Ancient Roman Religion: The Gods and Their Worship

Ancient Rome was suffused with a great sense of religion (1). The historian Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE) wrote that “There is no place in our city that is not filled with a sense of religion (religiones) and the gods. There are as many days fixed for annual sacrifices as there are places in which they can be performed” (2). This was a source of pride too. Cicero (106-43 BCE) boasted that “We Romans are far superior in religio, by which I mean the worship of the gods (cultus deorum)” (3).

The evidence attests to these words about the prevalence of religion in ancient Roman society. There is an abundance of ruins of ancient temples such as those of Castor, Saturn, Vesta, the Capitoline Hill (the site of the temple of Jupiter the Best and Greatest), and the deified emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Many shrines were dedicated to numerous gods and located in central hubs in cities where civic, commercial, and legal business was conducted.

The ancient Romans believed in many gods (4). Some were the gods of state religion such as Jupiter, Juno, and Mars, and lesser divinities such as Castor, Hercules, and Flora (goddess of flowers). There were the Lar and Penates of the individual household and the spirits in the natural environments in streams, fountains, and the woods, and also in diseases, animals, and crops. Mortals were also deified after their death including Julius Caesar, some emperors, and occasionally their wives.

Most of the anthropomorphized gods of the Roman state religion resembled the Olympian gods of Greek mythology (5). Several gods were not originally Roman but had been assimilated or adopted from the Greek colonists in southern Italy and Sicily, and the Etruscans to the north. Jupiter was assimilated with Zeus, Juno with Hera, Venus with Aphrodite, Diana with Artemis, Ceres with Demeter, Minerva with Athena, Mercury with Hermes, Vulcan with Hephaestus, Neptune with Poseidon, and Mars with Ares. 

The gods could be benevolent or malevolent toward humankind. Some evidence for these views is found in plays. Characters in the plays of Plautus (c. 254-184 BCE) remark concerning the volatile nature of the gods. Appeals were made to the gods, as one character prays: “Jupiter, through whom we live the span of our lives, in whose control are all men’s hopes of life, grant that this day may be free from harm” (6).

Sacrifice in the form of offering objects of value and frequent prayer was essential in staving off the anger of the gods. This made ancient Roman religion pragmatic and a contractual relationship in the connection it affirmed between human beings and the gods. 

Divination involved the observation and interpretation of signs believed to have been sent by the gods. Through divination, the will of the gods could be discerned. Cicero notes how divination was ingrained in Roman society from its beginning,

“Nor is it only one single mode of divination that has been employed in public and in private. For, to say nothing of other nations, how many our own people have embraced! In the first place, according to tradition, Romulus, the father of this City, not only founded it in obedience to the auspices, but was himself a most skilful augur. Next, the other Roman kings employed augurs; and, again, after the expulsion of the kings, no public business was ever transacted at home or abroad without first taking the auspices” (7).

One method of taking the auspices was by observing the feeding of caged chickens in the case of battle: “Again, after the auspices by means of the tripudium had been taken, the keeper of the sacred chickens advised the postponement of battle. Flaminius then asked, ‘Suppose the chickens should never eat, what would you advise in that case?’ ‘You should remain in camp,’ was the reply. ‘Fine auspices indeed!’ said Flaminius, ‘for they counsel action when chickens’ crops are empty and inaction when chickens’ crops are filled” (8).

The favor of the gods could be discerned in whether or not the chickens ate the food offered to them. If they did, then one had the favor of the gods and could continue with his business. If the chickens did not eat the food, the activity should be postponed.

Freestanding altars, often located in the front of temples, and not the temples were the focal point of worship (9). Sacrifices could entail the spilling of the blood of domestic animals (pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, occasionally dogs) or the offering of simple items like fruits, flowers, cakes, honey, or wine. The latter offerings were the more common practice whereas animal sacrifice was reserved for special occasions. Sacrifices were usually offered with the head covered although sacrifices to Apollo and Ceres were made with the head uncovered because they were considered to retain elements of their Greek origin. 

Not all worship and religious practice were public. In contrast to the state rituals celebrated in public areas, private rituals were enacted at simple altars and shrines. This included family rituals which were celebrated by the head of the household (paterfamilias) for members of the immediate family (gens) and the extended family or household (familia) that included slaves and their families. 

References

1. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “The Gods and Their Worship.” In Roman Religion, 1-14, edited by Valerie M. Warrior. Cambridge University Press. p. 1.

2. Quoted by Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 1.

3. Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods 2.8. 

4. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 1.

5. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 9.

6. Livy. 2006. The History of Rome, Books 1-5. Hackett Publishing. p. 426.

7. On Divination. Chapter 15. Available.  

8. On Divination. Chapter 35. Available.

9. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 8.

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