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In his 1725 work Principi Di Una Scienza Nuova (known in English as The New Science; link to the CUP modern edition), Giambattista Vico wrote that:

For Hebrew began and remained the language of a single God, whereas, although the gentile languages must have begun from a single god, the gentile gods proceeded to multiply so monstrously that Varro succeeded in counting a good thirty thousand of them among the peoples of Latium, a number that is scarcely exceeded by the number of words of settled meaning in the large vocabularies of today.68


68 See footnote 125, p. 96. This is probably a reference to Varro’s Antiquitates rerum divinarum, which is largely known through St Augustine’s discussion of Varro’s lists of gods. See City of God, III, 12 and VII, 6. While admitting that Varro enumerated a large number of gods, discriminating between the certain and uncertain, Augustine suggests that the number, though large, was exaggerated.

This reference of "thirty thousand gods" seems quite arbitrary to me, so I followed the footnote by retrieving relevant information in cited texts. I first went to Augustine's De Civitate Dei (EN), but I could not locate any explicit mentions of the number 30,000. Augustine did state that Varro enumerated the number of pagan deities, without mentioning any specific figure:

Quid est ergo, quod pro ingenti beneficio Varro iactat praestare se ciuibus suis, quia non solum commemorat deos, quos coli oporteat a Romanis, uerum etiam dicit quid ad quemque pertineat? (4.22)

What is it, then, that Varro boasts he has bestowed as a very great benefit on his fellow-citizens, because he not only recounts the gods who ought to be worshipped by the Romans, but also tells what pertains to each of them?

Quid ipse Varro, quem dolemus in rebus diuinis ludos scaenicos, quamuis non iudicio proprio, posuisse, cum ad deos colendos multis locis uelut religiosus hortetur, nonne ita confitetur non se illa iudicio suo sequi, quae ciuitatem Romanam instituisse commemorat, ut, si eam ciuitatem nouam constitueret, ex naturae potius formula deos nominaque eorum se fuisse dedicaturum non dubitet confiteri? (4.31)

What says Varro himself, whom we grieve to have found, although not by his own judgment, placing the scenic plays among things divine? When in many passages he is exhorting, like a religious man, to the worship of the gods, does he not in doing so admit that he does not in his own judgment believe those things which he relates that the Roman state has instituted; so that he does not hesitate to affirm that if he were founding a new state, he could enumerate the gods and their names better by the rule of nature?

Apart from the passages cited above, 6.2-9 discusses the issue more broadly. Yet it too lacks specific reference to the number 30,000.

I then went to an edited collection of Varro's Antiquitates Rerum Humanarum et Divinarum in the hope that I might find some missing clues. However, after hours of checking and cross-referencing, I was not able to detect a single mentioning of the figure 30,000.

Further research revealed that the reference was also used in a number of other early modern publications; for instance, it appears in A History of the Heathen Mythology (1806) and A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1837); most recently, it also featured in The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry (2011), which basically took Vico's reference as granted (p.131).

The idea of "thirty thousand gods" isn't just attributed to Varro, it is also frequently attributed to Hesiod. Theologia Reformata, Vol.2 (1713) in fact lists the following right after mentioning Varro through Augustine:

Eusebius tells us that Hesiod, the Great Herald of the Gods and Goddesses, reckoned thirty thousand of them, and that another Pagan Writer made that Catalogue much larger.

This likely refers to a passage found in his Works and Days:

ἀθάνατοι φράζονται, ὅσοι σκολιῇσι δίκῃσιν
ἀλλήλους τρίβουσι θεῶν ὄπιν οὐκ ἀλέγοντες.
τρὶς γὰρ μύριοί εἰσιν ἐπὶ χθονὶ πουλυβοτείρῃ
ἀθάνατοι Ζηνὸς φύλακες θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων:
οἵ ῥα φυλάσσουσίν τε δίκας καὶ σχέτλια ἔργα
ἠέρα ἑσσάμενοι, πάντη φοιτῶντες ἐπ᾽ αἶαν. (250-255)

...and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgements; and heed not the anger of the gods. For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth.

I find Hesiod's "thirty thousand spirits" markedly different from Varro's (supposedly) enumeration of thirty thousand names of gods; however, I can't quite rule out the possibly that there was a confusion between the two.

Another possibility I've been considering is that Vico (and other early modern authors) might have access to manuscripts of Augustinian works with glosses and commentaries, and the number 30,000 was probably a remark added by later commentators that was taken for granted. Obviously this is all speculative, as I have no evidences to speak of at this point.

In short, I am still unable to find the source to the reference that "Varro enumerated 30,000 names of the gods"; it's rather clear that he did recount the deities, but where this particular number came from remains a puzzle that perhaps the History:SE community can shed light on.

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    Eusebius tells us that... - So, did you check Eusebius' writings ? After all, like Augustine, he was a fourth century Christian writer. – Lucian Aug 2 at 13:40
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    Good question but you might update the title to make it less generic to make it more useful in the future. – antlersoft Aug 2 at 14:52
  • @Lucian Yes I did, it was from Book 4, Chapter 27 of his Praeparatio Evangelica, and a footnote actually cited line 250 from Works and Days. tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_04_book4.htm – mooncatcher Aug 2 at 17:11
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I think perhaps this comes from changing definitions. Today, we tend to see two sharply-differentiated categories: natural and supernatural. We tend to think of gods as extremely powerful beings -- even most polytheisms today have a school of thought that argues that the individual gods are all facets of a single godhead -- and we have a category of minor supernatural beings which aren't gods: angels, vampires, elves, etc., etc., etc. (We'd never call a vampire a god, for instance.) This organized approach to the supernatural grew alongside our growing understanding of nature which, after all, started with cataloging and characterizing all of nature.

The ancient Roman religion was not like that. To start with, its gods -- spirits, whatever -- were not personalized. They weren't people, they we're not individuated beings, but rather were vaguer, ill-defined spirits of this or that -- Rome itself, War, Healing, Portals, etc., all the way down to spirits which were thought to be associated with every crossroads and every home.

One writer described the early Roman religion as a barely organized morass of superstitions.

Contact with Greek philosophy and the more advanced Greek civilization forced the Romans to think about their religion and to begin to systematize it. The Greeks had already started identifying their gods with various foreign gods, so they decided that the Egyptian Ammon and the Etruscan Tinia being the same as their Zeus. And in time, Roman Jupiter was added to the equivalences.

The Romans wound up with a wonderful mischmasch including equivalents of most of the Greek gods and also all with their ancestral spirits of each home and each crossroads and each just-about-anything-else.

(Note also that the Roman practice of deifying Emperors makes sense only with a fairly broad definition of a god.)

By Roman standards, were all these spirits gods? I don't think that's a meaningful question. They were less powerful than Jupiter, to be sure, but -- in early- and mid-antiquity, anyway -- there was no clear distinction. (Late antiquity is quite different, with the neo-Platonists attempting a systematic theology of the Roman paganism in hopes of offering an alternative to Christianity. I know little about that phase.)

So how many gods did they have? Who can tell by their definition? (They couldn't.) How many named gods were there? Again, "it all depends" on what you mean by "named". Whether the figure of 30,000 came from a lost manuscript of Varro, was a misinterpretation of the quoted manuscript, or from some other source, it would certainly have seemed to Augustine as perfectly reasonable. (Note that a much smaller number could also have been defended and would also have seemed reasonable to Augustine and his contemporaries.)

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I have no information about where a figure of 30,000 gods of Latium might have come from. But here is some information that gives some perspective on the numbers of gods.

I may note that there are a great number of Hindu gods who have temples and worshipers, and other gods mentioned in various sources. The total number of Hindu gods is uncertain.

Thirty-three divinities are mentioned in other ancient texts, such as the Yajurveda,[114] however, there is no fixed "number of deities" in Hinduism any more than a standard representation of "deity".[115] There is, however, a popular perception stating that there are 33 crore (330 million) deities in Hinduism.[116] Most, by far, are goddesses, state Foulston and Abbott, suggesting "how important and popular goddesses are" in Hindu culture.[115] No one has a list of the 33 category goddesses and gods, but scholars state all deities are typically viewed in Hinduism as "emanations or manifestation of genderless principle called Brahman, representing the many facets of Ultimate Reality".[115][116][117]

This concept of Brahman is not the same as the monotheistic separate God found in Abrahamic religions, where God is considered, states Brodd, as "creator of the world, above and independent of human existence", while in Hinduism "God, the universe, human beings and all else is essentially one thing" and everything is connected oneness, the same god is in every human being as Atman, the eternal Self.[117][118]

So it is often said that there are millions of Hindu gods, which are often all considered aspects of one god or of the universe.

In Japanese Shinto there are many Kami, more or less gods or spirits.

There are considered to be three main variations of kami: Amatsukami (天津神, the heavenly deities), Kunitsukami (国津神, the gods of the earthly realm), and ya-o-yorozu no kami (八百万の神, countless kami). ("八百万" literally means eight million, but idiomatically it expresses "uncountably many" and "all around"—like many East Asian cultures, the Japanese often use the number 8, representing the cardinal and ordinal directions, to symbolize ubiquity.) These classifications of kami are not considered strictly divided, due to the fluid and shifting nature of kami, but are instead held as guidelines for grouping them.[3]:56

So one category of Japanese gods and god-like spirits is described as literally eight million, but figuratively as a vast, uncountable number.

So, since ancient Roman polytheistic religions were vaguely similar in some ways to Hinduism and Shinto, I find it easy to believe that some polytheists in the Roman Empire may have believed there were tens of gods, and others might have thought that there were hundreds of gods, and others might have thought that there were thousands of gods. And possibly some polytheists in the Roman Empire may have estimated that there were millions of gods.

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