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Roman Values, The Family, and Religion

The Romans’ ways of life—especially the traditional values of Roman society, the nature of the Roman family, and the religious ideas and practices of Roman public and private life—provide the basic context in which the people and events of Roman history must be studied if we are to try to understand the Romans on their own terms. The Romans self-consciously saw themselves as interconnected in their personal lives with other people in complex ways. They believed strongly that eternal, and in some cases even divine, values defined proper behavior, and that their society’s social and political institutions put these values into action. Romans looked through the lenses, as it were, of their ancestral values, family structure, and religion to make sense of the events of their history. We as modern readers of ancient history should try to do the same, to the extent that it is possible for people today to enter into the ideals, assumptions, emotions, and ways of life of people from long ago. This is not to say that the Romans’ values and beliefs alone determined what happened in their history, but alongside geography, demography, and other factors that will appear in the course of the narrative, the way that the Romans looked at themselves and their place in the world played a crucial role in their destinies as a people.

ROMAN VALUES

The values that Romans believed they should live by primarily concerned their obligations to the gods and other people, and the respect and status in society that they won or lost according to how well they behaved, as judged by others. Of course, broad generalizations cannot cover the full range and subtlety of Roman values, or account for changes over time, or fully explain how the situations of women, children, and men differed. Still, a general description of the attitudes and behaviors that Romans saw as proper human conduct is necessary to understand fundamental and enduring aspects of Roman society: the patron-client system, the distribution of power in Roman families, the lives of women at home and in society, the nature of education, and the role of religion in the state and the family.

The upper class defined the system of values guiding Romans’ private and public lives under the Roman Republic. When men from Rome’s social elite originally created the Republic, their goal was to make rule by one man impossible by creating a system of power sharing for themselves, but not for everyone. Therefore, they aimed to keep the reins of political power out of the hands of the majority of the population, because poorer citizens might well prefer to live under a king who would win their support by giving them financial benefits that he would force the wealthy to provide from their own fortunes. At the same time, since the upper class was too small to rule and defend Rome by itself, it was necessary to make compromises giving some role in governing to other citizens of lesser social and financial status. Without their cooperation, Rome could not field an effective army. The political history of the Republic is fundamentally the story of the always tense and sometimes violent struggles over sharing the ruling power in the state. The most destructive of those disputes came in the later Republic when members of the upper class and their supporters fought literal battles among themselves to decide who among them was entitled to what level of power. Keeping in mind the result of these civil wars in the late Republic that pitted citizen against citizen, we should perhaps ask ourselves whether this destructive violence had roots in Romans’ failing to follow their traditional values. It seems equally possible, however, that it was caused by some irresolvable tension in those values that stemmed from the overwhelming importance to Romans of earning individual status as their reward for service to the community.

Romans believed that their ancestors over the generations had handed down the values that should guide their lives. They therefore referred to their system of values as the “way of the elders” (mos maiorum). The Romans treasured the antiquity of their values because, for Romans, “old” meant “good because tested by experience,” but “new” meant “potentially dangerous because untested.” “New things” (res novae), in fact, was the Roman expression meaning “revolution,” which they feared as a source of destructive violence and social disorder. The central values that Romans believed their ancestors had established covered what we might call uprightness, faithfulness, respect, and status. These values had many different effects on Romans’ attitudes and behaviors, depending on the social context, and Roman values often interrelated and overlapped. The most important values for individuals concerned their relationships with other people and with the gods.

The value of uprightness defined how a person related to others. This value had an originally masculine sense, as the Latin word designating it, virtus, comes from the word for a manly man, vir. (The English word “virtue” comes from these Latin words.) In the second century B.C., the poet Lucilius listed what he saw as the moral qualities of a man with virtus: he could tell good from evil, he knew what was useless, shameful, and dishonorable, he was an enemy of bad men and bad values, he was a friend and protector of the good, he placed his country’s well-being first of all, then the interests of his family next, and his own interests last of all (quoted in Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.5.2). It was also the duty of a man with uprightness to take care of his body and exercise to stay strong and healthy so that he could support his family and fight for his country in war. Heroism in battle was the supreme achievement for the “upright” man, but only if his valor served his community rather than just his own individual glory. Women also were expected to display uprightness in their lives, but for them this did not include military service, which remained always a male responsibility. Uprightness for women required strict adherence to all the values that governed women’s relations with their families, the world outside the family, and the state. Above all, a woman was supposed to marry, produce children, and train her sons and daughters from an early age in the ethical values of her community.

The value of faithfulness (fides) had many forms, for women as well as for men. Most of all, faithfulness meant keeping one’s obligations regardless of the cost, or of whether the obligation was formal or informal. To fail to meet an obligation or to fulfill a contract offended the community and the gods. Women demonstrated their faithfulness by remaining virgins until marriage and monogamous as wives. This expectation did not apply to men, and discreet sexual relations with prostitutes were not considered disgraceful for them. Men demonstrated faithfulness by never breaking their word, paying their debts, and treating everyone with justice (which did not mean treating everyone the same, but rather justly according to whether the other’s social status was superior, equal, or inferior to one’s own rank in society).

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Figure 4. A silver coin minted in 47 B.C. shows on its front side a profile of Fides, the Roman value of faithfulness, as a divine being; the other side depicts a cavalryman dragging a captive by the hair. Among their other functions, coins were the most widely distributed works of art in the Greek and Roman worlds; deciphering the messages communicated by their compact images presents an important challenge for historians. Courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

The English expression “showing respect” provides the best approximation to another complex Roman value, “piety” (pietas), which meant being devoted to the worship of the gods and the support of one’s family. The English translation tends to make this value sound purely religious, but in fact it was just as much social. Women and men alike met the demands of pietas by respecting the superior authority of the elders, the ancestors of their families, and of the gods. To show respect for the gods, performing religious rituals properly and regularly was crucial. The divine favor that Romans believed protected their community demanded that people faithfully and piously worship the gods. Respecting oneself was also part of this value. Self-respect meant many things. Most importantly, it meant never giving up, no matter how difficult or painful the situation. Persevering and doing one’s duty under all conditions were essential Roman behaviors. Respecting oneself also meant limiting displays of emotion and maintaining self-control, a value called “gravity” (gravitas). So strict was this expectation of “gravity” that not even wives and husbands could kiss each other in public without seeming emotionally out of control.

Status in the eyes of others, or “dignity” (dignitas) was the reward that a Roman gained for living these values. It came from the respect that a person earned, and indeed expected, from others in return for behaving according to traditional ways. Women earned respect most of all by bearing legitimate children and educating them morally, earning the rewards of reputation and social approval. A Roman mother deserved and expected great respect. Men’s rewards included public honors, meaning above all (for men wealthy enough for government, which brought no pay) election to official positions in the Roman state. Soldiers in Rome’s citizen militia expected public recognition of acts of military bravery. The effect of social status was so powerful for Romans that a man who had earned extremely high status by his actions and self-control could receive so much respect that others would obey him even though he held no formal or legal power over them. A man reaching this pinnacle of prestige was said to possess the moral power over others of “authority” (auctoritas). That meant people would do what he recommended not because any law required them to, but from their respect for his supreme example of living the values they believed their ancestors had passed down to them as the ideals of a Roman life.

Finally, Romans believed that family status affected values. The more upper-class a person’s family, the more strict and complicated were the personal values that the person had to follow. Being born to a prominent family was therefore a two-edged sword. It automatically entitled a person to greater social status, but at the same time it imposed a harsher standard for measuring up to the demands of the Roman system of values. People born to families without prestige were believed to have a lesser ability to behave well, or at least that was the view of the upper class. This social elite’s overtly superior attitude toward ordinary people contributed to the constant tension between them and everyone else in society.

In theory, wealth had nothing to do with moral virtue, and Romans told their children stories of poor but virtuous Roman heroes. The most famous such model was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus in the fifth century B.C. By saving Rome from annihilation after leading its army to a swift victory over invading foreign enemies, Cincinnatus had achieved so much status that he could have ruled Rome by himself. His faithfulness to Roman values, however, led him to return to his poverty-stricken family on his pitiful dirt farm, happy in having done his duty and having been faithful to his country (Livy, From the Foundation of the City 3.26–28).

As over the centuries the Roman Republic came to control a territorial empire, however, money became overwhelmingly important to the Roman social elite because they could increase their status by lavish spending on public buildings and entertainments for the community. In this way, wealth became necessary for status. By the second century B.C., ambitious Romans needed to have money, lots of money, to buy respect, and they became more willing to trample on other values to get it. In this way, the Roman value system did not always harmonize. Following one value to its logical conclusion could put it in conflict with others. This paradox—values that may be good in themselves can demand unjust behavior from an individual when taken to an extreme—exists in any system of human values that strives to balance the interests of the individual and those of the community. Maintaining balance among competing values promotes peace and social stability; stressing one particular value so strongly that it obliterates others opens the way to unrest and dictatorship. Romans in the late Republic were going to learn this lesson the hard way.

The relationships defined by the Latin terms “patron” (patronus, “protector”) and “client” (cliens, “follower”) provided a web of reciprocal obligations among people that linked Romans to each other up and down the social scale. The patron-client system emerged from the differences in social rank that defined individual males and their families, including (at least in practice) their female family members. A patron was a man of superior social status who was obligated to provide “kindnesses” (beneficia), as they were called in the official terminology of the system, to those people of lower status who paid him special attention. These people became his clients, who in return for his kindnesses owed “duties” (officia) to their patron. This relationship was therefore reciprocal (each side had obligations to the other) but asymmetrical (the parties involved were not social equals). Patrons could in turn be the clients of those of higher status than themselves, just as clients could be the patrons of those below them in the social hierarchy. The same person, in other words, could be both a patron and a client.

The Romans defined the patron-client relationship as a type of friendship (amicitia) with clearly defined roles for each party. A sensitive patron would show respect by greeting a client as “my friend,” not as “my client.” A client, on the other hand, would show respect for his patron by addressing him as “my patron.” Despite the veneer of friendship, the patron-client relationship was not at all casual. In fact, this interlocking network of personal relationships obligated people to each other under the law. The Twelve Tables of 449 B.C., for instance, Rome’s first set of written laws, declared any patron who cheated his client to be a criminal outlaw.

The duties of a client included supporting his patron financially and politically. Tradition held that a client in early Rome, for example, had to help provide dowries (valuable wedding presents) for his patron’s daughters. In political life, a client was expected to aid in a patron’s campaigns for election to government office, or when one of the patron’s friends competed for an elective post. Clients could be especially helpful in swinging the votes of ordinary people to their patrons’ side. A client could be also called upon to lend money to his patron when the latter had won the election and needed money to pay for the public works expected of him as an official, who, as usual in Roman government, received no pay. Furthermore, because by the time of the later Republic it was a mark of great status for a patron to have numerous clients surrounding him all the time like a swarm of bees, a patron expected his clients to gather at his house early in the morning and accompany him on his way to the Roman Forum, the political, legal, and business center of the city. A member of the Roman social elite therefore came to need a large, fine house to accommodate his throng of clients at the morning greeting, as well as to entertain his social equals at dinners. A crowded, well-appointed house was a mark of social success. This was one of the reasons that, over time, money became supremely important to upper-class Romans: they needed to spend large amounts to be seen as splendid patrons of hordes of clients.

Patrons also needed money to be able to provide their clients with an expensive range of kindnesses. Under the Republic, a patron might help a client get started in a political career by supporting his candidacy for office, or by providing financial support from time to time. By the time of the Empire, the patron was supposed to provide a picnic basket of food for the breakfast of the clients who clustered at his house at daybreak. A patron’s most important kindness was the obligation to support a client and his family if they got into legal difficulties, such as in lawsuits over property ownership, which were common. People of lower social status were at a disadvantage in the Roman judicial system if they lacked influential friends to help them in presenting their case. The aid of a patron skilled at public speaking was particularly needed because in court both accusers and accused either had to speak for themselves, or have friends speak for them. Rome had no state-sponsored prosecutors or defenders, nor any lawyers for hire. Prominent citizens with special knowledge of legal history and procedure were Rome’s legal experts. By the third century B.C., these self-educated experts, called jurists, played a central role in the Roman judicial system. Although jurists frequently developed their expertise in law by serving in Roman elective offices, they operated as private individuals, not officials, in their unpaid role of advising other citizens and magistrates about the content of the law, the proper forms for complaints and transactions, and the appropriate resolutions to cases. The reliance on jurists under the Republic represented a distinctive feature of Roman justice that continued under the Empire.

The reciprocal legal obligations of the patron-client relationship were supposed to be stable and long lasting. In many cases, these ties would endure over the generations by being passed down in the family. Ex-slaves, who automatically became clients for life of the masters who had granted them their freedom, often handed down to their children their relationship with the patrons’ families. Romans with contacts abroad could acquire clients among foreigners. Especially wealthy and powerful Romans would sometimes even have entire foreign communities as their clients. The emphasis of the patron-client system on duty and permanence summed up the Roman idea that social stability and well-being were achieved by faithfully maintaining the web of ties that linked people to one another in public and private life. In the friction of conflicts that real life brings, the relationships were in truth often fluid, with patrons and clients shifting their allegiances and forming new relationships. But the ideal was that of enduring obligations.

THE FAMILY, WOMEN, AND EDUCATION

Roman law made the “power of a father” (patria potestas) the dominant force in all relationships within the household (familia), except for the wife’s relationship with her husband. This granting of dominance to older men made Rome a patriarchal society. A father possessed legal power over his children, no matter how old, as well as over his slaves (who counted as members of his household). Patria potestas also made him the sole owner of all the property acquired by any of his children. So long as their father was alive, no son or daughter could legally own anything, accumulate money of his or her own, or indeed possess any independent legal standing—in theory, at least. In practice, however, adult children could hold personal property and acquire money, much as favored slaves might build up some savings of their own. The father also held a legal power of life and death over these members of the household. Nevertheless, fathers rarely exercised this power on anyone except newborn babies. Exposing unwanted infants, so that they would die or be found and adopted or raised as slaves by strangers, was an accepted practice to control the size of families and dispose of physically imperfect babies. Until a Roman father picked up a newborn, thereby signaling that he accepted the child as his own and committed to raising it, a child literally did not exist as a legal person. Baby girls probably suffered this fate more often than boys, as a family enhanced its status to a greater extent by spending its resources on sons more than on daughters.

No Roman father would have made the rare and drastic decision to execute an adult member of his household completely on his own. As in government, for which the Senate of Rome (see Chapter 3) acted as a body of advisers to the top officials, or in legal matters, for which jurists provided advice, Romans in their private lives regularly consulted others on important family issues, seeking consensus on what should be done. Each Roman man therefore relied on his own personal body of advisers (a circle of friends and relatives called his “council”) that he consulted before making any big decision. In this way, decision-making in the Roman family and in Roman government closely resembled each other. A father’s council of friends would strongly advise him to think twice if he proposed the irreversible step of killing his adult son for anything except a totally compelling reason. For instance, when Aulus Fulvius in 63 B.C. had his son put to death, he had been provoked by his son’s treason in joining a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Either treason or dereliction of military duty was in fact practically the only reason for which a father would have executed his own offspring. Such a violent use of a father’s power against a family member was very rare. In fact, by far the most important aspect of the “power of a father” in everyday life was the moral obligation that it laid upon him to take faithful care of his family justly and compassionately.

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Figure 5. On a Greek vase, Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans and famed for his devotion to duty, flees Troy while carrying his father on his back. Romans saw such examples of heroic conduct by their ancestors in the distant past, commemorated in literature such as Vergil’s Aeneid, as a crucial component of their traditional values. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.

For wives, the “power of the father” had only a limited effect on their lives. Early in the history of the Republic, a wife could fall under the power of her husband, but her marriage agreement could specifically prohibit this subordination and free her from any legal control by her husband. By the late Republic, this form of “free” marriage had become by far the most common. Under its provisions, the wife remained in the power of her father so long as he lived. In reality, there were relatively few instances of aged fathers still controlling the lives of their mature, married daughters because so many people died young in the ancient world; most fathers would not have lived long enough to oversee the lives of their adult daughters. By the time most Roman women married, in their late teens, half of them had already lost their fathers. This demographic pattern also meant that the “power of a father” had only a limited effect on most grown sons.

Since males generally did not marry until their late twenties, by the time they married and formed their own households only one man in five still had a surviving father. The other 80 percent were legally independent of any control. An adult woman without a living father was also her own person for all practical purposes. Legally she needed a male guardian to conduct business for her, but the guardianship of adult women had become an empty formality by the end of the Republic. A later jurist commented on the reality of women’s freedom of action even under a guardian: “The common belief, that because of their instability of judgment women are often deceived and that it is only fair to have them controlled by the authority of guardians, seems more deceptive than true. For women of full age manage their affairs themselves” (Gaius, Institutes 190–191).

Roman society expected women to grow up fast and take on major responsibilities in the family. Tullia (79 B.C.–45 B.C.), the daughter of the famous politician and orator Cicero, was engaged at twelve, married at sixteen, and widowed by twenty-two. Women of wealth had duties managing their family’s property, including the household slaves. Wives oversaw the nurturing of their young children by wet-nurses and accompanied their husbands to the dinner parties that were important for building relationships between families. Since both women and men could control property, prenuptial agreements were common to outline the rights of both partners in the marriage. Divorce was legally a simple matter, with fathers usually keeping the children after the dissolution of a marriage, a reflection of the traditional Roman “power of the father.” Many wives maintained account books to track income and expenses for their own property separately from that of their husbands. Archaeological discoveries reveal that, by the end of the Republic, some women owned large businesses, such as brick-making companies.

The influence of mothers in shaping the moral outlook of their children was especially valued in Roman society and constituted a major component of female virtue. Cornelia, a wealthy member of the upper class in the second century B.C., won enormous respect for her accomplishments both in managing her family’s property and in giving birth to and overseeing the education of her many children (Cicero, Brutus 104, 211). When her distinguished husband died, Cornelia refused an offer of marriage from the king of Egypt so that she could oversee the family estate and educate her daughter and two sons. Her other nine children had died, and the twelve children she gave birth to provide an example of the level of fertility required of Roman wives to ensure the survival of their husbands’ family lines. Cornelia became well known for entertaining important people and writing stylish letters, which were widely distributed among the upper class and were still being read a century after her death. Her sons, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, grew up to be among the most influential—and controversial—political leaders and reformers of the late Republic.

Poor women had not only to raise their children but also to work hard for a living. Fewer occupations were open to them than to men. Usually they had to settle for jobs selling craft items or food in small shops or stands. Even if they were members of crafts-producing families, the predominant form of manufacturing in the Roman economy, women normally sold rather than made the goods the family produced. The men in a crafts-producing family worked the raw materials and finished the goods. Those women with the worst luck or the poorest families ended up as prostitutes. Prostitution was legal, but women and men who made their living by selling sex were regarded as lacking social status. Female prostitutes wore the outer garment of men, the toga, to signal their lack of the traditional chastity associated with legendary Roman heroines such as Lucretia.

Women were not allowed to vote in Roman elections or become government officials, but they could have indirect political influence by expressing their views to their male relatives holding public office. Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder, a famous senator and author (234 B.C.–149 B.C.), only half-jokingly described the influence that women could exert on their male family members: “All mankind rule their wives, we rule all mankind, and our wives rule us” (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder 8). On rare occasions during the Republic, Roman women held public demonstrations to influence government policy. The ones that we hear about in the historical record involved well-off women protesting limits imposed on their riches and display of status. In 215 B.C., for instance, at the height of a wartime financial crisis, a law was passed prohibiting women from possessing more than a half-ounce of gold, wearing multicolored clothing in public, or riding in horse-drawn carriages within a mile of Rome or other Roman towns, except to attend public religious events. This law was meant to address men’s discontent over resources controlled by wealthy women at a time when the state faced an acute need for funds, even though the Senate had required women to contribute to the war’s expenses two years earlier. In 195 B.C., after the war, the women affected by the law staged large-scale demonstrations against the restrictions. They poured out into the streets to express their demands to all the men they met, and they besieged the doors of the houses of the two political leaders who had been blocking repeal. The law was rescinded (Livy, From the Foundation of the City 34.1–8). This dramatic exception to the ordinarily restricted public behavior of Roman women underlines the fact that women mainly influenced Roman government through their effect on the male citizens who controlled politics.

Roman education for children was private for the wealthy and the poor alike; there were no public schools. If parents in the many poorer families that worked as crafts-producers knew how to read, write, and do arithmetic, then they could pass that knowledge on to their children by informal home-schooling as their children worked alongside them; Rome had no laws limiting child labor. Nevertheless, the large majority of the population was probably barely literate at best. Roman children in wealthier families also received their basic education at home. In the early Republic, parents did the educating, at least until the children reached the age of seven, when they might begin to be instructed by hired tutors, or sent to classes offered for a fee by independent schoolmasters in their lodgings. Fathers took special care to instruct their sons in the basics of masculine virtue, especially physical training, fighting with weapons, and courage. When Roman expansion brought wealthier people into closer contact with Greek culture, they began to buy educated Greek slaves to educate their children, many of whom became bilingual in Greek and Latin.

Girls usually received less training than boys, but in upper-class households both girls and boys learned to read. Repetition was the ordinary teaching technique, with corporal punishment frequently applied to keep pupils attentive to their rote work. Richer families would have their daughters taught literature, perhaps some music, and conversational topics for dinner parties. A principal aim of the education of women was to prepare them for the important role Roman mothers were expected to play in teaching their children respect for Roman social and moral values.

The goal of an upper-class Roman boy’s education was to become expert at rhetoric—skill in persuasive public speaking—because this was crucial to success in a public career. To win elections, a man had to be able to speak persuasively to voters, and he also had to learn to speak effectively in the courts, where lawsuits were the vehicle for protecting private property, building political coalitions, and fighting personal feuds. A boy would hear rhetorical techniques in action by going with his father, uncle, older brother, or family friends to public meetings, assemblies, and court sessions. By listening to the speeches given in debates on politics and cases at law, the boy would learn to imitate winning techniques. Rich parents would also hire special teachers to instruct their sons in the skills and the large amount of general knowledge of history, literature, geography, and finance that an effective speaker required. Roman rhetoric owed much to Greek rhetorical techniques, and many Roman orators studied with Greek teachers. When in the second century B.C. Romans began to produce textbooks on rhetoric in Latin, these new tools for success depended on material derived from Greek works.

The career of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C.–43 B.C.) provided the Republic’s most famous example of the prominence to which rhetorical skill could carry a man. Cicero’s father paid for his son to leave home to study rhetoric both in Rome and Greece. There Cicero developed a brilliant style of public speaking that allowed him to overcome his originally low social status as the child of a local family from a small Italian town instead of an elite family in Rome. Cicero began his career as a public speaker by defending men accused of crimes, a relatively safe start for an unknown orator because defendants were grateful for such support and prosecutors usually did not retaliate against the defendants’ supporters. Speaking for the prosecution was far riskier because a man who accused a powerful public figure could expect his target to seek revenge by bringing a countercharge. Cicero therefore electrified the Roman social elite in 70 B.C. when he spoke to prosecute for corruption Gaius Verres, a high-ranking official of great status. Cicero’s speech stunned the capital by frightening the prominent Verres into exile (Cicero, Oration Against Verres 1). In 63 B.C., Cicero achieved the pinnacle of success by being elected consul, the highest office of the government of the Republic.

Throughout his career, Cicero used his rhetorical skills to attempt to reconcile the warring factions in Rome’s upper class during the violent struggles over political power at the end of the Republic. He gained lasting fame as the speaker whose verbal sting was the most feared by political leaders. Later speakers studied his speeches, many of which he prepared for written publication after delivery, to learn the techniques of their carefully structured arguments, clarity in expression, and powerful imagery. Cicero also wrote influential essays on rhetoric, in which he explained his rhetorical doctrines and his belief that to be a good speaker a man had to live by a code of moral excellence. A letter to Cicero once thought to be from his brother Quintus summarized the importance of rhetoric for Roman men: “Excel in public speaking. It is the tool for controlling men at Rome, winning them over to your side, and keeping them from harming you. You fully realize your own power when you are a man who can cause your rivals the greatest fears of meeting you in a trial” (Handbook of Electioneering 14).

RELIGION IN THE STATE AND THE FAMILY

Roman religion affected every aspect of life. Romans worshiped a wide range of supernatural beings, ranging from the great gods said to have palaces on Mount Olympus in Greece to spirits believed to inhabit practically every natural environment and phenomenon, from storms to trees and rocks. The Romans’ chief divinity was Jupiter, whom they saw as a powerful and stern—but not always loving—father and king of the gods. Juno, queen of the gods as sister and wife of Jupiter, and Minerva, virgin goddess of wisdom and daughter of Jupiter (born, according to Greek mythology, directly out of her father’s head), joined Jupiter to form a central triad in the official public cults of the state. (“Public cult” means a traditional set of sacrifices, prayers, and rituals that the state sanctioned and supported financially.) These three gods shared Rome’s most famous temple, the Capitolium atop the Capitoline Hill at the center of the city. This rocky hill looming over the Roman Forum had originally served as a fortress and refuge for early Rome. Since the gods were closely connected with defense of the community, the Capitoline therefore over time became Rome’s sacred center. A giant temple was built there already in the sixth century B.C., on an enormous platform extending 170 feet by 200 feet. The building was adorned with twenty-four stone columns more than 65 feet high. It had three long inner rooms, with the room in the center housing a statue of Jupiter the Best and Greatest, the one on the left a statue of Juno, and the one on the right a statue of Minerva. The division of the temple into three rooms resembled the temple architecture of the Etruscans. Sacrifices of animals were regularly offered to these three gods as protectors of the city because guarding the physical safety and prosperity of Rome was their major function in Roman religion. To honor Jupiter the Best and Greatest, the Romans also celebrated a festival of military drills and chariot racing in the Circus Maximus nearby between the Palatine and Aventine hills. By the time of the Empire, this race track and stadium could accommodate 250,000 people in concrete and stone seats to watch chariot races, gladiatorial combats, public executions, and staged hunts of wild animals imported from around the Roman world.

Constructing the temple on the Capitoline represented a tremendous financial expense for a Rome that was still relatively small in the sixth century B.C., but the cost was worth it to the Romans because they believed that winning the goodwill of the gods was a necessity for their national defense against hostile neighbors. At the same time, the Romans also believed that the gods required people to take responsibility for their own safety. Therefore, in addition to building the Capitoline temple, the Romans in the sixth century B.C. also constructed a massive defensive wall to encircle their city.

The cults of these and the numerous other major deities of public religion had only limited connections with human morality because the Romans did not see the gods as the originators of the society’s moral code, in contrast to the Hebrew belief that their God handed down the Ten Commandments and other laws that they had to obey. The gods cared about human behavior toward themselves, but usually not about how people treated one another. So, though Romans believed that Jupiter would punish people who broke sworn agreements, punishment came because they offended the god by ignoring the pledges they had made with him as a witness to their swearing. Cicero summed up the meaning of Rome’s official religion with this explanation of Jupiter’s official titles: “Jupiter is called the Best (Optimus) and Greatest (Maximus) not because he makes us just or moderate or wise, but because he makes us safe and rich and well supplied” (The Nature of the Gods 3.87). Romans over the centuries retained this understanding of the nature of divinity.

Romans nevertheless regarded their most important values, such as faithfulness, as special divine beings or forces. So important was this aspect of Roman religious belief that a temple to Pietas, a personification of the central value of showing respect for gods and moral obligations, was dedicated in Rome in 181 B.C. The temple held a statue of Pietas represented in the form of a goddess. This kind of concrete representation of abstract moral qualities gave a focus for the rituals of their cults. This religious aspect of traditional social values emphasized their role as ideals that Romans were expected to cultivate in ways that were fitting for their family and individual social status.

Priesthoods and Festivals

Men and women from the top of the Republic’s social hierarchy filled the priesthoods that directed official worship of the many gods important to the Romans. The people who served as priests and priestesses were usually not professionals devoting their lives purely to religious activity; rather, they were simply fulfilling one aspect of a successful Roman’s public life. The principal duty of these directors of official religion was to serve the public interest by ensuring the gods’ goodwill toward the state, a crucial relationship that the Romans called the “peace of the gods” (pax deorum). To maintain the gods’ favor toward Rome, priests and priestesses had to conduct frequent festivals, sacrifices, and other rituals in strict conformity with ancestral tradition. Mispronouncing or mistaking even one word in the performance of the ancient formulas of official prayers required starting all over again. Because Rome came to house hundreds of shrines and temples, these sacred activities required much time, energy, and expense.

One particularly important state cult was that of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and therefore a protector of the family. Her shrine housed the official eternal flame of Rome. Priestesses called Vestal Virgins maintained Vesta’s cult; they were six unmarried women who swore not to have sex for thirty years during their terms serving the goddess. Their most important responsibility was to keep the eternal flame burning because, as Dionysius of Halicarnassus reports, “the Romans fear the flame going out above all other troubles, looking upon it as an omen predicting the destruction of the city” (Roman Antiquities 2.67). If a Vestal Virgin was convicted of a minor offense, she was publicly whipped. If the flame happened to go out, the Romans assumed that one of the Vestal Virgins had broken her sworn promise to remain a virgin. If a Vestal Virgin was then convicted of breaking her promise, she was carried on a funeral bed, as if a living corpse, to be entombed in an underground chamber, where she was walled up to die. In this way, female sexual purity was publicly acknowledged as a symbol of the safety and protection of the Roman family structure and thus of the preservation of the state itself.

Roman government and Roman state religion were closely connected. No official occasion could proceed without the completion of a preparatory religious ritual. The agenda of the Senate at every meeting began with the consideration of religious affairs relevant to the state. Military commanders performed rituals of divination to discover the will of the gods to help them decide the best time for launching attacks. The most important board of priests, which had fifteen members for most of the Republic’s history, had the duty of advising magistrates on their religious responsibilities as agents of the Roman state. The head of this group, the “highest priest” (pontifex maximus), served as the top official in the public religion of Rome and the ultimate authority on religious matters affecting government. The political importance of the “highest priest” motivated Rome’s most prominent men to seek the post, which by the third century B.C. was filled by a special election.

Many Roman religious festivals continued to center on the concerns of an agricultural community with an unstable future, the condition of early Rome. Roman religion traditionally sought to protect farming, which remained the basis of the community’s survival. Roman prayers therefore commonly requested the gods’ aid in securing good crops, warding off disease, and promoting healthy reproduction among domestic animals and people. Perhaps the best evidence for the importance of religion in bringing a sense of divine aid and refuge in times of trouble comes from the mammoth, multitiered sanctuary built to Fortuna Primigenia (“First-born Luck”) in Praeneste (now Palestrina), a town some twenty miles southeast of Rome. Begun perhaps in the second centuryB.C. and then rebuilt and enlarged for centuries, this terraced site extended five levels up a hillside to make up what was one of the largest religious structures in all of ancient Italy.

Ancestral Roman religious rituals did not usually change over time because adding anything new to the customary honors paid to the gods might offend the divine beings and thus provoke their anger against the human community they were supposed to protect. The religion of the late Republic therefore preserved many ancient rituals, such as the Lupercalia festival. During this celebration, naked young men streaked around the Palatine Hill in the center of the city, whipping any women they met with strips of goatskin. Women who had been unable to become pregnant would run out to be hit, believing this would help them become fertile. At the Saturnalia festival at the time of the winter solstice in December (a date that Christians much later adopted for the celebration of Christmas), by ancestral tradition the social order was temporarily turned upside down on purpose. As the playwright and scholar Accius (170 B.C.– 80 B.C.) described the Saturnalia, “people joyfully hold feasts all through the country and the towns, each owner acting as a waiter to his slaves” (Annals 2–7, preserved in Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.7.36). The social inversion of slave owners serving their servants simultaneously and paradoxically released tensions caused by the inequalities between owner and slave in ordinary life and reinforced the slaves’ ties of obligation to their owners, by symbolizing the kindnesses of the owner that the slave was obligated to repay with faithful service.

As polytheists, Romans did recognize that there might be gods whom they needed to worship but had not yet accepted. In national emergencies, the state might seek divine protection from foreign gods who had no traditional cult at Rome. For example, the government imported the cult of the healing god Asclepius from Greece in 293 B.C. in the hope that he would save Rome from a plague. Private individuals imported other foreign cults to satisfy their personal religious feelings, such as the worship of the Greek god Dionysus (called Bacchus by the Romans). The cult of Bacchus stirred controversy because its worshipers held meetings at night that aroused others’ fears of hidden scandalous sexual behavior and, more seriously, of potential political conspiracies. So long as foreign religious cults avoided any appearance of threatening the stability of the state, however, they were permitted to exist. The government took no interest in these cults’ religious doctrines, only in their worshipers’ loyalty to the state.

Religion in the Family

Reverence for the cult of Vesta was only one of the ways in which Roman religion was associated with the family as well as the state. Every Roman home had its sacred spaces. A statue of the two-faced god Janus was placed at the entrance door of the house, with one face looking to the street and the other facing inside. In this way the god was thought to protect the house by blocking enemies and protecting those inside. Every family also maintained a cabinet-like shrine in the house to hold its Penates (spirits of the pantry) and Lares (spirits of the ancestors). The open-shelved cabinet held statuettes representing these family spirits. Romans believed these divinities helped keep the family well and preserve its ancestral moral purity. They also hung up death masks of distinguished ancestors on the walls of their home’s main room. These images reminded the current generation of their responsibility to live up to the ancient and virtuous ideals of their ancestors. The strong sense of family tradition instilled by these practices and by instruction from parents (especially mothers) represented the principal source of Roman morality. The strongest deterrent to immoral behavior against other people came from the fear of losing respect and status by outraging this tradition, not from any fear of punishment of individual behavior from the gods.

Romans believed that many divine spirits participated in crucial moments in private life, above all at birth, marriage, and death. All members of the household, including slaves, had a place in the family’s religious rituals at home. So frequent was religious activity in Roman private life that special rituals accompanied activities as diverse and commonplace as breast-feeding babies and spreading manure to fertilize crops. People performed these rituals to express respectful awe for the enormous power of the divine as displayed in the forces of nature, and in search of protection from harm in a world filled with dangers and uncertainties.

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Figure 6. This painting stood atop a family shrine for worshiping the gods in a house in Pompeii. Romans with sufficient wealth furnished their houses with these shrines to pay the proper respect to the divinities they believed were protecting their households. Patricio Lorente/Wikimedia Commons.

From the Roman perspective, their religious beliefs and practices made sense as a reflection of their conception of the precariousness of the human condition. They recognized the tremendously asymmetrical nature of the relationship between the human and the divine, in which gods clearly exercised an overwhelming power that humans could barely comprehend. Moreover, the gods were seen as willing to use their great power to help—or harm—human beings. This divine willingness to intervene in everyday life, in all aspects from international politics to individual illness, made relations with the gods especially problematic because the Romans did not believe that the gods had any necessary tendency to love human beings. If the gods became angry, they could punish such inferior creatures with no obligation to explain why. It made things even harder that the gods did not communicate with mortals directly or clearly, except in rare circumstances. Instead, it was the responsibility of human beings to do the difficult, sometimes impossible, work of discovering the divine will and then following it. Sins of omission therefore counted just as heavily as sins of commission. The constant obligation that people felt to do everything possible to recognize the will of the gods so as to be able to obey it motivated private religious activity in the family, just as it did the state cults of Rome.

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