Devotio: Ancient Roman Self-Sacrifice in Battle

as Man's Influence on Invisible Forces

(from "Metaphysics of War")




[...] Although this is not widely known our ancient Roman traditions contained motifs concerning the disinterested, heroic offering of one's own person in the name of the State for the purpose of victory analogous to those which we have seen in the Japanese mysticism of combat. We are alluding to the so-called devotio. Its presuppositions are equally sacred. What acts in it is the general belief of the traditional man that invisible forces are at work behind the visible ones and that man, in his turn, can influence them.

According to the ancient Roman ritual of devotio, as we understand it, a warrior, and above all a chieftain, can facilitate victory by means of a mysterious unleashing of forces determined by the deliberate sacrifice of his own person, combined with the will not to come out of the fray alive. Let us recall the execution of this ritual by Consul Decius in the war against the Latins (340 B.C.), and also the repetition of it - exalted by Cicero (Fin. II, 19, 61; Tusc. I, 37, 39) - by two other members of the same family. This ritual had its own precise ceremony, testifying to the perfect knowledge and lucidity of this heroic-sacrificial offer. In proper hierarchical order, first the Olympian divinities of the Roman State, Janus, Jupiter, Quirinus, and then, immediately following this, the God of war, Pater Mars, and then, finally, certain indigenous gods, were invoked: "gods - it is said - which confer power to heroes over their enemies"; by the virtue of the sacrifice which these ancient Romans proposed to perform the gods were called upon "to grant strength and victory to the Roman people of the Quirites, and to sweep up with terror, fright and death the enemies of our people" (cf. Livy, VIII, 9). Proposed by the pontifex, the words of this formula were uttered by the warrior, arrayed in the praetesta, his foot upon a javelin. After that he plunged into the fray, to die. Incidentally, here the transformation of the sense of the word 'devotio' must be noticed. While it applied originally to this order of ideas, that is, to a heroic, sacrificial and evocative action, in the later Empire it came to mean simply the fidelity of the citizen and his scrupulosity in payment to the State treasury (devotio rei annonariaei. As Bouché-Leclercq'' puts it, in the end, "after Caesar was replaced by the Christian God, devotio means simply religiosity, the faith ready for all sacrifices, and then, in a further degeneration of the expression, devotion in the common sense of the word, that is, constant concern for salvation, affirmed in a meticulous and tremulous practice of the cult". Leaving this aside in the ancient Roman devotio we find, as we have shown, very precise signs of a mysticism aware of heroism and of sacrifice, binding the feeling of a super-natural and super-human reality tightly to the will to struggle with dedication in the name of one's own Chieftain, one's own State and one's own race. There are plenty of testimonies to an 'Olympian' feeling of combat and victory peculiar to our ancient traditions. We have discussed this extensively elsewhere. Let us only recall here that in the ceremony of the triumph the victorious dux displayed in Rome the insignia of the Olympian god to indicate the real force within him which had brought about his victory; let us recall also that beyond the mortal Caesar Romanity worshipped Caesar as 'perennial victor', that is, as a sort of supra-personal force of Roman destiny.

Thus, if succeeding times have made other views prevail the most ancient traditions still show us that the ideal of an Olympian 'heroism' has been our ideal also, and that our people also have experienced the absolute offering, the consummation of a whole existence in a force hurled against the enemy in a gesture which justifies the most complete evocation of abysmal forces; and which brings about, finally, a victory which transforms the victors and enables their participation in supra-personal and 'fatal' powers. And so in our heritage points of reference are indicated which stand in radical opposition to the sub-personal and collectivist heroism we discussed above, and not only to that, but to every tragic and irrational vision, which ignores what is stronger than fire and iron, and stronger than life and death.



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