“First thing of all is to revere the gods, especially Ceres: to her greatness dedicate the yearly rites. . . . Let no-one put his sickle to the corn without a wreath of oak-leaves on his head, or giving Ceres an impromptu dance, and singing verses to her bounteousness” (Virgil, Georgics I. 338 - 50).
Life-size statue of Livia with the attributes of Ceres: floral crown, wheat sheaves, cornucopia. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)
Insofar as the Romans had a religion of their own, it was not based on any central belief, but on a mixture of fragmented rituals, superstitions, and traditions which they collected over the years from a number of sources. To them, religious faith was less a spiritual experience than a contractual relationship between mankind and the forces which were believed to control people’s existence and well-being.
The religion of the state: sacrificial procession before the temple of Cybele, known as Magna Mater, the mother of nature and of all the gods. (VRoma: Ara Pacis, Rome: M. Grunow)
The result was a state cult whose significant influence on political and military events outlasted the republic, and a private concern, in which the head of the family supervised the domestic rituals and prayers in the same way as the elected representatives of the people performed the public ceremonials.
Republican denarius (43 BC) of three archaic female cult statues in Aricia, the home town of the moneyer. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)
Many of the gods and goddesses worshipped by the Romans were borrowed from the Greeks, or had their equivalents in Greek mythology. Some of these came by way of the Etruscans or the tribes of Latium.
Artemis, probably a copy of a statue of Praxiteles of 346 - 5 BC (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)
The Diana to whom Servius Tullius built the temple on the Aventine Hill was identified with the Greek Artemis, but some of the rites attached to her at Aricia, the centre from which he transferred her worship, went back to an even mistier past. The Romans inherited their preoccupation with examining every natural phenomenon for what it might foretell from the Etruscans.
Sixth- or fifth-century BC Etruscan bronze plaque of a haruspex at work; his function was to examine the entrails of sacrificed animals and foretell the future from what he saw. (C. M. Dixon)
The Etruscans employed three main kinds of divination:
Many early societies practised animism, the belief that natural and physical objects are endowed with mystical properties. Alongside an appreciation of the divinity that resided in gods and goddesses with human attributes and human personalities, the Romans invested trees, springs, caves, lakes, animals, even household furniture with numina (singular numen), meaning the ‘divine will’ or ‘divine powers’ of a deity. Significant gods and goddesses had multiple functions; minor administrative roles were often undertaken by attendant spirits, known as indigitamenta, into whom the deity projected the numen of that particular activity.
Lake Avernus, Campania, which lies in the crater of an extinct volcano. Only one metre above sea level, it is 70 metres deep. A nearby cave was one of the traditional entrances to the underworld of Dis. (A M Wilson)
Boundary stones between one person’s property and the next had especial significance. The word for a boundary stone was terminus: there was even a great god Terminus, a massive piece of masonry which stood permanently in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, because it refused to budge even for Jupiter.
Roman temples were not places of public worship, rather symbols of the state religion, and statements of power. As the empire grew richer, the spoils from campaigns were deposited in temples, which became state treasuries. Ordinary citizens could leave their valuables for safe keeping, too. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)
The characteristics of Roman religion - no doctrine, but a tapestry of traditional practices inherited from various sources. Public religion was the responsiblity of priests, who were state-appointed officials. Private religion was the province of the head of the household (paterfamilias).
Many traditional Roman deities were eventually identified with their Greek equivalents (Diana & Artemis for example) - but the Roman obsession with divination came from the Etruscans.
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The Romans worshipped so many gods and goddesses that occasionally tradition threw up a deity whose antecedents had been forgotten. Such a one was the goddess Furrina, in whose sacred grove Gaius Gracchus met his death. Her festival was regularly observed on 25 July, but by the middle of the first century BC no-one could remember precisely who she was or why she was being celebrated.
Some educated Romans took no notice of signs, when it suited them to do so. Julius Caesar memorably observed on one occasion when a priest reported that the sacrificial beast was missing a heart, “The omens will be more favourable when I wish them to be.”