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Ancient Roman Religion

Understanding ancient Roman religion can be either boring or exciting: A family of pagan gods with their equivalent Roman and Greek names, who were replaced by Christ. But the broader and more interesting reality was a Roman empire growing over 1000years devouring and conflating exotic foreign deities, the superstitions of their people, and their magical rites. 

Divine Powers 

To modern publics, the raw shaping forces of fear, magic, power and empire are more evident in films like “Raiders of the lost Ark” or “The Mummy” or even “Harry Potter”. Historically these forces shaped the simplistic “Pagan” set of deities like Jupiter, Venus and Mars. In the latter part of the Empire the same forces enabled a fresh and more enduring construct based around Christianity. 

Mashing up the Gods for a united Empire 

Today we tend to see generally simpler constructs of a complex set of historical religious beliefs. This is the result of various activities, both during the Roman empire and after it. Some ‘natural’ and others driven with a determined social objective of uniting the peoples of a broadening empire: 

  • Natural waxing and waning of religious beliefs 
  • Religious Synchretism – Blending together faiths that were similar to each other 
  • Aggressive acts of cleansing

Roman historians tendentially wrote and published what was the approved view of the upper ruling class – after all they were the main literate audience. Furthermore, the authorities had no problem considering the deletion of unwelcome influences or remnants of the past. This is sometimes seen with ‘damnatio memoriae’ verdicts or when the authorities would happily clamp down on unwelcome religious practices. 

Christian rulers of the Middle Ages may have only published a revised Christianity-centric interpretation of those earlier events. For sure they too clamped down on unwelcome (pagan) religious practices. Archaeology and research allows us to consider things more broadly even though much of the evidence is erased or buried away. 

The essence of religion has been the same for all civilisation through time, made of a public and personal sphere. As expounded by the recent book “Sapiens” religion is also a construct which serves to create shared values in a broadening population. 

 Social Sphere Public / Rome’s Rulers Personal / All citisens 
The scope of religion Religion as a shared social construct. A shared moral glue that allows growing numbers of individuals to have the shared values they need to build a nation. BUT! it is also a paradoxical question for rulers: Divine authority, with its priestly ambassadors, has a higher claim to power than the ruler. Therefore ‘divinity’ needs to be put in some sort of a box to ensure equilibrium.  A means for individuals to have hope and make sense of a chaotic world they cannot understand or control.  Many myths of individual heroes were created over time to symbolise common guilts and morals. 
Activities and means of wielding power…. Rituals to understand or control universal forces, for instance to ensure victory at war or appease plagues (see Livy 7,1) Structuring the roman priesthood so that it has a clear place vs political power and institutions. Using ‘divine inspiration’ and signs in the stars to underwrite terrain laws written by earthly rulers. Participate in public rituals Magic and superstitions developed in the hope of understanding or controlling universal forces. Buy amulets and surround yourself with a propitious environment. 
Examples Architecture linking earthly and divine power like the Pantheon, Altars or Triumphal Arches  Augurs and rituals to divine the future eg reading the entrails of sacrificial beasts. Sibylline books  Cleansing of religion: Augustus named himself Pontifex Maximus Augustus destroyed thousands of magical texts deemed to be of lesser sources (see Suetonius). Likewise the later Christians built their temples over previous pagan altars  Rulers equate themselves to divinities: Rulers like Romulus (Quirinus) or Julius Caesar deified  Augustus’ lineage linked with Mars and Venus Nero and other emperors self-proclaimed living deities. A later example, was Henry VIII of England vs the Pope (the Pontifex Maximus, same title used by Roman Emperors) The lararia and household shrines found across Pompeii, often painted with snakes and other propitiatory symbols.  The Greek Magical Papyri: Numerous papyri found in Egypt outline many spells, rituals and chants for many aspects of life.  Jewellery and propitious symbols in every day environments Rings with engraved stones and chants Phallus lamps and images to ensure bounty and fertility 

From the outline above we can quickly see that what the expanding Romans acquired wasn’t only about temples, statues and rituals but also of magic and shared oral beliefs at a personal and individual level. 

In the earliest days, when literacy was even more limited, the superstitious farmer-soldiers living on hilltops had their own smaller set of divinities such as Mars, Janus, Vesta and Quirinus. It is possible that some of these, like Mars, were in fact an inheritance of earlier Indo-European divinities. As their contact with external influences broadened so too did the number of divinities that they had to deal with and give a proper place to… It seems that even important divinities like Jupiter (sky) and Juno (wife) were imported from their more immediate neighbours. 

The Romans encounter Oriental Mysticism 

As the Romans reached more broadly across the world they encountered cultures such as the Hellenic/Greek, Egyptian and Judaic civilisations; equating and conflating the deities they encountered along the way with their own. 

This was at a time when literacy was only just spreading, sufficiently to read and understand common inscriptions. Populations were generally reliant on oral tradition and handing over stories prone to conflating concepts and idiosyncrasies. Natural syncretism would occur when it was realised that a divinity with a given foreign name was responsible for a given set of things in common with a home divinity. 

In antiquity, Egypt and its millennia of history was an alluring beacon of ancient knowledge and lore. Starting from the 4th Century BC Egypt was taken and Hellenised by Alexander the great. The Greeks not only brought their own set of beliefs but also their own literature and alphabet with new phonemes for a fresh blend of mystical and magical formulae. 

The Greek magical papyri found at Thebes in the 19th century are an incredible insight into aspects of religion from the 2nd Century BC to the 5th Century AD. Providing multi-lingual rituals and formulae they list out numerous spells and chants. It seems they were kept secret because of increasing pressure from the authorities to stamp out ‘magic’ or unacceptable religious practices. 

Page Break 

Three Epochs of Roman Religion 

Timeline >1500 years! Religious influences Population of Rome city Understanding of Time and the Universe Public Personal 
10th Century BC 
8th C BC 
2nd C BC 
1st C BC 
1st C AD 
2nd C AD
 3rd C AD 
4th C AD 
5th Century AD Western Empire falls 
Indo-European Italic Hellenic Egyptian Judaic Sun-God/Apollo Mithraism Christianity Christian rule @ Constantinople -100s of ppl, few thousands -hundreds of thousands -500k-1M -Reaches 1.2M -Decreasing population as focus moves East and the western Empire weakens 30-100k inhabitants -Moon and seasons. -Early Sundials -The priesthood manages the calendar and public feasts. -Egyptian influence brought understanding of the stars, god-planets and motion of the heavens. -Early Kings of Rome link to divine powers. -Augustus reforms and funds public religion. Fights magic practice. -Emperors are living divinities -Christianity clears away pagan references – Firm belief in afterlife and cult of deceased ancestors (Lares) – Illiterate but openly assimilate magic cults and divinities from abroad. – Astrology, fortune telling, magic and superstition continue to be part of everyday culture but driven underground. 

The table above is in no way precise, but intended to give a sense of the timeline and scale of the factors at play when we discuss Ancient Roman Religion. 

For ease we can split the development of Roman religion into 3 phases: Early, Middle, Late. 

  • In the early period a strong shaping force lay with the Kings of Rome, for a small but expanding population and the earliest assimilation of new divinities on top of ancestral Italic beliefs. 
  • The Middle period is perhaps characterised by Caesar/Augustus’s expansion to Egypt, eastern influence and first political actions against mystical and magical practices which were not politically approved. 
  • The late period is one of maturity and gradual collapse of the traditional power base which is gradually taken over by monotheism. Christianity fights for power with other sun-god/Apollo cults like Mithraism. It eventually sweeps away the pagan past and builds a new set of beliefs and values on top of it. 

Roman Religion reflected in its lore, language and architecture 

Our religion(s) are often reflected in the general culture and architecture of our cities and homes – the constructed environment around us. The attitudes and beliefs of those three epochs of Roman religion are still evident today. For example: 

  • One of the earliest gods of Rome was Janus – deity of boundaries and doors. January is named after him. 
  • The “lapis niger” in the forum was said to be a remnant of antiquity even by the Romans. Possibly an altar used by the Rex Sacrorum 
  • Arches feature prominently throughout roman Architecture 
  • The high priest, now the Pope, was called the “Pontifex Maximus” – master builder of bridges (presumably between divine powers and earthly population) 
  • Triumphal Arches somehow embody the earliest arch the Tigillum Sororium – a symbol by which troops returning from war would pass under the yoke and shed their sins before re-taking their place as citizens. 
  • Triumphal arches hence formed part of the military triumphs back up to the Capitoline Hill and the temple of Capitoline Jupiter 
  • Triumphal arches were built into the basilicas – large public buildings which became the prototype for Christian churches. 
  • Built by Augustus over the site of the founder of Rome’s burial site – Romulus’ ascent to the heavens as the god Quirinus 
  • Turned into a unique cylindrical temple with astronomical connotations by his later successor Emperor Hadrian. 
  • Used as prototype for St. Peter’s basilica. 
Eleena Wills
Hi, I’m Eleena Wills. Being a writer and blogger, I strive to provide informative and valuable articles to people. With quality, constructive, and well-researched articles, one can make informed choices. I cover a wide range of topics, from home improvement to hair styling and automotive.
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