At a time of political and religious crisis, some look back to antiquity
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his book The Anti-Christ: “Pagans are those who say Yes to life, those for whom ‘God’ is the word that expresses the great Yes to all things.” These words are prominently displayed on the website of the Movimento Tradizionale Romano, or MTR (the Traditional Roman Movement in English). MTR is the most influential Italian community that practices, supports and spreads the old Roman-Italic religion and its traditional cults. (The word cult in this article is used in the historical, worshipping sense of the word and not with the modern pejorative meaning.) MTR, along with Societas Romana Pro aris et focis, Associazione Romània Quirites and Societas Hesperiana Pro Culto Deorum are the only organizations that retain the religion of their forefathers in Italy. MTR is the leading Italian group of the contemporary Roman Polytheistic Reconstructionist religious movement called the “Roman Way to the Gods.”
These contemporary groups take inspiration from the pre-Christian ancient Rome, before the victory of Constantine the Great against Maxentius in 312 AD and the subsequent Christianization of the entire Roman Empire. Before that date and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, paganism was the only Roman religion allowed. On the other hand, polytheism — the belief and devotion to multiple deities — was thought to be inextricably linked to the Roman State and guarantee of success over the world. Only by maintaining good relations with the Gods, through collective piety, prayers, vows and oaths, could Rome keep its power. They had a sort of pact with the Gods (Pax Deorum in Latin). The ancient Roman religion was civic; it was state-controlled and publicly exercized, whereas religion is practiced privately nowadays. For this reason, followers of the Roman Way to the Gods would like to reinstate public religious ceremonies and the traditional Roman State.
The cult of the Roman Way to the Gods religious groups follows the ancient Roman calendar and its festivals: New Year’s Eve, the Ides of March, Rome’s Christmas, the Capitolin Triad, Saturnalia, and the two solstices are especially important, celebrated across the whole community. However, the biggest difference in practice compared to antiquity is that today human and animal sacrifices are no longer practiced. The Gods are simply honored with offers of wine, perfumes, food and plants. At a time when the current mayor of Rome has pigs, boars and mice in the middle of the city, perhaps the sacrifices would return if it were up to the old Roman emperors!
The Roman Way to the Gods and its leading Italian group Movimento Tradizionale Romano may seem more a folkloric blast from the past rather than a new spiritual impetus towards paganism. However, they are not the only ones looking to the past and recent history contradicts those who believe monotheism is the only modern religious view. In 2005 the Movimento Tradizionale Romano joined the ECER (European Congress of Ethnic Religions), which was founded in 1998 to assist Ethnic Religious communities around the world. The ECER seeks to oppose discrimination against such religious groups and enhance their spiritual and cultural heritage. The Movimento Tradizionale Romano even hosted last year’s international ECER congress, which took place in Rome.
Legend has it that before the Roman Way to the Gods and its affiliated groups surfaced, the traditional Roman Pagan cults were preserved and passed down secretly and esoterically through important Italian families over the centuries. Only after Italy was founded and Rome — free from the Popish power — was annexed to the new Italian State in 1870 did the Roman Pagan rituals return to the spotlight. In the following decades, the archaeologist Giacomo Boni, esotericist Arturo Reghini and philosopher Julius Evola tried to influence Italian religious beliefs with a new form of pagan imperialism. They even tried to involve Benito Mussolini. They didn’t succeed because Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts with the Holy See in 1929. This recognized the Vatican City as a State for the Roman Catholic Church, guaranteeing its sovereignty and independence. Consequently, this bilateral treaty reaffirmed Catholicism as the only official religion in Italy and withdrew the ancient Roman Polytheistic Reconstructionism from the public mind.
Back to the Future
Pre-Christian Roman spirituality resurfaced in the mid ’80s by the Movimento Tradizionale Romano. This was due in part to the religious writer Salvatore Ruta, historian Renato Dal Ponte and researcher Roberto Incardona. The MTR embodied the original approach of the Roman Way to the Gods by defining itself as an apolitical religious group. They conceived of the relationship between man and the Gods without passive devotion. This meant that man was the priest of himself and the spirituality was aimed at himself to live in harmony with the Gods.
The Roman Polytheistic Reconstructionism organizations also transcended Italian borders. For example, the religious movement Nova Roma started in North America and its membership has since spread to Central and Eastern Europe. Their traditional Roman Pagan ceremonies and reenactments are shows not to be missed, even for those who believe in one God. As Russell Crowe famously proclaimed in the movie Gladiator: “Rome is the light”. Yes, Rome is the magic light coming in through the oculus of the Pantheon dome, the ancient Roman temple devoted to all the Gods, and which still stands majestically in the center of the Eternal City, built under the emperor Hadrian’s reign.