Roman Religion


Italic foundations.

The basic indigenous religion of Rome first took shape in the primitive and patriarchal agricultural community from which Rome emerged. Its form and nature were similar to those of the religions of neighboring Italic peoples, the Oscan and Umbrian tribes, which hemmed in the enclave around the Tiber which the Lat. people occupied. The primitive Rom. religion may be glimpsed in Ovid’s monumental Fasti and in parts of Varro, Livy, Macrobius, and Aulus Gellius. It was animistic, recognizing deity in spiritual presences, rather than in the persons of anthropomorphic gods. Such spirits dwelt in and about natural features, rivers, woods, springs. Prospero’s “elves of hills, woods, standing lakes and groves” (Tempest 5:1) touches the thought. They had power to aid or harm, and their presence was felt in the sense of awe which pervades the human spirit before Nature’s strength, beauty, power, or beneficence. As one stepped into the woods (silva), the heart might be lifted in prayer to Silvanus. Neptunus derives his name in like fashion from a primitive Italic word for water. Portunus was the tutelary spirit of harbors (portus). Augustine, in a satiric passage (De Civ. Dei. 4.8), makes fun of this Rom. faculty for coining names of deity, and no doubt in the strict sense of the word it was polytheistic, but it is a little less than just to the religious sense of the early Italian, who thought thus to address a power of which he was aware, and with which he sought contact, but which he could not envisage or wholly understand. There was some concept of a supreme deity. Jupiter, or Diespiter, as he was primitively called, was the spirit of the sky (diei pater, father of day or of daylight) and was adapted to this role, but the early Italic farmer was more preoccupied with the spirits of his environment. Therefore such periodic festivals as the Saturnalia at the time of sowing (sero satum) and the Robigalia, which sought to avert blight (robigo) from the crop were held. The house was full of such spirit presences. Ianus was the spirit of the door (ianua), Vesta of the hearth (the primitive root means “to burn”), and the Penates the guardians of the stored food (penus). The Lar familiaris prob. protected the slaves. “In its sphere,” wrote Cyril Bailey, “the functional will is powerful. It must be approached with a sense of awe—for this is what religio appears first to mean—but its normal relation to men is kindly, and its goodwill may be kept by the offering of appropriate gifts at the appropriate time” (“Religion and Philosophy,” in The Legacy of Rome, p. 240). Moreover these cults of the countryside persisted long after Rom. religion was overlaid and transformed by importation from Greece and the E, even after the coming of Christianity. Augustine’s attack was delivered not on the Graeco-Roman pantheon, but on the little gods of the ancient litanies. In cults of local saints and rural rituals and feasts, it is possible to this day in country districts of Italy to find traces of the ancient religions absorbed into the practices of Christianity.

The religion of the city.

The rural festivals, when Rome became the absorbing and central scene of Lat. life were maintained with appropriate new significance. Cyril Bailey, in the essay already quoted, summarizes well: “The old rustic spirits took on new functions in their new surroundings: Iuppiter, the skyspirit, and therefore the god of oaths sworn under the vault of heaven, becomes the deity of internal justice; Mars, in the main at any rate an agricultural deity in the earlier stage, becomes now the god of war. In this stage there are from our present point of view two features of special note. In the first place we have the gradual but unmistakable establishment of a State religion. The old cults had been in the hands of individual households: the State now takes them over and consecrates them to its own uses. A great temple is built on the Capitoline Hill—the centre of the new Rome—and in it is established the worship of a divine triad symbolizing the religious majesty of the State, at first Iuppiter, Quirinus, and Mars, symbol no doubt of the union of the two old settlements on the Palatine and Quirinal hills, and then, after Etruscan influence had made itself felt, Iuppiter, Iuno, and Minerva. A priestly hierarchy too was created, flamines for the principal deities, and the college of pontifices, associated with many of the minor rites presided over by the pontifex maximus, who becomes the repository of sacred law and keeps the secret of the festival calendar, which he only reveals to the people month by month. The vague contract-notion in the earlier relation between god and man is embodied now in the juristic system of the State: the ius divinum becomes a department of the ius civile” (The Legacy of Rome, p. 243, 244).

Just as the cults of the country permeated daily life, so the same beliefs and practices penetrated and infused the life of the larger household, the State. Augury and auspices, whose theory and form was an adoption from those experts in ritual and divination, the Etruscans of central Italy, who dominated Rome in the early days of her kings, dominated all the affairs of state. A real institutional religion with colleges of pontiffs and priests grew round such practice and provided model and framework for the Church.

It was at this time that Rome also developed her practice of absorption. It was part of the spirit of the old Italian religion that it saw and recognized divine life everywhere. Hence, the readiness to assimilate the cults and deities of subjected peoples. Minerva appears to have come from Falerii to be the patroness of trade guilds, Castor and Pollux from Tusculum, and Hercules, the Italian form of Heracles, from the southern Gr. communities, as the legends of Rome’s foundation grew and the hero found a place in it, one such legend being poetically expanded in Book 8 of Vergil’s Aeneid. It was a trait of Rom. character, visible in the infinite adaptations of local government to serve the ends of her imperial control, that she found herself able so to assimilate. Hence, the clash of State and Church, when Christianity, which refused all compromise, demanded full commitment and an unchallenged monopoly over life.

The Greek invasion.

“Captive Greece,” wrote Horace, “led captive her fierce conqueror” (Epistle 2.1.156). This was true of religion as well as of lit. and art. Rome’s willingness to accept and receive met its most transforming challenge when the Republic, becoming a Mediterranean and imperial power after the Punic wars which filled the second half of the 3rd cent. b.c., made wider contacts with the Greeks in Sicily and their own Hellenic homeland. Roman belief ran strongly in the direction of Gr. anthropomorphism. Her native deities fused with the gods of the Gr. pantheon. Jupiter was Zeus; Hera, Zeus’s consort, was therefore Juno. Neptune was Poseidon; Mars, Ares; Minerva, Athena; Diana, Artemis; Mercury, Hermes; while Bacchus or Dionysus found his counterpart in the old nature spirit Liber. The lesser deities were not omitted. Faunus, the old patron of agriculture and shepherding, became Pan. Curiously, Apollo found no parallel. He was an early introduction from Etruria, in fact, and was accepted as a god of healing as early as 433 b.c. Games for Apollo, the ludi Apollinares were established in 212 b.c. In Augustus’ day his cult, thanks to the enthusiasm of the prince for the god whose aid he had evoked at the decisive climax of Actium, was widely extended. The young bright god was, in the mind of Augustus, a symbol of hope for the new Rome which he sought to create, and a central figure in the revival of old worship which the prince sponsored.

In Ennius (239-169 b.c.) and Plautus (251-184 b.c.), two of the earliest extant writers of Rome, one sees the process of identification almost complete. Perhaps the need to tr. aided the process, a curious convention which extended its influence as far as the trs. of the KJV, who, in the story of Paul and Barnabas at Lystra (Acts 14:12), render the Zeus and Hermes of the original as Jupiter and Mercury. Ennius gives the full list of the Gr. deities under their Lat. titles (Ann. 1. frag.). Ennius’ list falls into two hexameters: Iuno Vesta Minerva Ceres Diana Venus Mars/Mercurius Iovis Neptunus Volcanus Apollo. Plautus does the same, adding Latona, Spes, Ops, Castor, Pollux, Virtus, Hercules, Summanus (identified with Pluto), Sol, and Saturnus, all of whom, except Latona and Summanus, had temples in Rome.

In the midst of this wholesale identification of Rom. cults and deities with those of Greece, Italian cults of primitive antiquity were maintained in Rome itself and served by aristocratic priesthoods. There is, for example, the priestly college of the Arval Brethren, an ancient agricultural cult which was restored by Augustus as part of his great religious revival in 21 b.c. A hymn of this primitive ritual dating back to the 5th cent. has been preserved, almost unintelligible in its ancient Lat., but significantly addressed to Mars, still an agricultural deity.

It is possible therefore to picture the religion of Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries b.c. as a composite and intermingled phenomenon, with ancient country cults in city dress, old deities—transformed and Hellenized—worshiped in temples like those of the Gr. world, Italian rituals of divination tangled with obscure Etruscan practice and attached to the worship of various deities in the service of the State, in all an astonishing syncretism of past and present, race and race. It was without doubt a vast confusion that contributed heavily to the prevailing skepticism in urban society in matters of religious belief—that skepticism which marked Rom. society at the end of the Republican era. The result was that the gods of the pantheon became little more than the devices and ornaments of lit. The practice of official cults continued with little meaning, and under the protection of Rom. conservatism was fed by a measure of superstition. In the countryside the old cults continued almost in their ancient forms. In the private practice of individuals religion took what form it could. Cyril Bailey concludes: “So beneath the surface of the Graeco-Roman religion the old faith survived: in the houses at Pompeii we find small shrines peopled with statues not of the Graeco-Roman hierarchy but of little Lares and Penates, and the real religious affection of Virgil—the most truly Roman of the poets for all his Greek culture—lies not with the gods of Olympus, but with the di agrestes of the Roman countryside. And if the common people thus possessed their souls in the old faith, salvation came also to the educated from the source which at first sight seemed the most destructive influence of all—Greek philosophy” (p. 247).

Philosophy is outside the scope of this article but there is no doubt that, with the collapse of religious belief, philosophy provided a religion and a way of life for more thoughtful Romans. Stoicism was undoubtedly such a force for many Romans in the last cent. of the Republic and the opening cent. of the Empire. Epicureanism, in the minds of characters as varied as Cicero’s friend Atticus, and the poet Lucretius, also became a way of life and a system of belief. Cicero, Horace, Seneca, all in their different ways and to different depths of personal experience eclectics, found in philosophy the comfort and the steadying strength which an outmoded paganism denied them. But there was another outcome, for the starved Rom. spirit sought satisfaction. See the discussion below.

Eastern cults.

The Rom. faculty for adaptation and absorption of alien religions has already been noted. As the expansion of the geographical empire continued, more and more foreign deities confronted the Romans, and more and more of them found acceptance in her hospitable pantheon. The Gr. gods moved in on the strength of Gr. culture. They were part of the expanding empire of Hellenism. Beyond Greece lay Asia with its vast complex of “mystery” cults and fertility rituals, and from Asia came the next great inflow of religious lore and experience into Rome. The situation indicates a vacuum in the Rom. spirit which some sought to fill with philosophy, others with the exotic religions of the alien.

The state itself, in fact, once gave a lead. In one of those moods of collective self-condemnation which occasionally mark her history, as early as 204 b.c. at the end of the second war with Carthage, Rome had introduced from Phrygia in Asia Minor the cult of the Great Mother or Cybele. It was an orgiastic cult, served by dancing drum-beating eunuch priests, with strange and horrible rites of mutilation and ecstatic experience. Such emotional refuge has been sought by certain types of mind in all ages in revolt against formalism and frigidity in accepted religion. The worship of Cybele in Rome became so popular that the Senate was constrained to regulate it. It inspired the most weird of Catullus’ poems (63).

Later, in the Mithridatic wars of the first half of the last pre-Christian cent. (88-63 b.c.), legionaries found the Cappadocian goddess Ma with its ritual of the taurobolium, or baptism in bull’s blood, a path to “eternal rebirth.” Later the conquest of Egypt brought the cult of Isis to Rome with its fastings and resurrection-drama. Such cults were entrenched before the end of the Republic, and Augustus, endeavoring to restore the earlier Graeco-Roman and more primitive Italian cults, found it impossible to suppress them. With similar urgency, and no doubt with no greater real success, the Senate had sought, as early as 186 b.c., to crush the orgiastic rites of Dionysus in southern Italy where, through the influence of worshipers in the Gr. communities, they had gained a foothold (Livy 39.8-18). The senatorial decree, put out on this occasion, is a precious example of early Lat. (CIL 1.196). Habitually, such cults meet suppression by going underground.

By the 3rd cent. many other eastern cults, those of the Syrian Atargatis, the Phrygian Sebazios and the Persian Mithras, were widely established. Mithraism may, indeed, be traced back to Sulla’s day, but the 2nd and 3rd cent. a.d. were its heyday, chiefly in the Rom. army. Mithraea are found in London and on Hadrian’s wall, and the cult of the god, not an ignoble one, was a serious rival of Christianity.


The worship of the spirit of Rome and the emperor has been dealt with under a separate heading. Suffice it to point out in conclusion that its concept, though finding origin in the deification of the rulers of the E, had roots in the old Italian concept of deified abstractions. If the mystery cults met the challenge of Christianity on the emotional level, the monotheistic speculations of philosophers from Cicero, Seneca, and Epictetus, to Marcus Aurelius on the philosophical level, Caesarism met it on the social and political level. The Christian faith came to a world hungry, and insecure and unsatisfied, to a morally disintegrating society, and to utter religious confusion.


W. Wallace, Epicureanism (1880); S. Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (1898); R. D. Hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (1910); F. Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra (tr. by T. J. McCormack) (1910); W. W. Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People (1911); E. V. Arnold, Roman Stoicism (1911); E. Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics (1913); W. W. Fowler, Roman Ideas of Deity (1914); S. Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1919); T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire (1919).