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Religion in Ancient Rome
by D. Bassette
Religion is faith, a belief, something to aid with the problems of life. In most cases a religion involves gods/goddesses or spirits. The people of ancient Rome had many gods and goddesses. The Romans believed that if they appeased their gods and goddesses, the divinities would help them by blessing the crops to make them fertile or by watching over the family to keep them safe. The Romans also believed that when they angered or disobeyed the gods they would be punished severely. Their religion was not like Christianity where one loves and trusts God. The Roman religion was municipal not personal. According to McClees (3) The religion of the Romans was composed of many elements, and showed a large variety of cults and observances. Religious tenants were not defined, and no priestly hierarchy attempted to interfere with the peoples' beliefs or actions. A Roman did not have to worship gods if he didn't want to, but he might anger his fellow citizens by outraging their feelings. However, to a normal person the service of the gods was a daily duty and each important event of human life had its appropriate observances. The head of every family was considered its priest. The children were his assistants in carrying out the worship of the gods, who guarded the house and fields and all the living creatures therein.
Religion was in the hands of state official's not individual people. In ancient Rome there were many religious posts. Each post served a different purpose in Roman religion and each one played a very important role in the organization. There were about five religious posts, which were: Pontiffs, Haruspexs, Augurs, Flamens, and Vestal Virgins. Pontiffs advised chief magistrates. They also established an early criminal code and created a calendar, fixing dates of religious festivals/special events and days of holidays. Ong states, "The Pontiffs were sometimes bribed by the politicians to create a fake month so that their term of office could be extended. If you were elected as a Pontiff your term lasted for life." The Haruspex was a priest that was highly thought of by the people. He was so important in telling the future that he outlived the civilization itself for centuries. Augurs supervised and interrupted auspices used to decide if the gods approved government action. Ong also states that "Auspices were 'omens' sent by the gods and included looking at the color of entrails, lightning, and natural phenomenon. Originally there were three Augurs nominated, but later on sixteen were nominated. Augurs were nominated for life." Flamens were chief priests to who conducte different sacrifices. There were three major Flamens, those that represented Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. Vestal Virgins looked after the sacred fire of Vestal (goddess of hearth) and made sure it burned. They were victims of physical/sexual abuse by senior religious officials as punishment if the flame was extinguished. Ong states "The Romans dread above all the [extinguishing of the sacred flame]... [It indicated that] the destruction of the city [was imminent], she was stripped naked and flogged by the chief priest in the dark"
While religion was municipal, people did participate in festivals. It was an occasion of general hilarity, shared by the slaves as well as the family and it is notable that the offering might be made by the overseer, himself a slave. There were many different festivals that the Romans participated in. The place where the most festivals that were on the farms of the ancient Romans. They were called The Festivals of the Farmers Year.
Most of the personal aspects of the religion were within family and sacred. In every Roman house there was a sacred fire. It was believed that when it stayed lit the fire protected the family. On the other hand whenever the fire went out, it was believed that terrible things could happen to them. Everyone in the Roman family participated in keeping the fire going. There were many rules that needed to be followed exactly or it was believed that bad things would happen. The Romans had to make sure the fire never died, so they always kept ashes and coals on the alter. It was a custom that the man of the house had to take care of the fire all night. Every day the family would cover the coals with ashes to keep it from consuming the fire totally. In the morning the first thing the families did was add sticks and bark to allow the fire to build up again. De Coulanges (25) states "The fire ceased to glow only when the entire family had died. Keeping the fire going was connected to an ancient belief." There were many rules to lighting the sacred fire. To begin with, it was only allowed to burn certain types of wood. Next, the fire had to stay pure, which means that no bad thing could be done in the presence of the sacred fire. There was one day out of the year where the whole family had to put out and re-light the fire right away. De Coulanges (25) states "The families adored the sacred fire. They believed it to have the power to bring them good health as well as protection. In return, the Romans made offerings of flowers, wine, victims, and fruit. Whenever the people were in trouble they gathered around the fire and looked to it for protection." The worship of the dead was another of the family religious practices. Every time a person in one of the families died they were worshiped like a god so they wouldn't be haunted for life. The family made many offerings to them and asked them for protection. The worship of the dead was a very serious ritual and there was even a law that if you stepped on a tomb of someone who wasn't in your family you must repent or the dead would haunt you. To the people the dead were considered sacred beings. In ancient Rome a complete religion of the dead was created. De Coulanges (21) states "The wicked man as well as the good man became a god in death, but all the things that tormented him in the first life carried on in the second life. The worship of the dead in no way resembled the Christian worship of the saints." The Romans called their dead Manes. Before the tomb there was an altar for the sacrifices as before the temple of the gods. If the funeral repast was not offered to the dead, they immediately left their tombs and became wandering shades that were heard in the silence of the night. Their spirits ignored them and punished them by causing pain and diseases, and they left the living no rest until the funeral was established. There were many rules to the burial of the dead. De Coulanges (21) states "One of the first rules is that you had to be a blood relative to even participate in the burial. The presence of someone who did not belong to the family disturbed the manes which is why the law was passed that if you did not belong to the family of the deceased and you touched the tomb you must repent and purify yourself."
ConclusionsIn conclusion the religion in ancient Rome was municipal and not personal. Unlike Christianity where God is worshiped out of love and trust the Romans worshiped their god out of fear. They participated in festivals, offered sacrifices and offerings, and created family religious practices in the home. Also, the Roman had more than 20 types of gods and goddesses and spirits in which they believed would watch over and take care of them if they were worshiped properly.