On the Roman Religion

A compendious reference to organization, deities, rituals, and history of the Religion of Rome

For a more condensed survey of the Roman Religion: Ancient Roman Religion, by Revd Frank J. Gelli

The Roman Religion

The Concepts

To the Romans, law (lex) was supreme. Law was natural, which is to say,divine, emanant, arising from the order of the universe as governed by the gods, and the law of man was the codification of the inspired teachings of those whose piety permitted them to perceive this natural order. Law was a binding (ligare, to bind, 1 from the same root as lex) of the human will to the divine will. Religion (res legis) was, therefore, inextricably interwoven with every feature of life, and the law was as sacred as the temple, if not more so, for it partook of the intellect, which alone could comprehend the true nature of divinity. The religion of the Romans was inseparable from civic duty and responsibility, and every citizen was equally bound to the law and to every other citizen by that same law. Government was the administration among men of the law, and the roles of King and Priest were originally held by the same man. In the Republic, the magistrates were consecrated upon the assumption of their offices, and their acts had the force of religion behind them. The priests were charged to interpret the rites and to advise the state, i.e., the senate, the people, and their magistrates, of their several and combined obligations to the gods. The religion of the Romans in its purest form existed from the beginnings of the Roman people until the beginnings of the Empire, after which major changes in the state compelled concomitant changes in the religion.

Evolution of Roman Religion2


Roman Religion in Legend


The primitive religion of the Romans is known to us only through the literary and physical remnants of the late Republic and Empire, a time when even the Romans were uncertain of the facts of their history. The traditions of the Romans regarding their religion are preserved in such various sources as Plutarch, Tacitus, Cicero, and the fragmentary writings of Varro and Livy. There is no perfectly preserved manual of worship or beliefs. The Sibylline Books, which were the basis of most religious practice, were lost in Antiquity, reconstituted through the efforts of the Roman pontiffs, who gathered Sibylline sayings from scattered sources, and then lost again during the long period of Roman decline in the West. It is, therefore, a matter of deduction and conjecture, to reconstruct the form of Roman paganism.

The Origins

The origin of Roman religion is to be found in the traditional foundation story of Rome itself. The core of Roman beliefs is derived from the common Greco-Ionic paganism, said to have been imported by Æneas from Troy. Vergil speaks of the bringing of the Trojan gods to Italian soil in the beginning verses of his Æneid, inferretque deos Latio. The Trojans, themselves Ionians, descended from colonists from the Hellenic mainland who had married with the local population and built the cities of the Troad. Anchises, the father of Æneas, was the son of Capys, a Phrygian, and Themiste, the sister of Laomedon. Podarces, called Priam, was, therefore, the cousin of Anchises, who became King off the Dardanians. Most of Anatolia was dotted with cities founded by Greek settlers. Ionia was for a long time the intellectual center of Hellenic civilization. From the Iliad and other works we know that the Trojans and Greeks worshipped the same gods. The familiar Greek Pantheon of Olympians was accepted and adored in Troy, and the Ionians went so far as to place an Olympus and an Ida among the mountains of Asia Minor.

Italy, in like manner, was heavily colonized by the Greeks, and was, in fact, called Magna Graeca, Greater Greece (not in the sense of greater than Greece, but in that of an outlying area of Greece, as the counties surrounding New York City are termed the greater New York area). In bringing the domestic gods of his house to Italy, Æneas was carrying nothing religiously new to his new homeland. The Sabines claimed to be a colony of Lacedaemons (Spartans)3, and had certainly preceded the Romans in Italy.

In addition to the Greek gods, called Consentes, the generally accepted greater gods brought to Italy by Æneas and the Grecian colonists from the Hellenic mainland (Diomedes among them), there were native deities, the Indigetes, among the aboriginal Italians, deified heroes such as Faunus of the Latins or locally worshipped deities of rivers or springs. In the three hundred years that elapsed between the coming of Æneas and the founding of Rome, these deities became accepted among the Romans, and the whole character of Roman religion was altered by the adoption of Etruscan concepts.

The Etruscans, considered to be among the oldest and most highly cultured of the aboriginal Italians by both the Roman and later historians, became the model for much of Roman society as the city grew and expanded its territories into those of the neighboring peoples. The basic governmental and religious forms of the Etruscans were taken up, and Etruscans became the regulators of Roman religion, acting as advisors and holding the important positions of augurs. In any religious question4, the Etruscans were the ultimate authority to whom the Romans turned for definitive answers.

Fundamental to the Etruscan idea of deity was the notion of manus, or power, the Force, if you will, which they believed to underlie all of creation and which manifested iteslf to humans as the gods. Manus became concentrated in certain places and could be harnessed to assist humans. Those who could discern the motions of this power, who could tap into it, would be in touch with the divine and would be favored in their lives. (This is a principle in many philosophies and religions, especially in the East. But consciousness of this power is not enough: one must possess the wisdom to become a conduit for it.) The Etruscans were a powerful people and had attained an high level of civilization long before the Romans had grown beyond their rustic culture, clear evidence of their abilities both to understand the manus and to use it wisely, and it was natural that the Romans should have taken the Etruscans as their mentors. The pupils eventually superseded their masters, as sometimes happens, and the manus was transferred to the Romans.

At the time of the founding of Rome, given by the Romans as occurring April 21, 753 B.C., the Roman religion was probably approaching the form that it would bear through the next 700 years, a Latin sect of Etruscan rites. The Latin gods had become as important, or nearly so, as the primary gods worshipped by the immigrant Trojans. Thus Bellus and Bellona, the Latin god and goddess of war, were given almost the same importance as Mars, and Mars himself was sometimes openly identified as Bellus. Zeus, whom the Romans called Juppiter or Jupiter, was anciently called by his root name Dios, God, in Latium, and the Romans named his priest Flamen Dialis5. Dios had a female counterpart, Diana, and the pair were likened to Zeus and Juno.

The principal offices of the Roman religion were said to have been established by two men, Romulus and his successor Numa. The first King, Romulus himself, was the head of the Roman church, which was only fitting, since he was divinely descended in both his paternity and maternity, his father being Mars and his mother Rhea Silvia, daughter of the Alban King Numitor, the heir of Æneas, son of Venus.

Romulus (or Numa) created the Decemvirs, the Ten, who were the primary college of pontiffs, in whose charge were the Sibylline Books. Romulus was the chief augur, and his crooked staff, the lituus, with which he described the sacred space of the templum upon the earth, was afterwards kept in the Temple of Mars, where it was discovered unharmed amid the ashes after the destruction of the city by the Gauls.

Romulus founded the first temple in Rome, the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius, Jupiter Hammerer, to which deity he dedicated the opima spolia, the highest spoils, which he had taken in single combat. The Temple could not have been less imposing, for it consisted merely of a sacred oak on the Capitoline, the dedicated trophy, and an imaginary plan which Romulus had composed ex tempore on the spot. Such was the simplicity of Roman religion at its beginnings, that the mind of the king encompassed the entirety of its sacreed buildings. It also emphasizes the point that the temple was a concept more than a building, and it could be composed of nothing more than the space that the worshipper had described on the earth. (The actual temple structure was built or expanded by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king, founder of Ostia, and grandson of Numa .)

The last important addition to the primitive Roman religion also was made through Romulus, who accepted into the city the gods and the rites of the Sabines when Tatius and his people were admitted into Roman citizenship. Even after the death of Tatius, the Sabine influence remained in the Roman religion. The only significant changes that were to be made thereafter to the established religion came in the reign of Romulus' successor, Numa Pompilius.

Numa, king by acclamation, 6 was recruited by the Romans from the Sabines. He was already esteemed as the most pious7, and therefore wise, man in Italy. Accepting of the kingship only reluctantly, he was the first and foremost example of the philosopher-king. It was said that Pythagoras was his acquaintance and that the philosopher was made honorary citizen of Rome. Like Pythagoras, Numa believed that fire was the primary principle of the universe, that blood sacrifice was odious to the deities, and that peace was the highest civic goal. In furtherance of these beliefs, Numa consecrated the Eternal Flame and established the Vestals8, originally two in number, as the keepers of the vigil beside it; abolished all blood sacrifices, ordaining that only grains, fruits, and other products of agriculture should be offered on the altars of Rome; created a college of priests, called Fecials (or Fetials), whose sole purpose was the mediation of all disputes, and without whose permission war might not be raised by the Romans. Also, upon the testimony of Julius Proculus, a senator and friend of Romulus, Numa founded the Quirinals, the priesthood of Quirinus, the name by which Romulus wished to be called after his assumption into the ranks of the gods9.

In addition to the Quirinals and Fecials, Numa is credited with the creation of the Salii, whose dance in full martial accouterments was instituted to avert a plague that had settled upon the city. (A bronze shield fell from heaven into Numa's hands, and he was told by Egeria, his personal tutelary deity, that it would deliver the city from the pestilence. He ordered that it be replicated in eleven copies so exact that the original and the copies could not be distinguished, thereby confounding any prospective thief. The smith Mamurius Veturius alone proved capable of the replication, to the extent that not even the king himself knew which was the original.) Numa directed that the field on the Aventine in which he was wont to meet with Egeria was to be held sacred, and that the spring that arose therefrom was to be used by the Vestals for the purification of their temple. The dance of the Salii, evidently a mime in which the battle motions of an infantryman were combined with features of close-order drill set to music, was performed throughout the month of March thereafter, each performance being followed by sumptuous banquet. Modern equivalents can be seen in the parade drills of quasi-military clubs, although divested of their religious meanings.

Numa further pronounced that the transcendent nature of deity was such that it could not be represented or contained by any image or shape, either human or bestial, and that none of the temples should contain any statue or painting of the gods. Plutarch relates that Roman religion was aniconic from the first, and it must be assumed, therefore, that this prohibition by Numa was not an innovation but a codification of existing practice. (As Æneas was represented as having saved the lares and penates of his household from the sack of Troy, which were commonly small statues or figures10, the statement in Plutarch must be in reference to the public religion rather than the private. The public aniconism persisted, according Plutarch, through the one hundred seventieth year after the founding of the city.)

As Pontifex Maximus, Numa reformed the calendar, giving it the arrangement that it would hold down until the Julian regularization. The year of ten months and 360 days was changed to one of 365 days, divided into twelve months. January became the first month.

Such was Numa's success in his administration, that there was peace throughout Italy for forty-three years continuously, the doors of the Temple of Janus, which were opened during times of war, being shut throughout his reign, a span never after equaled. However, the permanence of his law was illusory.11

The religious reformation enacted by Numa, like that of Akenaten in Egypt, was personal, and its rigor terminated with his death12. The next King, Tullius, aptly surnamed Hostilius, disdaining the pacific policies of his predecessor, proclaimed that the true heritage of Romulus and the destiny of Rome was to be found in warfare, and resumed the interrupted conquest of Italy13. The doors of the Temple of Janus remained open, with but one brief interval, until shut by the hand of Augustus after the civil war with Antony. Blood sacrifices also returned. The resumption of Rome's bellicose and bloody ascent to empire marked the end of the primitive phase of Roman religion, which became fixed and continued without significant alteration through the ensuing five centuries until the introduction of the Magna Mater during the Punic Wars.

So stable had the Roman religion become, that not even the ending of the kingship could disturb its structure. The regulation of the religious practice remained in the pontiffs, but the religious duties that once had been vested in the King were devolved upon the magistrates. The consuls, as the new chief officers of the Republic, discharged the rituals that were necessary to the proper order of the state14, and it was their obligation to see that all of the religious ceremonies that had been ordered were properly and promptly performed. All of the Roman magistrates had certain religious duties and powers ex officio, and all were considered inviolable in their persons.

The growth of the Roman state into the East brought the Romans into contact with the religious traditions of Asia more directly than at any time since the emigration of the Trojans. The result of this contact was one of reaction, as the state repeatedly placed a ban upon all Eastern superstitions and cults within the city. Astrology and the Egyptian and Semitic religions were particularly singled out for exclusion as being harmful to the public order. However, when the Punic War protracted with such grievous losses, the Romans opened the Sibylline prophecies to learn what might be done to bring the war to a conclusion. One saying was found applicable: "The mother is missing." This cryptic message being uncommunicative, the Romans sent to the Delphic Oracle to learn what it meant, and received the reply that the Mother Goddess was absent and must be transferred to Rome, where she would extend her protection and the war would be ended favorably. The story of how this was accomplished is told elsewhere.

The rites of the Magna Mater were unsavory to the Romans, who disliked the ecstatic self-mutilations of the priesthood, the Galli, and there were restrictions placed upon the public exhibitions that the rites required. It was the last Eastern religion and the last Asiatic influence allowed in Roman religion until the deification of Julius Caesar after the pattern of Alexander the Great, which was itself Asian.

The religion of the Republic remained constant until the Pontificate of Julius Cæsar, who added five to the number of the Decemvirs, creating the Quindecemvirs. (He also increased the number of magistracies.) Changes then followed rapidly, with deification of C. Julius Cæsar himself by his grand-nephew Octavius, and the subsequent deifications of Octavius and succeeding Emperors. Gaius and Claudius relaxed and then abolished the restrictions that had been placed upon the cult of the Magna Mater, and other foreign religions were tolerated in Rome as the Empire matured.15

Roman Religion in History

It is impossible to know how much of the Roman legend of foundation is historical. We do not know if there was a person named Æneas, nor if the Romans were even Trojan in origin. There existed in Antiquity an extensive cycle of epics modeled upon the Iliad called collectively The Returns, dealing with the exploits and ultimate fates of the surviving heroes of the Trojan War, Æneas among them. Unfortunately, except for the Iliad and fragments or stories preserved in drama, such as the plays dealing with Agamemnon, all of the other epics have been lost. The story of Æneas must have existed, at least in oral form, perhaps in epitome, when Vergil composed his epic. Certainly, the tradition that Æneas had traveled to Italy was older than the Romans, and the idea that he was the founder of Lavinium seems to have been accepted as based in fact, but his actual connection to Rome might be of Roman invention. The connection was made through the person of Romulus, and depended from the descent of Rome's founder through the Kings of Alba from the Trojan colony of Lavinium.

The process of forming colonies has been described. It is entirely within reason and possibility that Lavinium, having grown more populous, sent out a "sacred spring" or expelled some of its superfluous and unruly citizens to found a colony in Alba Longa, and that, in time, the same process was repeated by the Albans, whose expatriated citizens then founded Rome. We have in the legend the acknowledgment that many of the original Romulans were, indeed, outcasts of other nations, runaway slaves, brigands, malcontents, debtors, adventurers, soldiers-of-fortune, and others who had no place in the settlements surrounding Rome. The Romans themselves settled conquered cities with many of their more troublesome citizens, in order to relieve the city of the pressure arising from their demands for more popular control of government.

In modern history, the Americas and Australia were both colonized by adventurers, the dispossessed, the dissenters, the rebellious, and the criminals of Europe. It is, therefore, not improbable that a rebellious princeling or pretender of Alban stock, forced into exile, founded a colony into which he welcomed the rabble who had no future elsewhere. We can neither prove nor disprove that these events happened, but there is no inherent contradiction that would automatically compel us to dismiss the legendary framework of Roman history as fraudulent or fabulous.

The story does have some support in the various family histories of the Roman gentility, most of whom could reliably trace their blood lines back into the pre-history of Rome, and who seemed to agree to a remarkable degree in finding their origins in Alba Longa or in the ancient Sabine cities.

Oral family traditions in pre-literate societies have been shown to be unexpectedly accurate, and in societies in which the preservation of family relics and the worship of ancestors are as important as they were in Rome, we need not be reluctant to place some reliance upon the clan memory as an aid to history.

While it is undoubtedly true that authentic genealogy is often tainted with wishful adoption in retrospect, so that present pretensions are justified by prevarications about the past, the point at which fancy has been let in to augment fact is usually discernible by its seams and joints. In some cases, the introduction of a legendary personage or a divinity is a glaring stop sign for the genealogist, but, in other cases, the putative and the acknowledged are often of more difficult discernment. However, the numerous gentes of Rome that could show lengthy pedigrees back into the eras following or preceding the date of the founding must surely indicate that there is some validity to the general story and its chronology.

The greatest difficulty to the acceptance of many dates and lineages grows from the general destruction of public records during the sack of the city by the Gauls in the 360th year AUC (393 B.C.). The registers in which the citizenry were enrolled were among the important documents lost in the conflagration that leveled the entire city. As a result, all events predating the fire come under some suspicion. The loss of all civic documents relating to the nativity and mortality of its citizens is a grievous one in any modern town, and the situation must have been no less of a bureaucratic mare's nest for the Romans. as it would be today for the people of New York or London in a similar event. The reconstruction of the public rolls doubtlessly gave the opportunity to some families to find new roots where old ones had been eradicated, and the accuracy of the replacement registers was sometimes called into question, even in Antiquity. But, while public records were lost, it must be that many private records survived, either fortuitously, or through the foresight of the families, some of whom buried their treasures and papers, later excavating them from the ruins, while others removed them during the flight from the city, carrying them back when the Gauls had been expelled. While it is prudent to view all dates and family histories beyond 400 B.C. with caution, it would be excessive to dismiss them simply on the basis of suspicion.

The earlier history of Rome (prior to the Republic) is considerably more hazy, and the Romans did not have a linear record of the time of the Kingdom. The erection of important buildings or other public works, which generally can be used as reliable historical markers, were frequently attributed to different monarchs according the historian making the attribution. Plutarch notes that the famous wooden bridge which had been built entirely without metal fasteners of any kind was said to have been built either by Numa or his grandson Ancius. Part of the difficulty can be resolved by the expedient of allowing that a particular monarch might have vowed or begun the building while a later monarch fulfilled or completed the work and earned the credit through dedication. Still, we are left with a considerable doubt about the genuineness of any statement regarding the kings, and most of the stories attached to them can be safely considered apocryphal unless attested to by actual artifacts.

The most important historical changes that occurred in Roman religion were those that came late, the arrival of the Magna Mater, the revival of the state religion and the deification of the Cæsars under Augustus and the Julio-Claudians, the acceptance of the Isis-Serapis cult, and the importation or invention of Mithraism. While each of these innovations was made with the purpose of enriching or revivifying the state religion, all of them had the effect of rendering the original religion less vital. Thus, while the new gods enjoyed great popularity, and the state benefited from the support of their worshippers, the original intimate bonds between the religion, the government, and history of the Romans were obscured or dissolved. It was no longer possible to find links between the ancient religion and the contemporary state, and the continuity of the Roman state was one of its primary features. The assurance that Rome contained and continued a divinely warranted authority was essential in the formation and growth of the Roman state, and the recession of the sense of immediate contact with that source of strength must weaken the confidence of the governed in their governors and gradually lessened the religious and historical sanction which that government had previously enjoyed. If the government no longer had a definite manifesto which was demonstrably Roman, it had no real claim to superiority to those of rival states or to the internal rivals that were continually evolving out of the vulgar dissatisfaction with the increasing disparity between the rulers and the ruled. Despite the earlier contests between the patricians and the plebeians, all Romans had shared a sense of Romanitas, of being Roman, of descent from Romulus and Æneas, a sense that the religion of Æneas, the gods of Troy, were still the gods of Rome. The replacement or displacement of those gods by the foreign gods of the East must, if only by insensible degrees, weaken that sense of permanence, or presence of the past, which the old religion had furnished, and, thereby, weaken the Roman state. That Rome was worshipping gods not its own, even though transferred to it, must shift the power away from Rome towards the source of those gods.

It was symptomatic of the state of Roman religion, that the Roman Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius were personally interested in the restoration of the religion throughout the Empire, but particularly at home and in those provinces to which Rome had special ties. Many famous temples had fallen into ruins or disrepair, indicating that the worship of the old gods had declined. The visit of Apollonius of Tyana to Rome in the reign of Nero, as given by Philostratus about 150 years after the fact, shows to what degree the old religion had decayed.


Roman Religion in Practice

There was a practical precedence to the established Roman religion, rather than a formally constituted hierarchy, although the effect was the same. Each of the deities possessed its own priesthood of men or women, its own proprietary rites, and its own places of worship, whether a temple or a shrine. The priesthoods and temples were, for the most part, self-governing, although each submitted to higher religious authority, which was determined in various ways. Priests were, with one exception, excused from the military service. Only in the case of Gallic invasion were the priests compelled to take up arms, so great was the fear of the Gauls in the Romans.

Priesthoods were organized into Colleges. Colleges appear to have been formulated to include priests of a certain function, which, in pragmatic terms, was of a particular deity, although some colleges were concerned with more general matters. Besides the Decemvirs, Septemvirs, Fecials, Augurs, Quirinales, there were the Arval Brothers , the Bidentals of Semo Sancus, the Galli of the Phrygian Mother Cybele, the Salii of Mars, Vestals, the priestesses of the Bona Dea, the priestesses of Juno, and many others. One of the more important colleges of priests was that of the Luperci, composed of two orders, the Fabii and the Quintilii, who performed the rites of the Lupercalia (q.v., below). The most basic College was that of the Curiones, composed of the ward chiefs or bosses 16. These were both political and religious officers at the primary level of public organization. Each Curio was responsible for the posting of notices of public services and overseeing the local observances. Some moveable feasts, such as that of the Sowing, the Sementiva, and the Feast of the Ovens, were celebrated at the discretion of the Curio Maximus, the head of the College. In the ordinary scheme of things, there were two priests whose prestige placed them in a superior position of authority over all of the religious orders and events of the Romans, the Flamen Dialis and the Pontifex Maximus.

The Flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter, undoubtedly gained his power from the fact that the Capitol was itself the Temple of Jupiter, and that the Temple was used both for governmental and religious functions. The Capitol was also the heart of Rome, as well as its most defensible position, its acropolis. The duties of the Flamen Dialis were very numerous and essential, and there were minute and extensive restrictions placed upon his person, concerning everything that he wore or did or what might or might not be done in his presence. As noted elsewhere, the wife of the Flamen Dialis became the high priestess of Juno.

The Pontifex Maximus was, from the founding of the Republic, the principal religious authority in the Roman state. It was the duty of the Pontifiex to supervise and advise on every aspect of ritual, both public and private. He had absolute power in religious matters, including the management of the calendar. Disobedience to the directions of the Pontifex Maximus was not only unheard of, it was unthinkable. The Pontiff was responsible for keeping the public registers, in which the citizens were enrolled and which recorded the history of the Roman people. The Pontifex Maximus was the guardian of the Vestals, standing in relation of power to them as a father. It was his duty to preserve them in their vows and to punish infractions. It was the Pontifex Maximus who had the unhappy duty of scourging the faithless Vestal and committing her to be buried alive. Men of the highest character and deepest learning were usually chosen by vote 17 for this office. Julius Cæsar stood for this office when he was debarred by law from being a candidate for the consulate. He was so heavily in debt and had so many and so powerful political enemies, that, on the morning of the election, he remarked on going out that he would either return as Pontiff or not at all. In fact, he was elected over two more qualified candidates by such large majorities among the tribes that he out-polled both of his opponents in their own tribes. The position was afterwards conferred on Octavius Cæsar Augustus and became a prerogative of the Emperor.

In the hierarchy of the priests, only the Rex Sacrorum (or Sacrificulis) stood above the Pontifex Maximus in dignity. His office was created in room of that of the departed kings, who since Romulus and Numa had performed public sacrifices, but, with a few exceptions, his duties seem to have been purely symbolic. He is said to have furnished the religious articles for certain ceremonies and to have officated at the Regifugium, but no real authority was attached the office.

The ultimate religious authority in all matters was the Senate, which could arbitrate disputes between Colleges and cults, and which finally assumed control of all temples in Italy, later extending its governance to all temples in the empire. The Senate could review the charters of temples, and settle all claims made by temples to certain privileges. The erection of temples was in its power. Deification of the emperors was also within its power. (The power of the Emperor in these matters was actually paramount, but the Senate was the body that made the laws at his "suggestion".)

There were, in addition to the gods worshipped in the city itself, certain shrines and temples in the rural areas surrounding it that were closely associated in the Roman religion. We have already mentioned the two most important, the Grove of Diana at Nemi and the Temple of Soranus on Soracte.

The Roman religion infused every aspect of life of the citizen, from the table to the curule seat of the magistrate. Every household, howsoever humble, had a niche set aside for the shrine to the lares and penates, the particular protectors of the family that lived beneath that roof. Every family was able to call upon the spirits of their dead ancestors (manes) for comfort, aid, or guidance throughout their daily vicissitudes of fortune or misfortune. Every meal was shared with the gods, and there were elaborate rules 18 governing what might and might not lawfully be eaten from the table and what portion must be reserved for the gods. Every citizen was, in his own house, the priest of his family, offering sacrifices and prayers on behalf of all and directing the family in its worship. No decisive action ought to be taken, either in private or public life, without consultation with the gods through sacrifice and augury. The magistrates began their terms with solemn rites and sacrifice to call upon the gods for favor and the taking of auspices to discover what portended 19. Every magistrate had religious duties, as noted, and the giving of public shows (spectacles ) on the appropriate days and for the appropriate deities was among those duties. The taking of auspices was both a personal and a public necessity, because the fortune or misfortune of the man taking the auspices was transferred into the task that he was about to undertake on the behalf of the people. If the auspices were favorable, then the magistrate could take credit for the successful outcome that had been assured. If the auspices were unfavorable or, as sometimes happened, ambiguous, then new sacrifices 28 and auguries were to be performed. It was not uncommon to repeat a sacrifice twenty or thirty times, either to correct some defect in the ritual, or to discern the will of the gods. more clearly. There was, it can be seen, a single thread of religion that stretched from the poorest citizen through the whole fabric of Roman society into the offices of the magistrates and beyond into the grave and the realm of the dead, and a disturbance in any part of the social fabric, however small, could have repercussions throughout the whole republic. The events in every household were tied directly to the health and safety of the state. The neglect of any rite, even the most minor, could bring disaster not only to the household in which the omission had been allowed but upon the whole republic as well. The magistrates were personally accountable for the religious condition of the state and must make certain that all public religious services were performed punctually and according the ancient patterns. It was the duty of every citizen to report to the magistrates any omen, dream, or portent that might affect the welfare of the state, and it was the duty of the magistrates to thoroughly investigate each such matter and to determine what service must be done in response.

One important aspect of Roman Religion has often been overlooked, and that is the central role filled by Rome itself. Not only were the times and the manner of sacrifice dictated by custom and law, but the Place as well. A sacrifice or other rite could only be properly offered at the place prescribed by the ordinals of the religion. It was not enough that a sacrifice be made on the day required and in the correct order if the location were neglected. In most instances, this location was in Rome itself. It was essential, for instance, that the sacrifices and the taking of the auspices by the new magistrates be conducted at Rome. They could not be taken legally elsewhere. When the Consul-Elect Flaminius, who had once before been deprived of his office and his triumph by the nullification of the auspices under which he had been elected, left Rome and assumed his office in the field, taking the auspices in the camp, he was roundly condemned by the Senate. And it was accepted as an article of faith that the destruction of Flaminius and his army at Lake Trasimene by Hannibal was a direct result, not of his rashness or poor generalship, but of his disregard of the forms of the auspices. In the same way, each deity of the Romans and each ceremony of those deities required that the city itself perform a function in the religion. It was, very literally, the Religion of Rome.

During the siege of the Capitol, when the Gauls occupied the city, the date of an annual festival arrived. It was necessary that a member of the Fabii conduct the service, and it chanced that there was among the beseiged a young man of the family, Caius Fabius Dursuo. It was further required, however, that the sacrifice be performed on the Quirinal, which, in common with the rest of the city, was in the control of the Gauls. Caius Fabius, undaunted by this inconvenience and trusting that the gods in whose service he was engaged would protect him, girt up his toga in ceremonial fashion and proceeded down from the Capitol bearing the sacred vessels. He was permitted to pass unmolested to the Quirinal, where he fulfilled his religious duties, and then was permitted to return through the enemy lines to the Capitol unchallenged, the Gauls being in awe of this demonstration of piety. Such was the faith of the Romans and the fidelity with which they discharged their religious obligations, and such too was the importance of place in their religion.

Of course, there were obsrvances that could only be made outside the city, but it was because those places had been designated long ago by the gods for the performance of their rites that the Roman magistrates made the pilgrammage to Alba for the Latin Festival or that the women of Rome made the journey to Feronia to offer sacrifices. It was the place in which those rituals must be made. There were instances when, of an entire city captured in war, every building would be razed, excepting one temple which would be left standing, because it was essential to the worship of the deity of that temple. Thus, when Rome had been destroyed by the Gauls, it was absolutely necessary that Rome be rebuilt, for the gods had chosen it in which to dwell and from which to receive their sacrifices.

The people of Caere had reason to be glad of this piety of the Romans, for the town had given asylum to the gods of Rome and their priests during the Gallic occupation, making possible the complete restoration of the gods to Rome, and the people of Rome later formed a permanent treaty of friendship and hospitality with the Caereans as a reward, a treaty which excused the wavering allegiance of Caere during the Second Punic War. (Apparently some temporary accomodation could be made for the services in such a dire emergency. The gods did not demand the impossible.)



The formal practice of augury was carried out chiefly by the College of Augurs. In the late republic, this office was largely an honorary one and required little of the holder apart from some public ceremonials. By the time of Æmilius Paulus, the title was bestowed upon some person whom the public wished to honor in much the same way that nowadays a town council will create a "day" in honor of some local person of note. In earlier times, however, this office was filled by persons who had been especially trained and whose virtuous life theretofore had shown them to be pious and trustworthy and attentive to the needs of the state. Plutarch tells us that Paulus revived the office by his conscientious attendance to the rule of the order.

It was the primary duty of the augurs to read aerial omens and portents, either those observed in their own persons or those reported to them by vigilant citizens. Mainly, augurs 20 would watch the motions of birds to divine the will of heaven. A special class of augur of Etruscan blood, the haruspex,21 would read the entrails at public or private sacrifices . Romulus had been the first augur of Rome, as we noted above, indicating the great importance originally given the functions of the office, and the lituus or crook 22, was both an emblem of office and the instrument of the craft. (See the discussion of the templum.)

The importance of the augurs was firmly established, however, by the acts of one augur in particular, Attius Navius, in the reign of Tarquinius Priscus. When the king wished to create a new tribe in order to add new cavalry and to name the units after himself, he was impeded by the augur Navius, who declared that the auspicies would not permit the king to do as he wished. Tarquinius was indignant, and, desiring to show that the whole art of augury was worthless, challenged Navius. "Tell me," the king said, "can you discover by your science whether the thought that I have in my mind can be accomplished?" When Navius unhesitatingly affirmed that it could, he was ordered to prove it. Navius then performed the sacrifice and returned to the king with the answer. "What you are thinking can be accomplished," Navius told him. "Very well, " said Tarquinius, "I command you to cut a whetstone in two with a razor." Navius did not flinch, but ordered that his razor and whetstone be brought to him and promptly did exactly what the king had demanded. The razor and whetstone were said to have been preserved in a recess under the steps of the Curia Hostilis where the deed had been performed. The king was prevented from carrying out his design, and augury was vindicated.

In practical terms, each man could act as his own augur and read the omens. Civil magistrates frequently held minor priestships in addition to their offices. Generals in the field carried with them the sacred chickens, by which the outcome of battle might be divined.

There was a technical difference between omens, portents, and prodigies, which are treated as synonymous in English. Omens were the signs read during taking of the auspices. These were interpretations according to set formulae. Portents were supernatural phenonema, such as dreams, visions, hauntings, etc., which were taken to indicate some urgent message of immediate and dire impact. Prodigies were natural events, a lightning strike, an unusal birth, a tree growing in the cornice of a building, an exeptional harvest, the appearance of a comet, etc. which was believed to predict some change in affairs, either for the better or the worse. Omens were prognostications for immediate action. Portents extended farther into the future, but were of limited duration. Prodigies were long-range forecasts, sometimes reaching as far as thirty years into the future. Prodigies that were sufficiently disturbing, such as rains of stones or fluxes of blood from fountains, were referred to the decemvirs in charge of the Sibylline Books, who sought therein for instructions on how to make expiation. Prodigies, because they were perceived to indicate that an affronted deity were raising a grievance, almost always demanded some form of atonement, either by prayer vigils, sacrifices of full-grown victims, or the holding of games.

It is interesting that, as noted above by Pliny, the augurs admitted that omens could be disregarded. The effect of an omen seems to have been depended largely upon the character of the man to whom it was presented. Thus, generals could and did go into battle when the omens were considered against them and still earned their triumphs 23. On the other hand, there were also notorious cases in which generals who had gone into battle after receiving contrary auspices suffered crushing defeats. The Germans and the Gauls were, on the whole, much more attentive to auspices when planning and conducting a campaign, and they would steadfastly refuse to offer battle, even in advantageous circumstances, when their soothsayers found unfavorable portents. The Germans placed particular confidence in certain women of their nation who enjoyed the highest respect and influence when pronouncing prophecies.

In the main, the Romans usually tried to find an alternative interpretation or to force an issue by using the predictions of the omens to their favor 24. Thus, when Æmilius Paulus was on the point of launching an attack upon the Macedonian army, he refrained, because he had been informed that the augurs had found that the battle would be decided in favor of the defender. Therefore, he had to find a means of provoking Perseus to attack 25, a difficult proposition, since the Macedonian king, having assembled his army to challenge the Romans, he was reluctant to actually put the matter to a test.

The Romans had a truly fatalistic view of life, and, therefore, the promise that Rome was destined for domination and eternal glory was a comfort in times of trial. This fatalism was also expressed in the belief that Fortune would do nothing, either ill or well, without some compensatory act in balance. Thus, great good fortune was celebrated with reserve, for it was always present to the minds of the celebrants that some great ill must be soon endured as if in payment for the success. Furius Camillus, when he had taken the city of Veii, was quick to beg the gods that whatever ill might need to be suffered to atone for this great boon, that it might fall upon him alone, and but lightly, rather than upon the Roman state 26 itself . And Æmilius Paulus, after his defeat of the Macedonians, at every stage of his return feared that some great catastrophe must overtake the army or Rome as fatal recompense, only to find that his two young sons were required of him by Fortune, one before and the other after his triumph.

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