Full Version: Rome\'s \"original sin\"
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I am reading Virgil’s Georgics and came across an interesting passage:

Quote: Gods of my country, Heroes of the land, you, Romulus, and you, mother Vesta, who guard the Tuscan Tiber and the Palatine of Rome, at least do not prevent this young prince [Octavian] from succouring a world in ruins! Long enough has our life-blood paid for Laomedon’s perjury at Troy

Virgil, Georgics, 498+

The basic idea, I think, is that the civil strife caused by the death of Julius Caesar is punishment inflicted upon the Romans because of the sins of their (supposed) ancestors. The punishment has been enough, Virgil says, and Octavian is to stop the war.

Richard F. Thomas’ commentary says:

Quote:The notion that civil war was visited on Rome as part of the inherited guilt or sin goes back to the very beginnings of her history is traditional, but varies greatly in its details. Laomedon’s can be seen as the ‘primal sin’: king of Troy and father of Priam, he is held to have cheated Apollo and Poseidon of their payment after they helped to build the walls of Troy… Other instances of guilt to be expiated by civil war are Paris’ ‘cheating’ of Hera and Athena, and his violation (through the seduction of Helen) of the laws of hospitality (Horace Odes 3.3.23-6); possibly Aeneas’ desertion of Dido, resulting in the Punic, rather than the civil, wars (Aeneid 4.622-9); the murder of Rhea Silvia, or Ilia, mother of Romulus and Remus (Horace Odes 1.2.13-20); and, of course, the actual fratricide, which is played out by the metaphorical fratricide of civil war, the death of Remus… Horace Epodes 7.17-20; Odes 3.3.30-3.

The only authorities Thomas cites for this idea of collective Roman guilt are Virgil and Horace. They are weighty figures, certainly, but they are also literary figures. I’m unsure if this idea of collective guilt was real, or just a theme that these two writers used.

What do you think? Did some Romans truly believe they were paying for past sins, or was this simply a literary motif?
Belief in this would certainly require a concurrent belief in the ability of the gods to interfere/interface with the lives of humans and the function of government, wouldn't it?

Very interesting quote!
I think that there was a belief in the ability of the gods to interfere in human life. The history of the Republic is full of such instances: consulting the Sibylline books during crisis and doing what they require, asking the deity of an enemy city to desert them and come to Rome, Scipio drowning the sacred chickens that wouldn’t eat… In the Imperial era there are probably thousands of monuments of the sort that read: “I [name] erect this monument because I promised [god] a monument to his greatness if he [did something I wanted] and he did so.”

Personally, I am leaning towards the idea that this “Roman collective guilt” was simply a literary motif. Thomas had other comments that led me to suspect that while he was very knowledgeable about Latin literature, he was less proficient with true Roman history.

The only other instance of an entire people being held responsible for the actions of their ancestors that I can remember is Julius Caesar, who said to the Athenians: “How often will the glory of your ancestors save you from self-destruction?” (Appian, Civil Wars, 2.88)

In this case it was a positive, not a negative, result.
Religion and superstition go hand in hand. I'm sure Romans believed the gods interfaced with them. (You have to believe in something.) But we are also looking at poets here, men who lived off the steam of society (and quite frankly Virgil couldn't hold a die to Homer). I think introspective Romans could have believed in a "collective guilt," but the vast majority knew the truth-- civil war was a predictable caprice of human nature.