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Religion and Human Nature


Throughout antiquity, religion has been a major aspect of ancient society. It has been a major motivator for incredibly crucial decisions and it has been used as a unifier to bring people together during crucial moments. The issue of religion is thusly an interesting thing to pay attention to in the writings of the many historians of the time. Some historians choose to simply dismiss it to remain totally objective while others choose to include it into their stories. One important historian who tries to stay away from the topic of religion is Thucydides. Being known for his objectivity, Thucydides prefers to provide both a religious and scientific explanation for certain events that transpired. While Thucydides and other historians may choose to do this, others still prefer to include the bias of religion in their accounts of specific events. Herodotus and Livy are two historians who come to mind when considering this. These two writers openly discuss the role of religion and even offer personal opinions about certain situations. "Suddenly a storm arose with loud claps of thunder, enveloping him in a cloud so dense that it hid him from the view of the people. From then on Romulus was no longer on earth...they all decided that Romulus should be hailed as a god, son of a god, king, and father of Rome" (Livy 1.16). On the surface it seems like these historians probably just included religion to make their stories more dramatic, but there is also a much deeper meaning for this use of religion. It is easy to just dismiss these uses of religion as simple evidence of bias or subjectivity. However, when one begins to dissect these historians’ writing, one question comes to mind about religion. Why do they choose to include religion? One possible answer to this question is that, rather than being biased and subjective, they are in fact using religion as a tool. Religion is being used as a tool to reflect upon the society of the time and the way people behave. As it is such a major part of society in antiquity, it is quite plausible to believe that the historians felt that religion needed to be properly represented in their accounts of history. One important aspect of their depictions of religion is also how society’s opinions about the gods fluctuate. Throughout Herodotus and Livy’s works, there seems to be a recurring pattern relating to the fluctuation of faith. It appears as though when times are prosperous and good, religion begins to fall to the wayside as people begin to ignore it or not uphold its values as much as they used to. It works the other way also in that when there is chaos or general suffering, everybody seems to rush back to religion in hopes of fixing everything. This is a very interesting aspect to consider as this does show some interesting things about society during antiquity. This paper will explore these patterns and what the historians were actually trying to say about society through the use of religion.


Herodotus likes to discuss religion in his works. His writing style is very unique compared to most other historians of his time. Most regard him as a fairly unbiased historian, but his use of religion in his writing causes some to question the validity of his works. However, his use of religion should be looked at as more of an outlet to indirectly depict society’s attitudes at the time. One example of his use of religion is during his telling of the story of Croesus. In this account, Herodotus discusses the rise and fall of the ruler of Lydia named Croesus. As his story progresses, Croesus brings prosperity and good fortune to his land. However, at one point Croesus went to Delphi to obtain a prophecy about how to behave as a ruler. At Delphi, an oracle warns Croesus about the fickleness of good fortune and how he was going to end up destroying an empire. Since Croesus was enjoying such good luck recently, he ended up ignoring what the oracle had warned him about. Croesus decided to go ahead and attempted to attack Cyrus and the Persians. According to Herodotus, it is because of Croesus’ disregard for the prophecy that led to his demise. The Persians destroyed Croesus’ empire. Had he heeded the oracle’s warnings, his empire would not have been brought down so easily. Croesus asked the oracle, “Was it usual (he bid them ask) for the gods to be so ungrateful” (Herodotus 1.90). Herodotus continues this story by explaining how since Croesus clearly misunderstood the prophecy and that this was his own fault. This account is a great example of how Herodotus uses religion as a tool to show natural human nature. Humans have a natural tendency to become overzealous and greedy when they are greeted with good fortune. This will cloud their judgment and at some point cause them to make a mistake that will ruin all of their prosperity. Herodotus uses religion to explain this phenomenon by saying that the gods will do whatever it takes to prevent any humans from experiencing too long of a period of wealth and prosperity.

Much like Herodotus, Livy enjoys discussing the role of religion and decision-making. One example from Livy’s works is his account of Tullus and the plague. The story of Tullus Hostilius and the plague is one that shows this use of religion as a tool. In this episode, Livy discusses the effects of disrespecting the gods. While Tullus’ rule of Rome at the time was going fairly well, he made the mistake of beginning to ignore the gods and according to Livy, this was been part of the reasoning for what happened next in this story. A plague had hit Rome and was not only it devastating to the population of Rome, but Tullus himself caught the illness. It was only until that point that Tullus tried to appease the gods for help. Once he got sick, he became one of the most superstitious men in Rome. “The man who before had thought that nothing was more unworthy of a king than attending to sacrifices suddenly became a slave to every superstition” (Livy 1.31). What happened to Tullus is a perfect example of how when things are bad, people tend to flock back to religion for help. This account by Livy shows exactly what this essay is trying to prove. At first, when things were going well, Tullus begins ignoring the gods. However, once there is some sort of crisis, the first thing that Tullus does is become super religious in hopes of fixing everything. This says something about the role of religion in society during antiquity. Although Livy is Roman and does not write his works until much later than Herodotus, his techniques appear to be very similar to Herodotus.

The ways these two historians choose to use religion in their stories are clearly very purposeful and deliberate. The use of religion may appear to make them seem unscientific and therefore less reliable. However, it is because of this use of religion that they actually gain a new way of subtly making a commentary on the decisions societies made. These historians use the strength of faith throughout different scenarios to show the fickleness of human nature. When things are going well, people start forgetting religion, but the moment anything goes wrong, everybody suddenly becomes extremely religious. This insight into the minds of the people of the time is something only provided by historians such as Herodotus and Livy. It is because of their use of religion that we can begin to better understand the actions of these people and the motivation for these decisions.

Barkerk 08:32, May 16, 2011 (UTC)

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