For the Romans, both prayer and sacrifice involved cutting a deal with a specific god. Precise adherence to ritual was essential. Important sacrifices involved animal victims.


The contractual relationship between mankind and the gods involved each party in giving, and in turn receiving, services. The Romans believed that powers residing in natural and physical objects had the ability to control the processes of nature, and that man could influence these processes by symbolic action.

The “services” by which Romans hoped to influence the forces that guided their lives were firmly established in ritual - the ritual of prayer and the ritual of offering. In either case the exact performance of the rite was essential. One slip, and you had to go back to the beginning and start again.

domitian dictating

Domitian dictating to Roman matrons a prayer to Juno. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Many deities went by a variety of names. Juno, consort of Jupiter, had more than ten names or surnames for use on special days or in particular circumstances. These included Juno Lucina (Lucina here means “bringing into light”), in her guise as goddess of childbirth, and Juno Moneta (Juno the “Mint”), because her temple on the Capitoline Hill housed the state mint where money was coined and stored.

Capitoline Hill

Reconstruction of Capitoline Hill. Tabularium is the state archives. (After Professor A. Gnauth, from Hermann Bender, Rom und Romisches Leben im Altertum 1893: VRoma: Barbara McManus)

There were few occasions on which a prayer was inappropriate. Some prayers were realistic and modest, for example the “Poet’s Prayer” of Horace (65 - 8 BC), which ends: “I pray, Apollo, let me be content with what I have, enjoy good health and clarity of mind, and in a dignified old age retain the power of verse” (Odes, I. 31). This is, however, as near as any Roman usually got to praying for anything but material benefits.

Apollo Sauroctonus

Statue of Apollo, god of healing and prophecy, with a lizard. Copy of bronze original of Praxiteles of c. 350 BC. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

Prayer was almost invariably accompanied by some form of offering or sacrifice. This did not necessarily involve the ritual slaughter of an animal, as long as the offering represented life in some form: it could be millet, cakes made from ears of corn which had been picked a month earlier, fruit, cheese, bowls of wine, or pails of milk.


This household spirit is holding a drinking horn and a patera, a dish used for offerings. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

In the case of a sacrifice, each deity had his or her own preference. The sex of a chosen animal was also significant: male for gods, female for goddesses. So was its colour. White beasts were offered to deities of the upper world, black to those of the underworld, but a red dog was sacrificed to Robigus, symbolizing the destruction of red mildew.

triple sacrifice

Triple sacrifice on a first-century AD relief. (VRoma: Louvre, Paris: Barbara McManus)

The sacrifice for Mars was usually a combination of an ox, a ram, and a boar. On 15 October, however, it had to be a race-horse: in fact the winner. The near-side horse of the winning pair in the chariot race that day was immediately taken to the altar and slaughtered.

Chariot race in Circus Maximus

Third-century AD marble relief of a two-horse chariot race in the Circus Maximus, with the imperial enclosure. (VRoma: Vatican Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

The sacrificial routine was elaborate and messy. The head of the victim was sprinkled with wine and with bits of sacred cake made from flour and salt. The victimarius then stunned the animal with an axe or mallet before cutting its throat and disembowelling it to ensure that there was nothing untoward about its entrails. If there was, it was not only a bad omen, but the whole process had to be repeated with a fresh animal until it came out right.

Sacrifice of a bull

Sacrifice of a bull. (VRoma: Temple of Vespasian, Pompeii: Susan Bonvallet)

The vital organs were burnt upon the altar and the carcase cut into pieces and eaten on the spot, or else laid aside. Then the priest, wearing something over his face to shut out evil influences from his eyes, would say prayers, speaking under his breath, while a flute was played to drown any ill-omened noise.

Marcus Aurelius sacrificing

The emperor Marcus Aurelius sacrificing in front of the temple of Jupiter; the flute player stands opposite him. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Susan Bonvallet)

Any unintentional deviation from the prescribed ritual meant not only a new sacrifice, but an additional one in expiation of the error. On high occasions, when a replay of the entire ceremony might be an embarrassment, an expiatory sacrifice was performed as a matter of course on the previous day, to atone for any sin of omission or error on the day itself.


Bronze statuette of Mercury, first century AD. Mercury was god of merchants and business transactions, and was identified with the Greek god Hermes, herald and messenger of the gods and guide of travellers. He is thus often represented as wearing winged shoes and a petasus, the wide-brimmed hat worn by travellers to protect them from the rain and sun. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Believe it or not:

The very number of Roman deities caused confusion, as did the gender of some of them: “whether you be god or goddess” is a common formula in Roman prayers. There was a Roman prayer for most occasions or occurrences, including the return of stolen property and the diversion of some unspecified ill fortune to someone else. To celebrate Caligula’s accession as emperor, 160,000 cows were sacrificed on the Capitoline Hill over a period of three months. Human sacrifice was not a Roman practice, but it was not unknown. In 216 BC, to avert an ill omen following the clubbing to death by the pontifex maximus of a man accused of having sex with a vestal virgin, a Gaulish couple and a Greek couple were walled up alive in an underground tomb in the cattle market.