It is proposed to answer this question by looking at the foundation myths of Rome and the ways this was used to boost the Imperial power of Rome. Then to move on to the way Emperors used myth for their own ends, promoting themselves and trying to mould society, then ending with how myth was used by Romans in everyday living, before moving to a conclusion on the most important way myth was used. To begin with myths on the subject of the foundation of Rome and the ways in which they were used.
The foundation of the city is usually dated to around the eighth century BCE and there are a number of myths associated with the foundation of the city. The mythical founders of the City were Romulus and Remus, sons of the god Mars, who were suckled by a she -wolf (wolf being an animal associated with Mars) ( M&L P 667). The foundation myths also included the stories of Aeneas, the rape of the Sabine women and the betrayal of Rome by Tarpeia.
To expand on these myths and especially the use these were put to by the ruling classes of Rome, it is best to look at histories written in the early days of the Empire. The most famous of these were, Titus Livius known as Livy, a historian, living between 59 BCE and 17 CE, was responsible for a history of Rome in 142 volumes, written during the reign of Augustus and covering the period of 753 BCE to 9 BCE (ii 110) and Virgil, a poet and historian, living between 70 BCE and 19 BCE responsible for the epic Aeneid, which tracked the hero Aeneas from Troy to Italy (ii 112-13).
Both of these writers can be said to be supporters of Augustus (formerly Octavian) despite, at least in the case of Livy, being supporters of a return to a Republic. Augustus wished to be seen as a saviour of the Republic and first among equals and wished to guide Rome into an era of peace after a long drawn out civil war.
Virgil’s epic was on the origins of Rome or rather what happened before the founding of Rome and is the story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero, one of the bravest of the Trojans and was protected by the gods, after the fall of Troy, he escaped and travelled extensively until Carthage, where he was waylaid by the founder of the city, Queen Dido, who fell in love with him, but the gods ordered him to continue his journey, until he reached the river Tiber where after many battles with the tribe Rutuli, he allied himself with King Evander and with his aid defeated his enemy Tumus king of Rutuli and then founded Lavinium the forerunner of Rome (iii 20-21).
Livy’s histories take up the story from the founding of Rome, starting with a prologue, which points out the immensity of his job saying’ the task of writing a history of our nation from Rome’s earliest days fills me I confess, with some misgiving’ (iv p17). After a brief aside into similar territory as Virgil about Troy and Aeneas and the sons of Aeneas who were kings who after some generations fell to murder each other whilst a niece Rhea Silva, a vestal Virgin was raped by the god Mars, and produced twins from this act.
The king fearing competition from these, put the mother into prison and condemned the twins to be drowned by leaving them on the banks of the Tiber, where the legend has, they were rescued and suckled by a she wolf. The twins then founded their own city calling it Rome after Romulus, but they split the city, Romulus taking the Palatine hill and Remus, the Aventine. Sadly, the twins argued and Romulus, killed Remus and became sole ruler of Rome (iv 20-21). The rape of the Sabine women was another such legend. As Rome was now mainly a male preserve, there became a need for women to act as wives and mothers, so a plan was hatched to invite local tribes to a festival in honour of Neptune, after putting these at their ease, the Romans rose up and seized all the women and created panic amongst the tribes allowing them to take the women safely (iv p24-25).
Livy also deals with the story of the daughter of Tarpeius, who was bribed by the Sabines to let them into the fortress of Rome, once inside she was crushed to death by the shields of the Sabines in payment for her treachery, but the Sabines were soon put to flight (iv p26). All these myths were more or less designed to bind Rome together under his leadership after a long civil war, and he used the images on coins and on and in public buildings by design to impress not only Romans, but the world without. Augustus, being Julius Caesars adopted heir, had been involved in a civil war with his one-time’ fellow consul Mark Anthony and his partner, the former mistress of Julius Caesar, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, He beat the pair at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE, but this left Rome in a fragmented state.
Augustus made great use of the foundation myth to unite the people behind him, restoring ‘the hut of Romulus’ and making use of images for statuary and for friezes throughout the city in order to ally himself with the founders of Rome, and present himself as a second founder after the troubles of the years preceding (ii 108-109). Moving on to look at how Augustus’s successors used and manipulated myths for their own uses. With Augustus and some successors being deified, and worshipped, most subsequent emperors followed Augustus’s footsteps in the use of foundation myths in order to bind Romans to them. The Emperor Nero, for instance was regarded as son of a god as his step-father Claudius had been deified. It was considered of utmost importance within the upper classes in Rome to claim descent from a Greek or Trojan hero.
Genealogical trees being traced for all the elite, with the Julian line, including Nero claiming direct descendancy from Aeneas, and thus from the original fathers of Rome, giving the impression that there was a right to command in the family (v p144). They had also adopted Apollo as a familial god, wearing symbols associated with him and building temples and public buildings to him, with Augustus also associating the Julian line with the god Mars, father of Romulus and Reamus as well (v p145). This was just a few of the images used by Emperors to impress and to establish their right to rule which was of extreme importance in discouraging discontent and revolt by the populace and creating a positive image.
Creation myths were not the only myths used by the ruling classes as for example, Nero considered himself an artist and had a great love for the stage and used his acting and singing abilities to take part in the staging of myths, increasing the association of the Emperor with gods and heroes and even to coins, where with Nero’s head on one side and Apollos on the other, the aim would be to give the populace, the idea that they were twinned and to give the overall impression that divinity was shared (vi fig 2. 8).
Emperors all had need to link themselves and their families to the gods and heroes, using myth, in order not only to preserve power but to carry the population of Rome behind their acts. Apart from the use of myth for the purpose of personal and dynastic aggrandisement, myth was also used in the normal Roman’s everyday life, for example myth was used in theatre for entertainment purposes. At least some knowledge of myth was widespread amongst Romans of all classes.
The tales were acted out in plays and interpreted in dance and were even used in the amphitheatre with gladiators and arena victims being given the names or dressed as gods or heroes from the myths (ii p160), even in pantomime, where dancers would mime a story from myth accompanied by music (v p194). Even decor in Roman homes, such as mosaics and wall paintings included figures from myth, for example a wall painting from Herculaneum, showing Hippolytus and Phaedra (v p14) and a wall painting showing Apollo playing a lyre from a villa in Moragine, Italy (ii p158). Also figures from myth were used on rings, lamps and many such commonplace household items. Myth was also used as an explanation and belief system for what happened in life and after death.
The Romans seemed to have adapted the older Greek myths for explanation of death and the afterlife, using a version of Hades owing much to Homer and Plato, expanded on by Vergil who expanded on the geography of Hades with five rivers to cross, the Styx, Acheron, Lethe, Cocytus and Phlegethon being ferried by the ferryman Charon to the entrance guarded by the dog Cerberus before reaching the realm of Hades and its king Pluto, husband to Persephone (I p359-385). Myth was made great use of in epitaphs to the dead although these practices seemed to have been scoffed at by the upper classes as shown by this by Lucian on funerals shows ‘The general herd, whom philosophers call the laity, trust Homer and Hesiod and the other myth makers in these matters, and take their poetry for a law unto themselves (iv p65).
Scenes from myth were also shown on sarcophagi, with one of the most popular being that of Persephone and Adonis, a love story which ends in Adonis’s death and transformation into a flower which blooms annually, signifying rebirth (v p258). Another subject was the myth of Diana and Actaeon an example of which is in the Louvre in Paris (vi p54). Myth in people’s everyday life, especially pertaining to an afterlife, seems to point to a widespread belief in the gods and their power over life and death. In conclusion, the question on which was the most important way myth was used in the Roman Empire, this question can be very open to interpretation.
From Augustus onwards, Emperors used myth not only for their self-aggrandisement, but as a way of uniting Rome and instilling civic pride in the homeland, an early form of nationalism, so was very important in not only keeping Rome as a living entity, but enabling Emperors to continue to expand the Empire and defend its borders from all its enemies. It was also used to communicate with the populace, what was expected of them in way of behaviour as well as communicating personal qualities, like status, power and education. Would also be used to present the political agendas of the elite as they would be seen to ally themselves with certain gods and myths all of these uses would be important, but are they more important than the more personal uses put to myth by the ordinary person on any Roman street.
With the elite viewing a large part of the population as uneducated it may have been seen as belief in myths acted as a control mechanism, and concern with the gods being deeply imbedded and thus helped largely in the observance of Roman law. The normal Roman citizen lived with myth as a central part of their lives and these stories actually set behaviours not only by example but by creating fear of punishment from the gods, for a transgression that had been told in myth.
The final overall choice in to the more important use, has to be, the use made by Augustus and his successors, this was the ultimate usage of myth in building first a united city and in the end a united Empire, stretching from Asia and Africa to the borders of Scotland. This seen in comparison to the normal usage in life and death of the population, must be the most important.