Throughout the history of Rome, from the monarchy to the late empire, religion had played a great role in it’s society and was involved in almost every aspect of the life of the Roman citizen. It was common for each house to have it’s own patron god/gods and ,on special occasions, the head of the house would make a sacrifice to the personal gods of the family. Also, great festivals were usually held in honor of certain gods and would include spectacles like chariot races and Gladiatorial fights.
The religious practices of the ancient Romans are best remembered with grand temples, great festivals and Christian persecution to the final acceptance of Christianity within the Roman empire over the traditional pagan religions. The Roman religious practices can be divided into three phases which span from the founding of the city to the fall of the empire.
The First Phase (753 BC to 500 BC) – The first phase of Roman religion dated from the founding of the city to the early republic. This phase occurred before the Roman civilization had really adopted the Greek ways and so the religious practices of this time consisted of only three gods and these gods were known as the Archaic Triad. The gods of the archaic Triad were Jupiter (Jove) ,Mars and Quirinus. These gods had their Greek counterparts and would later be identified with them. Jupiter was the supreme master god and so he was associated with Zeus of Greek mythology. Ares was the god of power and war and so he was associated with his Greek counterpart, Ares and Quirinus was the god of the Roman people in general and he had no Greek counterpart. Mars was valued and worshipped more by the conquering and warlike Romans than Ares was to the Greeks and ,as a result, he had The Fields of Mars named after him. The Fields of Mars was located outside of Rome and it is where the soldiers would train.Order now
The Second Phase (500 BC to 313 AD) – Before the end of the 6th century BC Greek influence had begun to affect Roman religion and this resulted in the transformation from the Archaic Triad to the more Greek influenced Captioline triad. In this triad the gods Mars and Quirinus were replaced by Juno and Minerva. As time went on ,during the second phase, the Romans adopted more variations and the number of Roman deities grew as ,like the Greek counterparts, they had a god for almost every aspect of society.
During the later part of the Republic and throughout most of the pagan empire, the Romans deified ( or made gods of) people who were well loved or committed great deeds during their life. People were usually deified after their death and the deification was most always done by the senate. With the assination (and later deification) of Julius Caesar, it became popular for the senate to reward dead emperors ,who had served well in life, with deification. A humorous note to this involves the death of the emperor Vespasian in which he said ,just before he died, ” I feel I am becoming a god.” Upon deification an emperor usually had temples built in his honor and a cult of followers.
Also, during this period the Vestal Virgins were a major part of Roman religious practices. The Vestal Virgins were a sacred group of women whose duty it was to keep the sacred fire of Vesta burning at all times. The Vestal Virgins were required to take a vow of chastity upon entering the cult and the breaking of these vows was an offense punishable by a painful death. These revered women were so highly regarded by the Roman populace that they were given seats of honor in public places ,like the arena, when the regular woman was always put in less nobel areas.
The Third Phase (313 AD to 476 AD) – By the early empire ,in the first century AD, the traditional form of Roman religion was beginning to show signs of breaking up. Causes for this breakup could be attributed to the swarms of new religious beliefs that were sweeping through the Roman empire and the fact that most of these theologies promised peace after death to the destitute and uneducated majority of the Roman populace. The most notable of these new religions was Christianity ,which had found it’s roots in the rebellious Roman territory of Judea.
“And so it Came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augstus that whole world should be taxed”
These famous lines of the Christian Bible describe the first mention of a Roman Emperor and would be remembered throughout history with the birth of Jesus Christ ,the symbol of christianity. Though his life was short and he was crucified at an extremely young age, Jesus developed a cult following due to his presumed miracles and of his preaching of eternal peace and everlasting life. His crucifixion resulted in the spreading of his faith throughout the Roman empire and in the beginning of the end of traditional Roman religion. Ironically enough it was the Romanization of Europe that allowed the Christian faith to easily spread. By the death of Christ, the whole Roman empire was connected with well constructed roads and inns which allowed the prophets to spread their message easily and safely.
During the first decades preceding Christ’s death, Christians were tolerated but not really liked by the general population of the Roman empire due to their refusal to acknowledge the emperor as a living god. This act of defiance was considered heresy by the state .The real mass persecution of the Christian people came during the reign of the emperor Nero who needed a scapegoat on whom to blame the great fire during his reign. He chose the Christians because they were only a new group and did not have the total acceptance of the Roman people. These persecutions were horrible and involved all sorts of barbaric tortures which included the victim being fed to the lions, crucified or being used as a human torch. These same persecutions which were meant to discourage christianity actually helped it to grow because it was believed that the Christians died for their religion (became Martyrs) which made them look even more nobel to the people.
Because of this persecution, many early Christians were forced to worship in the Roman Catacombs which was one of the few places they would be safe. The catacombs were sacred to the Romans because their dead were buried there and it was forbidden for them to kill anyone within their walls. It is also true that the crucifix was not always the symbol of Christianity but ,in fact, it started out as a Pagan Roman symbol. The fish was the identifying symbol among the early Christians and they identified with each other through that way.
The beginning of the third phase and of the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire occurred in 312 BC, upon the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. It is said that he had a vision from the Christian god before a monumental battle in which he was told that he would have victory if he painted the sign of Christianity on the shields of his men. He did what was told of him and was victorious and converted the empire to Christianity.
As soon as Christianity had taken a major hold in the empire and Christian communities developed, the early Christians decided that they needed a form of government to bind all the communities together. The Bishop was the head of all the Christian communities in certain districts called dioceses or sees. Under the bishops there were the priests who were specially set aside for church work and to help the priests were men called deacons. This system of church government developed under the Roman Empire is still in the same basic form used today.
In Pagan Rome, the Pontifex Maximus was the head priest who was in charge of all religious affairs of the state. In Christian Rome, the head Christian priest adopted the title and would be later known by history by that name. The high Pontiff ,or Pope, became an important figurehead next to the emperor and he was given a big role in the making of descisions. Near the end of the Western empire, when the imperial capital had been moved from Rome to Constantanople by Constantine, the pope (or bishop) was the only important man left in Rome and so assumed a position of power and responsibility. In 445 AD it was decreed that the Bishop in Rome had supremacy over the whole church.
Even though the Roman empire did fall less than 200 years after it adopted Christianity, the beliefs that Jesus inspired rose from the ashes and flourished. From the Roman empire, the church inherited much and Christianity had adapted the Roman form of government and the Roman idea of unity. It is because of these Roman ideals that Christianity survived through the ages to become the strongest religion in the world.
Roman religion was strongly influenced by Greek tradition: the Romans decided early on that their gods must be the same as those of the Greeks. Zeus, the king of all the Greek gods, merged with the Roman Jupiter. Ares and Mars, gods of war, became one and the same in Roman eyes. The Celtic warrior gods Cocidius and Belatucadrus merged with the Roman god Mars. In Lydney Park, the Celtic god Nodens had a healing sanctuary, and there two bronze plaques show that he too was associated with Mars. The Celtic goddess Sul, deity of the spring and of healing, was identified with Minerva; they devoted a temple to her in Bath. In fact, the Romans usually absorbed the local gods into their culture when they conquered a new land. Soldiers even offered sacrifices to the enemies’ gods, trying to bribe them to support the Romans instead of their own people.
One Celtic god was Epona, who had strong connections with horses. In Chelmsford, a horse skull was found in a ritual shaft, another in a nearby ditch, and a whole skeleton minus its front two feet was found in a pit. They probably ended up there as a result of religious rituals. In Winchester, there is an altar which was dedicated by Antonius Lucretianus to Italian, German, Gallic and British mother-goddesses.
In the Cotswolds, there are many reliefs showing Celtic gods such as the Deae Matres (mother goddess), and the genii cucullati (guardian spirits with hooded cloaks). The reliefs usually show three or four figures. These deities were strongly associated with fertility. The water nymph Coventina appears in a relief at Carrawburgh. The River Wharfe, in North Yorkshire, had its own goddess, Verbeia.
At Rudston, a mosaic shows a charioteer here, and there a Celtic female fertility figure. Perhaps the householder wanted the mosaic to show off his Classical tastes, but without offending Celtic gods. A person might display bronze statuettes of Roman deities in the lararium (household shrine), but privately place a statue of a Celtic deity in a woodland grove.
All these gods, Celtic, Roman or otherwise, must not be offended. The Romans consulted augurs in an attempt to learn the gods’ wishes, by observing the behaviour of birds. If the sacred chickens were not eating, it was a bad day to do anything important like travelling or marrying. In the morning, many households said prayers for the family and the emperor at their lararium. A lar was a bronze figurine representing a household god, the spirit of the family’s ancestors. Other household spirits included the penates, who were in charge of the pantry. They were worshipped before leaving on a journey, and again after arriving home, to ensure the home’s prosperity. On the whole, instead of worshipping regularly, Romans would attend the temple only when they wanted something.
Each place was supposed to have a numen, a guardian spirit, who could be appeased with sacrifices. Before a farmer could clear woodland for cultivation, he would have to sacrifice a pig. Sacrifice remained an important part of worship throughout the Empire’s history. Hunters offered sacrifices to Diana, the goddess of hunting, before they set out. A temple would have a large altar where priests sacrificed animals. Assistants to the priest would examine the animal to make sure it was perfect before killing it. Then the augurer would examine the animal’s liver; if it was malformed, this was a bad omen, but if it was good, the god would accept the sacrifice. The offal would be burned for the sacrifice, but the good meat would be cooked for the worshippers in a sacrificial meal, or kept for the priests to eat later.
Most emperors were worshipped as gods after they died, and had temples dedicated to them. This was important in unifying the Empire. When Vespasian fell sick in AD79, he said, ‘Alas, I think I’m becoming a god.’ One important temple was the temple of Claudius at Colchester. Historians used to think that the temple was dedicated to Claudius while he was still alive, but this seems unlikely. Augustus and Tiberius refused to allow temples to be dedicated to themselves in their lifetimes, especially in Rome, where it might have offended the Senate. However, Augustus did allow an official cult to himself in some of the provinces.
There were quite a few private temples to Claudius in other provinces, but the situation was different in Britain. The Britons would not have been interested in worshipping Rome or Augustus, but if they could be persuaded to see Claudius as a living god, that would have seemed much more real to them. But it seems that the temple was in fact dedicated after Claudius’ death, and it was probably built on the site of an altar dedicated to Rome and Augustus.
Funeral rites were designed to make sure that the spirit stayed on the side of the dead, and did not come back to disturb the living. For this reason, cemeteries had to stay outside the walls of a town. Sometimes the body would be buried face down, or the head removed and placed at the feet. The body was very often buried with jewellery, food, and other possessions for the spirit to take to the afterlife. A banquet would be held in which offerings of food were given to the dead.
To the Romans, the next world was as much a fact as this one. To get to the underworld, Charon, ferryman of the underworld, would take them across the river Styx. To pay him, a coin would be placed in the dead person’s mouth, even if the body was cremated. The Romans had a much vaguer concept than the Celts of what conditions in the underworld would actually be like, although they did have the idea that good was rewarded and evil punished.
Many educated Romans did not believe in the old gods, and turned to foreign gods such as Mithras (from Persia), Isis (from Egypt) and Bacchus (from Greece). The Bacchants did not seem respectable to ordinary Romans, because they used wine in their worship and were thought to conduct drunken orgies. This religion was one of the few not to be tolerated. The Druids were a Celtic group whom the Romans did not tolerate, because not only did they practise human sacrifice, but they also had great power over the aristocratic class. A ‘hideous and shameful’ Eastern religion was Christianity. The people were usually allowed to practise any religion provided they worshipped the Emperor as well, but Christians could not consider worshipping any other gods. For this, they were accused of treason; this was also the cause of antagonism between the Romans and the Jews. Many Christians were poor people and slaves, so were suspected of subversive plotting. Because they celebrated the Eucharist with bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of cannibalism. Many Christians were killed, like Julius and Aaron at Caerleon, who may have died in the arena as public entertainment.
The origins of the Roman pantheon began with the small farming community that made up the ancient village of Rome. The foundations of the mythology included nameless and faceless deities that lended support to the community while inhabiting all objects and living things. Numen, as the belief in a pantheistic inhabitation of all things is called, would later take root in more clearly defined system of gods, but early on this belief that everything was inhabited by numina was the prevalent system.
Even though the early Romans were not very concerned with the distinct personalities of each god within their pantheon, there was a rigid clarification of what each particular deity was responsible for. All aspects of life within Rome were guided not only by the pantheon of familiar names we are accustomed to, but to the household cult of the Dii Familiaris as well. With this belief set, every family or household was believed to be assigned a guardian spirit known as the Lar Familiaris (Lars). All family functions included these spiritual guardians in some form or another. Among these spirits that played a role in the spiritual life of Romans were Genii for men and junii for women. Each of these individual deities stayed with a person for life and represented the creative force that determined gender and allowed individuals to grow, learn and behave morally within society. The Dii Familiaris were so ingrained within the household that several spirits were assigned to specific responsibilities within a home. Forculus protected the door, Limentinus the threshold, Cardea the hinges, and Vesta the hearth.
Most of the Roman gods and goddesses were a blend of several religious influences. Many of these were introduced via the Greek colonies of southern Italy and others had their roots in the Etruscan or Latin tribes of the region. In some cases the Etruscan or Latin names survived throughout the cultural existence of Rome, but many were adopted so completely that they maintained their names from other cultures. In the east, the Greek names remained the choice of the people and the major gods of the system therefore, were known by both.
The gods of the Roman pantheon began taking on the forms known today during the dynasty of the Etruscan kings in the 6th century BC. These gods, Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), and Minerva (Athena), were worshiped at the grand temple on the Capitoline Hill. As Rome’s power grew and expanded throughout the known world, the Roman Empire came into contact with the cultures and religious beliefs of many cultures. The Romans, happy to absorb and assimilate any culture they encountered thereby reaping the benefits of both its wealth and religious influence, were a mosaic of belief systems. Foreign gods and customs not only played major roles but were also given temples and priesthoods within Rome itself. The goddess Cybele, a Phoenician god was adopted during the Second Punic War to counteract any benefit that Hannibal may have gained. Even after his defeat, Cybele remained an integral part of the Roman system. Another very popular foreign god was the Persian god Mithra. Overwhelmingly supported in the Legions, this deity offered eternal salvation for the immortal soul and its popularity helped pave the way for the later Christian cult whose similarities made its adoption less difficult.
With the passing of the Roman Republic into that of an Imperial system, the nature of Roman religion expanded again to include the Emperors themselves. Julius Caesar, having claimed to be a direct descendent of Aeneas, the son of Venus, was among the first to deify himself in such a manner. At first, such a system of human divinity was largely rejected by the masses, but the popularity of Caesar helped pave the way for future leaders.
As the Imperial system gained hold, it was common practice for the Emperors to accept divine honors before their deaths. These living gods, in some cases, required sacrificial rituals as signs of loyalty and ingrained themselves with the older more traditional pagan gods. The requirement of a sacrifice to the emperor, as well as the forced belief in the complete pantheon became a significant source of conflict with early Christians. As Christians refused to worship the emperor as a god, persecution of the Christians and conflict with the cult was a constant source of strife. Emperor worship would continue until late in the western Empire until the reign of Constantine. In the early 4th century AD, Constantine either converted to Christianity or made it an acceptable part of Roman religion, eliminating the emperor deification altogether. Later Emperors such as Julian attempted to revive the old ways, but the deeply rooted Mithraism, and Christian cults combined were firmly set within Roman society. By 392 AD, Emperor Theodosius I banned the practice of pagan religions in Rome altogether and Christianity was, without question, the official religion of the state.