In her book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Princeton professor and religious scholar Elaine Pagels notes that when the Romans conquered a new territory, one of their signature moves was to remove whatever altar might exist in their local temple — often that of a goddess — and replace it with a statue of a Roman soldier enslaving or even raping an indigenous woman. The message is as unambiguous as it is brutal. Source

Well - is this actually true?

The infamous Judaea Capta comes to mind, of course, but it is a coin.

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    I haven't come across that claim before. It certainly didn't happen with the goddess Sulis in Britain, for example. We also have good evidence for continued worship of local deities on Hadrian's Wall. Does she quote any specific examples? Dec 2 '17 at 12:21
  • @sempaiscuba I don't have the book, I am afraid. All I have is the blog post. Dec 2 '17 at 12:22
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    I've tried searching several online archives of Roman sculpture and I can't find any examples to support her claim. There are plenty of examples of mythological rape scenes, (e.g. those of Leucippides, Ganymede, Kore and Europa), mostly from funerary contexts. By-and-large, Rome seems to have absorbed local deities into their pantheon, often pairing them with a Roman 'equivalent'. Dec 2 '17 at 14:29
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    I haven't read the book, but from what I could read in reviews of the book, she has written about the roman occupation of Judea. I suppose it is possible they might have done something like this in that particular case. After all, they destroyed Jerusalem so they were harsh. Dec 2 '17 at 14:35
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    I'd read that the Romans only looked for a token acceptance of the Roman civic religion; perhaps it depended upon the strength of resistance. Dec 3 '17 at 11:58

There actually are a number of sculptures depicting victorious Romans dominating the national personifications of subjugated peoples. Nonetheless, the Medium post fundamentally misrepresented Professor Pagels' book. In her Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Elaine Pagels traced the life of John of Patmos who wrote the Book of Revelations after the Romans vanquished Judea. During this, she commented on the disgust or anger John probably would've have felt seeing sculptures celebrating Roman victories over other nations under imperial rule, at the Sebasteion in the ancient Hellenic city of Aphrodisias.

enter image description here enter image description here
Left: Claudius conquers Britannia | Right: Nero conquers Armenia

However, she then adds that:

The citizens of Asia Minor who commissioned the Sebasteion and funded the annual festivals, sacrifices, and athletic games to honor the emperors chose to interpret their submission to Roman rule not as defeat but as submission to the will of the gods.

In other words, Professor Pagels was not claiming the Romans systematically went out of their ways to humiliate their new subjects and offend their religions. And indeed, the examples cited above were created by Greeks and depicted the conquest of non-Greeks.

In general, the Romans were reasonably tolerant imperialists. The Romans usually equated foreign deities with their own through process of interpretatio romana. By this very logic, it is difficult to imagine their "signature move" would be to desecrate altars to the same gods they recognised.

This process greatly helped the integration of Roman and conquered, for the Romans were extremely tolerant of foreign religions provided there was no suspicion of political conspiracy (they strongly disliked closed groups and societies) and the rites were not so repugnant as to be intolerable (such as human sacrifice).

Salway, Peter. A History of Roman Britain. Oxford Paperbacks, 2001.

There are several goddesses that have not been equated to Graeco-Roman deities, who are often depicted together with Roman gods. However, they are normally portrayed as equals. For instance Nemetona, the goddess of the Nemetes people, often appears with Mars without any indication of the kind of subjugation that the Sebasteion reliefs above depicted.

Some other examples:

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Left: Rosmerta, goddess of fertility, and Mercury | Right: Sirona, goddess of healing springs, and Apollo

  • Book of Revelation. There was only one. Dec 3 '17 at 13:47
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    +1 for great answer. I have always understood the Romans tended to absorb/adopt local deities and people could worship whoever they liked, provided they remained loyal. A strategy the Christian Church successfully followed in later centuries.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 30 '19 at 4:40
  • @thehonrose are you being sarcastic about the christian church?
    – ed.hank
    Apr 30 '19 at 12:45
  • @edhank Not at all! But Jesus was probably not born on 25 December and did not rise around Easter! en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ēostre
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 30 '19 at 13:39
  • @TheHonRose: the definition of the date of Easter is literally based on Passover. There’s not much room for the date (as opposed to other features of the celebration) to have been influenced by non-Jewish celebrations.
    – sumelic
    Apr 30 '19 at 16:20

Looking at the Roman-Jewish relations reveals a complicated relationship extendending far beyond Judea Capta coins.

While at first the Jews were largely left to their own devices – even after the Great Jewish War – this changed quite substantially after the Bar-Kokhba revolt.

After things were finished up in Judea the city of Jerusalem not only had its name changed to Aelia Capotilina but also the Temple Mount was razed and a whole temple dedicated to Jupiter Capotilinus erected in place of the second Temple.

For Jews you can hardly be more offensive than that.

But this is one of very few instances that the Romans before Constantine really imposed their religious views and disregarded what the locals felt about these issues. While it apparently should not be called 'tolerance' any longer, Roman religious policy was at least far more respecting to indigenous religions as to make this "erecting offensive statues" not the general norm.

The usual process was: They just added to their own pantheon and requested similar worship from the locals for the state religion.

  • You meant: "Roman religious policy was at least far more respecting to indigenous religions as to make this "erecting offensive statues" NOT the general norm." Right?
    – Tom Au
    Dec 2 '17 at 23:34
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    You have to consider that the Roman erection of statues to different gods was probably offensive only to the Jews, because of their insistence that their God was the one and only god. Other, more tolerant people probably accepted it as normal that the Romans would erect temples to their own gods, just as they would build Roman aquaducts, baths, stadiums, &c.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 3 '17 at 4:55
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    Romans before Constantine? When did Constantine impose his religious views?
    – sgf
    Dec 3 '17 at 18:38
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    @sgf That was meant as shorthand for christianisation, but since you asked: it might be argued that e.g. Nicea was just that. Dec 3 '17 at 18:47
  • @jamesqf That is considered in the answer: Romans knew about this 'peculiarism' and in this instance they did it fully on purpose; but that looks like quite a rare incident. Dec 3 '17 at 18:51

This is a very broad question, and the answer is almost certainly yes. At some point somewhere no doubt a number of romans did exactly that. It was a massive empire spanning a huge area over a substantial period of time.

It certainly wasn't their only approach though, here in Britain they would also subsume the existing deities into their own belief system and by doing so bring in the natives as well. This is similar to how Christianity absorbed the traditional pagan harvest and midwinter festivals into their own rituals.

For example at Bath in England the Romans found the sacred hot spring and built the Temple of Sulis Minerva there. Minerva is a Roman god so on the face of it that seems to go against what I'm saying, but Sulis was not a Roman god. Sulis was the goddess of the Celtic Brythons. What the Romans did was come in and say "No, you are right. Sulis is a godess and this is her holy spring. But Sulis is just your name for our Godess Minerva."

See more information on Wikipedia about the hot springs and about Sulis.

Not far from the crossing point of their road, they would have been attracted by the large natural hot spring which had been a shrine of the Celtic Brythons, dedicated to their goddess, Sulis. This spring is a natural mineral spring found in the valley of the Avon River in Southwest England, it is the only spring in Britain officially designated as hot. The name is Latin for "the waters of Sulis." The Romans identified the goddess with their goddess Minerva and encouraged her worship. The similarities between Minerva and Sulis helped the Celts adapt to Roman culture.

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