Roman Religion

Roman religion played a fundamental role in most aspects of Roman society. It was a polytheistic religion with many gods, each with their own specific role. The Roman religion emerged from the worship of Numina and was combined with elements from the religions of surrounding countries. It could be divided into state and private religion. The two strands of religion each have their own ceremonies and significance. Fate is another important strand of Roman religion which had an impact on the Roman people.

The main belief of Roman religion was that if the gods were happy, then they would ensure that the Romans had good fortune. Roman religion emerged from the beliefs of the early Roman people combined with other neighbouring country’s beliefs. The early Roman people lived in an agricultural society. Their livelihood depended on the weather and other elements which were out of their control. Drought could lead to crops failing and food shortages while the dangers of child birth affected the birth rate of the population. Numina were their way of explaining these dangers as they didn’t have science.

Numina were nature spirits which lived in streams, rocks, trees and other aspects of the natural environment. They were believed to have the ability to control nature and event in human life. They were neutral and could harm or help whoever they wanted. The Romans believed if they prayed or sacrificed to the Numina at small alters then they could gain their favour or at least avoid offending them. It was from this early Roman religion that the main view of worship as a contract came. If you worshipped the gods then they would help you.

From the Etruscans to the north came temples and divination while from the Greeks who lived in Italy came the 12 Olympians and their myths. The Olympians became the Pantheon gods who were important in state religion. It was the second king of Rome, Pompilius who established the Roman state religion and the gods which were worshipped. The state gods had major influences upon the Romans. There were 12 main state gods. Jupiter, who was the king of the gods and the enforcer of fate. Juno, his wife who was the queen of the gods and the goddess of womanly things. Mars, the god of war. Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and domestic fire.

Neptune, god of the sea. Minerva, goddess of wisdom. Ceres, goddess of crop fertility. Diana, goddess of the hunt. Apollo, god of healing and prophecy. Venus, goddess of love and beauty. Mercury, the messenger of the gods and lastly Vulcan, god of uncontrollable fire and metalwork. These 12 gods each had their own temples and the Romans would give offerings to them there. The four most important gods within the main 12 were most likely Jupiter, Juno, Mars and Vesta. Jupiter was portrayed as being the Paterfamilias of the empire. He was the chief god and defender of the state and could be asked for help in war.

The portrayal of Jupiter as the father of the empire meant that Romans looked to him for the health of the state. Juno as Jupiter’s wife could be seen as the Matrona of the nation. She was responsible for the birth rate of the nation as well as female concerns such as childbirth and marriage. Because of this she was often prayed to by the Roman women and was important in many ceremonies and rituals. Mars became important to the Romans in terms of empire building. He was seen as a protector and defender of Rome as well as a promoter of military victory and glory.

He was prayed and sacrificed to for good success in war and conquests. Vesta was important in that she personified domestic fire which was essential for daily life. Her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, attended to a fire that burned in her temple. It was believed that while the fire burned, Rome was safe. 3 The Romans were influenced by the state gods as they were able to ask the gods for help within the area of power that the god had control over. All of the 12 state gods, along with many other minor gods and goddesses were able to help the Romans through prayer and sacrifice.

Prayer influenced the Romans as a prayer was the Romans way of contacting a deity. There were four distinct stages to a prayer. Firstly, they must persuade the god to listen. This was done by making sure the go was correctly identified. For example, a pregnant woman would pray to Juno Lucina, not just Juno. If the god isn’t correctly identified, they don’t have the obligation to listen and answer the prayer. Secondly, they must convince the god it is within their power to answer the prayer, either through flattery or by recalling similar deeds that the deity had done in the past.

Thirdly, they would ask the god for what they wanted, making sure the request was humble. Lastly, they would promise an offering in return. 4 Prayers were made to the relevant deity. For example, a prayer for love would be made to Venus. If there was even the smallest mistake in the prayer, then this could be fatal to the fulfilment of the prayer. Prayer influenced the Romans as it led to the belief that if the Romans followed the correct prayer procedures then the gods would answer their prayer. This led to a contract style relationship. Often prayer was accompanied with sacrifice.

For sacrifice, the animal or animals are selected and led to an alter outside the temple. Silence apart from a flute player’s music is called for. The priest then removes any decorations from the animal and sprinkles sacred flour over the animal and the knife. The person says the prayer and then the animal is struck over the head to stun it and its throat is slit. The blood and organs are collected while the rest of the meat was cooked and eaten. 4There was a number of specific things that the sacrifice has to follow. Most important was the selection of the animal.

If the god was male hten the animal should be male and vice versa. If it was an underworld god then the animal should be black, otherwise it should be white. Also, the animal would have to be in perfect condition, otherwise it would offend the gods and likewise if the animal struggled through the ceremony. The sacrifice ritual was a way of establishing a route of communication with the deity. The prayer was used to send the request to the god. The god’s answer would be interpreted either from the inspecting of the organs or from the success or failure of the ceremony.

For example, if the animal struggled while its throat was being slit then this would be a bad omen and a sign of the sacrifices failure. 6 Sacrifice influenced the Romans as they believed that in order for a god to do something for them, then they would have to give it an offering in return. This reinforced the contract style relationship with the gods that prayer created. Priests generally conducted sacrifice ceremonies and were responsible for other important matters in state religions. The priesthoods of Rome controlled Roman religion meaning they had large influences upon the Romans.

There were two main priesthoods, Pontifices and Augurs. The pontifices were in charge of the running of the religion and of lesser priesthoods while the augurs were to make sure an action undertaken by the state had the approval of the gods. The head pontifice was the Pontifex Maximus. Julius Caesar assumed this role during his reign to control popular worship and Augustus followed this by taking the title. This trend continued with the title being given to the Roman emperors as it was deemed too important for an ordinary Roman citizen. 2 The pontiffs controlled worship and performed the important state ceremonies.

They made the rules for public worship, regulated state events and had the power to punish inferior priests. Priesthoods which the pontiffs controlled included the flames and the vestal virgins as well as others. The flamines were priests that were assigned to a certain god or goddess. The flamines had to look after the temple and they performed the sacrificial rituals. The vestal virgins were responsible for caring for the fire that burned at Vesta’s temple. They also guarded special religions objects which were kept in Vesta’s temple. There were only six vestals at any one time that were chosen between the ages of 6-10.

It was a great honour to be a vestal virgin. 4 Augurs interpreted the flight patterns of birds. They were consulted before any major state decisions were taken to ensure that the gods approved. If the augurs saw a sign that was a bad omen then the activity would be stopped or delayed. 4 Priesthoods influenced the Romans as they gave the wealthy opportunities for positions with powers and responsibilities. They also influenced Romans by offering a sense of prestige. For example, wealthy Roman whose daughter was a Vestal Virgin would be looked upon with great respect and admiration.

As well as managing worship, priests also played a part in festivals and the religious calendar Roman festivals influenced the Romans by offering them an opportunity to worship their deities in a large scale. Roman festivals were controlled by the Roman calendar. About half the days on the Roman calendar were festivals or days of worship as the Romans didn’t have a weekend. Some of the festivals had a fixed day, while others could be moved (similar to our Easter) One of the most popular Roman festivals was the Lupercalia which occurred in February.

It was a purification festival which promoted fertility. Two teams of young men would meet at a cave on the Palatine hill. Goats and a dog would be sacrificed and the two team leaders would have their foreheads smeared with their blood and milk. After this was done they had to let out a loud laugh. There would then be a feast where lots of wine was drunk and the young men wearing only the goats skins would race along to the bottom of the Palatine hill. They would use pieces of goatskin to whip anyone they met as they ran. This was believed to promote fertility. As well as festivals which occurred annually, special festivals could be held for crises. Crises could include war, famine, epidemics or bad omens. Festivals offered the Romans many things. They gave them days off work, excitement and something to look forward to and offered tradition. Most importantly they allowed for the worship of a deity by the whole state which would most likely ensure the goodwill of the gods. Festivals influenced Romans as they gave the Romans a break from their daily lives and allowed them to have fun while they worshipped their gods.

While state religion offered a connection between the state and the gods, private religion offered the individual a chance to incorporate the gods into their daily lives. As state religion had its gods which guarded the state, so did private religion. The father of the family took on the role of ensuring that the family took the proper steps to ensure co-operation from the gods in their daily lives. It was important that the Romans received this co-operation and few Romans would make any major decisions in their lives without consulting the gods first.

Most Romans felt they had a personal connection with one of the gods and it would be to this god that they would generally pray to for assistance. The four main household gods were the Genius, the Lares, the Penates and the Janus. The Genius was a spirit which protected the head of the household. The Genius would be honoured on the head of the household’s birthday. During Augustus’ reign, he created a cult to his Genius and turned this idea into a form of a state cult which developed into emperor worship. Worshipping the Genius showed the Romans respect towards the head of the household.

The Lares represented the family’s ancestral spirits. They watched over the home and were the closest things the Romans had to personal gods. However, they didn’t have individual personalities and so remained anonymous and the Romans didn’t have a personal relationship with them. 3 The Lares were worshipped at the Lararium which was a small cupboard where small statuettes which represented the Lares stood as well as other precious items. Any offerings such as incense or wine could be placed in there. Worship of the Lares showed the Romans’ fear of death and the belief that they had to respect the dead encase they became haunted by them.

The Penates watched over the pantry. The Romans honoured these spirits as they ensured that the family had enough food to eat each day. 9 The Penates alter was the hearth which they shared with Vesta. Worship of the Penates show the Romans belief that food is essential for survival and that without it starvation can occur. By worshipping the god of the pantry, they can show their thanks that they have food. The Janus was the spirit which guarded the doorway to the home. He had 2 faces and therefore could look in two different directions.

He is unusual in that he is completely unique to Roman religion, unlike the majority of other Roman gods. The Janus was worshipped so that the Romans could give thanks to the gods for that their homes were protected. 10 Romans worshipped these gods to give thanks for their role in helping the Romans in their daily lives. Romans would give a small daily offering of thanks but on festival days the offering may be bigger and the help of that particular god would be celebrated. For example, the first day of every month was dedicated to the Janus and so a particular offering to the Janus may have been given on that day.

Private religion is also seen throughout the Romans life through rites of passage and not just in daily worship. 4 Rites of passage celebrated the achievements of Romans such as surviving birth and getting married. The gods played a large role in these rites of passage and so it was important the Romans acknowledged their role. Childbirth was a dangerous and risky process in the ancient world. It was believed that the co-operation of the gods and in particular Juno Lucina was essential for its success. Rituals surrounding birth included the picking up f the baby by the father to accept it into the family, the ritual purification of the home by three men to cleanse the home of evil spirits and the offerings made to Juno and Hercules for thanks and protection. These rituals symbolise the uncertainties of childbirth and the belief by the Romans that they needed the gods’ assistance for the child to survive and that they had to give thanks for that assistance. To help protect the child from any evil spirits a bulla or protective amulet would be placed around their neck. 4 The next rite of passage where the gods played a major role was marriage.

There were a number of rituals which took place within the marriage ceremony which were designed to ensure that the gods approved of the marriage. These included examining the organs of a sacrificed animal for any omens, the procession to the groom house where Fesceninne jesting took place to ward off evil spirits and bad luck and the carrying of the bride over the threshold to avoid her tripping which would be a bad omen. All of these rituals were to ensure that the gods approved of the marriage and that no bad spirits or omens would spoil the ceremony. 4

Death was the final rite of passage which a Roman went through. There were many rituals to ensure that the person got to the afterlife without the living becoming contaminated by contact with the dead. Some rituals from the funeral include, the laying of the dying person on the ground to symbolise their returning to the earth, the lighting of the pyre by a close relative who would turn his face away from the pyre so he wouldn’t be contaminated by evil spirits and the cleaning of the house and offerings to the Lares after the eight day mourning period. The Romans knew little about death and so were afraid of it.

Performing these rituals made them feel that the dead person would be able to move into the afterlife and that the living wouldn’t be contaminated by the contact with the dead. All of these rites of passage, along with the daily sacrifices to the household gods show the influence of Roman gods on the Romans. 4 The fates were three goddesses who presided over the fate of the Romans. They were described as being in control of the spinning and the management of the thread of life. Clotho held the distaff, Lachesis turned the wheel and Atropos cut the thread. They were the daughters of Jupiter and Themis.

They determined the length of a person’s life and any important incidents or events that may occur within their life. They had absolute power meaning that anything they said would happen would happen. The gods were able to meddle in this and change how the person arrived at that event but they couldn’t change the event or prevent it from happening. Jupiter was in charge of making sure that the gods didn’t prevent the events from happening. He did this as one of his roles as being the king of the gods was to enforce the will of fate. The fates were always of the same mind and they spared nobody. They affected both common and wealthy Romans.

It was believed that the three of them symbolised that all things have a beginning, progress and an end. Fate influenced Romans in a number of ways. Firstly, fate meant that a Romans life was predetermined at birth which meant that the events in a Romans life were already determined. The Romans reacted to this in two ways. Firstly, although the main events in their life are predetermined, how these events happen and what happens in between them can be influenced by the gods. Because of this, they would still pray and sacrifice to the gods as they still wanted to ensure the goodwill of the gods.

They didn’t take the attitude of ‘what’s going to happen will happen so there isn’t much point in asking the gods for help,’ as this was an arrogant attitude and may offend the gods. The second way they reacted was by trying to interpret omens which were sent by the gods so that they could have some control over their own life. They interpreted omens through divination. Forms of divination include augury, haruspicy, lightning, consulting the Sibylline Books astrology, dream interpretation and interpreting unsought omens. A Roman may have a dream that he is going to be a soldier.

He would interpret this as an omen from the gods that he was fated to become a soldier and when he was ready, enlist. Even though fate is still happening and he is fulfilling his destiny by becoming a soldier, he knew it was going to happen which gave him control over his destiny. It was in this way that divination made the Romans feel that they had some control over a situation where their lives are completely planned for them and they have no free will. It was in these ways that fate influenced the Romans. The Roman gods and fate influenced the Romans in a number of ways.

The state gods influenced prayer, sacrifice, priesthoods and festivals while the household gods affected Roman’s daily lives as well as the rites of passage which occurred throughout their lives. Fate influenced the Romans as it led to them using divination to try and discover what their fate might be. The influence of the gods and fate on the Romans is apparent in most aspects of their lives. Bibliography 1: http://www. roman-colosseum. info/roman-gods/ancient-roman-religion-ceremonies. htm (3) 2: These were the Romans second edition. G. I. F Tingay and J. Badcock.

Published in 1989 by Hulton Educational. (12) 3: Class notes 4: Year 13 Classical studies study guide. Roman religion section written by Gwen Hunter. This edition published in 2006 by ESA Publications (NZ) Ltd. 5: http://www. roman-colosseum. info/roman-architecture/roman-temples. htm (5) 6: http://ic. galegroup. com/ic. whic/ReferenceDetailsPage/ReferenceDetailsWindow? displayGroupName=Reference&disableHighlighting=true&prodld=WHIC&action=e&windowstate=normal&catld=&documentld=GALE%7CBT2357000084&mode=view (6) 7: http://www. roman-colosseum. info/roman-gods/roman-priests. tm (4) 8: An Introduction to the Romans. Lesley and Roy Adkins. Published by Eagle editions ltd in 2002. (8) 9: The Romans and their Gods. R. M. Ogilvie. Published by Hogarth Press in 1986 (13) 10: The Roman world people and places. Nigel Rodgers, consultant Dr Hazel Dodge FSA. Published by Lorenz books. (11) 11: http://www. roman-colosseum. info/roman-gods/the-fates. htm (1) ——————————————– [ 1 ]. http://www. roman-colosseum. info/roman-gods/ancient-roman-religion-ceremonies. htm [ 2 ]. These were the Romans second edition. G. I. F Tingay and J. Badcock

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