The modern term 'Religion' seems to be incorrect
in a Roman setting. The term PIETAS doesn't seem to mean piety,
as we know it; it seems to be more a reverence for, and a strict
sense of duty or justice towards, the gods; although that didn't
stop the Romans cheating on them. Religion meant more a binding
obligation with its source a fear of the unknown.
Cicero (De Natura Deorum II.iii.8 - 9) could,
despite being a sceptic on certain aspects of religious practice,
still state "If we care to compare our national characteristics
with those of foreign peoples, we shall find that, while in all
other respects we are only the equals or even the inferiors of others,
yet in the sense of religion, that is in reverence for the gods,
we are far superior". This preoccupation with correct religious
practices is also confirmed by the Greek historian Polybius who
claimed that it "Is actually the element which holds the Roman
state together" (Histories VI, 56.2)
Inevitably our image of Roman religion is obscured
by the limited nature of the available evidence. Almost all of it
comes from the Italy which gives rise to the question "How
Roman is our view of the subject?"
There were wide variations in terms of the patron
deities, the festivals and the rituals used throughout Italy as
well as variations over time. What rituals were being used in the
provinces must be the sticky question to be asked, and probably
one that's impossible to answer.
The religions of Roman times started out, in early Etruscan times,
as a set of rustic beliefs that later on got overlaid with a much
more sophisticated set from Greece. Roman and Greek gods and goddesses
became conflated until it was virtually impossible to separate them.
Later still there were a number of 'imported' beliefs from Egypt,
Palestine, Syria etc.
Clearly anthropomorphic deities such as the Etruscan trinity of
Juno, Jupiter and Minerva spoke well with the Greek
deities such as Juno = Hera, Jupiter = Zeus and Minerva
= Pallas and became conflated with them, therefore it was inevitable
that the Romans took the Greek ideas' to clothe their own austere
set of deities. By the same token it was also inevitable that Oriental
cults got included, albeit reluctantly, into the pantheon; thus
came Bacchus (Dionysus), Cybele and Isis. However, these
did not come to corrupt a race of pious puritans. They had been
beaten to it, the native gods such as Fortuna, Virilis, Flora
and Anna Perenna had a licentiousness all their own. We should
be aware that the simple rustic is seldom a puritan, blood sacrifices
such as on Fordicidia, when a cow in calf was killed, were
common and human sacrifice, although extremely rare [illegal after
97 B.C.], was not unheard of.
Although this is a gross over simplification of a
complex set of ideas', the relationship between man and god was
more one of a business contract: 'You do this for me and I'll do
that for you'. A man may even venture to defraud the god in question!
A universal state demands a universal
Many of the 'official' pantheon offered by the Palatine
Trinity, had neither pageantry or religious ceremonial, nor the
hope of either immortality or spiritual progress. Some foreign cults
- Greek and Oriental - imported during the late Republic and early
Empire did just that and fulfilled the basic needs.
Amongst the most successful were 'The Mystery Cults' whose
membership was confined to the initiates. Mithraism was arguably
one of the more successful of these, although its popular appeal
was curtailed by the Roman insistence [it didn't start out that
way] on the limitation of membership to high-ranking males. It would
seem that the Romans were never what you may call a religious people,
but they were ritualists and formalists to the core.
Thus the religious practices were
If for example the Fratres
Arvales only jumped four times instead of five when intoning,
chanting or singing the last line their sacred hymn then the whole
value of the rite would be lost. This, at best, meant that they'd
have to start all over again. Understandably enough some of the
festivals and forms of worship seem to have echoes in Christian
There was a definition of Public as against Private Religion, although
there was a tendency for the two to run together, in the 'De
Significatione Verborum' of Sextus Pompeius Festus (2nd
C.) This implies that Public religion is that which is carried out
at public expense either on behalf of the populus as a whole or
of specific subsections of it, although private individuals could
be permitted to finance temples and festivals on behalf of the People.
Private religion is on behalf of individuals, familiae and gentes
as well as certain other small groups.
Private religion didn't require the services of state priests, but
there were several areas of overlap between the two and they weren't
independent entities. Both public and private religion were officially
overseen by the state through the ius divinum, however, public
religion was restricted to the worship of a limited number of approved
gods and select festivals whilst private religion - providing that
there wasn't a breach of the peace - allowed for the worship of
any god and the celebration of any festival.
Thus state pontifices would give advice on private religious matters
and on other matters that may concern the individuals standing within
Legally there was also a major difference between things dedicated
to the gods as part of public and private religion; things dedicated
for the people became consecrated Res Sacra and the theft
of such items would constitute Sacrilegium, and hence a possible
death sentence, whereas private dedications did not.
A priestly order who celebrated the Ops or Dea Dia festivals with
a ritual, hopping, dance in 3:4 time.
Some of the rites that
seem to have impinged on both Private and Public religion would
||These were held in honour of the
shepherd god, or goddess, Pales. Sheepfolds were decorated and
purification rites performed over them.
||An early agricultural god had a
festival of sacrifice of a red dog and a sheep. This is one
of the few times were a dog sacrifice did not profane the rite.
|| the boundary god - had a suckling
pig and a lamb sacrificed to his name on the boundary stone.
|Private rites could be to placate
the, less tangible, family spirits; these didn't seem to be
anthropomorphic to any great degree.
||These could be either the spirits
of dead ancestors or land deities, earned their worship by working
as guardian angels for the home.
||guarded the store cupboard
and needed to be kept on your side.
||Later on the Emperor, in his role
as Pontifex Maximus, plus the Vestals worshipped at this shrine.
This was a sound political move as it linked the Emperor with
|The Genius and the Iuno
||The guardian angels of an individual's
procreative power both needed some work.
||the dangerous spirits of the unburied
dead, who had to be placated with an annual rite, performed
at midnight by the master of the house
||the kindly dead all figured in
the religious life of an individual.