1. The Family
  2. Roman Names
  3. Marriage and Women
  4. Children and Education
  5. Slaves and Dependents
  6. The House and Furniture
  7. Dress and Ornaments
  8. Food and Meals
  9. Amusements
  10. Travel and Correspondence
  11. Sources of Income
  12. Farming and Country Life
  13. Town Life
  14. Funeral Customs
  15. The Roman Religion
  16. The Water Supply of Rome

The Private Life of the Romans
by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston
Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932)


Table of contents



REFERENCES: Fowler, Social Life, 319-352; Fowler, Religious Experience; Fowler, Festivals; Carter, Religion; Carter, Religious Life; Halliday; Dill, 443-626; Sandys, Companion, 150-165; Cagnat-Chapot, I, 137-171, II, 161-203; Jones, 267-303; Mau-Kelsey, 233-236, 268-273; Bailey, Legacy, 237-264; Bailey, Religion; McDaniel, 101-105; Showerman, 280-298.

Introduction (§484)

The Work of Numa (§485-486)

Priestly Colleges (§487-489)

The Religion of the Family (§490-493)

The Religion of the State (§494-497)

Religion in the Imperial Age (§498-499)

   484. The religion of the Romans was originally a simple animism, that is, a belief in spirits or powers (nūmina) 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. 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 (§ 129). 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.

   485. The Work of Numa. 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 flāminēs, or priests of special gods. The most important of these were the Flāmen Diālis, or priest of Jupiter, and the flāminēs of Mars and Quirinus.

   486. When the kingship was abolished, the office of rēx sacrōrum was instituted to carry on the rites once in the charge of the king. FIG. 316: THE TEMPLE OF VESTA IN THE FORUM. From a relief now in the Uffizi Gallery, FlorenceHe, the three flāminēs mentioned above, and the college of the pontificēs, 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.

   487. Priestly Colleges. The Saliī, or dancing priests, were priests of an old and famous college who worshiped Mars, the god of war. A similar college, the Saliī Collīnī, was in charge of the worship of Quirinus. The pontificēs (§ 486) were in charge of the calendar. The augurēs 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 quīndecemvirī, 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 (§ 475), ostensibly organized to further the worship of some god.

   488. One of the oldest and most famous colleges was that of Vesta, whose worship was in care of the six Virginēs Vestālēs. The sacred fire upon the altar of the Aedēs Vestae symbolized the continuity of the life of the State. There was no statue of the goddess in the temple. FIG. 317: A CHIEF VESTAL. A statue found in Rome, now in the Museo Nazionale, RomeThe 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.

   489. 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 Ātrium 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 potestās (§ 29).

   490. The Religion of the Family. The pater familiās was the household priest and in charge of the family worship; he was assisted by his wife and children (§§ 34-35). The Lar Familiāris was the protecting spirit of the household in town and country. In the country, too, the Larēs were the guardian spirits of the fields and were worshiped at the crossroads (compita) by the owners and tenants of the lands that met there. In town, too, the Larēs Compitālēs were worshiped at street-corner shrines in the various vīcī or precincts. For the single Lar of the Republican period we later find two. Pompeian household shrines (§ 207) show frequent examples of this. They are represented as boys dressed in belted tunics, stepping lightly as if in dance, a bowl in the right hand, a jug upraised in the left. In place of the old Penates, the protecting spirits of the store-closet, these shrines show images of such of the great gods as each family chose to honor in its private devotions. The Genius of the pater familiās (§ 96) may be represented in such shrines as a man with the toga drawn over his head as for worship. Often, however, at Pompeii the Genius is represented by a serpent. In such shrines we find two, one bearded, for the Genius of the father, the other for the Iūnō (§ 96) of the wife. Vesta was worshiped at the hearth as the spirit of the fire that was necessary for man’s existence.

   491. The shrine, originally in the atrium when that was the room where the household lived and worked, followed the hearth to the separate kitchen (§ 203), though examples of shrines are found in the garden or peristyle and occasion ally in the atrium or other rooms.

   492. The devout prayed and sacrificed every morning, but the usual time for the family devotions was the pause at the cēna before the secunda mēnsa, when offerings to the household gods were made (§ 311). FIG. 320: A HOUSEHOLD SHRINE IN POMPEIIThe Kalends, Nones, and Ides were sacred to the Larēs. On these days garlands were hung over the hearth, the Larēs were crowned with garlands, and simple offerings were made. Incense and wine were usual offerings; a pig was sacrificed when possible. Horace has a pretty picture of the “rustic Phidyle” who crowns her little Larēs with rosemary and myrtle, and offers incense, new grain, and a “greedy pig.” The family were also bound to keep up the rites in honor of the dead (§§ 34-35, 483). All family occasions from birth to death were accompanied by the proper rites. Strong religious feeling clung to the family rites and country festivals even when the state religion had stiffened into formalism and many Romans were reaching after strange gods.

   493. The gēns or clan of which the family formed a part had its own rites (§ 19). The maintenance of these sacra was considered necessary not merely for the clan itself, but for the welfare of the State, which might suffer from the god’s displeasure if the rites should be neglected.

   494. The Religion of the State. Of the early gods, Jupiter (Iuppiter), Diovis Pater, was the light-father, worshiped on hilltops, whom men called to witness their agreements. Saturn was a god of the crops, and Venus had to do with gardens. Mars was worshiped in connection with agriculture and with war, for the farmer was fighter, too. Vesta was the spirit of the hearth. There were others of whom we know little. The first temple at Rome was built by the Etruscans on the Capitoline Hill, for Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Minerva had come in from Falerii as patron of craftsmen and their guilds, and had also her own temple on the Aventine. Diana was a wood-spirit from Aricia. Hercules came from Tibur as a god of commerce, and Castor from Tusculum. Mercury, god of commerce, as his name shows, came from Cumae. These last three were of Greek origin, naturalized in Italy. Because of the famine in 493 B.C., the Sibylline oracle at Cumae advised bringing in Bacchus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Apollo came from Cumae as god of healing, and his temple was built in 432 B.C. In 293 B.C. Aesculapius was brought from Epidaurus to the island in the Tiber, which is still the site of a hospital.

   495. The Magna Māter was brought by the State from Phrygia in 205 B.C., during the Second Punic War, but, when the orgiastic nature of the cult became known, it was ordained that her priests should never be Romans. However, this was the beginning of the movement toward the Oriental religions.

   496. Naturally, new modes of worship came in with new gods. More and more Greek gods came in and were identified with the older gods. Greek craftsmen built temples and made statues of gods like those of Greece. Acquaintance with Greek mythology, literature, and art finally made the identification complete.

FIG. 322

   497. The study of Greek philosophy supplanted the old religion among the upper classes, as has been said (§ 484). As interest waned in the old religion, some forms and ceremonies and even priesthoods were discarded, especially during the troublous times of the Civil Wars. When Augustus restored order, as part of his constructive policy he stressed a religious revival, repairing and rebuilding temples and reviving old priesthoods.

   498. Religion in the Imperial Age. 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 (§ 490). The cult, beginning in the East, was then established in the western provinces and finally in Italy. It was under the care of the sēvirī Augustālēs (§ 459) 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 (§ 420, note).

   499. The weakening of the old stock (§ 129) and the constantly increasing number of Orientals in the West, along with the campaigns of the armies in the East naturally encouraged the introduction of eastern cults and the spread of their influence. The cult of the Magna Māter found a reviving interest among the people from her part of the world (§ 495). The mystery religions gained strength, with their rites of purification and assurance of happiness after death. Among them the worship of Isis had come from Alexandria with the Egyptians and spread among the lower classes. Mithraism came in from the eastern campaigns with the captives, and later with the troops that had served or had been enlisted in the East. It established itself in Rome and in other cities and followed the army from camp to camp. There were many Jews in Rome, and their religion made some progress. Christianity appeared at Rome first among the lower classes, particularly the Orientals, and finally made its way upward.

FIG. 324
(A restoration.)


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