The history of Roman religion before the 5th century b.c. is obscure, and it is likewise complex, because Roman religion from an early stage exhibits a fusion of Italic and Etruscan elements with the Roman core proper. However, Roman religious institutions were remarkably conservative and persistent, and with the data furnished by Roman calendars, antiquarians, historians, archeology, and comparative religion, it is possible to get a reasonably clear and reliable idea of the basic religious concepts and institutions at least from the 6th century b.c. The Roman calendars, in particular, are of the greatest value in the reconstruction of early Roman religion. At the outset it may be stated that Roman religion was predominantly agrarian in character and that even the later calendars still stress the agrarian cycle of feasts and ritual.
Early Roman Religion (to 218 B.C.). The Latin word religio is best explained as meaning a "feeling of awe" or "anxiety" toward supernatural powers or forces (numina ). These numina were regarded as dwelling in natural objects and in specific localities and as having a decisive role in every aspect of human life and activity. They were not thought of originally as personifications of natural forces but, primarily, as "spirits." This animistic character of early Roman religion helps to explain the striking fact that the Romans never created a mythology of their own. The primary concern of Roman religion was, by prayer, sacrifice, and scrupulous observance of
ritual, to establish friendly relations with the numina governing the myriad activities of life, and thus to have reasonable assurance of their help and protection. Magic also played a very important role in Roman religion. It was regularly employed in both public and private life to discover the will of numina and to make certain of their help or, on the other hand, to obtain effective protection against the harmful actions of malevolent spirits.
Family Religion. Family worship was centered in the house, fields, and boundaries of the farmstead. A host of numina or spirits presided over the various parts of the house and the activities of house and farm. The Penates guarded the pantry; and Janus, the door. Vesta, the spirit of fire, was present in the hearth. The pater familias had an indwelling Genius; and the mater familias, an indwelling Juno. The Lares protected the fields. All these spirits were the object of cult, and the pater familias was the priest of the household—which included slaves as well as members of the family proper. A special festival, the Terminalia, was held in honor of the boundary stones, and in May the Ambarvalia was celebrated to insure the fertility of the fields. It included a solemn procession, prayers, and the sacrifice of a pig, sheep, and ox (suovetaurilia ). Other feasts, likewise connected with agriculture, were celebrated throughout the year, and magic practices of various kinds were employed to ward off evil spirits or diseases. The spirits of the dead, the Di Manes, were honored at the feast of the Lemuria, which was held in May. At first, the spirits of the dead were feared, and the rites were intended to propitiate them or drive them away. At the later feast of the Parentalia, however, relatives decorated the graves of their dead without fear and out of a feeling of duty and affection. Family religion in country areas remained at once relatively primitive and vital to the end of antiquity.
Religion of the State. According to Roman tradition King Numa established the Roman calendar with its cycle of feasts and its listing of days on which public business could or could not be conducted (dies fasti et nefasti ). The king himself was chief priest. He was assisted primarily by two collegiate priesthoods, the College of Pontiffs, and the College of Augurs. After the establishment of the Republic (c. 509 b.c.), the two colleges mentioned became the two most important religious bodies in the state. The chief pontiff, the Pontifex Maximus, was the head of the state religion, with supervisory control over religion in general. A rex sacrorum continued, to some extent, the religious functions of the Roman kings. In the absence of a priestly caste, Roman magistrates served in these colleges and performed the priestly functions. The College of Pontiffs kept the calendar and were the guardians and interpreters of ius divinum and ius humanum, retaining a monopoly over the legis actiones or forms of pleading until the late 4th century b.c. The main business of the pontiffs was to maintain the pax deorum, the proper relations between the divine powers and the state. The College of Augurs, by observing the flights of birds and other phenomena, indicated whether the omens were favorable or unfavorable regarding a public action to be taken. In matters of grave concern the Romans made use of the Etrusca disciplina, or hepatoscopy. A priesthood, the flamines, performed certain rites in honor of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus; the Salian brotherhood were devoted to the worship of Mars; and the vestal virgins spent the greater period of their lives in the cult of Vesta as symbolized in the sacred hearth fire of the state. A special college of priests, the Fetiales, carried out magico-religious ceremonies connected with the declaration of war. The Roman triumph after victory was a solemn religious act of thanksgiving.
The Romans honored their divinities with sacrifices of animals, first fruits, libations, and prayers. The animals sacrificed were chiefly pigs, but sheep and oxen also were immolated. Every five years a solemn lustratio or purification of the city was held, consisting of a procession, sacrifices, and prayers. Of the early Roman temples, that erected to Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol was the most important. It should be noted also that the ludi, or public games of the Romans, were religious in origin and long maintained their religious character. The religious rites of the state had to be carried out with scrupulous exactness. They inculcated a spirit of discipline and order, but they had little emotional appeal.
Foreign Cults and Spread of Anthropomorphism. The Italic cults of Diana, Fortuna, Venus (a vegetation divinity), and Minerva (a goddess of weaving) were introduced very early. The worship of the triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, was probably of Etruscan origin. Greek influence came through the Etruscans or through increasing contacts with the Greek South. Among the Greek divinities introduced at Rome before the Second Punic War were Apollo, Hercules, Castor and Pollux, Ceres, Liber, and Libera (Greek Demeter, Dionysus, and Persephone), Mercury (Hermes), Neptune (Poseidon), and Aesculapius. A collection of the sibylline oracles was in use by the early 4th century b.c. and was entrusted to a special college, the Decemviri sacris faciundis. Greek divinities were worshiped with a ritual adapted from the Greek (Graecus ritus ). The carrying of gods on couches (lectisternia ) in procession, and processions of supplication (supplicationes ) in times of grave crisis, were also of Greek origin. By the late 3d century, anthropomorphism had made great progress. The more important old Roman numina had acquired or were acquiring human form and were being assigned the attributes of their approximate Greek counterparts. Vesta, however, remained immune from anthropomorphism, and her temple contained no statue.
From the Second Punic War to the End of the Republic (218–231 B.C.). The long and terrible war with Hannibal caused an outburst of all kinds of superstition and led the state to resort to alien cults that seemed more effective. The Ludi Magni were celebrated with great pomp in 217; the Ludi Apollinares were instituted in 212; and the Ludi Megalenses, in 204. These games were intended primarily to honor the gods, but, by furnishing entertainment at the same time, they lessened anxiety and tension. After Cannae (216), the Romans buried alive two Gauls and two Greeks in the Forum Boarium to appease the angry gods. Later a supplicatio was decreed and a lectisternium in which 12 Greek and Roman gods were carried side by side, thus indicating that the Roman religion had really become Greco-Roman.
In 205, on the advice of the Sibylline Books, the cult of Cybele, the Great Mother of Asia Minor, was introduced at Rome, and her fetish, the black stone of Pessinus, was brought with all solemnity to Rome and placed in the Temple of Victory on the Palatine. Subsequently, the Romans restricted the cult of Cybele as much as possible, but it had come to stay. The orgiastic cult of diony sus or Bacchus spread to Rome from South Italy, but in
186 it was suppressed by the Roman Senate, whose stern decree, Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus, is extant. On the other hand, from the early 3d century the state itself fostered the cults of abstract personifications, as that of Victory mentioned above. Thus Libertas, Pietas, Concordia, Salus, Pax, among others, were the object of cult. Caesar himself received divine honor indirectly by the erecting of a temple to his Clementia.
Vitality of Oriental Cults and Decline of the State Religion. Despite the vigilance of the state regarding the introduction of foreign cults and its refusal to give them full or even partial official recognition, the great influx of Greeks and Orientals into Rome in the 2d and 1st centuries led to the spread not only of new Greek cults but, especially, of Oriental cults that were highly emotional. They had elaborate liturgies and a professional priesthood, and promised an afterlife to their devotees. The Mysteries of isis and osiris, for example, came to Rome c. 100 b.c., a century after the introduction of the worship of the Great Mother of Asia Minor. Along with Oriental religions came astrology and other forms of magic and superstition.
The official cults of the state had lost all emotional appeal for the masses, but they continued to be maintained—if
in a neglected way—as a part of the governmental machinery by men who no longer held the old beliefs. They were even exploited by more or less unscrupulous candidates for high office, who used them merely to serve their political ambitions. Caesar, for example, although one of the confirmed agnostics of his age, sought and obtained, the office of Pontifex Maximus, the highest religious office in the state.
Impact of Greek Literature and Philosophy. The influence of Hellenism on Rome began in the 6th century b.c., but it became especially intense and all but over-whelming from the last half of the 3d century. A formal Latin literature was created under the direct influence of Greek models, and Latin antiquarians and poets connected Roman origins and Roman religion with Greek traditions and divinities as far as possible. Anthropomorphism now reached its full term, and Greek mythology was taken over by Latin writers and adapted to serve literary ends. The mythology of the Latin poets is simply Greek mythology in Latin dress. Aeneas the Trojan became the founder of Rome, and Caesar traced his ancestry back through Aeneas to Venus and Anchises. This religion of the poets reflects literary sophistication and convention rather than genuine belief, and it was so regarded by the small educated class for which it was written.
The rationalistic outlook of poets had its foundation in the rationalism of the Hellenistic Age as exemplified by Euhemerus, who was translated by Ennius, the father of Latin poetry. Under the impact of Hellenism, educated Romans became familiar not only with the older and contemporary Greek literature, but also with the various schools of Greek philosophy, especially with epicurean ism and stoicism, which were the most influential. While Epicureanism led to the repudiation of traditional religion as superstition, Stoicism gave an allegorical interpretation of the old myths, and its religiophilosophical teachings offered intellectuals an attractive and meaningful way of life. However, through Posidonius especially, Stoicism found a place for astrology and astral religion in its system. The typical rationalistic attitude of the educated Roman is well exemplified in the pertinent writings of Cicero and Varro.
Under the Empire. Octavian began a systematic revival of the old state cults in the years before Actium (31), and then, as Augustus, founder of the Principate, he carried out this policy on a much wider scale. He instituted the Ludi saeculares in 17 b.c., and in 12 b.c., after the death of Lepidus, he assumed the office of Pontifex Maximus—held subsequently by all his successors until it was relinquished by Gratian, a.d. 382. He rebuilt temples throughout Rome, restored the old priesthoods, and required them to celebrate the rituals of their respective cults with the earlier regularity and pomp. He enlisted the help also of the great contemporary poets Horace, Vergil, and Ovid in his program of restoring the Old Roman cults and their celebration.
But the most important of his religious innovations was the imperial cult. It was in part Hellenistic, but the emphasis on the public worship of the Genius of the emperor, especially in Rome and Italy, gave it a Roman character as well. It was intended to serve as an effective symbol of unity in the universal empire of Rome and also to promote a deeper loyalty on the part of the army to its imperator, or commander in chief. Gradually, the imperial cult and its priesthoods lost much of their appeal, but they enjoyed a marked revival in the period from Aurelian to Diocletian. Under the influence of the central administration and the model set by Rome, the religious cults of the Roman provinces, despite local aspects, assumed more and more the Roman pattern, at least in external form.
Mystery Religions and the Spread of Superstition. The most vital forms of religion under the Empire were the Greco-Oriental mystery religions, especially the Mysteries of Isis, of Cybele (Magna Mater Deorum ), and of mithras. Their highly organized emotional cults and their promise of salvation and afterlife to their devotees appealed to all classes of society. The cult of Mithras was essentially a religion for men and was very popular in the legions; Mithraic shrines are found from Syria to Britain. Pagan religious credulity and superstition reached its high point under the Principate. Oracles, dreambooks, and other forms of divination had a wide vogue. Men like Apollonius of Tyana and Alexander of Abonoteichos acquired great celebrity as miracle workers, although the latter was a notorious charlatan.
Philosophy and Religion. With the exception of Epicureanism, which was in rapid decline in the 2d century a.d., philosophy in general became progressively more occupied with religion. Stoicism, Middle platonism, and neo-pythagoreanism were really religions, or at least religious philosophies. Astral religion, with its accompanying fatalism, had numerous adherents in this period also and, as already noted, had found a place within Stoicism. The supposed revelations of Hermes Trismegistus and other Gnostic teachings, derived from Oriental as well as Greek sources, combined philosophy, religion, and magic in more or less fantastic ways. Syncretism was a marked feature in all these philosophical religions. Furthermore, philosophy was regarded as a religious way of life. Hence there is frequent mention of "conversion," as in a strictly religious sense.
The last great philosophy of antiquity, neoplato nism, founded by Plotinus (fl. 250–270), was a religion as well as a philosophy. With modifications by Porphyry (223–305) and Iamblichus (d. c. 330), Neoplatonism was able to include all pagan beliefs in its system. Thus, late paganism acquired a systematic theology, and in this form it became much more formidable to Christianity. Its refutation demanded the new kind of Christian philosophical and theological apologetic that is evident in St. Augustine's treatment of the major tenets of Porphyry in his City of God. Philosophical paganism was a conspicuous feature of Julian's attempted revival and of the circle of Macrobius. It had a continued life in the philosophical schools of Athens until their closing by Justinian in a.d.529.
Persistence of Old Roman Religion. Despite the decay of the old Roman religion in Rome and other large urban centers in the West and the triumph of the mystery religions, and subsequently that of Christianity in these same centers, the old Roman agrarian cults and magic practices retained their vitality in the more remote municipalities and, above all, in country districts. The popular sermons of St. Augustine, Maximus of Turin, and other Christian preachers of the late 4th and early 5th centuries refer repeatedly to the continued observance of old pagan feasts and the resort to magic practices. Even as late as the 6th century martin of braga and caesarius of arles found it necessary to condemn by name pagan superstitions and practices mentioned in the calendars of the late Republic and early Empire.
See Also: afterlife, 3; greek religion; greek philosophy (religious aspects).
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[m. r. p. mcguire/eds.]