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Roman Religion

Early Religion

The early Romans believed in a simple animism - that there were spirits/powers, or numina, which surrounded all men. There were no temple/statues. The rites were clean and simple and they were practiced with an exactness believed pleasing to gods. On calendars, such old festivals were recorded with large letters. These were rural festivals, marking the year of the country people.

Coming of Foreign Gods

Deities of conquered was adopted as Roman gods. During times of stress, gods were imported to help. The Etruscans were believed to be the first to set up temples and statues of gods. Later, Greek gods merged with Roman gods in identity and rituals. The precision of rites led to a deadening formalism. Before the end of the Republic, most people turned away from religion to philosophy. The mystical and orgiastic cults of Greece and the Orient were adopted in the West and established. Emperor worship became the State religion. In the end, Christianity replaced all religion.

Religion of Numa

Numa, the second of the seven kings, was responsible for:

  • organizing festivals in the calendar (religion of Numa = religion of early State)
  • organizing the first priestly colleges
  • appointing the first flamines; the most important being the priests of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus (deified Romulus)

After the monarchy period, the office of king of rites was established to continue religious ceremonies. The rex sacrorum, the three flamines, and the college of high priests, and the Pontifex Maximus, controlled and led the State religion. During the Empire period, the emperor was appointed the Pontifex Maximus.

Priestly Colleges

Groups of priests were organized to perform rites

  • Salii(dancing priests) - old/famous priests worshipping Mars
  • Salii Collini - priests worshipping Quirinus.

Unofficial associations worshipped various gods as well. The pontifices assigned date for festival and the augures intrepreted the will of the gods during auspices on public occasions. The Comission of Fifteen was in charge of the Sibylline Books, which foretold the future of Rome. Burial societies were organized as colleges to promote worship of some god.

The College of Vesta

Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. There are six Virgines Vestales, Vestal Vrigins, in charge. The sacred fire in the Aedes Vestae, Temple of Vesta, symbolized continuity of life of state. There are no statues of the temple. If the fire went out, use of friction was the only way to rekindle the fire as a tradition from earlier times.

Qualifications for a vestal were:

  • girl's age must be not less than six, but no older than ten
  • physically perfect
  • good character
  • both parents living

When appointed, she was freed from her father's authority. She lived in the House of Vestals, or Atrium Vestae. She spent 10 yrs learning her duties, 10 yrs performing duties, and 10 yrs. training others. She participated in most festivals on the old calendar. After 30 yrs, a Vestal Virgin may return to private life, which was rare, or keep her priviliges and the dignity of her position, which was more common.

Religion of the Family

The pater familias was the household priest, assisted by his wife and children. The Lars Familiaris was the protecting spirit of the household. In the country, they were also responsible for protecting the fields. There were also the Lares of the Crossroads; worshipped at the crossroads in rural areas and at street corner shrines in urban areas. There was one lar in the Republic era; two lares in the Imperial era. A lar was usually represented by a boy stepping lightly as if dancing, with a jug upraised in the left hand, and a bowl in the right hand. Instead of the old penates, which were guardians of the storeroom, such shrines depict images of great gods each family chooses to worship in private. The genius of the pater familias was represented by either a man with a toga drawn over the head as in worship or a serpent. In household shrines, there were two figures; a beared man representing the genius of the father, and a woman representing the juno of the mother.

In general, shrines, were found in:

  • the atrium
  • the hearth(Vesta)
  • the garden/peristyle
  • other rooms

Family Devotions

The devout Roman prayed and made a sacrifice every morning. The usual time was between dinner and dessert. The Kalends, Ides and Nones were sacred to the lares. On these days, garlands were hung over the hearth, crowns of flowers were made for the lares, as well as simple offerings of incense and wine. When possible, a pig was sacrificed. Proper ceremonies accompanied all family occasions from birth to death, even when the gods were no longer popular. The gens of families had special rites, sacra. It must be maintained for the welfare of the clan and State. If not, it was believed that gods will become displeased.

Religion of the State

God His/Her Specialties
Jupiter light-father, worshipped on hilltops, called on to witness agreements
Saturn god of crops
Venus goddess of gardens
Mars god of agriculture and war (since farmer=fighter)
Minerva goddess of craftsmen and their guilds
Vesta goddess of hearth
Diana goddess of the moon and hunting wood spirit from Aricia in Latium
Hercules god of commerce from Tibur
Mercury god of commerce from Cumae
Apollo god of healing at Cumae

The first temple was built by Etruscans for Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on the Capitoline Hill. Minerva later had her own temple on the Avetine Hill. Castor and Pollus were from Tusculum. Mercury, Castor and Pollux, Hercules, and Diana were of Greek origin. A famine in 493B.C., the Sibylline oracle at Cumae advised the adoption of the Greek Bacchus, Ceres, and Proserpina. In 432B.C., the temple of Apollo, the god of healing was adopted from Cumae. In 293B.C., the worship of Aesculapius, the god of medicine from Epidaurus was brought to the island of Tiber. The Asiatic Magne Mater (Cybele) was brought from Phrygia during the second Punic War. However, it was discontinued due to the orgiastic nature of her worship. This marked the beginning movement to Oriental religions. Over time, more and more Greek gods merged with Roman gods. The acquaintance with Greek myth, literature, and art made the identity complete.

A Religious Revival

The forms, ceremonies, and priesthoods became discontinued especially during the Civil Wars. When Augustus came to power, he ordered the repairing and the rebuilding of temples and revived old rites and priesthoods.

Religion in the Imperial Age

The introduction of Eastern cults were encouraged from:

  • a weakening of the old Roman stock
  • increasing numbers of Orientals in the West
  • Roman Army campaigns in the East

These mystery religions were attractive due to their:

  • rites of purification
  • assurance of happiness after death

The religion of Isis were popular in the lower classes. Mithraism flourished with Eastern captives and later, army troops. This cult was further spread with troops established in Rome. Judaism was also established in Rome. Christianity spread from the lower classes to upper classes from Orientals, since it came from the East. In the Imperial age, the deification of the emperor became natural. It had developed from the time of Julius Caesar. The genius of the emperor was worshipped as genius of the father. The practices of such worship was cared for by the Augustales, which was not allowed while the emperor was alive. Although Christianity opposed emperor worship for political reasons, this religion gradually replaced all religions.