The religious beliefs and system of Ancient Rome is intriguing, as it seems very modern in its evolution. The Roman religion adheres to Geertz’s definition of religion as a “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” These symbols appear in many aspects of the Roman culture, for example: its modern evolution and synchronization with other religions the Empire encountered, the prestige of priesthoods in society, and the deification of great leaders.
The evolution of the Roman religion is a very interesting topic as it focused on the symbols and superstitions of other cultures and indoctrinated them into their own culture. The Numen, the original set of Roman Gods were knock offs of the Greek God’s Zeus (Jupiter) and Ares (Mars) with one Sabine God Quirinus- the God of social organization. The Hellenistic influence went, as far as to say that Romulus and Remus, the mythological brothers who were said to have founded Rome were descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Many other Hellenistic Gods would enter the fore as the Republic expanded and increased trade with the Greeks. Hellenistic and Roman values were intertwined with each God’s specialty. Mars was the God of war awarding virtue to those with courage on the battlefield, Neptune granted fishermen good harvest, metalworkers would connect with Vulcan the God of smelting, merchants would look to Mercury, and farmers would affiliate themselves with Ceres the Goddess of agriculture. Upon invading new territories, the Romans began to take in aspects of their culture and religion some of these Gods include: Isis- the Egyptian Goddess of the Earth, Mithras- the Persian God of the Sun, and Janus- the Italian/Etruscan God of beginnings and endings.
The Gods were essentially symbols to the trade plied by the Roman people making all of their lives full of meaning and purpose, hence formulating a general order of existence and make their moods and motivations realistic. The Romans even had a God for parties and gatherings in Bacchus, as social affairs were considered very important. This kind of polytheism created acceptance for people in all walks of life. However, one god was mightier than the rest.
Jupiter was the most important of all the Gods. He was the most heralded deity until the pagan religion was usurped by the rise of Christianity. He was the God of the sky and to Romans was in charge of the social state. He had the largest temples dedicated to him (Jupiter Optimus Maximus) and was referenced by many names by the Romans. In many ways it was the dominance of Jupiter that led to the transition from the Hellenistic paganism into Christianity. Jupiter was a God among Gods as Juppitus Optimus Maximus Soter, which stands for: the best, the biggest, the savior. This seems similar to Hinduism in a sense. Hinduism is known for having many Gods however it is in fact a monotheistic faith as all the Gods are just aspects of Brahman, the supreme cosmic power. In Roman courthouses and the senate citizens swore their oaths to Jupiter akin to how citizens of the United States swear upon the Bible. Similar to America’s trademark phrase ‘In God We Trust,’ the Romans entrusted everything to Jupiter from the well being of the people to protection against foreign invaders. This further accentuates his supremacy, as Mars was the God of war yet soldiers would praise Jupiter for their victories.
The prestige of priesthoods was another huge aspect of Roman society and religion. For families it was a symbol of prestige to have a son or daughter indoctrinated into the church. These consisted of Pontiffs, Augurs, Vestal Virgins, and Fetials.
The pontiffs presided over religious affairs such as rituals (such as burial of the dead, organizing festivities, and being keepers of the religious archives), prayers and sacrifices. Sacrifice was an important part of Roman worship and was accompanied by prayer and offerings allowed restoration of the spirit, of crops and of Mother Earth. In Early Rome one such festival was Fordicidia, a ritual where they would sacrifice and burn a pregnant cow in hopes that this cows fertility would transfer into mother earth and increase the Numen (spirit) force.
Augurs and Auspices were used to figure out the will of the gods through interpreting omens. This priesthood symbolized the effect that superstition had upon Roman society. They would interpret the flight of birds as omens and were often employed if there were big political decisions to be made or important battles to be fought. Other Omens included thunder, lightning, and the color of the liver of a sacrificed animal, to unearth the will of the gods.
The Vestal Virgins were some of the only priesthoods offered to women. They were Priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of hearth. They had a very prestigious and ceremonial role as ‘protectors’ of Rome. Much like the ravens at the Tower of London superstition sought that these women’s well being was essential to the security of Rome. They took a vow of chastity in order to adhere to perfect practice of state rituals and to keep the sacred flame of Rome lit. They would prepare food for festivals and were seen as the housewives of the city (and later the Empire). They were entrusted with safeguarding the wills of important men (such as Marcus Antonius and Julius Caesar- although Marc Antony stole Caesar’s will from their temple) and guarded many sacred objects. These women were honored throughout Rome and had many privileges that exempted them from average women in Rome. Essentially they were treated like queens. However failure to adhere to the rules set in place for their priesthoods they could be buried alive. This video can explain more (apologies for the advert):
The Fetials dealt with issues of peace and war. The early republic saw them organize peace treaties and directly deal with enemies across Italy. They would also officially declare war via throwing a fire-hardened spear across the boundaries. Fetial law governed the declaration of war even after the ritual became impractical.
Deification was a practice in Rome. This was a rarity and was often reserved for great leaders or influential men. Deification was essentially the celebration of historic individuals to the extent of worship. The months of July and August were renamed after Julius and Augustus Caesar (this was also mentioned in Augustine’s ‘On Christian Teaching’). They were known as God’s of the Imperial Cult. They had divinely sanctioned authority of the Roman state considered Princeps (first among equals). Deifications would be awarded posthumously and they would join the Roman Pantheon once deified. This was done through the process of Apotheosis, the former ruler being acknowledged as divine by his successor, the senate or by public vote. The first man to be deified in Rome was Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar became a staple to the Roman Empire, perhaps the most famous of all Roman leaders without holding the office of Emperor. His legacy makes him synonymous with Rome, as the Romans chant was ‘Hail Caesar’ for centuries after his death.
It is clear to see that Roman Religion is clearly a system of symbols. From various deities symbolizing the industry of the people, the supremacy of Jupiter, the superstitions in society, and the ability for a man to become a God. Rome had all man could aspire to, ruling the world yet falling with a whimper.