Roman religion,the religious beliefs and practices of the people of ancient Rome. The spirits were held in awe and were placated with offerings and prayers.
Origins and Development
The indigenous Italic religion, which was the nucleus of the religion of ancient Rome, was essentially animistic. It depended on the belief that forces or spirits, called numina (sing., numen), existed in natural objects and controlled human destiny.
In the beginning of the historical period, when Italy was dotted with small agricultural communities, the family and the household were the basic religious units. Everything vital to the continuance of human life had its numen and appropriate rite. For the perpetuity of the family, the Italian farmer made offerings to the geniusgenius,
in Roman religion, guardian spirit of a man, a family, or a state. In some instances, a place, a city, or an institution had its genius. As the guardian spirit of an individual, the genius (corresponding to the Greek demon) was largely the force of one's natural desires.
..... Click the link for more information. of the family. For the safety of the household he worshiped VestaVesta,
in Roman religion and mythology, hearth goddess. She was highly honored in every household from early times to the beginning of Christianity. Her public cult maintained a sacred building in which her priestesses, the vestal virgins, tended the communal hearth and fire,
..... Click the link for more information. , the guardian spirit of the hearth fire; the lareslares
, in Roman religion, guardian spirits. According to some they were ghosts of the dead, destructive spirits who frequented crossroads and had to be propitiated. Others say that the lares were farm deities, worshiped as fertility powers of the earth.
..... Click the link for more information. and penatespenates
, in Roman religion, household gods, primarily guardians of the storeroom. Theirs was the chief cult of every Roman household, especially in early times. They were worshiped in connection with the lares and, as guardians of the hearth, with Vesta.
..... Click the link for more information. , guardians of the house; and JanusJanus
, in Roman religion, god of beginnings. He was one of the principal Roman gods, the custodian of the universe. The first hour of the day, the first day of the month, the first month of the year (which bears his name) were sacred to him.
..... Click the link for more information. , guardian of the door. To protect the boundaries of his property he honored TerminusTerminus
, in ancient Rome, both the boundary markers between properties and the name of the god who watched over boundaries. Property lines were of great importance, particularly to farmers, and boundary stones were laid in a solemn ceremony.
..... Click the link for more information. . To insure an abundant harvest he held various festivals throughout the year. To placate the spirits of the dead he made offerings to the lemureslemures
, in Roman religion, vampirelike ghosts of the dead; also called larvae. To exorcise these malevolent spirits from the home, the Romans held rites, the Lemuria (May 9, 11, 13).
..... Click the link for more information. , to the manesmanes
, in Roman religion, spirits of the dead. Originally, they were called di manes, a collective divinity of the dead. Manes could also refer to the realm of the dead and, later, to the individual souls of the dead.
..... Click the link for more information. , and to the deities of the underworld. In performing these religious ceremonies the head of the family acted as the priest and was assisted by his sons and daughters.
When these families coalesced into tribes and then a state, the family cult and ritual formed the basis of the state cult and ritual. Vesta had a community hearth, the penates a community storeroom, Janus a holy door in the Forum. Rome, which was theoretically one family, was ruled by its king, who as such was head of the family and chief priest. The king was assisted in his duties by his "sons and daughters," the colleges of priests and priestesses. They elaborated and recorded the rituals necessary for the propitiation of the gods and regulated the state ceremonies and the ceremonial calendar. The official clergy included the pontifex maximuspontifex maximus
, highest priest of Roman religion and official head of the college of pontifices. As the chief administrator of religious affairs he regulated the conduct of religious ceremonies, consecrated temples and other holy places, and controlled the calendar.
..... Click the link for more information. , the rex sacrorum [king of the sacred rites], the pontifices, the flamens (see flamenflamen
, in Roman religion, one of 15 priests, each concerned with the cult of a particular deity. The most honored were those dedicated to Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus.
..... Click the link for more information. ), and the vestal virgins.
Influence of Greek and Middle Eastern Culture
In the earliest period of Roman state religion, JupiterJupiter,
in Roman religion and mythology, the supreme god, also called Jove. Originally a sky deity associated with rain and agriculture, he developed into the great father god, prime protector of the state, concerned, like the Greek Zeus (with whom he is identified), with all
..... Click the link for more information. , MarsMars,
in Roman religion and mythology, god of war. In early Roman times he was a god of agriculture, but in later religion (when he was identified with the Greek Ares) he was primarily associated with war.
..... Click the link for more information. , and QuirinusQuirinus
, in Roman religion, an early god, possibly of war. Worshiped originally by the Sabines, he was one of the chief gods of ancient Rome, associated with Jupiter and Mars. In the late republic he was identified with Romulus, legendary founder of Rome.
..... Click the link for more information. were the supreme triad. The Romans, however, tolerant of new gods and religions (provided that no harm was done to the state as such), adopted many foreign gods. Under the influence of the Etruscans and other Italic communities, new gods began to appear about the 7th cent. B.C. A wider and much more significant influence, however, was that of the Greek and Middle Eastern cults from about the 3d cent. B.C. Old Roman deities were equated with the Greek gods and accordingly endowed with their attributes and myths. Such important cults as the worship of DionysusDionysus
, in Greek religion and mythology, god of fertility and wine. Legends concerning him are profuse and contradictory. However, he was one of the most important gods of the Greeks and was associated with various religious cults. He was probably in origin a Thracian deity.
..... Click the link for more information. and ApolloApollo
, in Greek religion and mythology, one of the most important Olympian gods, concerned especially with prophecy, medicine, music and poetry, archery, and various bucolic arts, particularly the care of flocks and herds.
..... Click the link for more information. were brought to Rome. Greek philosophy, particularly that of the Epicureans (see EpicurusEpicurus
, 341–270 B.C., Greek philosopher, b. Samos; son of an Athenian colonist. He claimed to be self-taught, although tradition states that he was schooled in the systems of Plato and Democritus by his father and various philosophers.
..... Click the link for more information. ) and the Stoics (see StoicismStoicism
, school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (in Cyprus) c.300 B.C. The first Stoics were so called because they met in the Stoa Poecile [Gr.,=painted porch], at Athens, a colonnade near the Agora, to hear their master Zeno lecture.
..... Click the link for more information. ), began to influence Roman religious thought.
In the last two centuries of the republic—when the old basis of Roman religion had lost much of its importance, and when the state had grown so massive and distant that its ceremonies failed to satisfy the populace—religious feeling rapidly degenerated. The people, needing a new and emotionally more satisfying religion, turned toward the religious mysteries and the Middle Eastern cults. The most prominent were those of the Great Mother (see CybeleCybele
, in ancient Asian religion, the Great Mother Goddess. The chief centers of her early worship were Phrygia and Lydia. In the 5th cent. B.C. her cult was introduced into Greece, where she was associated with Demeter and Rhea.
..... Click the link for more information. ), IsisIsis
, nature goddess whose worship, originating in ancient Egypt, gradually extended throughout the lands of the Mediterranean world during the Hellenistic period and became one of the chief religions of the Roman Empire.
..... Click the link for more information. and OsirisOsiris
, in Egyptian religion, legendary ruler of predynastic Egypt and god of the underworld. He was the son of the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb. The great benefactor of mankind, Osiris brought to the people knowledge of agriculture and civilization.
..... Click the link for more information. , SolSol
, in Roman religion, sun god. An ancient god of Mesopotamian origin, he was introduced (c.220) into Roman religion as Sol Invictus by emperor Heliogabalus. His worship remained an important cult of Rome until the rise of Christianity.
..... Click the link for more information. , and MithraMithra
, ancient god of Persia and India (where he was called Mitra). Until the 6th cent. B.C., Mithra was apparently a minor figure in the Zoroastrian system. Under the Achaemenids, Mithra became increasingly important, until he appeared in the 5th cent. B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. . Old Roman worship had been controlled, impersonal, and concerned with matters of the everyday world. The new cults, which centered around the individual, promised personal salvation and blessed afterlife. It was in this religious air that Christianity took root and eventually triumphed.
See W. R. Halliday, Lectures on the History of Roman Religion (1922); F. Altheim, A History of Roman Religion (1938); H. J. Rose, Ancient Roman Religion (1959).