Religion in ancient Rome: what did they believe?
From Jupiter to Venus, Romans worshipped and made sacrifices to a multitude of gods and goddesses, believing that these deities could influence their lives. Here, Professor Duncan MacRae from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio explores the significance of religion in ancient Rome
“We Romans,” claimed the great orator Cicero in a public speech, “are not superior to the Spanish in population, nor do we best the Gauls in strength, nor Carthaginians in acumen, nor the Greeks in technical skills, nor can we compete with the natural connection of the Italians and Latins to their own people and land; we Romans, however, outstrip every people and nation in our piety, sense of religious scruple and our awareness that everything is controlled by the power of the gods.”
Cicero is hardly the only politician – ancient or modern – to have asserted that his people have a special relationship with the divine, but it is certainly striking that the evidence from Rome in his time (this speech was delivered in 56 BC) does reveal an incredible intensity and diversity of religious activity. The Romans lived in a world crowded with divinities, and they communicated with them almost constantly. Indeed, the following snapshots from Rome in the age of Cicero can show us just how the gods and their worship were woven into almost every part of the social fabric in the booming imperial capital…
Triumph in September
In late September 61 BC, the Roman general Pompey returned to Rome following conquests in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East to celebrate his third and – although he did not yet know it – final triumph.
Rich treasures and a very large number of captives were paraded through the packed streets of the city; the general himself wore the cloak of Alexander the Great. It was, according to the later historian Appian, a dazzling celebration.
The culmination of this pageant was a sacrifice of white bulls to Jupiter Optimus Maximus – roughly ‘Jupiter the best and greatest’ [the god of sky and thunder and the chief deity of Roman state religion] – at his temple on the Capitoline Hill in the heart of the city.
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In making this sacrifice, Pompey thanked the god for his support of Rome and demonstrated the supposed connection between the gods and the military success of Rome.
Watching the heavens
In ancient Rome, religion could divide as well as unite. This next snapshot dates from two years later: 59 BC, the year in which Julius Caesar – Pompey’s rival and eventual vanquisher – first held the supreme political office of consul.
Even at this early point in his career, Caesar was a polarising figure. The conservative Marcus Bibulus, who was his fellow chief magistrate for the year, used every tactic available to oppose Caesar’s agenda. Having exhausted conventional measures to block legislation, Bibulus shut himself in his house and used the traditional religious prerogative of the consul to declare that ill-omens forbade any public business.
Supporters of Caesar claimed that Bibulus was misusing the ritual – they said the declaration could not be made from home; only in public. Caesar ignored the bar on public business and proceeded to pass key laws.
Some modern historians have argued that this episode demonstrates that the Romans manipulated religion for political ends and did not really take it seriously. In fact, I would say the row, which was still being discussed years later, shows that the correct, ritual observance of omens was considered so important that it could become the very centre of political dispute.
Our third snapshot comes from the same decade as the snapshot previous. In one of his poems (Poem 10), the trendy young writer Catullus tells a revealing anecdote about himself and a couple of friends. Catullus was just back from a rich, Greek-speaking province in the east, where he had been a very junior member of the governor’s entourage. Keen to make out that he’d done well in the provinces, he lied that he had managed to bring back a sedan chair and also the slaves to carry it.
The girlfriend of one of his friends saw through the lie, however, and decided to set a trap for Catullus – she asked if she could borrow the chair to go over to the Temple of Serapis. Caught in the fib, Catullus had to admit that the sedan chair really belonged to another friend, and complained that she wasn’t being “cool”.
The woman’s destination is no incidental detail – the poet mentions it to give us an idea about her ‘type’. Serapis was not an old, respectable Roman god, but a controversial one recently ‘imported’ from Egypt. We might compare the attraction of the cult to the fashionable adoption of yoga and Buddhism in the contemporary west. By connecting her with this Egyptian deity, Catullus casts his tormentor as a trendy seeker of the exotic.
Without modern medicine to rely upon, Romans turned to the divine in times of need: for example, a stone inscribed in c50–60 BC records the gratitude of a woman called Sulpicia to Juno Lucina, one of the Roman goddesses of childbirth. Sulpicia explains that her thanks to the goddess are on behalf of her daughter, Paulla Cassia.
It is safe to assume that Sulpicia had prayed to Juno while her daughter, Paulla, was in labour – perhaps a difficult one – with a grandchild.
A letter to the underworld
This next snapshot takes us beyond the walls of the city and out to the graveyards north of Rome. A woman scratches prayers on lead sheets at night, begging the underworld gods – Pluto, Proserpina and the three-headed dog Cerberus – to dismember her enemies: Plotius, Avonia, Vesonia, Secunda and Aquillia.
If the gods fulfil her wishes, she promises them a sacrifice of dates, figs and a black pig. To seal the prayer, she drives a nail through the lead sheets and buries them in a tomb – the conduit to the gods of the dead.
This appeal to the gods to harm enemies was a curse. Cicero was not thinking of this sort of thing when he proclaimed the piety of the Romans in 56 BC, but the principles underlying these prayers to the underworld are the same as those in the stories of Pompey and Sulpicia: the Romans communicated with the gods in prayer and sacrifice to maintain their favour and to seek advantage.
The gods of Rome
At the centre of Roman religion were the gods themselves. For us, this is one of the hardest things to understand about religion in ancient Rome. After all, few people believe in Roman gods, and we live in societies where scriptural monotheism [the belief in a single, all-powerful god] or atheism are the most common understandings of the divine.
For the Romans, though, there were many gods and little fixed doctrine. Although the Roman state focused on a few important gods, like Jupiter, Juno, Mars and Apollo, for individuals there were countless possibilities, including exotic gods like Serapis [a Graeco-Egyptian god] and Isis [the patroness of nature and magic, first worshipped in ancient Egyptian religion]; and more homely deities like Mater Matuta [an indigenous Latin goddess] and Silvanus [a Roman deity of woods and fields]. The absence of scripture or a church orthodoxy allowed for a certain flexibility in how Romans thought about these gods.
Mythological stories about the gods, which mostly originated in Greece or in the old cultures of the Middle East, were very popular in Rome, and offered people the means to think through the nature of divine power. The stories did not always make the gods look good, but provided them with personalities and confirmed the possibility of their intervention in human affairs.
The Romans also conceived of the gods in visual terms, and worship focused on the anthropomorphic [human-like] images of the gods in temples and shrines. This had an impact: when the Romans thought about the god of commerce, Mercury, for example, they imagined him as a young man holding a bag of coins.
For an educated few, the gods were also subject to philosophical speculation. Sceptics maintained that the gods were unknowable but that cult should be maintained anyway. Epicureans denied that gods worth the name would be amenable to human sacrifice and prayer, but accepted that they did exist, while Stoics insisted that the world itself was divine and that the many gods were a manifestation of that ‘world spirit’. It is, however, very difficult to find Roman sources that demonstrate atheism or strict monotheism.
We can imagine that a Gaul or Greek or Carthaginian, let alone a Jew or an Indian, might protest Cicero’s claim that the Romans were the most religious of ancient peoples. Nevertheless, the Rome of Cicero’s time was truly a place where the gods were a common and meaningful presence in the lives of people – ordinary, like Sulpicia and the curser in the graveyard, and extraordinary, like Cicero himself and Julius Caesar.
Duncan MacRae is a historian and assistant professor in the department of classics at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. His work focuses on the history of the Roman Republic and early empire, particularly the history of religion and intellectual history
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2015