Gods of the Roman People

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Gods of the Roman People



Too Many Gods to Name. Early Christian writers, such as St. Augustine and Tertullian, mocked the traditional Roman religion, in which there was a separate deity for every single, minuscule aspect of human life and experience. In agriculture, for instance, there was a god to watch over seeds, one to keep mice from eating them, one concerned with the plowing of furrows, another with the sowing of seed, yet another with irrigation, or mildew, or drought, or the harvest, and so on, almost without end.

While this polytheism certainly offended monotheistic Christians, it still tells us much about the Romans and their gods. The Roman pantheon was a celestial bureaucracy, with major and minor divinities overseeing human life in fine detail. The Roman belief was that every human action was guided by an expert divinity. Even the most mundane aspects of human life thus became suffused with divinity. It is not possible to discuss the almost infinite number of gods of the Roman people; there are simply too many. But a survey of the principal deities will help us see something of the Roman religious experience in both its private and public dimensions.

Jupiter. Even polytheistic religions generally recognize one highest god who creates and governs all things mortal and divine. This god is usually concerned with the organization of all reality and the administration of authority and power; he is thus usually a patron of kings and the ruling classes in a society; but he may have other, narrower interests as well. The Latin name of the supreme god of the Roman people, luppiter, is originally a compound of two nouns, Dyeu-pater, literally, Day-Father, lord of the bright daytime sky. The Dyeu- element is in fact identical with the name of Jupiter’s Greek equivalent, Zeus, and is the base of the Latin word for “god,” deus. Jupiter was associated with natural phenomena of the sky, especially weather and the fearsome power of the thunderbolt. He was also especially interested in wine harvests, triumph in warfare, obligations of hospitality, and sacred oaths. In general, Jupiter as sovereign god was concerned with all things that are first, best, and greatest. We know from plentiful remains of temples that Jupiter was worshiped all over the Italian peninsula, and not in Rome only. His temples were always situated on the highest hill around, such as that of Jupiter of the Latin Race on the Alban Mountain. In Rome we find sites dedicated to Jupiter on nearly all principal hills. But his oldest sanctuary, the one most important to the religious and political life of ancient Rome, was that on the hill called the Capitoline, or Hill of the Head (caput).

Jupiter the Striker, Jupiter the Stayer. According to Roman legend, Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, established the first temple of his new city to luppiter Feretrius, or Jupiter who Strikes, for example with his lightning, those who break oaths. Soon thereafter Romulus and the young men he had gathered abducted girls and women from their neighbors the Sabines because they needed wives to confirm and civilize their new town. The Sabines came to get their women back, and there was a battle in the area later know as the Forum. The Roman fighters began to panic and flee; Romulus prayed and vowed a temple to Jupiter, who caused the Romans to stay and fight. So Romulus established a temple near the old Palatine Gate to Jupiter the Stayer. Certainly these temples are very old, whether or not there was an historical Romulus.

Jupiter Best and Greatest. The most important form of Jupiter, and the most prominent temple, was that of (luppiter Optimus Maximus) the Best and Greatest on the Capitoline Hill. The temple was actually vowed and begun by the last king of Rome, the Etruscan Tarquin the Arrogant, in 510-509 B.C.E. It is characteristic of the Romans that, even though they removed Tarquin from the throne, vowing never again to have a king and establishing a republican government, nevertheless they upheld the religious obligation undertaken by Tarquin and gave it the greatest honors. This Jupiter was thus the principal god of the Roman people in their civic capacity, that is, as a constitutional entity. As the Roman Republic grew, Jupiter assumed more and more importance. Roman magistrates took the auspices to obtain his permission to act on the people’s behalf; to him they sacrificed on the day they took office; and to him they presented, upon their successful return from war, some of the loot captured from defeated enemies, at the conclusion of their triumphal parade through the city up to the Capitoline. The middle day of each month, the Ides, being the “highest point” of the month, was a feast day in honor of Jupiter Best and Greatest.

Other Jupiters . Other aspects of Jupiter were recognized and separately worshiped. In 295 B.C.E. the temple of Jupiter the Victor was established; a year later another temple to Jupiter the Stayer was placed on the Palatine Hill. In the time of Augustus, in 22 B.C.E., Jupiter the Thunderer was honored on the Capitoline, and in the middle of the third century C.E. a strange Eastern form of Jupiter, called Dolichenus, received a temple on the Aventine Hill.

Juno . The temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest was actually shared with two female deities, Juno and Minerva, who each occupied their own sanctuaries on either side of Jupiter’s central hall. These three gods are thus usually referred to as the Capitoline Triad. Juno is later thought to be the wife of Jupiter, though that position may not have been part of her original identity. Like Jupiter, she was worshiped throughout Italy but especially in Latium; in her case we can easily see the process of Roman borrowing of the cults of other peoples. Her name seems related to uventas, the Latin word for youth, and she gives her name to the month of June. She seems to have been originally associated with the opening of the monthly cycle of the moon, for the first day of each Roman month, the Kalends, was sacred to her. She shares this function with Janus, the god of openings. Juno is generally associated with the women of Rome in their status as wives and mothers, and in the protection and increase of Rome’s population. Because chastity was considered essential for legitimate marriage and children, Juno was also concerned with the sexual purity of young girls.

Juno the Queen . When the Romans were besieging their Etruscan enemies of the city of Veii in 392 B.C.E., the Roman general prayed to the protective deity of that city, Juno Regina, or Juno the Queen. He asked her to give victory to the Roman army, to leave the city of Veii, and to move to Rome, a religious procedure known as evocatio, or “calling out.” She seems to have agreed, for the Romans soon thereafter captured the city and sold its inhabitants into slavery. But the Romans were anxious about laying hands on her cult statue; they were afraid of committing sacrilege. At that moment one of the Roman soldiers said, somewhat jokingly, “Juno, do you want to go to Rome?” Bystanders were shocked to see the statue nod, as if to say yes. The statue was then easily moved, and this Juno was given a new home on the Aventine Hill. In 207 B.C.E., after a series of dread prodigies and portents, the pontifices decreed that twenty-seven maidens should go through the city singing a hymn of expiation. The historian Livy relates what happened then:


Grardian of mountains and woods, Virgin, you who, three times invoked, hear young mothers in labor and redeem them from death, goddess of three forms, let the pine tree hanging over my farmhouse be yours, which I in gladness at each passing year might sanctify with the blood of a wild boar sharpening his sideways thrust. (Horace, Odes 3.22).

Source : The Odes and Ep&des of Horace, translated by Joseph P. Clancy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). Because chastity was considered essential for legitimate marriage and children, Juno was also concerned with the sexual purity of young girls.

While they were rehearsing the hymn, composed by Livius Andronicus, in the temple of Jupiter the Stayer, the temple of Juno the Queen on the Aventine Hill was struck by lightning. The Etruscan seers responded that this prodigy concerned the married women with children, and that the goddess must be appeased with a gift. By an edict of the curule aediles those women who had residence in the city and within the tenth milestone were assembled on the Capitoline. They chose 27 of their number, to whom they would each make a contribution from their dowries. From that a gift of a golden bowl was made and carried to the Aventine, and purely and chastely offered by the women. Immediately thereafter the ten priests of Apollo decreed a day for an additional sacrifice to that same goddess. This was the order of procession: from the temple of Apollo two white female oxen were led through the Carmental Gate into the city; behind them two cypress-wood statues of Juno the Queen were carried; then the 27 maidens, dressed in long gowns, sang in procession the hymn to Juno the Queen. . . . The ten priests of Apollo, crowned with laurel and dressed in purple-bordered togas, filed behind the maidens. From the Gate by way of the Altar of Juno of Marriage they came into the Forum, where the procession halted. The maidens, passing a rope from hand to hand, sang as they danced in step, keeping time with the beat of their feet. From there they went by way of the Etruscan Quarter and the Ridge, through the Cattle Market, up the Publician Slope and reached the temple of Juno the Queen on the Aventine. There the two victims were sacrificed by the ten priests of Apollo and the cypress-wood statues were taken into the temple. (Livy, From the Founding of the City, 27. 37. 11-15)

Juno Lucina . An outstanding example of how private Roman cults gradually became public is that of Juno Lucina. While childbirth is an intimate family matter, any society, to survive and prosper, must have children and care for them; the delivery of healthy babies is as important for the community as for the private family. Juno Lucina protected women through the dangerous moments of labor and childbirth. Her name resulted from the fact that she helped mothers bring newborns into the light, or lux in Latin. This function may be related to her aspect as goddess of openings and beginnings. She had an ancient sacred grove on the Esquiline Hill, where her temple was founded in 375 B.C.E. There she was worshiped both publicly and privately, especially during the Matronalia, the Romans’ Mothers’ Day, and when new babies were born. Expectant women (and their husbands as well) would make votive offerings to Lucina to win her help in the easy birth of healthy babies.

Juno the Warner . Shortly after the Roman defeat of Veii, the city of Rome itself was attacked by marauding tribes of Gauls from across the Alps. They besieged the lower part of the city, so the Roman people crowded for protection onto the Arx, or Citadel, a steep promontory on the north side of the Capitoline Hill. Some Gaulish warriors discovered an unknown path up one side of the Arx, and one night a band of them climbed up, intent on murder and pillage. At that moment Juno’s sacred geese began to honk, thus alerting the Romans, who drove the enemy off the hill. This Juno was thereafter known as Moneta, the Warner, and her temple was established in 344 B.C.E. Centuries later the first public mint was established on the Arx; the modern words “mint” and “money” reflect the fact that coins were first stamped in Rome next to the shrine of Juno Moneta.

Juno Savior Mother Queen . For the Romans, the acquisition of political power over other peoples meant the assumption of responsibility for maintaining all their traditional religious observances, though under the supervision of priesthoods at Rome. In 338 B.C.E. Rome finally won control of all Latium, subjecting the other Latin towns to its political leadership. One of these towns was Lanuvium, home of the ancient cult of Juno Savior Mother Queen. This Juno, unlike Juno the Queen from Veii, did not move to Rome but kept her home in Lanuvium: priests and magistrates were sent from the capitol and local priests were appointed to maintain her cult. She did eventually have a temple established in Rome in 194 B.C.E., the remains of which still stand. We also know what this Juno looked like, for we have statuary remains, coins, and relief sculptures of her. She was dressed in a goatskin cape, wore a kind of goat-horn helmet, and carried a spear and a shield. These articles of clothing represent her dual function of city guardian and goddess of procreation.

Minerva . Though she was the third deity of the Capitoline Triad, Minerva does not seem to have been as prominent as Jupiter and Juno. Evidence indicates that she first came to Rome at the founding of the Capitoline temple complex in 509 B.C.E., though she was well known throughout Italy. In general, Minerva was understood to be the goddess of arts and handicrafts, thus she was especially cultivated by artisans, skilled tradesmen, musicians, and actors. For this reason a separate temple was established for her on the Aventine Hill around 262 B.C.E., which served as a meeting hall for associations of craftsmen.

Mars. In antiquity, warfare was an almost annual occurrence. It was seasonal, usually taking place from spring to autumn only, when weather permitted marching, transport of troops by ship, and the launching of navies. Even so, war was not simply accepted as a fact of life; it had exceptional importance. From the Romans’ perspective, every war they engaged in, century after century, had religious justification; they called it bellum iustum, “religiously sanctioned war.” War was the just vengeance for wrongs committed against the Roman people. In their view, if another city or state had violated an oath or a treaty with Rome, things that were protected by Jupiter, god of oaths and fidelity, then war had to be declared. Not only did generals lead men into battle only after taking auspices to obtain Jupiter’s permission, but the very declaration of war itself was a religious act. It is not surprising, then, that war in Rome was cultivated as a god, Mars, and that he was the most important god after Jupiter himself. In fact, Mars seems to have been the principal god of the ancient Italian peoples before Jupiter came to prominence. We can tell this from several kinds of evidence. First, the names of our months still reveal that the original Roman calendar year recognized only ten: December, the twelfth month, means “tenth.” Thus, the ancient Roman year began on the first day of March, the Month of Mars. Secondly, the suovetaurilia, a boundary-purification procession and sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull, originally special to Mars, was gradually adapted to the worship of Jupiter, suggesting that Jupiter took over some of the ancient functions of Mars. It is interesting, too, that Mars was also worshiped by farmers as a protector of boundaries, as shown in this ritual prescribed by Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.E.):

This is the way to purify a field. Order a suovetaurilia to be led around the area (then pray), “With the good will of the gods and that it turn out successfully, I order you, Manius, that you purify my farm, field, and land with that suovetaurilia, from whatever direction you decide either to drive them around it or lead them around it”. Address Janus and Jupiter with a wine-offering, saying, “Father Mars, I beg you and beseech you to be favorable and propitious to me, my house, and our household. For this purpose I have ordered a suovetaurilia to be led around my field, land, and farm: that you keep away, ward off, and sweep away illnesses seen and unseen, barrenness, destruction, and bad weather; and also that you allow the crops, the grains, vineyards and orchards to flourish and have good yields; to keep my shepherds and flocks safe; and to give good health and strength to me, my house, and our household. For these purposes, for the sake of purifying my farm, land, and field, and for the sake of making purification, just as I have said, be blessed, Father Mars, with these suckling suovetaurilia which are to be sacrificed.”(Cato, On Farming, 141)

Mars an Agricultural God?. There is some further and very old evidence that seems to connect Mars with agriculture. Many scholars have used this information to argue that Mars was originally a god of crops, grains, and fruits, and only later became a war god. One piece of evidence that suggests this connection was the priest-hood devoted to the agricultural goddess Dea Dia. These were the Arval Brethren, the first term of which is clearly related to the Latin word for cultivated land, arva. We have in fragmentary form the text of an Arval hymn in very ancient Latin, which seems to associate Mars more closely with farming than fighting. The hymn’s meaning has been much debated, but its general sense is “Do not allow destruction, plague to invade. . . . Be satisfied, wild Mars. Leap on the boundary. Stand as watchman (?). Help us, o Mars. Triumph, triumph, triumph triumph, triumph!” Naturally, the seasonal nature of ancient warfare coincided, somewhat, with that of farming. But we also have to remember that the climate in the Mediterranean was then, even more than now, much different from the temperate seasons we experience in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, many grain crops were planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. The key words in the prayers cited are those that refer to borders and boundaries. Mars guards them so that peaceful productive life can continue safely within them. Warfare lies outside the area of daily human life.

Domi/Militiae. Rome was the home of its divine citizens, its gods. It was a sacred space, marked out by a sacred boundary, the pomerium. The shedding of human blood being a kind of pollution, war in any form was customarily prohibited within the pomerium. A commander returning from war, for example, had to disband and purify his army and himself and relinquish his power before entering the sacred city. The Romans made a clear distinction between the civil sphere of action, which they called domi (literally “at home”), and being at war, militiae. Therefore, for all Mars’s importance to the Romans, he did not have a temple within the sacred boundary. Rather, Mars’s place lay outside it, to the west of the Capitoline Hill, on the river plain known as the Campus Martius, the Field of Mars. Whereas other deities tend to have their temples on hills and elevated places, Mars, the god of war, does not. For Mars was concerned with the totality of male citizens organized as a military entity: to assemble men as an army and to fight a battle requires a flat place. The earliest temple of Mars was that outside the Capena Gate, founded in 388 B.C.E. when Rome was in the midst of a serious struggle against its hostile neighbors for control of Latium. Another was established two centuries later in the Campus Martius near the ancient Altar of Mars.

Father Mars and the Romulus Legend. The Romans derived their ancestry from the divine beings Venus and Mars, though separately. According to Homer’s Iliad, composed about the same time as the historical founding of Rome, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was the mother by a mortal man of the hero Aeneas in Troy, in northwest Asia Minor. The Romans later developed this myth, referring to the goddess as her Latin equivalent, Venus, and making Aeneas the founder of a new race of Trojans in Italy after the destruction of Troy, traditionally held to have occurred around 1185 B.C.E. But Aeneas himself did not found Rome. His son Ascanius, also called lulus, founded the hill-town Alba Longa (” Long White”) in the Alban Hills south of the later site of Rome. One of Ascanius’s distant descendants, Procas, had two sons, Numitor and Amulius. Amulius was wicked and forcefully removed his elder brother from the throne. To make certain that no male descendants of Numitor would later claim the throne, Amulius made Numitor’s daughter and only child, Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin so that she would never have children. The historian Livy tells us what happened then:

In my opinion the origin of such a great city and the beginning of the greatest empire—next to the gods’ power—was determined by fate. The Vestal virgin was raped. When she had given birth to twin sons, she named Mars the father of her illegitimate offspring, whether she believed it was really so, or whether a god as father made her sin more respectable. But neither the gods nor human beings protected her or her children from the king’s cruelty. The priestess was bound and put under close watch, while he ordered the boys to be thrown into the water of the Tiber river flowing by. (Livy, From the Founding of the City, 1.4.1-3.)

Of course the babies, Romulus and Remus, were saved. The basket in which they had been placed upon the river washed up near a fig tree at one end of the later Roman Forum. They were at first reared by a she-wolf, an animal sacred to Mars. They were then raised by a kindly shepherd, Little Lucky, and his wife. Upon coming to young manhood, they discovered their ancestry, killed the tyrant Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne of Alba Longa before going down into the plain of Latium to establish their own towns where they had been reared as babies. The brothers quarreled over whose settlement had the greater approval of Jupiter, and Romulus killed his brother Remus with a shovel. We see in this legend two ideas important to Roman culture: the confirmation of warfare as the just revenge on wrongdoers and that violence lies at the foundation of civilization.

Mars the Avenger. The dictator Julius Caesar traced his family line back to Venus: lulus, son of Aeneas, had originated the Julian clan, it was said. When Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 B.C.E., his nephew and adopted son Octavian (later Augustus) took command of one side in a civil war against his adoptive father’s killers. Many years later, in 2 B.C.E., Augustus brought Mars into the sacred limits of the city: he established a huge temple to Mars the Avenger in the new Forum of Augustus, immediately adjacent to Caesar’s Forum and temple of Mother Venus. In a highly political way, Augustus exploited ancient mythological associations of Venus and Mars with his own family, restored Mars to his original preeminence in Roman religion, and justified his brutal suppression of Caesar’s enemies.

Mars and the Census. It is important to remember that ancient citizen armies were arranged according to wealth and social status. The wealthiest citizens, those who could afford horses, body armor, weapons and so on, and who thus had the most to risk in war, took the first rank; others followed them in order of property qualifications, called centuries by the Romans. Every five years they conducted a census, a reckoning of the personal worth of all citizens, not only to know the size of the general population and the total wealth of the community, but also in order to organize the army. This gathering was called a lustrum (from lustrare, to purify), and again a purificatory suovetaurilia was involved. The male citizens, arranged in centuries, would stand in the Field of Mars while the animal victims were led around it three times before being sacrificed to Mars. The god would be thanked for keeping the people safe for the past five years and asked to do the same during the next. In a sense, the male citizen body was then dedicated to the protective god Mars.

Mars, Awaken . Though Mars did not have a temple within the sacred boundary of the city, sacred implements of war that represented him symbolically were kept in the Regia, the office of the pontifical priesthood in the Forum. Mars was “present” not in the form of a statue but of a simple war-lance. Together with it were the hastae Martis, the javelins of Mars, and his sacred ancilia. The latter were twelve archaic shields of figure-eight shape, one of which was said to have fallen from heaven; the other eleven were made to protect the identity of the original. Warfare is an altered state of human experience, and must be ceremonially acknowledged. When the time for war came and the general had “awakened Mars,” then the god’s special priests, the Salii (Leapers), would take out the ancilia and with them perform an ancient war dance and sing hymns that were so old that people in Caesar’s day could already no longer understand them. In the fall, when the armies had returned, the Salii would put the ancilia away again. So it was that the months of March and October were full of cult acts for Mars, especially purifications of the army and its weapons. Such acts set fighting men temporarily outside the everyday experience of citizens, and then return them to that world after the killing.

Honor and Virtue. The Romans were quite inclined to deify abstract human qualities. In the honor of Jupiter, for example, they erected a small temple to Fides, or Trustworthiness, on the Capitol, this being a quality essential to the faithful keeping of oaths and promises. Honor and Virtue were elevated to divine status and attributed to the god Mars, for these traits are the essential qualities of a good citizen soldier. There was an ancient shrine and altar to Honor outside the Colline Gate, and another outside the Capena Gate near the temple of Mars. This latter site was made a double temple to Honor and Virtue in 208 B.C.E. It was the site of the transvectio equitum, the review of the cavalry on its way to wars to the south of Rome. We have a large number of dedicatory inscriptions to either of these deities made by soldiers all over the Roman world.

Bellona and the Fetial Law. As Honor and Virtue, the goddess Bellona, whose name simply means War (the ancient spelling is Duelona), was worshiped as an aspect of Mars. When the Romans were in serious difficulties fighting the Etruscans and Samnites in 296 B.C.E., a temple to Bellona was established in the Campus Martius near the ancient Altar of Mars. The grounds of this temple were used in a unique way. From remote antiquity on, the Roman declaration of war was a religious ceremony. When an enemy nation had done wrong to the Roman people, a public priest known as a fetial was sent as ambassador. He would go to Rome’s border with the offending nation, call on Jupiter and the enemy territory itself as witness, then recount all his demands for satisfaction. He would repeat this demonstration to any passersby, then go to the city gate and to the forum of the enemy state. If satisfaction was not made within thirty-three days, he would return to Rome, and after debate, war would be formally declared. Again, Livy tells us about the rite (the Ancient Latins were the enemy in this particular case):

The custom was that the fetial priest would carry an iron-headed spear, or a blood-red one fire-hardened at the tip, to their border, and with no fewer than three adults present he would say:“Inasmuch as the peoples of the Ancient Latins and individual Ancient Latins have acted against and cheated the Roman people, the Quirites; inasmuch as the Roman people has ordered war with the Ancient Latins and the senate of the Roman people, the Quirites, has decreed, agreed, voted that there be war with the Ancient Latins, for that reason I and the Roman people declare and make war on the peoples of the Ancient Latins and on individual Ancient Latins.” When he had said this, he hurled the spear into their territory. (Livy, From the Founding of the City, 1. 32. 12-14.)

Of course, as Rome’s power grew and its conflicts were with nations far away, it was no longer possible to send fetials to demand satisfaction and declare war. They therefore resorted to a legal fiction. During the wars with the mercenary Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus in the early third century B.C.E., a captive Greek soldier was made to purchase a plot of land in the Campus Martius near the temple of Bellona. This ownership made it perpetually “enemy territory.” When war was declared, the fetials would then go to the temple of Bellona and carry out their traditional rite.

Janus Two-Face. The Latin word for door is ianua, from which, with a slight change of spelling, comes the word “janitor,” originally a doorkeeper or doorman. A doorway is a place of transition, a boundary where one enters a different space and, possibly, a different experience. In many religions of the world, and particularly in Roman religion, boundaries of all kinds were sacred. They required the particular attention of a deity. In Rome that god was Janus, the god of beginnings. He thus shares this interest with Juno. When the Roman calendar was modified and the year no longer began on the first of March, the beginning month was named after Janus. His own priest, the King of Sacrifices, performed for him a special sacrifice, the Agonium, in the Regia or “King’s House” in the Forum on 9 January each year. Together with Juno he was honored on the beginning day of each month, the Kalends. He is also called Matutinus, God of Morning, for he is there at the beginning of each day. When a long list of deities was invoked in prayer, Janus was called on first, even before Jupiter. Because of later poetic inventions, it came to be believed that Janus was the first principal god of the Romans, and was later superseded by Jupiter, but this is not so. As Varro put it, “The first things are in Janus’s power, the highest things in Jupiter’s.” Because every door both opens and closes and because every beginning is also an ending, Janus is called Bifrons, “Two-Face,” with one bearded face looking forward, the other backward. We see this image on the earliest Roman minted coins, which has nothing to do with the fact that a coin has two “faces”, but simply because of Janus’s function as god of firsts.

The Twin Janus Gate. The Forum was originally a swamp; several streams ran through it on their way to the Tiber River. It was from very early times a graveyard, eventually becoming the religious center of the new city. The crossing of streams, especially on such hallowed ground, was felt by the Romans to require extra-careful ritual precautions. One of the principal streams that ran through the Forum area was the Cloaca. In the time of the Tarquin kings this stream began to be directed through a huge sewer in its drainage course down to the Tiber River. Even earlier a covered wooden bridge had been constructed over the Cloaca, by which the Sacra Via, the Sacred Road, might continue uninterrupted from one area of the Forum to the other. This bridge consisted of two parallel passage-ways, each with a door at either end. It was called the lanus Geminus, the Twin Janus Gate. Though the Cloaca itself was over time completely channeled through its sewer and no longer even visible, Roman conservatism and religious scrupulousness required the maintenance of the Twin Janus. A custom developed whereby, as long as a Roman army was out in the field and the Roman people were somewhere at war with an enemy, the doors of the Twin Janus were left open. When the Romans were completely at peace, with no war anywhere in their domain, the gates of one passageway were closed, a concrete symbol of the benefits of Roman civilization. Tradition held that the legendary King Numa had built the Janus and had been the first to close its doors. In 235 B.C.E. the consul Manlius Torquatus also closed them. After that, however, it was not until the reign of Augustus that the Janus Gate was again closed, in 29 B.C.E.; in fact, Augustus boasted that he had closed it three times in his long rule.

Venus. The goddess Venus at Rome evolved from a protectress of gardens, vegetables, and vineyards to a highly politicized divinity. Venus gradually adopted the mythology of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love, and was eventually paired with the deified goddess Roma herself. The name Venus means simply “charm” or “seductive pleasure” (though some connect it with vinum, wine). We know that she did not have a place in the original Roman calendars, which tells us she was not included in the oldest Roman pantheon. There is much evidence that she was especially worshiped at Lavinium and Ardea, and it is likely that she was borrowed from there and worshiped at Rome. Her holidays coincided generally with the Vinalia, wine-harvest festivals, and over time much of the month of April was devoted to the worship of Venus, especially by women. The earliest known temple of Venus in Rome was located on the Esquiline Hill in the sacred grove of Libitina, goddess of burials.

Venus the Favorable. The earliest datable temple to Venus was that for her aspect as Obsequens, Favorable, in 295 B.C.E., near the Circus Maximus. It was paid for out of fines assessed on married women who had committed adultery.

Venus Erycina. The Roman Venus began to be merged into the mythology of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, for political reasons, during Rome’s wars with Carthage in the third century B.C.E. Atop a mountain known as Eryx on the

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northwest coast of Sicily was an ancient temple to Aphrodite, where sacred prostitution was practiced. The temple and town surrounding it made a strategic fortress, overlooking the cape of Drepanum, extremely important for the naval warfare waged between Rome and Carthage. To win the town from control of Carthage, the inhabitants and the Romans politicized the myth of Aphrodite, mother by a mortal man of the Trojan hero Aeneas. According to this myth Aeneas, escaping the destruction of Troy, established the cult to his mother at Eryx, then went on to found Lavinium, from which the city of Rome would eventually be founded. This religious connection justified Roman occupation of that part of Sicily beginning in 248 B.C.E. In 217 B.C.E. disturbing events caused the Roman Senate to order a consultation of the Sibylline Books, the public oracle through which the god Apollo spoke to the Roman people. Among other things, Apollo instructed them to build a temple to Venus Erycina. This was accordingly vowed to her and dedicated on the Capitoline Hill two years later. Again in 181 B.C.E., following yet another consultation of the Sibylline Books, a second temple was established for Erycina outside the Colline Gate in north-central Rome. This area became well-known as a place of prostitution.

Venus Changer of Hearts. Sometime in the mid to late third century B.C.E., upon consultation of the Sibylline Books because of the frequency of adulteries committed by women, a statue was dedicated to Venus Verticordia, Venus Changer of Hearts, by Sulpicia, recognized as the most chaste woman in Rome at that time. The belief was that this form of Venus would change women’s thoughts of other men back to their wedded husbands. In 114 B.C.E. a dread prodigy occurred: a girl was riding a horse when they were both struck by lightning. She was found on the road, stripped nearly nude, with her tongue sticking out of her mouth. Wishing to know the meaning, the Senate summoned the Etruscan seers. They interpreted the prodigy as a sign that some act of unchastity had been committed by the Vestal Virgins. Evidence pointed to three Vestals, Aemilia, Licinia, and Marcia, who were alleged to have been having sexual relations with a man. They were tried in a special court; two were convicted and one was acquitted. Again the Sibylline Books were consulted, and it was decreed that two Gauls and two Greeks should be buried alive and that a temple to Venus Verticordia should be established. Vestals guilty of unchastity were buried alive within the city wall near the Colline Gate.

Venus and the First Men. From the time of the wars with Carthage, Venus came to be more and more closely identified as the mother and special protectress of the Roman race. The Epicurean poet Lucretius (circa 94-51 B.C.E.), though himself virtually an atheist, nevertheless began his long philosophical poem On the Nature of Reality with a hymn to Venus Genetrix, Venus the Mother:

Mother of Aeneas’ people, pleasure of men and of gods, nourishing Venus, you who fill the constellations gliding under heaven, the ship-bearing sea, and the crop-bearing earth with life, since through you every kind of living being is conceived and, coming into existence, sees the sunlight, you, goddess, the winds flee, the clouds of heaven flee you and your approach, for you the multi-patterned earth sends up sweet flowers, for you the level plains of the sea smile and the peaceful sky glows with radiant light. (Lucretius, On the Nature of Reality, 1-9

The political use of Venus was manifest during the last century of the Republic, when ambitious individuals competed for supreme military and civil power at Rome. It was a turbulent era, marked by unconstitutional acts and political violence. The first of these men was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, known as Felix, “Lucky” (circa 138 to 79 B.C.E.). Believing himself especially favored by Venus (he was quite fond of women), he called himself Ephaphroditus, “Son of Aphrodite,” and added to his power by cultivating Venus Felix. He had images of her stamped on coins. He was followed in this activity by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 B.C.E.), one of the great generals of the period. To secure his eminence in the city, he built the first stone theater, located in the Campus Martius. Atop the theater’s rows of seats he constructed a small temple to his personal deity, Venus Victrix, Venus of Victory. But she did not bring Pompey success against his chief rival for power, Julius Caesar, who began a civil war in 49 and defeated his rival at the battle of Pharsalus the following year; Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated upon landing. Prior to the battle at Pharsalus, Caesar vowed a temple to Venus Victrix if she would desert Pompey and help him instead. But when Caesar dedicated the temple two years later, he established it to the mythological mother of his own clan (lulus was another name for the son of Aeneas), Venus Genetrix.

Venus and Roma . Because in Greek mythology Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite are represented as lovers, it was relatively easy to point to the dual ancestry of the Romans, to Venus through Aeneas and to Mars through Aeneas’s descendant Romulus. These deities became abstract representations of qualities the Romans valued: success in war and natural productivity. As an abstract concept Roma was represented in deified form on coins from fairly early times. Eventually Venus and Rome were closely identified by the emperor Hadrian (117-138 C.E.), who in 121 C.E. built a large temple for these goddesses, each with her own compartment.

Vesta. The worship of the goddess Vesta at Rome is a good example of how public and private religion operate simultaneously. Vesta’s name, which corresponds to that of the goddess Hestia in Greek mythology and religion, means simply “hearth” or “fireplace.” This fireplace provides physical comfort and the sharing of food. The preparation of food requires cleanliness and purity, which Vesta also represents. The fireplace, or focus in Latin, was the innermost center of the round Roman house of earliest times; it remained a symbol of the sanctity and security of the home and family life, of which Vesta is the deified form. The Romans understood very well that individual morality and the integrity of the family were the core of their state and world empire. Vesta has a close relationship with Janus: as he watches over the entrance to the house, she guards its innermost area. As prayers must open with Janus, they must close with Vesta. The King of Sacrifices, Janus’s special priest, also has a special relationship with the Vestal Virgins.

Public Vesta of the Roman People as Citizens. Vesta Publica Populi Romani Quiritium is Vesta’s full name in her public cult. Her center was in a round building in the heart of the Forum, directly across from the Regia. It is probably the oldest preserved building in the Forum, though it was destroyed or damaged by fire and rebuilt many times over the centuries. The Christian emperor Theodosius had it closed in 394 C.E. It is likely that the round structure purposely reproduced the shape of the ancient Roman private house. In fact, it was called the “house” or the “atrium” of Vesta, not her “temple,” for that word means an inaugurated place, where auspices can be taken and public business can be undertaken. But no men could enter the house of Vesta: she is a virgin, as are her attendants, and a man’s presence would violate that status. The one exception was the Pontifex Maximus (or any pontifex representing him), who must necessarily enter on occasion. In the center of the house of Vesta was a hearth in which a fire was kept burning constantly. On the first day of March, the ancient New Year’s Day, under careful ritual conditions, the fire was allowed to go out and then renewed. Also at the center of the house of Vesta was the “pantry” or “cupboard,” where certain materials used for sacrifice and purification were kept, together with seven mysterious symbols of Roman power. These probably included the Palladium, a wooden or perhaps stone image of the goddess Athena that, according to legend, had been brought from the innermost part of that virgin goddess’s temple at Troy by Aeneas and preserved by his descendants ever afterward. It was the responsibility of the Vestal Virgins to keep the fire burning, to bring fresh water from the sacred spring of Egeria in special containers, to make the sacrificial and purificatory materials, and above all, to maintain their own sexual purity. The virgins lived in an apartment complex immediately adjoining the house of Vesta.

Di Penates. The communal responsibilities and sharing of food have been an essential part of religion from earliest times. We may thus easily understand the importance of the Di Penates, the gods of the pantry, in both private and public religion at Rome. The pantry, or food storage cupboard, was called the penus, and in the oldest form of the Roman house it was situated close to the hearth and the dining table. For this reason the Di Penates are closely connected with Vesta. Once the meal was prepared and set on the table, a portion of each article of food was placed on a platter, carried to the fire, and offered up in sacrifice to the Di Penates. The pantry gods were identified with the health and well-being of the family and gradually came to be worshiped as the collective, protective deities of the whole house. This devotion becomes especially significant in the Imperial era, for the Di Penates of the Roman People as Citizens, as part of the cult of Vesta, becomes practically identical with the worship of the imperial dynastic households. It was generally believed that the Di Penates were brought by Aeneas from Troy, that their cult was established at Lavinium, his first settlement in Italy, and taken from there by his son lulus to Alba Longa, and finally, centuries later, to Rome. The Di Penates were understood to be a pair of young men, and appeared on coins in the iconogaphy, or standard pictorial representation, of the Dioscuri, the twin Greek heroes Castor and Pollux. This fits a pattern well known throughout the ancient eastern Mediterranean world, especially from such places as Thebes and Samothrace in Greece, where two young heroes, the Cabiri, are worshiped as the protective gods of a family.

The Lares. The Lar (later plural Lares) was another tutelary or protective deity of the family. Originally he was the guardian spirit of the plot of a household’s land. At the juncture of lands owned by different families, called a compitum, often also a crossroads, each family erected a small shrine on its own land to its own Lar. Every year in early January, families of neighboring farms would jointly celebrate the Compitalia or Laralia, in honor of these gods. On the night before, the altars would be decorated with dolls and balls of wool hung with string. The next day there would be offerings, games, and a day off and an extra measure of wine for the slaves who worked the land.

The Lares and Slavery. In fact, the cult of the Lares was most closely associated with slaves, chiefly because it was they who worked the land. The health and well-being of field workers was of vital importance in an agricultural economy, and the Lar was concerned with slaves, who were regarded as part of the equipment necessary for farming. The word family, family, originally meant all the slaves, or famuli, owned by a household. This association of the cult of the Lares and slaves was a permanent feature of Roman religion until the Christian emperor Theodosius banned all pagan practices in 392 C.E.

Lar Familiaris. With increasing prosperity and the urbanization of the wealthy, slaves came more and more from the rural into the domestic life of a household. Though they had nothing to do originally with the hearth or food, they became an integral part of the worship of Vesta, the Di Penates, and the family Genius. This change is probably a result of the fact that a slave woman, the vilica, wife of the overseer-slave, was also chiefly responsible for the fire, water supply, and food preparation in the house. She was charged with decorating the hearth with garlands on the Kalends, Nones, and Ides of each month and with praying to the Lar of the house. In this way the Lar became synonymous with the household as a whole. In the atrium or entrance room of a Roman house was a shrine, the lararium, a kind of cabinet at which the Lares, the Di Penates, and the Genius of the family were honored. The Lar eventually became plural, represented as two dancing children with curly hair and dressed in togas tied up high. They were worshiped daily, but especially at all recurring or extraordinary events in the family’s life, such as birthdays, births, deaths, and weddings. When girls and boys reached puberty they dedicated, respectively, their dolls or bullae (good-luck charms worn around the neck on a string) to the Lar. When a family member went away on a journey or returned from one, the Lar was honored. At street junctions in the city the cult of the Lares Compitales was maintained as in the country, and around these neighborhood shrines there developed a kind of religious club, with annually elected officers, who were either slaves or freedmen. These clubs became political factions in the turbulent civil strife of the first century B.C.E., and were at times suppressed. They were reconstituted by the first emperor, Augustus, but the cult thereafter became politicized by being officially associated with the worship of the Genius of the imperial family.

Diana. The name Diana shares the same root as Jupiter and means “bright,” because of her aspect as a goddess of the shining moon. The regularly recurring cycle of the moon’s phases associates Diana with women in their menstrual cycles and thus in pregnancy and childbirth. Like her Greek equivalent Artemis, Diana was invoked by women, especially young mothers in labor, as Eileithyia. She shares this concern with Juno Lucina, with one important difference: Diana is a virgin goddess. Diana also seems to be the divine agency responsible for conferring political leadership on individuals and states. She is a liminal goddess, that is, one concerned with the protection of those in transition from one area of human experience to another. Diana’s cult centers, always in sacred groves in wild forests, were extraordinarily frequent in Latium and neighboring states. Her most important pre-Roman sanctuaries were at Mt. Tifata near Capua and at Aricia, overlooking a small volcanic lake known as the Mirror of Diana. There a primitive custom was maintained. Diana’s priest, known as the rex nemorensis. King of the Grove, retained his “kingship” by dueling with anyone who contested him. A branch from a certain tree was used as a weapon, and the winner either remained king or became the new one. In historical times this honor was sought chiefly by runaway slaves.

Diana at Rome. Sometime in the middle of the regal period (753-509 B.C.E.) the ancient capital city of Latium, Alba Longa, was destroyed by a Roman army and its citizens were forcibly removed to Rome. The remaining independent Latin cities formed a confederation in response to the Roman threat, making Aricia their headquarters. According to semihistorical legend the Roman king Servius Tullius, born of a slave mother, arranged to transfer the cult of Diana from Aricia to Rome, thereby establishing Rome’s political supremacy in Latium. Her new altar and temple were established on the Aventine Hill, and her sacred founding day was 13 August. An archaic inscription laid out the regulations for the maintenance of the temple, and this guide became the legal model for all later temple establishments.

Goddess of Three Forms. Diana was gradually assimilated to her Greek equivalent, Artemis, the Mistress of Animals and midwife. Diana had three dimensions: in the sky she was Luna, the moon; on earth she was Diana protectress of women; and in the underworld, she was Hecate, a goddess of the dead and of witchcraft. Diana, as deity of marginal or transitional places, was especially honored at crossroads, or trivia, by which name she was also sometimes known.

Apollo. The god Apollo was already well established in ancient Greek religion and mythology by the time of Rome’s founding in 753 B.C.E. His areas of concern were chiefly prophecy, healing, and the entry of young men into adult life. He also became associated with music and poetry and the ideal of clear reason. As Phoebus, the Brilliant One, he was also identified with the sun, as his sister Artemis was with the moon. His principal cult centers were on Delos, his island birthplace in the Aegean Sea, and at Delphi on the slope of Mt. Parnassus near the Gulf of Corinth. Greek colonists of Neapolis (present-day Naples) in southern Italy established at nearby Cumae an oracular center of Apollo, where his priestess, an old woman called a Sibyl, would answer people’s questions about present problems or future events. She did this by falling into a trancelike state and scattering palm leaves on which prophetic verses were written; the verses on the leaf selected would answer the question posed.

The Sibylline Books. According to legend, sometime during the reign of Tarquinius the Ancient, the fifth king of Rome (616-579 B.C.E.), the Cumaean Sibyl came to Rome and offered the king nine books of prophetic leaves for sale. He scoffed at her, at which she threw three books into the fire. She then offered the remaining six books, but at the original price. Again the king declined, and again the Sibyl burned three books. The Sibyl offered the remaining three books, again at the original price, and this time the king, aware that something valuable was at stake, purchased them. Whether this story is true or not, some collection of such oracular verses formed the core of an official oracle at Rome, to be consulted only in times of extreme emergency, and then only on orders of the Senate. A special priesthood was established for this consultation, consisting first of two, later ten, and finally fifteen men. The earliest certain consultation of the Sibylline Books was in 496 B.C.E., during a crop pestilence and famine. The books ordered the introduction to Rome of the divine triad of Ceres, Liber, and Libera. In fact, the books were chiefly responsible for practically all subsequent innovations in Roman public religion thereafter, always in response to some portent or crisis such as plague. The books were last consulted publicly in 363 C.E.

Apollo Medicus. Apollo at Rome was thus worshiped mostly as a god of healing. His only temple, until the time of Augustus, lay outside the pomerium, or sacred city boundary, in the Campus Martius, probably because of concerns about spreading illness. It was vowed in 433 during a plague and dedicated two years later by the consul C.

Iulius. In 212 B.C.E., again on instructions from the Sibylline Books, new public games were instituted in Apollo’s honor, at which theatrical performances first became important in Rome.

Apollo Palatinus. Since the founding of the temple of Apollo Medicus, the Julian clan had always had a particular interest in Apollo. When Augustus came to power, he established a new cult center on the Palatine Hill near his own home, dedicating it to Apollo in 28 B.C.E. He thus symbolized the preeminence of his own family’s god (and legitimized his own rule and new political order) over that of Jupiter Best and Greatest, the Capitoline god of the Republic and its magistrates. The Sibylline Books, formerly housed in the Capitoline temple, were transferred to that of Apollo on the Palatine. Even after Augustus’s death, Apollo continued to play a significant role in the Imperial period. We can see a long trend whereby the first emperor’s personal god, in his aspect as sun god, leads to the introduction by emperors in the third century C.E. of the Unconquered Sun. This Eastern god, in the time of Constantine the Great (272-337 C.E.), was rather easily replaced by Jesus Christ. Thus, Christianity became virtually the official religion of the Roman empire.

Aesculapius. We have grown used to a comfortable expectation of high-quality medical care in times of illness or accident. In antiquity, people were much more anxious about disease and health. The mysterious, often hidden, nature of disease was regarded as supernatural. It was Apollo who revealed the hidden causes of illness and provided their remedies. Apollo’s healing capacity was personified in the god Aesculapius, his son by the nymph Coronis, according to Greek mythology. In 293-292 B.C.E. a serious plague struck much of Italy and Greece. In Rome all usual methods of cure were tried, without success. The Senate ordered the Sibylline Books to be consulted; they revealed that Aesculapius was to be brought from the Greek city Epidaurus to Rome. Ten men were dispatched to bring him. When their ship docked, a snake, Aesculapius’s symbolic animal, slithered on board. The ship returned to Rome and as it came up the Tiber River the snake slipped overboard and swam onto Tiber Island, just under the Capitoline and Palatine Hills. Aesculapius’s temple was dedicated there in 291, thereafter the chief healing center in ancient Rome, and it continues as the site of hospitals even today. A serpent curled around a walking-stick remains a symbol of the medical practice. Sick persons were cured through “incubation,” that is, they would lie in the temple at night under the supervision of priest doctors. If they were pious, the god would come to them in dreams and reveal the cause and the cure of their illness. Apollo’s prophetic and healing powers are thus integrated.

Tellus Mater, Ceres, Liber, Libera. To societies almost entirely dependent on agriculture, gods of the earth, crops, and harvesting are important. Since agriculture was invented in what is presently Iraq in about 10,000 B.C.E., we have some idea of the age and the place of origin of these kinds of religion. Once again the sharing of food in the preservation of life is central to religious practice. It must be kept in mind that, in antiquity, meat did not make up much of the total diet and was only consumed as part of religious observance and sacrifice. Grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products made up most of the diet. Very ancient deities of the Roman people were Saturnus and Consus, deified forms of the acts of sowing seed and storing the harvest, respectively. Two goddesses to whom the Romans especially looked for agricultural success were Tellus Mater, Mother Earth, and Ceres, goddess of cereal grain crops. Tellus had her temple on the Esquiline Hill and was usually celebrated together with other deities, especially Ceres. The worship of Ceres and her two associates, Liber and Libera, came to Rome as a result of a plague and the consultation of the Sibylline Books in 496 B.C.E. Her temple was dedicated on the Aventine Hill three years later, and it soon became an organizing and administrative center for the plebeian, or nonaristocratic, segment of Roman society. After 449 B.C.E. copies of all decrees of the Senate were kept there. The cult of Ceres and Libera adopted some of the elements of the Greek mystery religion of Demeter and her daughter Persephone at the famous sanctuary of Eleusis, near Athens, while Liber’s worship took on some of the forms of the religion of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. Bread and wine were potent religious symbols of the renewal of life through the act of sacrificing and sharing of food and drink, even borrowed into the new Christian religion.

Castor and Pollux. Another pair of gods who represented a segment of Roman society were Castor and his twin brother Pollux, though Castor was by far the predominant object of worship. The two brothers were also known as the Dioscuri, Sons of Zeus, represented in the heavens by the constellation Gemini, the Twins. Castor was outstanding as a horseman, Pollux as a boxer. In their Greek mythology the brothers represent the undying loyalty soldiers have for one another. In 499 B.C.E. a coalition of Latin cities had formed against the new Republic in Rome. In a battle at Lake Regillus the Roman ranks began to give way. The general made a vow to Castor and Pollux. According to one source two glorious young men on white horses and dressed in purple cloaks suddenly appeared on the Roman side, giving them courage and causing the enemy to panic. Shortly thereafter these same two horsemen were seen, many miles away, in the Forum at Rome, watering their horses at the Spring of Juturna near the House of Vesta. They announced the Roman victory and suddenly disappeared. In 484 the temple of Castor was dedicated; its remains are still evident.

Borrowing and Adaptation. In fact, stories of the miraculous appearance of Castor and Pollux were already well known in Greece. The Romans had adapted the story as a means of demonstrating the vital importance of their cavalry—and the social class of which it was made—at that time. The ordo equester, the Equestrian Order, was a property class of citizens, those who had enough wealth to maintain horses and the equipment necessary for cavalry combat, but who did not, for various reasons, hold public offices that would gain them entry into the Senate. Castor was the divine patron of this social class. Beginning in 304 B.C.E., on 15 July, every five years a census was taken and a public review made of all those who were included in the Equestrian Order. Dressed in their full armor and military decorations, they would ride from the temple of Mars at the Capena Gate, pass before the censor, who was seated on the steps of the temple of Castor, and continue up to the temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest on the Capitoline.

Castores and the Di Penates. In that part of their cult that concerns the equestrian class, Castor eclipses Pollux. The two brothers are usually called the “Castors” in this respect. But much of their cult derived from the ancient town of Lavinium, where they were very early combined symbolically with the Di Penates, also represented as twin young men.


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Ken Dowden, Religion and the Romans (London: Bristol Classical Press, 1992).

J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

R. M. Ogilvie, The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969).

Robert Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, translated by Antonia Nevill (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, from the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London: Macmillan, 1911).