Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
If anything, the Romans had a practical attitude to religion, as to most things, which perhaps explains why they themselves had difficulty in taking to the idea of a single, all-seeing, all-powerful god.
In so far as the Romans had a religion of their own, it was not based on any central belief, but on a mixture of fragmented rituals, taboos, superstitions, and traditions which they collected over the years from a number of sources.
To the Romans, religion 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 result of such religious attitudes were two things: a state cult, the significant influence on political and military events of which outlasted the republic, and a private concern, in which the head of the family oversaw the domestic rituals and prayers in the same way as the representatives of the people performed the public ceremonials.
However, as circumstances and people’s view of the world changed, individuals whose personal religious needs remained unsatisfied turned increasingly during the first century AD to the mysteries, which were of Greek origin, and to the cults of the east.
The origins of Roman Religion
Most of the Roman gods and goddesses were a blend of several religious influences. Many were introduced via the Greek colonies of southern Italy. Many also had their roots in old religions of the Etruscans or Latin tribes.
Often the the old Etruscan or Latin name survived but the deity over time became to be seen as the Greek god of equivalent or similar nature. And so it is that the Greek and Roman pantheon look very similar, but for different names.
An example of such mixed origins is the goddess Diana to whom the Roman king Servius Tullius built the temple on the Aventine Hill. Essentially she was an old Latin goddess from the earliest of times.
Before Servius Tullius moved the center of her worship to Rome, it was based at Aricia.
There in Aricia it was always a runaway slave who would act as her priest. He would win the right to hold office by killing his predecessor. To challenge him to a fight he would though first have to manage to break off a branch of a particular sacred tree; a tree on which the current priest naturally would keep a close eye. From such obscure beginnings Diana was moved to Rome, where she then gradually became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis.
It could even occur that a deity was worshipped, for reasons no-one really could remember. An example for such a deity is Furrina. A festival was held every year in her honour on 25 July. But by the middle of the first century BC there was no-one left who actually remember what she was actually goddess of.
Prayer and Sacrifice
Most form of religious activity required some kind of sacrifice. And prayer could be a confusing matter due to some gods having multiple names or their sex even being unknown. The practice of Roman religion was a confusing thing.
Omens and Superstitions
The Roman was by nature a very superstitious person. Emperors would tremble and even legions refuse to march if the omens were bad ones.
Religion in the Home
If the Roman state entertained temples and rituals for the benefit of the greater gods, then the Romans in the privacy of their own homes also worshipped their domestic deities.
To the Roman peasant the world around simply abound with gods, spirits and omens. A multitude of festivals were held to appease the gods.
The Religion of the State
The Roman state religion was in a way much the same in essence as that of the individual home, only on a much larger and more magnificent scale.
State religion looked after the home of the Roman people, as compared to the home of an individual household. Just as the wife was supposed to guard the hearth at home, then Rome had the Vestal Virgins guard the holy flame of Rome. And if a family worshipped its lares, then, after the fall of the republic, the Roman state had its deified past Caesars which it paid tribute to.
And if the worship of a private household took place under guidance of the father, then the religion of state was in control of the pontifex maximus.
The High Offices of State Religion
If the pontifex maximus was the head of Roman state religion, then much of its organization rested with four religious colleges, whose members were appointed for life and , with a few exceptions, were selected among distinguished politicians.
The highest of these bodies was the Pontifical College, which consisted of the rex sacrorum, pontifices, flamines and the vestal virgins.
Rex sacrorum, the king of rites, was an office created under the early republic as a substitute for royal authority over religious matters. Later he might still have been the highest dignitary at any ritual, even higher than the pontifex maximus, but it became a purely honorary post.
Sixteen pontifices (priests) oversaw the organization of religious events. They kept records of proper religious procedures and the dates of festivals and days of special religious significance.
The flamines acted as priests to individual gods: three for the major gods Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, and twelve for the lesser ones. These individual experts specialized in the knowledge of prayers and rituals specific to their particular deity.
The flamen dialis, the priest of Jupiter, was the most senior of the flamines. On certain occasions his status was equal to those of the pontifex maximus and the rex sacrorum.
Though the life of the flamen dialis was regulated by a whole host of strange rules.
Some of the rules of the flamen dialis:
- He was not allowed to go out without his cap of office.
- He was not allowed to ride a horse.
- If a person was into the house of the flamen dialis in any form of fetters he was to be untied at once and the shackles pulled up through the skylight of the house’s atrium on to the roof and then carried away.
- Only a free man was allowed to cut the hair of the flamen dialis.
- The flamen dialis would neither ever touch, nor mention a goat, uncooked meat, ivy, or beans.
- For the flamen dialis divorce was not possible. His marriage could only be ended by death. Should his wife have died, he was obliged to resign.
The Vestal Virgins
There were six vestal virgins. All were traditionally chosen from old patrician families at a young age. They would serve ten years as novices, then ten performing the actual duties, followed by a final ten years of teaching the novices. They lived in a palatial building next to the small temple of Vesta at the Roman forum. Their foremost duty was to guard the sacred fire in the temple. Other duties included performing rituals and baking the sacred salt cake to be used at numerous ceremonies in the year.
Punishment for vestal virgins was enormously harsh. If they let the flame go out, they would be whipped. And as they had to remain virgins, their punishment for breaking their vow of chastity was to be walled up alive underground.
But the honour and privilege surrounding the vestal virgins was enormous. In fact any criminal who was condemned to death and saw a vestal virgin was automatically pardoned.
A situation which illustrates high sought after the post of vestal virgin was, is that of emperor Tiberius having to decide between two very evenly matched candidates in AD 19. He chose the daughter of one Domitius Pollio, instead of the daughter of a certain Fonteius Agrippa, explaining that he had decided so, as the latter father was divorced. However he assured the other girl of a dowry of no less than a million sesterces to console her.
Other Religious Offices
The college of Augurs consisted of fifteen members. Theirs was the tricky job of interpreting the manifold omens of public life (and no doubt of the private life of the powerful).
No doubt these consultants in matters of omens must have been exceptionally diplomatic in the interpretations required from them. Each of them carried as his insignia a long, crooked staff. With this he would mark a square space on the ground from which he would look out for auspicious omens.
The quindecemviri sacris faciundis were the fifteen members of a college for less clearly defined religious duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books and it was for them to consult these scriptures and interpret them when requested to do so by the senate. The Sibylline books being evidently understood as something foreign by the Romans, this college also was to oversee the worship of any foreign gods which were introduced to Rome.
Initially there was three members to the college of epulones (banqueting managers), though later their number was enlarged to seven. Their college was by far the newest, being founded only in 196 BC. The necessity for such a college obviously arose as the increasingly elaborate festivals required experts to oversee their organization.
There was not a month in the Roman calendar which did not have its religious festivals.
And the very earliest festivals of the Roman state were already celebrated with games.
The consualia (celebrating the festival of Consus and the famous ‘rape of the Sabine women’), which was held on 21 August, also was the main event of the chariot racing year. It can hence hardly be a coincidence that the underground granary and shrine of Consus, where the opening ceremonies of the festival were held, was accessed from the very center isle of the Circus Maximus.
But apart from the consualia August, the sixth month of the old calendar, also had festivals in honour of the gods Hercules, Portunus, Vulcan, Volturnus and Diana.
Festivals could be somber, dignified occasions, as well as joyful events.
The parentilia in February was a period of nine days in which the families would worship their dead ancestors. During this time, no official business was conducted, all temples were closed and marriages were outlawed.
But also in February was the lupercalia, a festival of fertility, most likely connected with the god Faunus. Its ancient ritual went back to the more mythical times of Roman origin. Ceremonies began in the cave in which the legendary twins Romulus and Remus were believed to have been suckled by the wolf. In that cave a number of goats and a dog were sacrificed and their blood was daubed onto the faces of two young boys of patrician families. Dressed in goatskins and carrying strips of leather in their hands, the boys would then run a traditional course. Anyone along the way would be whipped with the leather strips. However, these lashings were said to increase fertility. Therefore women who sought to get pregnant would wait along the course, to be whipped by the boys as they passed.
The festival of Mars lasted from 1 to 19 March. Two separate teams of a dozen men would dress up in armour and helmet of ancient design and would then jump, leap and bound through the streets, beating their shields with their swords, shouting and chanting. The men were known as the salii, the ‘jumpers’. Apart from their noisy parade through the streets, they would spend every evening feasting in a different house in the city.
The festival of Vesta took place in June and, lasting for a week, it was an altogether calmer affair. No official business took place and the temple of Vesta was opened to married women who could make sacrifices of food to the goddess. As a more bizarre part of this festival, all mill-donkeys were given a day of rest on 9 June, as well as being decorated with garlands and loaves of bread.
On 15 June the temple would be closed again, but for the vestal virgins and the Roman state would go about its normal affairs again.
The Foreign Cults
The survival of a religious faith depends on a continual renewal and affirmation of its beliefs, and sometimes on adapting its rituals to changes in social conditions and attitudes. To the Romans, the observance of religious rites was a public duty rather than a private impulse. their beliefs were founded on a variety of unconnected and often inconsistent mythological traditions, many of them derived from the Greek rather than Italian models.
Since Roman religion was not founded on some core belief which ruled out other religions, foreign religions found it relatively easy to establish themselves in the imperial capital itself. The first such foreign cult to make its way to Rome was the goddess Cybele around 204 BC.
From Egypt the worship of Isis and Osiris came to Rome at the beginning of the first century BC Cults such as those of Cybele or Isis and Bacchus were known as the ‘mysteries’, having secret rituals which were only known to those initiated into the faith.
During the reign of Julius Caesar Jews were granted freedom of worship in the city of Rome, in recognition of the Jewish forces which had helped him at Alexandria.
Also very well known is the cult of the Persian sun god Mythras which reached Rome during the first century AD and found great following among the army.
Traditional Roman religion was further undermined by the growing influence of Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism, which suggested the idea of there being a single god.
The Beginnings of Christianity
The beginnings of Christianity are very blurry, as far as historical fact is concerned.
The birth date of Jesus himself is uncertain. (The idea of Jesus birth being the year AD 1, is due rather to a judgement made some 500 years after the even took place.)
Many point to the year 4 BC as the most likely date for Christ’s birth, and yet that remains very uncertain. The year of his death is also not clearly established. It is assumed it took place between AD 26 and AD 36 (most likely though between AD 30 and AD 36), during the reign of Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judaea.
Historically speaking, Jesus of Nazareth was a charismatic Jewish leader, exorcist and religious teacher.To the Christians however he is the Messiah, the human personification of God.
Evidence of Jesus’ life and effect in Palestine is very patchy. He was clearly not one of the militant Jewish zealots, and yet eventually the Roman rulers did perceive him as a security risk.
Roman power appointed the priests who were in charge of the religious sites of Palestine. And Jesus openly denounced these priests, so much is known. This indirect threat to Roman power, together with the Roman perception that Jesus was claiming to be the ‘King of the Jews’, was the reason for his condemnation. The Roman apparatus saw itself merely dealing with a minor problem which otherwise might have grown into a greater threat to their authority. So in essence, the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion was politically motivated. However, his death was hardly noticed by Roman historians.
Jesus’ death should have dealt a fatal blow to the memory of his teachings, were it not have been for the determination of his followers.
The most effective of these followers in spreading the new religious teachings was Paul of Tarsus, generally known as Saint Paul.
St Paul, who held Roman citizenship, is famed for his missionary voyages which took him from Palestine into the empire (Syria, Turkey, Greece and Italy) to spread his new religion to the non-Jews (for until then Christianity was generally understood to be a Jewish sect).
Though the actual definite outlines of the new religion of that day is largely unknown. Naturally, the general Christian ideals will have been preached, but few scriptures can possibly have been available.
Rome’s Relationship with the early Christians
The Roman authorities hesitated for a long time over how to deal with this new cult. They largely appreciated this new religion as subversive and potentially dangerous.
For Christianity, with its insistence on only one god, seemed to threaten the principle of religious toleration which had guaranteed (religious) peace for so long among the people of the empire.
Most of all Christianity clashed with the official state religion of the empire, for Christians refused to perform Caesar worship. This, in the Roman mindset, demonstrated their disloyalty to their rulers.
Persecution of the Christians began with Nero’s bloody repression of AD 64. This was only a rash an sporadic repression though it is perhaps the one which remains the most infamous of them all.
The first real recognition Christianity other than Nero’s slaughter, was an inquiry by emperor Domitian who supposedly, upon hearing that the Christians refused to perform Caesar worship, sent investigators to Galilee to inquire on his family, about fifty years after the crucifixion.
They found some poor smallholders, including the great-nephew of Jesus, interrogated them and then released them without charge.
The fact however that the Roman emperor should take interest in this sect proves that by this time the Christians no longer merely represented an obscure little sect.
Towards the end of the first century the Christians appeared to sever all their ties with the Judaism and established itself independently.
Though with this separation form Judaism, Christianity emerged as a largely unknown religion to the Roman authorities. And Roman ignorance of this new cult bred suspicion. Rumours were abound about secretive Christian rituals; rumours of child sacrifice, incest and cannibalism.
Major revolts of the Jews in Judaea in the early second century led to great resentment of the Jews and of the Christians, who were still largely understood by the Romans to be a Jewish sect. The repressions which followed for both Christians and Jews were severe.
During the second century AD Christians were persecuted for their beliefs largely because these did not allow them to give the statutory reverence to the images of the gods and of the emperor. Also their act of worship transgressed the edict of Trajan, forbidding meetings of secret societies. To the government, it was civil disobedience. The Christians themselves meanwhile thought such edicts suppressed their freedom of worship. However, despite such differences, with emperor Trajan a period of toleration appeared to set in.
Pliny the Younger, as governor of Nithynia in AD 111, was so exercised by the troubles with the Christians that he wrote to Trajan asking for guidance on how to deal with them. Trajan, displaying considerable wisdom, replied:
‘ The actions you have taken, my dear Pliny, in investigating the cases of those brought before you as Christians, are correct. It is impossible to lay down a general rule which can apply to particular cases. Do not go looking for Christians. If they are brought before you and the charge is proven, they must be punished, provided that if someone denies they are Christian and gives proof of it, by offering reverence to our gods, they shall be acquitted on the grounds of repentance even if they have previously incurred suspicion. Anonymous written accusations shall be disregarded as evidence. They set a bad example which is contrary to the spirit of our times.’ Christians were not actively sought out by a network of spies. Under his successor Hadrian which policy seemed to continue.
Also the fact hat Hadrian actively persecuted the Jews, but not the Christians shows that by that time the Romans were drawing a clear distinction between the two religions.
The great persecutions of AD 165-180 under Marcus Aurelius included the terrible acts committed upon the Christians of Lyons in AD 177. This period, far more than Nero’s earlier rage, was which defined the Christian understanding of martyrdom.
Christianity is often portrayed as the religion of the poor and the slaves. This is not necessarily a true picture. From the beginning there appeared to have been wealthy and influential figures who at least sympathised with the Christians, even members of court.
And it appeared that Christianity maintained its appeal to such highly connected persons. Marcia, the concubine of the emperor Commodus, for example used her influence to achieve the release of Christian prisoners from the mines.
The Great Persecution – AD 303
Had Christianity generally grown and established some roots across the empire in the years following the persecution by Marcus Aurelius, then it had especially prospered from about AD 260 onwards enjoying widespread toleration by the Roman authorities.
But with the reign of Diocletian things would change. Towards the end of his long reign, Diocletian became ever more concerned about the high positions held by many Christians in Roman society and, particularly, the army.
On a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Didyma near Miletus, he was advised by the pagan oracle to halt the rise of the Christians.
And so on 23 February AD 303, on the Roman day of the gods of boundaries, the terminalia, Diocletian enacted what was to become perhaps the greatest persecution of Christians under Roman rule.
Diocletian and, perhaps all the more viciously, his Caesar Galerius launched a serious purge against the sect which they saw as becoming far too powerful and hence, too dangerous.
In Rome, Syria, Egypt and Asia Minor (Turkey) the Christians suffered most. However, in the west, beyond the immediate grasp of the two persecutors things were far less ferocious.
Constantine the Great – Christianization of the Empire
The key moment in the establishment if Christianity as the predominant religion of the Roman empire, happened in AD 312 when emperor Constantine on the eve before battle against the rival emperor Maxentius had a vision of the sign of Christ (the so called chi-rho symbol) in a dream.
And Constantine was to have the symbol inscribed on his helmet and ordered all his soldiers (or at least those of his bodyguard) to point it on their shields.
It was after the crushing victory he inflicted on his opponent against overwhelming odds that Constantine declared he owed his victory to the god of the Christians.
However, Constantine’s claim to conversion is not without controversy. There are many who see in his conversion rather the political realization of the potential power of Christianity instead of any celestial vision.
Constantine had inherited a very tolerant attitude towards Christians from his father, but for the years of his rule previous to that fateful night in AD 312 there was no definite indication of any gradual conversion towards the Christian faith. Although he did already have Christian bishops in his royal entourage before AD 312.
But however truthful his conversion might have been, it should change the fate of Christianity for good. In meetings with his rival emperor Licinius, Constantine secured religious tolerance towards Christians all over the empire.
Until AD 324 Constantine appeared to on purposely blur the distinction of which god it was he followed, the Christian god or pagan sun god Sol. Perhaps at this time he truly hadn’t made up his mind yet.
Perhaps it was just that he felt his power was not yet established enough to confront the pagan majority of the empire with a Christian ruler.
However, substantial gestures were made toward the Christians very soon after the fateful Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312. Already in AD 313 tax exemptions were granted to Christian clergy and money was granted to rebuild the major churches in Rome.
Also in AD 314 Constantine already engaged in a major meeting of bishops at Milan to deal with problems befalling the church in the ‘Donatist schism’.
But once Constantine had defeated his last rival emperor Licinius in AD 324, the last of Constantine’s restraint disappeared and a Christian emperor (or at least one who championed the Christian cause) ruled over the entire empire.
He built a vast new basilica church on the Vatican hill, where reputedly St Peter had been martyred. Other great churches were built by Constantine, such as the great St John Lateran in Rome or the reconstruction of the great church of Nicomedia which had been destroyed by Diocletian.
Apart from building great monuments to Christianity, Constantine now also became openly hostile toward the pagans. Even pagan sacrifice itself was forbidden. Pagan temples (except those of the previous official Roman state cult) had their treasures confiscated. These treasures were largely given to the Christian churches instead.
Some cults which were deemed sexually immoral by Christian standards were forbidden and their temples were razed.
Gruesomely brutal laws were introduced to enforce Christian sexual morality. Constantine was evidently not an emperor who had decided to gradually educate the people of his empire to this new religion.
Far more the empire was shocked into a new religious order.
But in the same year as Constantine achieved supremacy over the empire (and effectively over the Christian church) the Christian faith itself suffered a grave crisis. Arianism, a heresy which challenged the church’s view of God (the father) and Jesus (the son), was creating a serious divide in the church.Constantine called the famous Council of Nicaea which decided the definition of the Christian deity as the Holy Trinity, God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit.
Had Christianity previously been unclear about its message then the Council of Nicaea (together with a later council at Constantinople in 381 AD) created a clearly defined core belief. However, the nature of its creation – a council – and the diplomatically sensitive way in defining the formula, to many suggests the creed of the Holy Trinity to be rather a political construct between theologians and politicians rather than anything achieved by divine inspiration.
It is hence often sought that the Council of Nicaea represents the Christian church becoming a more wordly institution, moving away from its innocent beginnings in its ascent to power.
The Christian church continued to grow and rise in importance under Constantine. Within his reign the cost of the church already became larger than the cost of the entire imperial civil service.
As for emperor Constantine; he bowed out in the same fashion in which he had lived, leaving it still unclear to historians today, if he truly had completely converted to Christianity, or not.
He was baptized on his deathbed. It was not an unusual practice for Christians of the day to leave their baptism for such a time. However, it still fails to answer completely to what point this was due to conviction and not for political purposes, considering the succession of his sons.
One of the primary problems of early Christianity was that of heresy.
Heresy as generally defined as a departure from the traditional Christian beliefs; the creation of new ideas, rituals and forms of worship within the Christian church. This was especially dangerous to a faith in which for a long time the rules as to what was the proper Christian belief remained very vague and open to interpretation.
The result of the definition of heresy was often bloody slaughter. Religious suppression against heretics became to any account just as brutal as some of the excesses of Roman emperors in suppressing the Christians.
Julian the Apostate
If Constantine’s conversion of the empire had been harsh, it was irreversible.
when in AD 361 Julian ascended to the throne and officially renounced Christianity, he could do little to change the religious make-up of an empire in which Christinaity by then dominated.
Had under Constantine and his sons being a Christian almost been a pre-requisite for receiving any official position, then the enire working of the empire by now had been turned over to Christians.
It is unclear to what point the population had converted to Christianity (though the numbers will have been rising quickly), but it is clear that the institutions of empire must by the time Julian came to power have been dominated by Christians.
Hence a reverse was impossible, unless a pagan emperor of the drive and ruthlessness of Constantine would have emerged. Julian the Apostate was no such man. Far more does history paint him as a gentle intellectual, who simply tolerated Christianity in spite of his disagreement with it.
Christian teachers lost their jobs, as Julian argued that it made little sense for them to teach pagan texts of which they did not approve. Also some of the financial privileges which the church had enjoyed were now refused. But by no means could this have been seen as a renewal of Christian persecution.
In fact in the east of the empire Christian mobs ran riot and vandalized the pagan temples which Julian had re-instated.
Was Julian not a violent man of the likes of Constantine, then his response to these Christian outrages were never felt, as he already died in AD 363.
If his reign had a been a brief setback for Christianity, it had only provided further proof that Christianity was here to stay.
The Power of the Church
With the death of Julian the Apostate matters quickly returned to normal for the Christian church as it resumed its role as the religion of the power.
In AD 380 emperor Theodosius took the final step and made Christianity the official religion of state.
Severe punishments were introduced for people who disagreed with the official version of Christianity.
Furthermore, becoming a member of the clergy became a possible career for the educated classes, for the bishops were gaining ever more influence.
At the great council of Constantinople a further decision was reached which placed the bishopric of Rome above that of Constantinople.
This in effect confirmed the church’s more political outlook, as until the prestige of the bishoprics had been ranked according to the church’s apostolic history. And for that particular time preference for the bishop of Rome evidently appeared to be greater than for the bishop of Constantinople.
In AD 390 alas a massacre in Thessalonica revealed the new order to the world. After a massacre of some seven thousand people the emperor Theodosius was excommunicated and required to do penance for this crime. This did not mean that now the church was the highest authority in the empire, but it proved that now the church felt sufficiently confident to challenge the emperor himself on matters of moral authority.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.