The Worship of the Roman Gods

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The Worship of the Roman Gods

The Priesthoods.

One remarkable feature of Roman religion was that the priests—who were all males except for the Vestal Virgins—were organized into a number of collegia and other small priestly groups, each with a special function to perform. There were four major collegia, a word usually inaccurately translated as "colleges," for they were actually clubs or associations. First there were the fifteen pontiffs, headed by the chief priest or pontifex maximus who was chosen by his colleagues in the early Roman republic. From the third century b.c.e., however, a pontiff would be elected by the Roman people and held office for life. The emperor Augustus became a pontiff early in his career, and as soon as the incumbent pontifex maximus died in 12 b.c.e., he took over the post. The college of pontiffs also included the flamines (priests), the rex sacrorum (the king of sacred rites), and the six Vestal Virgins. There were twelve minor flamines and three important ones: the Flamen Dialis, the Flamen Martialis, and the Quirinalis, that is, the priests of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, the ancient divine triad of Rome. The flamines were surrounded by various taboos; the Flamen Dialis, for instance, could not be away from his own bed for more than two consecutive nights. Anyone hoping for military renown avoided the office, for no Flamen Dialis could lead an army on campaign. For a long period in the first century b.c.e., the office was vacant. The rex sacrorum took over the sacral duties of Rome's ancient kings—that is, their functions as priests of the state. Presumably, before the last king, Tarquin the Proud, was driven from Rome in 510 b.c.e., he headed the college of priests, and a "king of sacred rites" took over his sacerdotal functions. The presidency of the college, however, went to the pontifex maximus, and as a republican gesture the "king of sacred rites" was barred from all political offices. The second major college was the fifteen augurs who supervised all rituals concerned with the auspices. The third college had the mouth-filling name quindecemviri sacris faciundis, meaning "the fifteen-man committee for doing sacred things." Whenever the Roman senate felt that Rome's collection of oracles known as the Sibylline Books should be consulted, it was this group of priests who carried out the consultation. Finally there was a college that looked after one of the most characteristic institutions of later Rome, the ludi or the Games which were days filled with competitions and amusements for the public. They began with processions when the images of the gods were paraded through the streets; then there would be the shows: horse racing, to which there was later added animal fights and theater productions held in the presence of the gods, whose images would be seated among the spectators. These priests, called epulones, were not the business managers of the ludi; those were usually politicians on their way up the political ladder. Despite the political nature of the Games, the religious aspects of the Games were very important, and in 196 b.c.e. a three-man college of epulones was established to look after


introduction: The Lupercalia was a pagan festival celebrating Rome's legendary twin founders, Romulus and Remus. The name "Lupercalia" must be connected with the Latin word lupus, meaning "wolf," and suggests that this was at one time a primitive rite intended to keep flocks and herds safe from wolf packs. Whatever its origins, the festival became associated with the arrival of the legendary twin infants Romulus and Remus to Rome after their cradle—set adrift on the Tiber River by their wicked uncle—ran aground at the future site of the city. Almost two centuries after the emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, this pagan festival was still being celebrated. Every 15 February, people swept clean their houses and then went out to watch the Luperci run around the boundary of the city, starting at the Lupercal, the cave below the western corner of the Palatine Hill where a she-wolf supposedly suckled Romulus and Remus in their infancy. The festival began with the sacrifice of a goat (or goats) and a dog in the Lupercal, and then the Luperci—young men wearing only loin cloths—ran carrying strips of goathide from the sacrificial victims with which they lashed out at anyone in their way. Women often deliberately placed themselves within reach of the lash in the belief that a touch from it aided in fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. The Roman poet Ovid described the Lupercalia in his unfinished work, the Fasti, which was a poetic commentary on the Roman calendar of festivals. In the excerpt below, he described the discovery of Romulus and Remus by the she-wolf.

The cradle drifts to a dark wood and gradually, As the river languishes, grounds in mud.

There was a tree: traces remain, and what is now called The Ruminal fig was Romulus fig.

A whelped she-wolf (marvel!) came to the abandoned twins.

Who'd believe the boys weren't hurt by the beast? Far from hurting, she even helps. A she-wolf suckles

Those whom kindred hands were braced to kill. She stopped, her tail caresses the delicate babes,
And she shapes the two bodies with her tongue. You could tell they were sons of Mars. They suck the teats

Fearlessly, and feed on milk unmeant for them. The wolf named the place, and the place the Luperci;

The nurse was well rewarded for her milk.

source: Ovid, Fasti. Trans. A. J. Boyle and R. D. Woodard (London: Penguin Classics, 2000): 39.

them. In the first century b.c.e. their number was raised to seven. The epulones also looked after an odd ritual called a lectisternium, which the Roman senate decreed when menacing portents indicated that the gods should be appeased. The images of the gods were placed on the streets lying on pillows, and food of all kinds was set before them. Once fed, and presumably happy, the gods were returned to their sanctuaries. Actually, the epulones ate the food. Not for nothing did the word epulones mean "guests at a banquet." There were other priestly groups, too. The fetial priests looked after foreign relations. They determined that Rome's wars were "just wars," and a fetial priest would perform a ritual before the Roman army crossed into the enemy's territory to make sure that the gods recognized that justice was on the Roman side. The haruspices specialized in the Etruscan lore of interpreting prodigies. Two ancient groups were connected with festivals: the Salii, priests of Mars who put on archaic armor with conical caps and shields shaped like the figure eight, and danced at various places in the city during the festivals of Mars in March and October; and the "Luperci," the runners in the Lupercalia festival. Finally there were the Arval Brethren, an ancient but obscure college during the Roman republic


introduction: After the death of Rome's founder, Romulus, the question of a successor arose, and the people elected Numa Pompilius from the Sabine town of Cures to rule over them. Numa was known as a man of peace who established Roman religion. Roman legend attributed to him the ancient rituals of Roman religion. The following excerpt is from Livy's history of Rome, which was written in the reign of the emperor Augustus; he thus was describing reforms that took place some seven centuries before his own time.

[Numa's] first act was to divide the year into twelve lunar months; and because twelve lunar months come a few days short of a full solar year, he inserted intercalary months, so that every twenty years the cycle should be completed, the days coming round again to correspond with the position of the sun from which they had started. Secondly, he fixed what came to be known as "lawful" and "unlawful" days—days, that is, when public business might, or might not, be transacted—as he foresaw that it would be convenient to have certain specified times when no measures should be brought before the people. Next he turned his attention to the appointment of priests; most of the religious ceremonies, especially those which are now in the hands of the Flamen Dialis, or the priest of Jupiter, he was in the habit of presiding over himself, but he foresaw that in a martial community like Rome, future kings were likely to resemble Romulus rather than himself and to be often, in consequence, away from home on active service, and for that reason appointed a Priest of Jupiter on a permanent basis, marking the importance of the office by the grant of special robes and the use of the royal curule chair. This step ensured that the religious duties attached to the royal office should never be allowed to lapse. At the same time two other priesthoods, to Mars and Quirinus, were created.

He further appointed virgin priestesses for the service of Vesta, a cult which originated in Alba and was therefore not foreign to Numa who brought it to Rome. The priestesses were paid out of public funds to enable them to devote their whole time to the temple service, and were invested with special sanctity by the imposition of various observances of which the chief was virginity. The twelve Salii, or Leaping Priests, in the service of Mars Gradivus, were also introduced by Numa; they were given the uniform of an embroidered tunic and bronze breast-plate, and their special duty was to carry the ancilia or sacred shields, one of which was fabled to have fallen from heaven, as they moved through the city chanting their hymns to the triple beat of their ritual dance.

Numa's next act was to appoint as pontifex the senator Numa Marcius, son of Marcus. He gave him full written instructions for all religious observances, specifying for the various sacrifices the place, the time, and the nature of the victim, and how money was to be raised to meet the cost. He also gave the pontifex the right of decision in all other matters connected with both public and private observances, so that ordinary people might have someone to consult if they needed advice, and to prevent the confusion which might result from neglect of natural religious rites or the adoption of foreign ones. It was the further duty of the pontifex to teach the proper forms for the burial of the dead and the propitiation of the spirits of the departed, and to establish what portents manifested by lightning or other visible signs were to be recognized and acted upon. To elicit information on this subject from a divine source, Numa consecrated on the Aventine an altar to Jupiter Elicius, whom he consulted by augury as to what signs from heaven it should be proper to regard.

source: Livy, The Early History of Rome: Books I–V of The History of Rome from its Foundations. Book I. Trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Classics, 1971): 54–55.

that cared for the cult of an equally obscure goddess known as the Dea Dia. The emperor Augustus joined the Arval Brethren and adapted the college to the purposes of the imperial cult. The revived college inscribed its records on stone, and fragments of these inscriptions have survived, running from 21 b.c.e. to 304 c.e., with the result that historians are better informed about the Arval Brethren than any other college.


The dates of the great festivals were set out in the ritual calendar, which was first drawn up by the legendary King Numa, the successor of Romulus. Copies, inscribed on stone, survive, but almost all date from the reign of Emperor Augustus, and if Numa's calendar ever existed, it had undergone changes over time. Every month except September had festivals. Some lost their original meaning and acquired a new one. The shepherds' festival in April for the protection of their flocks known as the Parilia became a birthday festival for Rome. There were festivals for the dead—the Parentalia every February and the Lemuria in May—which were essentially family festivals. The Saturnalia in December was also a family festival, though it started with sacrifices at the temple of Saturn; the feasting when masters and slaves exchanged roles, and presents were given, all took place inside the household.

Emperor Worship.

Once Rome acquired divine emperors, the worship of the emperor was grafted on to the traditional religion. Temples to the emperors, living and dead, soon became the most prominent temples in Rome and in other great cities of the empire as well. The emperors not only became the high priests of Rome, but, as gods, they received sacrifices. In most of the provinces of the empire, a provincial assembly for the celebration of the imperial cult would meet every year in the chief city. It would hold a festival in honor of the emperor and it would discuss provincial business. If a governor was corrupt, for instance, it could arrange for him to be prosecuted in Rome. The cult of the emperors was not standardized, but it did provide a focus for provincial loyalty as well as a channel for complaints from the provinces to reach Rome.

Jewish Resistance.

The Jews resisted the idea of making sacrifices to the emperors, and the civil authorities made an exception, though the emperor Caligula (37–41 b.c.e.) nearly provoked an uprising in Judaea by insisting that his image be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. Caligula's assassination averted the crisis. The Jews were willing to offer prayers in their synagogues on the emperor's behalf, though they would not offer prayers to him. The Christians, however, were stubborn in their refusal to either pray to the emperor or for him.


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

Frederick C. Grant, Ancient Roman Religion (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1957).

R. M. Ogilvie, The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus (London, England: Chatto and Windus; New York: Norton, 1969).

Ovid, Fasti. Trans. A. J. Boyle and R. D. Woodard (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 2000).

Howard H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1981).

Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did; A Sourcebook in Roman Social History. 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Lily Ross Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1975).

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The Worship of the Roman Gods

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