Dreams in Greece and Rome

The ancient Greeks continued many of the dream beliefs and practices of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hebrews. According to Homer, dreams were events that were witnessed: The Greeks did not “have” dreams but “saw” them. In the earliest beliefs, the gods made real visits to the dreamer, entering a bedroom through the keyhole and standing at the head of the bed while they delivered their message.

Like the Hebrews, the Greeks made little or no distinction between dreams and visions. Around the seventh century BcE, a shamanic and Eastern idea about dreams was introduced to Greek culture: rather than being visited by gods, the dreamer traveled out-of-body at night to meet the gods.

The great Greek philosophers paid a lot of attention to dreams. Plato (427?–347 BcE) believed that dreams could be controlled in order to see truth. Control came from leading a righteous life.

Aristotle (384–322 BcE), one of Plato’s pupils, took a radical departure from the conventional dream wisdom of the times. He said most dreams are entirely natural and are the result of ordinary experiences. The gods would not waste themselves on sending dreams to ordinary mortals. Nor would the gods waste dreams on animals. It was obvious that animals dreamed because of the way they twitch and moan during sleep, Aristotle said.

Aristotle’s views about dreams were not popular during his day, but they did influence Roman thinkers and, many centuries later, important Christian theologians and philosophers.

The Roman philosopher Cicero (106 BcE–43 BcE) said that if the gods truly wanted to warn people of impending events, they should do so during the day and under clear circumstances, not during the confusion of dreams at night.

On the opposite side, Augustus Caesar (63 BcE–14 cE) took dreams so seriously that he proclaimed a new law: anyone who dreamed about the Roman commonwealth was required to proclaim the dream in the marketplace. Plutarch (46?–c.120) argued that everybody—not only priests— could experience prophecy in dreams.

As Christianity struggled to gain a foothold after the death of Je-sus, it survived on a merger of Greek, Roman, and Hebrew cultures. But as Christianity grew, dreams declined in importance.

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