and his emissaries, and respecting church property and church law in the treatment of certain matters, such as requests for divorces or annulments.
Significantly, throughout history Italy has produced more upper-echelon leaders to staff the Vatican than any other country in the world. Only more recently, beginning with the election of a Polish-born pope (John Paul II) and continuing to the election of Argentinian Pope Francis, has a pattern of almost complete domination of the papacy by Italian prelates been altered. Because of the sometimes inconvenient juxtaposition of the Vatican inside the administrative capital of Italy, the Lateran Treaty of February 11, 1929, recognized the Vatican City State as an independent and sovereign state and established and defined its relationship to the Italian State. That treaty, originally signed by Mussolini, lasted until 1984.
The most formal manifestation of folk rituals in all of Rome is the Commedia dell'Arte. Although it greatly influenced theatrical styles of France in the 17th century, it is unique to Italy. The plots almost always develop and resolve an imbroglio where the beautiful wife of an older curmudgeon dallies with a handsome swain, against the advice of her maid and much to the amusement of the husband's valet.
Italy, even before the Christian era, was a richly religious land ripe with legends and myths. Modern Italy blends superstition, ancient myths and fables, and Christian symbolism in richly folkloric ways. Throughout Rome, rites of passage -- births, first communions, marriages, and deaths -- are linked to endless rounds of family celebrations, feasts, and gatherings. Faithful Romans might genuflect when in front of a church, when entering a church, when viewing an object of religious veneration (a relic of a saint, for example), or when hearing a statement that might tempt the Devil to meddle in someone's personal affairs.
Italian, of course, is the official language of Rome, but it's spoken with a particular dialect that has always given linguistic delight to anyone born in the city. Although the purest form of Italian is said to be spoken in Tuscany (a legacy of medieval author Dante Alighieri, who composed the Divine Comedy in the Tuscan dialect), the Romans have always maintained a fierce pride in the particular stresses, intonations, and vocabulary of their own native speech patterns.
Regardless of the dialect, Italian is more directly derived from Latin than any of the other Romance languages. Many older Italians had at least a rudimentary grasp of ecclesiastical (church) Latin because of the role of Latin in the Catholic Mass. Today, however, as the vernacular Italian has replaced the use of Latin in most church services, the ancient tongue can be read and understood only by a diminishing number of academics and priests.
Linguists consider Italian the most "musical" and mellifluous language in the West, and the Italian language easily lends itself to librettos and operas. The language is a phonetic one; this means that you pronounce a word the way it's written, unlike many other languages, including English. It has been said that if an Italian sentence sounds "off-key," it's because the grammar is incorrect.
The Italian alphabet is not as extensive as the English alphabet in that it doesn't normally use such letters as j, k, w, x, and y.
Even as late as World War II, many Italian soldiers couldn't understand each other, as some men spoke only in their local dialects. But with the coming of television, most Italians today speak the language with similarity.
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