Skip to main content

Roman Religion: The Imperial Period


The Roman state's extraordinary and unexpected transformation from one that had hegemony over the greater part of Italy into a world state in the second and first centuries bce had implications for Roman religion that are not easy to grasp. After all, Christianity, a religion wholly "foreign" in its origins, arose from this period of Roman ascendancy. To begin, then, to understand the religious system of imperial Rome, it is best to confine the discussion to some elementary and obviously related facts.

First, the old Roman practice of inviting the chief gods of their enemies to become gods of Rome (evocatio ) played little part in the new stage of imperialism. Evocatio played some role in Rome's conquests in the middle Republic, but the practice had been transformed. The last temple to be built in Rome to house a deity "evoked" from an enemy of Rome was that of Vortumnus (264 bce). A version of the ritual was probably used to "evoke" the Juno of Carthage in the 140s bce, but no temple was built to her in Rome. The extent of the transformation is shown by the fact that in 75 bce a Roman conqueror of Isaura Vetus (in Asia Minor) took a vow (in language reminiscent of the evocatio ), which seems to have resulted in the foundation of a new local cult of the patron deity of Isaura Vetus. The old procedures of evocatio are not found in the imperial period. Instead, the cults of Rome's subjects continued to form the basis for their local religious system.

Second, while it was conquering the Hellenistic world, Rome was involved in a massive absorption of Greek language, literature, and religion, with the consequence that the Roman gods became victorious over those of Greece while their old identification with Greek gods became more firmly established. Because the gods were expected to take sides and to favor their own worshipers, this could have created some problems. In fact, from the middle Republic onward, the Romans respected the gods of the Greeks. As early as 193 bce the Romans replied to the city of Teos (in Asia Minor) that they would "seek to improve both honors towards the god [Dionysos, the patron deity of Teos] and privileges towards you," on the grounds that Roman success was due to her well-known reverence towards the gods (Sherk, 1969, pp. 214216). In other words, the Romans accepted that the Greek god Dionysos was included among the gods that favored Rome. In consequence, the Greeks felt no pressure to modify their ancestral cults, and traditional Greek cults remained vibrant throughout the imperial period.

Third, the conquest of Africa, Spain, and Gaul produced the opposite phenomenon of a large, though by no means systematic, identification of Punic, Iberian, and Celtic gods with Roman gods. This, in turn, is connected with two opposite aspects of the Roman conquest of the West. On the one hand, the Romans had little sympathy and understanding for the religion of their Western subjects. Although occasionally guilty of human sacrifice, they found the various forms of human sacrifices that were practiced more frequently in Africa, Spain, and Gaul repugnant (hence their later efforts to eliminate the Druids in Gaul and in Britain). On the other hand, northern Africa (outside Egypt) and western Europe were deeply Latinized in language and Romanized in institutions, thereby creating the conditions for the assimilation of native gods to Roman gods.

Yet the Mars, the Mercurius, and even the Jupiter and the Diana seen so frequently in Gaul under the Romans are not exactly the same as in Rome. The individuality of the Celtic equivalent of Mercurius has already been neatly noted by Caesar (Gallic War 6.17). Some Roman gods, such as Janus and Quirinus, do not seem to have penetrated Gaul. Similarly, in Africa, Saturnus preserved much of the Baal Hammon with whom he was identified. There, Juno Caelestis (or simply Caelestis, destined to considerable veneration outside Africa) is Tanit (Tinnit), the female companion of Baal Hammon. The assimilation of the native god is often revealed by an accompanying adjective (in Gaul, for example, Mars Lenus and Mercurius Dumiatis). An analogous phenomenon had occurred in the East under the Hellenistic monarchies: native, especially Semitic, gods were assimilated to Greek gods, especially to Zeus and Apollo. The Eastern assimilation went on under Roman rule (as seen, for example, with Zeus Panamaros in Caria).

Roman soldiers, who became increasingly professional and lived among natives for long periods of time, played a part in these syncretic tendencies. A further consequence of imperialism was the emphasis on Victory and on certain gods of Greek origin (such as Herakles and Apollo) as gods of victory. Victoria was already recognized as a goddess during the Samnite Wars; she was later associated with various leaders, from Scipio Africanus to Sulla and Pompey. Roman emperors used an elaborate religious language in their discussions of Victory. Among Christians, Augustine of Hippo depicted Victory as God's angel (City of God 4.17).

These transformations are part of the changing relationship between the center (Rome) and the periphery (the Empire). By the early Empire, Italy fell wholly under the authority of Rome: in 22 ce the senate decided that "all rituals, temples, and images of the gods in Italian towns fall under Roman law and jurisdiction" (Tacitus, Annals 3.71). The provinces were different and not subject to Roman jurisdiction in the same way. However, Roman governors of the imperial period were required to watch over religious life in their province. They were concerned that religious life proceed in an orderly and acceptable manner, and the governors' official instructions included the order to preserve sacred places. They also ensured that the provincials took part in the annual performance on January 3 of the Roman ritual vows of allegiance to the emperor and the Empire.

Roman practices were celebrated in certain specific contexts throughout the Empire. Roman coloniae, settlements consisting of Roman citizens (ex-soldiers and landless poor from Rome), were established in the provinces in the late Republic and early Empire. Such settlements were privileged clones of Rome in a sea of mere subjects of Rome. Their public religious life had a strongly Roman cast, despite much variation from place to place. Many coloniae had their own Capitolium, priesthoods (pontifices and augures), and rituals based on those of Rome.

The Roman army also followed overtly Roman rules. Military camps had at their center a building that housed the legionary standards and imperial and divine images (sometimes including images of Romulus and Remus). The importance of the building is reflected in the fact that in 208 ce it is even called a Capitolium (Année épigraphique,1989, no. 581, from Aalen in Germany). From the early Empire all legionary soldiers (who were Roman citizens) and later all auxiliary soldiers (who were originally not Roman citizens) celebrated religious festivals modeled on those of Rome. They celebrated festivals on the Roman cycle (e.g. Vestalia or Neptunalia); they performed imperial vows to the Capitoline triad on January 3; and they celebrated imperial birthdays and other events.

Towns with the status of municipia (where local citizens had the so-called Latin right and some even full Roman citizenship) shared some of the Roman religious features of coloniae ; their principal priesthoods, for example, were named after and modeled on Roman institutionspontifices, augures, and haruspices. And from the second century ce onward, municipia in North Africa also began to build their own Capitolia. Overtly Roman practices served as part of the process of competitive emulation that marked civic life in many parts of the Empire. The original Caesarian regulations for the colonia of Urso in southern Spain, which constitute our fullest single document of this process, remained sufficiently important to Urso for them to be reinscribed a hundred years later, at a time when other Spanish communities had just received the (lesser) status of the Latin right (Crawford, 1996, pp. 393-454). Throughout the Empire, whatever the technical status of the community, there were publicly organized and celebrated religious rites. For example, the Greek city of Ephesus (Gr., Ephesos) proudly commemorated the fact that Artemis was born at Ephesus and voted to extend the period of her festival "since the god Artemis, patron of our city, is honored not only in her native city, which she has made more famous than all other cities through her own divinity, but also by Greeks and barbarians, so that everywhere sanctuaries and precincts are consecrated for her, temples are dedicated and altars set up for her, on account of her manifest epiphanies" (Die Inschriften von Ephesos no. 24, c. 163 ce). Individuals took part in such festivals and also sacrificed incense on small altars outside their houses when processions in honor of the Roman emperor passed by. This is not to say that piety towards the gods existed only in public contexts or indeed was constituted primarily through civic channels. Individuals formed private religious associations, either simply to worship a particular deity or to form a society that would ensure the proper burial of its members. They also made private prayers and vows to the appropriate god and set up votive offerings to the god in his or her sanctuary.

Imperial Attitudes Toward and Uses of Religion

Augustus and his contemporaries thought, or perhaps in some cases wanted other people to think, that the preceding age (roughly the period from the Gracchi to Caesar) had seen a decline in the ancient Roman care for gods. Augustus himself stated in the public record known as the Res gestae that he had restored eighty-two temples and shrines (in one year, 28 bce). He revived cults and religious associations, such as the Arval Brothers and the fraternity of the Titii, and appointed a flamen dialis, a priestly office that had been left vacant since 87 bce. This revivalist feeling was not entirely new: it was behind the enormous collection of evidence concerning ancient Roman cults, the "divine antiquities," that Varro had dedicated to Caesar about 47 bce in his Antiquitatum rerum humanarum et divinarum libri ; the rest of the work, the "human antiquities," was devoted to Roman political institutions and customs. Varro's work codified Roman religion for succeeding generations, and as such it was used for polemical purposes by Christian apologists.

The Romans also turned certain gods of Greek origin into gods of victory. As early as 145 bce, L. Mummius dedicated a temple to Hercules Victor after his triumph over Greece. After a victory, generals often offered 10 percent of their booty to Hercules, and Hercules Invictus was a favorite god of Pompey. Apollo was connected with Victory as early as 212 bce. Caesar boosted her ancestress Venus in the form of Venus Victrix. But it was Apollo who helped Octavian, the future Augustus, to win the Battle of Actium in September of 31 bce.

It is difficult to do justice both to the mood of the Augustan restoration and to the unquestionable seriousness with which the political and military leaders of the previous century tried to support their unusual adventures by unusual religious attitudes. Marius, a devotee of the Mater Magna (Cybele), was accompanied in his campaigns by a Syrian prophetess. Sulla apparently brought from Cappadocia the goddess Ma, soon identified with Bellona, whose orgiastic and prophetic cult had wide appeal. Furthermore, he developed a personal devotion to Venus and Fortuna and set an example for Caesar, who claimed Venus as the ancestress of the gens Julia. As pontifex maximus for twenty years, Caesar reformed not only individual cults but also the calendar, which had great religious significance. He tried to support his claim to dictatorial powers by collecting religious honors that, though obscure in detail and debated by modern scholars, anticipate later imperial cults.

Unusual religious attitudes were not confined to leaders. A Roman senator, Nigidius Figulus, made religious combinations of his own both in his writings and in his practice: magic, astrology, and Pythagoreanism were some of the ingredients. Cicero, above all, epitomized the search of educated men of the first century bce for the right balance between respect for the ancestral cults and the requirements of philosophy. Cicero could no longer believe in traditional divination. When his daughter died in 45 bce, he embarked briefly on a project for making her divine. This was no less typical of the age than the attempt by Clodius in 62 bce to desecrate the festival of Bona Dea, reserved for women, in order to contact Caesar's wife (he escaped punishment).

The imperial age inclined toward distinctions and compromises. The Roman pontifex maximus Q. Mucius Scaevola (early first century bce) is credited with the popularization of the distinction, originally Greek, between the gods of the poets as represented in myths, the gods of ordinary people to be found in cults and sacred laws, and finally the gods of the philosophers, confined to books and private discussion. It was the distinction underlying the thought of Varro and Cicero. No wonder, therefore, that in that atmosphere of civil wars and personal hatreds, cultic rules and practices were exploited ruthlessly to embarrass enemies, and no one could publicly challenge the ultimate validity of traditional practices.

The Augustan restoration discouraged philosophical speculation about the nature of the gods: Lucretius's De rerum natura remains characteristic of the age of Caesar. Augustan poets (Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid) evoked obsolescent rites and emphasized piety. Vergil interpreted the Roman past in religious terms. Nevertheless, the combined effect of the initiatives of Caesar and Augustus amounted to a new religious situation.

For centuries the aristocracy in Rome had controlled what was called ius sacrum (sacred law), the religious aspect of Roman life, but the association of priesthood with political magistracy, though frequent and obviously convenient, had never been institutionalized. In 27 bce the assumption by Octavian of the name Augustus implied, though not very clearly, permanent approval of the gods (augustus may connote a holder of permanent favorable auspices). In 12 bce Augustus assumed the position of pontifex maximus, which became permanently associated with the figure of the emperor (imperator ), the new head for life of the Roman state. Augustus's new role resulted in an identification of religious with political power, which had not existed in Rome since at least the end of the monarchy. Furthermore, the divinization of Caesar after his death had made Augustus, as his adopted son, the son of a divus. In turn, Augustus was officially divinized (apotheosis ) after his death by the Roman Senate. Divinization after death did not become automatic for his successors (Tiberius, Gaius, and Nero were not divinized); nevertheless, Augustus's divinization created a presumption that there was a divine component in an ordinary emperor who had not misbehaved in his lifetime. Divinization also reinforced the trend toward the cult of the living emperor, which had been most obvious during Augustus's life. With the Flavian dynasty and later with the Antonines, it was normal for the head of the Roman state to be both the head of the state religion and a potential, or even actual, god.

As the head of Roman religion, the Roman emperor was therefore in the paradoxical situation of being responsible not only for relations between the Roman state and the gods but also for a fair assessment of his own qualifications to be considered a god, if not after his life, at least while he was alive. This situation, however, must not be assumed to have applied universally. Much of the religious life in individual towns was in the hands of local authorities or simply left to private initiative. The financial support for public cults was in any case very complex, but many sanctuaries (especially in the Greek world) had their own sources of revenue. It will be enough to mention that the Roman state granted or confirmed to certain gods in certain sanctuaries the right to receive legacies (Ulpian, Regulae 22.6). In providing a local shrine with special access to money, an emperor implied no more than benevolence toward the city or group involved.

Within the city of Rome, however, the emperor was in virtual control of the public cults. As a Greek god, Apollo had been kept outside of the pomerium since his introduction into Rome: his temple was in the Campus Martius. Under Augustus, however, Apollo received a temple inside the pomerium on the Palatine in recognition of the special protection he had offered to Octavian. The Sibylline Books, an ancient collection of prophecies that previously had been preserved on the Capitol, were now transferred to the new temple. Later, Augustus demonstrated his preference for Mars as a family god, and a temple to Mars Ultor (the avenger of Caesar's murder) was built. It was no doubt on the direct initiative of Hadrian that the cult of Rome as a goddess (in association with Venus) was finally introduced into the city centuries after the cult had spread outside of Italy. A temple to the Sun (Sol), a cult popular in the Empire at large and not without some roots in the archaic religion of Rome, had to wait until Emperor Aurelian in 274 ce, if one discounts the cult of the Ba'al of Emesa, a sun god, which came and went with the emperor Elagabalus in 220221 ce. Another example of these changes inside Rome is that Emperor Claudius found the popularity of these alien cults partially responsible for the neglect of the art of haruspicy among the great Etruscan families, and he took steps to revive the art (Tacitus, Annals 11.15, 47 ce).

A further step in the admission of "Oriental gods" to the official religion of Rome was the building of a temple to Isis. In the late Republic, the cult was formally suppressed, only for the triumvirs to vow a shrine to the goddess in 43 bce, and official action was taken once more against the cult under Augustus and Tiberius. At some point between then and the fourth century ce, festivals of Isis entered the official Roman calendar, possibly under the emperor Gaius Caligula. From at least the second century ce, the main Roman sanctuary of Isis on the Campus Martius was architecturally related to the east side of the Saepta, or official voting area, and to other public monuments in this area, which suggests its integration into the official landscape of Rome. It was, however, the only new foreign sanctuary, so far as can be discovered from the surviving fragments, to be represented on the third-century ce official map of the city of Rome. Jupiter Dolichenus, a god from northern Syria popular among soldiers, was probably given a temple on the Aventine in the second century ce.

There is some evidence that the Roman priestly colleges intervened in the cults of municipia and coloniae (in relation to the cult of Mater Magna), but on the whole it is unreasonable expect the cults of Rome herself to remain exemplary for Roman citizens living elsewhere. For example, Vitruvius, who dedicated his work on architecture to Octavian before the latter became Augustus in 27 bce, assumes that in an Italian city there should be a temple to Isis and Sarapis (De architectura 1.7.1), but Isis was kept out of Rome in those years. Emperor Caracalla, however, presented his grant of Roman citizenship to the provincials in 212 ce in hope of contributing to religious unification: "So I think I can in this way perform a [magnificent and pious] act, worthy of their majesty, by gathering to their rites [as Romans] all the multitude that joins my people" (Papyrus Giessen 40). Although the cult of Zeus Kapetolios appears three years later at the Greek city of Ptolemais Euergetis in Egypt, the general results of Caracalla's grant were modest in religious terms.

Coins and medals, insofar as they were issued under the control of the central government, provide some indication of imperial preferences in the matter of gods and cults, as well as when and how certain Oriental cults (such as that of Isis, as reflected on coins of Vespasian) or certain attributes of a specific god were considered helpful to the Empire and altogether suitable for ordinary people who used coins. But because as a rule it avoided references to cults of rulers, coinage can be misleading if considered alone. Imperial cult and Oriental cults are, in fact, two of the most important features of Roman religion in the imperial period. But it is crucial to take into consideration popular, not easily definable trends; the religious beliefs or disbeliefs of the intellectuals; the greater participation of women in religious and in intellectual life generally; and, finally, the peculiar problems presented by the persecution of Christianity.

Magic and Divination

A striking development of the imperial period was that the concept of magic emerged as the ultimate superstitio, a system whose principles were parodic of and in opposition to true religio. The definition of magic is contentious and hotly debated. In the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century, many theorists (especially Sir James Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough ) defined "magic" as an inferior and prior form of religion: whereas religion had a complex cognitive significance, magical actions were purely instrumental, believed to have a direct causal effect on the world; or, in an alternative formulation, the magician coerced the deities, whereas the priest of religion entreated them in prayer and sacrifice. Such theories still underlie widely held conceptions of magic. But this grand developmental scheme, in which magic is seen as the precursor of "true religion," has become increasingly discredited, along with the nineteenth-century evolutionary views of human society and development of which it is a part. Besides, the definition of magic as coercive and instrumental as against the (essentially Christian and partisan) view of "real" religion as noninstrumental and noncoercive does not often match (or help us to classify) the varieties of ritual, worship, or religious officials in the ancient world. A better starting point is the discussions of magic (and its relation to religion) in the writings of the Romans themselves. For example, according to the encyclopedia of Pliny the Elder, magic, which originated in Persia, was a heady combination of medicine, religion, and astrology that met human desires for health, control of the gods, and knowledge of the future. The system was, in his view, totally fraudulent (Natural History 30.1-18; cf. Lucan's Pharsalia 6.413-830). Such views of magic as a form of deviant religious behavior should also be related to the developing concepts and practices of Roman law in the imperial period. The speech by Apuleius (De magia ) defending himself against a charge of bewitching a wealthy heiress in a North African town is particularly important.

The relationship of this stereotype to the reality of magical practice is, however, complex. Magic was an important part of the fictional repertoire of Roman writers, but it was not only a figment of the imagination of the elite; and its practice may have become more prominent through the principatea consequence perhaps of it too (like other forms of knowledge) becoming partially professionalized in the hands of literate experts in the imperial period. So, for example, the surviving Latin curses (often scratched on lead tablets, and so preserved) increase greatly in number under the Empire, and the Greek magical papyri from Egypt are most common in the third and fourth centuries ce. Roman anxieties about magic may, in part, have been triggered by changes in its practices and prominence, as well as by the internal logic of their own worldview.

Divination had been central to republican politics and to the traditional religion of the Roman state. For example, before engagement in battle or before any meeting of an assembly the "auspices" were takenin other words, the heavens were observed for any signs (such as the particular pattern of a flight of birds) that the gods gave or withheld their assent to the project in hand. These forms of divination changed in Rome under the principate. The traditional systematic reporting of prodigies, for example, disappeared in the Augustan period: these seemingly random intrusions of divine displeasure must have appeared incongruous in a system where divine favor flowed through the emperor; such prodigies as were noted generally centered on the births and deaths of emperors. There were many other forms of divination. Some of them (such as astrology) involved specific foretelling of the future. Some (such as dream interpretation) were a private, rather than a public, affair. Some could even be practiced as a weapon against the current political orderas when casting an emperor's horoscope foretold his imminent death.

The practitioners of divination were as varied as its functions. They ranged from the senior magistrates (who observed the heavens before an assembly) and the state priests (such as the augures who advised the magistrates on heavenly signs) to the potentially dangerous astrologers and soothsayers. These people were periodically expelled from the city of Rome and under the principate were subject to control by provincial governors. The jurist Ulpian included in his treatise on the duties of provincial governors a section explaining the regulation of astrologers and soothsayers; a papyrus document survives from Roman Egypt, with a copy of a general ban on divination issued by a governor of the province in the late second century ce (on the grounds that it led people astray and brought danger); and at the end of the third century ce the emperor Diocletian issued a general ban on astrology. Consultation of diviners that threatened the stability of private families or the life of the emperor himself were obvious targets for punishment.

The Imperial Cult

The imperial cult was many things to many people. Indeed, it can be said that there was no "imperial cult;" instead, there were many "imperial cults," as appropriate in many different contexts. The emperor never became a complete god, even if he was considered a god, because he was not requested to produce miracles, even for supposed deliverance from peril. Vespasian performed miracles in Alexandria soon after his proclamation as emperor, but these had no precise connection to his potential divine status; he remained an exception in any case. Hadrian never performed miracles, but his young lover Antinous, who was divinized after death, is known to have performed some (Dörner, 1952, p. 40, no. 78).

Apotheosis, decided by the Senate, was the only official form of deification valid for everyone in the Empire and was occasionally extended to female members of the imperial family (Drusilla, the sister of Gaius, who received apotheosis in 38 ce, was the first such honorand.) It had its precedent, of course, in the apotheosis of Romulus. Ultimately, the cult of the living emperor mattered more. It was the result of a mixture of spontaneous initiative by provincial and local councils (and even by private individuals) and promptings from provincial governors and the emperor himself. It had precedents not only in the Hellenistic ruler cult but also in the more or less spontaneous worship of Roman generals and governors, especially in the Hellenized East. Though it is unlikely that temples were built to provincial governors, Cicero had to decline such worship when he was governor of Cilicia (Ad Atticum 5.21.7).

The cult of Roman provincial governors disappeared with Augustus, to the exclusive benefit of the emperor and his family. When he did not directly encourage the ruler cult, the emperor still had to approve, limit, and occasionally refuse it. Although he had to be worshiped, he also had to remain a man in order to live on social terms with the Roman aristocracy, of which he was supposed to be the princeps. It was a delicate balancing act. It is probably fair to say that during his lifetime the emperor was a god more in proportion to his remoteness than his proximity, and that the success (for success it was) of the imperial cult in the provinces was due to the presence it endowed to an absent and alien sovereign. His statues, his temples, and his priests, as well as the games, sacrifices, and other ceremonial acts, helped make the emperor present; they also helped people to express their interest in the preservation of the world in which they lived.

The imperial cult was not universally accepted and liked. Seneca ridiculed the cult of Claudius, and Tacitus spoke of the cult in general as Greek adulation. In the third century the historian Dio Cassius attributed to Augustus's friend Maecenas a total condemnation of the imperial cult. Jews and Christians objected to it on principle, and the acts of the Christian martyrs remind us that there was an element of brutal imposition in the imperial cult. But its controversial nature in certain circles may well have been another factor in the cult's success (conflicts help any cause). There is even evidence that some groups treated the imperial cult as a mystery religion in which priests displayed imperial images or symbols.

Schematically, it can be said that in Rome Augustus favored the association of the cult of his life spirit (genius) with the old cult of the public lares of the crossroads (lares compitales ). Such a combined cult was in the hands of humble people (especially ex-slaves). Similar associations developed along various lines in Italy and the West and gave respectability to the ex-slaves who ran them. Augustus's birthday was considered a public holiday. His genius was included in public oaths between Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the penates. In Augustus's last years Tiberius dedicated an altar to the numen Augusti in Rome; the four great priestly colleges had to make yearly sacrifices at it. Numen, in an obscure way, implied divine will.

In the West, central initiative created the altar of Roma and Augustus outside Lyons, to be administered by the Council of the Three Gauls (12 bce). A similar altar was built at Oppidum Ubiorum (Cologne). Later temples to Augustus (by then officially divinized) were erected in Western provinces. The key episode occurred in 15 ce, the year after the official deification of Augustus in Rome, when permission was given to the province of Hispania Tarraconensis for a temple to Divus Augustus in the colonia of Tarraco. Its priests were drawn not just from Tarraco but from the whole province, and Tacitus (Annals 1.78), reporting the decision of 15 ce, notes that the temple set a precedent for other provinces. In the East, temples to Roma and Divus Julius (for Roman citizens) and to Roma and Augustus (for Greeks) were erected as early as 29 bce. There, as in the West, provincial assemblies took a leading part in the establishment of the cult. Individual cities were also active: priests of Augustus are found in thirty-four different cities of Asia Minor. The organization of the cult varied locally. There was no collective provincial cult of the emperor in Egypt, though there was a cult in Alexandria. And any poet, indeed any person, could have his or her own idea about the divine nature of the emperor. Horace, for example, suggested that Augustus might be Mercurius (Odes 1.2).

Augustus's successors tended to be worshiped either individually, without the addition of Roma, or collectively with past emperors. In Asia Minor the last individual emperor known to have received a personal priesthood or temple is Caracalla. In this provincethough not necessarily elsewherethe imperial cult petered out at the end of the third century. Nevertheless, Constantine, in the fourth century, authorized the building of a temple for the gens Flavia (his own family) in Italy at Hispellum, but he warned that it "should not be polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstitio "whatever he may have meant by this (Hermann Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 705, lines 46-48, 337 ce).

It is difficult to say how much the ceremonies of the imperial court reflected divinization of the emperors. Domitian wanted to be called dominus et deus (Suetonius, Domitian 13.2), but this is anomalous and broke the normal convention that the emperor should present himself to the Roman elite as primus inter pares (first among equals). In the third century a specific identification of the living emperor with a known god seems to be more frequent (for instance, Septimius Severus and his wife, Julia Domna, with Jupiter and Juno). When the imperial cult died out, the emperor had to be justified as the choice of god; he became emperor by the grace of god. Thus Diocletian and Maximian, persecutors of Christianity, present themselves not as Jupiter and Hercules but as Jovius and Herculius, that is, the protégés of Jupiter and Hercules. It must be added that during the first centuries of the Empire the divinization of the emperor was accompanied by a multiplication of divinizations of private individuals, in the West often of humble origin. Such divinization took the form of identifying the dead, and occasionally the living, with a known hero or god. Sometimes the divinization was nothing more than an expression of affection by relatives or friends. But it indicated a tendency to reduce the distance between men and gods, which helped the fortunes of the imperial cult (Wrede, 1981).

In at least the "civilized" parts of both East and West, the principal social change that accompanied these religious changes was the role of local elites in the service of Rome. Holders of the local offices of the imperial cult received prestige in their local communities, as they did for holding other offices or priesthoods, and they might be able to use such offices to further the status of themselves or their families. In the West, ex-slaves with Roman citizenship (who formed a significant upwardly mobile group) could aspire to a public status that articulated their position in the framework of the Roman Empire.

"Oriental" Influences

It has long been standard to employ the category "Oriental religions" in discussing the new religious options in imperial Rome. This category was first widely used, if not invented, by the Belgian scholar Franz Cumont in the early years of the twentieth century in his pioneering studies of Roman religion. For Cumont, the key to understanding the religious history of the period lay in the influx into Rome of a group of Eastern religions that shared a number of common characteristics setting them apart from traditional civic cultsand paving the way, eventually, for the rise of Christianity. However, these religions cannot be neatly pigeonholed as "Oriental." Several of the cults did proclaim an Eastern "origin" for their wisdom, but it is often clear that a Roman version of the cult differed substantially from its (notional) Eastern ancestor. Above all, the "Orient" itself was hardly the homogeneous category that modern scholars (and the Romans, no doubt) often try to make it: different cults came from quite different religious backgroundsthe religious traditions of the home of Mithras in Persia, for example, had little in common with the Egyptian traditions in the worship of Isis and Sarapis.

The issue of whom the new cults attracted is difficult. Did the different "messages" appeal more to some sections of the inhabitants of Rome than to others? Were the poor more commonly to be found among the adherents than the rich? Women more commonly than men? Did these alternative religions attract those who had only a small role to play in the traditional civic cults and the political order that those cults sustained? Were they, in other words, "religions of disadvantage?" There is no simple answer to those questions. There was enormous variety within the population of Rome, which had no single axis between privilege and disadvantage. In a society where some of the richest and most educated members were to be found outside (and indeed ineligible for) the ranks of the elite, it makes no sense to imagine a single category of "the disadvantaged." Besides, it is very hard now (and no doubt always was for most outside observers) to reconstruct accurately the membership of any particular cult; for apparently casual references to a cult's adherents in the writing of the period are often part and parcel of an attack on that cultderiding a religion as being, for example, the business of women and slaves. But it is clear that male members of the senatorial order were conspicuously absent from the new cults. No senators are attested as initiates of Jupiter Dolichenus, Jupiter Optimus Maximus Heliopolitanus, Isis, Mithras, or (probably) Christianity before the mid-third century ce.

New cults claiming an "Oriental" origin penetrated the Roman Empire at various dates, in different circumstances, and with varying appeal, although on the whole they seem to have supplemented religious needs in the Latin West more than in the Hellenized East. They tended, though not in equal measure, to present themselves as mystery cults: they often required initiation and, perhaps more often, some religious instruction.

Cybele, the first Oriental divinity to be found acceptable in Rome since the end of the third century bce, was long an oddity in the city. As the Mater Magna (Great Mother), she had been imported by governmental decision, she had a temple within the pomerium, and she was under the protection of members of the highest Roman aristocracy. Yet her professional priests, singing in Greek and living by their temple, were considered alien fanatics even in imperial times. What is worse, the goddess also had servants, the Galli, who had castrated themselves to express their devotion to her.

Under the emperor Claudius, Roman citizens were probably allowed some priestly functions, though the matter is very obscure. Even more obscure is how Attis became Cybele's major partner. He is so poorly attested in the republican written evidence for the cult of Cybele that scholars used to believe that he was introduced to the cult only in the first century ce (they saw Catullus 63 as a purely "literary" text). However, excavations at the Palatine temple of Mater Magna discovered a major cache of statuettes of Attis dating to the second and first centuries bce. The find hints that religious life in republican Rome was more varied than the written record suggests. A new festival, from March 15 to 27, apparently put special emphasis on the rebirth of Attis. Concurrently, the cult of Cybele became associated with the ritual of the slaying of the sacred bull (taurobolium), which the Christian poet Prudentius (Peristephanon 10.10061050) interpreted as a baptism of blood (though his depiction of the ritual is deeply suspect, forming part of a fierce and late antipagan polemic). The taurobolium was performed for the prosperity of the emperor or of the Empire and, more frequently, for the benefit of private individuals. Normally it was considered valid for twenty years, which makes it highly questionable whether it was meant to confer immortality on the baptized.

Although Isis appealed to men as well as to womenand indeed her priests were maleit seems clear that her prestige as a goddess was due to the unusual powers she was supposed to have as a female deity. The so-called aretalogies (description of the powers) of Isis insist on this. Thus the earliest aretalogy, found at Maroneia in Thrace, tells of Isis as legislator and as protector of the respect of children for their parents (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 26, no. 821). The text from Kyme (in West Turkey) declares that she compelled husbands to love their wives (H. Engelmann, ed., Inschriften von Kyme 41, 1.97), and the hymn from Oxyrhynchus (Egypt) in her honor explicitly states that she made the power of women equal to that of men (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 11.1380). No god or goddess of Greece and Rome had achievements comparable with those of Isis. The girlfriends of the Augustan poets Tibullus and Propertius were captivated by her. In association with Osiris or Sarapis, Isis seems to have become the object of a mystery cult in the first century ce; she appears as such in Apuleius's Metamorphoses.

Late in the first century ce, Mithraism began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, especially in the Danubian countries and in Italy (in particular, as far as can be known, in Ostia and Rome). A developed mystery cult, it had ranks of initiation and leadership and wasthough this has been disputedreserved for men, a clear difference from the cult of Isis. It was practiced in subterranean shrines rather than in temples; the rooms were ritual versions of the cave in Persia where Mithra had once slain a bull. The environment of the Mithraic cult, as revealed in numerous extant shrines, was one of darkness, secrecy, and dramatic lighting effects.

What promise Mithra held for his devotees cannot be known for certain. The cult seems to have encouraged soldierly qualities, including sexual abstinence. It certainly presented some correspondence between the degrees of initiation and the levels of the celestial spheres, which probably implies an ascent of the soul to these spheres. The killing of the bull (different from the taurobolium and perhaps without any implication of baptism) was apparently felt to be a sacrifice performed not for the god but by the god. The initiates reenacted this sacrifice and shared sacred meals in a sort of communal life. The progressive transformation of the soul of the initiate in this life, on which much of the cult focused, was probably conceived to continue after death. Tertullian considered Mithraism a devilish imitation of Christianity, but the Neoplatonist Porphyry found in it allegorical depths.

The cult of Sabazios may have been originally Phrygian, but later was known also as an "ancestral" deity of Thrace. Sabazios appears in Athens in the fifth century bce as an orgiastic god. He was known to Aristophanes, and later the orator Aeschines may have become his priest. There is evidence of mysteries of Sabazios in Lydia dating from the fourth century bce. In Rome the cult was already known in 139 bce. It may at that time have been confused with Judaism, but Sabazios was often identified with Jupiter or Zeus, and there seems to be no clear evidence of syncretism between Sabazios and Yahweh. Sabazios was most popular in the second century ce, especially in the Danubian region. In Rome his cult left a particularly curious document in the tomb of Vincentius, located in the catacomb of Praetextatus. The document includes scenes of banquets and of judgment after death. Whether this is evidence of mystery ceremonies or of Christian influence remains uncertain (Hermann Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae 3961; see Goodenough, 1953, p. 45 for a description) The tomb of Vincentius appears to belong to the third century, when, judging by the epigraphic evidence, there seems to have been a decline of the cult of Sabazios and, indeed, of all mystery cults. Although a shortage of inscriptions does not necessarily imply a shortage of adepts, it leaves the impression that by then Christianity was seriously interfering with the popularity of Oriental cults.

Another popular Oriental god occupies a place by himself. This is Jupiter Dolichenus, who emerged from Doliche in northern Syria in the first century ce and who has over six hundred monuments. His cult is known mostly in Rome and along the Rhine-Danube border zone. Of the Oriental gods, he seems to have been the least sophisticated and to have disappeared earliest (in the third century). Christian polemicists ignored him. While he circulated in the Empire, he preserved his native attributes: he is depicted as a warrior with Phrygian cap, double ax, and lightning bolt, standing erect over a bull. In the Roman interpretation, the goddess Juno Regina often accompanied him. Twins, identified with the Castores, followed him; their lower parts were unshaped, and they were probably demons. Soldiers seem to have loved the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus. Its priests were not professional, and the adepts called each other brother. Admission to the cult presupposed instruction, if not initiation.

Religious Pluralism?

There is a constant danger of either overrating or underrating the influence of these Oriental cults on the fabric of the Roman Empire. If, for instance, Mithraists knew of the Zoroastrian deity Angra Mainyu, what did he mean to them? How did this knowledge affect the larger society? At a superficial level these cults can be seen as an antidote to the imperial cult, an attempt to retreat from the public sphere of political allegiance to the private sphere of small, free associations. The need for small loyalties was widely felt during the imperial peace. Distinctions between social, charitable, and religious purposes in these multiform associations are impossible. Tavern keepers devoted to their wine god and poor people meeting regularly in burial clubs are examples of such associations (collegia ). Ritualization of ordinary life emerged from their activities. Nor is it surprising that what to one was religion was superstition to another (to use two Latin terms that ordinary Latin speakers would have been hard-pressed to define). Although allegiance to the local gods (and respect for them, if one happened to be a visitor) was deeply rooted, people were experimenting with new private gods and finding satisfaction in them. Concern with magic and astrology, with dreams and demons, seems ubiquitous. Conviviality was part of religion. Aelius Aristides has good things to say about Sarapis as patron of the symposium. Pilgrimages to sanctuaries were made easier by relative social stability. Several gods, not only Asclepius (Gr., Asklepios), offered healing to the sick. (Here again, Aelius Aristides is chief witness for the second century.) Hence miracles, duly registered in inscriptions; hence also single individuals, perhaps cranks, attaching themselves to temples and living in their precincts.

The real difficulties in understanding the atmosphere of paganism in the Roman Empire perhaps lie elsewhere. It remains a puzzle how, and how much, ordinary people were supposed to know about official Roman religion. The same problem exists concerning the Greeks in relation to the religions of individual Greek cities. But in Greek cities the collective education of adolescents, as epheboi, implied participation in religious activities (for instance, singing hymns in festivals) that were a form of religious education. In the Latin-speaking world, however, there is no indication of generalized practices of this kind. People who tell us something about their own education, such as Cicero, Horace, and Ovid, do not imply that it included a religious side. The situation does not seem to have changed in later times, as illustrated, for instance, in Tacitus's life of Agricola. Children at school no doubt absorbed a great deal from classical authors, but, whether they read Homer or Vergil, they did not absorb the religion of their own city. Temples carried inscriptions explaining what was expected from worshipers as well as the qualities of the relevant god. Cultic performances, often in a theater adjoining the temple, helped to explain what the god was capable of. However, a distinct line cannot be drawn between cultic performances, perhaps with an element of initiation, and simple entertainment. More puzzling still is the question of what general idea of "Roman religion" (if, by that, is meant the religious institutions and practices of the capital) the population of towns in Italy and coloniae in the provinces would have had. One possible channel is Varro's Divine Antiquities. This treatise remained even under the Empire the only general work on the Roman religious system. That provincials did turn to it for inspiration is suggested by the effective (polemical) use made of it by the Christian Tertullian, writing in North Africa. But even Varro's book is difficult to apply to particular local issues.

Another element difficult to evaluate is the continuous, and perhaps increased, appeal of impersonal gods within Roman religion. There is no indication that Faith (Fides) and Hope (Spes) increased their appeal (they came to play a different part in Christianity by combining with Jewish and Greek ideas). At best, Fides gained prestige as a symbol of return to loyalty and good faith during the reign of Augustus. But Fortuna and Virtus were popular; the typology of Virtus on coins seems to be identical with that of Roma. Genius was generalized to indicate the spirit of a place or of a corporation. Strangely, an old Latin god of the woods, Silvanus, whose name does not appear in the Roman calendar, became important, partly because of his identification with the Greek Pan and with a Pannonian god, but above all because of his equation with Genius. The god as protector of Roman barracks was called Genius Castrorum, Silvanus Castrorum, or Fortuna Castrorum. Victoria, too, was often connected with individual emperors and individual victories (Victoria Augusti and Ludi Victoriae Claudi, for example).

A third complication is syncretism, which means two different things. One is the positive identification of two or more gods; the other is the tendency to mix different cults by using symbols of other gods in the sanctuary of one god, with the result that the presence of Sarapis, Juno, and even Isis was implied in the shrine of Jupiter Dolichenus on the Aventine in Rome. In either form, syncretism may have encouraged the idea that all gods are aspects, or manifestations, of one god. In most cases of identification of two or more gods, there is only the record of a mixed divine name, so it is left to guesswork what that name meant, which deity (Roman or native) was uppermost in the minds of the worshippers, or whether the two had merged into a new composite whole (a process often now referred to as syncretism ). There is no way to know, in other words, how much of the process was an aspect of Roman take-over (and ultimately obliteration) of native deities, how much it was a mutually respectful union of two divine powers, or how much it was a minimal, resistant, and token incorporation of Roman imperial paraphernalia on the part of the provincials. Signs of syncretism, then, always need to be interpreted. For example, to understand why most deities in the eastern part of the Empire did not merge with Roman counterparts but retained their individual personalities and characteristics, whereas in the western part pre-Roman gods acquired Roman names, or non-Roman and Roman divine names were linked, it is necessary to investigate the nature of Roman religion outside Rome and attend to the agenda of all those groups involved in developing a new Roman imperial worldview.

A related issue is monotheism. According to a Christian writer of the second century ce, the Greeks had 365 gods. For the proponent of one (Christian) god this alleged fact demonstrated the absurdity of Greek religion. Modern scholars also sometimes assume the nobility and superiority of one supreme god (monotheism) as against the proliferation of little gods (polytheism). But the number of the Greek gods (not as great as 365) does not mean that those gods lacked significance any more than does the multiplicity of gods in the Hindu tradition. In addition, proponents of monotheism (whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic) are often not ready to note the disruptive consequences of monotheistic intolerance or the extent to which alleged monotheisms contain plural elements. Within Christianity, what about the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or the saints? In fact the categories monotheism and polytheism do not promote historical understanding. Some scholars have sought to "rescue" polytheism by arguing for an element of monolatry (or henotheism), in which the power of one god in the pantheon is proclaimed as supreme. But this maneuver is conditioned by a Judaeo-Christian evaluation of monotheism, and the tendency to monolatry in antiquity is much overstated. The terms polytheism and monotheism are best left to the theologians.

Interest in an abstract deity was encouraged by philosophical reflection, quite apart from suggestions coming from Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Some have therefore thought it legitimate to consider the cult of Sol Invictus, patronized by the emperor Aurelian, as a monotheistic or henotheistic predecessor of Christianity. But believers would have had to visualize the relation between the one and the many. This relation was complicated by the admission of intermediate demons, either occupying zones between god (or gods) and men or going about the earth and perhaps more capable of evil than of good. Even those (such as Plutarch) who could think through, in some depth, the idea of one god were still interested in Zeus or Isis or Dionysos, whatever their relation to the god beyond the gods. Those educated people in late antiquity who liked to collect priesthoods and initiations to several gods, in pointed contrast with Christianity, evidently did so because they did not look upon the gods concerned as one god only. The monuments of the leading pagan senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus are an example of this tendency. In the face of a Christianity that was gaining the upper hand, he and those like him sought to gather together all that could be saved from the traditional cults (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Berlin, 1863, vol. 6, no. 1778, 387 ce; Hermann Dessau, Inscriptione Latinae Selectae 1259, tombstone).

This is not to deny the convergence of (or at least striking parallels between) certain beliefs and experiences. For example, the mystical experience of ascension to heaven was shared by Paul, Jewish rabbis, Gnostics such as the author of the Gospel of Truth, Plotinus, and the author of the "Mithras liturgy" (preserved in the Great Magical Papyrus of Paris).

Role of Women

Gender had always been a factor in the organization of cults. It is important to consider how the appeal of the various cults to different genders determined the membership of new religions. The official civic cults of Rome were principally in the control of menthough there were some exceptions (e.g. Vestal Virgins). Some cults and festivals demanded the participation of women. According to tradition, The temple of Fortuna Muliebris, "the Fortune of Women," was dedicated by senatorial wives in 493 bce and served as the focus for their religious activities. In the imperial period, the temple was restored by Augustus's wife, Livia (and again by Emperor Septimius Severus, along with his two sons and his wife, Julia Domna). Formal involvement of women in the official cults of Rome was largely restricted to women of senatorial families.

In general, although the attendance of women at most religious occasions (including games) was not prohibited, women had little opportunity to take an active religious role in state cults. Even occupational or burial associations generally did not include women; only in the purely domestic associations of the great households were women normally members. Much more fundamentally, women may have been bannedin theory, at any ratefrom carrying out animal sacrifice; and so prohibited from any officiating role in the central defining ritual of civic religious activity.

These limited roles may have been satisfying to some women, but almost certainly not to all. How far then did women find in the new cults a part to play that was not available to them in civic religions? Some women no doubt found an opportunity within these cults for all kinds of religious expression not available within the civic cults of Rome. For some women, it may even have been precisely that opportunity which first attracted them to an alternative cult. On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that women were particularly powerful within these cults in general or that they dominated the membership in the way suggested by the conventional stereotype of the literature of the period. In the cult of Isis, men held the principal offices, and the names of cult members recorded in inscriptions do not suggest that women predominated numerically.

The literary stereotype, in other words, almost certainly exaggerates the number and importance of women in the cults by representing them effectively as "women's cults." Why is this? In part the explanation may lie in the exclusively elite vision of most of the literary sources. Even if women did not dominate the new religions, it seems certain that upper-class women were involved in these cults before their male counterparts. Wives of senators, that is, were participating in the worship of Isis at a period when no senator was involved in the cult; and wives of senators are attested as Christians from the late second century ce, before any Christian senator. Thus, the literary stereotype may reflect a (temporary) difference between the involvement of elite men and women that did not necessarily apply at other levels of society. Much more fundamentally, however, the claims of female fascination with foreign religion are embedded in the vast literary and cultural traditions of Greco-Roman misogyny. And, at the same time, foreign peoples and places were denigrated in specifically female terms. In traditional Roman ideology, "Oriental" cults would inevitably raise questions of gender.

Women's participation in new cults is one aspect of the active part they played in the religious life of the imperial period. Women, especially wealthy women, experienced considerable freedom of movement and could administer their own estates. Roman empresses of Eastern origin (Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, and Julia Mamaea, mother of Severus Alexander) contributed to the diffusion outside Africa of the cult of Caelestis, who received a temple on the Capitol in Rome. The wife of a Roman consul, Pompeia Agrippinilla, was priestess of an association of about four hundred devotees (all members of her household) of Liber-Dionysos in the Roman Campagna in the middle of the second century ce (Moretti, 1968, no. 160). In the Greek world, women served as priestesses (as they had always done) but received new public honors. In the city of Thasos in the third century ce, a woman, Flavia Vibia Sabina, was honored by the local council "as a most noteworthy high priestess the only woman, first in all times to have honors equal to those of the councilors" (Pleket, 1969, no. 29). Women could be asked to act as theologoi, that is, to preach about gods in ceremonies even of a mystery nature. It is revealing that the emperor Marcus Aurelius declared himself grateful to his mother for teaching him veneration of the gods.

The intellectual and religious achievements of women become more conspicuous in the fourth century ce. Women such as Sosipatra, described in Eunapius's account of the lives of the Sophists, and Hypatia of Alexandria are the counterparts (though apparently more broadly educated and more independent in their social actions) of Christian women such as Macrina, sister of Gregory of Nyssa (who wrote her biography), and the followers of Jerome.

Dedications of religious and philosophical books by men to women appear in the imperial period. Plutarch dedicated his treatise on Isis and Osiris to Clea, a priestess of Delphi. Diogenes Laertius dedicated his book on Greek philosophers (which has anti-Christian implications) to a female Platonist. Philostratus claims that Julia Domna encouraged him to write the life of Apollonius of Tyana. What is more, according to the Christian writer Eusebius, Julia Mamaea (mother of the emperor Alexander Severus) invited Origen to visit her in Antioch, allegedly to discuss Christianity.


Epigraphy and archaeology are the starting point for analysis of the religious history of the Roman Empire. Both types of evidence are the actual products of religious adherents of the period, designed to promote or support their religious actions and beliefs. The interpretation of the iconography of objects, the design of buildings, and the formulation of dedications is absolutely critical. This evidence does, however, need to be used with care. Inscriptions have to be treated not simply as texts (which is how they are often presented in modern books), but as texts with particular relationships to the objects on which they were written. In addition, texts painted on walls (dipinti ) or written on material other than stone or bronze rarely survive. But the sheer number of religious dedications tempts one to treat the variations in their numbers over time as an index of the varying popularity of the deity concerned. This is a mistake, as the variation in the number of religious dedications parallels the variations in the number of inscriptions in general. In other words, religious inscriptions share in the variations in the "epigraphic habit."

A further point to note is that not all religious groups embedded their practices in material form. Jewish and Christian groups in the early Empire are largely invisible from either archaeological or epigraphical evidence (in Rome, for example, there are no remains of synagogues and no secure evidence of churches before Constantine).

In addition to epigraphy and archaeology, the religions of the Roman Empire survive mainly through writings in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic (not to speak of other languages), such as biographies, philosophical disputations, epic poems, antiquarian books, exchanges of letters, novels, and specific religious books. Most of the authors speak only for themselves. But taken together, they convey an atmosphere of sophisticated cross-questioning that would have prevented minds from shutting out alternatives. For example, the Stoic Lucan in his Pharsalia, a poem on the civil wars, excludes the gods but admits fate and fortune, magic and divination. Two generations later, Silius Italicus wrote an optimistic poem describing Scipio as a Roman Heracles supported by his father, Jupiter. More or less at the same time, Plutarch was reflecting on new and old cults, on the delays in divine justice, and (if the work in question is indeed his) on superstition.

In the second part of the second century Lucian passed from the caricature of an assembly of gods and from attacks against oracles to a sympathetic description of the cult of Dea Syria; he abused such religious fanatics as Peregrinus, as well as Alexander of Abonuteichos, the author of a new cult, whom he considered to be an impostor. Perhaps what Lucian wanted to give is, in fact, what readers get from himthe impression of a mind that refuses to be imposed upon. Fronto's correspondence with Marcus Aurelius confirms what can be deduced from other texts (such as Aelius Aristides's speeches): preoccupation with one's own health was a source of intense religious experience in the second century ce. In his Metamorphoses, also known as The Golden Ass, Apuleius offers a (partially satirical) account of the mysteries of Isis that may be based on personal experience. But Apuleius's Golden Ass is only one of the many novels that were fashionable in the Roman Empire. The appeal of such works probably resided in their ability to offer readers vicarious experiences of love, magic, and mystery ritual.

The variety of moods and experiences conveyed by these texts, from the skeptical to the mystical, from the egotistic to the political in the old Greek sense, gives us an approximate notion of the thoughts of educated people on religious subjects. These books provide the background for an understanding of the Christian apologists who wrote for the pagan upper class. How much of pagan religious thinking was conditioned by the presence of Jews and, even more, of Christians in the neighborhood? The anti-Jewish attitudes of a Tacitus or of a Juvenal offer no special problem; they are explicit. The same can be said about the anti-Christian polemics of Celsus. The problem, if any, is that the text is lost and inferences have to be made from the reply given in changed circumstances by the Christian Origen. But there are far more writers who seldom or never refer to Christianity yet who can hardly have formulated their thoughts without implicit reference to it.

How much Lucian or Philostratus (in his life of Apollonius of Tyana) was trying to put across pagan points of view in answer to the Christian message is an old question. Nicomachus Flavianus, a pagan leader, translated the biography of Philostratus into Latin in the late fourth century. Another author who may know more about Christianity than his silence about it would indicate is Diogenes Laertius. In his lives of philosophers, he pointedly refuses to admit non-Greek wisdom and enumerates all the Greek schools, from Plato to Epicurus, as worthy of study and admiration. With the renascence of Neoplatonic thought in the third and fourth centuries and the combination of Platonism with mystical and magical practices (the so-called theurgy ) in the circles to which Julian the Apostate belonged, the attempt to erect a barrier to Christianity is patent but, even then, not necessarily explicit.

The most problematic texts are perhaps those that try to formulate explicit religious beliefs. Books such as the Chaldaean Oracles (late second century, or third century ce) or the Hermetic texts, composed in Greek at various dates in Egypt (and clearly showing the influence of Jewish ideas), make it difficult to decide who believed in them and to what extent. Such texts present themselves as revealed: they speak of the human soul imprisoned in the body, of fate, and of demonic power with only a minimum of coherence. They are distantly related to what modern scholars call Gnosticism, a creed with many variants that was supposed to be a deviation from Christianity and, as such, was fought by early Christian apologists. Today, much more is known about the Gnostics, thanks to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, which supplemented, indeed dwarfed, previous discoveries of Coptic Gnostic texts. Assembled in the fourth century from books mainly translated from Greek, the Nag Hammadi library represents an isolated survival. It points to a previous, more central movement thriving in the exchange of ideas. What was the impact of the Gnostic sects when they placed themselves between pagans and Christians (and Jews) in the first centuries of the Empire?

State Repression and Persecution

The Roman state had always interfered with the freedom to teach and worship. In republican times, astrologers, magicians, philosophers, and even rhetoricians, not to speak of adepts of certain religious groups, had been victims of such intrusion. Under which precise legal category this interference was exercised remains a question, except perhaps in cases of sacrilege. Tacitus writes that Augustus considered adultery in his own family a crime against religio (Annals 3.24). Whatever the legal details, Druid cults and circles were persecuted in Gaul and Britain in the first century. Augustus prohibited Roman citizens from participating in Druid cults, and Claudius prohibited the cult of the Druids altogether. Though it is not clear what the consequences were for participating, there is little recorded of the Druids from this time on. Abhorrence of their human sacrifices no doubt counted for much. But Augustus also did not like the practice of foretelling the future, for which the Druids were conspicuous, and he is credited with the destruction of two thousand prophetic books (Suetonius, Augustus 31). The Druids were also known to be magicians, and Claudius condemned to death a Roman knight who had brought to court a Druidic magic egg (Pliny, Natural History 29.54).

Roman action against the Druids is an example of Roman action against practices deemed to be noxious superstitio. It is often said that the Roman government only exceptionally acted in this way: existing cults might or might not be encouraged, but they were seldom persecuted; even Jews and Egyptians were ordinarily protected in their cults. This view of a general liberal Roman state is false. The Romans acted whenever need arose against superstitio. In 19 ce two scandals in Rome brought the cults of Isis and Judaism to the attention of emperor and Senate. The outcome, according to Tacitus, was that the Senate banished four thousand ex-slaves to a labor camp in Sardinia and expelled those of higher status from Italy "unless they gave up their profane rites before an appointed day" (Annals 2.85; cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.6584). The principles of religious coercion were firmly in place before the emergence of Christianity.

The long-standing conflict between the Christians and the Roman state has to be set against this background. As with actions against other troublesome people, persecution was desultory and instigated from below, until the mid-third century. However, there are some unique aspects, mostly as a result of Christian rather than of imperial behavior. First, the Christians obviously did not yield or retreat, as did the Druids. Indeed they were believed actively to seek conversions, even without the knowledge or approval of the head of the household. Second, the Christians hardly ever became outright enemies of, or rebels against, the Roman state. The providential character of the Roman state was a basic assumption of Christianity. The workings of providence were shown, for Christians, by the fact that Jesus was born under Roman rule, while the Roman state had destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and dispersed the Jews, thus making the church the heiress to the Temple. Third, the Christians were interested in what can be called "classical culture." Their debate with the pagans became, increasingly, a debate within the terms of reference of classical culture; the Jews, in contrast, soon lost their contact with classical thought and even with such men as Philo, who had represented them in the dialogue with classical culture. Fourth, Christianity and its ecclesiastical organization provided what could alternatively be either a rival or a subsidiary structure to the imperial government. The Roman government under Constantine chose the Church as a subsidiary institution (without quite knowing on what conditions).

The novelty of the conflict explains the novelty of the solutionnot tolerance but conversion. The emperor had to become Christian and to accept the implications of his conversion. It took about eighty years to turn the pagan state into a Christian state. The process took the form of a series of decisions about public non-Christian acts of worship. The first prohibition of pagan sacrifices seems to have been enacted in 341 (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.2). Closing of the pagan temples and prohibition of sacrifices in public places under penalty of death was stated or restated at an uncertain date between 346 and 354 (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.4).

Even leaving aside the reaction of Julian, these measures cannot have been effective. The emperor remained pontifex maximus until Gratian gave up the position in 379 (Zosimus, 4.36.5). Gratian was the emperor who removed the altar of Victoria from the Roman Senate and provoked the controversy between Symmachus and Bishop Ambrose, the most important controversy about the relative merits of tolerance and conversion in late antiquity. Then, in 391, Theodosius forbade even private pagan cults (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.12). In the same year, following riots provoked by a special law against pagan cults in Egypt, the Serapeum of Alexandria was destroyed. The significance of this act was felt worldwide. The brief pagan revival of 393, initiated by the usurper Eugenius, a nominal Christian who sympathized with the pagans, was soon followed by other antipagan laws. Pagan priests were deprived of their privileges in 396 (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.4), and pagan temples in the country (not in towns) were ordered to be destroyed in 399 (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.16)though in the same year, festivals that appear to have been pagan were allowed (Codex Theodosianus 16.10.17).

Rome in the fourth century ce remained for some people a city characterized by the worship of the ancient gods. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, when describing the visit of the emperor Constantius II to Rome in 357 ce, depicted the (Christian) emperor admiring the temples and other ancient ornaments of the city (16.10.1317). This account tendentiously suppresses any mention of Christianity or Judaism in Rome.

The traditional monuments of the city were duly restored in the course of the fourth century ce by the prefectus urbi (prefect of the city). Even after the reforms of Gratian, when the responsibility of the prefect of the city was redirected toward the Christian buildings instead of the traditional temples, the imperial authorities did not entirely neglect the monuments of pagan religion. Under Emperor Eugenius (392394 ce) some temples were again restored, and as late as the 470s a prefect of the city restored an image of Minerva.

The traditional religious practices of Rome were not mere fossilized survivals. They did not incorporate elements of Christianity or Judaism, but there were continuing changes and restructuring through the fourth century. For example, in the Calendar of 354 ce, games in honor of the emperor continued to be remodeled and adjusted to the new rulers, and the cycle of festivals in honor of the gods was also reworked.

The process of change is also visible in cults long established in Rome, which sometimes received new and heady interpretations. In the fourth century the cult of Mater Magna placed a new emphasis on the practice of the taurobolium. Inscriptions from the sanctuary in the Vatican area record that some worshippers repeated the ritual after a lapse of twenty yearsone claimed that he had been thereby "reborn to eternity," which seems to have been a radically new significance. The reinterpretation of the taurobolium in what was by now an ancient cult of Rome shows clearly how even such ancestral religions could still generate new meaningsin this case, a new intensity of personal relationship with the divine.

The process of incorporation of once foreign cults into the "official" religion is most visible in the priesthoods held by members of the senatorial class. Until the end of the fourth century, senators continued to be members of the four main priestly colleges, but there were, in addition, priests of Hecate, Mithras, and Isis. For senators to associate themselves with these cults in Rome was an innovation of the fourth century. The change should be seen as a trend toward assimilating into "traditional" paganism cults in Rome that had not previously received senatorial patronage. Faced with the new threat posed by imperial patronage of Christianity, senators redefined (and expanded) their ancestral heritage.

After the fall of Eugenius, Theodosius's ban on sacrifices was more effectively applied, and the implications of the old calendar for public life were revised. Traditional public festivals were not banned, but they were officially marginalized in favor of Christian festivals. The last pagan senatorial priests are attested in the 390s, the series of dedicatory inscriptions from the sanctuary of Mater Magna in the Vatican area runs from 295 to 390 ce, and the last dated Mithraic inscription from Rome is from 391 ce (slightly later than from elsewhere in the Empire). Some Christians went on the offensive, destroying pagan sanctuaries, including sanctuaries of Mithras. The sanctuary of the Arval Brothers was dismantled from the late fourth century onward.

But traditional religious rites were very tenacious, and their demise cannot be assumed from the ending of dedicatory inscriptions. Emperors through the fifth and into the sixth century elaborated Theodosius's ban on sacrificespresumably in the face of the continuing practice of traditional sacrifice, for a pagan writer traveling up from Rome through Italy in the early fifth century observed with pleasure a rural festival of Osiris. At around the same time the old ways were revived during the siege of Rome by the Goths (408409 ce). When Christianity was not obviously helping, the prefect of the city, after meeting diviners from Etruria, attempted to save the city by publicly celebrating the ancestral rituals with the Senate on the Capitol. The economic independence and traditional prestige of local pagan aristocrats, especially in Rome, allowed them to survive for a time and to go on elaborating pagan thought. Around 430 ce the Roman writer Macrobius sought to recreate in his Saturnalia the religious learning and debate of the age of Symmachus, a generation before. Most striking (given the date of its composition) is the complete exclusion of Christianityan exclusion that sought (in vain) to align classical culture and traditional religion. The Neoplatonists of Athens had to be expelled by Justinian in 529.

Even at the end of the fifth century ce, the Lupercalia was still being celebrated in Rome. The bishop of Rome found it necessary both to argue against the efficacy of the cult and to ban Christian participation. Hopes that the pagan gods would come back excited the Eastern provinces during the rebellion against the emperor Zeno in about 483, in which the pagan rhetorician and poet Pampremius had a prominent part (Zacharias of Mytilene, Vita Severi, in Patrologia Orient. 2.1.40; M.-A. Kugener, ed., Paris, 1903, repr. Turnhout 1993). The peasants (rustici ), about whom Bishop Martin of Bracara in Spain had so many complaints, gave more trouble to the ecclesiastical authorities than did the philosophers and the aristocrats of the cities. Sacrifices, because they were generally recognized as efficient ways of persuading the gods to act, were at the center of Christian suspicion. According to a widespread opinion shared by the apostle Paul (but not by all the church fathers) pagan gods existedas demons.

See Also

Apotheosis; Constantinianism; Druids; Emperor's Cult; Gnosticism, article on Gnosticism from Its Origins to the Middle Ages; Hellenistic Religions; Hermetism; Isis; Mithra; Mithraism; Mystery Religions; Sabazios.



Georg Wissowa, Religion und Kultus der Römer, 2d ed. (Munich, 1912) and Kurt Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte (Munich, 1960) are basic works of reference. They are supplemented by Martin P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion, vol. 2, 3d. ed. (Munich, 1974), for the Eastern side of the Roman Empire. Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1998) offer a synthesis of newer approaches (vol. 1 is an analytic history, vol. 2 a sourcebook of texts in translation and monuments, with commentary; a full bibliography appears in both volumes). See also Arthur Darby Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford, 1933) and Essays on Religion and the Ancient World, 2 vols., edited by Zeph Stewart (Oxford, 1972). Current research is surveyed in Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 2 (2000): 283345 and 5 (2003): 297371.

Other useful general books include Jean Beaujeu, La religion romaine à l'apogée de l'empire, vol. 1, La politique religieuse des Antonins, 96192 (Paris, 1955); Jean Bayet, Histoire politique et psychologique de la religion romaine (Paris, 1969); E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge, U.K., 1965); Clara Gallini, Protesta e integrazione nella Roma antica (Bari, 1970); J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford, 1979); Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1994); Denis C. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs (Cambridge, UK, 1998); John North, Roman Religion. Greece and Rome New Survey 30 (Oxford, 2000); and John Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion (Edinburgh, 2003). Clifford Ando, ed., Roman Religion (Edinburgh, 2003) republishes some useful articles.

Roman Temples

See Amanda Claridge, Rome (Oxford, 1998). For a full analyses, consult E. Margareta Steinby, ed., Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, 6 vols. (Rome, 19931999).

Roman Images

See Inez Scott Ryberg, Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art (Memoirs of the American Academy at Rome 23; New Haven, 1955); Robert Turcan, Religion romaine, 2 vols, (Iconography of Religions 17; Leiden, 1988).

Rituals and Calendar

On Roman sacrifice see Le sacrifice dans l'antiquité (Entretiens Fondation Hardt 27; Geneva, 1981) and John Scheid, Romulus et ses frères. Le collège des frères Arvales, modèle du culte public romain dans la Rome des empereurs (Rome, 1990). For information about the calendar, see Jörg Rüpke, Kalender und Öffentlichkeit. Die Geschichte der Repräsentation und religiösen Qualifikation von Zeit in Rom. (Berlin and New York, 1995).

Epigraphic Texts

Epigraphic texts cited in the text include Michael H. Crawford, ed., Roman Statutes, vol. 1 (London, 1996), pp. 393454; F. K. Dörner, Denkschriften der Wiener Akademie 75 (Vienna, 1952) p. 40, no. 78; Luigi Moretti, Inscriptiones Graecae Urbis Romae I (Rome, 1968), no. 160; H. W. Pleket, Texts on the Social History of the Greek World (Leiden, 1969), no. 29; Robert K. Sherk, Roman Documents from the Greek East (Baltimore, 1969), pp. 214216.

Cults outside Rome

On cults outside of Rome see Marcel Leglay, Saturne africaine (Paris, 1966); Javier Teixidor, The Pagan God: Popular Religion in the Greco-Roman Near East (Princeton, 1977); Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981); and Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain (London, 1984). See also the following articles by Louis Robert: "De Cilicie à Messine et à Plymouth avec deux inscriptions grecques errantes," Journal des Savants 1973, pp. 161211 (repr. in his Opera Minora Selecta [OMS ] 7: 225275); "Trois oracles de la Théosophie et un prophète d'Apollon," CRAI 1968: pp. 568599 (repr. in OMS 5: 584615); "Un oracle gravé à Oenoanda," CRAI 1971: pp. 597619 (repr. in OMS 5: 617639); "Le serpent Glycon d'Abônouteichos à Athènes et Artémis d'Ephèse à Rome," CRAI 1981: 513535 (repr. in his OMS 5: 749769); and "Une vision de Perpétue martyre à Carthage en 203," CRAI 1982: 229276 (repr. in his OMS 5: 791839). See Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Harmondsworth and New York, 1986), on Greek civic cults of the imperial period. Also of interest are Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? (Chicago and London, 1988); James B. Rives, Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage (Oxford, 1995); Hubert Cancik and Jörg Rüpke, eds., Römische Reichsreligion und Provinzialreligion (Tübingen, 1997); chapter 7 of Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1998); Ton Derks, Gods, Temples, and Ritual Practices: the Transformation of Religious Ideas and Values in Roman Gaul (Amsterdam, 1998); David Frankfurter, Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance (Princeton, 1998); Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge, U.K., 1999); William van Andringa, La religion en Gaule romaine (Paris, 2002); Ted Kaizer, The Religious Life of Palmyra (Stuttgart, 2002); and Simon Price, "Local Mythologies in the Roman East," in Chistopher Howgego, Volcker Heuchert and Andrew Burnett (eds), Coinage and Identity in the Roman Provinces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 115124. Volumes 2.16 (Rome and Imperial Cults) and 2.17 (Rome and Oriental Cults), 2.18 (Provinces), 2.1921 (Judaism), and 2.2327 (Christianity) of Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (Berlin and New York, 1978) vary in quality but include some useful studies. A searchable index is available from

Magic and Divination

See Frederick H. Cramer, Astrology in Roman Law and Politics (Philadelphia, 1954); David S. Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius (Oxford, 1994); Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World (Cambridge, Mass., 1997); chapter 5 of Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1998); Daniel Ogden, Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: a Sourcebook (Oxford, 2002); James B. Rives, "Magic in Roman Law: the Reconstruction of a Crime," Classical Antiquity 22 (2003): 313339; and S. R. F. Price, "The Future of Dreams: from Freud to Artemidorus," in Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society, edited by Robin Osborne, pp. 22659 (Cambridge, U.K., 2004).

The Imperial Cult

See Louis Robert, "Le culte de Caligula à Milet et la province d'Asie." Hellenica 7 (Paris, 1949): 206238; Louis Robert, "Recherches épigraphiques VVI," REA 62 (1960), pp. 285324 (repr. in his Opera Minora Selecta [Amsterdam, 19691990]), 2: 801840); Louis Robert, "Théophane de Mytilène à Constantinople." Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions (repr. in his Opera Minora Selecta 5: 56183); Stefan Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971); Willem den Boer, ed., Le culte des souverains dans l'empire romain (Geneva, 1973); J. Rufus Fears, Princeps a diis electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor as a Political Concept at Rome (Rome, 1977); Simon R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge, U.K., 1984); Simon R. F. Price, "Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult," Journal of Hellenic Studies 94 (1984): 7995; Simon R. F. Price, "From Noble Funerals to Divine Cult: The Consecration of Roman Emperors," in Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies, edited by David Cannadine and Simon R. F. Price, pp. 56105 (Cambridge, U.K., 1987); Duncan Fishwick, The Imperial Cult in the Latin West, 3 vols. (Leiden, 19872004); Alastair Small, ed., "Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity," Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supp. 17 (1996); and Ittai Gradel, Emperor Worship and Roman Religion (Oxford, 2002). See also Lellia Cracco Ruggini, "Apoteosi e politica senatoria nel IV sec. d. C., " Rivista storica italiana (1977): 425489; and Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge, U.K., 1978), pp. 197242. Henning Wrede, Consecratio in formam deorum (Mainz, 1981) examines "private" deifications.

Oriental Cults

On Oriental cults, the publications by Franz Cumont remain influential. See, for instance, Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans (New York, 1912); After Life in Roman Paganism (New Haven, 1922); Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, 4th ed. (Paris, 1929); Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains (Paris, 1942); and Lux Perpetua (Paris, 1949). Robert Turcan's The Cults of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1996) is a synthesis on Oriental cults. For more recent approaches see Ugo Bianchi and Maarten J. Vermaseren, ed., La soteriologia dei culti orientali nell'impero romano (EPRO 92; Leiden, 1982); Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, Mass., 1987) and chapter 6 of Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1998). On Mater Magna (Cybele) see Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis (London, 1977); Philippe Borgeaud, La mère des dieux: de Cybèle à la vierge Marie (Paris, 1996). On Isis see: Friedrich Solmsen, Isis among the Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, Mass., 1979); F. Dunand, Le culte d'Isis dans le bassin oriental de la Méditerranée, 3 vols. (EPRO 26; Leiden, 1973); Henk S. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion I: Ter Unus (Leiden, 1990), pp. 3995 and chapter six of Stephen J. Harrison, Apuleius, A Latin Sophist (Oxford, 2000) for a discussion of the problems of reading Metamorphoses 11. On Mithras see Reinhold Merkelbach, Mithras (Königstein, 1984); Richard L. Gordon, Image and Value in the Graeco-Roman World (Aldsershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1996); and Manfred Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras (Edinburgh, 2000).


Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1990); Christoph Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction (London, 2003); and Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, Mass., 2003) are the best introductions. An examination of revelation can be found in James D. Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul's Ascent to Paradise in Its Greco-Roman, Judaic and Early Christian Contexts (Lanham, Md., and London, 1986); and also see Simon Price, "The Mithras Liturgy," in Andreas Bendlin, ed., Religion and Society: Aspects of Religious Life in the Eastern Mediterranean under Roman Rule (Tübingen, 2005).

Relations between Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the First Three Centuries

See Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York, 19531968); Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, A. D. 100400 (New Haven, 1984); Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine : On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (London and Chicago, 1990); L. Michael White, Building God's House in the Roman World (Baltimore and London, 1990); Paul R. Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge, U.K., 1991); Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak, eds., The Jews among Pagans and Christians (London and New York, 1992); Leonard V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Antique Rome (Leiden, 1995); Judith Lieu, Image and Reality: The Jews in the World of the Christians in the Second Century (Edinburgh, 1996); Martin Goodman, ed., Jews in a Graeco-Roman World (Oxford, 1998); Mark Edwards, Martin Goodman, and Simon Price, eds., Apologetics in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1999); Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, Mass., 2002). See also Morton Smith's article "Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus," Journal of Biblical Literature 90 (June 1971): 174199.

Transition to Christianity

See Bernhard Kötting, Peregrinatio religiosa: Wallfahrten in der Antike und das Pilgerwesen in der alten Kirche (Münster, 1950); Arnaldo Momigliano, ed., The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963); Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Saint Augustine (London, 1972); Lellia Cracco Ruggini, "Simboli di battaglia ideologica nel tardo ellenismo," in Studi storici in onore di Ottorino Bertolini, pp. 117300 (Pisa, 1972); Lellia Cracco Ruggini, "Il paganesimo romano tra religione e politica, 384394 d. C., " Memorie della classe di scienze morali, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 8.23.1 (Rome, 1979), 3141; Lellia Cracco Ruggini, "Pagani, ebrei e cristiani: Odio sociologico e odio teologico nel mondo antico," in Gli ebrei nell'Alto Medioevo, Settimane di studio del Centro italiano di studi sull'alto Medioevo 26 (Spoleto, 1980): 13101; Sabine G. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1981); Peter Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley and London, 1982); Robert A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, U.K., 1990); Michelle Salzmann, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, 1990); Averil Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley, 1991); Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven, 1997); chapter 8 of Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1998); John Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 2000); Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 2001000. 2d ed. (Oxford, 2003).

Arnaldo Momigliano (1987)

Simon Price (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Roman Religion: The Imperial Period." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 21 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Roman Religion: The Imperial Period." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (September 21, 2018).

"Roman Religion: The Imperial Period." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved September 21, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.