History of Roman Religion

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Iron Age necklace from Italy

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The religion of the Romans was originally a simple animism, that is, a belief in spirits or powers (numina) associated with all things about man and with all man’s acts. These spirits were not personified and were not conceived of as human in form. There were no temples and no statues of gods. Rites were clean and simple, performed with a scrupulous exactness felt as pleasing to the gods, who were friendly when thus worshiped. It was the religion of a simple agricultural people. Study of the calendars that have come down to us shows that the older festivals that kept their places in such calendars were marked by larger letters. These were rural festivals, marking the year of the country people. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“But as the Romans came in contact with other peoples and their religions, and as they developed from a small Italian community to an imperialistic nation, their religion inevitably changed. Gods of conquered communities were brought in. In times of stress gods were imported to meet the emergency. It is believed that the Etruscan kings built the first temples and set up the first statues of gods. Contact with the Greeks led to the introduction of Greek gods and Greek ritual and to the identification of the old Roman gods with Greek gods that seemed most like them. The exactness in the performance of the proper rites led naturally to a deadening formalism; hence, before the end of the Republic, the educated classes were turning instead to philosophy. Others turned to the mystical or orgiastic cults of Greece and the Orient, naturally, as the native stock was more and more displaced by Orientals. Under the Empire the Oriental religions became more firmly established, while the cult of the emperors came to be the distinguishing feature of the state religion, until finally both made way for Christianity.” |+|

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Early Roman Religion

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “Many of the oldest Roman religious cults were associated with places, natural forces and aspects of everyday life. These included deities like the Lares and Penates - spirits of the household - and Ceres, who was connected with the grain harvest. One of the most important of these old cults was that of Vesta, the goddess of the household hearth. From quite an early date her cult became a state one, and her circular temple in the Roman Forum contained a fire that represented the collective hearth of the Roman state. This was tended by Vestal Virgins, six women chosen in childhood and bound to the cult for 30 years each. They lived in a communal house next to the temple. The courtyard of this house contained statues of some of the chief Vestal Virgins.” [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Etruscan Silene figure

As was true with the Roman government, the early Roman religion grew up with the union of the various settlements into one community. When the different tribes came together into the Roman city, they selected Jupiter and Mars as their common gods to be worshiped upon the Capitoline hill, together with Quirinus on the Quirinal. As the fire was kept burning on the family hearth, so the sacred fire of the city was kept burning in the temple of Vesta. The Roman people were filled with religious ideas. All power, from that of the household father to that of the king, was believed to come from above. In peace and in war they lived in the presence of the gods, and sought to remember them by worship and festivals. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

The Romans showed their remembrance of the gods in their prayers, offerings, and festivals. The prayers were addressed to the gods for the purpose of obtaining favors, and were often accompanied by vows. The religious offerings consisted either of the fruits of the earth, such as flowers, wine, milk, and honey; or the sacrifices of domestic animals, such as oxen, sheep, and swine. The festivals which were celebrated in honor of the gods were very numerous and were scattered through the different months of the year. The old Roman calendar contained a long list of these festival days. The new year began with March and was consecrated to Mars and celebrated with war festivals. Other religious festivals were devoted to the sowing of the seed, the gathering of the harvest, and similar events which belonged to the life of an agricultural people such as the early Romans were. \~\

Etruscan Religion

The Etruscans were the predominate group in Italy before they were eclipsed by the Romans. Etruscan gods fell into three categories: ones taken from the Greek colonies to the south, ones taken from other Italian cultures and ones they developed themselves. Etruscan religion was dominated by a triad of gods: the precursors of Juno, Jupiter and Minerva. The Etruscans also seemed to be especially interested in gods of the underworld and the afterlife. Gladiator battle were thought to have evolved from Etruscan funerary games.

The Etruscans believed that the will of the gods was manifested through signs in the natural world and could be determined by augury (watching the flight of birds) and by examining the entrails of animals. The patterns made by flying bird were read for auspicious signs. The word auspicious was originally used to describe a favorable flight of birds. Lightning and thunder were read for symbols of good and bad luck. The future was divined by observing the direction of thunderbolts. Roman leaders called on Etruscan soothsayers to direct lighting bolts at the Visigoths.

The A.D. 1st century Roman historian Seneca observed: “This is the difference between us and the Etruscans. We believe that lighting is caused by clouds colliding, whereas they believe that the clouds collide in order to create lightning. Since they attribute everything to the gods. They are led to believe not that events have a meaning because they have happened, but that they happen in order to express a meaning."

Etruscan Liver and Chicken Divination

The Etruscans used haruspicy (searching for omens in the entrails of animals) to predict the future. Etruscan fortunetellers were famed for their liver reading skills. After a sacrifice the body was opened up and the liver was examined. The liver was divided into region which correspond with the constellations in the sky. The right side denoted good luck and the left side, bad luck. A bronze liver unearthed by archaeologists at Piacenza was divided into forty regions, each marked with name of a different god. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Liver of Piacenza

The custom of breaking a wishbone (the Y-shaped clavicle of a fowl) with a secret wish going to person with the bigger piece has been dated to Etruria in 400 B.C. The Etruscans believed that chickens were soothsayers because they foretold the laying of an egg with a squawk.

A 2nd century B.C. model of a sheep's liver was divided into 16 regions corresponding to sections of the heavens and names of deities. According to the Etruscan "hen oracle," a circle was drawn on the ground with 20 parts, corresponding to letters in the Etruscan alphabet, with pieces of grain in each sector. A sacred chicken was placed in the middle and foretold the future by forming the letters for words by pecking at the grain in the letter's sector.

When the sacred hen died, its bones were dried and the clavicle was stroked before making a wish and thus became known as the wishbone. The clavicle was selected over other bones because its Y-shape had some symbolic meaning. The customs of breaking it for a wish developed in Roman times partly as the result of to many people fighting over one bone.

Sabines Adopt Roman Religious Customs

The Sabines were the main rivals of the Romans back in the legendary period of Roman history, around 7th and 8th centuries B.C. The two rivals fought each other and finally decided to unite. Plutarch wrote: “The Sabines adopted the Roman months, of which whatever is remarkable is mentioned in the Life of Numa. Romulus, on the other hand, adopted their long shields, and changed his own armour and that of all the Romans, who before wore round targets of the Argive pattern. Feasts and sacrifices they partook of in common, not abolishing any which either nation observed before, and instituting several new ones; of which one was the Matronalia, instituted in honour of the women, for their extinction of the war; likewise the Carmentalia. This Carmenta some think a deity presiding over human birth; for which reason she is much honoured by mothers. Others say she was the wife of Evander, the Arcadian, being a prophetess, and wont to deliver her oracles in verse, and from carmen, a verse, was called Carmenta; her proper name being Nicostrata. Others more probably derive Carmenta from carens mente, or insane, in allusion to her prophetic frenzies. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127) “Lives”, written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

mosaic of Sabine youth

“Of the feast of Palilia we have spoken before. The Lupercalia, by the time of its celebration, may seem to be a feast of purification, for it is solemnised on the dies nefasti, or non-court days, of the month February, which name signifies purification, and the very day of the feast was anciently called Februata; but its name is equivalent to the Greek Lycaea; and it seems thus to be of great antiquity, and brought in by the Arcadians who came with Evander. Yet this is but dubious, for it may come as well from the wolf that nursed Romulus; and we see the Luperci, the priests, begin their course from the place where they say Romulus was exposed. But the ceremonies performed in it render the origin of the thing more difficult to be guessed at; for there are goats killed, then, two young noblemen's sons being brought, some are to stain their foreheads with the bloody knife, others presently to wipe it off with wool dipped in milk; then the young boys must laugh after their foreheads are wiped; that done, having cut the goats' skins into thongs, they run about naked, only with something about their middle, lashing all they meet; and the young wives do not avoid their strokes, fancying they will help conception and childbirth. Another thing peculiar to this feast is for the Luperci to sacrifice a dog. But, as a certain poet who wrote fabulous explanations of Roman customs in elegiac verses, says, that Romulus and Remus, after the conquest of Amulius, ran joyfully to the place where the wolf gave them suck; and that, in imitation of that, this feast was held, and two young noblemen ran — "Striking at all, as when from Alba town,/ With sword in hand, the twins came hurrying down;" — and that the bloody knife applied to their foreheads was a sign of the danger and bloodshed of that day; the cleansing of them in milk, a remembrance of their food and nourishment.

“Caius Acilius writes, that, before the city was built, the cattle of Romulus and Remus one day going astray, they, praying to the god Faunus, ran out to seek them naked, wishing not to be troubled with sweat, and that this is why the Luperci run naked. If the sacrifice be by way of purification, a dog might very well be sacrificed, for the Greeks, in their illustrations, carry out young dogs, and frequently use this ceremony of periscylacismus, as they call it. Or if again it is a sacrifice of gratitude to the wolf that nourished and preserved Romulus, there is good reason in killing a dog, as being an enemy to wolves. Unless, indeed, after all, the creature is punished for hindering the Luperci in their running.

“They say, too, Romulus was the first that consecrated holy fire, and instituted holy virgins to keep it, called vestals; others ascribe it to Numa Pompilius; agreeing, however, that Romulus was otherwise eminently religious, and skilled in divination, and for that reason carried the lituus, a crooked rod with which soothsayers describe the quarters of the heavens, when they sit to observe the flights of birds. This of his, being kept in the Palatium, was lost when the city was taken by the Gauls; and afterwards, that barbarous people being driven out, was found in the ruins, under a great heap of ashes, untouched by the fire, all things about it being consumed and burnt. He instituted also certain laws, one of which is somewhat severe, which suffers not a wife to leave her husband, but grants a husband power to turn off his wife, either upon poisoning her children or counterfeiting his keys, or for adultery; but if the husband upon any other occasion put her away, he ordered one moiety of his estate to be given to the wife, the other to fall to the goddess Ceres; and whoever cast off his wife, to make an atonement by sacrifice to the gods of the dead. This, too, is observable as a singular thing in Romulus, that he appointed no punishment for real parricide, but called all murder so, thinking the one an accursed thing, but the other a thing impossible; and, for a long time, his judgment seemed to have been right; for in almost six hundred years together, nobody committed the like in Rome; and Lucius Hostius, after the wars of Hannibal, is recorded to have been the first parricide. Let this much suffice concerning these matters.”

Numa, the Founder of Roman Religion


A legendary Sabine named Numa Pompilius was elected as the second king of Rome. He is said to have been a very wise and pious man, and to have taught the Romans the arts of peace and the worship of the gods. Numa is represented in the legends as the founder of the Roman religion. He appointed priests and other ministers of religion. He divided the lands among the people, placing boundaries under the charge of the god Terminus. He is also said to have divided the year into twelve months, and thus to have founded the Roman calendar. After a peaceful reign of forty-two years, he was buried under the hill Janiculum, across the Tiber. The reign of Numa was traditionally looked back upon as a kind of a golden age. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Roman tradition ascribed to Numa, second of the seven kings, the organization of the worship and the assignment to the calendar of the proper festivals in due order. Whether or not we choose to believe that a great priest-king left his personal impress on ritual and calendar, “the religion of Numa” is a convenient phrase by which to designate the religion of the early State. Numa was supposed to have organized the first priestly colleges and to have appointed the first flamines, or priests of special gods. The most important of these were the Flamen Dialis, or priest of Jupiter, and the flamines of Mars and Quirinus. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“When the kingship was abolished, the office of rex sacrorum was instituted to carry on the rites once in the charge of the king. He, the three flamines mentioned above, and the college of the pontifices, with the Pontifex Maximus at its head, constituted the body controlling and guiding the state religion. Under the Empire the emperor was regularly Pontifex Maximus. |+|

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Plutarch's life reveals, by its markedly polemical tone, the extent to which the facts about the regal period were being debated by antiquarians in the late Republic. Known as the establisher of the Roman state religion, Numa was credited with the establishment or regularization of the main religious figures and officials in Rome, including the pontifices, vestals, and flamines. He is supposed as well to have been responsible for the formation of the calendar; it is fairly certain that the Roman calendar actually came into use some one hundred years later. The calendar is interesting as an index of the way religion might have functioned as a means of social control, how closely intertwined were the exercises of sacred and secular power. The Roman senate, after all, met in a temple. One of the many inheritances the Romans had from the Etruscans was the art of divination, of looking into the future by means of observing the flights of birds or the entrails of sacrificial victims. For any major public undertaking it was necessary to determine whether the gods would be favorable to it at any one time; moreover, certain days were automatically favorable days for the conduct of public business, while other days were certainly not (dies fasti and dies nefasti). [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Only the holder of one of the highest of the traditional magistracies, the curule officials, had the right to take the auspices; the curule magistracies were originally just the two consuls. In their absence the curule magistrates were the dictator and his master of horse (magister equitum); later other curule magistracies were added (the praetor, censor, and curule aedile). The extent to which the patres monopolized the right to take the auspices and presence in the priestly colleges is disputed, but it is clear that from an early stage declaring a day nefas could bring any planned public proceedings to a halt. It is significant that the Roman calendar was not published until 304 B.C., and that the opening of all of the priesthoods to the plebeians was supposed to have been one of the last concessions won in the struggle of the orders (by the lex Ogulnia).” ^*^

Did Numa Really Exist?

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “To Numa, the traditional second king of Rome (assumed dates 715 to 673 B.C.) later ages attributed many of the religious usages of the city. We may dismiss Numa as legendary; but the institutions and customs ascribed to him were not legendary, and survived nearly intact down to the triumph of Christianity, thus illustrating the essentially conservative character of the Roman genius. Note that the old Roman religion was almost formalism incarnate. The relations of god and worshiper are those of creditor and debtor; the latter must discharge his duty literally, and in exchange require a due amount of favor. Almost no religion was so deficient in spirituality as that of Rome. It did, however, put a premium on the scrupulous performance of duty. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 9-15.

Numa and the nymph

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: ““There may be a way to finding a historical kernel to the annalistic tradition through Numa. His name ought to be Etruscan, although Plutarch identifies him as Sabine and Pompilius could be either Sabine or Etruscan. Plutarch has Numa living in the Regia, and this building's remains in the Forum Romanum may hold a clue. The earliest object to emerge from the excavation of it is a Bucchero cup, dating to around 625 B.C. and having the word REX painted on it; this, at least, seems to confirm that there were kings at Rome. Excavation has also revealed that there were a number of phases of construction on the Regia, with the earliest of them going back into the seventh century. The first phase shows a courtyard, with a portico at one end and two chambers with a space between them. In the second phase, the courtyard is extended to enclose the two chambers. In the third phase, dated to around 550 B.C., a door was added in the north wall and one of the chambers was eliminated; to this phase belong a series of architectural terracottas. After a destruction by fire around 530 B.C., the Regia was rebuilt with a ground plan similar to that of the original, but with a new orientation. It was redesigned one final time at the end of the sixth century (phase 5) and that plan was retained in all subsequent renovations. Through all of the stages the Regia has more in common with domestic than with sacred architecture. In other words, for what it is worth, the ground plan of the building suggests that the early Roman king was a priest but not a god, and that tallies with the account of the annalistic tradition. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class ^*^]

“Finally, there is the lapis niger, discovered in 1899 by the northern corner of the Forum Romanum at the foot of the Capitoline. Roman authors believed that the lapis niger marked a tomb, which they identify variously as that of Faustulus (the shepherd who rescued Romulus and Remus), or Hostilius (grandfather of the king Tullus Hostilius; DH 3.1.2), or Romulus himself. Actually, as it turned out, no one was buried there. The stone was not a grave marker but rather a king of boundary stone marking off a sacred precinct. It is dated on the basis of the letter forms to the second quarter of the sixth century B.C. The tufa rock is of the same type as that used in the Servian Wall (Grotto Oscura), but the date finds confirmation from the pottery in the fill in a pool next to the monument. The text is a sacred law, probably establishing the spot as inviolable. It mentions the king twice in the dative case; other secure words include: sakros 'cursed' iouxmenta 'oath' iouested 'just'. In sum, the lapis niger confirms the presence of kings at Rome, at least towards the end of what the annalist thought of as the regal period, and confirms too that they had some religious role. It does not, however, get us any closer to someone named Numa Pompilius. Neither can we find archaeological confirmation for any building supposed to have been raised by Numa's successor, Tullus Hostilius. The building of the first Curia is attributed to him (Varro Ling. 5.155); the Curia Hostilia is the meeting place of the senate of Rome. But there are no archaeological traces, because it was completely rebuilt as the Curia Julia by Augustus in 29 B.C. However, Tullus Hostilius (who was primarily remembered as a warrior king) is supposed to have captured Alba Longa, and as we have seen the evidence from the early graves does show a close affinity between the people of the Alban Hills and those on the site of Rome.”

Temple of Vesta and Early Roman Rituals

Vesta was the spirit of the hearth. The temple that honored her was one of the most important in Rome. The famed Vestal Virgins tended her shrine The six virgins who watched the eternal flame of Rome, which burned for more than a thousand years, were ordained at the age of seven and lived in pampered but secluded luxury. As long as they remained pure, they were among the most respected women in Rome.

The Upper Forum in Rome (Colosseum-side entrance of the Forum) contains the House of Vestal Virgins, The Temple of Vesta the Temple of Antonius and Fustina (near the Basilica of Maxentius. The House of Vestal Virgins (near Palantine Hill, next to the Temple of Castor and Pollex) is a sprawling 55-room complex with statues of virgin priestess. The statue whose name has been scratched is believed to belong to a virgin who converted to Christianity. The Temple of Vesta (Temple of the Vestal Virgins) is a restored circular buildings where vestal virgins performed rituals and tended Rome's eternal flame for more than a thousand years. Across the square from the temple is the Regia, where Rome's highest priest had his office.

Temple of Vesta

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “One of the most important of the old cults was that of Vesta, the goddess of the household hearth. From quite an early date her cult became a state one, and her circular temple in the Roman Forum contained a fire that represented the collective hearth of the Roman state. This was tended by Vestal Virgins, six women chosen in childhood and bound to the cult for 30 years each. They lived in a communal house next to the temple. The courtyard of this house contained statues of some of the chief Vestal Virgins.” [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Numa”: “The original constitution of the priests, called Pontifices, is ascribed unto Numa, and he himself was, it is said, the first of them; and that they have the name of Pontifices from pons ["bridge"], or, thus, "bridge-makers." The sacrifices performed on the bridge were among the most sacred and ancient, and the keeping and repairing of the bridge attached, like any other public sacred office, to the priesthood. It was accounted not simply unlawful, but a positive sacrilege, to pull down the wooden bridge; which moreover is said, in obedience to an oracle, to have been built entirely of timber and fastened with wooden pins, without nails or cramps of iron.

“After Numa had in this manner instituted these several orders of priests, he erected, near the temple of Vesta, what is called to this day the Regia, or king's house, where he spent the most part of his time, performing divine service, instructing the priests, or conversing with them on sacred subjects. He had another house upon the Mount Quirinalis, the site of which they show to this day. In all public processions and solemn prayers, criers were sent before to give notice to the people that they should forbear their work, and rest [The people were not bound to stop working on religious holidays; but the priests must not see them work. Therefore, the crier was sent ahead when the priests passed to warn the people to cease their labor just for the moment. Anyone beheld working by the priest was subject to a fine]. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127) “Lives”, written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

“Numa ordered that fish which have no scales, except the scar, should not be offered to the gods. He ordered each person to draw a line around his own real property and to set stones on the boundaries, such stones being consecrated to Jupiter Terminus. But if anyone destroyed or displaced the boundary stones, the person who had done this would be sacrificed to the god. He ordained that the funeral pyre should not be sprinkled with wine, not that libations be made to the gods with wine from unpruned vines. Among other laws he made: A concubine shall not touch the Altar of Juno, and if she does, she shall sacrifice, with her hair unbound, a ewe lamb to Juno; If a man is killed by lightning, the proper burial rite shall not be performed--those who disobey this will be sacrificed to Jupiter; Priests should have their hair cut with only bronze shears.

“January was so called from [the god] Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war. For this Janus, whether in remote antiquity he were a demi-god or a king, was certainly a great lover of civil and social unity, and one who reclaimed men from brutal and savage living; for which reason they figure him with two faces, to represent the two states and conditions out of the one of which he brought mankind to lead them into the other. His temple at Rome has two gates, which they call the Gates of War, because they stand open in the time of war, and shut in the times of peace; of which latter there was very seldom an example, for, as the Roman state was enlarged and extended, it was so encompassed with barbarous nations and enemies to be resisted that it was seldom or never at peace. Only in the time of Augustus Caesar, after he had overcome Antony, this temple was shut; as likewise once before, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls [Davis: in 235 B.C., shortly after the close of the First Punic War]; but then it was not long before, wars breaking out, the gates were again opened. But, during the reign of Numa, those gates were never seen open a single day, but continued constantly shut for a space of forty-three years together; such an entire and universal cessation of war existed “

Early Roman Priests

Roman priest

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The Salii, or dancing priests, were priests of an old and famous college who worshiped Mars, the god of war. A similar college, the Salii Collini, was in charge of the worship of Quirinus. The pontifices were in charge of the calendar. The augures interpreted the will of the gods as shown when the auspices were taken by the magistrates before any public occasion or action. Among other official colleges were the quindecemviri, in charge of the famous Sibylline Books. Unofficial or private associations or colleges carried on the worship of various gods. In this connection might be mentioned the burial societies, ostensibly organized to further the worship of some god. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

On Numa and the founding of Rome’s religion institutions, Plutarch wrote in “Life of Numa,” ix and x: “The original constitution of the priests, called Pontifices, is ascribed unto Numa, and he himself was, it is said, the first of them; and that they have the name of Pontifices from potens, powerful, because they attend the service of the gods, who have power and command over all. The most common opinion is the most absurd, which derives this word from pons, and assigns the priests the title of "bridge-makerrs" [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127) “Lives”, written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

The Pontifices are said to have had the making or maintenance of the Sublician bridge built over the Tiber by Ancus Marcius]. The sacrifices performed on the bridge were amongst the most sacred and ancient, and the keeping and repairing of the bridge attached, like any other public sacred office, to the priesthood. It was accounted not simply unlawful, but a positive sacrilege, to pull down the wooden bridge; which moreover is said, in obedience to an oracle, to have been built entirely of timber and fastened with wooden pins, without nails or cramps of iron. The stone bridge was built a very long time after, when Aemilius was quaestor, and they do, indeed, say also that the wooden bridge was not so old as Numa's time. . . .

“The office of Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, was to declare and interpret the divine law . . . he not only prescribed rules for public ceremony, but regulated the sacrifices of private persons, not suffering them to vary from established custom, and giving information to everyone of what was requisite for purposes of worship or supplication. He was also guardian of the vestal virgins, the institution of whom, and of their perpetual fire, was attributed to Numa, who, perhaps, fancied the charge of pure and uncorrupted flames would be fitly entrusted to chaste and unpolluted persons, or that fire, which consumes but produces nothing, bears an analogy to the virgin estate.”

From Numa's day also were dated twelve sacred targets of bronze, said to have the virtue of guarding the city from pestilence. Plutarch wrote in “Life of Numa,” xix-xx: “The keeping of these targets was committed to the charge of certain priests, called Salii, who received their name from that jumping dance which the Salii themselves use, when in the month of March they carry the sacred targets through the city; at which procession they are habited in short frocks of purple, girt with a broad belt studded with brass; on their heads they wear a brass helmet, and carry in their hands short daggers, which they clash every now and then against the targets. But the chief thing is the dance itself. They move with much grace, performing, in quick time and close order, various intricate figures, with a great display of strength and agility. The targets are not made round, nor like proper targets, of a complete circumference, but are cut out into a wavy line, the ends of which are rounded off and turned in at the thickest part towards each other.

Vestal Virgins

One view of a Vestal Virgin

The six Vestal Virgins tended shrine for the household goddess Vesta at the Vesta Temple in Rome and watched the eternal flame of Rome there, which burned for more than a thousand years, were ordained at the age of seven and lived in pampered but secluded luxury. As long as they remained pure, they were among the most respected women in Rome. They could walk unaccompanied and had the power to pardon prisoners. If they lost they virginity, however they were buried alive with a burning candle and bread so they could stay alive long enough to contemplate their sins. Under Augustus they were rewarded with the best seats at gladiator contests, exclusive parties and feasts with sow's bladder and thrushes.

The Upper Forum in Rome (Colosseum-side entrance of the Forum) contains the House of Vestal Virgins, The Temple of Vesta the Temple of Antonius and Fustina (near the Basilica of Maxentius. The House of Vestal Virgins (near Palantine Hill, next to the Temple of Castor and Pollex) is a sprawling 55-room complex with statues of virgin priestess. The statue whose name has been scratched is believed to belong to a virgin who converted to Christianity. The Temple of Vesta (Temple of the Vestal Virgins) is a restored circular buildings where vestal virgins performed rituals and tended Rome's eternal flame for more than a thousand years. Across the square from the temple is the Regia, where Rome's highest priest had his office.

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in ““One of the oldest and most famous colleges was that of Vesta, whose worship was in care of the six Virgines Vestales. The sacred fire upon the altar of the Aedes Vestae symbolized the continuity of the life of the State. There was no statue of the goddess in the temple. The temple itself was round and had a pointed roof, and even in its latest development of marble and bronze had not gone far in shape and size from the round hut of poles and clay and thatch in which village girls had tended the fire whose maintenance was necessary for the primitive community. To light a fire then had been a toilsome business of rubbing wood on wood, or later striking flint on steel to get the precious spark. But the modern invention of flint and steel was never used to rekindle the sacred fire. Ritual demanded the use of friction. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

“Each Vestal must serve thirty years. Any vacancy in the Order must be filled promptly by the appointment of a girl of suitable family, not less than six years old nor more than ten, physically perfect, of unblemished character, and with both parents living. Ten years were spent by the Vestals in learning their duties, ten in performing those duties, and ten in training the younger Vestals. In addition to the care of the fire the Vestals had a part in most of the festivals of the old calendar. They lived in the Atrium Vestae beside the temple of Vesta in the Forum. At the end of her service a Vesta; might return to private life, but such were the privileges and the dignity of the Order that this rarely occurred. A Vestal was freed from her father’s potestas.” |+|

Plutarch on the Vestal Virgins

veiled vestal virgin

Plutarch wrote in “Life of Numa,” xi-xiv: The chief priest “was also guardian of the vestal virgins, the institution of whom, and of their perpetual fire, was attributed to Numa, who, perhaps, fancied the charge of pure and uncorrupted flames would be fitly entrusted to chaste and unpolluted persons, or that fire, which consumes but produces nothing, bears an analogy to the virgin estate. Some are of opinion that these vestals had no other business than the preservation of this fire; but others conceive that they were keepers of other divine secrets, concealed from all but themselves. Gegania and Verenia, it is recorded, were the names of the first two virgins consecrated and ordained by Numa; Canuleia and Tarpeia succeeded; Servius Tullius afterwards added two, and the number of four has been continued to the present time. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127) “Lives”, written A.D. 75, translated by John Dryden]

“The statutes prescribed by Numa for the vestals were these: that they should take a vow of virginity for the space of thirty years, the first ten of which they were to spend in learning their duties, the second ten in performing them, and the remaining ten in teaching and instructing others. Thus the whole term being completed, it was lawful for them to marry, and leaving the sacred order, to choose any condition of life that pleased them. But, of this permission, few, as they say, made use; and in cases where they did so, it was observed that their change was not a happy one, but accompanied ever after with regret and melancholy; so that the greater number, from religious fears and scruples forbore, and continued to old age and death in the strict observance of a single life.

“For this condition he compensated by great privileges and prerogatives; as that they had power to make a will in the lifetime of their father; that they had a free administration of their own affairs without guardian or tutor, which was the privilege of women who were the mothers of three children; when they go abroad, they have the fasces carried before them; and if in their walks they chance to meet a criminal on his way to execution, it saves his life, upon oath being made that the meeting was accidental, and not concerted or of set purpose. Any one who presses upon the chair on which they are carried is put to death.

“If these vestals commit any minor fault, they are punishable by the Pontifex Maximus only, who scourges the offender, sometimes with her clothes off, in a dark place, with a curtain drawn between; but she that has broken her vow is buried alive near the gate called Collina, where a little mound of earth stands inside the city reaching some little distance, called in Latin agger; under it a narrow room is constructed, to which a descent is made by stairs; here they prepare a bed, and light a lamp, and leave a small quantity of victuals, such as bread, water, a pail of milk, and some oil; that so that body which had been consecrated and devoted to the most sacred service of religion might not be said to perish by such a death as famine. The culprit herself is put in a litter, which they cover over, and tie her down with cords on it, so that nothing she utters may be heard. They then take her to the forum; all people silently go out of the way as she passes, and such as follow accompany the bier with solemn and speechless sorrow; and, indeed, there is not any spectacle more appalling, nor any day observed by the city with greater appearance of gloom and sadness. When they come to the place of execution, the officers loose the cords, and then the Pontifex Maximus, lifting his hands to heaven, pronounces certain prayers to himself before the act; then he brings out the prisoner, being still covered, and placing her upon the steps that lead down to the cell, turns away his face with the rest of the priests; the stairs are drawn up after she has gone down, and a quantity of earth is heaped up over the entrance to the cell, so as to prevent it from being distinguished from the rest of the mound. This is the punishment of those who break their vow of virginity.”

Early Roman Rituals

Apollo libation

On the early Roman planting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “The offering is to be made in this way: Offer to Jupiter Dapalis a cup of wine of whatever size you wish. Observe the day as a holiday for the oxen, their drivers, and those who make the offering. When you make the offering, say as follows: "Jupiter Dapalis, since it is due and proper that a cup of wine be offered you, in my home among my family, for your sacred feast; for that reason, be honored by this feast that is offered you." Wash your hands, and then take the wine and say: "Jupiter Dapalis, be honored by this feast that is offered to you and be honored by the wine that is placed before you." If you wish, make an offering to Vesta. The feast of Jupiter consists of roasted meat and an urn of wine. Present it to Jupiter religiously, in the proper form. After the offering is made, plant millet, panic grass, garlic, and lentils. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II, pp. 9-15; 289]

On the early Roman harvesting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “Before the harvest the sacrifice of the pig must be offered in this manner: Offer a sow as porca praecidanea to Ceres before you harvest spelt, wheat, barley, beans, and rape seed. Offer a prayer, with incense and wine, to Janus, Jupiter and Juno, before offering the sow. Offer a pile of cakes to Janus, saying, "Father Janus, in offering these cakes to you, I humbly pray that you will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then make an offering of cake to Jupiter with these words: "In offering you this cake, O Jupiter, I humbly pray that you, pleased with this offering, will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then present the wine to Janus, saying: "Father Janus, as I have prayed humbly in offering you the cakes, so may you in the same way be honored by this wine now placed before you." Then pray to Jupiter thus: "Jupiter, may you be honored in accepting this cake; may you be honored in accepting the wine placed before you." Then sacrifice the porca praecidanea. When the entrails have been removed, make an offering of cakes to Janus, and pray in the same way as you have prayed before. Offer a cake to Jupiter, praying just as before. In the same way offer wine to Janus and offer wine to Jupiter, in the same way as before in offering the pile of cakes, and in the consecration of the cake. Afterward offer the entrails and wine to Ceres.

Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods (A.D. 250): “To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander's Island [Province of Egypt]: From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander's Island, aged 72 years: ---scar on his right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell. -----Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes. -----I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated]. Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]

Priest of Jupiter

seated Jupiter

On The Flamen Dialis, Cicero wrote (c. 50 B.C.): “A great many ceremonies are imposed upon the Flamen Dialis [the priest of Jupiter], and also many restraints, about which we read in the books On The Public Priesthoods and also in Book I of Fabius Pictor's work. Among them I recall the following: 1) It is forbidden the Flamen Dialis to ride a horse; 2) It is likewise forbidden him to view the classes arrayed outside the pomerium [the sacred boundary of Rome], i.e., armed and in battle order — hence only rarely is the Flamen Dialis made a Consul, since the conduct of wars is entrusted to the Consuls; 3) It is likewise forbidden for him ever to take an oath by Jupiter; 4) Iit is likewise forbidden for him to wear a ring, unless it is cut through and empty; 5) It is also forbidden to carry out fire from the flaminia, i.e., the Flamen Dialis' house, except for a sacral purpose; 6) if a prisoner in chains enters the house he must be released and the chains must be carried up through the opening in the roof above the atrium or living room onto the roof tiles and dropped down from there into the street; [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II, pp. 9-15; 289]

“7) He must have no knot in his head gear or in his girdle or in any other part of his attire; 8) If anyone is being led away to be flogged and falls at his feet as a suppliant, it is forbidden to flog him that day; 9) The hair of the Flamen Dialis is not to be cut, except by a freeman; 10) It is customary for the Flamen neither to touch nor even to name a female goat, or raw meat, ivy, or beans; 11) He must not walk under a trellis for vines; 12) The feet of the bed on which he lies must have a thin coating of clay, and he must not be away from this bed for three successive nights, nor is it lawful for anyone else to sleep in this bed; 13) At the foot of his bed there must be a box containing a little pile of sacrificial cakes; 14) The nail trimmings and hair of the Dialis must be buried in the ground beneath a healthy tree; 15) Every day is a holy day for the Dialis; 16) He must not go outdoors without a head-covering — this is now allowed indoors, but only recently by decree of the pontiffs, as Masurius Sabinus has stated; it is also said that some of the other ceremonies have been remitted and cancelled; 17) It is not lawful for him to touch bread made with yeast; 18) His underwear cannot be taken off except in covered places, lest he appear nude under the open sky, which is the same as under the eye of Jove; 19) No one else outranks him in the seating at a banquet except the Rex Sacrorum; 20) If he loses his wife, he must resign his office; 21) His marriage cannot be dissolved except by death; 21) He never enters a burying ground, he never touches a corpse — he is, however, permitted to attend a funeral.

“Almost the same ceremonial rules belong to the Flaminica Dialis [i.e., his wife ]. They say that she observes certain other and different ones, for example, that she wears a dyed gown, and that she has a twig from a fruitful tree tucked in her veil, and that it is forbidden for her to ascend more than three rungs of a ladder and even that when she goes to the Argei Festival [when twenty-four puppets were thrown into the Tiber] she must neither comb her head nor arrange her hair.

Livy wrote in “History of Rome” (c. A.D. 10): “There is an ancient instruction written in archaic letters which runs: "Let him who is the Praetor Maximus fasten a nail on the Ides of September." This notice was fastened up on the right side of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, next to the chapel of Minerva. This nail is said to have marked the number of the year--written records being scarce in those days--and was for that reason placed under the protection of Minerva because she was the inventor of numbers. Cincius, a careful student of monuments of this kind, asserts that at Volsinii also nails were fastened in the Temple of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, to indicate the number of the year. It was in accordance with this direction that the consul Horatius dedicated the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the year following the expulsion of the kings; from the Consuls the ceremony of fastening the nails passed to the Dictators, because they possessed greater authority. As the custom had been subsequently dropped, it was felt to be of sufficient importance to require the appointment of a Dictator. L. Manlius was accordingly nominated, but, regarding his appointment as due to political rather than to religious reasons and eager to command in the war with the Hernici, he caused a very angry feeling among the men liable to serve by the inconsiderate way in which he conducted the enrolment. At last, in consequence of the unanimous resistance offered by the tribunes of the plebs, he gave way, either voluntarily or through compulsion, and laid down his Dictatorship. Since then, this rite has been performed by the Rex Sacrorum. [Source: Livy, “The History of Rome,” by Titus Livius, translated by D. Spillan and Cyrus Edmonds, (New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1892)]

Emperor Worship in Ancient Rome

Emperor worship was a key part of Rome state religion. Generally referred to as the imperial cult, it regarded emperors and members of their families as gods. Starting with Caesar and Augustus emperors that considered themselves gods ruled the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors seemed to believe in their divinity and they demanded that their subjects worship them. Marcellus was honored with a festival. Flaminius was made a priest for three hundred years. Ephesus had a shrine for Serilius Isauricus. Antony and Cleopatra referred to themselves as Dionysus and Osiris and named their children Sun and Moon. Caligula and Nero demanded to be worshiped like gods in their lifetime. And Vespasian said on his deathbed "Oh dear, I'm afraid I'm becoming a God."

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “On his death, Julius Caesar was officially recognised as a god, the Divine ('Divus') Julius, by the Roman state. And in 29 B.C. Caesar's adopted son, the first Roman emperor Augustus, allowed the culturally Greek cities of Asia Minor to set up temples to him. This was really the first manifestation of Roman emperor-worship. [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

“While worship of a living emperor was culturally acceptable in some parts of the empire, in Rome itself and in Italy it was not. There an emperor was usually declared a 'divus' only on his death, and was subsequently worshipped (especially on anniversaries, like that of his accession) with sacrifice like any other gods. |::|

Imperial Cult in Ancient Rome

Dr Neil Faulkner wrote for the BBC: “This concept, of a tough but essentially benevolent imperial power, was embodied in the person of the emperor. His presence was felt everywhere. His statues dominated public places. He was worshipped alongside Jupiter and the military standards in frontier forts, and in the sanctuaries of the imperial cult in provincial towns. His image was stamped on every coin, and thus reached the most remote corners of his domain - for there is hardly a Roman site, however rude, where archaeologists do not find coins. The message was clear: thanks to the leadership of the emperor we can all go safely about our business and prosper. [Source: Dr Neil Faulkner, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“How did the spin-doctors of ancient Rome represent the great leader to his people? Sometimes, wearing cuirass and a face of grim determination, he was depicted as a warrior and a general; an intimidating implicit reference to global conquest and military dictatorship. At other times, he wore the toga of a Roman gentleman, as if being seen in the law-courts, making sacrifice at the temple, or receiving guests at a grand dinner party at home. In this guise, he was the paternalistic 'father of his country', the benevolent statesman, the great protector. |::|

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The cult of the emperors developed naturally enough from the time of the deification of Julius Caesar. The movement for this deification was of Oriental origin. The Genius of the emperor was worshiped as the Genius of the father had been worshiped in the household. The cult, beginning in the East, was then established in the western provinces and finally in Italy. It was under the care of the seviri Augustales in the municipalities. The worship of the emperor in his lifetime was not permitted at Rome, but spread through the provinces, taking the place of the old state religion. It was this that caused the opposition to Christianity, for the refusal of the Christians to take part was treasonable. Their offense was political, not religious. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|]

A sculpted relief from the base of the column of the emperor Antoninus Pius, dated to A.D. 161, shows the apotheosis (transformation into gods) of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. “They are shown by the portrait busts at the top of the frame, flanked by eagles - associated with imperial power and Jupiter - and were typically released during imperial funerals to represent the spirits of the deceased. Antoninus and Faustina are being carried into the heavens by a winged, heroically nude figure. The armoured female figure on the right is the goddess Roma, a divine personification of Rome, and the reclining figure to the left - with the obelisk - is probably a personification of the Field of Mars in Rome, where imperial funerals took place. [Source: BBC]

Emperor Worship: A Unifying Force in the Roman Empire

Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University wrote for the BBC: “Emperor-worship was a unifying factor in the Roman world, practiced not only by army units spread throughout the empire but also by individuals in the provinces, where there were collective imperial cult centres at places such as Lyons (Gaul), Pergamon (Asia) and (probably) Colchester (Britain). The imperial cult helped to focus the loyalty of provincials on the emperor at the centre of the empire, and in some regions (such as Gaul), there is evidence that Roman authorities took the initiative in setting it up, presumably for that very reason. [Source: Dr Nigel Pollard of Swansea University, BBC, March 29, 2011 |::|]

Marianne Bonz wrote for PBS’s Frontline: “In the last century before the common era, the Greek cities had fallen prey to corrupt Roman administrators and sporadic local insurrections, as the power struggles between rival Roman factions consumed the remaining vigor of the dying Roman republic. All of these struggles came to an end when Octavian (who, as emperor, was given the name Augustus) defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. [Source: Marianne Bonz, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. Bonz was managing editor of Harvard Theological Review. She received a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School, with a dissertation on Luke-Acts as a literary challenge to the propaganda of imperial Rome. ]

“With the advent of the reign of Augustus in 27 B.C., life in the provincial cities of the Greek East became far more stable and prosperous than it had been for a very long time. The relief of the subject peoples was immense, and a number of the cities issued decrees honoring the new emperor as the earthly appearance of a benevolent god: "Providence. . .by producing Augustus [has sent] us and our descendants a Savior, who has put an end to war and established all things. . . ."

“Such a response was not without precedent. Since the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks had been accustomed to giving their rulers divine honors. But with the advent of Augustus, the situation was different. As historian S. R. F. Price observes, the decrees honoring Augustus "make explicit and elaborate comparisons between the actions of the emperor and those of the gods."

“Furthermore, the worship of Augustus was not tied to specific benefactions or civic improvements. Rather, Augustus was worshipped throughout the empire as the benefactor of the whole world. The outpouring of praise, gratitude, and affection for this first emperor, who reigned at the time when Jesus was born, was undoubtedly genuine.

“It was Augustus's virtually unchallenged prestige and popularity that provided the impetus for establishing a cult of the emperors. And this cult, once established, provided continuing support for the imperial governing authority. Accordingly, from the very beginning, the cult of the emperors was a complete merging of religion and politics.

Caesar Worship

Caesar's deification

David Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Some moderns do accept that Caesar in his last years encouraged the worship of himself as a god at Rome (following Dio 44.6.5-6, Appian BC 2.106); but this may be a distortion of the indisputable fact that a temple had been erected to clemency or to his clemency. Naturally, being acclaimed as a god by the people of the east (as Caesar was) was seen at Rome as matter of small import. It is true that the Senate declared Caesar to have been a god upon his death, and the popular belief was that a comet seen shortly after his assassination marked his assumption into the heavenly realm (a tale lovingly fostered by Augustus). In short, although there are some distortions, even the most ardent defenders of Caesar must admit that at the end he seems to have become drunk with power and the endless stream of honors heaped upon him by the Senate, and that he ended by making a mockery of Republican practices. [Source: David Silverman, Reed College, Classics 373 ~ History 393 Class]

Suetonius wrote: “To an insult which so plainly showed his contempt for the Senate he added an act of even greater insolence; for at the Latin Festival, as he was returning to the city, amid the extravagant and unprecedented demonstrations of the populace, someone in the press placed on his statue a laurel wreath with a white fillet tied to it [an emblem of royalty]; and when Epidius Marullus and Caesetius Flavus, tribunes of the plebeians, gave orders that the ribbon be removed from the wreath and the man taken off to prison, Caesar sharply rebuked and deposed them, either offended that the hint at regal power had been received with so little favor, or, as he asserted, that he had been robbed of the glory of refusing it. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.): “De Vita Caesarum, Divus Iulius” (“The Lives of the Caesars, The Deified Julius”), written A.D. c. 110, Suetonius, 2 vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 3-119]

“But from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch, although he replied to the plebeians, when they hailed him as king, "I am Caesar and no king" [with a pun on rex ('king') as a Roman name], and at the Lupercalia, when the consul Marcus Antonius several times attempted to place a crown upon his head as he spoke from the rostra, he put it aside and at last sent it to the Capitol, to be offered to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Nay, more, the report had spread in various quarters that he intended to move to Ilium or Alexandria, taking with him the resources of the state, draining Italia by levies, and leaving the charge of the city to his friends; also that at the next meeting of the Senate Lucius Cotta would announce as the decision of the Fifteen [the quindecimviri sacris faciundis ('college of fifteen priests') in charge of the Sybilline books], that inasmuch as it was written in the books of fate that the Parthians could be conquered only by a king, Caesar should be given that title.”

Augustus Worship and Religion Under Augustus


Augustus held strong beliefs in traditional Roman religion. He restored over 80 temples and passed strict moral laws that mirrored older Roman values. With his encouragement of art and literature Augustus also tried to improve the religious and moral condition of the people. The old religion was falling into decay. With the restoration of the old temples, he hoped to bring the people back to the worship of the ancient gods. The worship of Juno, which had been neglected, was restored, and assigned to the care of his wife, Livia, as the representative of the matrons of Rome. Augustus tried to purify the Roman religion by discouraging the introduction of the foreign deities whose worship was corrupt. He believed that even a great Roman had better be worshiped than the degenerate gods and goddesses of Syria and Egypt; and so the Divine Julius was added to the number of the Roman gods. He did not favor the Jewish religion; and Christianity had not yet been preached at Rome. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: “ Roman religion consisted of cult ritual, whose regular and traditional performance had a cohesive role in the state. The prestige of religious things had been dampened by neglect during the civil war years, but now religion was restored and promoted by Augustus for stability and for his own position in the state. Julius Caesar had traced the divine ancestry of his family to Venus and Mars, and when he was deified in 42 B.C., Augustus early in his career became the son of a god; in 29 B.C. he dedicated the Temple of the Divine Julius in the Roman Forum. Augustus's defeat of Antony and Cleopatra was portrayed as a victory of Roman over Egyptian gods; in 28 B.C. Augustus dedicated a temple to 'Actian Apollo' on Rome's Palatine Hill, where Augustus himself lived. Apollo was represented in a cult statue and in reliefs as both the god of vengeance against sacrilege like Antony's, and also as a bringer of peace. Augustus undertook the restoration of existing temples in the city, and he claims to have rebuilt eighty-two. (Res Gestae, 20.4) [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors]

“After Actium Augustus was venerated as a divine king in Egypt, and the provinces in the east were allowed to erect temples to him in association with the goddess Roma. At Rome the senate made the traditional vows and prayers for his safety, and included him in annual prayers at the beginning of the year; even at Rome, however, the process of divination was begun. His name was included in the ancient Salian hymn to Mars or Quirinus. In 27 B.C. the cult of the Genius of Augustus was established, in which it was decreed that a libation should be poured to his guardian spirit at public and private banquets. The senate authorized a tribute to his moral leadership by setting up in the senate-house a golden shield celebrating his military virtue, clemency, justice, and social and religious responsibility; this shield was associated with the goddess Victoria and therefore implied god-given rule. Laurel trees sacred to Apollo were set up on either side of Augustus's house, and for rescuing citizens he was awarded the corona civica, made of oak leaves from the tree sacred to Jupiter. On coins of the period Jupiter's eagle, a symbol of apotheosis, was depicted with the civic crown and laurel branches.

Temple Construction Under Augustus

Temple of Augustus in Barcelona

Nina C. Coppolino wrote: ““In 27 B.C. in the Campus Martius Agrippa built the Pantheon, but he was not allowed to fashion it as an overt 'Augusteum'; instead the temple was dedicated to the divine ancestry of Augustus through Venus, Mars, and the deified Julius. In 25-24 B.C. work began on the Temple of Mars Ultor, which Augustus had vowed at the battle of Philippi in vengeance for his father's murder, and which later housed the standards returned by the Parthians. In 22 B.C. the temple of Juppiter Tonans was dedicated on the Capitoline Hill by Augustus who had escaped being struck by lightning during the Spanish campaign. After 20 B.C. the Prima Porta Augustus was commissioned, a statue of the emperor on whose cuirass is depicted the return of the standards by Parthia, in the presence of Mars, Apollo, and Venus. [Source: Nina C. Coppolino, Roman Emperors ]

“In 13 B.C. at the return of Augustus from Spain and Gaul, the senate decreed the Ara Pacis to be built near the Campus Martius. This altar was to be used by magistrates and priests for annual sacrifices. Reliefs on the altar depict the symbols and fruits of peace in juxtaposition with figures of war by which peace was gained, and there are processions perhaps representing the major priesthoods in Rome, with Augustus himself portrayed in religious attire. Near this altar was a sundial associated with Augustus's patron, the sun-god Apollo. In 12k2 in the western province of Gaul, Drusus set up an altar at Lugdunum dedicated to Roma and Augustus.

“After Actium, when Augustus was given the power of creating new patricians, the supply of men for priesthoods was increased. Augustus himself became a member of the Fratres Arvales, an elite fraternity which performed time-honored, public sacrifices for the prosperity of the state- family. In 12 B.C. Augustus became pontifex maximus; in 11 B.C. , a new high priest of Jupiter, the flamen dialis, was appointed. When Augustus in 8 B.C. divided Rome into fourteen regions, the humble worship by the poor of the gods of the crossroads, the Lares Compitales, was elevated to official stature; this worship was promoted throughout the regions of Rome and Italy in association with the worship of the genius of Augustus. At this time the genius of Augustus was probably included in official oaths.

“Less than one month after his death in 14 A.D., divine honors were decreed to Augustus at Rome, and the precedent was set there for the posthumous deification of successive emperors.

Caligula's Self-Deification


Caligula built a bridge from the Palatine hill, where he resided, to the Capitoline, that he might be “next door neighbor to Jupiter” and He threatened to set up his own image in the temple at Jerusalem and to compel the Jews to worship it.

Suetonius wrote: “Chancing to overhear some kings, who had come to Rome to pay their respects to him, disputing at dinner about the nobility of their descent, he cried: "Let there be one Lord, one King." And he came near assuming a crown at once and changing the semblance of a principate into the form of a monarchy. But on being reminded that he had risen above the elevation both of princes and kings, he began from that time on to lay claim to divine majesty; for after giving orders that such statues of the gods as were especially famous for their sanctity or their artistic merit, including that of Jupiter of Olympia, should be brought from Greece, in order to remove their heads and put his own in their place, he built out a part of the Palace as far as the Forum, and making the temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, he often took his place between the divine brethren, and exhibited himself there to be worshipped by those who presented themselves; and some hailed him as Jupiter Latiaris. [Source: Suetonius (c.69-after 122 A.D.) “De Vita Caesarum: Caius Caligula” (“The Lives of the Caesars: Caius Caligula”) written in A.D. 110, 2 Vols., translated by J. C. Rolfe, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and London: William Henemann, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 405-497, modernized by J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton]

“He also set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind. In this temple was a life-sized statue of the emperor in gold, which was dressed each day in clothing such as he wore himself, The richest citizens used all their influence to secure the priesthoods of his cult and bid high for the honor. The victims were flamingoes, peacocks, black grouse, guinea-hens a and pheasants, offered day by day each after its own kind. At night he used constantly to invite the full and radiant moon to his embraces and his bed, while in the daytime he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering and then in turn putting his ear to the mouth of the god, now in louder and even angry language; for he was heard to make the threat: "Lift me up, or I'll lift you." But finally won by entreaties, as he reported, and even invited to live with the god, he built a bridge over the temple of the Deified Augustus, and thus joined his Palace to the Capitol. Presently, to be nearer yet, he laid the foundations of a new house in the court of the Capitol.

Deification of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 211

Septime Severe

Describing the deification of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 211, the Greek historian Herodian wrote: "It is a Roman custom to give divine status to those emperors who die with heirs to succeed them. This ceremony is called deification. Public mourning, with a mixture of festive and religious ritual, is proclaimed throughout the city, and the body of the dead is buried in the normal way with a costly funeral. "Then they make an exact wax replica of the man, which they put on a huge ivory bed strewn with gold-threaded coverings, raised high up in the entrance to the palace. This image, in the deathly palace, rests there like a sick man...the whole Senate sitting on the left, dressed in black, while on the right are all women who can claim special honors...This continues for seven days, during each of which doctors came and approach the bed, take a look at the supposed invalid and announce a daily deterioration in his condition."

“When at last the news is given that he is dead, the end of the bier is raised on the shoulders of the noblest members of Equestrian Order and chosen young Senators, carried along the Sacred Way, and placed in the Forum Romanum...a chorus of children from the noblest and most respected families stands facing a body of women selected on merit. Each group sings hymns and songs."

“After this the bier is raised and carried outside the city walls to a square structure filled with firewood and "covered with golden garments, ivory decorations and rich pictures." On top of the structure are five more structures that are progressively smaller. “The whole thing was often five or six stories tall."

"When the bier has been taken to the second story and put inside, aromatic herbs and incense of every kind produced on earth, together with flowers, grasses and juices collected for their smell, and brought and poured in heaps...When the pile of aromatic material is very high and the whole space filled...The whole equestrian Order rides round...Chariots also circle in the same formation, the charioteers dressed in purple and carrying images with the masks of famous Roman generals and emperors."

"The heir to the throne takes a brand and sets it to every building . All the spectators crowd in and add to the flame. Everything is very easily and readily consumed...From the highest and smallest story...an eagle is released and carried up into the sky with the flames. The Romans believe the bird bears the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven. Thereafter the dead emperor is worshipped with the rest of the gods."

Constantine and Christianity


Constantine is generally known as the “first Christian emperor.” The story of his miraculous conversion is told by his biographer, Eusebius. It is said that while marching against his rival Maxentius, he beheld in the heavens the luminous sign of the cross, inscribed with the words, “By this sign conquer.” As a result of this vision, he accepted the Christian religion; he adopted the cross as his battle standard; and from this time he ascribed his victories to God, and not to himself. The truth of this story has been doubted by some historians; but that Constantine looked upon Christianity in an entirely different light from his predecessors, and that he was an avowed friend of the Christian church, cannot be denied. His mother, Helena, was a Christian, and his father, Constantius, had opposed the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius. He had himself, while he was ruler in only the West, issued an edict of toleration (A.D. 313) to the Christians in his own provinces. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: “Constantine's conversion to Christianity, I think, has to be understood in a particular way. And that is, I don't think we can understand Constantine as converting to Christianity as an exclusive religion. Clearly he covered his bases. I think the way we put it in contemporary terms is "Pascal's Wager" -- it's another insurance policy one takes out. And Constantine was a consummate pragmatist and a consummate politician. And I think he gauged well the upsurge in interest and support Christianity was receiving, and so played up to that very nicely and exported it in his own rule. But it's clear that after he converted to Christianity he was still paying attention to other deities. We know this from his poems and we know it from other dedications as well. [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“But what's important to understand and appreciate about Constantine is that Constantine was a remarkable supporter of Christianity. He legitimized it as a protected religion of the empire. He patronized it in lavish ways. ... And that really is the important point. With Constantine, in effect the kingdom has come. The rule of Caesar now has become legitimized and undergirded by the rule of God, and that is a momentous turning point in the history of Christianity. ...

“To appreciate the remarkable dramatic evolution that had occurred in so short a period, one might counterpose the image of Pliny and his courtroom under the Emperor Trajan -- sending Christians off to their execution simply for being called Christians -- to the majesty of Constantine presiding over the great gathering of bishops that he had called to resolve particular questions. The Imperium on the one hand being used clearly to extinguish a religious movement. The Imperium on the other hand being used clearly to undergird and support a religious movement, the same religious movement in so short a period of time.”

Constantine's Conversion to Christianity

In 310, Constantine decided he was going to take Rome. He lead a small army to the Alps for an important battle outside Rome on the Tiber River against his rival Maxentius, the emperor of Rome. According to the historian Eusebius, while on his way to the battle, Constantine had a vision while staring up at the sky. He reportedly saw a flaming cross above the sun with the words " In hoc signo vinces " ("in this sign you will conquer"). The words " In hoc signo vinces " are featured on the label of Pall Mall cigarettes.

That night Constantine dreamed that Jesus told him to take the cross as his standard. Constantine ordered that new standards be made up, emblazoned with the cross. The next morning at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312 he scored a victory against great odds against Maxentius, whose forces were swept into the Tiber, where Maxentius drowned.

Constantin's conversion

Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian faith and entered Rome with Maxentius's head on a pike. He erected the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome and took control of the western half of the Roman Empire. Maxentius had been the strongest member of the Tetrarchy. By 323, Constantine had unified the Roman Empire and brought it under his control by defeating another rival, the eastern co-emperor Licinius.

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “Lactantius, whom Constantine appointed tutor of his son Crispus and who therefore must have been close to the imperial family, reports that during the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Twenty-five years later Eusebius gives us a far different, more elaborate, and less convincing account in his Life of Constantine. When Constantine and his army were on their march toward Rome - neither the time nor the location is specified - they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor" (hoc signo victor eris or ). During the next night, so Eusebius' account continues, Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. The new battle standard became known as the labarum. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors]

“Whatever vision Constantine may have experienced, he attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians" and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on, although his understanding of the Christian faith at this time was quite superficial. It has often been supposed that Constantine's profession of Christianity was a matter of political expediency more than of religious conviction; upon closer examination this view cannot be sustained. Constantine did not receive baptism until shortly before his death (see below). It would be a mistake to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment; in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life.”

Constantine Christianizes the Roman Empire

Constantine was accepted as a Christian after the Battle of Milvian Bridge and is regarded as the first Christian emperor. He wasn't baptized, however, until he was on his deathbed and called for a priest, shouting “Let there be no ambiguity." In March 313, Constantine issued his famous Edict of Milan which gave every person the right to practice any religion they wanted. With the edict Constantine formally recognized Christianity and put an end to the persecution of Christians.

In 324, Constantine made Christianity the state religion: stating there was "No distinction between realm of Caesar and the realm of God." Under Constantine, pagan temples were expropriated, their treasuries were used to build churches and support clergy, and laws were adjusted for Christian ethics.

Before Constantine's time Christians practiced their faith in private. Under Constantine, suddenly they could practice their faith openly. Constantine went on a church building spree, constructing churches from Jerusalem to Rome. His grandest church was the original St. Peters which was destroyed by fire.

Before Constantine, the attitude of the Roman government toward Christianity varied at different times. At first indifferent to the new religion, it became hostile and often bitter during the “period of persecutions” from Nero to Diocletian. But finally under Constantine Christianity was accepted as the religion of the people and of the state. A large part of the empire was already Christian, and the recognition of the new religion gave stability to the new government. Constantine, however, in accepting Christianity as the state religion, did not go to the extreme of trying to uproot paganism. The pagan worship was still tolerated, and it was not until many years after this time that it was proscribed by the Christian emperors. For the purpose of settling the disputes between the different Christian sects, Constantine called (A.D. 325) a large council of the clergy at Nice (Nicaea), which decided what should thereafter be regarded as the orthodox belief. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~]

Was Constantine a Christian or a Pagan?

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “When he became sole emperor in 324 AD, he rewrote his own history with the help of Christian authors. He actively promoted the Christian Church, though he was baptised into the faith only on his death bed. Throughout his life he also acknowledged Sol Invictus - the 'Unconquered Sun' - as a god. He may have been a true convert, or he may have used the Church as a strong unifying force - the debate continues.” [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe wrote for the BBC: “One of the supposed watersheds in history is the ‘conversion’ of the emperor Constantine to Christianity in, or about, 312 AD. Historians have marvelled at this idea. Emperors had historically been hostile or indifferent to Christianity. How could an emperor subscribe to a faith which involved the worship of Jesus Christ - an executed Jewish criminal? This faith was also popular among slaves and soldiers, hardly the respectable orders in society. [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“The story of Constantine’s conversion has acquired a miraculous quality, which is unsurprising from the point of view of contemporary Christians. They had just emerged from the so-called ‘Great Persecution’ under the emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century. The moment of Constantine’s conversion was tied by two Christian narrators to a military campaign against a political rival, Maxentius. The conversion was the result of either a vision or a dream in which Christ directed him to fight under Christian standards, and his victory apparently assured Constantine in his faith in a new god. |::|

“Constantine’s ‘conversion’ poses problems for the historian. Although he immediately declared that Christians and pagans should be allowed to worship freely, and restored property confiscated during persecutions and other lost privileges to the Christians, these measures did not mark a complete shift to a Christian style of rule. Many of his actions seemed resolutely pagan. Constantine founded a new city named after himself: Constantinople. Christian writers played up the idea that this was to be a 'new Rome', a fitting Christian capital for a newly Christian empire. |But they had to find ways to explain the embarrassing fact that in this new, supposedly Christian city, Constantine had erected pagan temples and statues. |::|

How Sincere was Constantine's Christianization?

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “When Diocletian and Maximian announced their retirement in 305, the problem posed by the Christians was unresolved and the persecution in progress. Upon coming to power Constantine unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors]

Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe wrote for the BBC: ““How should we characterise Constantine’s religious convictions? The differing but related accounts of his miraculous conversion suggest some basic spiritual experience which he interpreted as related to Christianity. His understanding of Christianity was, at the stage of his conversion, unsophisticated. He may not have understood the implications of converting to a religion which expected its members to devote themselves exclusively to it. However, what was certainly established by the early fourth century was the phenomenon of an emperor adopting and favouring a particular cult. What was different about Constantine’s ‘conversion’ was merely the particular cult to which he turned – the Christ-cult – where previous emperors had sought the support of pagan gods and heroes from Jove to Hercules. | [Source: Dr Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

How complete and how sincere was Constantine's conversion? Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “[To answer that] is absolutely impossible. This is one of the worst abuses of arm chair psychology in the historiography of early Christianity. Constantine continued to behave like a pagan well after his so-called conversion. It didn't stop him from killing people. It didn't stop him from doing all of the kinds of unsavory things that Roman emperors were wont to do. But again, I think from an institutional perspective, the change that was inaugurated by, let's say, the re-orientation of his personal commitments... signaled the reconfiguration of relations between institutions in the late Roman Empire. When we go farther than that, we go to Eusebius and other apologists for Constantine and we know what they really want to do. They want to put his best face forward even if they've got to put a lot of makeup on it. ... We understand Eusebius' motivations, but I think the real important thing there is that conversion experience, how we understand that that particular individual signals something for the culture and the institutions of late antiquity and that's the most important aspect of that one single conversion experience for us.” [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Julian’s Attempt to Bring Back Paganism

The Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") (born A.D. 332, ruled .361-d.363) ruled about three years about 25 years after Constantine’s death. A follower of Mithraism, which he called "the guide of the souls", he tried to undo the work of Constantine and led a concerted effort to re-instate paganism as the dominant religion in the empire. He may not have expected to uproot the new religion entirely; but he hoped to deprive it of the important privileges which it had already acquired. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org]

In a letter to Arsacius, Julian wrote: “The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. But the gifts of the gods are great and splendid, better than any prayer or any hope . . . Indeed, a little while ago no one would have dared even to pray for a such change, and so complete a one in so short a space of time [i.e., the arrival of Julian himself, a reforming traditionalist, on the throne]. Why then do we think that this is sufficient and do not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause? [Source: Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315.

“Each of these things, I think, ought really to be practiced by us. It is not sufficient for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia [in modern Turkey] without exception. Either make these men good by shaming them, persuade them to become so or fire them . . . Secondly, exhort the priests neither to approach a theater nor to drink in a tavern, nor to profess any base or infamous trade. Honor those who obey and expel those who disobey.

“Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars. For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us. Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods. Accustom those of the Greek religion to such benevolence, teaching them that this has been our work from ancient times. Homer, at any rate, made Eumaeus say: "O Stranger, it is not lawful for me, even if one poorer than you should come, to dishonor a stranger. For all strangers and beggars are from Zeus. The gift is small, but it is precious." [Julian is quoting from the Odyssey, 14-531.] Do not therefore let others outdo us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness; rather, let us not quite abandon our piety toward the gods . . .

“While proper behavior in accordance with the laws of the city will obviously be the concern of the governors of the cities, you for your part [as a priest] must take care to encourage people not to violate the laws of the gods since they are holy . . . Above all you must exercise philanthropy. From it result many other goods, and indeed that which is the greatest blessing of all, the goodwill of the gods . . .

“We ought to share our goods with all men, but most of all with the respectable, the helpless, and the poor, so that they have at least the essentials of life. I claim, even though it may seem paradoxical, that it is a holy deed to share our clothes and food with the wicked: we give, not to their moral character but to their human character. Therefore I believe that even prisoners deserve the same kind of care. This type of kindness will not interfere with the process of justice, for among the many imprisoned and awaiting trial some will be found guilty, some innocent. It would be cruel indeed if out of consideration for the innocent we should not allow some pity for the guilty, or on account of the guilty we should behave without mercy and humanity to those who have done no wrong . . . How can the man who, while worshipping Zeus the God of Companions, sees his neighbors in need and does not give them a dime--how can he think he is worshipping Zeus properly? . . .

“Priests ought to make a point of not doing impure or shameful deeds or saying words or hearing talk of this type. We must therefore get rid of all offensive jokes and licentious associations. What I mean is this: no priest is to read Archilochus or Hipponax or anyone else who writes poetry as they do. They should stay away from the same kind of stuff in Old Comedy. Philosophy alone is appropriate for us priests. Of the philosophers, however, only those who put the gods before them as guides of their intellectual life are acceptable, like Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics . . . only those who make people reverent . . . not the works of Pyrrho and Epicurus . . . We ought to pray often to the gods in private and in public, about three times a day, but if not that often, at least in the morning and at night.

“No priest is anywhere to attend shameful theatrical shows or to have one performed at his own house; it is in no way appropriate. Indeed, if it were possible to get rid of such shows altogether from the theater and restore the theaters, purified, to Dionysus as in the olden days, I would certainly have tried to bring this about. But since I thought that this was out of the question, and even if possible would for other reasons be inexpedient, I did not even try. But I do insist that priests stay away from the licentiousness of the theaters and leave them to the people. No priest is to enter a theater, have an actor or a chariot driver as a friend, or allow a dancer or mime into his house. I allow to attend the sacred games those who want to, that is, they may attend only those games from which women are forbidden to attend not only as participants but even as spectators.”

Theodosius Makes Christianity the State Religion and Bans Paganism

Constantine I’s actions beginning in A.D. 311 paved the way for the toleration of Christianity but Christianity did not become the legal religion of the Roman Empire until the reign of Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395). He not only made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, he declared other religions illegal.

The Codex Theodosianus reads: “XV.xii.1: Bloody spectacles are not suitable for civil ease and domestic quiet. Wherefore since we have proscribed gladiators, those who have been accustomed to be sentenced to such work as punishment for their crimes, you should cause to serve in the mines, so that they may be punished without shedding their blood. Constantine Augustus. [Source: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. IV: The Early Medieval World, pp. 69-71.

“XVI.v.1: It is necessary that the privileges which are bestowed for the cultivation of religion should be given only to followers of the Catholic faith. We desire that heretics and schismatics be not only kept from these privileges, but be subjected to various fines. Constantine Augustus.

“XVI.x.4: It is decreed that in all places and all cities the temples should be closed at once, and after a general warning, the opportunity of sinning be taken from the wicked. We decree also that we shall cease from making sacrifices. And if anyone has committed such a crime, let him be stricken with the avenging sword. And we decree that the property of the one executed shall be claimed by the city, and that rulers of the provinces be punished in the same way, if they neglect to punish such crimes. Constantine and Constans Augusti.

“XVI.vii.1: The ability and right of making wills shall be taken from those who turn from Christians to pagans, and the testament of such an one, if he made any, shall be abrogated after his death. Gratian, Valentinian, and Valens Augusti.

“XI.vii.13: Let the course of all law suits and all business cease on Sunday, which our fathers have rightly called the Lord's day, and let no one try to collect either a public or a private debt; and let there be no hearing of disputes by any judges either those required to serve by law or those voluntarily chosen by disputants. And he is to be held not only infamous but sacrilegious who has turned away from the service and observance of holy religion on that day. Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius Augusti.

“XV.v.1: On the Lord's day, which is the first day of the week, on Christmas, and on the days of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, inasmuch as then the [white] garments [of Christians] symbolizing the light of heavenly cleansing bear witness to the new light of holy baptism, at the time also of the suffering of the apostles, the example for all Christians, the pleasures of the theaters and games are to be kept from the people in all cities, and all the thoughts of Christians and believers are to be occupied with the worship of God. And if any are kept from that worship through the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish paganism, let them know that there is one time for prayer and another for pleasure. And lest anyone should think he is compelled by the honor due to our person, as if by the greater necessity of his imperial office, or that unless he attempted to hold the games in contempt of the religious prohibition, he might offend our serenity in showing less than the usual devotion toward us; let no one doubt that our clemency is revered in the highest degree by humankind when the worship of the whole world is paid to the might and goodness of God. Theodosius Augustus and Caesar Valentinian.

“XVI.i.2: We desire that all the people under the rule of our clemency should live by that religion which divine Peter the apostle is said to have given to the Romans, and which it is evident that Pope Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, followed; that is that we should believe in the one deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with equal majesty and in the Holy Trinity according to the apostolic teaching and the authority of the gospel. Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius Augusti.

“XVI.v.iii: Whenever there is found a meeting of a mob of Manichaeans, let the leaders be punished with a heavy fine and let those who attended be known as infamous and dishonored, and be shut out from association with men, and let the house and the dwellings where the profane doctrine was taught be seized by the officers of the city. Valentinian and Valens Augusti.

Another translation of “Theodosian Code XVI.i.2 reads: “It is our desire that all the various nation which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one diety of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in out judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that the shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation an the second the punishment of out authority, in accordance with the will of heaven shall decide to inflict. [Source: Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, (London: Oxford University Press, 1943), p. 31]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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