legal relation

Religion in ancient Rome

Ancient Roman religion encompasses the collection of beliefs and rituals practised in ancient Rome in the form of cult practices. It is therefore the practical counterpart of Roman mythology. Within the Roman world, religious practice varied enough so that one might speak of Roman religions. The cult practices of Rome extended across Italy with the rise of the Roman Empire. These religions were polytheistic, and as such are sometimes referred to as "pagan".

The Romans originally followed a rural animistic tradition, in which many spirits were each responsible for specific, limited aspects of the cosmos and human activities, such as ploughing. The early Romans referred to these as numina. Another aspect of this animistic belief was ancestor, or genius, worship, with each family honoring their own dead by their own rites. Rome had a strong belief in gods. When they took over Greece, they inherited the Greek gods but fused them with their Roman counterparts.

Based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology, Roman religion came to encompass and absorb hundreds of other religions, developing a rich and complex mythology. In addition, an Imperial cult supplemented the pantheon with Julius Caesar and some of the emperors.

Under the Empire, religion in Rome evolved in many ways. Numerous foreign cults grew popular, such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis and the Persian Mithras. The importance of the imperial cult grew steadily, reaching its peak during the Crisis of the Third Century. Also, Christianity began to spread in the Empire, gaining momentum in the second century. Despite persecutions, it steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I. All cults except Christianity were prohibited in 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I. However, even in the fourth and fifth century Roman paganism kept its vitality. Temples were still frequently visited, ancient beliefs and practices continued. As the original Roman religion faded, many aspects of its hierarchy remain ingrained in Christian ritual and in Western traditions.

Early religion

Fetishism and Animism

In the cult and ritual of Rome there are enshrined many survivals from a very early form of religious thought prior to the development of the characteristic Roman attitude of mind. Fetishism - the belief in the magic or divine power of inanimate objects - is seen in the cult of stones, such as the silex of Jupiter, which plays a prominent part in the ceremony of treaty-making, and the lapis used in the ritual of the aquaelicium, a process, probably magic in origin, designed to produce rain after a long drought. The boundary-stones between properties (termini) were also the objects of cult at the annual festival of the Terminalia, and the "god Terminus," the symbolic boundary-stone, shares with Jupiter the great temple on the Capitol. Tree worship again is a constantly recurring feature, seen, for instance, in the permanently sacred character of the ficus Ruminalis and the caprcus of the Campus Martius, and above all in the oak of Iuppiter Feretrius, on which the spolia opima were hung after a victory. Nor did Roman fetishism stop short at natural objects. The household was always the centre of religious cult, and certain objects in the house - the door, the hearth, the store-cupboard (penus)- seem always to have had a sacred significance, and so became the objects and later the sites of the domestic worship. Of the cult of animals there is just sufficient trace to show that it must formerly have had its place in religious rite; the animals, once the objects of worship, appear in later times as the attributes of divinities, for instance, the sacred wolf and woodpecker of Mars.

But Fetishism must very early have developed into Animism, the feeling of the sacredness of the object into the sense of an indwelling spirit. In the animistic attitude we have indeed the true background of the genuine Roman religion; but its characteristic and peculiar development is a kind of "higher Animism," which can associate the "spirit" not merely with visible and tangible objects, but with states and actions in the life of the individual and the community. No doubt the later indigitamenta ("bidding-prayers") which give us detailed lists of the spirits which preside over the various actions of the infant, or the stages in the marriage ceremony, or the agricultural operations of the farmer, are due in a large measure to deliberate pontifical elaboration, but they are a true indication of the Roman attitude of mind, which reveals itself continually in the analysis of the cults of the household or the festivals of the agricultural year.


The "powers" (numina, not dei), which thus become the objects of worship, are spirits specialized in function and limited in sphere. They are not conceived of in any anthropomorphic form, their sex even may often be indeterminate ("sive mas, sive femina" is the constantly recurring formula of prayer), but the sphere of action of each is clearly marked and an appeal to a spirit outside his own special sphere would never even be thought of. Locality thus becomes an important point in the conception of the numen: the household spirits must be worshipped at the door, the hearth, the store-cupboard, and the external spirits of the fields and countryside have their sacred hill-tops or groves. But the numen has no form of sensuous representation, nor does he need a house to dwell in: statue and temple are alien to the spirit of Roman religion. Nor are the numina, not being anthropomorphic, capable of relation to one another: hence there is no Roman mythology. Yet, all-powerful in their individual spheres of action, they can influence the fortunes of men and can enter into relations with them. The primary attitude of man to the numina seems clearly to be one of fear, which survives prominently in the "impish" character of certain of the spirits of the countryside, such as Faunus and Inuus, and is always seen in the underlying conception of religio, a sense of awe in the presence of a superhuman power. But the practical mind of the Roman gave this relation a legal turn: the ius sacrum, which regulates the dealings of men with the divine powers, is an inseparable part of ius publicum, the body of civil law, and the various acts of worship, prayer and thanksgiving are conceived of under the legal aspect of a contract. The base-notion is that the spirits, if they are given their due, will make a return to us: the object of the recurring annual festivals is to propitiate them and forestall any hostile intention by putting them, as it were, in debt to humans - more rarely to express gratitude for benefits received.


In such a religion exactness of ritual must play a large part. This formalism shows itself in many ways. It is necessary in the first place to make quite certain that the right deity is being addressed: hence it is well to invoke all the spirits who might be concerned, and even to add a general formula to cover omissions: here we have the ritual significance of the indigitamenta. Place, again, as we have seen, was an essential element even in the conception of the numen, and is therefore all-important in ritual. So, too, is the character of the offering: male victims must be sacrificed to male deities; female victims to goddesses: white animals are the due of the di superi, the gods of the upper world, black animals of the gods below. Special deities, moreover, will demand special victims, while the more rustic numina, such as Pales, should be given milk and millet cakes rather than a blood-offering. All-important, too, is the order of ceremonial and the formula of prayer: a mistake or omission or an unpropitious interruption may vitiate the whole ritual, and though such misfortunes may occasionally be expiated by the additional offering of a piaculum, in more serious cases the whole ceremony must be recommenced ab initio. Herein lies the importance of the priesthood: the priest is not, as in other religions, the mediator between god and man, but on the one hand for the purpose of state-worship the chosen representative of the whole people, on the other the repository of tradition and ritual lore.

Household religion

This conception of the nature of the numina and our relation to them is the root notion of the old Roman religion, and the fully-formed state cult of the di indigetes even at the earliest historical period, must have been the result of long and gradual development, of which we can to a certain extent trace the stages. The original settlement on the Palatine, like its neighbour on the Quirinal, was an agricultural community, whose unit both from the legal and religious point of view was not the individual but the household. The household is thus at once the logical starting-point of religious cult, and throughout Roman history the centre of its most real and vital activity. The head of the house (pater familias) is the natural priest and has control of the domestic worship: he is assisted by his sons as acolytes (camilli) and deputes certain portions of the ritual to his wife and daughters and even to his bailiff (vilicus) and his bailiff's wife. The worship centres round certain numina, the spirits indwelling in the sacred places of the original round hut in which the family lived. Janus, the god of the door, comes undoubtedly first, though unfortunately we know but little of his worship in the household, except that it was the concern of the men. To the women is committed the worship of the "blazing hearth," Vesta, the natural centre of the family life, and it is noticeable that even to Ovid the conception of Vesta was still material and not anthropomorphic. The Penates were the numina of the store-cupboard, at first vague and animistic, but later on, as the definite deus-notion was developed, identified with certain of the other divinities of household or state religion.

To these numina of the sacred places must be added two other important conceptions, that of the Lar familiaris and the Genius. The Lar familiaris has been regarded as the embodiment of all the family dead and his cult as a consummation of ancestor-worship, but a more probable explanation regards him as one of the Lares who had special charge of the house or possibly of the household servants (familia); for it is significant that his worship was committed to the charge of the vilica. The Genius is originally the "spirit of developed manhood," the numen which is attached to every man and represents the sum total of his powers and faculties as the Juno does of the woman: each individual worships his own Genius on his birthday, but the household-cult is concerned with the Genius of the pater familias. The established worship of the household then represents the various members of the family and the central points of the domestic activity; but we find also in the ordinary religious life of the family a more direct connexion with morality and a greater religious sense than in any other part of the Roman cult. The family meal is sanctified by the offering of a portion of the food to the household numina: the chief events in the individual life, birth, infancy, puberty, marriage, are all marked by religious ceremonial, in some cases of a distinctively primitive character. The dead, too, though it is doubtful whether in early times they were actually worshipped, at any rate have a religious commemoration as in some sense still members of the family.

Agricultural religion

The early Roman settler met with his neighbors to celebrate the various stages of the agricultural year in religious ceremonies which afterwards became the festivals of the state calendar. Here we have a series of celebrations representing the occupations of the successive seasons, addressed sometimes to numina who developed later on into the great gods of the state, such as Jupiter, Mars or Ceres, sometimes to vaguer divinities who remained always indefinite and rustic in character, such as Pales and Consus. Sometimes again, as in the case of the Lupercalia, the attribution is so indefinite that it is hard to discover who was the special deity concerned; in other cases, such as those of the Robigalia and the Meditrinalia, the festival seems at first to have been addressed generally to any interested numina and only later to have developed an eponymous deity of its own. Roughly we may distinguish three main divisions of the calendar year, the festivals of Spring, of the Harvest and of Winter, preserving on the whole their peculiar characteristics.

  • In the Spring we have ceremonials of anticipation and prayer for the crops to come: prominent among them are the Fordicidia, with its symbolic slaughter of pregnant cows, addressed to Tellus, the Cerealia, a prayer-service to Ceres for the corn-crop, and the most important of the rustic celebrations of lustration and propitiation, the Parilia, the festival of Pales. To these must be added the Ambarvalia, the lustration of the fields, a movable feast (and therefore not found in the calendars) addressed at first to Mars in his original agricultural character.
  • Of the Harvest festivals the most significant are the twin celebrations on August 21st and 25th to the divinity pair Consus and Ops, who are both concerned with the storing of the year's produce, and two mysterious vintage festivals, the Vinalia Rustica and the Meditrinalia, connected originally with Jupiter.
  • The Winter festivals are less homogeneous in character, but we may distinguish among them certain undoubtedly agricultural celebrations, the Saturnalia (at first connected with the sowing of the next year's crop, but afterwards overlaid with Greek ceremonial), and a curious repetition of the harvest festivals to Consus and Ops.

State religion

In passing to the religion of the state we are clearly entering on a later period and a more developed form of society. The loose aggregation of agricultural households gives way to the organized community with new needs and new ideals, and at the same time in religious thought the old vague notion of the numen is almost universally superseded by the more definite conception of the dens - not even now quite anthropomorphic, but with a much more clearly realized personality. We find then two prominent notes of the state influence, firstly, the adaptation of the old ideas of the household and agricultural cults to the broader needs of the community, especially to the new necessities of internal justice between citizens and war against external enemies, and secondly the organization of more or less casual worship into something like a consistent system. Adaptation proceeds at first naturally enough on the lines of analogy. As Janus is in the household the numen of the door, so in the state he is the god associated with the great gate near the corner of the forum: the Penates have their analogy in the Di Penates populi Romani Quiritium by whom the magistrates take their oath on entering office, the Lar familiaris in the Lares Praestites of the community, and the Genius in the new notion of the Genius populi Romani or Genius urbis Romae. But the closest and most curious analogy is seen in the case of Vesta. The Vesta of the state is in fact the king's hearth, standing in close proximity to the Regia, the king's palace; the Vestal Virgins, who have charge of the sacred fire, are the "king's daughters," and as such even in republican times were in the manus of the pontifex maximus, who was the successor of the king on the legal side of his religious duties, as the rex sacrorum was on the sacrificial side. But adaptation meant also reflection and the widening of old conceptions under the influence of thought and even of abstract ideas. Thus, the simple reflection that the door is used for the double purpose of entrance and exit leads to the notion of the Janus of the state as bifrons ("two-faced"): the thought of the door as the first part of the house to which one comes, produces the more abstract idea of Janus as the "god of beginning," in which character he has special charge of the first beginnings of human life (Consevius), the first hour of the day, the Calends of the month and the first month of the year in the later calendar: for the same reason his name takes the first place in the indigitamenta. But development proceeds also on broader and more important lines. Jupiter in the rustic-cult was a sky-god concerned mainly with the wine festivals and associated with the sacred oak on the Capitol. Now he develops a twofold character: as the receiver of the spolia opima he becomes associated with war, especially in the double character of the stayer of rout (Stator) and the giver of victory (Victor), in which last capacity he later gives birth to an offshoot in the abstract conception of the goddess Victoria. As the sky-god again he is appealed to as the witness of oaths in the special capacity of the Dins Fidius, producing once more an abstract offshoot in the goddess Fides. In these two conceptions, justice and war, lie the germs of the later idea of Jupiter as the embodiment of the life of the Roman people both in their internal organization and in their external relations. In much the same manner Mars takes on in addition to his agricultural character the functions of war-god, which in time completely superseded the earlier idea. Finally, we must notice, as the sign of the synoecismus of the two settlements, the inclusion of the Colline deity, Quirinus, apparently the Mars of the originally rival community. In these three deities, Jupiter, Mars, Quirinus, we have the great triad of the earliest stage of the state religion.

Organization showed itself in the fixing of the annual calendar and the development of the character and functions of the priesthood, and as we should expect, in a new conception of the legal relation of the gods to the state. In the earlier stage - whose notions of course still persist alongside of the state religion - each household has its own relations to its numina: now the state approaches the gods through its duly appointed representatives, the magistrates and priests. Their presence is typical of that of the whole people, and the private citizen is required to do no more on festival days than a ceremonial abstinence from work. It is obvious that the state religion has a less direct connexion with morality and the religious sense than the worship of the household, but it has its ethical value in a sense of discipline and a consecration of the spirit of patriotism.

Roman Republic

By the end of the regal period Rome had ceased to be a mere agricultural community and had developed into a city-state. There had consequently grown up within the state a large artisan class, excluded from the old patrician gentes and therefore from the state cult: at the same time the beginnings of commerce had opened relations with neighbouring peoples. The consequence was the introduction of certain new deities, the di novensides, from external sources, and the birth of new conceptions of the gods and their worship. We may distinguish three main influences, to a certain extent historically successive:

Tradition always assigned to the last three kings of Rome a connexion with the mysterious people of Etruria, and their influence at this period though not very definite was certainly extensive. To them, possibly through the mediation of Falerii, a Latin town on the Etruscan border, was due the introduction of Minerva, who, as the goddess of handicraft and protectress of the artisan gilds, was established in a temple on the Aventine. Soon, however, she found her way on to the Capitol, and there a new Etruscan triad, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, possibly going back from Etruria to Greece, was enshrined in a magnificent new temple built by Etruscan workmen and decorated in the Etruscan manner. In this temple the deities were represented by images, and on its dedication day, September 13th, at the novel festival of the epulum Jovis, the images were adorned and set out as partakers of the feast, a proceeding wholly foreign to the native Roman religion.

Secondly, in war and peace Rome formed relations with her neighbours of Latium, and, as a sign of the Latin league which resulted, the cult of Diana was brought from Aricia and established on the Aventine in the "commune Latinorum Dianae templum": about the same time was built the temple of Jupiter Latiaris on the Alban mount, its resemblance in style to the new Capitoline temple pointing to Rome's hegemony. So great was Rome's sense of kinship to the Latins that in two cases Latin cults were introduced inside the pomoerium: the worship of Hercules, which came from Tibur in connexion with commerce, was established at the ara maxima in the Forum Boarium, and the Tusculan cult of Castor as the patron of cavalry found a home close to the Forum Romanum: both these deities were originally Greek. Other Italian cults introduced at this period were those of Juno Sospes and Juno Regina, Venus and Fortuna Primigenia, a goddess of childbirth who came from Praeneste.

Later on in the same period contact with the cities of Magna Graecia brought about the wide-reaching introduction of the Sibylline books. Whatever may be their origin - and they came from Cumae - they were placed in the Capitoline temple under the care of a special commission of two (duoviri sacris faciundis, later decemviri and quindecimviri), and their "oracles," which were referred to in times of great national stress, recommended the introduction of foreign cults. In 493 BC, at a time of serious famine, they ordered the building of a temple to the Greek triad Demeter, Dionysus and Persephone, who were identified with the old Roman divinities Ceres, Liber and Libera: Apollo must have come with or before the books themselves, though his temple was not built till 433 BC: Mercury followed, Asclepius was brought from Epidaurus to the Tiber Island in 293 BC, and Dis and Proserpina, with their strange chthonic associations and night ritual, probably from Tarentum in 249 BC. With new deities came new modes of worship: the graecus ritus, in which, contrary to Roman usage, the worshipper's head was unveiled, and the lectisternium, an elaborate form of the "banquet of the gods." In this period, then, we find first a legitimate extension of cults corresponding to the needs of the growing community, and secondly a religious restlessness and a consequent tendency to more dramatic forms of worship.

Later Republic

With the beginning of the Second Punic War, both the populace and the educated classes lose faith in the old religion, but they supply its place in different Greek ways. The disasters of the early part of the second Punic War revealed an unparalleled religious nervousness: portents and prodigies were announced from all quarters, it was felt that the divine anger was on the state, yet there was no belief in the efficacy of the old methods for restoring the pax deum. Accordingly recourse is had, under the direction of the Sibylline books, to new forms of appeal for the divine help, the general vowing of the ver sacrum and the elaborate Greek lectisternium after Trasimene in 217 BC, and the human sacrifice in the forum after Cannae in the following year. The same spirit continues to show itself in the almost reckless introduction of Greek deities even within the walls of the pomoerium and their ready identification with gods of the old religion, whose cult they in reality superseded. Thus we hear of temples dedicated to Juventas (Hebe) (191 BC), Diana (Artemis) (179 BC), Mars (Ares) (138 BC), and find even such unexpected identifications as that of the Bona Dea - a cult title of the ancient Fauna, the female counterpart of the countryside numen Faunus - with a Greek goddess of women, Damia. At the same time the new acquaintance with Greek art introduces the making of cult statues, in which the identified Greek type is usually adopted without change, with such curious results as the representation of the Penates under the form of the Dioscuri. But more significant still was the order of the Sibylline books in 206 BC for the introduction of the worship of the Magna Mater (Great Mother) from Pessinus and her ultimate installation on the Palatine in 191 BC: the door was thus opened to the wilder and more orgiastic cults of Greece and the Orient, which at once laid hold on the popular mind. In the train of the Magna Mater came the secret Oriental cult of Bacchus, which grew to such proportions that it had to be suppressed by decree of the Senate in 186 BC, and later on were established the cults of Ma of Phrygia, introduced by Sulla and identified with Bellona, the Egyptian Isis, and, after Pompey's war with the pirates, even the Persian Mithras. In all these more emotional rituals, the populace sought expression for the religious emotions which were not satisfied by the cold worship of the older deities.

Meanwhile a corresponding change was taking place in the attitude of the educated classes owing to the spread of Greek literature. The knowledge of Greek mythology, to which they were thus introduced, set poets and antiquarians at work in a field wholly foreign to the Roman religious spirit, the task of creating a Roman anthropomorphic mythology. This they accomplished partly by the popular process of adoption and identification, partly by imitative creation. In this way grew up the "religion of the poets," whose falseness and shallowness was patent even to contemporary thinkers. But more important was the influence of philosophy, which led soon enough to a general scepticism among the upper classes. Its first note is struck by Ennius in his translation of the Sicilian rationalist Euhemerus, who explained the genesis, of the gods as apotheosized mortals. In the last century of the Republic the two later Greek schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism laid hold on Roman society. The influence of Epicureanism was destructive to religion, but not perhaps very widespread: Stoicism became the creed of the educated classes and produced several attempts, notably those of Scaevola and Varro, at a reconciliation of philosophy and popular religion, in which it was maintained that the latter was in itself untrue, but a presentation of a higher truth suited to the capacity of the popular mind.

The result on the old religion was twofold. On the one hand, worship passed into formalism and formalism into disuse. Some of the old cults passed away altogether, others survived in name and form, but were so wholly devoid of inner meaning that even the learning of a Varro could not tell their intention or the character of the deity with whom they were concerned. The old priesthood, and in particular the flaminia, came to be regarded as tiresome restrictions on political life and were neglected. On the other hand, as the result in part of the theory of Stoicism, religion passed into the hands of the politicians: cults were encouraged or suppressed from political motives, the membership of the colleges of pontifices and augurs, now conferred by popular vote, was sought for its social and political advantages, and augury was debased till it became the meanest tool of the politician. In the general wreck of the old religion, little survived but the household cult, protected by its own genuineness and vitality.

Imperial cult

The divinity of the emperor and the cult surrounding him were a very important part of religion in the Roman Empire. In an effort to enhance political loyalty among the populace, subjects were called to participate in the cult and revere the emperors as gods. The emperors Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus were deified; after the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, few emperors failed to receive this distinction.

The Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to center upon the imperial house. Especially in the eastern half of the empire, imperial cults became very popular, and the cult complex became one of the focal points of life in the Roman cities. As such it was one of the major agents of romanization. The central elements of the cult complex were located next to a temple; a theatre or amphitheatre for gladiatorial displays and other games and a public bath complex. Sometimes the imperial cult was added to the cults of an existing temple or celebrated in a special hall in the bath complex.

Evidence for the importance of the imperial cult include the "Achievements of the Divine Augustus" (Res Gestae Divi Augusti), written upon two large bronze pillars once located in Rome, Roman coins where the Emperor is portrayed with a halo or nimbus, and temple inscriptions such as "Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea..." (Roman Temple Inscription in Myra, Lycia).

Absorption of foreign cults

As the Roman Empire expanded, and included people from a variety of cultures, more and more gods were incorporated into the Roman religion. The legions brought home cults originating from Egypt, Britain, Iberia, Germany, India and Persia. The cults of Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus were particularly important. Some of those were initiatory religions of intense personal significance, similar to Christianity in those respects.

Spread of Christianity

St. Peter and St. Paul introduced Christianity to the Romans, after Jesus was believed to have died sometime between c. 30-33 AD. Christian missionaries traveled across the empire, steadily winning converts and establishing Christian communities. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 64, Emperor Nero (56-68) accused the Christians as convenient scapegoats who were later persecuted and martyred. From that point on, Roman official policy towards Christianity tended towards persecution. The Roman authorities suspected Christians of disloyalty to the Emperor and of committing various crimes against humanity and nature. Persecution recurred especially at times of civic tensions and reach their worst under Diocletian (284 to 305). Constantine I (324-337) ended the persecutions by establishing religious freedom through the Edict of Milan in 313. He later convened the historic First Council of Nicaea in 325, a year after ending the civil war of 324 and emerging as the victor in the war of succession. This First Council of Nicaea was formed to oppose Arius who had challenged the deity of Jesus Christ. The result was the branding of Arianism as a heresy. Christianity, as opposed to other religious groups, became the official state religion of the Roman empire on February 27, 380 through an edict issued by Emperor Theodosius I in Thessalonica and published in Constantinople. All cults, save Christianity, were prohibited in 391 by another edict of Theodosius I. Destruction of temples began immediately. When the Western Roman Empire ended with the abdication of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476, Christianity survived it, with the Bishop of Rome as the dominant religious figure, but see also Pentarchy.

Decline of Graeco-Roman polytheism

When Constantine became the sole Roman Emperor in 324, Christianity became the leading religion of the empire. After the death of Constantine in 337, two of his sons, Constantius II and Constans took over the leadership of the empire. Constans, ruler of the western provinces, was, like his father, a Christian. In 341, he decreed that all pre-Christian Graeco Roman worship and sacrifice should cease; warning those who still persisted in practising ancient Graeco-Roman polytheism with the threat of the death penalty.

Lay Christians took advantage of new anti-Graeco-Roman polytheism laws by destroying and plundering the temples. Temples that survived were converted into Christian churches: the Pantheon is the most notable example, having once been a temple to all the gods and later becoming a church in honor of all the saints. Many of the buildings in the Roman Forum were similarly converted, preserving the structures if not their original intent.

Later on, the emperor Julian the Apostate attempted to reverse the process of Christianization and bring back the native forms of polytheism, but his death in Persia caused the empire to once again fall under the power of Christian control, this time permanently.

Intellectual trends

The distinctions among philosophy, religion, cult and superstition that would be made by an educated Roman of the 1st century BC can be read in Lucretius, a philosopher following Epicurus. Most educated Romans were Stoic in the outlook on life. The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities of Greek gods to Roman ones, and perhaps even more, the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance remained. Many men whose patrician birth called them to these duties had no belief in the rites, except perhaps as a political necessity. Nevertheless, the positions of pontifex maximus and augur remained coveted political posts. Julius Caesar used his election to the position of pontifex maximus to influence the membership of the priestly groups.

Religious practice

Before the rise of Christianity, in most cults orthopraxy (doing the right things), was more important than orthodoxy (believing the right things). This is the case in Roman religion too. Daily life was inextricably linked to religious practice.

  • Sacrifice/banquets
  • Annual priesthoods
  • Processions
  • Oracles
  • Votive inscriptions
  • calendar


The Roman religious calendar reflected Rome's hospitality to the cults and deities of conquered territories. Roman religious festivals known from ancient times were few in number. Some of the oldest, however, survived to the very end of the pagan empire, preserving the memory of the fertility and propitiatory rites of a primitive agricultural people. New festivals were introduced, however, to mark the naturalization of new gods. So many festivals were adopted eventually that the work days on the calendar were outnumbered. Among the more important of the Roman religious festivals were the Saturnalia, the Lupercalia, the Equiria, and the Secular games.

Under the empire, the Saturnalia were celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to December 23, during the period in which the winter solstice occurred. All business was suspended, slaves were given temporary freedom, gifts were exchanged, and merriment prevailed. The Lupercalia was an ancient festival originally honoring Lupercus, a pastoral god of the Italians. The festival was celebrated on February 15 at the cave of the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, were supposed to have been nursed by a wolf. Among the Roman legends connected with them is that of Faustulus, a shepherd who was supposed to have discovered the twins in the wolf's den and to have taken them to his home, in which they were brought up by his wife, Acca Larentia. See founding of Rome.

The Equiria, a festival in honor of Mars, was celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. Horse races in the Campus Martius notably marked the celebration.

The Secular games, which included both athletic spectacles and sacrifices, were held at irregular intervals, traditionally once only in about every century, to mark the beginning of a new saeculum, or "era". They were supposed to be held when the last person who had witnessed the previous Secular games died, marking the beginning of a new era. The tradition, often neglected, was revived as a spectacle by Augustus and honoured by the poet Horace with a series of odes.

See also


Further reading

  • Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians
  • Ramsay MacMullen, 1984. Paganism in the Roman Empire
  • —— 1997. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries ISBN 0-3000-8077-8
  • R. M. Ogilvie, " Roman Imperial Religion" (subscription required), review of The Religions of the Roman Empire by John Ferguson, The Classical Review, New Ser., Vol. 22, No. 3 (Dec., 1972), pp. 386–388. Accessed June 18 2007.
  • Louise Revell, "Religion and Ritual in the Western Provinces", Greece and Rome, volume 54, number 2, October 2007.


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