Ancient Roman religion was a matter more of performing prescribed rituals* to win the favor of the gods than of faith or personal devotion to a deity*. The main purpose of ritual was to communicate with the gods. Receiving the approval of the gods was believed to be essential for any undertaking to be successful.
Religion and politics were closely related in ancient Rome because the chief priests were generally political figures as well. As the Roman empire expanded, Roman religion spread. The religion of the Romans was enriched, in turn, by the religions of the people Rome conquered.
* ritual regularly followed routine, especially religious
* deity god or goddess
Spirits and Gods. Roman religion was animistic—that is, it included the belief that spirits (called numina) dwelled within natural objects, such as trees or rocks, creating a sort of “force field” around them. It was believed that these forces had to be reckoned with and that human beings should try to pacify the spirits. Gradually, under the influence of Etruscan and Greek religion, these spirits were conceived more and more as having human shape—an interpretation known as anthromorphism.
The early Romans believed in many different spirits and gods, most of whom had specific functions. Each river and grove of trees had its own spirit, and each trade guild* and town had its own patron* god or goddess. Spirits and gods were believed to control all aspects of human existence.
From the great number of spirits and gods, three emerged as most important—Jupiter, the god of the sky and the supreme god; Mars, the god of war; and Quirinus, the god of the Roman people in assembly. Later Mars and Quirinus lost their supremacy to two goddesses—Juno, the goddess of female fertility, and Minerva, the goddess of crafts.
* guild association of professionals that set standards and represented the interests of its members
* patron special guardian, protector or supporter
New Roman Gods. As the Romans encountered neighboring peoples, especially the Greeks, they adopted some of their gods. For example, in the 200s B.C., the Roman Senate introduced Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. Over time, most of the original Roman deities became identified with major Greek gods. For example, Jupiter became identified with the Greek god Zeus, and Juno with the Greek goddess Hera. Each of the 12 most important Greek gods had its Roman counterpart. Because the Romans had few myths about their own gods, they also adopted Greek myths.
After about 200 B.C., the Romans were not as tolerant of foreign religions. Roman worship of the cults* of Bacchus (adopted from the Greek god Dionysus) and of Isis (adopted from the Egyptian goddess of the same name) was severely restricted. The Romans were inclined to persecute the Christians and to barely tolerate Judaism. The Roman government continued to adopt new gods from other cultures but in a carefully controlled way. In the late A.D. 200s, the emperor Aurelian installed the Persian sun god Mithra as the supreme god of the Romans. Years later, the emperor Theodosius made the Christian god the supreme god of the empire.
Ritual. Because rituals were believed to be the means of gaining the favor of the gods, the ancient Romans were extremely concerned that religious rituals be carried out with the greatest care. They believed that even the smallest mistake ruined the entire ritual. If a priest missed a word in a prayer, the whole ritual, not just the prayer, had to be repeated from beginning to end, even if it lasted several days.
The central feature of most rituals was animal sacrifice*. Each sacrifice was bound by rules and traditions at every step. After the animal was sacrificed, the meat was cooked, the skin and entrails (internal organs) offered to the gods, and the rest of the meat divided among worshipers and priests for a feast.
Divination and Oracles. For the Romans to receive the approval of the gods, they first needed to find out what the gods wanted. This was usually done through divination—the interpretation of signs believed to be messages from the gods. The Romans relied on many different methods of divination, such as observing the flight of birds and inspecting the intestines of sacrificial animals. The Romans also interpreted dreams and unusual events, such as comets or lightning strikes, as foretelling the future.
The Romans further relied on oracles, which were messages from the gods or special places where such messages were received. When consulting an oracle, they asked the god a question and received the answer through a priest.
Priests and Other Religious Officials. When Rome was ruled by kings, the kings served as the chief priests. After Rome became a republic, the top political officials of the state took over the king’s religious duties. These officials did not have any special training, and they worked only part-time as priests. Their main religious duties were to conduct important rituals on behalf of the state.
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
Given the Roman obsession with the details of ritual, it is not surprising that Roman priests had to follow strict rules regarding their own behavior. This was true of the flamines—the priests who served the major Roman gods. The priest who served Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, could not ride a horse, watch the army assemble for war, take an oath, wear a ring, have a knot in his clothing, touch or name a female goat, go outside without a hat, touch bread containing yeast, pass under an arbor of vines, or touch a dead body. Unfortunately, the reasons for this interesting set of restrictions are unknown.
There were many other types of priests, all with different titles, functions, qualifications, and methods of being chosen for the priesthood. Priests were assigned to tend the temples of each of the major Roman gods. Priests called augurs watched for and interpreted signs from the gods. Still other priests were in charge of annual Roman religious festivals. Although some priests had only a few rituals to conduct, others had many time-consuming administrative and ritual duties. Most priests were male, but a few were female. Most priests held office for life, although some served for a fixed period. Some priests were chosen by existing priests, others by popular election.
During the Roman Empire, priests came to be dominated by the emperor. Many of the ritual duties of a priest were concerned with the emperor and his family rather than with the state as a whole. With the rise of Christianity in the A.D. 300s, the priests of traditional Roman religion became less important. During the following century, they gradually disappeared.
Family and State Religion. Roman religion was practiced both privately within the family and publicly on behalf of the entire state. Family religion centered on the home and members of the household. The main gods worshiped within the family were Vesta, the Lares and Penates, and Genius. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth*. The Lares were gods of the family farm and of the family ancestors who were buried there. The Penates were gods of the inside of the household. Genius was the god of male fertility and was believed to live within the male head of the family. All important life events, such as births and marriages, were accompanied by family rituals to ensure that the events would turn out well. The family also regularly performed rituals to honor their dead ancestors.
The religion of the state was closely connected with the religion of the family. Many of the same gods were worshiped, but instead of seeking their protection just for a family, their protection was sought for the entire state. Instead of the head of the family performing the rituals, priests or high-ranking political officials performed them. Vesta was not only worshiped at each family’s hearth but also at her temple in Rome. Special female priests called the Vestal Virgins attended these rituals.
The state ensured that all religious rituals were carried out according to tradition. The Roman state decided whether new religious practices and new gods were to be adopted or outlawed. In addition, the state priests drew up the schedule of religious festivals that were celebrated each year.
Ruler Worship. Although popular in Greece during the Hellenistic* period, the worship of rulers was alien to traditional Roman religion. As long as Rome was a republic, ruler worship did not take hold. Starting with the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, ruler worship became part of Roman religion. Although Augustus did not permit himself to be worshiped during his lifetime, after his death the Roman Senate gave him a place among the gods of the Roman state and provided him with a temple and priests. The Roman people worshiped Augustus for the peace, prosperity, and security he had restored to the Roman world.
* hearth fireplace in the center of a house
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
After Augustus, the Roman Senate declared other emperors gods after their deaths, including Claudius, Trajan, and Hadrian. Because other emperors failed to achieve greatness for the Roman state or its people, they were denied the status of a god. During the A.D. 200s, the importance of ruler worship declined. With the rise of Christianity, ruler worship died out completely.
Christianity. Exactly when Christianity first came to Rome is not known, but the religion was well established by A.D. 100. At first, Christians were persecuted by the state for refusing to worship the traditional gods. The persecution ended when the emperor Constantine came to power in the early A.D. 300s. Constantine promoted tolerance and religious harmony. Among other reforms, he made Christian clergy the equals of the priests of the traditional state religion. Later, under Theodosius’s rule, Rome became a Christian state.
In the A.D. 360s, the emperor Julian returned Rome to its traditional religion. He also began persecuting Christians again. However, Julian’s reign was too short and Christianity too firmly rooted for his efforts to have a lasting effect. (See also Death and Burial; Divinities; Festivals and Feasts, Roman; Priests, Roman; Religion, Greek; Ritual and Sacrifice; Temples.)