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Roman Religion
1. “By pietas and fides the Romans Reached Their Present
The strength of Rome rested on a number of foundations. Among these were its extraordinarily vital
political culture and its capacity to sustain warfare for extended periods of time. Previous chapters
have emphasized these features, but in this chapter and the next, focus shifts to less obvious sources
of Rome’s strength, namely the special character of its society whose dual foundations were the
household and the civic religion of the city.
Roman Religiosity
During the period of the Republic, outsiders were struck by the religiosity of the Romans. In the
second century b.c., Polybius, a Greek statesman and historian who lived much of his adult life
in Rome, claimed that it was “scrupulous fear of the gods that kept the Roman commonwealth
together” (6.56). A century or so later another expatriate Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, was
also impressed by the concern of Romans for religion. Writing about the second king of Rome,
Dionysius noted that as a result of Numa’s activities, Rome possessed more religious observances
than any other city “Greek or non-Greek, even among those who thought of themselves as most godfearing” (2.63). Needless to say, Romans themselves promoted the belief that fidelity to their oaths
and treaties and their general reverence for the gods explained their imperial success.
“The gods look kindly on these qualities, for it was by pietas and fides that Romans reached their
present eminence” declared the consul Q. Marcius Philippus in 169 b.c. (Livy 44.1). Cicero summed
up this viewpoint succinctly:
I am convinced that Romulus [the first king of Rome] by establishing the auspices (auspicia—the
arts of divination) and Numa [the second king] by establishing the rituals (sacra) laid the founda-
86 chapter 4. roman religion • 87
tions of our state which surely could never have become so great unless we had taken such care
to placate the immortal gods. (Cicero, De natura deorum 3.5–6)
We should not, however, assume that when Romans referred to religion they had the same thing in
mind that we might have.
2. Religion: Ancient and Modern Assumptions
“True” Religion: Modern and Ancient Assumptions
popular assumptions: sincerity Expectations about the nature of religious belief and behavior are deeply ingrained in the cultures of all societies. Even among modern Western non-religious
people, assumptions about the supposedly “true” nature of religion are often simply projections of
impressions left over from two thousand years of culturally embedded Judaeo-Christian religious
practice. Among such assumptions, especially in the United States, is the belief that “true” religion
is characterized above all by sincerity of belief. Rituals, being merely external acts, degrade true
religion. Prayer should not be just words recited by rote. “Hypocrisy” is the charge most often
directed at religious people who are judged to have failed to live up to the moral dictates of their
religion or are perceived to be “insincere” or inconsistent in their beliefs. “True” religion is held to
be well-attuned to the ever-changing needs of the individual, and unlike “organized” religion, promotes unconditional love; it is neither dogmatic nor judgmental.
separation of church and state Another characteristic feature of contemporary Western religious practice that is popularly assumed to be true of all religions is the existence of a professional
clergy and the separation of the affairs of religion and the state. From this perspective, politicians
and clergy are assumed to pursue distinct professions in segregated, autonomous institutions. The
church is the realm of the sacred, the state of the secular, the two being fundamentally distinct arenas of human activity. It causes no surprise, therefore, to Westerners if groups of men and women
band together to form voluntary communities—such as monasteries, convents and communes—that
follow their own, self-devised sets of rules, independent and often in rejection of society at large.
believers think otherwise: the master code of reality Modern believers, of course, would
amplify, qualify or reject many of these presuppositions, beginning with the individualistic assumptions of popular belief noted above. The great monotheistic faiths are all, by definition, ritualistic,
communal and, in their own self-understanding, based on truth, not myth. Believers are ritually
initiated into and sustained by their membership in the people of Israel, the Christian Church, or the
Muslim Umma. Their primary identities derive from their association with their fellow believers.
Divine revelation, seen as the master code of reality, is mediated through each of the faith communities and interpreted according to sophisticated modes of analysis developed by them over millennia.
In none of the monotheistic faiths is there a belief that the individual meets the divine in a purely
one-on-one relationship independent of the believing community.
truth claims Adherents of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—assert
that their beliefs are true. These truths, they claim, are not the projections of human longings to make
sense of the universe or the products of some form or other of self-deception. Rather, they faithfully
reflect the direct revelations of God in history through historical acts such as the Exodus from Egypt
or through the words of the prophets or other inspired writers. Monotheism, its followers believe,
88 • part i: the rise of rome
was not the cultural product or discovery of humans but the result of God’s own self-revelation.
Abraham, Moses and the other prophets did not find God as a result of their own religious quests;
instead, it was God who initiated the action of self-revelation in personal encounters in historically
verifiable times and places.
At the core of the three faiths’ belief systems is the conviction that God’s revelations produce
universal and eternally valid truths about God’s nature, the nature of humanity, of human society
and of the natural order. The truthfulness of God’s revelation alone is what validates the authority of
the faiths. The words of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, enshrined in sacred writings and traditions,
transcend locale, time, and human culture. The intervention of God in human affairs as recorded in
sacred scriptures is understood to produce a true understanding of how the events of history have,
and are, unfolding and how eventually history will end. In varying degrees the three faiths emphasize orthodoxy (correct belief) and orthopraxy (correct behavior). Of the three, Christianity has,
for theological reasons, greater concern with orthodoxy than do Judaism or Islam. Though animal
sacrifice has a peripheral role in Judaism and Islam and animal sacrifice was practiced by Jews until
the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, none of the monotheistic faiths consider animal sacrifice
central to their worship traditions.
True Religion for the Romans: What it Was Not
Romans and most other ancient peoples would have regarded all or almost all of the presuppositions
and assertions about the nature of religion set out above as bizarre, irrational, and potentially dangerous. The truth claims of the Abrahamic religions, the singularity of the divine, the infallible ability
of sacred writings to provide moral guidance, the absence of animal sacrifice, the autonomy of the
faith community and much else were, in fact, taken as challenges to the established order as soon as
monotheistic Christianity emerged as a major force in the Empire.
no all-powerful god The gods of the Romans were neither omnipotent nor omnipresent.
Many of them were extremely powerful, and Jupiter at the head of the pantheon of gods was the
most powerful, but none equaled the omnipotence or singularity of the god of the later monotheistic
faiths. Except in the teaching of some schools of philosophy, there was no universal, all-powerful
divinity. The idea of a god who existed outside the universe and was its creator was abhorrent to the
philosophers for whom matter was eternal and could not have been created. That Christians came
at some point to argue that the cosmos was created out of nothingness (ex nihilo) was seen as (yet
another) proof of their irrationality.
no creeds Unlike the monotheistic faiths, Roman religion had no developed creeds and
closely related ethical codes. Beliefs were not formalized and expressed in philosophical language
or in language borrowed from sacred texts, nor was moral behavior expressly connected with divine
revelation. Roman religion was not a matter of truth but of social cohesion. It was authentic if it
affirmed and sustained the community. The efficacy of prayer and sacrifice was not related to the
inner attitude or moral character of those praying or offering sacrifice, but to the exact enactment of
rituals and the precise wording of prayers. Religious belief and practice did not focus on the afterlife, but resolutely on the here and now. The cultivation of the gods was expected to lead to happiness and material success in this present world, not in a world to come. Pietas may have resulted in
moral rectitude, but that was not its principal aim.
Rome had no sacred books containing truths held to be normative and valid for all aspects of life
and worship. There were neither independent religious hierarchies nor autonomous religious institu-
chapter 4. roman religion • 89
tions. Despite the reputation of ancient paganism for toleration, Rome did not allow the existence of
privately organized and publicly unapproved religious associations. There was a single, all encompassing state or civic religion. Communication with the gods was too important to be left in private
or amateur hands or for the gods to be cultivated by untraditional rituals conducted by unsupervised
groups of citizens.
religious identity at rome Religion for Romans did not mark out a separate identity for the
individual such as being a Jew, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or non-believer, does in modern
societies. On the contrary, just being a Roman citizen meant being fully invested in the whole spectrum of truths, rituals and practices that were special to Rome. The Romans thought of themselves
as a political and juridical community made up of human and divine partners with legally codified,
mutual obligations toward each other. Religion was a form of justice in which humans had claims
on the gods and vice versa. Thus Cicero could argue against the Epicurean claim that if there was no
evidence of divine interest in human affairs, there could be no reverence for the gods:
What reason is there for insisting that humans should worship the gods if the gods [as the Epicureans claimed] not only show no concern for men nor do anything for them at all?…. Indeed
what devotion (pietas) is owed to a person from whom you have received nothing?… Pietas is
justice to the gods. But how can there be any justice between humans and the gods if there is no
community among them? (De natura deorum 1.115–116)
Religion was an integral part of citizenship and vice versa. Citizenship without religious belief and
practice was unthinkable for Romans. The informal education acquired by growing up in a Roman
household and subsequently acting as a citizen provided every Roman with an adequate theology of
the gods and of the universe and a correspondingly comprehensive explanation of how humans fitted
into this environment and how they should behave. Ethics and morality were not subsets of religious
doctrines, but derived from the ancient practices of the community, the mos maiorum—the ways of
the ancestors. The ideology of citizenship could not imagine, let alone tolerate, the existence of religion as a separate and independent sphere of life apart from that of the community at large.
immobility: the limits of the civic religion What was true of Rome was also true of every
other state in the Mediterranean: Athenians and only Athenians had full access to the religions of
Athens; only Carthaginians could participate fully in Carthage’s religious life and so on. For these
reasons the religion of the state was not portable in the way the great monotheistic faiths characteristically are. Civic cults were rooted in particular places. The rituals of individual cities reflected centuries of dealing with their gods. Over the years new rites were introduced as necessity demanded,
or old rites were modified to cope with new situations. The activities of gods and their needs were
noted and written down so that records of past rituals that were effective could be consulted later,
should the same god manifest him or herself. Every city was filled with a mixture of old and new
sacred areas, temples, shrines, statues, and altars to the gods. Some were so ancient that their functions had been forgotten. Then there was the problem of unknown but active, unidentified deities. To
be sure they had not neglected any power, the Athenians had a shrine to the Unknown God. Where
the gods were concerned it was better to be on the safe side.
no personal choice All Romans came under the protection of Rome’s gods so naturally and
unquestioningly they participated in Rome’s religious rituals. “Let no one have gods separately…
unless they have been recognized publicly” said Cicero (Laws 2.19). “Conversion” from the state or
90 • part i: the rise of rome
The Gods Cannot be Moved
In 390 B.C. the Roman army was defeated and Rome itself captured and sacked by a marauding
band of Celts. The traditional explanation was that the generals had not performed the proper rituals before the battle. The catastrophe was a psychological and political turning point in the history
of the city and in the aftermath of the disaster there was talk of moving to a new site, the recently
captured Etruscan city of Veii. The idea was squelched by the dictator Camillus who pointed out
that Rome was forever tied by its religious connections to the site on which the city had been
originally founded “with all due auguries and auspices.” The speech is the work of Livy composed
centuries after Camillus but it enshrines key elements of Roman religiosity that go back to Rome’s
earliest days.
When you see such striking instances of the effects of honoring or neglecting the divine, do
you not see what an act of impiety you are about to perpetrate, and indeed, just at the moment
we are emerging from the shipwreck brought about by our former irreligiosity? We have a city
founded with all due observance of the auspices and augury. Not a spot in it is without religious
rites and gods. Not only are the days for our sacrifices fixed, but also the places where they
are to be performed.
Romans, would you desert all these gods, public as well as private? Contrast this proposal with
the action that occurred during the siege and was beheld with no less admiration by the enemy
than by yourselves? This was the deed performed by Gaius Fabius, who descended from the
citadel, braved Gallic spears, and performed on the Quirinal Hill the solemn rites of the Fabian
family. Is it your wish that the family religious rites should not be interrupted even during war but
that the public rites and the gods of Rome should be deserted in time of peace? Do you want
the Pontiffs and Flamens (priests of the individual gods) to be more negligent of public ritual
than a private individual in the anniversary rite of a particular family?
Perhaps someone may say that either we will perform these duties at Veii or we will send our
priests from there to perform the rituals here—but neither can be done without infringing on the
established forms of worship. For not to enumerate all the sacred rites individually and all the
gods, is it possible at the banquet of Jupiter for the lectisternium [when statues of the gods were
brought out of their temples and a banquet set before them] to be set up anywhere else other
than the Capitol? What shall I say of the eternal fire of Vesta, and of the statue which, as the
pledge of empire, is kept under the safeguard of the temple [the statue of Athena, the Palladium,
supposed to have been brought by Aeneas from Troy]?
We talk of sacred rituals and temples—but what about priests? Does it not occur to you what
a sacrilege you are proposing to commit in respect of them? The Vestals have but one dwelling place which nothing ever caused them to leave except the capture of the city. Shall your
Virgins forsake you, O Vesta? And shall the Flamen Dialis by living abroad draw on himself
and on his country such a weight of guilt every night [this priest was supposed to never leave
Rome]? What of the other things, all of which we transact under auspices within the Pomerium
[the sacred boundary around Rome]? To what oblivion, to what neglect do we consign them?
The Curiate Assembly, which deals with questions of war; the Centuriate Assembly at which
you elect consuls and military tribunes—when can they be held under auspices except where
they are accustomed to be held? Shall we transfer them to Veii? Or shall the people, for the
sake of the assemblies, come together at great inconvenience in this city, deserted by gods and
men? ...
chapter 4. roman religion • 91
Though your courage may go with you, the fortune of this place certainly cannot be transferred.
Here is the Capitol, where a human head was found which foretold that in that place would be
the head of the world, the chief seat of empire [a play on words; head in Latin is caput]. Here,
when the Capitol was being cleared with augural rites, the gods Juventas and Terminus, to the
great joy of your fathers, refused to be moved. Here is the fire of Vesta, here the sacred shields
of Mars which fell from heaven. Here the gods will be propitious to you—if you stay. (Livy 5.52).
civic religion was not an option. There was no choice when it came to the cults of the state. A citizen
was simultaneously and instantaneously on birth or on being naturalized as a citizen a member of
the Roman juridical and religious community.
As part of their civic responsibility, citizens were expected to participate in the main festivals of
the ritual or liturgical year; not to do so was to risk being branded an atheist or a misanthropist—a
hater of human society. For good reason those who did not participate in the worship of the gods
were regarded as dangers to the community: Failure to honor the city’s gods might bring down their
anger not just on the errant individual but on the state as a whole. Tolerance was not a virtue when
it came to the religious responsibilities of citizens.
family coercion Equal compulsion to conform existed within families where all members
were bound by religious traditions handed down from generation to generation. In his book on model
legislation, Cicero emphasizes the continuity within the family of traditional religious rituals: “Let
Romans worship in private those whose worship has been duly handed down from the ancestors”
(Laws 2.19). Children growing up in a Roman household were not free to cast off or opt out of family
traditions; they were, rather, understood to be the indispensable bearers and perpetuators of precious
family traditions from one generation to the next: “the sacred rites of the family will be forever” (Laws
2.22). In turn, these observances and ceremonies, if faithfully maintained, guaranteed the survival of
the family. For such reasons Roman family life was profoundly conservative. The paterfamilias, the
head of the Roman household, was father, priest and ruler (with his wife, the materfamilias) of his
little state which he (and she) ruled with despotic power backed up by ancient legal tradition and
societal support. The fact that the worship of the genius or spirit of the paterfamilias was an intrinsic
part of family ceremonial suggests the importance of religion in sustaining Roman family structures.
later: some relaxation In the last two centuries b.c. as the cohesion of the Roman Republican state declined, Romans were able to exercise more personal choice in their religious inclinations.
The gradual diversification of society through the weakening of the power of the paterfamilias, the
growing emancipation of women, and the rise of a large class of ex-slaves allowed more individual
initiative in the private sphere of religion. Personalized religions such as the mystery cults of Isis,
Sarapis and Mithras, which involved initiation and special knowledge of and attachment to a particular god or goddess, attracted many inhabitants of the highly diverse and socially fragmented
Rome of the Late Republic. These new religions, however, added rather than detracted from the
older cultural traditions of Rome; they were additions or accretions, not replacements. The state
cults in many respects became even more spectacular—and attractive—than in the past with the
introduction by ambitious politicians of magnificent games and spectacles. Gladiatorial fights, wild
beast hunts, processions, huge sacrifices, and public banquets became standard features of the state
cult and one of its main supports. Only when the resources of the state were no longer adequate to
sustain the great festivals could it be said that Roman religion declined. This, however, did not happen until late in the imperial period.
92 • part i: the rise of rome
3. Roman Religion
True Religion for the Romans
nothing is “natural” Events that we categorize as wholly “natural” such as storms, earthquakes, crop failures, and diseases were not regarded as such by Romans or other ancient peoples. In
the Roman world there was no simple division between the purely “natural” world and the universe
of the gods. Gods were everywhere, in everything, and responsible for everything. For the Romans
the blight that often struck their crops was the god Robigus. The goddess Pomona was responsible
for the growth of fruit, Ceres for grain. Jupiter, Rome’s principal god, was the giver of light under
the title of Jupiter Lucetius and of rain as Jupiter Elicius. As Jupiter Fulgur he sent lightning. Rivers,
lakes, springs, caves, and woods were all inhabited by spirits. “Trees are the temples of the gods,”
wrote Pliny the Elder, a writer in the early Empire and adds, “We worship forests and their silence
more than images of gold and ivory” (Natural History 12.3). The poet Horace promised the spirit
of his favorite spring that he would “dye its icy waters” with the “scarlet blood” of a sacrificed
goat (Odes 3.13). Boats were not allowed on Lake Vadimo north of Rome because of its holiness.
Society itself was object of divine intervention, sometimes on a massive scale. In battle the gods
granted success to one side or the other. Cities and civilizations fell because gods believed they
were neglected. The politician and historian Sallust argued that the bitter civil wars of his times
were the result of Roman pride, cruelty, “neglect of the gods and avarice which regarded nothing as
too sacred to sell” (Catiline 10.4). His contemporary, the orator Cicero repeated this idea in a court
speech claiming that “the immortal gods sent lamentable civil war on the Roman people as punishment for their offenses” (Marcellus 18).
Given this approach to the natural world and human society, it is understandable that the aim
of Roman religion was to establish some kind of control over the unpredictable but not meaningless events of everyday life and persuade the gods to cooperate in human affairs. The divine was
uncanny and unpredictable, but not unknowable. The gods could be cultivated or cajoled into
favoring an individual or a state. If a god or gods (a goddess or goddesses) were known from past
experience to be responsible for a particular aspect of life—Mars for victory in war, Ceres for a
good crop—then it was not just sensible but imperative to cultivate these gods. It was a somewhat
different matter if the responsible deity was not known, but there were ways, long established by
tradition, of appealing to and appeasing even unknown gods. In any case, the cultivation of the
gods was not an optional extra providing some kind of psychological refuge from a confusing,
heartless world, but an essential duty of individuals and society. The maintenance of good relations with the divine world—the pax deorum (literally, “peace of the gods”)—was one if not the
preeminent aim of Roman statecraft.
There were two basic aspects of the practice of Roman religion. The first was the accurate diagnosis of events and the second the development of a correct response to them. Centuries of experience in dealing with the divine resulted in the creation of a large traditional store of knowledge on
how to please the gods. It was carefully recorded and passed on in written and oral form from generation to generation. When, however, efforts to identify the right deity had been made and prayers
been offered and sacrifices performed, then the proper attitude to take, said Horace, was to pile logs
on the fire, break out a bottle of wine and “leave everything to the gods.” Don’t worry about the
future; enjoy winter and summer nights, make love (Odes 1.9).
the centrality of animal sacrifice The centrality of animal sacrifice to ancient religion and
its absence from monotheistic religious practice highlights their vast differences. That the sacrifice
chapter 4. roman religion • 93
of animals and sometimes humans was pleasing to the gods and could placate their anger was taken
as self-evident throughout antiquity.1 Animal sacrifice was practiced everywhere, even in Judaea,
until the destruction of the temple in a.d. 70.
Vast numbers of animals—160,000 over three months at the accession of the emperor Caligula
to the throne—were sacrificed in honor of the gods at the festivals that occurred on a regular basis
throughout the year. Such festivals, financed by the state and sometimes by individuals, were welcomed by the citizenry because—among many reasons—the meat of the sacrifices, distributed free
to all participants, was a welcome relief from their almost entirely vegetarian diet. In addition to
sacrifices, the more important festivals were marked by processions, horse and chariot races, animal
hunts, and theatrical performances, and later in the Republic by gladiatorial fights. By the second
century b.c. the festivals had become complex enough to require the services of a special college of
“Three Priests for Feasts,” the triumviri epulones, later expanded to seven members, who provided
advice on rituals and ceremonies to the magistrates who administered the festivals. Membership in
the college of epulones was eagerly sought by politicians seeking visibility with the voters.
calendars and festivals The cultic calendar in the Republic had 58 festivals devoted primarily to agricultural deities. Under the Empire the number of these festivals expanded hugely
until the emperor Marcus Aurelius put a cap of 97 on the number allowed. In addition to the
festivals there were games (ludi) performed in honor of the gods. These consisted of theatrical
performances (mimes, farces, pantomimes, comedies, tragedies—ludi scaenici) and chariot racing
(ludi circenses). By the first century b.c. there were 57 days of these games. April, for example,
was almost exclusively devoted to them. In 204 b.c. the Ludi Megalenses were instituted in honor
of Cybele, the Great Mother goddess, to celebrate Rome’s final victory over Hannibal. They ran
from April 4 to 10 and were noted for their dramatic performances. Then from April 12 to 19, the
Ludi Ceriales were held in honor of the grain goddess Ceres, followed shortly afterward by the
Ludi Florales from April 28 to May 3. September was another good month for games with the
Roman Games (the Ludi Romani), famous for their horse races and chariot races, running from
September 5–19.
munera The practice of elite families honoring their dead members by staging fights to the
death was extended in the Later Republic as gladiatorial munera to the population at large. These
munera—the term implied the discharge of duties to the dead—served to advertise the giver’s
wealth and generosity as well as to promote his political career and the glory of his family. In the
first century the munera grew in magnificence and extravagance as their vote-getting potential was
realized by competing political dynasts.
religion: knowledge is power Romans, Greeks, or other “pagans” were not without belief
systems just because they did not philosophically systematize them or because they failed to internalize their convictions in the manner of the monotheistic faiths. A better approach to understanding
Roman religion is to recognize that their religious beliefs and practices followed different psychological, epistemological, and cultural patterns. Romans (with the exception of significant numbers of the
elite toward the end of the Republic) truly believed in the gods (though not necessarily their myths),
Humans were sacrificed only in extreme circumstances, and in time the practice came to be regarded as uncivilized. In
the Republic, Romans had recourse on three occasions to human sacrifice. Later they rejected the practice and stamped it
out wherever they encountered it. Apart from legendary memories and mythology, there is no record of human sacrifice in
Greek history. The monotheistic tradition of ancient Israel vigorously opposed the practice of child sacrifice in Canaan.
94 • part i: the rise of rome
and the efficacy of rituals. Even the skeptical among the elites believed in a special providence that
sustained Roman greatness. What some among the elites of this later period found unsatisfactory
were the modes of expression of the ancient civic cults such as augury and animal sacrifice. They
questioned, for example, how the examination of the entrails of animals (technically extispicium
or extispicy) or the flight of birds could reveal the will of the gods. “Why snakes and not mice or
lizards?” remarks Cicero sarcastically at one point in his book on divination (de div. 2.62). No one,
however, believed that society could be sustained without religion to hold it together. Out and out
atheists in the modern sense of the term were rare and they generally kept their ideas to themselves.
religio defined The root of the Latin term religio is ligare, meaning to bind or tie together,
to unite. For Romans, religio implied the existence of a community of gods and humans bound to
each other by mutual obligations. In the case of the civic religion of Rome, religio was summed up
by Cicero as the performance of rites, the taking of the auspices (divination), and the consultation of
the Sibylline Oracles (de nat. deorum 3).
Religio involved another concept: The idea of the “the justice of the gods,” that is, knowledge
of what was due the gods and what was involved in the maintenance of proper relationships with
them. It was seen as analogous to “the justice of parents,” that is, what was due to one’s parents as
expressed by the Latin term pietas. Cicero sums up the parallel as follows:
Justice (iustitia) is the portion of virtue we display towards each other in society, whereas religion
(religio) is virtue shown towards the gods, and what is shown towards parents is piety (pietas).
(Classification of Oratory, 78)
More generally, religio could also be described as the sum total of cults practiced at Rome, and
even more expansively as the whole of human relations with the divine.
division of divine powers Religio required a sense of awe and scrupulous regard for the dignity of the gods. However, internal attitudes toward rituals and prayer were largely irrelevant. The
Romans and their gods did not analyze or judge religious behavior by modern canons of authenticity,
sincerity, and moral uprightness. What mattered was the precise performance of rituals according to
established traditions—assuming such traditions existed. The gods, however, were innumerable and
frequently unidentified or even unidentifiable. In the bad days of the late Republic, Horace plaintively asks what gods the Roman should approach to prop up “their tottering empire.” Should they
invoke Apollo, Venus or Mars? Since Vesta no longer heeded them, what prayers should the Vestals
virgins use? (Odes 1.2).
The gods possessed varying degrees of power in different areas of specialization such as war,
health, wealth, fertility, and so on. Prayers, vows, and sacrifices needed to be directed to the correct god (or goddess) in exactly the right form in the right place. With the right “knowledge of the
gods” (cognitio deorum), it was possible to communicate and negotiate with the gods and, if necessary, assuage their anger; hence the importance of individuals or groups of individuals who knew
the rules, formulae, and rituals of traditional religion. At the same time it was recognized that such
knowledge needed constant updating as Licinius, praetor of 209 b.c., argued when he declared that
“a right or privilege was based not upon musty precedents dug out of old chronicles but in each case,
upon recent usage or custom” (Livy 27.8).
If rituals failed to produce the desired result or were judged to have been incorrectly performed
or accidentally vitiated, they were repeated. In 217 b.c., the Romans suffered a crushing defeat at
chapter 4. roman religion • 95
the hands of Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, and in response vowed a Sacred Spring (ver
sacrum) to be performed five years later should the “republic of the Romans have been preserved”
(Liv. 22.10). Rome did survive and the sacrifice, which involved the killing of all the animals of
the herds born that spring, was duly performed (at one time the rite probably included the killing of
all humans born at that time). However, in 194 b.c. it was discovered that the original ver sacrum
had been incorrectly pronounced and therefore the whole, very expensive ritual had to be repeated
(Liv.33.44). Instances of up to 10 repetitions of failed rituals are known. Fraud sometimes crept into
the process, repetition being encouraged “generally by those who benefited from the repetitions”
(Dio 60.6)—meaning those who supplied the sacrificial animals.
There were occasions, however, when individuals or the state were completely baffled as to
what divine power was operative in a given situation and help had to be sought from outside. After
two disasters in 216 b.c., the loss of the Battle of Cannae to Hannibal and the violation of the Vestal
Virgins Opimia and Floronia, the Senate sent a delegation to Delphi to “inquire what prayers and
supplications were necessary to placate the wrath of heaven” (Livy 22.57). The Senate did have sufficient cognitio to know what to do with the offending Vestal Virgins: one was buried alive and the
other, to avoid this traditional mode of execution, committed suicide. The man who had debauched
Floronia—who turned out to have been the secretary of the college of priests—was beaten to death
by the chief priest (pontifex maximus). Livy says nothing about the other male offender. Perhaps he
was not as notable a figure as the secretary and so his name was not worth noting.
In practice, cognitio deorum was a combination of the accumulated personal experience of members of the colleges of state-appointed priests and their ability to access books recording the past
interventions of known deities. Those in possession of such knowledge and who were authorized by
their position as magistrates or heads of households to exercise it were indispensable figures in both
public and private spheres. Order and stability in both the public realm of the state and the private of
the household depended on correct, up-to-date knowledge of what the gods willed.
aspects of cognitio deorum For Romans, evidence of the activity of the gods had to be experiential. Proof of the efficacy of rituals and prayers came from the fact that over time they had
demonstrated their reliability in winning divine favor. One writer late in the Empire period put it
this way:
In so far as all reason lies in darkness where the gods are concerned, whence more properly can
knowledge of the gods come from than recollection and evidence supplied by things that turned
out well? (Symmachus, Relatio 3.8)
In other words, since the realms of the gods were inaccessible to mortals, the only way to understand the gods and their mysterious ways of dealing with humans was by analyzing how they had
acted in the past. Thus, for example, that Rome had turned out well was self-evident, and although
some intellectuals were inclined to look for non-religious explanations for its success or to reduce
the explanation to something bland like Fate or Providence, the most common opinion was that
Rome was great because of its reverence for the gods. This reverence was, in turn, rewarded by the
gods. Clearly, therefore, fundamental to maintaining Rome’s standing in the world was the continuous and exact cultivation of relations with the gods as dictated by past precedent—where such
existed. Knowledge of what was due the gods was the key. If Rome was great, then, it was because
Romans possessed a lot of accurate information about the gods and had been faithful in fulfilling
their needs and desires.
96 • part i: the rise of rome
When a Temple Needed Repairs: The Right Kind of Knowledge
The following suggests the legal formality of Roman religious practice and the kind of knowledge
that was necessary for its proper functioning. The Arval Brethren (Fratres Arvales) were an ancient
priestly college made up of 12 members chosen by cooptation from senatorial families. Their
principal religious responsibility was the guardianship of the temple and sacred grove of Dea Dia,
a fertility goddess, located at a site a few miles outside Rome. Less is known about the activities
of the Brethren in the Republic, but inscriptions from Empire times suggest the same rituals were
in use in both periods. In a.d. 183 for example, the college learned that a fig tree was growing
in the roof of the temple of Dea Dia. It needed to be removed and the roof repaired. This might
sound like a job for contractors but that was not the case when the issue concerned a sacred
building or holy grove. First an official report (relatio) along with a proposed remedy had to be
presented to the college by the presiding officer (magister). Only then could contracts be let. After
that, expiatory rituals had to be performed, beginning with a procession around the grove. Then
two cows, two rams, and two sheep were sacrificed followed by more individual sacrifices to the
following, hierarchically arranged list of gods and goddesses:
Dia Dea—two cows
Janus—two rams
Jupiter—two sheep
Mars—two rams
Juno—two ewes
The Divine God-or-Goddess—two ewes
The Divine Virgins—two ewes
The Divine Servants—two sheep
The Lares—two sheep
The Mother of the Lares—two sheep
The God-or-Goddess who Protected the Grove—two ewes
Fons—two sheep
Flora—two sheep
Vesta—two sheep
The Mother of Vesta—two ewes
Adolenda, Conmolenda, Deferunda—two ewes
At the shrine of the Caesars: 16 sheep to the 16 divi (divine Emperors).
After the repairs were completed an identical set of sacrifices were performed. The mysterious
Adolenda, Conmolenda, Deferunda were the goddesses presiding over the physical removal,
chopping up and burning of the fig tree. All told 108 animals, almost all sheep, were sacrificed and
eaten. (Commentarii Fratrum Arvalium qui Supersunt (Rome,1998), #94
Prodigies and What they Meant
what did the gods want? In general, it was easy enough to figure out what the gods wanted.
Because they were like humans—although frighteningly more powerful—they wanted first and
foremost, honor and respect. In this respect the relations between gods and humans resembled the
relations between ordinary people and very powerful individuals such as kings or great patrons. The
difficulty lay in the particulars: Which gods or goddesses were to be honored and how was this to be
done? If offended, how were they to be propitiated or appeased (if offended they were—yet another
problem)? When the consul Claudius Marcellus wished to build a temple to Honor and Virtue in
chapter 4. roman religion • 97
fulfillment of a vow he had made earlier, the college of priests argued against it on the grounds that
if a prodigy (some out-of-the-ordinary event) occurred in the temple they would not know what to
do about it because they had no ready information on how the god or goddess who sent the prodigy
was to be to be propitiated (Valerius Maximus 1.1).
prodigies Despite the destruction of so much ancient literature, part of a book devoted to
prodigies that occurred in Rome and Italy between 190 b.c. and 12 b.c. has survived. It is full of
reports of monstrous animal and human births, buildings and statues being struck by lightning, rains
of blood, sacrifices where the organs of animals were missing, odd animal behavior, and the like.
In 188 b.c., for example, there was a shower of stones on the Aventine Hill at Rome. In 163 b.c., a
swan glided into the temple of Victory and eluded those who tried to capture it. The same year at
Caere a pig was born with human hands and feet, and children were born with four feet and four
hands (Julius Obsequens, A Book of Prodigies, 2, 14). All were seen, by definition, as having negative implications for the state.
Prodigies, however, could also have import for individuals. In 133 b.c. the revolutionary tribune
Tiberius Gracchus stubbed his toe on the threshold of his house when leaving to attend an assembly;
crows subsequently dropped tiles at his feet. Neglecting the warnings, Gracchus continued stubbornly on and was duly murdered at the public assembly over which he was presiding (Obsequens
27a). A similar fate overtook Julius Caesar, who also disregarded omens. The night before his death
the doors of his bedroom opened mysteriously and his wife Calpurnia was awakened by the moonlight streaming in. Later a sacrificial animal was found without a heart (Obsequens 66). None of
these omens dissuaded Caesar from attending a meeting of the Senate where he was stabbed to death
by fellow senators.
managing prodigies Since prodigies occurred on a regular basis and were taken to indicate
that something had gone wrong with the relations with the gods, some system had to be developed
to interpret them and decide what needed to be done to placate the god, goddesses, or gods in
question and restore the pax deorum. A related and not necessarily subordinate aim was to prevent
panic among the population at large, which took omens seriously. The question was how to do this
effectively. Rome was a highly politicized community and its ruling class had no desire to see an
independent body of full-time, professional priests come into existence to manage religious affairs.
Given the importance of religion to the state such a body of priests would inevitably acquire power
independent of the political system.
The blending of religion and politics was a major achievement of Roman statecraft. It was done
without turning religion into politics under the guise of religion or allowing religion to dominate the
political realm. Over the years, successive generations of Romans developed an elaborate administrative system to handle omens and prodigies, run festivals, maintain temples, perform rituals,
justify wars, incorporate new cults, and generally see to the maintenance of pax deorum, the contract
between the gods and the citizens of Rome. As the Senate was the focus of political life in Rome, it
was also the focus of the administrative and interpretive aspects of its religious life.
practicalities of melding of religion and politics The key components of the power of
public officials at Rome were imperium and auspicium. The first of these was the full and complete
power of the Roman people delegated to a consul and some other magistrates for a specifically designated time period; auspicium was delegated to magistrates at the same time they received their imperium. Auspicium was the right—and obligation—to take the auspices before any major undertaking:
Magistrates were expected to watch for lightning in particular parts of the sky or the flight of birds
98 • part i: the rise of rome
or the behavior of other animals on the assumption that such events and activities revealed the divine
will; they presided over sacrifices, religious festivals, the dedication of altars and temples, and so on.
This intimate mixing of political and religious power is one of the characteristic features of
Roman politics, perhaps surprising for us but not for Romans. Surviving lists of priests coincide
well with the lists of Rome’s most successful politicians and generals. Cicero matter of factly
reflects this cultural understanding of the intrinsic connection between politics and religion when
he said in a speech:
Nothing is more striking among the divinely inspired institutions created by our ancestors than
that the worship of the immortal gods and the highest interests of the state should be in the same
hands. In this way the most distinguished and revered citizens are able to bring about the welfare
of religion by the good administration of the state, and of the welfare of the state by the wise
interpretation of religion (De Domo 1).
His comments caused no surprise among the audience he was addressing, the college of priests.
Cicero could take for granted that, like himself, some of the most distinguished members of the
political class would also be priests who shared the belief that it was their collective responsibility
to see to the pax deorum, the good ordering of relations between gods and humans.
Tales of religious misbehavior of magistrates from the past gave emphasis to their weighty religious responsibilities. One such popular story told of the sacrilegious actions of the magistrate and
admiral, Appius Claudius. Just prior to a crucial battle with the Carthaginians, Claudius ordered the
consultation of the sacred chickens who were supposed to reveal the will of the gods by gobbling
up grain thrown in front of them. When they refused to do so Appius ordered them to be thrown
Priests Advise, Magistrates Perform Rituals
We might expect priests to perform sacrifices and offer prayers and officials to watch respectfully.
Roman magistrates, however, not priests, possessed auspicium (the authority to take the auspices)
while priests acted in an advisory capacity providing specialized information about rituals. A good
example occurred at a critical moment during a battle in 340 b.c. The battle was going badly for
Rome so the commander, Decius Mus, decided to undergo the rarely performed ritual of devotio,
that is he would dedicate or hand himself over—together with his enemies—as human sacrifices
to the gods. It was essential that the ceremony of dedication be executed correctly because if
the wrong formula was used the whole act would be ineffective. Hence he turned to a priest on
his staff for the exact formula of devotio. The ritual was duly performed and Decius charged into
the opposing ranks and was killed. The enemy army was thrown into disarray and the Romans
won the battle. Note the wide spectrum of gods—some unidentified but assumed to be present—
addressed together with their hierarchical ordering.
The consul Decius called out to Marcus Valerius: “We need the help of the gods, Marcus
Valerius. You are a priest of the Roman people—dictate the formula whereby I may devote
myself to the gods to save the legions.” The priest told him to put on the purple edged toga, veil
his head and with one hand extending from the toga touch his chin while standing on a spear at
his feet and repeating “Janus, Jupiter, father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, New Gods, Native
gods, Deities who have power over us and our enemies… I honor you and seek your favor
and ask that you advance the might and victory of the Roman people…. As I have pronounced
these words, even so on behalf of the Roman nation… and of the army… do I devote myself
and with me the legions and auxiliaries of our enemies to the gods of the Underworld and to
Earth (Livy 8.9).
chapter 4. roman religion • 99
overboard saying (supposedly), “Well, if they won’t eat, let them drink!” Predictably he went on to
lose the battle. Omens were neglected at the peril of the individual and of the state.
the senate has the final word The Senate through its colleges of priests acting as kinds
of committees, controlled the exercise of religion at Rome. As a collective, authoritative body the
Senate reserved to itself final authority in matters of religious discipline and interpretation. In the
second century b.c., for example, when a cult of Dionysus (Bacchus for the Romans) spread in Italy,
the Senate ordered it suppressed as a threat to the Republic. The cult devotees met at night, had male
and female, slave and free members, bound themselves by oaths, and had their own officials, meeting places and funds. As such they were seen as a potential or actual political movement operating
outside the boundaries of existing law. However, the Roman authorities also recognized that there
might be some concern among the population at large that if in fact the god Dionysus was revealing
his presence among his followers, it might be dangerous to overreact. Most were familiar with the
fate of Pentheus, king of Thessaly, who in mythical times was torn to pieces by frenzied Bacchants
when he interfered with Dionysiac rituals. What might happen to Rome if a duly authorized agent
of the state overstepped his jurisdiction and enraged Dionysus? To prevent any insult to the god, the
presiding consul preemptively proclaimed a dispensation for Rome’s agents:
Nothing has a more deceptive appearance than corrupt religion. For when the numen of the gods
[i.e., their divine authority and power] is advanced as a shield for crimes, then fears creep into the
mind lest in punishing human misdeeds we may end up violating something of divine law which
has become entangled with these misdeeds. From this scruple you are freed by the innumerable
edicts of the pontifices, the decrees of the Senate and finally the answers of the diviners [haruspices]. (Livy 39.16)
In other words, the Senate in its role as supervisor of the civic religion of Rome took it upon itself
to absolve in advance any mistakes made by its enforcers while acting on its behalf against the cult.
Another interesting illustration of the Senate’s supervisory role dates from the Late Republic
when the general Cornelius Sulla was campaigning in Greece. After Sulla won a great victory, the
custodians of the temple of the hero Amphiaraus (one of the legendary Seven Against Thebes) in
the city of Oropus north of Athens extended special honors to Sulla and to Rome. The general was
delighted because he was about to depart on a campaign in Asia Minor and Amphiaraus, who was
credited with prophetic powers, had apparently prophesied Sulla’s victory in Asia. In thanks Sulla
vowed to grant Amphiarus’s temple a large, tax-free tract of land. However, after Sulla’s death the
publicans (Roman tax collectors) attempted to collect taxes from this land on the ground that being
only a hero Amphiaraus was not truly a god, “and so therefore it lay within the jurisdiction of the
publicans to collect taxes from these estates.”2 The Senate, however, concluded the case in favor of
the temple by decreeing that Amphiaraus was, in fact, a god.
The power to make such definitive decisions regarding religion eventually ended up in the
hands of the emperor when the Republic came to an end. Thus the conscientious, administratively
minded emperor Claudius decided to tidy up the calendar by abolishing many festivals and sacrifices because “most of the year was being devoted to them as a result of which the treasury suffered
no small loss” (Dio Cassius 60.6), yet another demonstration that, whether in the Republic or the
Empire, state security, religion, politics, and finances were inextricably intertwined at Rome. All
equally came under the control of the state.
Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, 747
100 • part i: the rise of rome
4. Religion and Politics
Features of the Religious Administrative System
Roman priests were not fulltime “clergy” in the modern sense of the word; they combined their
religious duties with their other, multiple political, military, and social responsibilities. They were
not chosen particularly for their holiness, their ethical commitments, or their training in theology.
Priesthoods lasted a lifetime and, with the notable exception of the Vestal Virgins and the priestess
of Ceres, were restricted to men. 3
A distinguishing feature of Roman priesthoods was their interaction with the Senate and with the
yearly magistrates. As we have already seen, the Senate had final responsibility for making religious
decisions, but the priests who advised the Senate had full authority for interpreting sacred laws
and rituals within their own jurisdiction. The final feature of the religious administrative system
was provided by the annually elected magistrates who actually executed decisions of the Senate by
taking the auspices, dedicating temples, making public vows, holding games in fulfillment of these
vows, and so on.
collegiality Priests did not belong to independent, self-monitoring organizations as they do
in contemporary Western religious life. They were, rather, subject to collegiality, the general guiding principle of Roman public life. Like magistrates, priests were organized into colleges (or sometimes into groups called sodalities) with specific responsibility and competence in certain areas of
religion. No single priest had a corner on the interaction between Rome and the gods, but shared
that responsibility with other members of the group of priests to which he belonged. It was the job
of the colleges to investigate unusual occurrences—prodigies—once they had been brought to the
college’s attention, and report back a recommendation (a relatio) to the Senate. Not all recommen-
The close connection between priests, magistrates, and the Senate was a special characteristic of the Roman State.
The wives of the priest of Jupiter (the flamen Dialis) and the king of rites (rex sacrorum) were essential to the performance
of some of their husbands’ duties so that, in a sense, they shared their husbands’ priesthoods. In the case of the flamen Dialis, the connection between the married couple and the priesthood was so close that when the flaminica Dialis (the flamen’s
wife) died, the flamen had to resign his priesthood.
chapter 4. roman religion • 101
dations were accepted as valid by the Senate; its discretionary powers extended to denying that a
particular event was in fact a prodigy. Even priests who had specific responsibilities for the ritual of
a particular deity such as the major flamines—priests of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus—were limited
in their freedom of action by membership in the college of pontiffs.
priest politicians It would be ludicrous to imagine that any modern head of state or department chief should be required as part of his or her official duties to preside over animal sacrifices
(slaves did the actual killing of the animals), offer public prayers, make vows, and so on, yet this
kind of activity was normal and obligatory for Roman magistrates. Mark Antony, an important supporter of Julius Caesar and later his successor as the lover of Cleopatra, presided as a member of
the Lupercal fraternity over the sacrifice of goats and a dog at the Lupercalia festival, and then with
his fellow fraternity brothers, ran practically naked around the Palatine Hill striking bystanders with
leather thongs. The meaning of this festival was lost on most Romans of the time but the rituals were
still dutifully performed. The great re-founder of Rome, Caesar Augustus, sacrificed nine female
lambs and nine female kids to the Fates and a pregnant sow to Mother Earth at the Secular Games,
a major festival which was the centerpiece of his reforms. He later offered specially prepared cakes
in honor of the goddess of childbirth Iliythia, and with his closest associate, Agrippa, sacrificed a
bull and a cow to Jupiter and Juno respectively. These were not random ritual acts, but carefully
researched ceremonies authorized by the respective priestly colleges.
Professional clerical priestly and political careers coincided; priesthoods of one kind or another
were an integral part of the career path of politicians (the cursus honorum). Indeed, one of the highest offices a Roman politician could attain was that of pontifex maximus, chief priest of the Roman
religion. Julius Caesar regarded the position of pontifex maximus as an important office in his political career, telling his mother when he stood for the office he would return either as High Priest or
not at all (because he would have to leave the city to dodge the creditors who had bankrolled his
election bid) (Suetonius, Caesar 13). Cicero was inordinately pleased when he became a member of
the College of Augurs, though later he developed serious doubts about the validity of augury. The
highest achievement of a Roman politician and general was the celebration of a triumph when, for a
day, he became a god or close thereto, and offered the booty from his victorious campaign to Jupiter,
the head of the pantheon of gods at his temple on the Capitoline Hill.
The Priestly Colleges
With some significant exceptions, most priests were not attached to particular temples or deities, but
belonged to groups of fellow priests in colleges or brotherhoods which had designated supervisorial responsibilities. There were three major colleges—the College of Pontiffs, the Augurs, and the
Fifteen—and a larger number of minor ones.
Religious Places and Times
places Places became sacred either by human action or by the intervention of the gods. Examples of the latter abound in Roman history. During a battle in 496 b.c., the Roman general vowed a
temple to the Castors—the twin sons of Zeus, Castor and Pollux—if he was victorious. (If the gods
failed to deliver on their part of the bargain, the human bargainer was released from his commitment). The battle was won by the Romans and soon afterwards the Twins were seen watering their
sweaty horses in the Roman Forum at the spring sacred to the goddess Juturna, thus indicating they
had accepted the vow and that the promised temple should be built nearby. The temple was duly
102 • part i: the rise of rome
The Priestly Colleges
16 by
Augurs interpreted (divined) signs such as thunder, lightning,
the flight of birds, the behavior of certain animals. They had the
responsibility for integrating messages sent by the gods with
Rome’s political life.
16 by
The college of pontiffs was presided over by the pontifex maximus,
the Chief Priest who was elected from among the priests of the
college. The college had a mix of secular, sacred and domestic
responsibilities. It supervised rituals and festivals and was the
main repository of divine law. It also took care of the calendar and
supervised adoptions, wills, and burials.
The Vestals maintained the cult of Vesta in the Forum but had ritual
duties in many festivals.
3 major
12 minor
Major: priests of Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus.
Minor: the names of only 10 of these are known, including the
priests of Ceres and Flora. The duties of these priests were
associated with the rituals of the individual deities to whom they
were assigned.
(Rex sacrorum)
At the fall of the monarchy his powers were assumed by the pontiffs.
He possessed only residual minor functions such as announcing
the dates of movable feasts. He was excluded from political office.
The Fifteen for
Ritual Actions
sacris faciundis)
16 by
The college was responsible for the custody of the Sibylline oracles.
Sibyls—women who uttered ecstatic prophecies—were found
throughout the Mediterranean in antiquity. According to legend, one
of Rome’s early kings, Tarquinius Priscus, bought three books from
the Sybil of Cumae (near Naples). They contained lists of prodigies
and prescriptions for rituals to respond to them. At times of crisis
they were consulted, but only at the direction of the Senate. The
college also supervised non-Roman cults in Rome.
The Seven for
Ritual Meals
10 by
Supervised the rituals of the games and the organization of the
feast of Jupiter at the Roman and Plebeian Games.
Fetial priests
Were responsible for rituals associated with the declaration of war
and peace.
Not an organized college until the Late Republic, the haruspices
possessed special training and knowledge in the remediation
of prodigies. They were also experts in interpreting the entrails
of animals (extispicy) sacrificed to the gods, could tell whether
an animal was properly sacrificed or not, and presided over the
butchering of the sacrificed animal, indicating what portions of the
sacrifice were to be delivered to the gods and which could be eaten
by worshippers.
chapter 4. roman religion • 103
Trajan’s panel, Extispicy
The image shows the preparation of the slaughtered animal in preparation for the examination of its
entrails by the Roman priest or magistrate in the ritual known as extispicy.
constructed and its sorry remains can still be seen at the east end of the Forum. Another place in the
Forum was rendered sacred by a prodigy in 362 b.c. In that year, a huge chasm appeared in the middle
of the Forum which no amount of backfill could close. The haruspices were consulted and announced
that it could only be shut by offering “that which was Rome’s main power” (Livy 7.6). After puzzling over this mysterious pronouncement, the young patrician Marcus Curtius, who was well known
for his bravery, decided he knew what the oracle meant. He donned his armor, mounted his horse
and leaped into the chasm which thereupon closed. The place was subsequently known as the Lacus
Curtius, the lake or pond of Curtius. Its undistinguished remains can also still be seen in the Forum.
By the ritual of augury, profane space could be set aside and rendered sacred. Temples and
shrines are obvious examples of augurated spaces, and Rome itself was augurated at its founding
by the establishment of a boundary known as the pomerium. Within this boundary, a magistrate’s
imperium was not valid and arms could not be carried. All matters having to do with war or leadership in war such as the election of consuls and declarations of war had to be conducted outside this
area. Domi et militiae—“at home and abroad”—was a phrase used to designate the two realms of
Rome’s principal activities, the conduct of civil affairs and warfare. The former was to take place in
a demarcated area where disputes were to be settled peacefully, without recourse to weapons, while
the latter, the realm of disorder and danger, allowed for the use of force.
The gods had a vested interest in all activities, private as well as public, but were thought to be
particularly interested in political deliberation. Thus the Senate could only meet in a templum, that
is, a space that had been properly marked out by augural rituals. Templa included actual temples
where the Senate met on occasion, as well as its own meeting place, the curia, on the north side of
the Forum. The place where the people met, the comitium, just in front of the curia in the Forum,
was also a templum.
104 • part i: the rise of rome
people and events Individual people could also be designated by augury, as was the case with
Rome’s first ruler Romulus. Because the founders of Rome were twins there was no clear indication
which of them had seniority, and it was thus decided “to let the tutelary gods of the place decide which
should rule” (Livy, 1.6). The brothers accordingly took their places on two hills, Romulus on the Palatine and his brother Remus on the Aventine. Remus was the first to receive a sign: a flight of 6 vultures,
but soon afterwards Romulus saw 12 and was duly hailed as king. Thus did the gods of Rome, to this
point unknown, reveal their preference for a ruler of the population that was to inhabit the site.
In addition to places and people being augurated, all public acts were accompanied by the taking
of the auspices. These included legislation, elections, the taking of the census and military operations of all kinds, the building of temples, and the founding of colonies. These activities had to have
the sanction of religion, and failure to observe the proper forms of augural ritual could invalidate
them and require their repetition. In 59 b.c. Julius Caesar’s co-consul Bibulus announced he “was
looking for signs” while Caesar, contrary to Bibulus’ wishes, was passing reform legislation. This
announcement guaranteed, of course, that Bibulus would discover inauspicious signs and hence
whatever legislation Caesar passed would be invalid. Despite the threat, Caesar went ahead anyway,
and suspicion ever after hovered over the validity of his laws.
the demarcation of time: the calendar In addition to space being divided between sacred
and profane, so time itself was broken up into time set aside for ordinary daily activities and time
set aside for the worship of the gods. For us, the calendar is such a commonplace of daily life that
we neglect the power it has to shape culture, a point not lost on the authors of the French Revolution
who attempted to replace the old Christian calendar with a wholly new one. The Western or Gregorian calendar remains to this day a microcosm of Western history and continues subtly to shape not
just the cultures of Western countries but those of countries around the globe, despite the fact that
many of them have their own traditional calendars.
the calendar and roman politics The Roman calendar was a compendium of days that, apart
from indicating when religious festivals were to be celebrated, also determined when public business
could be conducted; politicians could not decide on whim to schedule a vote for a particular piece of
legislation. A period of 25 days was required to elapse between the proposal of a law and its passage,
but the Roman calendar offered a major obstacle course to potential lawmakers. December and January, for example, were good months for the passage of legislation, but February and April were cluttered with dies nefasti, days on which legislative assemblies could not meet (see box below). If a veto
or other delaying tactics by the opposition was anticipated—which was often the case—the legislative calendar could be stretched out for months even if there was strong support for whatever measure
was being proposed. Tribunes, who had only a year in office, had to be highly organized or lucky if
they were to pass legislation before their time ran out. In 133 b.c. the inelasticity of the calendar contributed to the downfall of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus, whose controversial land legislation was
held up by the obstructive tactics of his opponents. Unable to circumvent these roadblocks Tiberius
turned to unorthodox tactics to pass the measure. The bill passed, but the mode of its enactment split
the political class and led to rioting in which Gracchus was killed. His legislation and subsequent
assassination was thought by many Romans to mark the beginning of the downfall of the Republic.
war War required religious sanction before it could be engaged in justly. The month of March,
named after and dedicated to the god of war, Mars, coincided with the opening of the campaigning season and was particularly rich in ceremonies relating to war. At the Quinquartus festival on
chapter 4. roman religion • 105
The Roman Calendar for April
This much simplified calendar for April shows how few days marked by the letter C (Comitialis)
were available for meetings of the legislative assembly. Courts could meet on days marked F.
N and NP indicated days on which legislative assemblies could not be held. Politicians planning to offer legislation had to spend a good deal of time studying the calendar to determine the
optimum time to present their bills to the assembly. The letters A-H marked off 8 day periods
with market days on the 9th. The Kalends always designated the first of the month, the Nones
the 5th or 7th in months of 31 days, and the Ides the 13th or 15th in 31 day months.
12. D. N
23. G. F
2. B, F
13. E. IDES NP
24. H. C
3. C, C
14. F. N
25. A. NP
4. D, C
15. G. N
26. B. C
16. H. NP
27. C. C
6. F N
17. A. N
28. D. C
7. G, N
18. B. N
29. E. C
8. H, N
19. C. NP
30. F 9. A, N
20. D. N
10. B, N
21. E. NP
11. C, N
22. F. N
March 19, the elite Salian “dancing priests,” a sodality made up of 24 members of the patrician class,
conducted a procession through Rome dressed in the archaic garb of ancient warriors, each carrying a sword, a spear, and a shield. The shields had particular significance because one of them was
supposed to have fallen from heaven as a gift from Jupiter. At certain places on their route, the Salii
stopped and performed elaborate ritual dances while beating their shields and singing the ancient
“Song of the Salians” (the Carmen Saliare), fragments of which, although unintelligible to us, survive. There was a repeat performance in October at the end of the campaigning season. Thus the year
religiously bracketed—and legitimated—war for Romans, in particular for young Roman males. Summary and Conclusion
All states, ancient as well as modern, have to deal with the relationship between what is held to be
sacred and what is profane, between religious and secular realms. Should these realms be closely
connected or separated? If closely related, should one realm be in command of the other—and if so,
which? If separate, what level of independence should be accorded to each?
As has been argued throughout this chapter, the notion of a fundamental separation of politics
and religion was alien to ancient cultures. Nevertheless, states around the ancient Mediterranean
found different ways of blending their political and religious institutions. Some allowed quasi independent priesthoods to manage their own temples and properties, while others strictly controlled
the whole apparatus of religion and subordinated it to state authority. In pharaonic Egypt, the Pharaoh was both priest and ruler, combining in his own divine person supreme religious, military and
political functions. Assyrian and Babylonian kings who did not regard themselves as divine had
106 • part i: the rise of rome
constantly to deal with powerful priesthoods and temples. In ancient Israel and Judah, permanent
hereditary priesthoods supported legitimate kings but the institution of prophecy, which was unique
in the form it took in these lands, frequently challenged both priests and kings.
In terms of political culture, Greek city-states were closer to Rome than were the states of the
Ancient Middle East. The nature of the Greek world, which was made up of over a thousand cities
scattered throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas, makes possible only rough generalizations about the interaction there of religion and politics. As a rule, religious practice was closely
integrated with all aspects of political, social, cultural, and economic life. Most Greek cities had a
number of priesthoods which lay in the hands of ancient lineages or families, while other priests
were either elected or selected by lot depending on whether the individual city inclined toward oligarchy (election) or democracy (lot). Greek priests could be male or female and were chosen from
among the whole citizen population, generally for specific lengths of time.
By contrast, Romans devised a much more fully integrated mix of politics and religion. There
were no hereditary priests. Priests were appointed for life and were chosen from the senatorial and
equestrian elites, not from the general population. Priesthoods themselves were highly valued by the
competitive aristocrats of Rome and were treated as prizes by individual politicians in their passage
through the cursus honorum. With the exception of the Vestal Virgins and the priestess of Ceres,
Roman priests of public cults were all male. The Senate managed religious affairs through its colleges and sodalities of priests and reserved all final decisions to itself.
In their approach to politics and citizenship, Romans were generally more innovative and flexible than were their Greek counterparts. Greek cities prized their citizenship and its rewards, and
were very slow to extend the franchise for fear of seeing their citizen privileges diluted or their
political culture changed. Rome, on the other hand, was an expansionist state from early times and
extended citizenship routinely (though in varying forms and in selective fashion) to its conquered
subjects. With citizenship came integration within Rome’s political and religious institutions. In
addition, colonies of Romans and Latins scattered throughout Italy solidified Rome’s military grasp
on the peninsula and provided subject populations with first-hand examples of Roman religious
practices and the advantages of the franchise. In the course of time, this meant that Roman religious
authority and culture as well as political and military control extended throughout the peninsula.
In its own way, the incorporation of non-Romans within the sacred spheres of Roman life was
as revolutionary as its liberal granting of the franchise. Just as Rome was able to break the assumed
nexus between geographical location, culture, and citizenship that undergirded Greek political practice, so Rome was also able to break the apparently indissoluble bond between cult and place.
One of the results of this political and cultural breakthrough was the strengthening of the integrated, central power of the Roman state. Roman political leaders did not have to contend with
major institutions located outside the immediate apparatus of the state or powerful priesthoods with
their own independent cultural traditions and political agendas. Ambitious but frustrated Roman
aristocrats were never able to challenge their fellow competitors for power from a parallel state. At
the same time, Rome was able to harness to its needs the prodigious energies deriving from religious
belief. Polybius and other outside observers of Rome were right when they gave special credit to
Rome’s unique religious arrangements for its political prowess. When the Republic finally collapsed
and the emperors became sole rulers of the state, they assumed the title of pontifex maximus, and by
becoming members of all the important colleges of priests they reassembled the religious powers
originally held in combination by the kings but carefully distributed among different colleges during
the Republic. Thus the emperors came to dominate Roman religion as effectively as they dominated
Rome’s political arena.