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Catsos- World History Honors 1
Roman Religion
Religious practices among the ancient Romans were as diverse as they were important. The
ancient state existed first and foremost to serve the gods and ensure their goodwill. State
priests, communities, families, and individuals all contributed to the pax deorum ("peace of the
gods") and the cultus deorum ("cultivation of the gods"). Though Roman religion changed over
the centuries in some important respects, the Romans believed, both before and after their
conversion to Christianity, that their good relations with the gods, or God, was responsible for
their success as a nation. From its earliest days, Rome witnessed a variety of rites designed to
maintain those good relations, some of which were native to the Romans, while others arrived
with imported gods.
Chief among Rome's earliest religious rites were those pertaining to the needs, fears, and
desires of an agricultural community. Farmers wanted good crops, good weather, and peace to
see to their harvests. Individuals and small farming communities performed various rites in
order to placate the gods or seek their help. Often "help" meant nothing more than
noninterference: the Romans believed in a multitude of spirits, the majority of which were
assumed to remain neutral toward people as long as one appeased them. One such ritual
was lustratio, a ritual of purification in which the farmer led a pig, a bull, and a sheep
(collectively called a Suovetaurilia) around his land and recited prayers. At the end of the circuit,
the farmer would sacrifice the animals and ask the gods and the local spirit connected to the
land that they accept the sacrifice. The idea behind that ritual, and behind Roman religion in
general, was the concept of do ut des, which meant "I give so that you give." One prayed,
sacrificed, and performed rituals for the gods in return for their aid or benevolence. Even after
Rome became a great city, rites of purification continued to be performed. In the
urban lustratio, the pig, bull, and sheep were led around the city rather than a field.
The head of each family, the eldest male, or paterfamilias, was responsible for the correct
observation of the rites. There were any number of rites a family might perform, but normally
they cultivated relationships with the gods and with spirits that were most directly connected
to the family. For example, each house had spirits of its own that looked after the house and
the family. Some of the earliest deities of the Roman home and the object of the primary
domestic religious observance throughout most of Roman history were the Penates, spirits who
looked after the cupboard and who were associated with Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. A
similar set of spirits, the Lares, had a shrine in the home called a lararium and were accorded
special ceremonies designed to obtain their goodwill. For example, when food fell on the
ground, it was given to the Lares in the form of a burnt offering. The idea behind that practice
most likely stemmed from the associations the Lares had with the dead, particularly deceased
Catsos- World History Honors 1
ancestors (the Romans believed that the floor of the house was connected with ghosts). Many
of the prayers and rituals those early farmers practiced for good crops, a happy home, and
protection from all manner of ills were incorporated into the state cults.
The Romans thought of the state as the family writ large—that is, the state was like the family,
only larger. Most of the domestic cults, like those of the Penates and Lares, had larger, public
versions that special priesthoods attended. As Rome grew and people shared more interests in
common, they appointed official priests to look after the spiritual needs of the community.
Individuals still performed rites within their homes, but the state took on part of the
responsibility for the "cultivation of the gods"; thus, there was less chance of a prayer or rite
being forgotten.
Indeed, in both private and public, the emphasis in Roman religious practices was on the
correct performance of a ceremony (orthopraxy), not belief (orthodoxy) or one's moral
standing. Good or bad, a man needed to appease the gods, who were assumed to be largely
indifferent to a person's moral quality. Pietas ("duty") and cultus ("care, tending") were what
maintained the "peace of the gods," not one's ethics per se. Thus, Roman religious ceremonies
and rites remained largely unchanged for centuries. What worked in the beginning worked in
the present. The proof, as far as the Romans were concerned, was that their success as a state
seemed only to increase: they had conquered new lands and peoples, and by the first century
BCE, Rome ruled most of the Mediterranean Sea region.
The Romans had many gods and goddesses, the more important of which had elaborate
temples and priesthoods. The principal deities of the Roman pantheon were similar to those of
other Indo-European peoples, particularly the Greeks. For example, Jupiter, the king of the
gods, was a sky god who shared much with other such Indo-European sky gods as the Greek
god Zeus. Mars, the Roman god of war and the principal god after Jupiter, was linked to Ares.
Juno, an ancient Italian goddess associated with fertility and women, was paired with Hera.
Early in their history, the Romans syncretized their gods with those of the Greeks, from whom
they borrowed a mythology and in some cases anthropomorphism. Each of those gods had an
official temple and body of priests or priestesses that the state maintained. Jupiter's temple, for
example, was served by an influential priest called the flamen dialis.
There were a number of colleges of priests, but there were also other religious officials. Among
those, two of the most important were the augurs and haruspices. Vows, prayers, and even
sacrifices to the gods did not guarantee their favor, but one could attempt to discover, through
divination, the will of the gods. Augurs sought such information by interpreting the flight
pattern of birds or how certain birds, like crows or chickens, ate. Haruspices read the entrails of
Catsos- World History Honors 1
animals. The condition, position, color, and a wide variety of signs gave the haruspex insight
into the divine will. People from all walks of life, from the greatest general to the poorest
fishmonger, consulted those experts.
From their earliest days, the Romans were in constant contact with other peoples. From the
Etruscans, who ruled Rome for several centuries before the foundation of the Roman Republic
in 509 BCE, to the Greeks, who settled much of southern Italy, to the Celts, who lived in the
north of Italy, the Romans learned to accommodate new gods and practices. The Capitoline
Triad, for instance, which grouped Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva together, was established by the
Etruscans. When the Romans ousted the Etruscans in 509, they retained that cult. Even gods
from far away could find a place in Roman religion. For instance, Cybele, an important mother
goddess from Lydia, was brought to Rome in 205 BCE. The traditional cults did not mean that
one could not join new ones. Many Romans became members of so-called mystery religions.
The cults of Mithras, an Indo-Aryan god, and Isis, an Egyptian goddess, were two of the more
popular mystery cults that promised the believer an afterlife. Even when fighting foreign
enemies, the Romans were careful to placate the enemy gods—sometimes even going so far as
to incorporate their worship.
Festivals, called feriae, likewise ensured that the gods were happy. The Romans had many
festivals, some honoring a specific god, others a famous person, and still others were a part of
the harvest celebrations. Most took place outside the appropriate temple and included prayers,
processions, sacrifices, and other such ritual practices as purifications. The Saturnalia was one
of the most popular festivals. That celebration, which honored the god Saturn, took place on
the winter solstice and was a joyous affair. Although in origin it took place on one day,
December 17, it was so popular that in time, Saturnalia was held over several days. The official
ceremonies began outside the temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum and often included a large
public feast. No one worked on that day, and people of all stations visited family and friends,
attended parties, and gave gifts. Slaves enjoyed Saturnalia, too, as they often switched places
with their masters for a day.
With the fall of the Roman Republic, much of the religious responsibility fell to the emperor.
The first Roman emperor, Augustus, took on the office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, and
thus oversaw the other priests. When the emperors became Christian three centuries later,
they were still regarded as God's representative on earth. The early emperors, in addition to
acting as the empire's connection with the gods, were believed to become gods upon death. In
the third century CE, when the Roman Empire fell into civil war and saw 20 emperors in nearly
50 years, the emperor's divine connection received increased focus. With so many vying for the
imperial purple, birth, might, and succession did not count for much—what did count was
Catsos- World History Honors 1
having and displaying divine favor. For example, the emperor Aurelian instated the cult of the
sun god Sol Invictus, or the "invincible sun," whom he claimed aided his rule. That idea had
wide currency, and when the emperors became Christian, they continued to emphasize God's
patronage of their throne.
Christianity, which had been a minor but growing cult within the Roman Empire, was adopted
by the Roman emperor Constantine I. From that time forward, Christianity received imperial
support, and in time, it became more than the official religion of the Roman Empire; it was a
sign of Romanitas ("Romanness"). Rome's traditional religious traditions persisted, but by the
later fifth century CE, paganism quickly disappeared from the few rural places in Italy where it
had survived.
Source: Emmons, Jim Tschen. "Roman religion." World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABCCLIO, 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.
Questions for Homework: Answer each in a complete paragraph on a separate piece of paper.
1. How did early Roman religious practices reflect the needs of Rome’s farmers?
2. How did Romans adapt the religions of people that the conquered?