Ancient roman religion Essay

This essay has a total of 3531 words and 14 pages.

Ancient roman religion

Elizabeth Berninger
Statement of intent

Throughout the history of Rome, from the monarchy to the late empire, religion had played
a great role in it's society and was involved in almost every aspect of the life of the
Roman citizen. It was common for each house to have it's own patron god/gods and ,on
special occasions, the head of the house would make a sacrifice to the personal gods of
the family. Also, great festivals were usually held in honor of certain gods and would
include spectacles like chariot races and Gladiatorial fights.

The religious practices of the ancient Romans are best remembered with grand temples,
great festivals and Christian persecution to the final acceptance of Christianity within
the Roman empire over the traditional pagan religions. The Roman religious practices can
be divided into three phases which span from the founding of the city to the fall of the

The First Phase (753 BC to 500 BC) - The first phase of Roman religion dated from the
founding of the city to the early republic. This phase occurred before the Roman
civilization had really adopted the Greek ways and so the religious practices of this time
consisted of only three gods and these gods were known as the Archaic Triad. The gods of
the archaic Triad were Jupiter (Jove) ,Mars and Quirinus. These gods had their Greek
counterparts and would later be identified with them. Jupiter was the supreme master god
and so he was associated with Zeus of Greek mythology. Ares was the god of power and war
and so he was associated with his Greek counterpart, Ares and Quirinus was the god of the
Roman people in general and he had no Greek counterpart. Mars was valued and worshipped
more by the conquering and warlike Romans than Ares was to the Greeks and ,as a result, he
had The Fields of Mars named after him. The Fields of Mars was located outside of Rome and
it is where the soldiers would train.

The Second Phase (500 BC to 313 AD) - Before the end of the 6th century BC Greek influence
had begun to affect Roman religion and this resulted in the transformation from the
Archaic Triad to the more Greek influenced Captioline triad. In this triad the gods Mars
and Quirinus were replaced by Juno and Minerva. As time went on ,during the second phase,
the Romans adopted more variations and the number of Roman deities grew as ,like the Greek
counterparts, they had a god for almost every aspect of society.

During the later part of the Republic and throughout most of the pagan empire, the Romans
deified ( or made gods of) people who were well loved or committed great deeds during
their life. People were usually deified after their death and the deification was most
always done by the senate. With the assination (and later deification) of Julius Caesar,
it became popular for the senate to reward dead emperors ,who had served well in life,
with deification. A humorous note to this involves the death of the emperor Vespasian in
which he said ,just before he died, " I feel I am becoming a god." Upon deification an
emperor usually had temples built in his honor and a cult of followers.

Also, during this period the Vestal Virgins were a major part of Roman religious
practices. The Vestal Virgins were a sacred group of women whose duty it was to keep the
sacred fire of Vesta burning at all times. The Vestal Virgins were required to take a vow
of chastity upon entering the cult and the breaking of these vows was an offense
punishable by a painful death. These revered women were so highly regarded by the Roman
populace that they were given seats of honor in public places ,like the arena, when the
regular woman was always put in less nobel areas.

The Third Phase (313 AD to 476 AD) - By the early empire ,in the first century AD, the
traditional form of Roman religion was beginning to show signs of breaking up. Causes for
this breakup could be attributed to the swarms of new religious beliefs that were sweeping
through the Roman empire and the fact that most of these theologies promised peace after
death to the destitute and uneducated majority of the Roman populace. The most notable of
these new religions was Christianity ,which had found it's roots in the rebellious Roman
territory of Judea.

"And so it Came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augstus that whole world should be taxed"
These famous lines of the Christian Bible describe the first mention of a Roman Emperor
and would be remembered throughout history with the birth of Jesus Christ ,the symbol of
christianity. Though his life was short and he was crucified at an extremely young age,
Jesus developed a cult following due to his presumed miracles and of his preaching of
eternal peace and everlasting life. His crucifixion resulted in the spreading of his faith
throughout the Roman empire and in the beginning of the end of traditional Roman religion.
Ironically enough it was the Romanization of Europe that allowed the Christian faith to
easily spread. By the death of Christ, the whole Roman empire was connected with well
constructed roads and inns which allowed the prophets to spread their message easily and

During the first decades preceding Christ's death, Christians were tolerated but not
really liked by the general population of the Roman empire due to their refusal to
acknowledge the emperor as a living god. This act of defiance was considered heresy by the
state .The real mass persecution of the Christian people came during the reign of the
emperor Nero who needed a scapegoat on whom to blame the great fire during his reign. He
chose the Christians because they were only a new group and did not have the total
acceptance of the Roman people. These persecutions were horrible and involved all sorts of
barbaric tortures which included the victim being fed to the lions, crucified or being
used as a human torch. These same persecutions which were meant to discourage christianity
actually helped it to grow because it was believed that the Christians died for their
religion (became Martyrs) which made them look even more nobel to the people.

Because of this persecution, many early Christians were forced to worship in the Roman
Catacombs which was one of the few places they would be safe. The catacombs were sacred to
the Romans because their dead were buried there and it was forbidden for them to kill
anyone within their walls. It is also true that the crucifix was not always the symbol of
Christianity but ,in fact, it started out as a Pagan Roman symbol. The fish was the
identifying symbol among the early Christians and they identified with each other through
that way.

The beginning of the third phase and of the adoption of Christianity as the official
religion of the Roman Empire occurred in 312 BC, upon the conversion of the Roman emperor
Constantine the Great. It is said that he had a vision from the Christian god before a
monumental battle in which he was told that he would have victory if he painted the sign
of Christianity on the shields of his men. He did what was told of him and was victorious
and converted the empire to Christianity.

As soon as Christianity had taken a major hold in the empire and Christian communities
developed, the early Christians decided that they needed a form of government to bind all
the communities together. The Bishop was the head of all the Christian communities in
certain districts called dioceses or sees. Under the bishops there were the priests who
were specially set aside for church work and to help the priests were men called deacons.
This system of church government developed under the Roman Empire is still in the same
basic form used today.

In Pagan Rome, the Pontifex Maximus was the head priest who was in charge of all religious
affairs of the state. In Christian Rome, the head Christian priest adopted the title and
would be later known by history by that name. The high Pontiff ,or Pope, became an
important figurehead next to the emperor and he was given a big role in the making of
descisions. Near the end of the Western empire, when the imperial capital had been moved
from Rome to Constantanople by Constantine, the pope (or bishop) was the only important
man left in Rome and so assumed a position of power and responsibility. In 445 AD it was
decreed that the Bishop in Rome had supremacy over the whole church.

Even though the Roman empire did fall less than 200 years after it adopted Christianity,
the beliefs that Jesus inspired rose from the ashes and flourished. From the Roman empire,
the church inherited much and Christianity had adapted the Roman form of government and
the Roman idea of unity. It is because of these Roman ideals that Christianity survived
through the ages to become the strongest religion in the world.

Roman religion was strongly influenced by Greek tradition: the Romans decided early on
that their gods must be the same as those of the Greeks. Zeus, the king of all the Greek
gods, merged with the Roman Jupiter. Ares and Mars, gods of war, became one and the same
in Roman eyes. The Celtic warrior gods Cocidius and Belatucadrus merged with the Roman god
Mars. In Lydney Park, the Celtic god Nodens had a healing sanctuary, and there two bronze
plaques show that he too was associated with Mars. The Celtic goddess Sul, deity of the
spring and of healing, was identified with Minerva; they devoted a temple to her in Bath.
In fact, the Romans usually absorbed the local gods into their culture when they conquered
a new land. Soldiers even offered sacrifices to the enemies' gods, trying to bribe them to
support the Romans instead of their own people.

One Celtic god was Epona, who had strong connections with horses. In Chelmsford, a horse
skull was found in a ritual shaft, another in a nearby ditch, and a whole skeleton minus
its front two feet was found in a pit. They probably ended up there as a result of
religious rituals. In Winchester, there is an altar which was dedicated by Antonius
Lucretianus to Italian, German, Gallic and British mother-goddesses.

In the Cotswolds, there are many reliefs showing Celtic gods such as the Deae Matres
(mother goddess), and the genii cucullati (guardian spirits with hooded cloaks). The
reliefs usually show three or four figures. These deities were strongly associated with
fertility. The water nymph Coventina appears in a relief at Carrawburgh. The River Wharfe,
in North Yorkshire, had its own goddess, Verbeia.
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