Distinctions and Definitions

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Distinctions and Definitions


Public vs. Private Religion. When studying ancient Roman religion, we must make some fundamental distinctions and define some basic terms. The first distinction, that between public and private religion, is in fact somewhat false, for Roman public religion was to a great extent an outgrowth of private religion. That is, as different clans joined to form the early Roman political state, some cults originally belonging to families, such as the worship of Hercules at the Greatest Altar, or, much later, Christianity, were eventually adopted as public cults, belonging to the whole people. It would seem best, therefore, to begin a study of Roman religion with private cults. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the systematic examination of a religion does not necessarily give us a complete or accurate picture. Real life, including religion, is not very systematic. The Romans’ whole experience was thick with gods, forces, and powers of which we can know only a little. Whereas we tend to think of religion as only one aspect of our lives, religion permeated every aspect of the lives of the Romans. Even if we had much more evidence for Roman religion, the reality was far more complex. Still, a presentation arranged by deities, holidays, sacred places, and priesthoods gives us some useful outline of that reality. After all, that is exactly how Marcus Varro, a Roman scholar and a real expert in Roman religion, decided to examine the subject.

Polytheism. Ancient Roman religion, as most ancient and many modern religions, was polytheistic, meaning that many gods were worshiped by the same people. Some scholars of religion used to consider polytheism a primitive state of religion, believing that monotheism, the exclusive worship of one god, was a higher form of religious experience. This view is no longer generally held. Of course, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans acknowledged the concept of one supreme god. But, they felt, mortals, with limited insight, could best understand the divine in the plural, not the singular: the “gods,” so to speak, were but aspects of God. To say that there is “one God” would have suggested to them that the divine is somehow physically limited to one body, one form. To aid our understanding, poets and artists represent these gods anthropomorphically, for example, in human shape, which makes the divine more accessible to human intelligence. Further, in a polytheistic religion the same god or goddess may even be worshiped under several names or epithets, which individualizes his or her special powers and interests. This system makes it easier to approach the god for specific help in specific circumstances. A multiplicity of gods, each with several separate identites, also reflects the complex nature of human civilizations, in which people organize themselves by the kind of work they do or the power and status they have. As in a city, so in the divine world there is a structured hierarchy of abilities, qualities, and responsibilities.

Civic Polytheism. Polytheism was thus an essential fact of the Roman state’s integration of many peoples into one political entity. The history of Roman religion is the story of a centuries-long process of adding gods to the Roman pantheon. This collection of gods was a potent symbol, not only of the original complexity of Roman society, but also of its increasing political power. As the Roman people extended their influence, first in Latium, then throughout Italy, and finally around the whole Mediterranean world and western Europe, they brought the gods of conquered and subject nations back to Rome. This practice made their city the spiritual capital of its world empire, a new kind of Olympus, where the gods were regarded as “first citizens” dwelling in their preferred home. These gods thus gave their own city spiritual power and protection. This multitude of deities made it possible for new Roman citizens, from Britain to Egypt, from the shores of the Black Sea to the Atlantic, to belong to the Roman world. The Roman Empire without this civic polytheism is simply inconceivable. Again, the “separation of church and state” would have been incomprehensible to people of antiquity: to be a citizen was to honor the gods of the city. Now, an individual could certainly have one’s private religion and worship his or her favorite deity, as long as one did not ignore—and thus insult—the others. To refuse to worship the public gods was to anger those gods and to risk not only losing their protection, but even calling down their anger on the whole people. In this light it is much easier to understand the Romans’ suspicion of Greek philosophy and their hostility to obstinately monotheistic religions—superstitions, the Romans called them—such as Judaism and Christianity.

Trend toward Monotheism?. Some scholars see a gradual trend toward monotheism in Roman religion. They feel that this trend was a reflection of political changes. During the Republic (509-31 B.C.E.), power was more or less distributed and limited through traditional and constitutional checks and balances, including religion. Auspices, for example, or the scheduling of religious holidays, could be used to block legislation or postpone public debate. Beginning with the emperor Augustus in 27 B.C.E., ever-greater power was concentrated in the hands of one person, which, the theory holds, finds its religious expression in the predominant cult of one deity over others. This theory is attractive on the surface, but there are several arguments against it.

Sacra and Auspicia. Both public and private religion in ancient Rome can be further divided into two areas: sacral and auspical. Sacra are all the things a nation, city, family, or individual might offer to a god: sacrifices of animals, plants, wine, and incense; temples and other sacred places; holidays and games; vows and votive gifts; prayers; and hymns. It is important to remember that sacrifice, the return to the gods of some of the good things one got from them, including the lives of animals, was an absolutely essential fact of ancient religion. Sacra also include praedictio, the examination by special priests of prodigies, portents, and the entrails of sacrificed animals in order to determine a god’s wishes or to learn the outcome of an intended action. Auspicia, on the other hand, was the set of ritual observations of such things as the flight, song, and eating habits of birds, or the sound or appearance of lightning, by which one might learn whether or not

Jupiter—and Jupiter alone—permits an action, such as a meeting of the Senate, an election, a vote on a law, or a wedding, to be undertaken on a given day. It was not the action itself but the time of its undertaking that Jupiter approved. Auspices were not prophecy or fortune-telling; rather, they were a one-time approval from Jupiter for one action only, though he may at any moment thereafter change his mind from positive to negative. There was, however, a special kind of auspice known as augurium, or augury. Augury was the use of auspical observations to permanently designate a place or a person for perpetual service of the divine; this was called inauguration.

Religion and Imperium. In Roman public life, the right to perform sacrifices in the people’s name, to vow and dedicate gifts, temples, and games to the gods, as well as the right to request Jupiter’s permission through auspices, was granted only to certain officials elected in auspicated, or religiously sanctioned, public elections. (Priests took auspices only for the purpose of inauguration and on a few other ceremonial occasions.) This fact conferred on such magistrates supreme civil and military authority or imperium (for a limited time only, usually one year), and validated the people’s choice by reference to the divine will. According to Cicero, the Roman state was firmly founded on the twin supports of sacra and auspicia. Speaking of the first two kings of Rome, Romulus and Numa Pompilius, he says:

And while the religion of the Roman people, taken as a whole, is divided into sacra and auspicia, a third element may be added as a support, namely, whatever the interpreters of Apollo’s oracle or the Etruscan seers might advise by way of prediction from portents and signs. I am convinced that Romulus founded our state on the basis of auspices, Numa by the establishment of sacral rites. (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, 3. 5)

By performing the sacrificial rites in the correct ways and at the correct times, by obtaining Jupiter’s permission for all their acts as a civil society, the Roman people maintained the pax deorum, that good relationship with the gods of their city who in turn preserved them and their empire.


Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, 2 volumes (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion, translated by Philip Krapp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).