Religion at Rome

The religion of the Romans was polytheistic. Its gods and goddesses ranged from the great powers of the official religion, who guarded the well-being and interests of the Roman state, to humble spirits, whose function was to care for individuals and their dwellings. Many divinities had temples or shrines where individuals could worship and request divine assistance or favor. Regular festivals were held in honor of a particular god or goddess, which in some cases ended in the sacrifice of an animal, but except for the Vestal Virgins (see below), there were no professional religious associations or priesthoods, such as in most modern faiths. Communal religious practices were under the direction of four colleges of officials, who were chosen from among the leading citizens; the most important was that of the pontifices (cf. Horace Odes 2.14.28, page 100), who oversaw the religious calendar and its festivals.

Ihe traditional Roman attitude to divinities was one of caution. Roman gods and goddesses had no general affection or love for the human race and could be easily offended. Even arrogant speech could provoke their anger; When Catullus (Carmina 51.1 ff., page 32) says that a man who can continually look at his lover, Lesbia, is superior to the gods, he is careful to add the qualification si fas est (if it is right [to say so]). Such divine beings would not automatically dispense blessings because of an altruistic nature. They had to be bribed, and this was done by making a vow (votuin) to do something in return for a favor, if granted. The principle of do ut des (I give [to you] so that you give [to me]) could operate on a state or individual level; this notion is exemplified in Lygdamus' poem to his mistress, Neaera (page 122).

One of the most striking differences between Roman religion and Christianity lies in their differing explanations for the origin of evil and misfortune. Traditional Christianity uses a supernatural force, the devil, to explain human troubles and misdeeds; opposed to him is an omnipotent being who is wholly concerned with what is morally right. The Roman system had no comparable dichotomy. Roman gods and goddesses were not paragons of virtue and had no compunction about the collateral damage of human suffering and misery caused by advancing their schemes and pursuing their whims. A glaring example is the part played by Juno in the Aeneid, where she wreaks havoc and destruction to prevent the establishment of a Trojan settlement in Italy, although it is the will of Jupiter that the Trojans be successful. (For Vergil's remonstrance, see Aeneid 1.8-11, page 67.)

Rome had come into contact with Greek civilization before the earliest surviving written records, and the Romans probably began to equate their divinities to those of the Greeks at that early stage. Hie attitude of supposing that the gods of another people were the same as your own (but with different names) was common in antiquity; when Julius Caesar described the religion of the Gauls (de hello Gallico 6.17), he used Roman, not Celtic, names (Mercurius, Iuppiter, and Mars, for instance).

The assimilation of the Roman pantheon to that of the Greeks was completed at an early date: The Roman Jupiter and Juno were the Greek Zeus and Hera, Mercury was the Greek Hermes, and so on. Whether this involved any significant changes in religious practices at Rome is doubtful. It did mean that, for Roman poets, the wealth of stories about Greek gods and goddesses could be transferred to their Roman counterparts, in addition to the tales of such figures as Ulysses, Jason, and other human actors in Greek mythology. (On the use of these Greek elements, see "Mythology," page 124.)

In the following list, the principal Roman divinities are described as they were in the Roman poets; how they were conceived in traditional cults and festivals was sometimes different.

Jupiter (Iuppiter Iovis m.): The king of the gods and men (hominum deumque rex). The temple of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (Jupiter best and greatest) on the Capitol was the most sacred place in Rome. Juno (Iuno Iunonis f.): The wife and sister ofjupiter, whose unfaithfulness was a cause of constant friction between the two. She was the goddess of marriage and childbirth. Neptune (Neptunus -1 m.): A brother ofjupiter and god of the sea. Pluto (Pluto Plutonis m., also called Dis Ditis): A brother ofjupiter and god of the Underworld, which he ruled without mercy or compassion. His wife, Proserpine (Proserpina -ae f., also called by her Greek name, Persephone), was queen of the dead. Saturn (Saturnus -i m.): The ruler of heaven and earth before being dethroned by his son, Jupiter. During Saturn's reign, mortals enjoyed simple lives in a rural setting and were content with plain food, such as acorns; their happiness was complemented by their respect for honesty and justice. Venus (Venus Veneris f.): The goddess of procreation and sexual love. Although married to Vulcan, she advertised her office by promiscuity with both gods and men. One affair, with the Trojan noble Anchises, resulted in the birth of Aeneas. Minerva (Minerva -ae f.): A daughter of Jupiter and patroness of handicrafts. Her favorite sport was warfare. Minerva, Diana, and Vesta were virgin goddesses.

Apollo (Apollo Apollinis m., also called Phoebus -i): The son ofjupiter and a mortal woman, Leto. As patron of poetry and music, Apollo was often celebrated by poets.

.na (Diana -ae f., also called Phoebe Phoebes): A sister of Apollo. Among ler several functions was that of moon goddess; because of the association jf the moon with witches, she was sometimes equated with Hecate, the goddess of the black arts. Diana was also goddess of wild beasts and the hunt, rs (Mars Martis m.): A son of Jupiter and god of warfare. He was always depicted as quarrelsome and brutal.

rcury (Mercurius -(i)l m.): A son of Jupiter and messenger of the gods. One af his functions was to take the Shades of the dead to the Underworld (see Horace Odes 1,24.18, page 86).

[can (Vulcanus -i m.): The divine blacksmith. He had his forge under Mt.

Etna in Sicily or under the volcanic islands to the north.

:chus (Bacchus -I m., also called Dionysus -I and Liber Liberl): The son af Jupiter and a mortal woman, Semele, and god of wine, which he had discovered.

;ta (Vesta -ae f.): The goddess of the hearth. Her temple in the Forum housed a constantly burning fire (the ignis inextinctus), which was tended ay the six Vestal Virgins (sacerdotes Vestales) and symbolized the continuity of the Roman state. The Vestal Virgins were upperclass women who, during their minimum service of 30 years, were obliged to maintain their virginal state under pain of being buried alive.

A.mong the minor divinities were the Lares (Lar Laris m.) and Penates ;natium, who were spirits without individual names and who pre-¡d over the welfare of a Roman household. Their statuettes were placed 1 shrine (lararium) in the atrium of the home, where they were wor-pped daily. The Lares were the guardians of the hearth (focus) and home imus); the Penates saw to the food supply. <-::->

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