Normally, when I talk about religion on this blog (a favorite topic of mine), I usually talk about Japanese/Korean religion, with Buddhism in particular. But since I also study Latin a little bit as a hobby, I also got curious about Roman religion as well, so this blog post was intended to be an exploration of pre-Christian Roman religion. Christianity is a well-known subject, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity is a fascinating, but well-known subject already. The earlier pre-Christian religion isn’t as well-known so this post will help people learn more.
I found a really good website on the subject recently. Normally, people assume that the Romans just borrowed Greek religion, and that’s it. But as the article shows, this is only partially true. The Romans had a different approach to religion than the Greeks, and they expressed it somewhat differently, even if the gods were similar.
While reading a few sources on ancient Roman religion, I got the impression that it vaguely resembled Japanese Shinto or Chinese Taoism/Folk religion, but we’ll explore that a little later. First, let’s look at who the Roman gods were.
The Early Pantheon
During the days of the Roman Republic, Roman religion had a trinity of three gods: Jupiter the king and god of thunder, Mars the god of war and agriculture, and Quirinus who was also a god of war and the god of the Roman state. Jupiter has some resemblance to the Greek god Zeus, and Mars vaguely resembles Greek Ares, but they are not entirely the same. Quirinus has no resemblance to any Greek gods, and also gradually became less and less important.
In the early religion, the priests were called pontifex, and the most important priest was the pontifex maximus. Some high-ranking pontifexes were assigned to specific gods or goddesses and were called flamen. There were 15 flamen, and if one died, a different pontifex took his place. The flamen assigned to Jupiter was the most important. But Roman religion also had priestesses too. The priestesses, called Vestalis (vestigial virgins) were devoted to Vesta in particular, but Vesta was very important because she was the goddess of the hearth. Every Roman household venerated Vesta because they could not eat without a hearth and a fire. So the vestalis had strong influence in society, but had the obligation to be celibate most of their lives. Vestigial virgins were also found in ancient Japan at the Kamo Shrine, but were always daughters of the Emperor.
The trinity mentioned above also changed over time. When the Romans defeated the older Etruscans, they adopted Etruscan religion and the new trinity became Jupiter, Juno his wife who was a goddess of woman and protector, and Minerva his daughter who was the goddess of wisdom, culture, technology, etc.
The Later Pantheon
As the Roman Empire spread, it adopted more and more cultures, these became a part of Roman religion. The Egyptian deities, especially Isis, became popular especially on a personal level for example. Another example is Cybele, who is a goddess from Phrygia and a protector. The traditional Roman gods, especially Jupiter, were still the official state religion, but in home shrines and such, people favored other, more practical gods.
Also, some people, especially the military, took an interest in a new religion called Mithraism, which might have come from Persian culture, but developed in new, Roman ways. Unlike the other gods, Mithraism was a fairly structured religion on its own, and had priests, rites, ethics, etc.
Since newly conquered areas often became citizens of the Roman Empire, their traditions could spread more easily than before, and Roman religion became very mixed at this time.
Roman State Religion
Romans strongly believed in the importance of ritual in maintaining peace, strength and prosperity of the state. This meant that there were set holidays and rites each year to the gods and goddesses to help maintain order in society. Jupiter was always the head of the Roman state until the Christian era, and his temple in Rome on the Capitoline Hill was the most important in the entire empire.
Other rituals existed too. For example, when a victorious Roman general returned from battle, a special Roman religious ceremony called triumphus was held to give thanks to Jupiter. The ceremony was very solemn, and only given to a general who achieved a great victory, but that general would spend the day almost as a king or god. Also, when declaring war, the Roman priests prayed to Jupiter for protection and victory as well.
But Roman state religion was not just focused on war. Most state temples, or templum in Latin, were focused on maintaining good relations with the original Roman deities. If the priests carried out the rites correctly and on the correct dates, the god or goddess would be pleased and Rome would prosper, but if they didn’t, society would suffer punishment instead. This also meant that Roman religion had many holidays and festivals, and some lasted days. For example, a major festival in Roman culture was Lupercalia which was a kind of “spring-cleaning” in Roman culture mean to drive away evil spirits. The assigned flamen would initiate a sacrifice followed by a feast, then two young men who were anointed would run around the city and whip people to purify them.
This concept of devotion and consistent loyalty to the Roman gods was called pietas (compare with English “piety”) and the Romans were often proud of this, and believed it helped their Empire grow. They sometimes compared themselves to the Greeks who sometimes held a more cynical view of their own gods.
On the other hand, Roman religion tried to avoid superstitio (English “superstition”) or excessive emotion or devotion, so religious expression, especially in public rituals, was supposed to be both pious and stoic. This was a very Roman trait.
Roman Personal Religion
State religion and personal religion in Rome were not quite the same. Every home in Roman society had a personal shrine called a lararium usually devoted to the family’s lar or protector spirit. Usually the head of the household (pater familias) would make daily offerings to the lar, but the wife was in charge of making offerings to the goddess Vesta, and to the penates who were other household spirits. For example, during a meal, the mother might throw a bit of food into the fire as a way to offer thanks for the meal. Other personal gods such as Isis or Sybele would also be in the shrine. The shrine would be devoted to the lar first, but also have statues and figures for the penates and other gods/goddesses.
Romans also paid respects to their ancestors as well, usually making offerings, keeping their image in the lararium shrine mentioned above. The offerings might be food, incense or even coins.
Lastly, another popular figure of devotion was the genius. The genius is a more vague figure, but symbolized divine power found in many things. It is vaguely analogous to the idea of kami in Shinto religion.
Roman religion was based on two important principles: it was practical and dealt with daily or political issues, and it was based on maintaining order and prosperity through religious observance. It was highly eclectic because of the nature of the Empire, but was generally proscribed superstitious elements as much as possible.
I believe these principles of devotion, order and ritual bear some vague resemblance to Japanese Shinto and Chinese folk-religion/Taoism. Similar to Shinto and Chinese religion, there is a cosmic order to the gods and goddess, each with an assigned role, and a practical function for society and family. Ancestor veneration was also a key element.
Many of these elements are probably found in other ancient (or modern) religions in the world, and I think this speaks to Human consciousness and subtle forces that help define religion and culture.
P.S. Kind of a slow week this week due to Thanksgiving. Regular schedule resumes next week.