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Religious Toleration and Political Power in the Roman World

By Angela Cowley

Abstract: This thesis examines religious toleration in the Roman world throughout the republic and empire and its connection to Roman political power. While studies have examined the role religion played in Roman political success, few have looked at the reactions of the Romans in multiple situations involving religious groups that were incompatible with Roman society in order to draw broad conclusions about the nature of Roman religious toleration and how it was meant to maintain Roman supremacy. By examining a number of such groups, this study aims to outline the place of religion in the Roman political system, to show why certain religious groups were met with various forms of hostility, and finally to consider what these incidences reveal about Roman religious toleration and the place of religion in Rome’s political landscape. This study finds that Roman religion had very specific characteristics and was a pillar of the Roman state, so that when a religious group caught the attention of the Roman authorities and did not fit the requirements of the Roman state religion, it was perceived as a threat to Rome’s position of power. Each group examined received different treatment from Rome depending on other stresses endangering Roman political stability and the structure and practices of the group in question. Those that could be made into acceptable Roman cults were permitted to exist in their new form while others were completely rejected. Allowing groups to continue in any form, though, was done so under the supervision of the senate or emperor which shifted power back to the Roman state and re-established its control over the religious and hence political sphere. Such treatment of religious groups should not be called toleration and this thesis helps to correct such misjudgements which deny the importance that religion played in Roman political power.

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(H/T History of the Ancient World)

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