Religion in ancient Rome
Religion in Roman histories. Frameworks of religion. Roman deities and theology. Women and religion. Cult and ritual. Vows, prayers, invocations. Sacrifice, omens and prodigies. Funerals and the afterlife. Participation in traditional religious rituals.
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Religion in ancient Rome
Religion in ancient Rome encompassed the religious beliefs and cult practices regarded by the Romans as indigenous and central to their identity as a people, as well as the various and many cults imported from other peoples brought under Roman rule. Romans thus offered cult to innumerable deities who influenced every aspect of both the natural world and human affairs. The establishment of these cults was credited to Rome's divine ancestors, founders, and kings, and to conquered nations and allies. Their temples provided the most visible and sacred manifestations of Rome's history and institutions.
Participation in traditional religious rituals was considered a practical and moral necessity in personal, domestic and public life. Romans could offer cult to any deity or any combination of deities, as long as it did not offend the "custom of the ancestors," that is, Roman tradition. Good relations between mortals and the divine were maintained by piety; this meant the correct offering of ritual and divine honours, especially in the form of sacrifice. In return, the gods were likely to benefit their worshipers. Impieties such as religious negligence, superstition and self-indulgence could provoke divine wrath against the State.
religion ritual roman cult
Religion in Roman histories
Rome was founded by descendants of Aeneas, Romulus and his twin brother Remus, divinely fathered by Mars or Hercules on a virgin princess or priestess of Vesta, exposed to die but saved by a series of miraculous interventions. They were eventually restored to their royal birthright but decided to found a new city for themselves and their followers. When they could not agree on its site, they used augury to seek the opinion of the gods. Romulus was sent the most favourable signs, established a city on the Capitoline Hill and created its sacred boundary; Remus insulted the new city and was killed. Romulus named the new city "Rome" after himself, appointed its first senate and organised its armies. Faced with a shortage of marriageable young women, he invented a religious festival, the Consualia, invited the neighbouring Sabines then kidnapped their daughters. In gratitude for his success in war he founded Rome's first temple to Jupiter Feretrius and offered him the spoils in the first Roman triumph. Romulus became increasingly autocratic, mysteriously disappeared and was deified.
Rome's history was represented as a coherent and sacred continuity, imperiled by religious negligence and personal ambition. According to Cicero, the Romans considered themselves the most religious of all peoples; and their extraordinary success proved it.
Frameworks of Roman religion
"Care for the gods, the very meaning of religio, had therefore to go through life, and one might thus understand why Cicero wrote that religion was "necessary". Religious behavior - pietas in Latin, eusebeia in Greek - belonged to action and not to contemplation. Consequently religious acts took place wherever the faithful were: in houses, boroughs, associations, cities, military camps, cemeteries, in the country, on boats. 'When pious travelers happen to pass by a sacred grove or a cult place on their way, they are used to make a vow, or a fruit offering, or to sit down for a while'.
Roman religion was an everyday and vital affair. Religious law centered on the ritualised system of honours and sacrifice that brought divine blessings, according to the principle do ut - "I give, that you might give". Proper, respectful religio brought social harmony and prosperity. Religious neglect was a form of atheism: impure sacrifice and incorrect ritual were impious errors. Excessive devotion, fearful grovelling to deities and the improper use or seeking of divine knowledge were superstitio. Any of these moral deviations could cause divine anger and therefore harm the State. The official deities of the state were identified with its lawful offices and institutions, and Romans of every class were expected to honour the beneficence and protection of mortal and divine superiors. Participation in public rites showed a personal commitment to their community and its values.
Roman theology acknowledged that immortal gods ruled all realms of the heavens and earth. There were gods of the upper heavens, gods of the underworld and a myriad of lesser deities between. Some evidently favoured Rome because Rome honoured them, but none were intrinsically, irredeemably foreign or alien. The political, cultural and religious coherence of an emergent Roman super-state required a broad, inclusive and flexible network of lawful cults. At different times and in different places, the spheres, characters and functions of divine beings could expand, overlap, and be redefined as Roman. Change was carefully embedded within existing traditions. Rome offered no native creation myth, and little mythography to explain the character of its deities, their mutual relationships or their interactions with the human world.
On a daily basis, the impressive, costly and centralised rites to the deities of the Roman state were vastly outnumbered by commonplace cults to domestic and personal deities, the patron divinities of Rome's non-elite communities and the often idiosyncratic blends of official, unofficial, local and personal cults that characterised lawful Roman religion. Thus, a provincial Roman citizen made the long journey from Bordeaux to Italy to consult the Sibyl at Tibur, but devoted his vows and prayers to his own goddess:
I wander, never ceasing to pass through the whole world, but I am ?rst and foremost a faithful worshiper of Onuava. I am at the ends of the earth, but the distance cannot tempt me to make my vows to another goddess. Love of the truth brought me to Tibur, but Onuava's favorable powers came with me. Thus, divine mother, far from my home-land, exiled in Italy, I address my vows and prayers to you no less.
Women and Roman religion
Roman "custom of the ancestors" restricted the social, political and religious capacities of Roman women. The few Roman literary sources to address the subject of women in relation to religio represent some as paragons of Roman virtue but more often as constitutionally prone to self-indulgent religious enthusiasms, novelties and the seductions. Bona Dea's festival rites excluded men entirely; this seems to have been cause for prurient male speculation, and a scandalous, impious intrusion by Publius Clodius Pulcher. Most cults did not forbid the presence of women. Some specifically required it, but their active participation was limited. In almost all public cult, priesthood was a male preserve; family cults were headed by the paterfamilias.
Cult and ritual. Vows, prayers and invocations
Family meals, rites of passage, crops and livestock were ritually purified by vows, prayers, and sacrifices to deities of household, fields and family. The divine agencies who caused disease might be placated with the appropriate rituals. The inconvenient delays of a journey, or the more fraught encounters of banditry, piracy and wreck might be averted by prayers for divine protection before setting out; due gratitude should be rendered on safe arrival. In times of great crisis, the senate could decree collective public worship, in which Rome's citizens - men, women and children - processed from one temple to the next, to supplicate the gods for their help.
Roman commanders offered vows to be fulfilled after success in battle or siege; and further vows to expiate their failures. Camillus promised Veii's goddess Juno a temple in Rome as incentive for her desertion, conquered the city in her name, brought her cult statue to Rome "with miraculous ease" and dedicated a temple to her on the Aventine Hill.
Unless they were correctly addressed, the gods could not know whose favour was sought, what was being asked or who was supposed to receive the sought-after benefits. Public prayers were offered loudly and clearly by a priest on behalf of the community. A similar declamatory, persuasive style was recommended for actors, petitioners and lawyers in court; the difference in priestly address lies in its repetition and reiteration - as if to avoid any divine doubt as to its purpose and terms - and its use of archaic and obscure language and gestures. Public religious ritual was enacted by specialists and professionals, as a sacred drama whose true meaning might be apparent only to the gods. Private prayers might have been produced in a more intimate, informal atmosphere, but surviving private liturgies are just as cautious and formulaic. Sacrifice without prayer was "thought to be useless and not a proper consultation of the gods".
Sacrifice reinforced the powers and attributes of divine beings, and inclined them to render benefits in return. Offerings were varied according to need and occasion. For example, Lares could be offered spelt wheat and grain-garlands, grapes and first fruits in due season, honey cakes and honeycombs, wine and incense, food that fell to the floor during any family meal, or at their Compitalia festival, honey-cakes and a pig on behalf of the community. Their supposed underworld relatives, the malicious and vagrant Lemures, might be placated with midnight offerings of black beans and spring water.
The most potent offering was animal sacrifice, typically of domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep and pigs. Each was the best possible of its kind, cleansed, clad in sacrificial regalia and garlanded; the horns of oxen might be gilded. Sacrifice sought the harmonisation of the earthly and divine, so the victim must seem willing to offer its own life on behalf of the community; it must remain calm and be quickly and cleanly despatched.
Sacrifice to deities of the heavens was performed in daylight, and were performed under the public gaze. Deities of the upper heavens required white, infertile victims of their own sex - Juno a white cow: Jupiter a white, castrated ox for the annual consular oath-taking. After the sacrifice, a banquet was held; in state cults, the images of honoured deities took pride of place on banqueting couches and consumed their own portion of the sacrifice (the innards) through the sacrificial fire. Rome's officials and priests reclined in order of precedence alongside and ate the meat; lesser citizens probably had to provide their own.
Underworld (chthonic) gods such as Dis pater and the collective shades of the departed were given dark, fertile victims in nighttime rituals; there was no shared banquet, as "the living cannot share a meal with the dead". Ceres and other underworld goddesses of fruitfulness were sometimes offered pregnant female animals; Tellus was given a pregnant cow at the Fordicidia festival. In general, connections of kind are apparent in sacrifice. Demigods and heroes, who belonged to the heavens and the underworld, were sometimes given black-and-white victims. Robigus was given red dogs and libations of red wine at the Robigalia for the protection of crops from blight and red mildew.
Human sacrifice was officially obnoxious "to the laws of gods and men". Rome banned it on several occasions, under extreme penalty; notably in 81 BC.
Omens and prodigies
Omens observed within or from a divine augural templum - especially the flight of birds - were sent by the gods in response to official queries. A magistrate with the right of augury could declare the suspension of all official business for the day if he deemed the omens unfavourable. Conversely, an apparently negative omen could be re-interpreted as positive, or deliberately blocked from sight.
Prodigies were transgressions in the natural, predictable order of the cosmos - signs of divine anger that portended conflict and misfortune. The Senate decided whether a reported prodigy was false, or genuine and in the public interest, in which case it was referred to the public priests, augurs and haruspices for ritual expiation. In 207 BC, during one of the Punic Wars' worst crises, the Senate dealt with an unprecedented number of confirmed prodigies whose expiation would have involved "at least twenty days" of dedicated rites.
The major prodigies included the spontaneous combustion of weapons, the apparent shrinking of the sun's disc, two moons in a sky, a cosmic battle between sun and moon, a rain of red-hot stones, a bloody sweat on statues, and blood in fountains and on ears of corn: all were expiated by sacrifice of "greater victims". The minor prodigies were less warlike but equally unnatural; sheep become goats, a hen become a cock (and vice-versa) - these were expiated with "lesser victims". The discovery of an androgynous four-year old child was expiated by its drowning and the holy procession of 27 virgins to the temple of Juno Regina, singing a hymn to avert disaster: a lightning strike during the hymn rehearsals required further expiation. Religious restitution is proved only by Rome's victory.
In the wider context of Graeco-Roman religious culture, Rome's earliest reported portents and prodigies stand out as atypically dire. Whereas for Romans, a comet presaged misfortune, for Greeks it might equally signal a divine or exceptionally fortunate birth. In the late Republic, a daytime comet at the murdered Julius Caesar's funeral games confirmed his deification; a discernable Greek influence on Roman interpretation.
Funerals and the afterlife
Roman treatment of the dead perpetuated their life-status. Ancient votive deposits to the noble dead of Latium and Rome suggest elaborate and costly funeral offerings and banquets in the company of the deceased, an expectation of afterlife and their association with the gods. As Roman society developed, its Republican nobility tended to invest less in spectacular funerals and extravagant housing for their dead, and more on monumental endowments to the community, such as the donation of a temple or public building whose donor was commemorated by his statue and inscribed name. Persons of low or negligible status might receive simple burial, with such grave goods as relatives could afford.
The standard Roman funerary inscription is Dis Manibus (to the Manes-gods). Regional variations include its Greek equivalent, theoоs katachthonнois and Lugdunum's commonplace but mysterious "dedicated under the trowel".
In the later Imperial era, the burial and commemorative practises of Christian and non-Christians overlapped. Tombs were shared by Christian and non-Christian family members, and the traditional funeral rites and feast of found a part-match in the Christian Consitutio Apostolica. The customary offers of wine and food to the dead continued; St feared that this invited the "drunken" practices of parentalia but commended funeral feasts as a Christian opportunity to give alms of food to the poor. Christians attended Parentalia, Feralia and Caristia in sufficient numbers for the Council of Tours to forbid them in AD 567. Other funerary and commemorative practices were very different. Traditional Roman practice spurned the corpse as a ritual pollution; inscriptions noted the day of birth and duration of life. The Christian Church fostered the veneration of saintly relics, and inscriptions marked the day of death as a transition to "new life".
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