Ancient History & Civilisation


The religion of the family, though the expression of a group rather than of individuals, might have led to an advancement of man’s knowledge of the Divine, had not a development taken place which tended to deaden its reality. That feeling of awe and anxiety towards the unknown which the Romans called religio had led men to evolve certain rites by which they maintained the pax deorum, a peace or covenant with their divine neighbours. As the city grew, the state stepped in and undertook this responsibility on behalf of the community. Traditionally in the reign of Numa a calendar was drawn up to fix a routine of festivals and to divide the days of the year into those on which it was religiously permissible to transact civil business and those on which it was not (dies fasti et nefasti). It reflects the transition of a rural people to the political and military life of the city-state; but agricultural life is still its basis. But as the town dweller would gradually lose interest in the details of country festivals and as the calendar gradually got out of gear with the agricultural year, this fixed form of ritual, though saving the individual from anxiety, soon lost all religious meaning for the people of the city. Many survivals of magic, grossness and barbarism were doubtless excluded from the new state cult, which required permanent officials to perform its ceremonies and to take charge of the ius divinum. In the regal period the king was the state priest, the paterfamilias of the community; at the fall of the monarchy his ceremonial duties devolved chiefly upon the Pontifex Maximus and partly upon the Rex Sacrorum, who retained his title. Under the priest-king were the priesthoods. Of these the chief were the two great colleges of augurs and pontiffs. Whatever their origin, the pontiffs of the Republic took over the administration of the state cults and the legal aspect of religion, and their leader, the Pontifex Maximus, was installed in the king’s palace, the Regia. In addition there were individual priests, Flamines, attached to particular deities; the chief was the Flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter. And there were group-priests: the Fetiales, Luperci, Salii and the Vestal Virgins.

Some attempt was made to maintain the reality of the earlier practices which the state took over. For instance, the Compitalia or festival of the Lares was celebrated at cross-roads instead of where properties had adjoined. Other festivals were held outside the sacred boundary of the city, the pomerium, as the Terminalia at the sixth milestone of the Via Laurentina, and the beating of the bounds, Ambarvalia, at the fifth milestone on the Via Campana; this latter rite gave rise to a ceremony of Amburbium, by which the boundaries of the city were purified. But many of the old festivals lost all meaning for the town dwellers and became mere ritual for the priests. The domestic deities, however, were more easily adapted. Janus, the spirit of the house door, was worshipped at the doorway of the state at a gateway in the Forum, which was only closed in peacetime; he soon became the god of beginnings, and later gave his name to the first month of the year. Vesta became the hearth of the state on which the sacred fire must be kept alight; her round temple in the Forum reproduced the shape of the primitive huts of Latium, and near by dwelt her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Her worship illustrates the reality and continuity of Roman religious feeling; no statue was ever placed in her temple.

The object of Roman ritual was, as has been said, to maintain the pax deorum. The methods adopted were sacrifice, prayer, expiation, purification and vows. Sacrifice or the making of anything sacrum, the property of the deity, was designed partly to honour the deity and partly to expiate sin by means of offering and prayer; there appears little trace of sacramental sacrifice, whereby the worshipper enters into communion with the deity. The offering consisted of food, such as the salt meal given to Vesta. Blood offerings in early times appear confined to the ceremonies of lustration and piaculum, but in the state cult were used in sacrificium. The commonest victim was the pig, to which on important occasions the sheep and ox were added. It was essential that both the priest, who in the days before the state cult was the paterfamilias of the household, and the victim, should be acceptable. Minute details were laid down regarding the condition and behaviour of the victim; while it was being sacrificed pipers played lest any unlucky sound or word should mar the worship. The priests stood with veiled heads. After the slaughter, the victim’s internal organs were examined in case of any defect. The idea behind the sacrifice is shown by the common formula which occurs in the accompanying prayer: macte esto. The deity’s strength is to be increased (? cf. the root of magnus, magis), so that his glory and goodwill towards the worshippers may also be increased. This idea probably marks a stage between the earlier conception that the gods actually partook of the offering and the later view that the offering was merely an honorary gift. The prayers, as seen in the carmina of the Arval Brothers or those preserved by Cato, mark a transition between magic and religion; in their repetitions and in the emphasis on the exact wording, they retain the outward characteristics of spells which bind the deity. But the substance of the prayer is petition rather than compulsion or bargaining. The god may withhold the request, though, in fact, if he is invoked in the correct formulae, it would be thought unreasonable and contrary to his nature for him to do so. As an example the prayer of a Roman farmer in clearing a wood may be quoted: ‘Be thou god or goddess to whom the wood is sacred, as it is right to make expiation by the offering of a pig because of the clearing of this sacred wood, for this cause that all may be rightly done… I make pious prayer that thou wouldest be kind and gracious to me, my home, my household and my children; for which cause be thou enriched (macte esto) with the sacrifice of this pig for expiation’ (Cato,de agr. cult., 139). This prayer illustrates the expiatory type of sacrifice or piaculum which is atonement for an offence committed, and an act of compensation to the god, rather than a free-will offering like the ordinarysacrificium. Generally a blood offering was made. If any slip or omission occurred in the ritual of a sacrifice, it was necessary to renew the ceremony and to make a piaculum. Characteristically the practical Roman often insured against any slip by a prior piacular sacrifice which was to atone in anticipation. Thus when the Arval Brethren, who suffered from a taboo on iron, had to take an iron implement into their sacred grove, they offered a piaculum beforehand.

Purification (lustratio) was closely akin to, or indeed a form of, piacular sacrifice. The object was to keep away hostile spirits by means of processional rites, which still survive in the ritual of the Roman church, though changed in form and meaning. These processions, which culminated in acts of sacrifice and prayer, marched round the boundaries of the farm and village. For instance, the Lupercalia was in origin a lustration of the Palatine settlement. When the city was established it too must have its sacred boundary (pomerium) within which only the gods of the city might dwell. Little is known of the lustration of the boundaries of Rome in the festival of Amburbium, but full details are recorded in the inscriptions of Iguvium concerning the lustration of the citadel of this Umbrian town.5 Such a process of purification was extended from the boundary line of farm or city to the human beings within, to the whole people or the army together with its weapons. Even the trumpets were purified at the Tubilustrium in March. It is not unlikely that triumphal arches and the custom of forcing a surrendered army under a ritual yoke of spears derive from the primitive desire to get rid of all dangerous contagion. But like many other ceremonies, the act of purification became formalized: the prayers were murmured and unheard by the people, and the lustration of the army developed into a political census. Finally, the gods were approached by means of vows (vota). The legalistic language in which private vows are often couched cannot obscure the fact that they are prayers accompanied with the promise of an offering if they are heard: they are not legal transactions which bind both parties. Public vows, which were taken in the name of the state, were a later development and were, to some extent, a covenant in the name of the state. Other vows, such as to found temples or give games, and even the vow of the ver sacrum were acts of self-renunciation rather than contractual covenants.

Much of the state ritual was taken over from, and was an elaboration of, the rites of the orderly worship of the household. But the general effect of the organization of religion by the state was to rob it of its real meaning and smother the spiritual possibilities inherent in an advanced animistic belief. The simple ritual of the household and farm, which though without much direct influence on conduct yet engendered a sense of duty within the family and a sense of spiritual union between neighbours, survived long in country districts. But the individual citizen as such was relieved of all need to worry about the gods: the state priesthoods deadened his religious and moral instinct. The formalism of Jewish worship was quickened by a burning monotheism and by the moral earnestness of the prophets. The early Romans had priests but no prophets. The state religion may have helped to preserve family life by maintaining a sense of law and order, but it could not satisfy the cravings of the individual who, in times of stress, sought relief in foreign religious ideas.

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