The Religion of Early Rome

views updated

The Religion of Early Rome


The Romans honored the religion of their ancestors, whom they referred to as "the greater ones"—in Latin, the maiores. While the Greeks and all peoples in the ancient world also honored their ancestors' religions, the Romans were excessively conservative. They believed in superhuman divine beings as far back as surviving Roman history records exist, but at the same time, the Italian countryside that the Romans knew always remained the home of a multitude of little deities without human form. A grove of trees would be home to a god, as would a river or a stream or a spring. There was a host of small gods in charge of sowing the crops: the deus Occitor who looked after the harrowing, deus Sterculinius who looked after spreading manure on the fields, Sarritor who looked after hoeing, and Messor who looked after reaping, to name only a few of them. The priest of Ceres, the goddess of production, would invoke them all when he made sacrifice. Some of these unseen spirits were malevolent. Every 25 April, the Robigalia was held at a grove outside Rome to appease Robigo, who was the god—or goddess, for the Romans were not sure of Robigo's gender—of grain rust, the fungus which plagued the farmers' crops. The guts of a dog were burned on Robigo's altar and he was invited to stay away.

Keeping the Good Will of a Spirit.

Suppose a landowner had a wooded area on his farm and wanted to thin the trees. Cato the Elder, the earliest Latin writer to produce a treatise on agriculture, instructs his readers first to sacrifice a pig, and then to repeat this prayer:

Whether you who hold this grove sacred are a god or goddess, as it is proper to make you the sacrifice of a pig as a propitiative offering for disturbing this hallowed place, and hence, for these reasons whether I or someone designated by me carried out the sacrifice, provided that it be performed correctly, for this reason in sacrificing this pig, I pray in good faith that you be kindly and benevolent to me, my home, my family, and my children. For these reasons, accept the honor of the sacrifice of this pig as a propitiative offering.

It was not a sin to cut down trees. Roman religion was not greatly concerned with sin. Instead, the Romans regarded gods and goddesses as beings with rights and prerogatives, and one of them was the right not to be disturbed. If they were disturbed, they had to be propitiated. The prayer that Cato prescribed to appease the god of a grove that was about to be violated by a woodman's ax sounds like a legal proposition, and in a way, it was. Roman prayer always offered the god a bargain. If the god granted a petition, then the petitioner would do the god a service in return.

Gods of the Household.

Every Roman house had its guardian gods. The Penates were gods of the pantry, but they came to symbolize the household. The outer door of the house, the ianua, was in the care of the god Janus. Little guardian gods called Lares were responsible for the security and well-being of the household. A house would have a little shrine to its Lar—or its Lares, if there was more than one, as there often were—called the lararium. Once the Romans began to think of their gods in human forms, the Lares would be depicted as dancing figures wearing short tunics and carrying vessels for libations and saucers for offerings of salted meal. There were also Lares that protected a neighborhood, called the Lares Compitales and Lares that protected the whole city of Rome called the Lares Publici or the Lares Praestites, for the city was, in a sense, an extended family. There was a religious festival called the Laralia, held for the Lares on the first of May each year.


Religion that recognizes formless supernatural spirits living in trees and rocks and streams is known as animism. The word derives from the Latin anima, meaning "soul," and animism assigns every stream or tree a soul or divine spirit, endowed with a right not to be disturbed without its consent. The Romans called this divine spirit a numen, a word with the basic meaning of nodding assent, and then by association it came to mean the divinity that nods assent or sometimes refuses it. At one time, scholars thought that at first Roman religion was purely animist, only later becoming more sophisticated as they came into contact with their neighbors—particularly the Greeks—and learned to make images of their gods in human forms. In fact, the Romans made images as far back as their earliest images exist. Nonetheless, in primitive Italy there was a good deal of animistic belief. Animism explains, for instance, one ritual in early Rome that took place whenever the Romans embarked on a war. Before a general led his army out of the city, he first went to the Regia, which housed shields and spears sacred to Mars. He shook a sacred spear with the cry, "Mars, awake!" The numen of Mars, the spirit of war, was clearly somehow within the spear, and a good shaking roused it from its slumber. If a spear was seen to tremble of its own accord, that was a bad sign. It meant that the numen was apprehensive.


The god of doors and gateways was Janus, and since to enter a house or a city, one must pass through a gate or door, Janus became a god of beginnings. Whenever a prayer was addressed to a list of gods, his name was mentioned first. There was a freestanding gateway in the Roman Forum, the "twin gate of Janus," which was opened to release the magic forces of battle whenever the Romans were at war, which they frequently were. The gateway represented Janus, but once the Romans began to portray their gods in human form, the symbol of Janus became a man with a double-faced head: one face looking forward and the other backwards. The first month of the year was named after him, and his festival was on New Year's Day.


Franz Altheim, History of Roman Religion (London, England: Methuen, 1938).

Georges Dumézil, Archaic Roman Religion. Trans. Philip Krapp (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, From the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London, England: Macmillan, 1922).

H. J. Rose, Religion in Greece and Rome (New York: Harper, 1959).

About this article

The Religion of Early Rome

Updated About content Print Article