FORB and Government Engagement in Ancient Rome
by Nithya Prakash
May 14, 2020

Among the many civil liberties protected and celebrated by US law and culture, the freedom of religion and belief (FORB) is simultaneously one of the most crucial and one of the most unexamined. The inability of government to interfere legislatively with religious practice protects religious minorities from persecution on the federal level, but the application of FORB in the United States is often critiqued as being uneven. The U.S. is home to a many different religious traditions, with citizens of every creed, color, and origin. Under the constitution, all of whom should have access to FORB.

Diversity, while a source of great strength, can also lend itself to fear and conflict when not guided properly. In some ways, it is arguable that the US government’s hesitancy to engage in the management and arbitration of religious diversity precipitates discrimination and softens its position as a protector of civil liberty and FORB. Of course, balancing religious engagement with the government’s obligation to separate Church and State is no easy process—however, there is a case from the past that could provide an example for the advocates of FORB in religiously diverse environments to follow.

The similarities between the modern US and ancient Rome are endless—both broad, rich republics with enormously diverse populations and communities. However, one huge difference was the crucial role that religion and religious tolerance played in Rome’s domestic and international policy. In 205 B.C.E., while the Roman Republic was facing an existential threat in the form of Hannibal of Carthage, the Roman Senate decided to employ a time-honored tactic in hopes of victory: the formal acknowledgement of an Anatolian god—namely the Magna Mater, a Phrygian goddess from Asia Minor. In the face of war or other hardship, it was common for the Senate to arrange for a potential ally’s major gods to be recognized by the Roman pantheon. What modern historical scholarship tells us, however, is that this gesture was not just an appeal to a new deity for victory, but a diplomatic method by which the Roman state could secure an alliance with Phrygia and show acceptance to foreign people who were soon to become a part of the state.

The existence and practices of the Magna Mater’s cult, distinctly foreign and sometimes perceived as shocking, should have been antithetical to conservative Roman senators. However, by openly inviting the goddess to Rome and allowing foreign priests to maintain their positions of power among the Roman sects of her following, the Senate secured a critical alliance with the people of Phrygia. Moreover, the government welcomedthe foreign deity by holding lavish celebrations and giving the goddess a place of honor on the Palatine Hill (the center of Roman religion). Through these celebrations, Roman fears and assumptions about the cult were eased and its followers, domestic and foreign, were accepted into society. The cult of the Magna Mater went on to become a pillar of Roman religion, and the goddess was one of the most celebrated by the time of Emperor Augustus.

Certainly, policymakers in the modern day cannot emulate exactly the methods of the Roman Senate and there is no one-to-one parallel to the cult of the Magna Mater. However, in considering the shared phenomenon of religious diversity, the lessons of Roman history offer us valuable insights. While the US cannot engage in religious legislation as the Romans once did, engaging with religious minority communities and actively making efforts to spread understanding is vitally important to protecting FORB. Welcoming and embracing religious diversity offers a powerful tool for diplomacy and bridges internal divides that might otherwise threaten the social fabric of American communities.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).