Sunday, December 11, 2005

Religion in the Roman Republic


“To adhere to the customs of the ancestors, the state religion was for the Romans a matter of simple patriotism,” (Boren 1965: 34). In this modern age where the separation of church and state is continually emphasized, it is easy to forget that things were not always so. In ancient Rome, religion and the state were not only combined, they defined each other. In ancient Rome, religion was inseparable from the state.

“When you command great numbers of men, you find the emotional forces bottled up in them very strong,” (Field Marshal Lord Montgomery in Grant 1960: 154). The Romans realized that they had to guide the emotions of their subjects into patriotic channels. In ancient Rome, “patriotism and state religion [were] indistinguishable,” (Grant 1960: 154).

Religion decided whether the Romans would declare war or have peace. Religion decided when generals fought, and when they retreated. Religion decided whether the decisions of the Senate would stand, or be declared void. Religion was behind the founding legends or Ancient Rome. Religion was a vital part of Rome’s history, as can be shown by looking at its origin, its prominence in the Roman political scene, and its decline.


The legends about the founding of Rome were developed to establish the state religion. By the time of Augustus, these legends were firmly established, aided by the works of Livius and Vergilius (Gruen 1992: 6). How much of these traditions were believed, if they were believed at all, during the early republic? This is somewhat a matter of speculation, but we do know a little. Livius himself admits that the origin of Rome is uncertain, but asserts that if any city deserved to have a miraculous origin, Rome did (Stobart 1961: 15).

If the Romans were to believe that the service of the gods was so intricately connected with the welfare of Rome, it was necessary to establish a history of the relationship of the gods with the city of Rome, as well as create an explanation for the dependence of Rome on the gods. The legend of Aeneas, who was directed by the gods to settle in Italy in anticipation of the future founding of Rome, was created to do just that. Likewise the story of the legendary twins Romulus and Remus, who were descended from the god Mars and founded the city of Rome, also explained Rome’s religious situation.

The connection of the founding of Rome with the Trojan War, about which Vergilius wrote his Aenied, had been established by the third Century B.C., and so was not questioned in any history written after this period. Although there were several different versions of this story, such as Odysseus founding the city of Rome instead of Aeneas, or the two enemies reconciling at the founding of the city. These many different versions were due to the mind set of the Roman writer. A Roman writer would not find any virtue in simply rewriting what someone else has already written, but any Roman writing about the foundation of the city would make his additions to the legend (Gruen 1992: 31).

It is likely that the story of Romulus and Remus started out as a separate legend, and was later synchronized with the story of Aeneas (Amory and Hammond 1967: 9). We know that the story existed at least as early as 286 B.C., since a coin that was dated to that year was found with a wolf suckling two infants (Stobart 1961: 15). The famous bronze statue of the Capitoline Wolfe, which is much older, may or may not be evidence of the legend existing in the early Roman Republic. The two children nursing from the wolf were added later (Stobart 1961: 16).

From these legends we know that the Romans considered Rome to be a sacred city, and that it had the blessings of the gods. It also shows that the Romans believed serving the gods and serving Rome to be one and the same.

According to tradition Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, established the practice of formal religion as it continued throughout the Republic. How much truth there is to this we can’t say with any certainty, but scholars now recognize that it is unlikely the seven kings of Rome are purely fictional (Stobart 1961: 16). The Latin language indicates the Romans were at one time very familiar with kings (Stobart 1961: 17).

The last kings of Rome, the Tarquins, although portrayed as typical Greek tyrants by Roman historians, have a name that is Etruscan. This implies that there was Etruscan domination at the end of the regal period. There is other evidence for this. The buildings built during this period in Rome were on a scale not equaled for centuries afterwards. There are reluctant admissions to Etruscan domination in Roman literature, and some Roman rituals and ornaments indicate that the Etruscans once held supreme authority (Stobart 1961: 17).

Since it is known that the Etruscans were heading South towards Campania at the end of the Seventh century, it is likely that they would have made an effort to secure the passage of the Tiber at Rome, which lay directly in their route. From all this evidence, it can safely be concluded that Rome was ruled by Etruscan princes around the end of the fifth century, but that Etruscans were never present in Rome in large numbers (Stobart 1961: 17).

So if the Etruscans influenced Roman culture and religion, what were the Etruscans like? Their origin is unknown, but they appear to have little culture of their own. At first they imitated the Phoenicians, but then, after the Greeks achieved domination, the Etruscans took on Greek culture. They even went so far as to hire Greek craftsman to ensure that their cities would resemble those of the Greeks (Stobart 1961: 20).

The most important thing the Etruscans did for Rome was to erect a temple to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva on the Capital hill. This gave the fledgling city of Rome a feeling of unity. It also established the three gods in Roman Religion. The Etruscans were also probably responsible for introducing the concept of anthropomorphic deities to the Romans, as well as the practice of augury. Etruscans artists painted Terrocotta ornaments for the new Capitoline Temple, and the Etruscans also made the famous Capitoline statue of Jupiter (Stobart 1961: 20).

Ius Divinum

Since the Romans believed the foundation of their empire was preordained by the gods, it is only natural that religion would play an important part in their government. All parts of the Roman law covering religion were referred to generally as the ius divinum, or sacred law. As mentioned above, tradition credits Numa Pompilius with establishing most of it. Before we delve into the history of the Republic, it is worth commenting on the accuracy of the ancient sources. No contemporary writer of the early or middle Republic has survived. Most of the knowledge we have about this period comes from Livius, and other writers of the first century or later. The lateness is enough in itself to doubt the accuracy of these histories. It has also been suggested that the great Roman families of the late republic exaggerated, or possibly made up, the deeds of their ancestors. Also, many ancient historians looked for precedents to their own times in the past, and if the precedents were not there, they added them (Stobart 1961: 21).

There is a good reason to believe much of these ancient sources, however. Livius and the others based their history on the Annales Maximi (discussed below) which were published in 125 B.C. by the Pontifex Maximus Mucius Scaevola (Stobart 1961: 21).

A good example of religion acting side by side with the state is the twelve tables. The twelve tables were essentially putting into law the existing Roman customs, and was done at the request of the Plebeians to take power away from the Patricians. According to tradition, the tables were formed in 545 B.C.. Although they were destroyed by the Gauls in 390 B.C., much of it has survived in the form of quotations by other ancient writers (Lewis and Reinhold 1951: 102).

Each of the twelve tables deals with a different part of the law. Table X deals with the Sacred law. Most of the laws in Table X deal with funerals, and many of them are designed to prevent excess, such as the law that a many may not have more than one funeral, or the law that there is no costly sprinkling at funerals. There is also a law that no man should be buried within the boundaries of Rome (Lewis and Reinhold 1951: 108-109).

The majority of the ius divinum, however, dealt with the various religious officials under it. Although the ancient Romans had several offices that were purely religious, in theory even the most secular office was supposed to be a religious one. The Lex Sacratae made all officials of the Republic sacred. Because of the obvious abuses such a law lends itself to, it was later modified to mean that officials were sacred in the sense they were under the protection of the gods, and any attempt to do physical harm to them would be met with retribution by the Roman government on behalf of the gods (Peck 1966: 1299).

The Censors are a good example of an office that had both secular and religious duties. They were arguable the most powerful office in the whole Republic because of the religious power behind them (Stobart 1961: 29). The office of Censors was formed in 443 B.C.. Among other things, it was their duty to maintain an official list of the citizens, to maintain public morals, and to supervise the leasing of public areas and buildings. At first, the Censors could only be Patricians. In 351 B.C., the office was open to Plebeians. The Leges Publilae, passed in 339 B.C., dictated that at least one Censor must be a Plebeian. The Censors achieved their greatest power in 312 B.C., when they were given the power to keep Senatorial rolls, and expell any Senators who acted against public morality, a duty formally held by the Consuls (Hammond & Scullard 1970: 178).

The Censors had the power to change the status of any man, no matter what class of citizenship the man belonged to. Men were demoted in status for offenses, such as disregarding religious or traditional values. Aulus Gellius notes some interesting cases of punishment dealt out by the Censors. If land had gone unattended, the owner was to be reduced to the lowest class of citizenship. If a knight did not take good care of his horse, the same would happen. Aulus Gellius even cites a case where the Censors were trying a man for yawning in court, because it indicated his mind had been wandering. The man was only able to escape punishment by swearing that the yawn had come over him despite his resistance (Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 113-114).

The most important duty of the Censors was the religious purification of both the people and the priests, known as the lustum. This occurred at first every four years, but was changed in 209 B.C. to every five years.

The Romans had many varieties of priests, and it was the responsibility of the Censors to put the priests into different colleges. Of these, the Romans had four important colleges, the Decimviris, the College of Augurs, the College of Fetials, and the College of Pontiffs.

The college of Decimviris was one of the most influential colleges. Decimviris is Latin for board of ten, although the name changed when they were increased to fifteen in Sulla’s time. It was this group that was responsible for Sibylline books.

In the fifth century B.C., the practice was developed of consulting the oracle of Sibyl at Cumae, which was a Greek city in Campania. The words of the Sibyl were written down and collected, in Greek, into the Sibylline books, and entrusted to the decimviris. In times of crisis, they would consult the Sibylline books, usually with the result of ordering the introduction of a new Greek god or a Greek religious site. In doing so, they were responsible for the Hellinization of the Roman State Religion. The last innovation they made was in 205 B.C., the introduction of the goddess Magna Mater from Pessinus in Aisa Minor (Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 140).

The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus was destroyed by fire in 83 B.C., and the Sibylline books were lost with it. A search was conducted over the whole Roman Empire for any prophecies that had survived. These prophecies were copied and sent back to Rome. In this way the Sibylline books were reconstructed, although the Romans themselves wondered if all of the prophecies had been recovered, or if some fake prophecies had made there way into the new books (Dionysius of Halicarnassus in Lewis and Reinhold 1951: 141).

The college of Augurs also had great political power, for they were responsible for the auspices. The auspices were taken before every important act of state, and if they were found to be unfavorable, business for that day was stopped. The Senate would not meet, nor would the army commander lead his troops into battle. It is for this reason that Cicero claimed the College of Augurs were the most powerful group in the Roman Empire.

The augurs, however, did not actually take the auspices. That privilege was reserved for a Roman official possessing imperium. The augurs were responsible for the preperation, and interpretation of the auspices, however, a task much more important (Lewis and Reinhold 1951: 132-134).

At first, Auspices concerned only the flights of birds, but it was expanded to include other methods. Festus writes, "The augurs observe five types of signs: from lightening, from birds, from the feeding of sacred chickens, from four footed animals, and from portents (Festus in Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 132). Augurs used a secret mehtod to interpret the auspices, one that was taught to the other Augurs, but never written down.

In a speech after his exile, Cicero gives numerous examples of the importances of following the auspices. When Flaminus was preparing to fight Hannibal, an augur reminded him to take the auspices. Flaminus fed the sacred chickens, but they would not eat. The augur warned him not to go into battle. Flaminus replied, "Find auspices indeed if we may only fight when the chickens are hungry, but must do nothing if they are full" (Flaminus as quoted by Cicero in Boren 1965: 134). Flaminus suffered a terrible defeat and was killed. In another example, Publius Claudius, commander of a fleet in the first Punic War, ordered the sacred chickens thrown overboard when they refused to eat, saying "let them drink, since they will not eat," (Claudius as quoted in Lucilius as qouted by Cicero in Boren 1965: 135). As a result, his colleague Junius lost his entire fleet in a storm, and Claudius was condemned by the Roman people.

The fetials were the third college, in charge of war and peace. The ancient college of twenty members was responsible for international relations, and "functioned especially in rituals attending the declaration of war, conclusion of treaties, protection of foreign ambassadors at Rome, and extradition (Lewis and Reinhold 1951: 136).

It was the duty of the Fetials to make sure that Rome did not enter into an unjust war against a country in alliance with them. If another country violated the treaty first, then the fetials functioned as ambassadors. One fetial, who was chosen by his colleagues, put on a sacred robe and insignia, and went into the city when had done Rome wrong. Stopping at the boarder, he took an oath to the gods asking that if what the city was accused of was true. If it was not true, the fetial asked the gods to punish Rome for making a false accusation. Entering the city, the fetial would repeat the oath in the presence of the first person he came across. After going through several other rituals, the fetial made his demands to the city. The city was given ten days to consider it, after which the fetial made his demands another time. After thirty days, the fetial returned home and informed the Senators that if they wished to vote for war, the gods had no problem with it. If the Senate decided to declare war, the fetials went through another ceremony, in which the gods were again called to witness Rome's actions. War was officially declared when a fetial throw a spear across the boarder. The fetials were also responsible for the ceremony of a peace treaty, and again the gods were called as witnesses. If peace was made by generals, without consulting the fetials, it was invalid and the fetials would investigate it. Once peace was made it was the duty of the fetials to make sure Rome kept her end of the bargain (Hammond & Scullard 1970: 360).

A group subordinate to the Fetials were the Sodales. These priests were allowed to act only as one unified body, not allowing for individual opinions. They were concerned with annual rites. Particularly active among the Sodales were a group called the Saliens, the priests of Mars. They were active in March and October, the opening and closing of campaining season.

The head of all the other colleges and all other religious functions was the college of Pontiffs. The word Pontifex means bridge builder, and it was presumed by the later Romans that this originated from the duty of the pontiffs to build bridges. The pontiffs were responsible for the presentation and the interpretation of the ius divinum, as well as being Rome's earliest jurist, powerful in civil as well as criminal law. The college started out with three pontiffs, then was consequently increased to six, nine, fifteen, and at last to sixteen by Julius Caesar. The Lex Ogulnia passed in 300 B.C. dictated that at least half the number of pontiffs must be plebeians (Hammond & Scullard 1970: 860).

The Pontiffs were the judges of all religious cases, whether private citizens, magistrates, or priests were involved. They made laws for the observance of any religious rite, they investigated the conduct of any magistrate who performed any religious duty, and they took care that all they employed in religious functions committed no errors. They were not liable to persecution or punishment, nor were they accountable to the Senate or the people in religious matters (Dionysius of Halicarnus in Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 131-132).

The head of the Pontiff college, and the Roman religion, was the Pontifex Maximus. Until 212 B.C., the Pontifex Maximus was chosen by the other pontiffs. After 212 B.C., the people voted for the Pontifex Maximus, although interestingly not by a majority. Of Rome's thirty five tribes, seventeen were chosen by a lot to vote for the Pontifex Maximus (Hammond & Scullard 1970: 860).

In addition to a general supervision of the state religion, the Pontifex Maximus was also responsible for keeping the records of the state, the Annales Maximi. The Pontifex Maximus was also in charge of the calender, and decided on which days state business could be performed (dies factis). The Pontifex Maximus was responsible for making sure the lunar calender corresponded with the solar year. To do this, an intercalary month was added every two years. When Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus, he got ride of the intercalary month by increasing the year to three hundred sixty five days, and establishing the leap year (Boren 1965: 20).

Besides these four main colleges, there were several other colleges as well. The Collegia Compitluia was concerned with the worship of the Lares at the Compita. The Collegium Capitolinorum was responsible for the ludi Capitolini (the Capitoline games). The Collegium Mercatorm presided over the temple of Mercury. There were many other minor colleges as well (Hammond & Scullard 1970: 264).

King Numa is credited with establishing all of the colleges. At first, the priests in the college were appointed by a king. Then, once the Republic began, when ever there was a vacancy in one of the colleges, the existing members would decide who would fill it. After the Lex Domitia was passed, the people themselves would vote on who is included in the colleges (Peck 1996: 1299).

The Vestal Virgins, who were under the direct authority of the Pontifex Maximus, were originally four in number, but increased to six because of the great amount of tasks they had to perform. They lived in the temple of the goddess Vesta, which all could enter in the daytime, but no man could enter during the night. It is very important that all the Vestals remained virgins for the thirty years they were in the service of the state, although they could marry after this time. The duties of the Vestal Virgins included offering sacrifices, keeping the wills of Roman citizens, and most importantly, tending the sacred flame of Vesta. During the first ten years, The Vestals learned their function. During the second ten years, they performed them, and during the final ten years, they taught others.

The Romans dreaded the extinction of the sacred fire, for it meant that the destruction of Rome was imminent. If the fire went out, it was immediately re-introduced with many added rituals. The extinction of the fire was also an indication that one of the Vestals was no longer a virgin. The violated Vestal was ceremoniously carried to the Coline Gate, and buried alive. Her male partner was flogged to death (Dionysius of Halicarnus in Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 135).

A girl chosen to be a Vestal Virgin must be between six and ten. Both her father and mother must be living. She must be neither hearing impaired, nor with any mark or defect. Neither of her parents could be slaves, or have demeaning occupations. When the girl was brought to the house of Vesta, she passes from her father's control to the control of the Pontifex Maximus, and acquires the right to make a will (Aulus Gellius in Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 136).

The specialized priests of individual gods were known as flamens, whose main function was to make sacrifices to their individual god. There are fifteen flamens in all, three flamines maiores, and twelve flamines minores. Of the twelves flamines minores, we know the names of six: Volturnalis, Palatualis, Furinalis, Floralis, Falacer, and Pomonalis. Of the three flamines maiores, the flamens of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, the flamen of Jupiter, or the Flamen Dialis, was the most important. There were numerous restrictions on the Flamen Dialis, among them he was not allowed to see the Roman citizens assembled in an army. Since he could not have a military career, or battle experience, the Flamen Dialis rarely was able to achieve the rank of Consul. The Flamen Dialis was also forbidden to take an oath, wear a ring, take fire from his home, have a slave cut his hair, go outside without a cap, or touch a she-goat, raw flesh, ivy or beans. The Flamen Dialis must be clothed at all times. If he changes his clothes he must do it under covers, so that he is never naked before Jupiter (Aulus Gellius as quoted in Lewis & Reinhold 1951: 134).

At state dinners, the Flamen Dialis had the second highest place at the table. The only one above him was the Rex Sacrificulus. When Rome was ruled by kings, the kings performed most of the religious taks. After the kings were expelled, the Rex Sacrificulus was created. The Rex Sacrificulus took on the sacral functions of the king. It is speculated by some that the Rex Sacrificulus was once the supreme authority in religious matters, and that the Pontifex Maximus was created to take power away from the Rex Sacrificulus by anti-monarchal Romans (McCullough 1996: 679). Called Rex for short, although he was subordinate to the Pontifex Maximus, he was still above all the Flamens. His wife, called Regina, also had certain ceremonial duties. The Rex must be a Patrician, he was chosen for life, and he could hold no other posts.


Saying that in the Roman Republic, religion and the state were inseperable is a novel idea to the modern American, but it was not unique to the time. What was unique about the Roman Republic was that the responsibility of the Roman citizen was non-existent. All the religious duties were taken care of by state officials (Boren 1965: 36). This ultimately resulted in many Romans searching elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. Caesar was elected as Pontifex Maximus over serveral other respectable men in spiute of the fact that his private lifestyle was well-known to be lacking morals. Caesar had little interest in religious activities, but desired both the respect and the position carried with it, and needed the security (his enemies wouldn't dare kill the Pontifex Maximus) (Cowell 1964: 237).

"Religion at Rome was less a set of beliefs than a set of practices," (Boren 1965: 132). Even when many Romans no longer bought into it, or were apathetic about the state religion, it was fiercely protected. "The Romans were never a really religious people, they lacked the imagination to be devout," but they were "ritualists and formalists to the heart's core," (Stobart 1961: 33).

The influence of religion declined towards the end of the Republic. The introduction of cynicism in the second century B.C., as well as Greek learning, produced a great amount of skepticism in Rome towards the old ways. The changing population in the Roman empire introduced many new religions and offered an alternative to disenchanted Romans (Gruen 1992: 132). Yet even with all this enlightened thought, Cicero, who was a "cultivated, philosophic and common sense man of the world," spend days in January of 56 B.C. studying the Sibylline books with other Senators to see if there was a quoatation that would prevent a Roman army from entering Egypt (Cowell 1964: 186).

At the end of the Republic, religion also became a political tool between the two parties: the optimates and the populares. One example among many is in 59 B.C., when Bibulus, an optimate, tried to stop the land reforms of Julius Caesar by finding a prophecy in the Sibylline books which indicated an omen of great importance would appear. Bibulus demanded that all business be stopped so he could watch the sky in search of the sign. Caesar foiled him by calling for a vote in the Senate, and the vote was against Bibulus (Cowel 1964: 348).

Perhaps the feeling of the time is best summed up by Cowell's statement. "Although Cicero and the men of his age had no real faith in the traditional religious beliefs of the Roman people, they had by no means proceeded to complete atheism or a clear affirmation that there were no gods (Cowell 1964: 384).


The Romans believed that the city of Rome was predestined by the gods, and that by serving Rome, they were serving the gods. This belief was advantageous to the government of Rome, and allowed them to keep the citizens submissive and obediant. Religion played a large part in the Roman government, as well as the history of Rome. The large amount of religious officials shows the importance the Romans placed on religion.


Boren, Henry
1965 The Roman Republic. Princeton; Van Notrand Company

Cowell, F.R.
1964 Cicero and the Roman Republic. Baltimore: Penguin Company

Grant Michael
1960 The World of Rome. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Gruen, Erich
1992 Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome. Ithica: Cornell University Press

Hammond, Mason and Anne Amory
1967 Aeneas to Augustus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Hammond & Scullard
1970 The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon

McCartney, Paul
1969 Teenage Wonder. Liverpool: Beatles Press

McCullough, Colleen
1996 Caesar's Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Peck, Thurston
1996 Harpers Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. New York: American Book Company

Reinhold, Meyer and Naphtali Lewis
1951 Roman Civilizations. New York: Columbia University

Scullard, H.H.
1951 Roman Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Stobart, J.C.
1961 The Grandeur that was Rome. London: Sidgwick and Jackson

Professors's Comments
This paper is certainly a thorough treatment of Roman religion and its inherent role in the politics of the Republic. I will certainly be consulting it when I teach the Roman Republic in Hist. 301 this spring, because good systematic treatments of Roman religion are rare.

One minor flaw: McCartney was definitely wrong when he attributes Caesar's sponsorship of the pop concert of 48 B.C. to his office as pontifex. Such entertainments were always the responsibility of Rome's aediles, an office Caesar also held.


Anonymous said...

A very helpful essay, thank you!

Your professor was "definately wrong" when he/she spelt definitely incorrectly. Someone needs to school him/her.

Thanks again.

Joel said...

hate to say it, but the mis-spelling was me and not the professor. I was typing in what he had originally done as hand written comments, and a few typos sneaked their way in. I've gone back and fixed this, thanks for the heads up.

Carla Acebo said...

So Helpful! I'm currently taking a Roman Republic class and this has cleared up a lot of my questions!