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The Religion of Rome

Origins of Roman Religion

According to some sources the religion of the very earliest Romans was simple animism: beliefs were centered around spirits which were not personified. Modern sources however have rejected this theory, stating instead that belief in the Roman gods was present in the very earliest religion.

Rites of the early religion were simple and exact. As Rome grew, the beliefs of those who were conquered were slowly integrated into Roman culture and religion. Many Greek gods and rituals became a part of Roman religion, and through study of Greek art, literature and mythology, many Greek gods came to be identified with Roman gods.

The early Romans had no religious temples or statues to honor the spirits or gods. The first temples and statues of gods in Rome were built by Etruscan kings. The first of these, a temple on Capitaline hill, was built to honor Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

Contract With the Gods

On the most basic level, Romans saw their religion as a contract between man and the gods. For this reason, ceremonies were performed with the greatest attention to detail; if mistakes were made, it was believed that the gods would no longer be compelled to uphold their end of the contract. Along with the idea of a contract with the gods came the practice of the votum. The votum was a specific vow to the gods. If one wanted a specific favor or blessing, he would promise to complete certain rituals or sacrifices if his prayers were answered.

Religion Within the Family

Within the family, the pater familias, of head of the household acted as the priest of the household. He oversaw all religious activities within the home with the help of his wife.

One of the most important aspects of the family religion was the family cult. Romans believed that offerings to their deceased ancestors were crucial to their happiness in the afterlife. Furthermore, they feared that if they neglected their duties to their ancestors, the unhappy ancestral spirits would haunt them and their families. Because of this, Romans felt that it was vital to see that their ancestors were well cared for during their lifetimes and in future generations. Carrying on the family name, then, was a major concern of the pater familias.

In order to ensure preservation of the family, marriage was viewed as a solemn religious duty. Before the wedding, the auspices were consulted to ensure the approval of the gods and a favorable marriage. The new wife was completely separated from her family and taken into her husband's family.

Proper worship of the household gods and spirits was unquestionably just as important as the ancestral cult. Prayers and offerings were usually performed in the space of time between dinner and desert, though some especially pious families chose to perform this duty in the mornings as well. These duties were performed every day, and all family occasions were accompanied by ceremonies. Each gens (clan) had its own sacra, or rites, which were considered to be a necessity not only for the family itself, but also for the state.

Roman Priestly Colleges

Within Rome there existed several orders, of colleges, of priests. Some of them were devoted to one or more gods, such the Salii, who worshipped Mars and the Salii Colini who devoted themselves to Quirinus (the deified Romulus). Several oversaw various public events or works. The pontifices arranged the calendar, and the augures performed the duty of interpreting the will of the gods through reading the auspices. The auspices were taken before any public occasion or action to ensure that the gods were pleased. One priestly college that was very important to Rome was the Commission of Fifteen. They were in charge of the Sibylline books which were said to foretell the history of Rome.

Perhaps the best known priestly college was the College of Vesta, or the Virgines Vestales. The Vestal Virgins were charged with the duty of caring for the sacred fire at the Aedes Vestal (temple of Vesta). Vestals were selected from girls between the ages of six and ten years old, from families in which both parents were still living. They served for thirty years, spending ten years learning, ten years performing their duties and ten years training new vestals.

The Gods of the Romans

A good number of the gods worshipped in Rome came from conquered lands. Many came from Greece and a good number came from the Orient.

  • Jupiter-The Father of the gods, and the greatest god. Also known as a god of light, the King of the Gods, and the Lord of Justice. He was called on by men to witness agreements.
  • Juno- Wife of Jupiter
  • Janus-God of doors, the beginning and the ending. He was once the supreme god of the state but was later replaced by Jupiter. The doors of his temple were closed in peace and open in times of war.
  • Saturn-God of crops
  • Venus-Goddess of gardens and love
  • Mars-God of war and agriculture
  • Vesta-Goddess of the hearth
  • Minerva-Goddess of wisdom and patroness of craftsmen and guilds
  • Diana-Goddess of the hunt, originally a wood spirit from Aricia.
  • Hercules-Originally from the Tibur, worshipped as a god of commerce
  • Mercury- God of commerce, originally from Cumal
  • Bacchus, Ceres, Proserpina-Greek gods brought into worship in Rome on the advice of the Sibylline Oracle
  • Apollo-God of healing
  • Aesculpius-God of medicine
  • Magna Mater- (Cybele)-originally from the orient, it was ordained that Romans should never be her priests once the nature of her worship became known
  • The Evolution of Roman Religion

    After the origination of Roman religion from various sources and peoples, its importance waned as the study of Greek philosophy waned during the late republic. The importance of religion was renewed, however by Caesar Augustus. Roman religion grew as it blended with some Eastern and Oriental religions, and cults such as the Cult of Magna Mater gained followers. The Cult of Isis and the Cult of Mithras developed from Eastern religions.

    During the Imperial Age, the Cult of the Emperor developed. The practice of deification allowed Emperors to be worshipped as gods, and the Cult of the Emperor started to take the place of the old state religion in the provinces, although in Rome itself it was not permitted to worship an emperor while he still lived.

    Rome was home to many followers of Judaism, and the religion made progress in some parts of the Empire. Christianity later came from the East, and became popular with Orientals and the lower classes. As Christianity spread, the older religions slowly diminished.

    Showerman, Grant Ph D. Rome and the Romans. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1931.
    Mills, Dorothy. The Book of the Ancient Romans. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1937.
    Johnston, Mary. Private Life of the Romans.
    Johnston, Mary. Roman Life. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1957.

    This article was provided by forum member Lost Warrior

    Did you know?

    Animism (from animus, or anima, mind or soul), originally means the doctrine of spiritual beings.


    Roman Religion - Related Topic: Roman Mythology


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