Religion in ancient Rome

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Religion in ancient Rome combined several different cult practices and embraced more than a single set of beliefs. The Romans originally followed a rural animistic tradition, in which many spirits were each responsible for specific, limited aspects of the cosmos and human activities, such as ploughing. The early Romans referred to these gods as numina. Another aspect of this animistic belief was ancestor, or genius, worship, with each family honouring their own dead by their own rites.

Based heavily in Greek and Etruscan mythology, Roman religion came to encompass and absorb hundreds of other religions, developing a rich and complex mythology. In addition, an Imperial cult supplemented the pantheon with Julius Caesar and some of the emperors.

Eventually, Christianity came to replace the older pantheon as the state religion of Rome, and the original Roman religion faded, though many aspects of its hierarchy remain ingrained in Christian ritual and in Western traditions.

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[edit] Early Roman cult

Etruscan mythology provided the context out of which Roman culture and religious beliefs evolved. Archaic Roman "mythology", at least concerning the gods, was made up not of narratives, but rather of complex interrelations between gods and humans. The gods were not personified, unlike in Greek mythology. Romans also believed that every person, place or thing had their own genius (such as "Lares Familiares" - the family guardian spirits). Therefore, the early Roman cult could be described as polydaemonism just as well as polytheism.

According to the German historian Georg Wissowa the Romans distinguished two classes of gods, the di indigetes and the de novensides or novensiles. The Di Indigetes were the original gods of the Roman state. The novensides were later divinities whose cults were introduced to the city in the historical period, usually in response to a specific crisis or need.

At the head of the earliest pantheon were the triad Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Their priests, or flamens, were senior to others. Later this triad was supplanted by the Capitoline Triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva.

Early in the history of the Roman Republic, foreign gods were imported, especially from Greece, which had a great cultural influence on the Romans. In addition, the Romans connected some of their indigenous deities with Greek gods and goddesses.

The forms of worship consisted mainly of libations and sacrifices, the most lavish of which were the Suovetaurilia.

[edit] Religion during the Roman Republic

During the Roman Republic, there was a strict system of priestly offices under the governance of the College of Pontiffs, with at its head the Pontifex maximus, which was the most important office. Flamens took care of the cults of various gods, while augurs were trusted with taking the auspices. The rex sacrorum, or "sacrificial king" took on the religious responsibilities of the deposed kings.

As contact with the Greeks increased, the influence of Greek religion was increasingly felt. The old Roman gods became associated and sometimes syncretized with Greek gods. Therefore Jupiter was perceived to be the same deity as Zeus. Mars was associated with Ares and Neptune with Poseidon. The actual fact is of course that Jupiter had a distinctive Italic flavour that Zeus did not, and Juno retained as much of her Etruscan forebear as she borrowed from the Greek Hera. It is a simplistic mistake to assume that the Roman gods simply absorbed completely the attributes and histories of these Greek gods, though they did come to be associated with them.

The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities to Roman Gods, and the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance and political influence remained. Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to centre on the imperial house, and several emperors were deified after their deaths.

[edit] Changes under the Roman Empire

Under the Empire religion in Rome evolved in many ways. Numerous foreign cults grew popular, such as the worship of the Egyptian Isis and the Persian Mithras. The importance of the imperial cult grew steadily, reaching its peak during the Crisis of the Third Century. Also, Christianity began to spread in the Empire, gaining momentum in the second century. Despite persecutions, it steadily gained converts. It became an officially supported religion in the Roman state under Constantine I. All cults except Christianity were prohibited in 391 by an edict of Emperor Theodosius I. However, even in the fourth and fifth century Roman paganism kept its vitality. Temples were still frequently visited, ancient beliefs and practices continued.

[edit] Imperial cult

Main article: Imperial cult

The divinity of the emperor and the cult surrounding him were a very important part of religion in the Roman Empire. In an effort to enhance political loyalty among the populace, they called subjects to participate in the cult and revere the emperors as gods. The emperors Augustus, Claudius, Vespasian, and Titus were deified, and after the reign of Marcus Cocceius Nerva, few emperors failed to receive this distinction.

The Roman religion in the empire tended more and more to center on the imperial house. Especially in the eastern half of the empire imperial cults grew very popular, and the cult complex became one of the focal points of life in the Roman cities. As such it was one of the major agents of romanization. The central elements of the cult complex were next to a temple; a theatre or amphitheatre for gladiator displays and other games and a public bath complex. Sometimes the imperial cult was added to the cults of an existing temple or celebrated in a special hall in the bath complex.

Evidence for the importance of the imperial cult include the "Achievements of the Divine Augustus" (Res Gestae Divi Augusti), written upon two large bronze pillars once located in Rome, Roman coins where the Emperor is portrayed with a halo or nimbus, and temple inscriptions such as "Divine Augustus Caesar, son of a god, imperator of land and sea..." (Roman Temple Inscription in Myra, Lycia).

[edit] Absorption of foreign cults

As the Roman Empire expanded, and included people from a variety of cultures, more and more gods were incorporated into the Roman religion. The legions brought home cults originating from Egypt, Britain, Iberia, Germany, India and Persia. The cults of Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus were particularly important. Some of those were initiatory religions of intense personal significance, similar to Christianity in those respects.

[edit] Spread of Christianity

Christian missionaries traveled across the empire, steadily winning converts and establishing Christian communities. After the Great Fire of Rome in July 19, 64, Emperor Nero (56-68) accused the Christians as convenient scapegoats who were later persecuted and "martyred". Persecution recurred especially at times of civic tensions and reach their worst under Diocletian (284 to 305). Constantine I (324-337) ended the persecutions by establishing religious freedom through the Edict of Milan in 313. He later convened the historic Council of Nicea in 325, a year after ending the civil war of 324 and emerging as the victor in the war of succession. Catholic Christianity, as opposed to Arianism and other heretical and schismatic groups, became the official state religion of the Roman empire on February 27, 380 through an edict issued by Emperor Theodosius I in Thessalonica and published in Constantinople . All cults save Christianity were prohibited in 391 by another edict of Theodosius I. Destruction of temples began immediately. When the Western Roman Empire ended with the abdication of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476, Christianity survived it, with the Bishop of Rome as the dominant religious figure.

[edit] End of paganism

[edit] Intellectual trends

The distinctions among philosophy, religion, cult and superstition that would be made by an educated Roman of the 1st century BC can be read in Lucretius, a philosopher following Epicurus. Most educated Romans were Stoic in the outlook on life. The transference of the anthropomorphic qualities of Greek gods to Roman ones, and perhaps even more, the prevalence of Greek philosophy among well-educated Romans, brought about an increasing neglect of the old rites, and in the 1st century BC the religious importance of the old priestly offices declined rapidly, though their civic importance remained. Many men whose patrician birth called them to these duties had no belief in the rites, except perhaps as a political necessity. Nevertheless, the positions of pontifex maximus and augur remained coveted political posts. Julius Caesar used his election to the position of pontifex maximus to influence the membership of the priestly groups.

[edit] Religious practice

Before the rise of Christianity in most cults orthopraxy (doing the right things), was more important than orthodoxy (believing the right things). This is the case in Roman religion too. Daily life was impregnated with religious practice.

  • Sacrifice/banquets
  • Annual priesthoods
  • Processions
  • Oracles
  • Votive inscriptions
  • calendar

[edit] Festivals

The Roman religious calendar reflected Rome's hospitality to the cults and deities of conquered territories. Roman religious festivals known from ancient times were few in number. Some of the oldest, however, survived to the very end of the pagan empire, preserving the memory of the fertility and propitiatory rites of a primitive agricultural people. New festivals were introduced, however, to mark the naturalization of new gods. So many festivals were adopted eventually that the work days on the calendar were outnumbered. Among the more important of the Roman religious festivals were the Saturnalia, the Lupercalia, the Equiria, and the Secular games.

Under the empire, the Saturnalia were celebrated for seven days, from December 17 to December 23, during the period in which the winter solstice occurred. All business was suspended, slaves were given temporary freedom, gifts were exchanged, and merriment prevailed. The Lupercalia was an ancient festival originally honoring Lupercus, a pastoral god of the Italians. The festival was celebrated on February 15 at the cave of the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where the legendary founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, were supposed to have been nursed by a wolf. Among the Roman legends connected with them is that of Faustulus, a shepherd who was supposed to have discovered the twins in the wolf's den and to have taken them to his home, in which they were brought up by his wife, Acca Larentia. See founding of Rome.

The Equiria, a festival in honor of Mars, was celebrated on February 27 and March 14, traditionally the time of year when new military campaigns were prepared. Horse races in the Campus Martius notably marked the celebration.

The Secular games, which included both athletic spectacles and sacrifices, were held at irregular intervals, traditionally once only in about every century, to mark the beginning of a new saeculum, or "era". They were supposed to be held when the last person who had witnessed the previous Secular games died, marking the beginning of a new era. The tradition, often neglected, was revived as a spectacle by Augustus and honoured by the poet Horace with a series of odes.

[edit] Human sacrifice

Although most of the Romans sacrifices were animals, such as black sheep for Mars, the Romans still made some human sacrfices as part of an ancient tradition. Slaves, prisoners of war and others were sacrificed by burying them alive to placate the Manes and the Fates in certain circumstances. Human sacrifice became less common during the Republic, but it still happened occasionally - usually in times of extreme danger. After the Battle of Cannae, male and female pairs of Greek and Gallic slaves were buried alive to placate the angry gods. This also happened in 228 and 113 BC.

Plutarch (Quaest. Rom. 83) even noted that the Romans had something of a double-standard when it came to human sacrifice he wrote : Did they (the Romans) think it impious to sacrifice human beings to the gods, but necessary to sacrifice them to the Manes?

It has been thought that the ceremony on May 15 where the Vestals threw puppets made of rushes from the Pons Sublicius was a memory of an earlier time when old men had been thrown from the bridge in sacrifice (binding and drowning human victims being ancient Indo-European practice): Ovid denies it, which suggests that already in Antiquity some Romans must have thought so. At the 'Feriae Latinae' puppets were hanged from trees — the so‑called oscillatio — possibly in memory of an earlier practice where young boys were sacrificed in this way (again, ritual hanging being another form of Indo-European human sacrifice). When the sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, expanded the walls of the city, four human bodies were buried under the wall surrounding the Palatine Hill. These bodies have been excavated. it is believed they are now in a museum in Italy.

Roman religion series
Offices
Augur | Flamen | Haruspex | Pontifex Maximus | Rex Nemorensis | Sacred king | Vestal Virgin
Beliefs and practices
Apotheosis | Festivals | Funerals | Imperial cult | Mythology | Persecution | Sibylline Books | Temple
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Religion in ancient Rome

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