Religion in ancient Rome encompasses the ancestral ethnic religion of the city of Rome that the Romans used to define themselves as a people, as well as the adopted religious practices of peoples brought under Roman rule. The Romans thought of themselves as highly religious, and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety ''(pietas)'' in maintaining good relations with the gods. According to legendary history, most of Rome's religious institutions could be traced to its founders, particularly Numa Pompilius, the Sabine second king of Rome, who negotiated directly with the gods. This archaic religion was the foundation of the ''mos maiorum'', "the way of the ancestors" or simply "tradition", viewed as central to Roman identity.
The priesthoods of public religion were held by members of the elite classes. There was no principle analogous to "separation of church and state" in ancient Rome. During the Roman Republic (509–27 BC), the same men who were elected public officials might also serve as augurs and pontiffs. Priests married, raised families, and led politically active lives. Julius Caesar became Pontifex Maximus before he was elected consul. The augurs read the will of the gods and supervised the marking of boundaries as a reflection of universal order, thus sanctioning Roman expansionism as a matter of divine destiny. The Roman triumph was at its core a religious procession in which the victorious general displayed his piety and his willingness to serve the public good by dedicating a portion of his spoils to the gods, especially Jupiter, who embodied just rule. As a result of the Punic Wars (264–146 BC), when Rome struggled to establish itself as a dominant power, many new temples were built by magistrates in fulfillment of a vow to a deity for assuring their military success.
Roman religion was thus practical and contractual, based on the principle of ''do ut des'', "I give that you might give." Religion depended on knowledge and the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice, not on faith or dogma, although Latin literature preserves learned speculation on the nature of the divine and its relation to human affairs. Even the most skeptical among Rome's intellectual elite such as Cicero, who was an augur, saw religion as a source of social order.
For ordinary Romans, religion was a part of daily life.〔Jörg Rüpke, "Roman Religion – Religions of Rome," in ''A Companion to Roman Religion'' (Blackwell, 2007), p. 4.〕 Each home had a household shrine at which prayers and libations to the family's domestic deities were offered. Neighborhood shrines and sacred places such as springs and groves dotted the city.〔Apuleius, ''Florides'' 1.1; John Scheid, "Sacrifices for Gods and Ancestors," in ''A Companion to Roman Religion'' (Blackwell, 2007), p. 279.〕 The Roman calendar was structured around religious observances. Women, slaves, and children all participated in a range of religious activities. Some public rituals could be conducted only by women, and women formed what is perhaps Rome's most famous priesthood, the state-supported Vestals, who tended Rome's sacred hearth for centuries, until disbanded under Christian domination.
The Romans are known for the great number of deities they honored, a capacity that earned the mockery of early Christian polemicists.〔For an overview of the representation of Roman religion in early Christian authors, see R.P.C. Hanson, "The Christian Attitue to Pagan Religions up to the Time of Constantine the Great," and Carlos A. Contreras, "Christian Views of Paganism," in ''Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt'' II.23.1 (1980) 871–1022.〕 The presence of Greeks on the Italian peninsula from the beginning of the historical period influenced Roman culture, introducing some religious practices that became as fundamental as the cult of Apollo. The Romans looked for common ground between their major gods and those of the Greeks (''interpretatio graeca''), adapting Greek myths and iconography for Latin literature and Roman art. Etruscan religion was also a major influence, particularly on the practice of augury.
Imported mystery religions, which offered initiates salvation in the afterlife, were a matter of personal choice for an individual, practiced in addition to carrying on one's family rites and participating in public religion. The mysteries, however, involved exclusive oaths and secrecy, conditions that conservative Romans viewed with suspicion as characteristic of "magic", conspiratorial (''coniuratio''), or subversive activity. Sporadic and sometimes brutal attempts were made to suppress religionists who seemed to threaten traditional morality and unity, as with the senate's efforts to restrict the Bacchanals in 186 BC.
As the Romans extended their dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, their policy in general was to absorb the deities and cults of other peoples rather than try to eradicate them,〔"This mentality," notes John T. Koch, "lay at the core of the genius of cultural assimilation which made the Roman Empire possible"; entry on "Interpretatio romana," in ''Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia'' (ABC-Clio, 2006), p. 974.〕 since they believed that preserving tradition promoted social stability.〔Rüpke, "Roman Religion – Religions of Rome," p. 4; Benjamin H. Isaac, ''The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity'' (Princeton University Press, 2004, 2006), p. 449; W.H.C. Frend, ''Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus'' (Doubleday, 1967), p. 106.〕 One way that Rome incorporated diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods.〔Janet Huskinson, ''Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire'' (Routledge, 2000), p. 261. See, for instance, the altar dedicated by a Roman citizen and depicting a sacrifice conducted in the Roman manner for the Germanic goddess Vagdavercustis in the 2nd century CE.〕 By the height of the Empire, numerous international deities were cultivated at Rome and had been carried to even the most remote provinces, among them Cybele, Isis, Epona, and gods of solar monism such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, found as far north as Roman Britain. Because Romans had never been obligated to cultivate one god or one cult only, religious tolerance was not an issue in the sense that it is for competing monotheistic systems.〔A classic essay on this topic is Arnaldo Momigliano, "The Disadvantages of Monotheism for a Universal State," ''Classical Philology'' 81.4 (1986) 285–297.〕 The monotheistic rigor of Judaism posed difficulties for Roman policy that led at times to compromise and the granting of special exemptions, but sometimes to intractable conflict. For example, religious disputes helped cause the First Jewish–Roman War and the Bar Kokhba revolt.
In the wake of the Republic's collapse, state religion had adapted to support the new regime of the emperors. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, justified the novelty of one-man rule with a vast program of religious revivalism and reform. Public vows formerly made for the security of the republic now were directed at the wellbeing of the emperor. So-called "emperor worship" expanded on a grand scale the traditional Roman veneration of the ancestral dead and of the ''Genius'', the divine tutelary of every individual. Imperial cult became one of the major ways in which Rome advertised its presence in the provinces and cultivated shared cultural identity and loyalty throughout the Empire. Rejection of the state religion was tantamount to treason. This was the context for Rome's conflict with Christianity, which Romans variously regarded as a form of atheism and novel ''superstitio''.
==Founding myths and divine destiny==
The Roman mythological tradition is particularly rich in historical myths, or legends, concerning the foundation and rise of the city. These narratives focus on human actors, with only occasional intervention from deities but a pervasive sense of divinely ordered destiny. For Rome's earliest period, history and myth are difficult to distinguish.〔Alexandre Grandazzi, ''The Foundation of Rome: Myth and History'' (Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 45–46.〕
Rome had a semi-divine ancestor in the Trojan refugee Aeneas, son of Venus, who was said to have established the nucleus of Roman religion when he brought the Palladium, Lares and Penates from Troy to Italy. These objects were believed in historical times to remain in the keeping of the Vestals, Rome's female priesthood. Aeneas had been given refuge by King Evander, a Greek exile from Arcadia, to whom were attributed other religious foundations: he established the ''Ara Maxima'', "Greatest Altar," to Hercules at the site that would become the Forum Boarium, and he was the first to celebrate the Lupercalia, an archaic festival in February that was celebrated as late as the 5th century of the Christian era.〔Beard ''et al''., Vol. 1, 1; 189 - 90 (Aeneas and Vesta): 123 - 45 (Aeneas and Venus as Julian ancestors). See also Vergil,'' ''Aeneid''.〕
The myth of a Trojan founding with Greek influence was reconciled through an elaborate genealogy (the Latin kings of Alba Longa) with the well-known legend of Rome's founding by Romulus and Remus. The most common version of the twins' story displays several aspects of hero myth. Their mother, Rhea Silvia, had been ordered by her uncle the king to remain a virgin, in order to preserve the throne he had usurped from her father. Through divine intervention, the rightful line was restored when Rhea Silvia was impregnated by the god Mars. She gave birth to twins, who were duly exposed by order of the king but saved through a series of miraculous events.
Romulus and Remus regained their grandfather's throne and set out to build a new city, consulting with the gods through augury, a characteristic religious institution of Rome that is portrayed as existing from earliest times. The brothers quarrel while building the city walls, and Romulus kills Remus, an act that is sometimes seen as sacrificial. Fratricide thus became an integral part of Rome's founding myth.〔T.P. Wiseman, ''Remus: A Roman Myth'' (Cambridge University Press, 1995), ''passim''.〕
Romulus was credited with several religious institutions. He founded the Consualia festival, inviting the neighbouring Sabines to participate; the ensuing rape of the Sabine women by Romulus's men further embedded both violence and cultural assimilation in Rome's myth of origins. As a successful general, Romulus is also supposed to have founded Rome's first temple to Jupiter Feretrius and offered the ''spolia opima'', the prime spoils taken in war, in the celebration of the first Roman triumph. Spared a mortal's death, Romulus was mysteriously spirited away and deified.〔Or else was murdered by his resentful senate, who successfully concealed their crime. See Beard ''et al'', Vol. 1, 1; Vol. 2, 4.8a for Livy, 1.9 & 5 - 7 (Sabines and temple to Jupiter) and Plutarch, ''Romulus'', 11, 1 - 4.〕
His Sabine successor Numa was pious and peaceable, and credited with numerous political and religious foundations, including the first Roman calendar; the priesthoods of the Salii, flamines, and Vestals; the cults of Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus; and the Temple of Janus, whose doors stayed open in times of war but in Numa's time remained closed. After Numa's death, the doors to the Temple of Janus were supposed to have remained open until the reign of Augustus.〔Beard et al., Vol. 1, 1 - 2 & Vol. 2: 1.2, (Livy, 1.19.6): 8.4a (Plutarch, Numa, 10). For Augustus' closure of Janus's temple doors, see Augustus, ''Res Gestae'', 13. Festus connects Numa to the triumphal ''spolia opima'' and Jupiter Feretrius.〕
Each of Rome's legendary or semi-legendary kings was associated with one or more religious institutions still known to the later Republic. Tullus Hostilius and Ancus Marcius instituted the fetial priests. The first "outsider" Etruscan king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, founded a Capitoline temple to the triad Jupiter, Juno and Minerva which served as the model for the highest official cult throughout the Roman world. The benevolent, divinely fathered Servius Tullius established the Latin League, its Aventine Temple to Diana, and the Compitalia to mark his social reforms. Servius Tullius was murdered and succeeded by the arrogant Tarquinius Superbus, whose expulsion marked the beginning of Rome as a republic with annually elected magistrates.〔Beard ''et al'', Vol. 1, 3, and footnotes 4 & 5.〕
Roman historians〔The Augustan historian Livy places Rome's foundation more than 600 years before his own time. His near contemporary Dionysius of Halicarnassus appear to share some common sources, including an earlier history by Quintus Fabius Pictor, of which only a terse summary survives. See also Diocles of Peparethus, Romulus and Remus and Plutarch, ''The Parallel Lives, Life of Romulus'', 3. Loeb edn. available at Thayer's site: (). Fragments of an important earlier work (now lost) of Quintus Ennius are cited by various later Roman authors. On the chronological problems of the kings' list, see Cornell, pp. 21–26, and 199–122.〕 regarded the essentials of Republican religion as complete by the end of Numa's reign, and confirmed as right and lawful by the Senate and people of Rome: the sacred topography of the city, its monuments and temples, the histories of Rome's leading families, and oral and ritual traditions.〔Beard ''et al'', Vol. 1, 8-10; Cornell, pp. 1–30; Feeney, in Rüpke (ed), 129 - 42, on religious themes in Roman Historiography and epic; Smith, in Rüpke (ed), 31 - 42 for broad discussion of sources, modern schools of thought and divergent interpretations.〕 According to Cicero, the Romans considered themselves the most religious of all peoples, and their rise to dominance was proof they received divine favor in return.〔Cicero, ''On the Responses of the Haruspices'', 19.〕
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