THE importance of religious belief and practice was very different for the Romans in comparison to that of today. There is very little known of the personal beliefs and religious ritual of the average citizen in the sphere of private life, but the role in the state function is a much wider and more easily accessible area.
‘Politics and religion were intertwined because the Romans saw the gods as aiding and abetting their political success, and political action took place in religious space: the senate house (curia) was a templum, a piece of inaugurated ground like the rostra in the assembly.’ (Dillon and Garland , Ancient Rome, Routledge, 2005, 109)
Nevertheless, there is the standard problem in understanding the roots of the religious beliefs and practices of the Archaic Period and the Early Republic in the lack of primary sources available. Whilst there are myriad accounts for the Late Republic and the Imperial Era, any investigation into the roles of the divine in the structure of pre 2nd century BC Rome and the manner and methods of worship is severely hampered by the dearth of information from the Romans themselves. Even great scholars of Roman religious belief and practice such as Dumézil rely very heavily on much later documents and records and attempt reconstructions as much by intuition as by evidence. (Scheid, J, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana Uni Press, 2003, 9 ‘His (Dumézil’s) famous book, entitled Archaic Roman Religion, in fact deals almost exclusively with documents and evidence dating not to the archaic period at all but to the last two centuries of the Republic….the religious attitudes reconstructed seem to relate more to the contemporaries of Cato and Augustus than to those of Romulus.’) This does not prevent us from being certain of a number of factors, however, which can be intuited from better known earlier religious structures and belief systems stemming from areas which are known to have played a profound role in the development of Roman social and political life, especially the Etruscans and the Greeks, or which are common in all Mediterranean polytheistic belief systems, whether the Romans viewed them as almost equal to their own as in the twelve Olympians, or with total abhorrence such as the claimed bloodbath of the Punic faith practised at Carthage. Primarily, there was no concept of personal salvation such as is understood in much modern day religious belief. The numinous powers, which made the divine, were powers which needed to be appeased, cajoled, persuaded or outright bribed to join with the group which worshipped them. That they chose to manifest themselves in anthropomorphic incarnations at Rome did not mean that the same numinous power could not be manifest in a zoomorphic form in another area, such as the famous zoomorphic deities of Egypt or the goddess Lupa at Rome who could be a woman or a wolf. The gods were intrinsic members of the community where their main cult centre was situated, be that a local god or goddess in a small settlement or a pan state god such as Iuppiter Optimus Maximus at Rome, Zeus in Greece or Amun Re in Egypt. The gods formed familial groups, though there were often some seemingly odd relationships, such as incestuous couplings in Isis and Osiris or Zeus and Hera. They produced offspring, either with one another, and hence a younger generation of divine being (though the question of ‘generation’ amongst immortals becomes rather complex, as do their methods of reproduction and coming into existence) or with a human partner, producing the demi-gods and heroes of mythology. These were the realities in the polytheistic world of the ancient Mediterranean, the only major exception being the monotheism of Judaism.
The rituals of the state had to be carried out in an exact manner and the various Colleges of Pontiffs, Augurs and Flamenes were there to oversee the prerequisites for the appeasement of the divine powers on whose good favour Rome’s prosperity lay. Religion to a Roman citizen was not, however, a moral code with a benevolent, loving deity as the centre of all power. Cicero, explains this:
‘Did anyone ever give thanks to the gods because he was a good man? No, because he was rich, respected, safe and sound. The main reason people call Jupiter Optimus Maximus (‘Best and Greatest’) is not because he renders us just, temperate and wise, but safe, secure, rich and abundantly wealthy.’ (De Natura Deorum, 3.87)
The qualities of character the Romans respected and admired in the Republic were the result of experience and sagacity brought through such experience. The divine was the fount of safety, wealth and ultimate success, both in the military and political fields. The gods were viewed as incarnations of immeasurable divine power; power which could be used to Rome’s advantage or disadvantage, depending upon whether they were correctly appeased or not. Wrongdoing would be punished, but only in the sense that the wrong behaviour was an offence to an individual god or goddess or a group of the divinities and such wrongdoing had required methods and necessities for appeasement and pardon. Roman state religion was about appeasement and contentment amongst the gods in order to receive a benefit in return and had nothing to do with loving a personal divine being as religion is usually interpreted in the western Christian based belief systems of today – a personal relationship with a god usually resulted in a pregnancy and birth of a demi-god hero, such as Romulus and Remus being the result of a brief affair between Rhea, their mother, and Mars, their supposed father, not a loving paternalism.
The priesthoods were controlled by the absolute élite in society; with few exceptions, which I shall discuss later, these were non hereditary roles which did not involve a professional, remunerated sacerdotal place in the societal hierarchy. Prior to 300, the priesthoods of the state were open only to members of the high patrician families, and any new cult (eg Magna Mater) or the banning of a cult (eg Bacchanalia in 186) was a prerogative of the senate alone, not the assemblies. Again we turn to Cicero for a succinct view of the Roman priesthoods:
‘Among the many divinely inspired expedients devised and instituted by our ancestors, o pontiffs, there is nothing of greater note than that through which they desired that the same individuals be the guardians of the worship of the immortal gods and the highest affairs of our state, such that the most important citizens of highest distinction might uphold religion through a good administration of the state, and the state by the wise interpretation of religious practice.’ (De Domo Sua, the opening of his speech to the College of Pontiffs.)
Those excluded from the state religious positions, however, still held the state beliefs in regard; the number of religious festivals which were celebrated each year involving the general populace, such as the Lupercalia, is all the evidence required for this to be understood. They were given great significance as the religion of the state was part of the cement which bound the people to the state and the state to the people, and, unlike in the realm of politics, it could include all the inhabitants of Rome – male and female, citizen and foreigner, even, in the case of the Saturnalia, master or mistress and slave. It was an integral part of the social structure and life that brought Rome to a position of unity.
Religio, the obligation to the gods, and cultus, the way in which the gods were worshipped were integral to the safety of the state, and hence the importance placed on these by the state. Without these duties being fulfilled, there would be a breakdown of the pax deorum, and any rupture in this would bring about a fracturing of the guidance which the patron divinities gave to the state and could, even in extreme cases lead to the state being abandoned by the gods or the gods’ assisting Rome’s enemies in times of crisis. Such a possibility terrified the peoples of the ancient world, surrounded by so many inexplicable events, by their level of understanding, and as such the importance of the Colleges who controlled the religion of the state only served to highlight the importance of the nobiltās in society due to all of these resting in the hands of that class.
Whilst there were a plethora of gods, the main state gods at Rome were Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter Best and Greatest), Iuno Regina (Juno the Queen) and Mars Ultor (Mars the Victor). Whilst often seen as equating simply with the Hellenic Olympians Zeus, Hera and Ares, there were significant differences between the Roman divinities and their Hellenic counterparts, as indeed there were with all of the Olympians – some of the more extreme characteristics and manifestations were not things which appealed to the Roman way of thinking, particularly noticeable in Bacchus / Dionysus. Jupiter was the guide and guardian of the state and sent his messages through the auspicia which were compulsory before all elections, assembly gatherings and any military action. Each year, the first gathering of the senate took place in the great temple on the Capitoline and the consuls began their tenure of office with the sacrifice of an ox to Jupiter for his guidance throughout their year. There was little question amongst the Romans that, should Jupiter turn his face from Rome, the state would fall.
The importance of ritual and ritual actions was immense and played an intrinsic part in the worship of the numinous power incarnate in each given divinity.
‘Nonverbal communication intensified oral communication with the invisible addresses and helped to define them. Divinatory elements in ritual checked on the success of the communicatory effort. Such practices underlined the risky character of asymmetric communication with a superior agent.’ (Rüpke, J, Communicating with the Gods in Companion to the Roman Republic, Wiley Blackwell, 2006, Chapt 10, Kindle ed.)
It was the necessity to sustain the pax deorum, in other words ‘keep on the good’ side of the limitless power of the god or goddess, and not to insult or ignore him or her that was a key part of Roman worship. The concept of a theology was not a developed idea prior to the 3rd century BC, though there is no doubt that a form of theological idea did exist prior to this point. However, such as it existed was mainly an interpretation or even direct adoption of Greek religious thought rather than something which was intrinsically Roman, and many of the ritual practices, principally in the area of divination of divine will were absorbed from the Etruscans. These were particularly noticeable in the state cult of Jupiter whose wishes were invariably consulted when it came to any major political decision. Individual deities, a group, or even all, might be invoked in support of a plan, for their blessing on a venture volens propitius fieri, or in general life, or pardon for a wrong, venia. The worshipper may even often try to enter into a pax (from which comes the English term ‘pact’) or bargain with a god, a concept very alien to the modern day idea of religious worship, especially when that pax involved laying a curse upon an inimicus. It was, however, in the military field that Rome believed her greatest bond to the gods lay. Military victory and success were due to the pietas which the Roman state showed towards the gods demonstrated by her leaders, both secular and religious, in our terms; the borderline becomes so blurred as to be almost indistinguishable in Roman terms, as well as the personal pietas of the populus Romanus. Military defeat would show a facet of divine anger and displeasure and therefore the necessity to rebuild the relationship with the gods. As military expansion grew and the subsequent successes on the battlefield increased, the Romans became ever more secure in their self assurance of divine support, though when defeats did occur, the propitiatory sacrifices became more extreme, such as the sacrifice of two Gauls and two Greeks by inhumation in the Forum Boarium in 226 (Plutarch, Marc. C 3: ‘For though they have no barbarous or unnatural practices, but cherish towards their deities those mild and reverent sentiments which especially characterize Greek thought, at the time when this war burst upon them they were constrained to obey certain oracular commands from the Sibylline books, and to bury alive two Greeks, a man and a woman, and likewise two Gauls, in the place called the ‘forum boarium’ or cattle-market’) after the defeat at Cannae, such was the extent of panic amongst the Romans.’
That the Romans saw little distinction between the spiritual and administrative realms is clearly seen in the suppression of the cult of Dionysos / Bacchus in 186. The god of wine and debauchery was never an easy divinity for the Roman psyche, and the fact that his worship occurred not in the close confines of a temple, but out in the countryside, and that it involved participating in rites which would seem horrific to the Romans, involving heavy drinking, hypnotic Eastern rhythms and dancing as well as a level of licentiousness beyond anything tolerated under the strictures of the mos maiorum and licensed cultus (after all, most educated Romans would have read Euripides’ Bacchae) led to a severe censuring of the cult; an act which lay in the purview of the senate alone. In this year, a senatorial decree was issued which not only forbade the initiates from worshipping their master, but allowed for the seeking out of the Bacchic priesthood and the destruction of their sacred shrines in something comparative to the anti Catholic laws of Reformation England. (Livy, 39.8-19) The law was so difficult to implement, however, that the consul for the year, Sp. Postumius Albinus, had to spend the majority of his year trying to enforce the anti-Bacchan decree, and Livy cites that there were many subsequent executions (Livy, 18.5-6). This still did not eliminate the problem – Apuleia was assigned to a praetorship on at least two occasions to root out the cult, and between 184 and 179 three further praetors were assigned to investigate a spate of poisonings, something which, under Roman law, included the use of drugs, particularly hallucinogenic, and even the use of black rites and spells to do harm to others.
One characteristic at Rome amongst the Mediterranean civilisations in the Republican era was the lack of a direct form of worship of the leaders due to the diarchy and annual election of the consuls, the divinity of a leader not being a realistic possibility until the instigation of the Emperor which facilitated the worship of the ruler. This did not, however, mean that the idea of a divine influence through Rome’s early leaders prior to the ‘revolution’ of Brutus and the instigation of the Res Publica was lacking totally. Both of the foundation myths, that of Romulus and Remus and that of Aeneas, had divine involvement, through Mars with the former and Venus for the latter; indeed, the gens Iulii underlined heavily their descent from the eldest son of Aeneas, and hence from Venus, in their political role and ultimately the deification of the Dictator Iulius Caesar with his temple on the Forum Romanum under Augustus. Numa, the supposed instigator of much of the subsequent religious practice at Rome, was believed to have had the nymph Egeria as his lover, and his predecessor, Romulus, was said to have been assumed to the heavens as a termination of his reign, not died, and was consequently worshipped as the god Quirinus; it was from his divine persona that the Romans took the name Quirites for their citizen body and the Quirinal Hill was named. One of the highest ranking of the priestly caste in Republican Rome was the rex sacrorum, a term which might imply the priest who had taken over the sacerdotal duties originally carried out for the state by the monarch. Whilst the ruler in the monarchy may not have been worshipped in his lifetime, it seems highly likely from later institutions that the king did have a major role to carry out in order to ensure the security of the state. This authority was not, however, assumed by the pontiffs after the instigation of the Republic, but by the senate as seen above. It was the senate which made the decisions regarding religious matters and the members of the senate who fulfilled the priestly duties of the state with few exceptions, the most important of which probably being the flamen Dialis, who was the priest of Iuppiter, which was only held by a tightly controlled group of patrician families. Indeed, North (Democratic Politics in Republican Rome, Past and Present 126, 3-21) has gone so far as to argue that this absolute control over the state relationship with the gods was the prime factor in the continuing, non constitutional auctoritās of the senate over the populus at Rome, and, as Woolf (Found in Translation. The Religion of the Roman Diaspora, in Ritual Dynamics and Religious Change in the Roman Empire, Leiden-Bostorn, 2009, 239) has put it:
‘A broad consensus exists that public cults lay at the heart of Roman religion, and that at the ritual heart of most of these cults lay sacrifice.’
Such sacrifices were carried out on behalf of the whole state in order to ensure the pax deorum and hence the favour of the divine. The offering of something precious (eg a bull) as a blood sacrifice (the animals, crops et al which were offered were the most precious things in the early, agrarian civilisations and as such held their importance as an offering to primordial genii, the numinous presence of the god or goddess which was perceived to inhabit and therefore render sacred the cult statue) by the state acted as the physical link between the city and the divine, ensuring the continued symbiotic relationship between them both, the one being at best weakened and at worst eradicated by the loss of the other – Roma without the continued support of the state gods, and the gods requiring the prayers, worship and honour to their gloria.
This is a basic introduction for the idea of the divine for the Roman Republican period – much wider reading is easily accessible: inter alia
Cicero – Nature of the Gods
Scheid J – An Introduction to Roman Religion
Beard, North and Price – Religions of Rome (Vols I & II)
Rüpke (ed) A Companion to Roman Religion