Ancient History & Civilisation




During the centuries that separated the early beginnings of the peoples of Italy from the days of their supremacy in the Mediterranean their religious experience was naturally varied. From an animistic stage in which many traces of magic and taboo survived they passed to anthropomorphism and polytheism, and the state relieved the individual of many of his responsibilities to the unseen powers of the universe. There was no prolonged period of national suffering, such as the Jewish Captivity, to break down the barriers of formalism which state ritual erected around real religious feeling, but gradually foreign ideas and rites overlaid the old Roman religion and men sought refuge from scepticism or an empty formalism in the more emotional and mystic beliefs of Greece and the Orient or in the nobler teaching of the later Greek philosophers.

Roman religion was so free from the baser forms of magic and taboo that it is probable that these were deliberately excluded by the state. Yet some traces of earlier beliefs survived in historical times. Totemism, which belongs to a tribal form of society in which family life is unknown, was naturally absent from a people whose life centred around the family. Like the Jews, the Roman authorities tried to eradicate magic as a social factor, but they could not prevent individuals from practising it except under those forms which were harmful to the community. For instance, a spell which aimed at transferring the fertility of the lands of a neighbour to a man’s own fields was expressly forbidden in the Twelve Tables, which also banned anyone who ‘chanted an evil charm’ (‘Qui fruges excantassit, qui malum carmen incantasset’, Pliny, N.H., xxviii, 17). But individuals still continued to inscribe spells (carmina) and curses (dirae) on tablets (tabellae defixionum) for the undoing of their enemies, and Cato could advocate a process of sympathetic magic accompanied by a charm to cure a dislocated limb. Another form of harmless private magic was the survival of the use of amulets, particularly the bulla worn by children to avert such danger as the evil eye, and the little swinging figures (oscilla) which were hung up at certain festivals to protect the crops. It is improbable that these figures were substitutes for an original human sacrifice, a rite from which the Romans were mainly free. Magical practices also managed to survive here and there in public ceremonies, as, for instance, two forms of sympathetic magic designed originally to procure rain: at the aquaelicium a stone (lapis manalis) was carried in procession to form the centre of a ‘rain-making’ rite, and on the Ides of May straw puppets were thrown into the Tiber by the Vestal Virgins from the Pons Sublicius. A magical method of increasing fertility survived in the ceremonial whipping during the Lupercalia, well known from Shakespearean allusion; and ‘telepathic’ magic is seen in the reputed power of the Vestal Virgins to stop a runaway slave from leaving Rome by a spell. A belief also in taboo, that a mysterious power in certain objects made them dangerous or unclean, survived at Rome in some aspects, together with the corresponding need for purification or disinfection. Though few traces are found of a blood taboo, many things were considered unclean or holy: new-born children, corpses, strangers, iron, certain places such as shrines or spots struck by lightning, and certain days, particularly thirty-six in the year (dies religiosi). The unlucky priest of Jupiter (Flamen Dialis) was subjected to numerous taboos: amongst others he might not touch a goat, horse, dog, raw meat, a corpse, beans, ivy, wheat, or leavened bread: his nails and hair must not be cut with an iron knife, and he must have no knot on his person. But such primitive beliefs in taboo or magic were scarce in historical Rome.

Religion has been defined as ‘the effective desire to be in right relations with the Power manifesting itself in the universe’. This Power seemed to the early Romans to manifest itself in the form of impersonal ‘spirits’ (numina), which had local habitations, as springs, rivers, groves or trees.2 Some dwelt in stones which, however, had probably been worshipped as sacred objects in days before an indwelling spirit was conceived: for instance, boundary stones, the lapis silex in the shrine of Jupiter Feretrius, and the lapis manalis already mentioned. The numina gradually assumed functional as well as local aspects, and then received names in an adjectival form to denote their functions. Later the spirit approached more nearly to a definite personality and the priests drew up ‘forms of invocation’ (indigitamenta) assigning minor spirits to all the sub-divided activities of human life from Cunina, the spirit of the cradle, to Libitina, that of burial.

Early religious practice was centred in the family, the economic unit of an agricultural people, and was associated with the house and fields, especially the boundaries. Every important part of the house had its own spirit. The spirit of fire, Vesta, dwelt in the hearth; each day during the chief meal part of a sacred salt cake was thrown into the fire from a small sacrificial dish. The store-cupboard (penus) had its guardian spirits, the Penates. The door was the seat of Janus, who when conceived in the image of man faced both ways. The door was particularly important, since evil spirits might enter the house through it: hence a dead man was carried out of the house by night feet first, so that he might not find his way back. The Genius of the head of the family was also worshipped: this conception was probably that of the procreative power of the family on which it depended for its continuance. The religion of the family was an attempt to maintain peace with these spirits; if the powers were duly propitiated there was nothing to fear from the divine members of the familia. Apart from ‘family prayers’ at the beginning of the day and the offering to Vesta, ritual centred around birth, marriage and death. At the birth of a child three men struck the threshold with an axe, pestle and broom, agricultural implements, to keep out the wilder spirits of whom the chief was later named Silvanus. Many ceremonies accompanied marriage; for instance, a bride from another family might offend the household spirits and be dangerous as a stranger; so at the critical moment of entry she smeared the door posts with wolf’s fat and oil and was carried over the threshold. It was necessary to perform certain rites exactly (iusta facere) to ensure that the dead did not ‘walk’. Although perhaps even in Palaeolithic times man was thought to survive death, and the Neolithic folk had fairly definite ideas of a future state, the dead had little or no individuality. The great throng of the dead were identified with the Di Manes, the Kindly Gods, who were perhaps originally chthonic deities. At the festival of the Lemuria in May the head of the household could get rid of ghosts by clashing brass vessels and by spitting out black beans from his mouth, saying nine times, ‘With these I redeem me and mine’; when the ghosts behind had gathered up the beans, he expelled them with the ninefold formula ‘Manes exite paterni’. In the later Parentalia the element of fear was diminished and graves were decorated by the living members of the family.

The religion of the family, though centred in the house, naturally extended to the fields. Boundary stones not only had to be set up with due ceremony, but were the object of an annual festival, the Terminalia, in which they were garlanded by the farmers whose lands adjoined. It was also necessary to beat the bounds in order to purify, protect and fertilize the fields. This was done at the Ambarvalia in May in a solemn procession which culminated in prayer and the sacrifice of a pig, sheep and bull (suovetaurilia). The spirits of the fields, Lares, were placated at the Compitalia at places where paths bounding farms met. This joyful ceremony was shared by the slaves, who had no part in the worship of the house; later they introduced the worship of the Lares into the house where it was adopted by the whole household.3 Other festivals were celebrated by the pagus as a whole at seed-time and harvest.

It was long before these vague, aniconic spirits were conceived in human form or as personal beings with human characteristics. This development was only finally achieved under foreign influence and through the establishment of state-cults of the various deities. But from the first some emerged above the rest. Apart from Janus and Vesta, Jupiter, the sky-god of the Indo-Europeans, transcended the limits of animism, as did Mars who was originally an agricultural deity as well as a war god and thus manifested two kinds of numen: indeed Mars was probably the chief deity of the primitive Romans. With them is linked Quirinus, perhaps the war god of the Quirinal settlement or the god who presided over the assembled citizens; later legend equated him with Romulus.4

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