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Basic Principals of Roman Religion
by Jenni Hunt

Religion in the home

Boundaries and the outdoors

When we were children, many of us learned about Greek and Roman mythology as if they were one and the same. Perhaps our parents alternated reading to us at bedtime watered down versions of classical mythology and Grimm's Fairy Tales. Even college Classics departments usually lump together the Romans and Greeks in classical mythology classes for students trying to meet their liberal arts and humanities requirements. For this reason, most people hold rather misguided assumptions about Roman religion. At one time or another, most people have seen (or even had to memorize) some kind of list equating the twelve Greek Olympian Gods with their Roman counterparts (i.e., Zeus = Jupiter, Hera = Iuno, Poseidon = Neptune, and so on).

While Zeus and Jupiter share certain characteristics, they are not the same gods. Those who refer to a congolmerate of Greco-Roman mythology or traditions are refering to a period in history when the Roman gods had been so diluted by foreign influences that the differences between the Romans and their neighbors had blurred. The deities of the early Romans were very different before they became so heavily influenced by the Greeks and Etruscans. Romans were simple farmers and shepards, and their gods and religious practices revolved around their homes, farms, and immediate community. Their deities were for the most part not anthropomorphic and not depicted in statues or artwork. For example, the temples of Vesta, one of the latest Roman deities to be depicted in human form, were small, round buildings where an eternal flame burnt. Vesta was the living flame itself; thus there was no need for an image.

While it is difficult to ascertain exactly what early Romans believed about gods and how they worshipped, there is much we know. In general, Roman religious practices were not associated with dogma or morals, but were based on a more or less contractual agreement with the gods. The fundamental religious ethic for the Romans was pietas, which implies a sense of duty, honor, and respect for the deities. Moreover, the moral fiber of the officiant was of no consequence; all that mattered was whether or not he performed the ritual with the proper pietas.

Furthermore, Romans generally believed that gods and spirits were omnipresent and responsible for all natural phenomena; therefore, they must be propitiated in order for the home and community to thrive. Do ut des was the most common form of prayer, meaning "I give so that you may give." The whole idea was to bargain with the gods and contribute to their power by adding to it with sacrifices. The gods are more powerful than humans and their power can be increased when humans offer them gifts. Many Roman prayers which are accompanied by offerings contain some form of the phrase macte esto ("Be thou increased"). The verb macto, mactare is linguistically derived from the same root as the word magnus ("great"). Thus, macte esto literally is an imperative suggesting that the deity being addressed be increased or enlarged by that which has been offered to it. In a sense, Romans may have believed that the gods needed humans to sustain and increase their power.

When one considers the words and phrases Romans used to describe their practices, it becomes clear just how important religious ritual was to the welfare of Rome. The verb, religo, religare means literally "to bind," and so all the sacred precautions which bind the gods together with mankind are known as the religiones of the Romans. Ius Divinum ("Natural or Heavenly Law") was a set of procedures developed over generations, handed down, and kept secret lest enemies of the people might learn how to use it against the community and steal their gods away. People had faith that if the traditional rules of ritual were properly followed, the result would be Pax Deorum ("Peace of the Gods") which is a sort of harmony between the worlds of the gods and mankind. Indeed, Q. Marcus Philippus was made to say, "The gods look kindly on the scrupulous observance of religious rites which have brought our country to its peak" (Ogilvie 23). Undoubtedly, Romans believed their prosperity was dependent upon the gods.

To better understand the deities associated with the Roman home and farm, it is helpful to consider the layout of the Roman home. At the far end of the house, furthest from the door would be the hearth fire, home of Vesta, the living flame and central to Roman home religion. The name Vesta is derived from the Indo-European *wes, which means "to dwell," or more particularly, "she of the household." Vesta is the living embodiment of the flame of the hearth.

The women of the household were responsible for proper maintenance and observance of hearth traditions, as opposed to the Paterfamilias, who was responsible for religious duties outside the home. Vesta, along with the other household deities, received a portion of the family's main meal each day. After the main part of the meal, a young boy from the family would toss the contents of the plate into the fire and say, Di propitii ("the gods are favorable"). Then the "second tables" could be brought in, being something like a dessert (Rose 29). As last to be seen upon entering (opposite the main door or in kitchen), always the last to be invoked in a list of deities and last to receive offering.

Generally, in Roman homes there was an entry room called the Atrium where families would keep their Lararium, a household shrine which would be the first thing one would see upon entering the home and the last to be seen upon leaving. It was a sort of cupboard containing depictions of the three groups of household deities which were worshipped within the house: the Penates, Lar Familiaris, and the Gens Patris Familiaris.

Penates are the deities of the penus ("pantry; larder; or storage cupboard") . The protected the household's food supply and were propitiated so that the family would not go hungry or be unable to offer hospitality. Most families would keep a salt cellar and first fruits of the season on the family dining table for the Penates. A morning prayer, led by the Paterfamilias each day included recognition of all the household deities, but a more formal ritual for the Penates was held on the Kalends (first day of the month), Nones (the ninth day before the Ides), and Ides (the 13th or 15th day of the month), when a formal prayer is addressed to all the deities of the household and an offering made to the Penates. Horace suggests that offerings of corn, wine, or the occastional suckling pig are most appropriate for such occasions (Rose 28).

The Lar Familiaris is a sort of patron deity of the family, although the Lares were originally deities of the cultivated land. As powers of the earth, they helped the land (and therefore the household) to be more fertile and prosper. Apparently one of the Lares took up residence indoors and became the Lar Familiaris; even though Lares still considered to be the gods of the fields and farms. The oldest form of the name is las, lases, suggesting lasciuus, or "playful" (Rose 40). They probably were jolly, little godlings, as they are usually depicted as young men holding drinking horns and dancing with their tunics kilted up and may also be associated with hospitality. Some authors have referred to the Lares as the spirits of dead relatives, although this is not likely since ancestor worship of this type took place at the grave, rather than in the home. In Plautus's Aulularia, the Lar tells of a young lady's prayer for protection and simple offerings of incense, wine, and garlands (Rose 28).

The Gens Familiaris is the guardian spirit of the family. Literally, the Genius is the "Begetter" -- the deity who promotes the begetting of children and sustains the family line. In some lararia, the Gens Familiaris is depicted wearing a toga capite velato (covering his head, as if in ritual), sometimes holding a cornucopia, sacrificing, or pouring a libation to the Lares. The Gens Familiaris is worshiped on the birthday of the paterfamilias and on his wedding day, as well. Individuals each had his or her own guardian spirit, their Genius (for men) or Iuno (for women).

The remaining god of the interior household is Ianus, the god of doors, gates, and beginnings. The door was very important to Romans, as is demonstrated by the fact that doors had several different gods associated with different parts and functions of the door: Limentinum and Lima are the god and goddess of the threshold (limen); Cardea (or Carna) is the goddess of door hinges; Forculus is the god of the door itself ; and Portunus is the protector of doors. There are also many aspects of Ianus: Ianus Pater, the god of creation; Ianus Patulcius, the god who opens doors; Ianus Clusivus, the god who closes doors; and Ianus Bifrons, or "Ianus with two faces" who was symbolic that gateways go both ways. In fact, Ianus is so important that he always is the first to be named in a list of the gods or to receive an offering. The first month in the Julian calendar, January is named for him. His temple in Roman form was a small shrine with an east-west arched passageway with doors at both ends; it was closed only in times of peace.

Outside the home, aside from the Lares was Terminus, god of boundaries. Each boundary had its own god, collectively known as the Terminii; who were honored at the festival of Terminalia on February 23. At that time, the two neighbors whose land bordered at a particular boundary stone would meet on opposite for a small ritual and sacrifice. Terminus was also recognized at the festival, Ambularia, where landowners would "beat the bounds" in a procession to purify and protect the land in a solemn procession around the borders of their land.

Finally, Sylvanus is associated with all the other uncultivated land beyond the boundaries of the owned and settled land. Sylvanus is the god of the woods, hunting, and wild things. He can be somewhat chaotic and was often placated when land was being cleared. In fact, throughout the bounds of what was once the Roman Empire, thousands of shrines have been found to Sylvanus.

Gradually, as farms grew closer together and villages and cities were formed, private home and rural practices grew into the State religion. The Paterfamilias had always been the head of the household whose role was maintaining the proper relationship with the deities and seeing to the welfare of the entire household. He led the morning ritual each day and oversaw that a portion of the main meal of the day was offered to the household deities. He was also responsible for the timely and proper performance of various other seasonal rituals and practices around the home and farm.

The Compitalia (a moveable feast in late December/early January) was a ritual observed among immediate neighbors which honored the Lares, deities of the land, esp. cultivated land. The Compitum is the point where four farms meet. A shrine was erected there which overlooked all four directions. Once a year, farmers would hang a plough and a doll for each member of the household and make a sacrifice. The day would be a holiday for everyone, including the slaves and work animals.

The Paganalia (January 24-26) was a festival observed among residents of a village or rural community, and later, among blocks or parishes in Rome. It was a festival of spring sowing and worshipper sacrificed to Tellus (Mother Earth) on the first day and Ceres (goddess of growth) on second day.

The king took on the role of Paterfamilias of the city. Priesthoods were developed to maintain the complex relationships between the deities and the city; people didn't have to be involved or even take an interest in the rituals; just glad to know that it was being taken care of for them. Priesthoods were not full-time jobs, so they weren't "experts" or liturgists as we would expect them to be like nowadays; although there were those who could be hired to assist the officiant with music, prompting, and sacrificing. Aristocracy filled the positions of priests since it was considered their duty to the state; became more and more of a social position, rather than religious.


Ogilvie, R.M. The Romans and Their Gods in the Age of Augustus. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1969.

Rose, H.J. Ancient Roman Religion. London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1948.

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Traupman, John C. Latin and English Dictionary. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

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