Ancient History & Civilisation


The Peace of the Gods

When the Roman legate arrives at the frontier… he covers his head with a band of wool and says, ‘Hear, Jupiter: hear, boundaries of this people; let the divine law hear. I am the official herald of the Roman people; I come lawfully and piously commissioned; let there be trust in my words.’ Then he sets out his demands and calls on Jupiter as a witness. ‘If I unjustly and impiously demand that these men and these goods be surrendered to me, then let me never be a full citizen of my fatherland.’ He recites these words when he crosses the boundary, again to the first person he meets, again when proceeding through the town gate and again when he enters the market-place… If his demands are not met, at the end of thirty-three days… he declares war as follows: ‘Hear, Jupiter and you too, Janus Quirinus and all you gods of heaven and you gods of earth and you gods below, hear! I call you to witness that this people [naming them] is unjust and does not render just reparation. But we will consult the elders in our fatherland about these things, as to how we may requite what is our due.’

Livy, 1.32.6, on the Romans’ early ritual for declaring war

Romans’ ever closer encounters with the Greek world were not to be a simple meeting of minds. Romans regarded Greeks as essentially frivolous, people who talked too much and were too clever by half. They were duplicitous, and quite unreliable with money, especially their own public funds. Among the Greeks, free male citizens had sexual relations with one another; Roman males were only supposed to do so with male slaves and non-Roman inferiors. Greeks even exercised and competed at games in the nude. Greeks’ tunics left the body free, whereas Romans were wrapped up in their solemn, inhibiting togas. Greek drinking-parties, or symposia, were also very different. Romans gave dinners at which the food was the central item and free-born women, including wives, were present. At Greek parties, the only women were slave-girls and the point was to drink wine after dinner: the free-born guests were all men, and sex was a possibility, with a slave-girl or with one another. During the third century BC a new Latin word was coined, pergraecari, to ‘have a thoroughly Greek time’: it meant the lazy feasting and debauching which Greek drinking-parties encouraged. Romans’ conversation was prosaic and factual: ‘repeating Greek verses was for a Roman something like telling dirty stories.’1

Greeks loved beauty and (except the Spartans) brains. They also loved their invention, celebrities. None of these distinctions was a hallmark of the Romans’ ancestors. They stood for solid, serious ‘gravity’, gravitas, which Cicero regarded as a Roman particularity.2 When the traditionalist Cato wrote his history of the origins of Italy, he was so opposed to celebrities that he left out all the major players’ personal names. Our first long surviving appraisal of Roman customs by a Greek visitor, the historian Polybius (writing c. 150 BC), emphasizes the solemnity of two special Roman features. At funerals of prominent Romans, the dead man was brought into the Forum and a fine memorial speech was spoken before an admiring crowd. Families brought with him the lifelike wax funerary masks of their dead relations which were set on robes of honour or worn by participating actors. These masks were a privilege given to men who had held one of the higher magistracies and made them publicly ‘known’ or nobiles (our ‘nobles’). Crowds gazed on the splendour of these family processions and then a wax mask of the dead man was added to the masks which the family kept in their halls. They were an encouragement, Polybius rightly believed, to the young family members to rival their ancestors in glory.3

The other distinctive feature, he thought, was Roman religion. It was so much more elaborate and more prominent in public and private life than in any other society. Polybius believed that the Roman upper classes had emphasized it so as to terrorize the lower classes with religious fear. Roman nobles would not have seen religion in that detached way. For them, their religious rites honoured and appeased the gods so as to maintain the all-important ‘peace of the gods’ and avert their anger. They were kept up as the proven tradition of their ancestors, a tradition which had worked across the ages and could not be lightly abandoned. It kept Rome and the Romans safe. Ancestral tradition had ‘authority’, an element in Roman religiousness which has been argued to be still surviving in the ‘authority’ of tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.

Greek religion teemed with stories, or ‘myths’, about the gods, but the Romans’ own myths had been very few during their earlier history. Art, especially statues, shaped the Greeks’ ideas of their superhuman gods, but the learned Roman scholar Varro reckoned that there had been no Roman statues of their gods until as late as c. 570 BC. Nonetheless, many underlying principles of Roman religion were similar to the Greeks’ own. Like the Greeks, the Romans were polytheists who worshipped many different gods. Important divinities had Latin names (Jupiter, Juno, Mars or Minerva), but they could be equated with Greek ones easily enough (Zeus, Hera, Ares, Athena). There were also many other gods, as if anything which might go wrong had a divine power to explain it: diseases of the crops (‘Robigo’, or blight) or the opening and shutting of doors (Janus, in various aspects). Yet, behind the big gods of Greek literature, similar divinities can be found in the calendars of the local demes, or villages, in classical Attica.

As in a Greek city, the main aim of religious cult was to aid worldly success, not to save citizens from sin. Romans’ own ideas of a future life were as shadowy and ghostly as those of the Greeks with which they later enhanced them. The purpose of religious worship was honour and appeasement, pursued by pouring libations, giving animals or offering first-fruits at country altars. In Virgil’s superb poem of country life, the Georgics, we glimpse the simplest of all offerings, garlands of ‘Michaelmas daisies’ on turf altars.4 As in Greece, the main act of public religious cult was the killing of an animal, parts of whose meat were eaten afterwards. Priests attended, but in Rome they were almost always male priests and, distinctively, their heads were covered during the ceremony. As in Greece, too, there was an active art of divination so as to infer the gods’ will. The entrails of sacrificed animals, the flight of birds, omens and oddities were all studied closely. At Rome, these arts were especially technical, because of the Etruscans’ legacy to Roman culture. On military campaigns or before public meetings, a presiding magistrate would ‘take the auspices’, or look for signs of the gods’ wishes, and a priestly augur would be consulted too. Romans were particularly concerned by ‘prodigies’, odd things and events which seemed to be signs of the gods’ communication. A prodigy might be a deformed child at birth, a mole (reportedly) with teeth or an apparent shower of blood from heaven. Soothsayers and a priest stood by to list prodigies and interpret them.

Divination, then, was particularly elaborate at Rome and bad omens could be used even to interrupt a public assembly. On their way through Italy in the fourth and third centuries BC, Roman commanders would have paid close attention for any signs from the gods that relations with them were amiss. When Romans became aware of Greek philosophical theories a few of them did begin to reflect on the validity of this pseudoscience: there were a very few sceptics, including Cicero, but even Cicero was delighted to be chosen to be an augur and to uphold tradition, although the thinking half of his personality knew that divination was false. Every important Roman, whether Sulla, Pompey or Augustus, lived with a sense of the potential presence of the gods. In the 50s and 40s Julius Caesar’s career was punctuated by omens, by escaping animals who were about to be sacrificed (twice in the Civil Wars, in 49 and 48) and by animals whose entrails were defective (in Spain, in 45, and in February 44, a month before his murder). He reinterpreted some of these signs so as to encourage his troops, but he never denied that they were signs.

Omens and prodigies warned of the gods’ ill-will; the public calendar of cults aimed to avert evil and encourage safety, fertility and prosperity. As in classical Athens, an individual’s personal religion was unimportant for the public rites: the rites, however, assured each individual Roman’s well-being as a member of the community. Again as in Greece, there were no holy books or scriptures: the gods’ ‘due’, or ius divinum, was passed on largely by oral tradition. Male priests attended the major rituals and, to Greek eyes, were organized in unusually specialized ‘colleges’. The main female officials were the six Vestal Virgins, attached to the cult of Vesta, the goddess of the Hearth, whom they served for many years as virgins (though free, eventually, to move on and marry). As in the Greek cities, Roman festivals included processions, or pompae (whence Christians’ ‘pomp of the Devil’), and elaborate prayers and hymns. Romans’ respect for tradition meant that if a priest made a mistake while reciting a traditional Latin prayer the rite was invalid and had to be repeated all over again.

As in Greece, there was a lively accompanying culture of individuals’ vows, made to a god in hope of, or thanks for, a favour. Unlike the Greeks, Romans sometimes picked on human beings as the object which they vowed to offer. A general might ‘vow’ his enemies to the gods of the underworld (this rite was used in the siege of Carthage in 146 BC). On rare occasions he even vowed himself on behalf of his soldiers in battle. Stories were told of three such vows by Decius Mus and then by his descendants, all in the third century BC. Later, an ordinary soldier was said to be permissible as a substitute.5

In their households and on their farms, families would also pay religious cults to the ‘gods in a small way’, gods of crossroads or boundaries or gods of the inner recesses of the household (the penates); the powerful father of the household conducted the rites. Publicly and in households, there were also rites for the dead and their unseen ghosts. None of this worship would have surprised a Greek, and as time passed, Roman religion had more and more of a Greek imprint anyway. For its evolution reflected the influences on the city which we have traced since the seventh century BC: the age of kings, including the Etruscan kings; the change to a Republic; the role of the plebs, or commoners; the ever-growing contact with the Greek world, especially the Greek cities of Italy and Sicily. The single most important temple in Rome, Jupiter’s on the Capitol, dated back to the last years of the kings. Unlike the last tyrants in Athens and their temple of Zeus, the kings had actually finished building it. In 496 BC, after the kingship had ended, an important temple to the agrarian Ceres, with Liber (Bacchus) and Libera, was founded: the cult was surely influenced by the cults of Demeter and Dionysus in Greek cities in Italy. It was adapted as a religious centre by the plebs.

There was, then, never a time when Roman cults were static. Things changed, new temples arrived and, in a crisis, a new cult might be sanctioned by another ‘foreign’ import, the oracular Sibylline Books. This collection of written Greek oracles had entered Rome, tradition said, under the Etruscan kings. Yet beside these additions to tradition, the Romans’ calendar of yearly festivals retained obvious roots in the military and agricultural year, even when the calendar-months had fallen far out of line with the underlying seasons. In March the god of war and youth, Mars, was especially honoured, as befitted the month which had marked the new military year. One distinctive March rite was the prolonged dancing of twelve young patrician nobles, chosen from those with living parents, who served as the Salii, or dancing priests. They wore distinctive dress, including red cloaks and conical helmets, and danced through the city on a traditional route, carrying twelve ancient bronze shields which were said to be modelled on a prototype fallen from heaven. Each night, they stopped at a special house and ate a sumptuous dinner. Their entire ritual lasted for more than three weeks.

On 14 March there was a fine horse race on Rome’s Field of Mars, balanced by another race in October, the month when soldiers would clean their weapons and put them away for the winter. On 15 October chariots raced in the Field of Mars and one of the winning horses (on the near side of the chariot) was sacrificed to the god. Its tail was cut off and hurried to the ‘royal house’ in the Forum so that its blood would drip on the hearth’s sacred ashes. On the following 21 April these bloodied ashes were mixed with the ashes of cremated unborn calves and thrown onto ceremonial fires at another festival, the Parilia. The horse’s head, meanwhile, had been cut off: two of the main districts of Rome competed for it, before nailing it (it seems) to the outside of the ‘royal house’ in the Forum.6

This rite of the October Horse spanned both war and agricultural fertility, according to Roman interpreters. Nonetheless, it would have struck many Greeks as barbaric. They would have been surprised, too, by mid-February’s Lupercalia, when two teams of young men met at the Lupercal cave on the Palatine hill, associated with the she-wolf who had suckled Romulus and Remus. They sacrificed a goat and a dog and had the blood rubbed on their foreheads. They feasted and drank heavily in the cave and then ran out, naked except for goatskins, following an ancient route along the Palatine hill. They would whip anyone they met with the goatskin, a rite which was thought to promote fertility. It survived, nonetheless, for centuries, becoming famous with Mark Antony in the month before Julius Caesar’s murder and living on, remarkably, until AD 494 in Christian Rome, when the Pope replaced it with the festival of the Purification of the Virgin.

In the public calendar, there were plenty of such festivals, festivals for the dead in February (the Parentalia, especially for the aged dead), or a ‘carnival’ festival in December, the Saturnalia, when social roles were briefly reversed and slave-masters would wait on their domestic slaves in their households. Greek cities, too, had these types of festival, just as they had festivals of release and merriment. At Rome, the main such feast was Flora’s in April. Then goats and hares, highly sexed animals, were let loose on the last day of the accompanying games. Sex and fertility were part of the ritual’s reference, and by the time of Julius Caesar striptease shows were being staged, too, on theatre stages in the city.7

Traditionalism was the overwhelming self-image of Roman public religion, but the festival of Flora is an instance of the scope, nonetheless, for additions and innovations. The festival gained a week of games only in 238 BC during a time of famine: they were sanctioned by the Sibylline Books. These contained obscure Greek oracular verses, supposedly spoken by a prophetic female Sibyl, and were kept by a board of fifteen respectable Romans. Plainly, the prophecies were Greek by origin, but they gave a divine sanction to the Romans’ religious innovation. In 399 BC they had encouraged the adoption of a type of ‘heavenly banquet’, known in the Greek world, whereby statues of the gods were arranged for a feast on couches. In the 290s, during famine, they backed the introduction to Rome of the Greeks’ god of healing, Aesculapius. In times of crisis, therefore, the Books would tend to add yet more Greek cults to the core of Roman tradition.

Wars, naturally, were under the care of the gods, and they were treated by Romans in two distinctive ways, at their end and at their beginning. With the Senate’s permission, a victorious general could be granted a ‘triumph’, whereby he would be allowed, uniquely, to bring his troops and booty across the sacred city-boundary and into Rome. His face was painted red for the day, like Jupiter on the Capitol; he held a sceptre and wore special dress. His troops were allowed to shout obscenities and rude remarks at him, while a slave (it was said) stood by his shoulder and whispered to him, ‘Remember, you are a man.’ The ceremony crossed normal social boundaries in a single day of ‘festival time’: just for one ‘red-carpet’ moment, the triumphing Roman was like a god (or, some said, like a king). He ascended the Capitol and left his wreaths of laurel in Jupiter’s lap. His name was then entered in honour into the public records. The generals who went south against Tarentum would certainly be hoping for a triumph. They also believed that their war was ‘justified’. For, one of the priestly colleges, the fetiales, would have declared it according to rites which were believed to go back into the mid-seventh century BC. The Romans, this rite showed, did not fight except in ‘self-defence’: the fetial priests would traditionally send an envoy to throw a spear into the enemy’s territory. At Tarentum, sufficient ‘insults’ were reported in the Roman tradition to ‘justify’ self-defence. When Tarentum was helped by King Pyrrhus from Greece, his territory was too far for an envoy to be sent all the way to cast the spear into it. So a prisoner taken from him was said to have been made to buy land at Rome so that the priests could declare a ‘just war’ on this nearby territory instead.8

In the Greek world, concern for a ‘justified’ war had long been current, whether with the Spartans or Alexander the Great or the philosopher Aristotle. Romans were not the inventors of the doctrine of the just war: they were merely more punctilious and ceremonious about it. Their publicity was that their successes in war confirmed that the gods were indeed on their side. They would soon assert as much to the Greek cities in their conquering path. But first the gods had to cope with Tarentum’s rightful opposition.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!