The ancient Romans were notorious borrowers of other religions. After adapting the Olympian gods from the Greeks, many Romans embraced the mystery religions of the Middle East in the second and third centuries. That, oddly enough, set the stage for Christianity and the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire.
"The Romans were the most ecumenical people that ever lived," said Paul Benson, professor of English, religion and humanities at Mountain View College. "They were interested in incorporating the culture of whomever they conquered."
Mr. Benson will provide a glimpse of these religions in a series of lectures, "Religions of Roman Asia," beginning Thursday at the Crow Collection of Asian Art. (In ancient Roman times, "Asia" referred to what is now called the Middle East, including Persia and Egypt.)
The first lecture will focus on "Foundations of the Pharaonic Faith," looking at basic elements of the Egyptian religion. The second lecture, on June 9, will look at "Mother Isis and the Egyptian Holy Family."
"Isis' story is very parallel to that of the Virgin Mother," said Dr. Benson. According to legend, Isis embarked on a pilgrimage to find her murdered husband, parting the Red Sea along the way. She found him, and he sired a son, Horace, who became a sun god.
"The belief was that nobody could gain eternal life without the intervention of the son," said Dr. Benson. Later on, Isis' story "made the Christian story more palatable." He added that Christian missionaries "sold" Christianity by relating Jesus to the Egyptian sun god.
A follow-up series in September will look at the Mother Goddess cult in ancient Rome and Mithraism, a syncretistic faith evolved out of Persian Zoroastrianism that focused on the hero god Mithras.
All of these mystery religions eventually dominated the Roman population and usurped the Olympian pantheon of Gods to become the state religion. And had fate taken a slightly different twist, Dr. Benson says, they could have easily elbowed out Christianity at that point in history.
"With a little different scenario, it might well have become Mithraism that ended up dominating Rome," he said.