Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part One)

It is often said that the Religio Romana is a “reconstructionist” faith, meaning that it attempts to reconstruct the ancient faith of the pre-Christian Roman peoples. While this vague description is sufficient to distinguish it from more modern eclectic and inventive religions such as Wicca in casual conversation, it is not satisfactory when one considers the details.

I’d like to begin exploring a more systematic approach to reconstructionism in general, which would apply to many faiths which fall under that banner, including Asatru (Norse paganism), Celtic Reconstructionism, the Religio Romana (Roman), Hellenismos (Greek), Romuva (Baltic), etc. While I’m mostly going to be using Roman/Religio Romana, and to a lesser extent, Norse/Asatru examples, the general principles involved should apply across the board.

At the outset, two fundamental issues must be recognized. The first is that, thanks mostly to the efforts of Christian supremacists to eradicate pagan and heathen religions, and the general ravages of time, we are often confronted with the fact that we have an incomplete record. Even the Religio Romana (Roman paganism), while blessed with a number of excellent contemporary primary sources, is lacking in many details. The situation is far worse with Asatru, where the literary corpus is almost entirely Christian in its provenance, and is almost entirely lacking in details (such as what rituals looked like, what words were spoken, etc.).

The second is that, by the nature of history and social evolution, it is fallacious to refer to “the Religio Romana” or “Germanic paganism” as if they were monolithic and never-changing edifices spanning centuries and hundreds or thousands of miles. We find, for instance, new gods introduced over the course of years, sometimes by instructions from the Sibylline Books, sometimes because of popular pressure. New religious ceremonies are introduced over the centuries, and old ones are maintained but their significance is completely lost. The religion in Rome itself is used as a template for the religions of allied and conquered peoples, so we see “Romanized” versions of Celtic, Germanic, and Semitic deities across the Mediterranean and Europe. The changes in Roman religion are legion and well documented.

In the Germanic corpus, we see much the same thing, including two distinct versions of the myth of the death of the Norse god Baldur, and the compete lack of the god Loki in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, among many, many other examples.

Given those two basic premises, we find ourselves faced with fundamental choices to make based thereon:

  • How do we identify gaps in the record?
  • How do we properly vet the material that we do have?
  • How do we go about filling in those gaps?
  • How do we identify Christian (or other) influences?
  • What do we do once we’ve identified it? Do we ignore it, or “de-Christianize” it, or something else?
  • Do we focus on a particular point in time and space, or do we use a more syncretic approach?
  • How do we set the boundaries of eclecticism and invention in a reconstructionist context?

I don’t pretend that my answers to these questions will be universally accepted, but I hope to demonstrate that attention to them will result in a much more robust and viable reconstructionist experience. Those questions will be explored in subsequent articles in this series.

What is Nova Roma?

So many people want Nova Roma to be so many things, that occasionally one is obliged to remind everyone just why Nova Roma was founded, and what are the implications of that foundation.

First, and foremost, Nova Roma was founded as a way to allow the Religio Romana to be practiced as it was in pre-Christian times. Specifically, prior to the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate in CE 357.

Everything Nova Roma was supposed to be, and everything it is, flows from that single fundamental purpose. Everything else is secondary.

Which is not to say those other things are unimportant or wrong, or that the non-Pagans who join our Res Publica are somehow second-class citizens, but Nova Roma cannot be understood in its proper context without that fundamental foundation. It is, and always has been, about restoring the Religio Romana.

That said, Nova Roma was formed as an independent nation — a micro-nation — specifically because doing so was the only way to properly allow for a complete restoration of the Religio Romana. Because so much of the Religio was centered around Roman civic life, and consisted of rituals, celebrations, and ceremonies designed to do honor to the Gods on behalf of the whole nation (the Religio Publica, as distinct from the Religio Privata that is done within the home), and because many of those rituals were and are performed by the publicly-elected magistrates, it was necessary to form a government capable of sustaining and supporting that aspect of the Religio Romana.

So…

There has been a lot of talk, for obvious reasons, about the corporate structure and who controls what and what the implications are for Nova Roma and so forth. But hopefully the above history and context will show my readers the truth of that relationship.

Nova Roma is in no way dependent on some corporate entity.

Let me say that again. Nova Roma’s existence, legitimacy, organizational structure, Constitutuon, leges, Collegia, Senate, and magistracies have nothing to do with any corporation. Who is in control of such a corporation is similarly irrelevant to the ongoing business, and the pursuit of the mission and objectives, of Nova Roma.

Now, a corporate entity is indeed needed to get along in today’s world. Such things as being able to collect and disburse money on any kind of useful scale, to get insurance, to rent space, to host Internet and social media presences, etc., are all greatly aided by the existence of some sort of corporate structure. In the case of a United States-based corporation, that would be a non-profit corporation, given Nova Roma’s religious and educational functions.

But never let it be said that Nova Roma’s Constitution, its laws, its magistrates, or its actions are somehow tied to the existence of some US corporate entity. From Nova Roma’s point of view, such a corporate entity is a convenience and a means to the end of fulfilling its purposes.

But when it comes down to it, Nova Roma does not need a corporation to survive or function. It managed for three years before the first corporation was created, and will continue to do so no matter what happens with the current corporate structure. Of course, we all hope for an amicable reconciliation with the current corporate Board of Directors and the government of Nova Roma. No one wants a swift and happy end to the dispute more than I. A warm and useful relationship between Nova Roma and the corporation can only be to the benefit of our Republic.

But Nova Roma is not the corporation, and never has been. Nova Roma is a sovereign nation created to restore the worship of the Gods of Rome, because such worship requires a sovereign nation. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.

Contra quod Parilibus Pacis Deorum

Salvete omnes,

(nn;ll* – the proposal was justified because of a nonsensical coincidence of dates, the conversion of followers of the ancient Gods is not something to be celebrated, we explicitly claim sovereignty over the city of Rome equal to that of the Vatican, Christianity doesn’t acknowledge the validity of our Religio, so there’s no reason we should recognize it.)

As one of the co-founders of Nova Roma, I wish to speak against the proposed item currently being discussed by the Senate, the ” Identification of Christianity as belonging among the traditions of Rome” which our esteemed Consul attempted to force through by edict, which was only stopped by the valiant actions of one of our Tribunes. 

I will speak plainly. This proposal is a dagger aimed at the very heart of our Republic. It is an evil, and can serve no possible purpose other than to undermine the very purpose for which Nova Roma was founded, and the very foundation stone upon which our Res Publica sits.

On its face, the fact is that this was brought into being upon the flimsiest of excuses – the fact that two holidays happened to coincide, which is an event which has happened dozens of times in the past, and which is dictated by nothing more than simple mathematics. It is worth pointing out that the date of Easter is variable even within Christianity, and that millions of Christians are only celebrating their holiday tomorrow, according to the Orthodox tradition. Add to that the fact that according to the Julian calendar, which was in effect during the period of pagan Roman civilization, which is defined in our Constitution as ending in 394 CE, when the altar of Victory was removed from the Senate, would place the two holidays on very different dates, and the folly of ascribing meaning to this coincidental nonsense become clear.

The substance of this proposal is much more insidious, however.
The author of this proposal has, it seems, forgotten the very reason for the foundation of our Res Publica. As someone who was there at the beginning, allow me to provide that much-needed context. Nova Roma was intended to provide a home for those of us who worship the ancient Gods of Rome; Jupiter, Venus, Mars, the lares and penates, and all the rest. The entire justification for needing a public polity was for the function of the Religio Publica, in order to provide the missing half of the Religio Romana for those people who were already practicing, or who intended to practice, the Religio Privata. That, in essence, is why there exists a Nova Roma in the first place. Everything else — the education in Latin, the educational outreach, the cooking, the clothing, the magistracies, the elections, the offices, the reenactment legions, and all the rest, while certainly wonderful and worthwhile — everything is secondary to that one, primary intention. The practice of the Pagan Religio.

And the proposal to officially recognize the Christian god entirely undermines that prime mover for our very existence. Of course, a Christian wouldn’t see it that way, so of course the point of view of the Gods of Rome doesn’t matter.
But we need look no further than the words of the proposal to see how it falls apart under scrutiny:

“There are still among us who cannot forget that Christianity eliminated our ancestral religion, however, during the 1500 years after the fall of Rome, Christianity also became an ancestral religion of Rome, and almost all of the ancestors of the present day Nova Romans were Christians generations after generations since the fall of Rome. The state religion of Rome was Christian ever since, and Christianity rules Rome and the inhabitants of Rome today. We cannot deny these facts, and as a polytheist culture, we cannot deny the divinity of the Christian god or the validity of the Christian religion, either. We cannot continue to consider the Christian god a foreign god, either, after his cult in Rome was established about 1950 years ago and it has been the official religion for 1600 years.”

No, no, and NO I say! This is completely pig-ignorant of not only Roman history, but Nova Roman history and law as well.

First, the fact that “almost all of the ancestors of the present day Nova Romans were Christians generations after generations since the fall of Rome” is not something to be celebrated. It is an infamia. The fact that our ancestors were weak and faithless enough to abandon the worship of the True Gods of Rome is something for which we should be conducting piaculum for on a daily basis, not celebrating and cheering on. This is a great shame for every single person who purports to worship the ancient Gods, and is something we should be seeking to apologize for with sacrifice, not be trying to put a nice face on. 

Of course, a Christian wouldn’t see it that way, so of course the point of view of the Gods of Rome doesn’t matter.

Second, to try to justify this evil by saying “Christianity rules Rome and the inhabitants of Rome today” is both an insult, reminding us collectively of a state of being which we should be actively trying to rectify, but also runs counter to the very Declaratio Novae Romae which I and my fellow Pater Patrius Marcus Cassius Julianus signed, and which was reaffirmed only last year. Has the Consul actually read that declaration? If so, how can he possibly accede control of our Holy City of Rome to the Christians, when Nova Roma explicitly lays claim to the same amount of territory within its precincts as the Catholic Church? Does he think that was a coincidence? It was NOT! It was a deliberate provocation and CHALLENGE to the sovereignty of the Christian church as a whole, and the Catholic church in particular, over the city that we explicitly claim as our “spiritual capital”. And if there are any questions as to what “spirituality” that capital is meant to embody, that very same Declaration claims identical, if temporary, sovereignty wherever the “gods and goddesses of ancient Rome” are worshiped.

This wording is not an accident, and was never intended to include the Christian god. Of course, a Christian wouldn’t see it that way, so of course the point of view of the Gods of Rome doesn’t matter.

Next, we come to the claim that as a polytheist culture, we cannot deny the divinity of the Christian god or the validity of the Christian religion”. This is the most offensive, and biased, statement, one can conceive of in this context. The very heart of the Christian religion is based on its claim of exclusivity!  Does not John 14:6 make this plain when it puts the following words in the mouth of the Christian god; “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”? Christianity by its very nature cannot abide any competitor, and will forever attempt to first undermine (while it is a minority) and then crush (when it has power) any theological rival. 

We already saw this played out in the very history that the Consul holds up as justification for his proposal, and it ended disastrously not only for the Pagans of Rome, but the Gods of Rome they worshiped. Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus Augustus in 311 CE issued his “edict of toleration” which proclaimed Christianity a legal faith within the Empire, to which this proposal can reasonably be likened, and it was a scant 79 YEARS later that the Religo, and other Pagan religions, were outlawed throughout the Empire.

First they come wanting “tolerance” and soon it turns into sovereignty. The Christian god, by his own admission is a jealous one, and will not brook any rival, let alone another God with pride of place. If we acknowledge the validity of Christianity, we must acknowledge this intrinsic intolerance, and to do so destroys the very reason for Nova Roma’s being.

And for that matter, does this mean we have to acknowledge the validity of other religions, too? We explicitly state that ” Nova Roma is open to people of all nationalities and races”. Does the Consul think we should explicitly acknowledge the gods of the Hindus, or the Buddhists, or the Shinto, or the Wiccans, or any of a thousand other faiths? Why single out Christianity for this honor? If one non-Roman faith gets this treatment, why not all the myriad of others?

Finally, the greatest insult both to Reason and to Rome itself, where the proposal states “we cannot continue to consider the Christian god a foreign god”. This is absurd on its face. We can acknowledge that Heracles is a foreign god, and Mithras is a foreign god, and the Great Mother is a foreign god, and all the hundreds of others who were brought to Rome, and who were content to fit themselves into the vast, expansive, and syncretic whole that is the Religio Romana. They were all able and willing to be worshiped alongside the other Gods of Rome. The Christian god very deliberately, and self-consciously, stood outside of that tradition. If Christians aren’t willing to acknowledge the existence of our Gods, why should we be acknowledging theirs? Especially when their whole faith is based on denying not only the existence, but the very concept, of our Gods? 

Let’s start seeing some of our Christian cives making offerings of incense to the Gods of Rome, and then maybe we can think about such a statement of inclusion; that would demonstrate that there has been a change in the Christian intransigence when it comes to acknowledging deities outside of their own faith, and thus that they have earned the right to expect such an acknowledgement by another, more syncretic faith. But history has already shown they’re not willing to even go that far; why are we even considering this, other than to undermine the very worship of the Gods for which Nova Roma was founded in the first place?

Valete,
Flavius Vedius GermanicusPater Patriae

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* An acronym for “non nimis longum legere”; the Latin equivalent of tl;dr. 😉