Roman Religion: Politics and Sacrifice

There was no clear distinction between religion and politics for the ancient Romans (1). 

The state expended its resources on the celebration of rituals and festivals. State festivals were great occasions accompanied by parades and especially so after a military victory when the victorious general dressed as the god Jupiter and entered the city accompanied by his soldiers, war captives, and the plunder he had seized. The parade made its way through the Forum Romanum to the temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill.

Cameo Portraying Emperor Claudius as Jupiter. Art Institute Chicago.

It was also the case that Pontiffs and augurs, two prestigious male priesthoods, frequently held political office (2). Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) was elected chief pontiff (pontifex maximus) and would later have a distinguished political and military career. Numerous priests were members of the Senate, a body that was regularly consulted on religious matters.

Rule was sanctioned by the gods (3). After the Romans had conquered Gaul and Egypt, the poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) asserted that Roman rule was god-given and had Jupiter declare: “I have given them [the Romans] empire without end” (Aeneid 1.279). Cicero put this more directly: “We have excelled every race and nation in piety (pietas), in respect for religious matters (religio), and in that singular wisdom which recognizes that everything is ruled and controlled by the will of the gods” (On the Reply of the Haruspices 19).

Divination involved the observation and interpretation of signs believed to have been sent by the gods (4). Through divination, the will of the gods could be discerned. Cicero notes how this practice had been ingrained in Roman society from the beginning. It was founded by Romulus, the founder of Rome and augur himself, according to Roman tradition (5). According to the poet Ovid (43 BCE – 17 CE), Romulus and his brother Remus took auspices to decide which of them should be the founder of Rome. The will of the gods was interpreted through various items such as the entrails of sacrificial victims, prodigies, lightning, astrology, lots, dreams, and prophecies.

Prayer was essential to divination and sacrifice (6). Words were required if any benefits were wanted from the gods. In special settings, such as involving magistrates, prayer was dictated in advance from a script. This was accompanied by an attendant who enforced silence and a flutist who played so that nothing but the prayer was heard. Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE) gave instructions about how to purify a farm utilizing sacrificing a pig, sheep, and bull,

“Invoke Janus and Jupiter with an offering of wine. Then speak these words: Father Mars, I pray and beseech you to be benevolent and well-disposed toward me, my house, and my household. With this intent I have ordered a pig-sheep-bull procession to be led around my field, land, and farm, so that you will keep away, ward off, and avert diseases, both seen and unseen, barrenness, crop losses, disasters, and unseasonable weather; so that you will allow the harvests, the grain crops, the vineyards, and the orchards to flourish and achieve a productive maturity; so that you will protect the shepherds and the flocks, and bestow good health and strength upon me, my house, and my household”. (On Agriculture 141)

Formulaic prayers were offered during the ritual in which the animals were led in procession around the farmstead before being killed. Prayers were precise and repetitious to ensure their efficacy. Requests from the gods for the welfare of the owner’s immediate family and household (which included extended family and slaves) were also made.

In most cases, the Romans made sacrifices with the head covered. Although most sacrifices were bloodless in which items such as honey, wine, fruits, flowers, and cakes were offered to the gods, others, usually on more rare and special occasions, entailed the sacrifice of domestic animals (pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, or occasionally dogs). The animals selected for sacrifice had to be without physical blemish and a distinction was made between full-grown and younger animals.

During public sacrifices, animals were led in a procession by slaves to an altar located in front of a temple of the deity to whom the sacrifice was being made (7). The priests or officiants then washed their hands with water from a special vessel. Silence was ordered and the main officiant pulled his toga over his head like a veil and said a prayer and offered wine as a libation on the altar. The animal’s head was held by a young male attendant (camillus) and a few hairs were plucked and placed on the altar. Flour and salt were mixed with wine and poured over the animal’s head and the slave attendants performed the slaughter, with the officiant looking on. Not all Romans could partake in the essential moments of state sacrificial ritual. Foreigners, prisoners in chains, women, and girls were excluded.

The animal took a blow to the head which led it to fall to its knees and then have its throat cut (8). The carcass was opened and priests, called haruspices who specialized in divination, examined the entrails to see whether the sacrifice was acceptable to the gods. If the priest found an imperfection, the ceremony was restarted and another animal was sacrificed to avert the god’s anger. Once the sacrifice was approved, parts of the animal were burned on the altar as an offering to the god. The participants, including poorer citizens partaking in the festival, consumed what was left of the meat.

Relief of a Falling Warrior, 2nd century. Art Institute Chicago.

Prayers of supplication or propitiation were particularly important during crises (9). When the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), women played a prominent role in a two-day ceremony of public supplication in response to reports of prodigies, including a lightning strike on the temple of Juno the Queen. Haruspices advised that the goddess must be appeased by a gift. The matrons offered a golden bowl and on the second day, a special hymn composed by a leading poet that was sung by a procession of twenty-seven maidens as they made their way to Juno’s temple.

Before engaging in a military campaign, the commander vowed or promised, to return the favor of the gods should his request be granted and the mission meet success (10). A focus of such vows was the temple to Bellona, goddess of war, at a crucial moment during a battle between the Etruscans and Samnites in 296 BCE. Many votive offerings and inscriptions commemorate the gods’ fulfillment of vows such as in a plaque dedicated to Minerva the Mindful by a woman named Tullia Superiana in gratitude for the restoration of her hair. Another inscription commemorates the sacrifice of a white cow made in fulfillment of a vow by a slave for the recovery of his sight.


1. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “The Gods and Their Worship.” In Roman Religion, 1-14, edited by Valerie M. Warrior. Cambridge University Press. p. 7.

2. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 7.

3. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 7.

4. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. Ibid. p. 6.

5. Cicero. On Divination. Chapter 2. Available.

6. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “Divination, Prayer, and Sacrifice.” In Ibid, 15-26. p. 18.

7. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “Divination, Prayer, and Sacrifice.” In Ibid, 15-26. p. 21-22.

8. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “Divination, Prayer, and Sacrifice.” In Ibid, 15-26. p. 23.

9. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “Divination, Prayer, and Sacrifice.” In Ibid, 15-26. p. 24-25.

10. Warrior, Valerie M. 2006. “Divination, Prayer, and Sacrifice.” In Ibid, 15-26. p. 25.

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