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Religions 11: What is Roman religion ? Key concepts. Chronological overview. 753 BCE: Rome’s foundation: Romulus 753-509 BCE: Rome kingdom 509-27 BCE: Republic: battle between plebeians and patricians; Rome more powerful: expansion in Italy 340-338: Italian War

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chronological overview
Chronological overview
  • 753 BCE: Rome’s foundation: Romulus
  • 753-509 BCE: Rome kingdom
  • 509-27 BCE: Republic: battle between plebeians and patricians; Rome more powerful: expansion in Italy
  • 340-338: Italian War
  • 264-129 BC: three Punic Wars against Carthage
  • Subjugation of Hellenistic world (from about 200 onwards):
  • 168: Battle of Pydna: victory over Macedonia
  • 148: Provincia Macedonia
  • 146: Corinth destroyed

133-29: Rome conquers Pergamum (Asia Minor): provincia Asia

  • 91-89: Social War of Italian cities against Rome: they all get Roman citizenship
  • 88-79: Sulla restoration and dictator
  • 60: first triumvirate: Crassus, Pompey and Caesar
  • 58-50: Gallic conquest by Caesar
  • 49-46: civil war, Caesar becomes dictator
  • 44: Caesar killed
  • 43: second triumvirate: Lepidus, Octavian and Mark Antony: O. wins: battle of Actium 31, battle of Actium; death of Cleopatra in 30
  • 27 BCE (or 31): end of Republic, begin of Roman Empire, with Augustus as Emperor; Empire until Rhine/Danube

Julio-Claudian emperors (27 BCE-68 CE): Claudius conquers Britain

  • Flavian Emperors (69-96): Vespasian, Domitian
  • Nerva and successors (96-138): Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian; Trajan conquers Dacia (Roumania) and Mesopotamia (briefly)
  • Antonines (138-192): Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius: height of Empire
  • 192-284: military emperors, third-century ‘crisis’
  • 284-305: Diocletian
  • 306-337: Constantine the Great: Christian Empire
  • 284-602: Late Antiquity
  • 476: fall of Rome; East continues

Greek religion Roman religion

hieros, hagnos,

hosios, hagiossacer

eusebeia pietas





tous theousetc. religio

  • ‘obligation with respect to the divine’
  • negative: ‘prohibition’, e.g. it is the religiothat non-initiates do not participate in the mysteries of Eleusis (Livy)
  • positive: ‘prescribed ritual/customary practice’

From second century CE on: religiocomes to mean ‘worship of a particular deity’ (personal relation with god and commitment of way of life prominent)


Apuleius, Golden Ass 11.26: ‘I was a constant worshipper, a stranger to the temple, but at home in the religio’

  • Appropriated by Christians: ‘the true religioof the true God’ (Tertullian, Apology 24.2)
  • From this time on religiocomes closer to our ‘religion’

Words for gods:

  • Theos/thea, deus/dea, plural theoi/theai, di
  • Abstract ‘divine’: theos, deus
  • Other abstract words:
  • daimon/daemon: less specific than theos/deus, hence variety of entities between human – divine sphere, ‘spirits’, ‘souls’; in Christian times, it would get a negative meaning through contrast with Theos/Deus
  • Heros/heros: more restricted sphere, tombs (Greek); in Roman world more stretched out: Herakles/Hercules became god, human benefactors could become heroes

c. Numen: vague (is there but exact identity unclear) ‘divine power’, ‘divine will’

d. genius: guardian spirit of individual, gradually wider scope: genius loci

e. Distinctively Roman: spirits of the dead as quasi-divine beings: di manes

approaches to the divine
Approaches to the divine
  • Varro (1st cent. BCE), three approaches (theologiai = ways to think about the divine):
  • the civil: civic/official/public religion
  • the mythical: Roman myth and mythography
  • the physical: philosophy
1 the civil
1. The Civil
  • Rives discusses here cult = religious rituals and practices employed in worship

NB: Bremmer discusses this under ‘ritual’ (what is this and what is difference between the two?)

  • Prayers: invocation – attention - request
  • Sacrifice (see offering scene on next slide: what is difference with Greek religion?)
  • Vows
  • Divination: interpretation of divine communications
2 myth
2. Myth


Relation Greek-Roman myth, idea of Roman slavishly taking over Greek myths, untrue:

  • Other emphasis in pantheon: Juno and Jupiter more, Minerva less important; Hercules worshipped as deity
  • Romans usually put legendary men/heroes in well defined geographical and historical context: stories about early Rome (Romulus and Rhemus), Aeneas (Aeneid)
placing too much emphasis on myths
Placing too much emphasis on myths

Not central to Graeco-Roman religions:

  • No canon
  • Marginal to cult (see discussion myth – ritual in Bremmer: myth only rarely touches on ritual)
too little emphasis on myths
Too little emphasis on myths
  • Other idea is that myths had lost all religious significance by Roman times:
  • Shift from oral tradition to elite literature and art; mythographies; however, not restricted to elite: masses retained access, e.g. through art, cultic practices etc.
  • Criticism on myths; yet never entirely dismissed; and others gave deeper meaning to myths (e.g. allegory)
  • Ergo: kept religious meaning and significance
2b art
2b Art
  • Much the same as myth (intertwined)

* Again, too much emphasis on divine images: idolatry (= idol worship), as if worship of statues was central to Greek-Roman religion

* Jewish-Christian concept: only worship of one God > concept is applied by early Christians to Graeco-Roman traditions

3 philosophy
3. Philosophy
  • Different schools of thought (Academics, Stoics, Epicureans), but all strived to define the divine. Generic ideas:
  • morally good and perfect
  • source of blessings and virtues
  • Removed, yet linked to daily life by intermediate levels of being

Philosophy was not ‘armchair science’ but way of life > comes closer to our concept of ‘religion’; clear ideas about morals and behaviour, ‘missionary’ aspect (e.g. influence of Cicero’s Hortensiuson Augustine)

However, despite criticism on all 3 other approaches to divine, philosophers never wanted to replace them and remained restricted to the elite! (e.g. example of Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods)

  • 4 independent approaches to the divine that overlapped in various ways:
  • Myth and art: similar objects, though also different
  • Cult separate, but myth and art also played a (limited) role
  • Philosophy: most radically different from other 3, but still did not reject them; either integrating or accepting them
  • Diversity of approaches explains why there was no priestly class and also why there existed a diversity of religious authorities in charge of different areas
  • Rise of the polis: religious authorities are:
  • Magistrates (civic priests)
  • Priests

Focus on proper cult acts, not on their interpretation, hence correcting someone’s religious behaviour was not part of the job (unless it affected the well-being of the community): they were facilitators of the holy


Other misconception:

Emperor not head of religion (pontifexmaximus), only president of highest religious institution (pontifices) but had no wider authority than Rome

Measures concerning religion derive from his authority as emperor

  • Belief: specific (modern) Christian connotation: contains series of key doctrines that characterize essence > problematic term for Antiquity
  • Without this association, however, the term can be useful if we mean: ‘accepting something in the religious sphere as true even without proof’
  • Rives, p. 48: ‘What distinguishes the Graeco-Roman tradition from Christianity is thus the absence not of religious beliefs, but of pressures to define and scrutinize those beliefs’

A. religious significance should be seen primarily in terms of social and cultural factors, not belief

  • B. no central doctrine
  • C. no mechanism to enforce ‘beliefs’: no orthodoxy (‘right belief’), but orthopraxy (‘right action’)

Ergo: individuals believed what they liked without interference; the only thing that was expected was that you did your religious duties

  • Modern notion of religion strongly associates with morality, but in Antiquity there were no fixed set of rules
  • Widespread belief in gods’ concern with moral behaviour, but never systematised or imposed
  • Ergo: not central to Graeco-Roman religion as it is now