Appendix RELIGIOUSLY, who were the Romans?

By Louise Budde

Religious rituals permeated every level of Roman society in Republican times. From the cradle to the grave, the many different rituals, offerings, vows and festivals played a major part. Honouring and humouring the deities by using the correct ritual, the accurate prayer, the appropriate offering and attending the many festivals was imperative. With their constant expansion of territory, foreign deities were introduced into their religion. All levels of society, from the common person to senators in government based many of their decisions on religious practices and prophecies performed by augurs and haruspices.

Rome in republican times (509-27BCE) had grown from an Etruscan ruled city-state to being an independent city, gradually occupying the areas of middle and southern Italy, called Magna Graecia. This part of Italy was heavily influenced by Greece and its cultural, architectural and religious traditions. When Rome was expanding its influence over the region at the beginning of the sixth century BCE, Etruscan and Greek religious traditions and practices were being mixed in with existing local religious traditions. In the next four centuries, foreign cults and their deities, rituals and stories were included in the scope of the Roman religious culture. From this perspective, Roman religion can be considered a melting pot of rituals and mythological stories, and a mixture of deities. But the Romans also developed their own Gods. Georges Dumèzil describes how Varro (116-27 BCE), a Roman scholar and writer, listed a large number of Roman deities who governed every action from childbirth, through to the education of a person, or guide the bride and bridegroom on their wedding night. They are not well known, and are sometimes connected to a major Goddess like Juno.  Daily life of the common Roman man and woman was filled with the task of honouring the many household Gods, known as the Penates and Lares, and with the active devotion to their ancestors, either subconsciously or deliberately through rituals. Through ancestor worship, their forebears lived on.

For the Romans, religion was not based on expected salvation or on faith, nor was it concerned with morality and ethical conduct.  Orthopraxy, the knowledge of using and applying the correct ritual to appease the deities, was the most important element in Roman practice of religious activities.  And if the desired outcome was not achieved, or misfortune happened, it was not the Gods who were to blame but the way in which a sacrifice, offering or ritual was performed. The Romans used religion to attempt to influence the future course of events by offerings and rituals.  This was one of the main interactions between humans and their Gods. They hoped, and even expected that their Gods would support them, approve of an anticipated action, or would grant them their wish. In return they would thank the Gods for their cooperation, for the favourable outcome of the action or for the granting of the wish. This cycle of interaction is called Do-Ut-Des (I give that you might give), a contract between a God and the mortals to fulfil an obligation and/or show gratitude. Appeasing the Gods and Goddesses so that there would be prosperity in harvest or protection in battle became an important act, as long as men had fulfilled their part of the bargain with sacrifices, offerings and prayers. Sacrifices were made and gifts were given to celebrate a special occasion or to honour the Gods. These rituals were extremely important as this was how the people “maintained their peace with the Gods”, their pax deorum.

Through rituals the peace with their Gods was maintained. These symbolic actions could take the form of touching or decorating a statue, praying or singing; the offering of gifts like oil, plants, jewellery; or by placing a garland over the hearth, or the offering of food like Daps , a sort porridge, or sharing part of a meal, where the best part of the meat was not given to the Gods, but given to the priests or eaten by the worshippers.  These uncomplicated rituals were performed within the household in the broadest sense of the word, meaning that not only the close family, but also slaves and freemen were considered part of the household. Rituals of offerings for a prosperous yield and healthy cattle were mainly performed in rural areas. Some of these offerings were described by Cato the Elder in Di Agri Cultura.  For the first ploughing a small cup of wine and food was offered to Jupiter accompanied by a prayer; or for a successful harvest a procession of “a bull calf, ram lamb and boar pig”  was held around the boundaries of the fields.

Festivals, with their dramatic performances, were regularly part of the Roman scene. According to Ernest Brehaut, Cato wrote that there were “over 120 festival days on which secular work was greatly limited.”  Ovid’s Fasti listed forty eight main festival dates. The discrepancy lies in the fact that some festivals could last several days. One can conclude that this large number of days where no work, or hardly any work, was performed would have greatly affected the productivity. On some festival days, however, only certain activities were forbidden, or activities were still allowed for part of the day. Jörg Rüpke explains some festivals were large public events, while other festivals involved only a couple of priests.  Festivals could be linked, such as the Equus (horse) October for the God Mars with two April festivals, Forcdicidia and Parilia. At Equus the blood of a specific horse was collected and kept, which was then used for the Fordicidia Festival on 15 April, where the blood of the horse was mixed with the ashes of burnt cow foetuses. This concoction was used on the Parilia festival on 21 April, the birth date of Rome. The Parilia was a purification festival for the God Pales where one of the main activities was jumping through a fire, symbolising purification. Scholars are divided on the meaning of the combining of the results of two festivals to create a third one and the use of blood and ashes. Dumèzil connected the festival with the Vedic festival of Asvamedha, while Bennett Pascall dismantled this argument and connected the combination of blood and ashes and smoke of fire with protection and recharging of the numen, spirits, in everyone and everything that came into contact with this substance.  The complexity of the Equus, Fordicidia and Parilia festivals, and the large number of larger and smaller festivals indicate that these events were an important part in Roman religious life.

Vows were another significant part of the Romans’ religion. Vows were promises made to the Gods that if the request was acted upon, an offering would be made. Vows could be inverted to become a devotio, as told in the story of Decius Mus, a Roman consul in battle around 340 BCE. The battle seemed to be lost, and Decius changed the vow. By making the vow a sacrificial devotio and killing himself on the spears of the enemy, he became the sacrifice. Thus the Gods were appeased as the vow of sacrifice was fulfilled.  The battle was lost but the honour was saved, and the will of the Gods was adhered to. Vows could also be made to entice a foreign enemy’s deity to no longer protect the city or area under attack. In return, the Romans promised to build a temple to its honour. Bargaining with the enemy’s deity resulted in this new deity being incorporated in Roman religion upon victory.

Foreign Gods had been introduced into the existing realm of the Roman pantheon. The God Aesculapius (Greek God of healing Asclepius, son of Apollo) was introduced in 290 BCE from the Greek town of Epidaurus.  The Goddess Cybele, Mater Magna, ‘the great Mother of the Gods’ was brought from the Phrygian Mt Ida in 205 BCE  on advice of the Sibylline Books. All these cults created a specific Roman polytheism, where multi-culturalism in religion made for an interesting mix of deities. Polytheism in Rome was different from polytheism in Greece. Rüpke explains that, contrary to Greece, there was no clear hierarchy within the Roman deities; most of the main deities were all on an equal footing. The development of the deities’ system was connected with the social evolution in the Republic of Rome. In the beginning of the Republic a large number of smaller aristocratic and social groups merged to form the State of Rome, each with their own deities, temples and religious rituals which were incorporated in the overall Roman religious scene of the pantheon.  Within this structure it was thus not unusual to import foreign deities, or for conquered areas to see their own Gods/Goddesses being incorporated in the Roman religious structure.

In Rome, not many actions in private life as well as in government circles were undertaken without consulting and interpreting the auspices first, Cicero wrote.  It was the task of the augurs to observe and interpret the flight of particular species of birds, and predict whether the question or the mission to be undertaken would be successful, or should be undertaken at all. As well as birds, weather elements like lightning and thunder were also used for these predictions. The Etruscan haruspices were specialised in the reading of a sacrificed animal’s entrails, of which especially the liver was used. Both augurs and haruspices advised the Roman Senate on the interpretations of signs. The ultimate decision however was with the Senate.  Cicero calls the auspices and the reading of the exta, Divinatione. He asks himself if the Gods are really needed for these activities, and if the Gods would indeed have any power in the outcome.  The imagination and the political sway of the augur or the haruspex, performing the interpretation, could have influenced the decision of the Senate or the enquirer. Cicero concludes that Divinatione was a “superstition which ‘should be torn up by the roots’.”  Nevertheless augurs and haruspices played a very important part in Roman society and government and its decision making process.

In conclusion, in the daily routine of life, the Romans in Republican times honoured their many Gods and Goddesses with the correct rituals, offerings and prayers. From within the home to public life, from the battle field to the Governing bodies, the Roman Gods and Goddesses were the recipients of vows and devotions, the list of these deities expanding with each further conquest. By appeasing their deities the people hoped, and expected that life would be prosperous, harvests would be plentiful, and battles would be won. For major decisions, all levels of society would endeavour to read the will of the Gods by engaging specialists to interpret the auspices or the elements, or read the entrails of sacrificed animals, opening up the possibility for manipulation and corruption. Although this complex system of numerous Roman deities and their intricate dealings would have complicated the daily lives of the Roman citizens, it was fundamental to their religion and culture.



•               Ando, Clifford: The Matter of the Gods, Religion and the Roman Empire, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008

•               Beard, Mary: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146–43 b.c., Editors: J. A. Crook, Andew Lintott, Elizabeth Rawson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992

•               Bennett Pascal, C: “October Horse”, in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Volume 85, Dept of the Classics, Harvard University, 1981

•               Brehaut, Ernest: Cato, Marcus Porcius, Columbia University Press, Columbia, 1933

•               Cicero, Marcus Tullius: De Senectute, De Amicitia, De Divinatione, Translated by William Armistead Falconer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1923 (1959)

•               Davies, Jason P.: Rome’s Religious History: Livy, Tacitus and Ammianus on their Gods, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.

•               Dowden, Ken: “Prometheus” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Editors Simon Hornblower, Anthony Spawforth, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009 [ views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t111.e5363 viewed: 12 April 2012]

•               Dumèzil Georges: Archaic Roman Religion, translated by Philip Krapp, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1966

•               Grant, Michael: Roman Myths, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1971

•               North, J.A.: “The Rise of Rome to 220 B.C.”, in The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 7, Cambridge History Online, Cambridge, 1989

•               Rüpke, Jörg: Religion of the Romans, Translated and edited by Richard Gordon, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)