The Religion of the Roman Republic

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The Religion of the Roman Republic

The Early Beginnings.

Early Roman history and Roman mythology are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate the two. Legend described how Rome's first king, a son of Mars named Romulus, founded Rome in 753 b.c.e. He first asked the gods for divine approval, then laid out the sacred boundary—the so-called pomerium of his city—and built Rome's first temple to Jupiter Feretrius, that is, Jupiter the Striker, who smote Rome's enemies. Romulus' settlement was on one of Rome's Seven Hills, the Palatine, and archaeologists have found early cuttings in the bedrock there that were left by a prehistoric settlement. Romulus himself may be fictitious, but the habitation on the Palatine Hill was not. The Romans evolved a legend long after Rome was established that told how it was founded. Its mother city was Alba Longa, a Latin town which was founded generations earlier by the son of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who escaped from the destruction of Troy and came to Italy. Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, had a wicked great-uncle who had usurped the rule of Alba Longa from their grandfather, and, recognizing the two infants as a threat, he set them adrift on the Tiber River when it was in flood, fully expecting never to see them again. Their cradle floated ashore at the future site of Rome, however, and a she-wolf that had lost her whelps suckled them. A herdsman named Faustulus, who was the woodland god Faunus under a thin disguise, also cared for them until they developed into two husky young men. Upon reaching adulthood, they first disposed of their wicked great-uncle and restored their grandfather to the throne; they then journeyed to the Seven Hills of Rome to found a city. Remus was soon eliminated. He was killed either by Romulus himself or by one of his followers. Then Romulus attracted new settlers by offering asylum to men who were fleeing their native lands for some reason. He remedied the dearth of women by stealing them from a Sabine settlement on the Quirinal, another of Rome's Seven Hills. The Sabines, an Italic people on the fringes of Latium whose relations with the early Latins were more often hostile than not, were incensed by the abductions, but instead of fighting to the death, they united with the Romans to form a single community. Thus Rome from the beginning was a multicultural community, and archaeology lends credence to this theory, for the earliest burials found in the Roman Forum were both inhumation and cremation instead of either one type or the other, which one would expect if the population were homogeneous. Moreover, the union between the Romans and the Sabines may not have been a coalition of equals, for Romulus' successor was a Sabine, Numa Pompilius. Romulus himself vanished—snatched into Heaven, according to one legend, murdered according to another—and he was assimilated to the god Quirinus, a Sabine god who seems to have been the Sabine counterpart of Mars.


Quirinus is a colorless god. There were no myths told about him. He did have a festival that was held every 17 February, and Quirites, meaning the "Quirinus' people," was sometimes used as a synonym for "the Roman people." He was a member of Rome's ancient triad of gods that consisted of Diespiter (Jupiter), meaning "the father god"; Mars, Jupiter's son; and Quirinus, who was the son of Mars, since Rome's founding myth told that Romulus' father was Mars. Rome's first emperor, Imperator Caesar Augustus (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.), thought of taking the name "Romulus" as appropriate for his new status, and he rebuilt the temple of Quirinus in Rome. Romulus' fratricide was not forgotten, however, and Quirinus, the deified Romulus, was left in obscurity.

Numa's Calendar.

Roman legend claimed King Numa as the founder figure of Roman religion. He gave Rome its twelve-month calendar to replace the ten-month calendar that began with March, the month of Mars, which Romulus' city had borrowed from Alba Longa. Numa's calendar fixed the dates for the religious festivals. Numa's successors are shadowy figures, but then Rome fell under Etruscan domination. The last three kings to rule Rome—Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius, and Tarquin the Proud—were Etruscans, and very likely historical figures.


Ancient Etruria was a little more than half the size of modern Tuscany in Italy, which takes its name from the Etruscans. On the west, its boundary was the Tyrrhenian Sea; on the south and south-east, it was the Tiber River; and on the north, the Arno River which flows through modern Florence. Most of the modern knowledge of the Etruscans comes from their tombs, which suggest that they were excessively religious with a gloomy view of the afterlife. Paintings, particularly from tombs of a later date when Etruscan power was declining, show terrifying demons which the dead would presumably encounter in the afterlife, and Etruscan ossuaries (depositaries for the bones of the dead) often have relief carvings showing the dead person, with face veiled, being escorted by a demon carrying a long-handled hammer, his face twisted into a wolfish grimace. The tombs show that the Etruscans spared no expense on funerals, and paintings from the heyday of Etruscan power show a people who loved banqueting, dancing, horse racing, and athletic contests. Women and men mingled freely, unlike in Rome where patriarchal power separated the two sexes.

In ancient Greece and Rome, it was generally believed that the Etruscans were immigrants from Asia Minor who arrived in Italy during the so-called "Dark Ages" (1100–800 b.c.e.), and there is a kernel of truth to this, for a people speaking a similar language lived on the island of Lemnos in the north Aegean Sea until near the end of the sixth century b.c.e. We find the cult of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Etruria, and the theory that the Etruscans were refugee Trojans has attracted some scholars, but it cannot be proved. They spoke an unknown language, but they wrote it using the Greek alphabet. They were also among the best customers for Greece's exports. The great majority of Greek vases that are in modern museums outside Greece itself came from Etruscan tombs.

Rome came under Etruscan domination in 625–600 b.c.e., and the largest Etruscan temple that was ever built was the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Etruscan influence on early Rome is hard to measure. The Etruscans possessed sacred books on augury and divination, and Rome considered Etruria a source of knowledge in occult skills. As Rome's power grew, Etruria's faded, but Etruscan augury still commanded respect even into the Christian era.

The Etruscans.

Roman legend veiled the uncomfortable fact that the Etruscan takeover was a conquest with a story that the first Tarquin left Tarquinii where he suffered discrimination because he was the son of a Greek, and came to Rome where he became a respected citizen and was chosen king by a popular vote. Tradition also told that Tarquin's name in Tarquinii was Lucumo, and in Etruscan cities, the lucumo was the chief magistrate. Tarquin, whose name was the Latinized form of a common Etruscan name, tarcna, probably came to Rome as a conqueror. With the Etruscans came their triad of gods—Tinia (the "Sky-Father"), Uni, and Menrva—who became Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Romans already had a divine triad of gods—Mars, Jupiter, and Quirinus—who were by no means forgotten. The new triad, however, took pride of place, and on the Capitoline Hill there arose a great temple with a grand portico to house them. This was the greatest temple in the whole Etruscan world, and it remained the largest temple in Rome until the fall of the Roman Republic. It had three rooms for its three divinities, but in the middle shrine, clothed in an embroidered tunic and a toga, sat a terracotta statue made by the Etruscan sculptor, Vulca of Veii. It portrayed Jupiter Optimus Maximus, that is, "Jupiter, the best and greatest god" who now absorbed the attributes of Tinia, the "Sky-Father." In fact, the Romans sometimes invoked him simply ascaelum, meaning "sky." The traditional date for its dedication was 509 b.c.e. A year before, the last Etruscan king had been expelled from Rome.

Etruscan Legacies.

The Romans owed two other rites to the Etruscans. One was the art of augury: how to divine the future by observing the flight of birds or examining the viscera of sacrificial animals. The Etruscans were experts at reading omens from the size, shape, color, and markings of the vital organs, particularly the liver and the gallbladder. One tool of the augur's craft has been found at Piacenza in Italy. It is a model liver made of bronze that is divided into forty sections labeled with the names of gods. There were Etruscan textbooks: Books on Lightning, Books on Ritual, Books on Fate, Books of the Haruspices (Soothsayers) on interpreting signs and portents, and Books on Animal Gods. Lightning was a significant foretoken. In which of the sixteen divisions of the heavens was it seen? The Etruscan Books on Lightning would have an answer. Tinia threw three kinds of thunderbolt, and eight other gods threw one kind each. If the omens were bad, what sort of expiation would avert disaster? Consulting the Books of Haruspices would be in order. The Romans were apt pupils, though they never took the occult sciences of the Etruscans quite as seriously as the Etruscans did themselves. The other Etruscan legacy was the Roman triumph. How much of the ritual was Etruscan is not known, but as time went on, the triumph developed into a parade where a victorious general entered Rome in a chariot and proceeded through the Roman Forum to the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Before him were paraded his prisoners and the spoils of his campaign. He wore the regalia of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and his face was painted red. Behind him in his chariot stood a servant who repeated, "Remember that you are a man!" The triumph was an honor that generals in the Roman republic sought eagerly, and after the fall of the republic, it was reserved for emperors.

The Influence of the Greeks.

Greek influence arrived early to Rome. A legend related that before Romulus founded his city, there was a Greek colony on the site of Rome. There were flourishing Greek cities in Sicily and southern Italy, and Rome was soon in contact. The result was that Rome's gods became identified with Greek gods. Mars and the Greek Ares were both war gods so they were equated even though they had little else in common. Aphrodite was identified with the Roman Venus, Artemis with Diana, Athena with Minerva, Hera with Juno, and Zeus with Jupiter. Hestia was Vesta and the Titan Kronos became Saturn. Apollo remained Apollo, and stayed on the sidelines until the emperor Augustus endorsed his cult and built a great temple for Apollo on the Palatine Hill. Dionysus was known by his alternative Greek name, Bacchus, which does not appear in Greek usage before the fifth century b.c.e., and his festivities were called the Bacchanalia. Heracles became Hercules, and his worship was an early import from Greece. Sacrifices made to him at the Ara Maxima (the Greatest Altar) in Rome were according to the Greek rite: that is, the priest officiated with head uncovered, and not with head covered as was the Roman custom. These Greek immigrant gods brought their myths with them. Latin literature began when an ex-slave, Livius Andronicus, who was probably a Greek, produced Latin tragedies and comedies in Rome, based on Greek models and using Greek myths for subject matter. He also translated Homer's Odyssey into rough-and-ready Latin verse. Hera became Juno, Zeus Jupiter, and Athena Minerva, and the Romans were told titillating stories about their gods that were revelations. The Romans learned from Homer that Venus was married to Vulcan and had an affair with Mars. The discovery must have come as a shock to many of them.

The Preeminence of Greece.

By the end of the third century b.c.e. there was a circle of Roman nobles who were so influenced by Greek culture that they preferred to speak Greek at home rather than Latin. Greek art was prized, and when Rome's empire expanded into the Greek world, the Romans found plenty of it to plunder. They also wanted copies of Greek sculpture for their houses and gardens, and Greece developed an export trade in replicas to meet the demand. Most of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture are known to us now through Roman copies, which were actually copies made by Greek craftsmen for the Roman trade. In the religious imagination of Rome, Roman gods began to look like their Greek counterparts. Modern cultural historians might consider this a degeneration of Roman culture, but it is unlikely that the Romans saw it that way. Roman culture changed constantly as a result of borrowing from a circle of contacts which expanded as Rome's imperial dominion grew, and many Romans thought the process strengthened rather than weakened Latin traditions. Not all Romans were so accepting of Greek culture, however. There was a reaction, and one figure associated with the reaction was the first Roman author to produce a work in Latin prose, Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 b.c.e.). He authored the first history of Rome in the Latin language. It has not survived, but his treatise On Agriculture has, and it pays special attention to the traditional rites of the farmers who tilled the Italian countryside. Greek culture might capture the imaginations of upper-class Romans, but ritual remained intensely conservative.


introduction: The word flamen seems to mean something like "priest" or "sacrificer," and there were fifteen of them, of whom the flamines for Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus were the most important. They had to observe various taboos, and this excerpt from Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights, part of which is quoted below, reports the taboos that the Flamen Dialis (the priest of Jupiter) and his wife had to observe. It was not always easy to find candidates for the office. Julius Caesar considered it in his youth but thought better of it. Aulus Gellius, a Roman lawyer and litterateur who lived in the second century c.e., wrote a collection of table talk in twenty books titled the Noctes Atticae, which report a great assortment of information that he has gleaned from his reading. In this case, his source is Rome's first historian, Fabius Pictor, who lived in the last quarter of the third century b.c.e., and Gellius recalls—evidently from memory—what he has read.

These are the taboos that I recall from my reading. There is a religious ban against the Flamen Dialis riding a horse. Similarly there is a ban against his viewing the Roman people armed and in battle order outside the city boundary of Rome. For that reason, the Flamen Dialis was elected consul very seldom, for the consuls are entrusted with high command in war. Likewise it is never lawful for him to swear an oath by Jupiter, and it is also unlawful for him to wear a ring, unless it is pierced and without a gem. It is not lawful for fire to be removed from the Flaminia, that is, the home of the Flamen Dialis, unless it is being taken to be used in sacrifice. If a prisoner in fetters enters the house, he must be released, and the fetters must be pulled up through the impluvium, [the opening in the roof above the main room of a Roman house, called the atrium] to the roof, and from there be dropped down on to the street. The cone-shaped cap he wears must have no knot on it, nor can there be a knot on his belt or on any other part of his clothing. If anyone who is being taken off to be flogged falls at his feet as a suppliant, it is a sin to flog him on that day. Only a free-born man may cut the hair of the Flamen Dialis. Custom requires the Flamen neither to touch nor even utter the name of a female goat, or raw meat, ivy or beans.

source: Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights. 10.15. Translated by James Allan Evans.


G. Barker and T. Rasmussen, The Etruscans (Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998).

Alain Hus, Les Étrusques (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1959).

R. M. Ogilvie, Early Rome and the Etruscans (Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1976).

Robert E. A. Palmer, Roman Religion and the Roman Empire (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974).

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The Religion of the Roman Republic

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