Religion in ancient Rome was very much a polytheistic affair composed of the worship of earth, sky and sun gods amongst a myriad of others. Practices and cults varied with different observances at different periods in Roman history and an evolving religion that incorporated aspects of beliefs from conquered lands as time wore on.


Fresco from the lararium of the house of Julius Polybius (IX 13,3) in Pompeii

Although not all Romans were religious and there was no obligation on an individual to worship, it was generally accepted as a duty and rituals in the home were directed by the head of the household. These rituals were so important even slaves were invited to participate. The household gods or spirits were called ”lares” and Romans were keen to please them, perhaps even more so than the great gods like Neptune and Mars. Service to the gods meant they would protect and bless the family, nurture their crops ensure goodwill towards the family. Offend the gods and they would carry out punishment. A sacred fire in the household was kept lit in many families and everybody participated in efforts to keep it lighting. If the fire went out, terrible things might happen and it was common belief that terrible things happened because one had offended the gods. An alter or shrine (”lararium”) to the lares Familiares(”family guardian”) was kept near the hearth or in the atrium of a home.


The rituals and dedications offered in the home far outweighed the formal public religious holidays and festivals of which there were approx. 40 in the year. Everything in daily life such as journeys, births, marriages, money and dreams were viewed as ruled by the gods, thus appeasing the gods in the home took on a vital hue. Offerings at the lararium included items from the first harvest, honey, wine or incense.


Very early Roman religion held as a central belief that everything had a spirit. In that sense, the Greeks were far advanced in developing mythologies and gods that oversaw aspects of human behaviour. Later on, the Roman religion developed its own mythologies which saw each God ruling its own area such as desire or greed. Of particular importance to Romans was the Goddess Vesta who oversaw the hearth and the home and many households had their own shrine to her.


As the religion developed so did the rites which became complex requiring the use of priests to carry them out. Church and State in Rome were not separate entities although they were not the same either. The State appointed individuals to religious posts of where there were five;


Temple of Vesta  – From Wiki Commons


Pontiffs – Pontiffs advised the chief magistrates and were appointed for life. The Pontifex Maximus was the supreme Pontiff and was in charge of the other pontiffs (and also had in his charge, 15 flamines).
Haruspexs – The Haruspex was so highly thought of by the people that he outlived the Roman civilisation by centuries. His job was to foretell the future.
Augurs – The job of the Augurs was to determine what the gods wanted and a large part of that was determining if they were in favor of the government”s action. They operated more as diviners and oracles than as ceremonial priests. From an original three, there were 16 later on and Augurs were also nominated for life.
Flamines – These were priests attached to a particular god and who looked after the temple to that god and conducted the sacrifices. Three major flamines were the Flamen Diallis (of the God Jupiter), Flamen martiallis (Mars) and Flamen Quirinalis (Quirinus).
Vestal Virgins – They were under the control of the Pontifex Maximus and their job was to preserve the sacred flame of Rome, attend to the temple of Vesta and make salt cakes for the yearly 8-day festival. They had to remain virgins although if the flame of Vesta was extinguished, senior religious officials were thought to have punished them by physical and sexual abuse. A vestal who lost her virginity was buried alive.


There were other religious posts in Rome but these were belong to specific cults and beliefs (e.g. the Luperci Priests) or lasted only the reign of a particular emperor.


Roman priests were more administrative than ”faith workers” and their main priority was ensuring the ceremony went to plan – otherwise it would have to be re-staged and plans possibly delayed. Priests were not there to mediate between man and God, a key difference between the Roman religion and later organised religion.


The main Gods worshipped by the Romans were;

Jupiter – King of Gods

Juno – Jupiter”s wife and the Goddess of the sky

Mars – God of war

Mercury – Messenger of the gods

Neptune – God of the sea

Diana – Goddess of hunting

Janus – God of the doorway, entrances and exits

Vesta – Goddess of the hearth and home

Venus – Goddess of love

Minerva – Goddess of healing

Roman Emperors took on a god like status from the reign of Augustus onwards (14AD). Festival days for the gods were public holidays and people would visit the temple of the relevant deity on that day.

Temples in the Roman empire followed a similar pattern throughout – triangular roof supported by pillars. Steps up to a doorway led through to a richly decorated temple with a statue of the god/goddess inside. Priests would sacrifice animals at the alters. If a temple had augurs, they might have used the entrails of the sacrificed animal to divine the future. It was the brave man or woman who ignored the advice given to them by an Augur.


Animal sacrafices to the gods were carried out under the gaze of the public and animals were carefully chosen to be the best specimen, white, clean decorated in regalia. It was important the animal was calm as a resistant animal was seen as not willing to the sacrafice and an affront to the gods. A banquet usually followed with symbols, portrait or fire for the deity occupying prime position and the centre of attention.


The dead (”manes”) were also worshipped in Rome so that the living would not be haunted. Offerings and prayers were made to them to protect the family. Stepping on a grave in ancient Rome was a serious offence and were repentance not sought immediately, the dead could haunt you. At each tomb or grave was an alter for gifts or sacrifices. At burials, only those related by blood to the dead could attend and if somebody not related did attend, the manes would disturbed.


Rituals and appeasment of the dead  (and the gods of the underworld) was carried out in nighttime rituals and banquets were not held due to the belief that the dead and the living could not partake of a meal together.


Human sacrafice to the gods was a rare occurence and only occurred at times of great importance. It was viewed with general distaste and often was bloodless – the victims buried in stone chambers to await a slow death. One documented instance is when the army of Carthage under the command of Hannibal defeated a superior Roman army at the The Battle of Cannae. Two Gauls and two Greeks were buried under the Forum Boarium, a cattle forum that also housed the Temple of Hercules Victor.


As the Roman empire expanded, religious beliefs and gods of other cultures were absorbed into the Roman religious system rather than eradicated. Given the wide scope of religious cults within ancient Roman, foreign gods and worship of them was tolerated if not adapted. Thus, cults of Isis (Egyptian), Mithraism (Persian though later adapted as Roman) and even Judaism were all practised under Roman rule. In a sense, Romans sought to understand foreign gods and how they related to the Roman gods rather than replace and outlaw worship of them.


That practice of allowing the worship of foreign gods so long as they did not interfere with Roman gods came to an end under the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the 4th century. He cast all other beliefs as pagan. A brief throwback to Roman beliefs followed under Emperor Julian but by 390 AD, Emperor Theodosius I (Christian) outlawed all other religions bar Christianity.


Unlike many pagan beliefs, there is no absolute creation myth in Roman religion. However, deities in Rome were viewed as immortal and ruled the heavens, underworld and the earth inbetween. Triads of gods were a later feature of Roman religion such as with Ceres, Liber and Libera who ruled over agriculture.