Roman Religion


Initially, the beliefs of the ancient Romans were based on the observance of traditions and rituals. For example, the legend of the founding of Rome was an important part of the beliefs. Thus, Romulus and Remus employed divination “by observing signs in the heavens to decide which of them should rule and give his name to the newly founded city” (Warrior 15). Later these rituals were replaced by traditional beliefs of the ancient Roman religion. Ancient Romans believed that a human life, even in the smallest forms, was subject to the authority and power of various gods, so that people at every moment of their lives depended on the higher power. Along with such gods as Jupiter and Mars, the power of which was constantly growing, there were innumerable minor gods and spirits, responsible for daily life and economy. Their influence concerned only certain moments of people`s life, for example, land cultivation, growing crops, livestock, beekeeping and personal life.

The Nature of Gods

The Roman gods did not descend to earth and did not show themselves to people as readily as the Greek gods did. They stayed away from humans, and even if they wanted to warn people about something, it was never done directly. There was no intimacy between gods and humans. In ancient Rome, all the knowledge of the gods existed essentially to instruct people when to praise the gods or when to ask for their help. A thoroughly and accurately elaborated system of sacrifices and rituals constituted the basis of religious life. Romans imagined the gods like praetors and were convinced that the one who did not understand the official formalities would lose the case. Therefore, there were books in which one could find prayers for all occasions:

Roman prayers which have come down to us have certain elements in common with the incantation: they were chanted; they were usually in the form of a command, often uttered in an undervoice; they were, either in whole or in part, repeated; the wording had to be exact; the purpose of many of them was evil (Burriss 194).

The rules had to be strictly followed, and any violation destroyed the results of the service. The Romans paid a lot of attention to all kinds of divinations, which had a great importance in the public and private life. Prior to every important decision, the Romans had to learn the will of gods, which was expressed in a variety of signs, observed and explained by the priests. Thunder and lightning, a sudden sneeze, a drop of any item in the sacred place, an attack of epilepsy in the public square – all these phenomena, even the most insignificant, which happened in an unusual or important moment, assumed the significance of divine omens. The most favorite divination was based on the flight of birds. When the Senate and the consuls had to make a decision-declare war and proclaim peace, promulgate new laws, etc.-they first addressed the augurs.

This primitive religion was called the Religion of Numa, second of the seven kings of Rome, who was considered to establish the most important religious rules. It was very simple, devoid of any pomp, and knew neither statues nor temples. In its pure form, it did not last long. It was penetrated by the religious ideas of neighboring nations, and now it is hardly possible to reconstruct its image, hidden by later accretions. The gods of other cultures took their roots in Rome, as the Romans used to relocate the gods of the defeated people to their capital after the conquest of an enemy city, to earn their favor and protect themselves against their wrath. However, “the Romans did not recognize the divine claim of every foreign god they encountered, but rather they were choosy as to whom they allowed into their religious circle” (Orlin 12).

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The ancient Roman religion differed radically from the Greek one. Sober Romans had a poor imagination that could not create the national epic, like the “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, and they did not have the mythology (Dickie 98). Their gods were lifeless. Those were uncertain characters, without genealogy, without marriage and family relations, which had united the Greek gods into one big family. Often they did not even have real names, but only nicknames, which defined the limits of their authority and actions. The Roman gods did not have their own Olympus, or genealogy, and were represented in the form of symbols: Jupiter under the symbol of stone, Mars under the symbol of spear, Vesta under the symbol of fire, etc.

Man, in this period, conceives of things as living, not because they possess spirits like himself, but because they possess powers, usually evil, such as he observes in lightning, in the wild beast, in the river (Burriss 195).

The original system of Roman mythology-according to the ancient literature-was the collection of symbolic, impersonal, deified concepts, which protected the human life from conception to death. No less abstract and impersonal were the deities of souls, the cult which was the basis of the ancient family religion. The second stage of mythological ideas was based on the gods of nature, especially rivers, springs and land, as breeders of all life. Next, there were the gods of heavenly space, gods of death and the underworld, the deities which impersonated the spiritual and moral qualities of man and various relations of social life, and, finally, there were foreign gods and heroes.

The Roman gods were more moral than the Greek ones. The Romans were able to force discipline into all spheres of human life and turn it towards the same goal-glorification of the state. In accordance with this the Roman gods, patronizing the human life, were the protectors of justice, property rights and other human rights. Due to this fact the moral influence of the Roman religion was great, especially during the heyday of the Roman citizenship. Devotion of the Romans was praised in the majority of Greek and Roman texts, especially in the works by Livy and Cicero (Warrior 34). The Greeks considered that the Romans were the most pious people in the world. Although their piety was external, it proved the respect to customs and this respect was in the basis of Roman cardinal virtue – patriotism.

The world of the gods seemed to be arranged in the image of the world of men, and they had their own king Jupiter. The most revered of them were called as senators and fathers, who had their divine servants and, apparently, analogues of vestal virgins – the divine maidens serving at home. They were divided into the gods of heaven, earth and underground, but the same gods could act in all three worlds (e.g. Jupiter, Diana, Mercury, etc.). Myths of gods, humans, and the dead were separated, but at the same time interconnected.

The further development of Roman mythology was influenced by three factors: democratization of society, due to the victory of the plebs, the victorious Roman aggression and familiarity with more advanced cultures and religions, with which the Romans entered into the complex relationships. Democratization made available priest’s office to the plebs, and the position of head of the cult – the great pontiff – became elective. In conjunction with the prohibition to give and devise lands to temples it did not allow the priestly caste to develop. A supreme authority belonged to civil community, and the clarity of the social structure (full citizens, on the one hand, and completely powerless slaves, on the other hand) made futile any veiling of its divine sanction.

Influence of Other Religions

Outlandish religions coexisted quite peacefully in Rome, both among themselves and with the Roman religion. Every cult borrowed from others the elements, which could contribute to its own success – not only the ceremonies, but even the gods, whose images were placed in temples around the main deity: “the introduction of a new deity in particular made a public statement that this deity had helped the Romans to victory and could therefore be added to the divine forces which championed the Romans’ cause” (Orlin 190).

The influence of foreign cults was experienced even by Roman religion. The appearance of gods remained the same as before, but the images associated with their names, in most cases, changed under the influence of the attributes of the Eastern gods. The rituals changed as well. In turn, Roman religion influenced the eastern ones, giving them more precise observance of rites and forms and smoothing out the inherent extremes and traditions. Thus, in the third century BC a pagan syncretism appeared, and it remained a true religion until the final fall of the Roman paganism.

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Along with this kind of unconscious folk syncretism there existed a conscious and philosophical syncretism, created by Neoplatonists, who sought to discover a single religious truth in the diverse modifications of pagan people`s religions. This era of extraordinary religious empathy gave rise to the development of Roman tendency to superstitions. The passion for the mysterious and miraculous spread more and more widely. Religion became an expression of the aspirations of the soul. It was becoming livelier, more close to man. Believers no longer believed formally and treated their gods with indifference, but began to love them and spend more time communicating with them. They prayed to the gods not only for the happiness here on earth, but also for salvation in the hereafter. Finally, the religious sentiment tended to moral perfection, to holiness, to asceticism, developed under the influence of dualistic views on the matter as the source of all evil and sinful. Due to the development of ethical ideals many reforms were carried out by the legislative process, including improvement of the status of slaves and children, women’s empowerment, etc.

On the other hand, the mixing and convergence of religions reduced the national restraint and created new social connections. The epoch of the Severan dynasty (193-235 AD) witnessed several attempts to reform paganism, carried out in order to unite it with an intention to counterbalance Christianity. Philostratus, the member of the circle of the Empress Julia Domna, tried to create a new religious ideal of holiness and moral perfection in the person of Apollonius of Tyana, whose life was described by him, and with whom he wanted to oppose Christ. This was followed by an unsuccessful attempt of the Emperor Elagabalus to replace all cults by worshiping the god Elagabal. The peculiarity of this attempt was to subordinate all the cults to one cult, recognized as the highest one. Religion of Alexander Severus had a quite eclectic character: he mixed gods and outstanding people.

The Advent of Christianity

All this religious ferment of the third century was of great importance, as it prepared the way to Christianity, the final victory of which belongs to the era of Constantine the Great. The latter, by his Edict of Milan (313), all free inhabitants of the empire were granted freedom to practice any religion, recognizing, however, Christianity as the dominant religion. This was “one of the most unexpected events in the Roman history” (Beard 366). Tolerance to the pagans did not last long. Christians, having achieved dominance and the influence on the emperor, tried to persuade him to act against the hated ancient cults.

The sons of Constantine, Constantius and Constans, passed the laws prohibiting pagan worship under the threat of severe punishment. Constantius, however, continued to pay salaries to members of the prohibited cult, probably fearing their powerful influence. This inconsistency only angered the supporters of paganism and led to a reaction against Christianity under the Emperor Julian, whose religious philosophy represented a mixture of ancient legends with the views of Neoplatonists. For a more successful struggle against Christianity he organized a proper priestly hierarchy and ordered the priests in the temples to tell about the significance of ancient legends.

Despite all the efforts of Julian, he was unable to revive paganism: “It was a time of consolidation and expansion, and paganism, now deprived of state support, suffered a drastic decline which Julian was unable to check” (Grant xi). Valentinian returned to the policy of Constantine, once again proclaiming freedom of conscience. Not constraining the pagan cults, he refused to grant them the rights, took their property (returned to them by Julian) and added it to the imperial treasury. He restored the laws against secret auspices and other charlatans. His son Gratian issued an edict, which announced that the government would not take the costs of performing sacrifices and religious ceremonies and would not pay the priests. He ordered to remove the statue of Victory from the Senate, despite the requests of the Senate members. Simultaneously, in the East Theodosius issued the edicts forbidding sacrifices in order to foresee the future. These were the final blows to dying paganism.


Ancient Christianity has managed to replace the cults because it was not associated with the distinction between citizens and non-citizens. This happened at the time when the rights of all the inhabitants of the Empire were equalized. The emergence of early Christianity was influenced by the fact that Rome was gradually sinking in various sectarian doctrines, philosophical schools, mysteries coming from the East. At this background, people saw the stability and continuity, “expressed in Christian ways of life and moral teaching, in creedal formulations in which the main points of the common, traditional faith were expressed, and above all in the common acts of worship which bound communities together and remained relatively unchanged from the first century to the fourth” (Grant 32). The trend of establishing monotheism was very strong. A single, common religion for the whole Empire was considered as the means to preserve the Empire and prevent its disintegration. But it was too late, and even the establishment of a single religion would not have saved the Empire, torn apart by contradictions.

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