Rome, Ancient

Rome, Ancient


The ancient Romans viewed dreams as divine messages and, like many other traditional societies, sought to use them as oracles of the future. The emperors Caligula and Tiberius, for example, both saw their own deaths in dreams. Among native divinities, the agricultural deities Fauna and Faunus were particularly associated with dreams.

While the contrast between ancient Rome and ancient Greece can be overstated, it is nevertheless true that the Romans were predominantly practical people, content to borrow heavily from their more cultured neighbors, the Greeks. Following the lead of the Greeks, the Romans established numerous asclepieions—temples dedicated to Aesculapius, the deified doctor who healed or provided healing and medical advice in dreams. The principal activity at the asclepieions was the seeking of cures via the technique of dream incubation. People went to asclepieions to bathe, fast, perform rituals, and then sleep with the intention of receiving a healing dream from Aesculapius. The cult of Aesculapius was officially transplanted to Rome in 293 B.C.E., when the central Aesculapius at Epidaurus sent a giant snake—regarded as a form of Aesculapius himself—to Rome to halt a disastrous plague. The subsequent waning of the plague was attributed to Aesculapius, and he became a popular god among the Romans. Other foreign divinities in whose temples dream incubation for the purpose of healing took place included Isis and Serapis.

As one might well anticipate, some Roman thinkers took a less religious perspective on dreams. The naturalistic philosopher Lucretius, for instance, noted that many elements of dreams can be explained as the residues of daily experience: “Generally to whatever pursuit a man is closely tied down and strongly attached, on whatever subject we have much previously dwelt, the mind having been put to more than usual strain in it, during sleep we, for the most part, fancy that we are engaged in the same” (Lucretius, cited in Van de Castle, pp. 65–66—see Sources). The Roman orator and thinker Cicero was skeptical about the significance of dreams, reserving particular scorn for professional dream interpreters. At one point he went so far as to remark that if dreams did have any meaning, it was certainly not within the power of most dream interpreters—who were, for the most part, grossly ignorant—to derive such meanings. Citing dreams for which professional interpreters had derived contradictory significance, he dismissed the practice completely: “Let us reject, therefore, this divination of dreams, as well as eleven other kinds. For, to speak truly, that superstition has extended itself through all nations, and has oppressed the intellectual energies of all men, and has betrayed them into endless imbecilities” (Cicero, cited in Van de Castle, p. 66—see Sources).

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