Religion in ancient Rome


The Roman religion, whose history can be traced back to the early 1st millennium BC, belongs to the polytheistic folk and tribal religions, like the vast majority of ancient religions.

The practice of Roman religion as a binding state cult of the Roman Empire ended in the 4th century with the imperial edicts of tolerance in favor of Christianity and the subsequent prohibition of all non-Christian religions (except Judaism) in 380 and 393, respectively. It finally disappeared in the course of the 6th century.

Thus, in the sense of Minucius Felix, it was the polytheistic universalism of the Romans that provided a reason for the greatness of the empire, for thus “the Romans were able to extend their power and influence over the whole globe.”

Comparative religious studies distinguishes orthopraxic from orthodox religions. Orthoprax religions (“doing it right”), to which the Roman religion belongs as a polytheistic folk and tribal religion, are based on the do-ut-des principle (“I give so that you give.”), that is, there is a contractual agreement between gods and humans.In return for their cultic worship, the gods thus grant humans help and assistance and maintain natural and public order. What is important is not what man believes in the practice of the cult, but that the cult is performed properly. A cultic act may consist, for example, in the offering of a sacrifice, hence the term “sacrificial religion.”

For Rosenberger (2012), too, ancient religion is not a closed system, but it was embedded in the everyday and social network; almost all expressions of social life were connected to rituals and gods and could be directly or indirectly related to them. Ancient religious systems knew no dogma, orthodoxy, or special moral conventions. Charismatic founders were absent, nor did coherent sacred writings in the strict sense of the word exist, but ritual instructions were written down (Sibylline books).A discrepancy over historical knowledge exists between the religions of the city of Rome and the nearer and more distant Roman hinterland. And to the extent that Roman legionaries expanded the empire, to the extent that cults and spiritual ideas were imported more than urban ideas were exported. Therefore, according to Rosenberger, a reflection on “Roman religion” must always take into account the provinces of the empire with their numerous religious traditions, often Roman-influenced. The practice of ancient religions often took place collectively, within the framework of urban cults or a cult association. In some documentary sources, however, forms of individual religiosity were also reported.

In contrast, an orthodox religion (“right belief”) focuses on faith or confession (confessional religion). The right faith promises divine salvation in the hereafter. Faith in Christ, for example, supposedly leads to salvation (more pointedly: to the immortality of the soul) of man. Cults and ritual acts were largely devalued by the Christian apostle Paul, and Christianity discredited polytheistic religions as “pagan. “According to Veyne (2005), ancient man imagined the gods as overwhelming beings, worthy of worship and superior to man. Yet the gods were not so much real beings as fictional figures sprung from a narrative imagination. They were the content of a simple narrative, in the sense of a literary figure. The gods had, in the imagination of the believers, all reached a certain age, which did not change as much as the number of their descendants. The pagan religion and cults, however, made no offer of a loving God. The pagan piety is based on the sacrifices. The gods, from the pagan imagination, are not very closely connected with humanity, so that they should be constantly disturbed. They are not informed about the own, individual mental state. Only the believer may remind them of the relationship established with one of them through repeatedly offered sacrifices. Pagan religiosity, according to Veyne, is an ensemble of practices; it is not a matter of decided convictions and ideas, but of practicing one”s religion. The gods, according to the conception of the believers, took care that their person, their name and temple, their dignity were respected and noticed. In paganism, any connection between the gods and the people that took place in the consciousness of the believer was alien. The pagans entered into relationships with their gods based on the idea of benefit in a given situation, in the sense of a renewable contract. They could change their relationships with individual deities. Christianity, on the other hand, penetrated much deeper into the believer”s imagination.

The divine and human worlds of the ancient Romans were not fundamentally separate – as in a monotheistic religion with a transcendent God – instead, the Roman population viewed their gods as existing in the environment in real terms, they could be thought of as “deified natural phenomena”. Jupiter, for example, could be experienced as a deified thunderstorm and was thus real. The world of the Romans was characterized both by great gods like Jupiter or Mars, the powerful protector of the people and the empire in war and peace, and by small gods who lived in trees, streams or springs, or perhaps better: were one with them. The gods revealed themselves in their actions (esse in actu), they intervened in the concrete life world of the people. Paying intense and careful attention to the gods in their omnipresence was “a crucial pillar of the Roman self-view and collective sense of life.” Thus arose a close interweaving of both each individual and the social collective with the world of the gods.

The numen

The polytheistic Roman religion with its phenomenological view of nature and its striving to preserve the pax deorum (the divinely prescribed peaceful order) originally lacked – unlike the Greek religion, from which it differed greatly – an anthropomorphic pantheon, in which the deities were experienced in actual human form. The unapproachable, in the true sense “shamed” deities of Rome likewise remained shadowy in that they had no original or only a weakly developed Roman mythology of their own. Although the Romans understood their deities personally and with a will of their own, the deity as such often took a back seat to the divine act of will. A central meaning for the essence of the Roman religion had the material power concept numen (it is documented since the 2nd century B.C.). The divine or numinous will could express itself in all living beings as well as in natural and social processes and actions, so that the Roman world was characterized by a multitude of abstract nouns – often terms of the Roman world of values: aequitas (“equality”), concordia (“unity”), honos (“honor”), libertas (“freedom”), mens (“spirit”), salus (“salvation”), spes (“hope”), virtus (“virtue”) – were dominated as functional gods that held human beings accountable in cultic and social terms. The developments that religion underwent during its existence did not fundamentally change the significantly Roman, apersonal view of the transcendent and the Romans” inner attitude toward their religio. Even after the profound monotheistic transformations of late antiquity, the concept numen was able to continue to foreground the divine effect over the divine figure.

The religio

On the one hand, the Romans associated with the term religio the word religere (the derivation from religare (to reunite), which seems possible on the other hand, is found since the imperial period, especially in the Christian environment. Thus religio in the second case means the personal attachment of man to a transcendent power (“God”), in the first the scrupulous observance of the traditional cultic customs which establish the relation between the human and the “sacred” spheres. The external intercourse with the gods had the reciprocal character of do ut des (“I give so that you give”): one fulfilled one”s ritual duties punctually and did something for the gods so that they – themselves also not standing above the norms, but bound to them – offered something in return. Without this implying a lack of inwardness in religion, the understanding of religio as the sum of common cult practice that bound people and gods, as it were, prevailed in pre-Christian times.

In the pagan world, terms such as pietas (behavior towards gods and people that is dutiful out of an inner drive) also had a meaning that cannot be equated with that in the Christian understanding (piety). The legendary progenitor Aeneas, who carried the statuettes of the household gods (penates) and the father on his back and led the son by the hand during his escape from the burning Troy, was regarded as exemplary for the Roman being and its pietas, and therefore the epithet pius was firmly attached to him since Virgil”s Aeneid. The fides, one of the earliest and most important Roman numina, meant fidelity and faith of a contractual relationship; the use of the word by Christians in the sense of faith as a basic trust relying on God (i.e. the conviction of Jesus” revelation of salvation) had no equivalent in Roman religion. This did not manifest itself in a dogmatic conception of God and a coherent theology, but precisely through this lack it satisfied in the most complex variety the spiritual needs of its followers, who for their part could dispose of overlapping religious entities in the polytheistic environment.

Cult formalism

In the view of many scholars, Roman cult practice resembles magical acts: If the rules and formulas were followed exactly and without error, the gods were compelled to bestow their benevolence on the people. Rituals therefore formed part of almost everything that was done in Rome; there were fixed dates for 45 state festivals in the imperial period alone. Although the rituals were repeatedly given new meanings, the extremely strict adherence to the traditional rites was, as a typical characteristic of orthoprax religions, also a characteristic of Roman religion and resulted in an almost incomprehensible abundance of commandments and prohibitions for all areas of the cult. Even the slightest deviation from the traditional sacred procedure forced its repetition so as not to provoke divine wrath.

The meticulously observed regulations for the sacrifice of animals – one of the most important ritual acts of Roman religion – are listed here as an example of the “obsession with detail” of a ritual. The sacrificial animals, mostly domestic animals such as sheep, pigs or cattle, were distinguished according to sex, age, skin color, whether they were castrated or not, still suckling (lactentes) or not (maiores). Two-year-old animals (then called bidentes: “two-toothed”) were considered particularly suitable. For different animals, different types of wood were prescribed for the sacrificial fire; among other things, a distinction was made between trees that brought good luck (arbores felices) and trees that brought bad luck (arbores infelices). The chosen animal was festively decorated and led in a solemn procession to the altar. Accompanied by flute music, the sacrificer put the toga over his head, then he recited exactly the sometimes complicated offering formula. Then he smeared the animal”s forehead with salt and shot (mola salsa) and ran the knife over the animal”s back from the neck to the tail, after which the killing took place. The examination of the animal”s entrails, which in turn had to conform to certain rules in their form, decided whether the god had accepted the sacrifice, i.e. whether the sacrifice was valid or had to be repeated.

Such ritual regulations were kept in the libri Sibyllini; they could be inspected only under exceptional circumstances and after a decision by the Senate; otherwise, their contents were considered secret. The emphasis on the taboo aspects over the communicative aspects of a religion tied to places, objects and actions corresponded to a religiosity whose magical justification played an extraordinarily important role.

In addition to animal sacrifice, often understood as a sacred meal with the gods, to which crops and drinks were also offered (in domestic sacrifices, vegetarian offerings predominated), prayer was among the most important cultic expressions, but also public procession, for example on the occasion of victory celebrations, and divination through the interpretation of divine signs. Weapon sacrifices, in which captured pieces of equipment were laid down at the altar (e.g. the spolia opima of the enemy commander for Jupiter), also played a role. Whether human sacrifices actually took place in Rome in 228 BC and 216 BC, after heavy defeats in the war with Carthage, is disputed.

The lustratio, the ceremonial circular circumambulation of a place, of livestock or also of a military unit placed these under the protection of the gods. Although the protective (apotropaic) function of this magical act was probably the original one, sometimes the expiatory-cleansing (cathartic) one came to the fore. Some lustrations became public processions (the great purification and protection sacrifice of the people took place every five years under the name of lustrum. Special rites were also the supplicatio (public supplication) and the gratulatio (thanksgiving).

Finally, divinatio, the divination or interpretation of the signs of the gods, also played a considerable cultic role. Rome did not develop a free prophecy that could compete with political leadership. The examination of the will of the gods was basically the responsibility of the state, which had it carried out by expert seers (haruspices, augures) according to a complex set of rules. The official divinatio took the form of visceral vision (especially the vision of the liver), bird vision, the observation of lightning, the oracle of the dead and the interpretation of other omens (prodigia, ostenta, omina, monstra), in that every extraordinary phenomenon in everyday life or in nature was considered to be an expression of the divine will. The haruspices, who until imperial times were always of Etruscan origin, prophesied the future, the augures obtained divine approval for a project that had only been planned. Important acts of state could only be performed ex auspicato.

The seers were the subject of many criticisms, but they maintained their popular admiration (besides the state haruspices, there were also a large number of itinerant prophets) until the end of antiquity.

Public and private cults

On an equal footing with the state-organized and state-supporting cults (sacra publica), there were countless local, corporate and private cults (sacra privata), each of which was mutually tolerated. The cults of other ethnic groups were also accepted. This went so far that the Roman lords believed in the existence of the gods of subjugated peoples. The cultic worship of their gods was also considered necessary, with the effect that religious tensions among the ethnic groups within the Roman Empire hardly arose.

The public cult was not of greater significance than the private one, but it could have an integrative effect – for example through the priestly determination of the calendar. According to later tradition, the center of public Roman religion was the great temple, the Capitolium of Rome, erected on the Capitol at the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC for the triad of gods Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, Iuno and Minerva. Here the most important ceremonial acts took place.

In Roman – as in Greek – religion, the individual believer did not need a priest to communicate with the gods. Nevertheless, public cults were established very early on; a thoroughly organized and self-supporting state priesthood supervised them and communicated with the gods in the name of the community.

The state priests (sacerdotes) included individual priests (flamines, rex sacrorum, vestales), the priestly colleges (pontifices, augures, tresviri epulones and the duoviri sacris faciundis) and the cult sodalities (fetiales, salii, luperci, arvales fratres, titii sodales). In the Roman pontifical religion, the rex probably exercised the highest priestly functions during the monarchy, during the republic probably the pontifex maximus, elected for life partly by the people, partly co-opted, since Augustus the emperor.

The priests were of the greatest importance to the public, since they had a wide range of duties: they separated the dies fasti (days with jurisdiction), dies nefasti (days without jurisdiction) and dies comitiales (days of popular assemblies), set the calendar (see also: day characters in the Roman calendar), decided on the legal validity of decisions of public bodies on the basis of the omens interpreted by the seers, or could dismiss officials on the grounds of religious misconduct committed. The important role of the cult is also shown by the long-lasting exclusivity of the highest priestly positions for patricians, to which the plebeians allegedly reacted by creating their own temple of Ceres at the foot of the plebeian Aventine, where the Aventine Triad of the deities Ceres, Liber and Libera was cultically worshipped, thus creating a counterpart to the patrician Capitoline Triad. One thing is certain: for a long time, the assumption of public priestly offices was one of the most important tasks of members of the nobility.

The domestic connection between politics and religion was thus very close, but also expressed itself externally, as in the religious alliances of the Italo-Latin cults for Diana, Fortuna or Mater Matuta with their own temples, which were allegedly built as early as the 6th century BC. The incorporation of the Sabine god Sancus into the cult of the Roman Dius Fidius represented an attempt to win over the neighboring people to Rome”s cause. The incorporation of foreign deities by integrating them into one”s own world of gods (interpretatio Romana) was a particularly characteristic expression of the Romans” pragmatic approach to religious issues. Another element of political cults was the exoratio (request, reconciliation), by means of which the deity of an enemy was to be enticed away and henceforth grant its favor to Rome; this happened, for example, with the city goddess of Veji, who was installed in Rome as Iuno Regina, with the Latin war gods Castor and Pollux, who were allegedly killed in the middle of the battle at Regillus lacus around 496 B.C. by the Roman army. Chr. were called by the Roman army commander to defect, or in the prayer of Scipio minor to the Punic gods after the conquest of Carthage in 146 BC.

With the beginning of the Principate, an additional form of public cult developed, which in time was to acquire a state-supporting role: The ruler or emperor cult. Its concrete beginnings can be found in the inclusion of the assassinated Julius Caesar in 42 BC as Divus Iulius among the state gods of Rome with his own flamen and temple (aedes divi Iulii, built in 29 BC). The historicity of ancient Roman (4th century) triumphs under Etruscan influence (Etruscan religion) with god-like honors for the victorious ruler (painting of the face with red color like Jupiter”s) is very questionable and was without direct line of connection into the late Republic. Actual influence had the Greek ruler cult, which was granted to victorious Roman generals; Greek origin is also the idea of the heros as an intermediate stage from man to god, whose best-known example was Heracles, who as Hercules had already received a cult in Rome in 317 BC.

Emperor Augustus rejected his worship as a god in the Italic heartland (but at least his name appeared in the cult song of the salii), but allowed it along with those of Dea Roma in the provinces. In Rome, the genius of Augustus was included among the lares compitales (patron gods of the city districts), which were renamed lares Augusti. Augustus, who as Caesar”s adopted son already bore the title Divi filius, was also officially elevated to Divus after his death, like every emperor after Claudius, Vespasianus and Titus who did not succumb to the damnatio memoriae; this so-called apotheosis was a specifically Roman phenomenon of the ruler cult. It is known that some emperors (Caligula, Domitian, Commodus) had themselves worshipped as gods or manifestations of gods already during their lifetime, but this became the rule only during the reign of Aurelian (270-275 AD).

The empire-wide practice of the emperor”s cult became an act of loyalty to the regent and was therefore the cause of disputes with the monotheistic religions of the Jews and Christians. The consecratio (deification) of the emperors by the pagan Senate remained (albeit in a somewhat modified form) until Theodosius I. The imperial cult was replaced as a religious act since Constantine the Great by an act of homage in which Christians could also participate. Sacred elements of the imperial cult passed into the ceremonial of Christian princely courts; the divine grace also has roots in the ancient cult of rulers.

Above all, the sources depicting public religion provide little insight into the private religiosity of the Romans, which was hardly controlled, at least during the Republic.

Typical places of worship were the hearth and the house shrines; deities of the private sphere included genius (responsible for the creator and procreative power, especially of the master of the house) and the female equivalent iuno (for birth, marriage and care). The lares watched over house and ways, the penates e.g. over the supplies. (All three terms, of course, also appear in the state sphere).

The pater familias, the head of the household in the Roman family, was primarily responsible for the performance of the rites. However, the public authorities also played an important role in the private sphere, in that the priests had the task of overseeing the correct performance of ritual acts (control of burial rites and graveside services, assessment of mourning times). The Romans, with their sense of practicality, had also regulated the death cults in public law through a large body of legal literature on the subject and on the related questions of inheritance law.

The spirits of the deceased were an eminent theme. Feasts of the dead reaffirmed ties with deceased family members (parentalia) and also included the defensive fear of ghosts (lemuria). The late antique categorization of lemures as designating the spirits of the recently deceased, lares as good spirits of the dead, larvae as evil (due to neglect of the cult), and manes as neutral is a later construction, the designations changing from author to author. On Roman tombstones, the common formula is D. M., i.e. dis manibus (to the souls of the dead).

The assumption of everywhere effective spirits, often demons, remained highly alive throughout antiquity; sorcery was taken for granted and was performed in a quite everyday way. There was an endless number of customs in the intercourse with the transcendent; the trust in human and animal miracle powers could take extreme forms. It was the so-called “folk belief” that showed of what high necessity their religion was to the Romans and in what various forms they communicated with the higher powers. Archaeologically, the findings of consecration and votive offerings for healing and recovery, but also the smooth transition to medicine and public belief in gods (healing god Aesculapius), are evidence of popular belief.

The boundary between sacra publica and sacra privata may have been quite permeable. If, however, the religious practices of the “common people” were too much in contradiction to the public practice of religion, they were not infrequently disparaged by scholars as superstitio (superstition, delusion or exaggerated belief in gods), which stood in contrast to religio. Linguistically, superstitio was interpreted as transcending state faith or as a remnant of a primitive folk belief.

The term got its pejorative sense with the emergence of consciousness-stealing cult forms from the Hellenistic Orient, the Bacchanalia as one of the first of them were banned at the beginning of the 2nd century BC (Bacchanalia scandal). A cult that had failed according to ancient Roman thought and action was considered a superstitio, so Christianity was one as well.

Some Roman writers who are still widely read today maintained a thoroughly critical relationship with religion. Most irritating are the testimonies of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) As an “augur” he was, on the one hand, a priest of high state-religious rank who was supposed to provide clues for the right decisions from what and how the birds pecked from a measured field. On the other hand, he doubted the existence of the gods, but recommended the maintenance of cultic services because of their integrative function, supporting the state and society. Moreover, if the gods did exist, it would be good to have sacrificed to them.

Publius Ovidus Naso (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), known simply as Ovid, explicitly describes the gods in negative terms in his Metamorphoses. Ovid portrayed divine activity not as salvific, but as destructive and disruptive. The harmless hunter Actaeon, for example, who happens to see the hunting goddess Diana bathing naked, is transformed into a stag and mauled by his own hunting dogs. Ovid countered the traditional belief in myth with a rationalistic view of the world and of man.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1-65 AD) adhered to the Stoic philosophy of fate. Everything was predetermined, religious rites of the people and the divine counterpart of salvation were automated or programmed, especially man was therefore not free in his actions, which could be neither wrong nor right.

Early period and monarchy (8th to 6th century B.C.)

The legend names the first king of Rome, Romulus, as the creator of the Roman religion, and the second, Numa Pompilius, as the one of the Roman service of the gods, in that he is said to have established or ordered cults and priesthoods. Numa is also credited with prohibiting the erection of images of the gods, a reminder of their primarily numinous roots. Constitutive for the Roman religion is its embedding in an Italic-Etruscan-Hellenistic environment and a course of change and continuity founded therein. The actual origins of Roman religion, as far as they can be deduced from the written sources and archaeological findings, lie in the vegetation cults of a still pre-urban society. Since the Romans were initially a nation of arable farmers, as were the other Indo-European groups settling in Italy, a large part of the religious acts of the people were devoted to the flourishing of seeds and livestock. These acts can be traced back to the predeist layers of primitive magic. Evil had to be kept away from houses, stables and the fields. This purpose was served by magic rites, sacrificial acts and various forms of prayer. Before sowing, for example, the god Jupiter received an offering of food and drink. Already the oldest known calendar, according to the legend also introduced by Numa, contained the central festivals oriented to the peasant year (saturnalia, cerialia, lupercalia, parilia). Mars, who was worshipped as the main god by many Italic peoples, was also worshipped by the early Romans. He divided the land and thus took over apotropaic-agrarian functions; besides his function as god of war (for which he was later equated with the Greek Ares), he was even more related to the prosperity of the cattle, to the harvest blessings and to crop failures. Cato maior, in his work de agricultura, cites prayers to him for productive agriculture. Mars was associated with fertility cults and deities (such as Ops, with whom he was worshipped). Together with Iuppiter, the common patron god of the Latins, and Quirinus, also a war god, he formed a trinity dominating religious life in early Roman times, to which the three chief priests sacrificed. The gods of the peasant sphere also included Saturnus, Tellus, Flora, Liber, Consus, Pomona, Faunus, Silvanus, Terminus.

Early Republic (6th to 4th century B.C.)

Roman religion changed from the end of the 6th century BC, acquiring a more urban character under Etruscan influence. Palatua, Portunus, Vesta, Janus, Fides, Aius Locutius, Moneta and Tiberinus, among others, were considered urban gods. The original open places of worship (locus sacer sine tecto) and sanctuaries such as springs, groves or caves were replaced by altars (first made of piled up pieces of grass, later of stone), then temples. A number of previously private cults were publicly performed and in particular the triad Mars-Iuppiter-Quirinus was replaced by a new Iuppiter-Iuno-Minerva, with Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (to him the magistrates now sacrificed upon taking office. Corresponding to the more differentiated social conditions was the inclusion of Minerva as a deity of craft and art in the Triad. The Etruscan influence also included more elaborate funeral and death rites as well as divinatio (fortune telling).

In the 5th century B.C., the Common Italic and Etruscan influences over southern Italy were followed by a shaping by Greek customs and religious ideas that gradually made Roman mythology seem like a reflection of Greek; by the end of the 3rd century B.C. the world of the gods had solidified into a system where every Roman deity was equated with a Greek one: The twelve dei consentes Iuppiter-Zeus, Iuno-Hera, Minerva-Athena, Mars-Ares, Neptunus-Poseidon, Diana-Artemis, Vulcanus-Hephaistos, Mercurius-Hermes, Vesta-Hestia, Ceres-Demeter, Apollo-Apollo, Venus-Aphrodite, as well as Pluto-Hades, Bacchus-Dionysos, Aesculapius-Asklepios, Proserpina-Persephone etc.

Middle and Late Republic (3rd to 1st century B.C.)

The view that they surpassed other peoples thanks to the extent and preservation of their religio was deeply rooted in the Romans, who spoke of themselves as the “most religious of all people.” Nevertheless, with Rome”s advance into the eastern Mediterranean, Oriental or Hellenistic religions made their presence felt in Rome from the 3rd century BC onward. Rome was home to the Asia Minor fertility goddess Kybele as Magna Mater (Great Mother) through the transfer of her cult stone from the monumental sanctuary of Pessinus from 204 BC, where she was seen as the patroness of the Trojan ancestors and also equated with the mother goddess Rhea. The success of the oriental mystery and healing cults (not infrequently with gender-segregated rites) was related to an increasing need for a personal relationship with the worshipped god and for individual redemption, which traditional customs could not satisfy. In the educated circles, under the influence of Greek philosophy, especially the Stoa, an intellectual religiosity with pantheistic and atheistic tendencies, also with belief in the stars and fate, found its followers; people there kept their distance from the mystery cults until the 1st century AD.

Early Principate (27 BC to 96 AD)

Augustus countered the rationalization phenomena of the late Republic during his reign with the promotion of myth as a component of Roman cult practice and a policy of restoration: revival of the priests” colleges and cult associations, construction of temples, creation of new numina (the attempt to move the center of religious life to the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars “avenging” the murder of his adoptive father Caesar) on the Augustus Forum, which he inaugurated in 2 BC, was abandoned by Augustus after a short time. The Capitoline triad remained determinant for Roman religion, but the emperor cult, which took up the ruler cult of Hellenism without being its direct continuation, took into account the new religious need for personalized worship. The cult basically already began with the recognition of Augustus” superior auctoritas, which he explicitly cited as the justification for his claim to power, and steadily gained in importance (transition to charismatic rule). Since the boundary between the human and the divine was less insurmountable for Greeks and Romans than for other cultures, emperors could receive cultic honors to express a hierarchical relationship of loyalty, just as particularly powerful Roman politicians had done earlier. Particularly in the East, however, people sometimes went beyond this. Famous are the miracles attributed to the emperor Vespasian, which are related to New Testament stories about miraculous healings of Jesus, but in the context of the imperial cult rather represent isolated cases. At the threshold of the 3rd century, the imperial cult partly took on forms of an oriental god-kingdom. The emperor cult, which was especially cultivated in the army, served not only to demonstrate loyalty to the ruler, but also aroused true religious reverence among the people, at least according to some researchers.

High Imperial Period (2nd-3rd century AD)

At the latest since the imperial period, the syncretic tendencies existing in the west of the empire also condensed into religious salvation movements. A soteriological interest was evident in all social classes after an east-west migration across the imperial territory and at the latest since the Antonine era; the Flavian emperors cultivated the cult of Isis and Serapis. During the 2nd century, the worship of Apollonios of Tyana, who was said to have performed numerous miracles as well as an ascension into heaven, also enjoyed growing popularity throughout the empire, reaching its peak under the Severans. Especially in the army, with its troops mixed from all parts of the empire, numerous special cults also spread, one of which was that of the ostensible (Emperor Commodus (181-192 AD) had himself initiated into his mysteries. During a period of political instability in the 3rd century AD, several emperors attempted to renew state unity by reviving traditional religion. For example, the emperors Decius and Valerian required all inhabitants of the empire to practice the cult of the gods (sacrificial edict of the emperor Decius in 251 AD).

After 260 AD, the placement of private dedicatory inscriptions for the customary gods and cults largely dried up within a generation. However, since in the second half of the 3rd century altogether much fewer inscriptions were set than before, it is debatable whether this actually allows conclusions to be drawn about a changed attitude toward traditional religion. For, according to the evidence of their coins, the emperors still seem to have expected advantages from referring to both new and old gods.

The “Orientalization” of traditional Roman religiosity reached its peak in the 3rd century AD: Around 220 AD, Emperor Elagabal tried to make the sun god of the city of Homs, who was worshipped in the form of a meteorite, the supreme imperial god; his assassination in 222 prevented this. The elevation of Sol invictus (the unconquered sun god) to supreme imperial god by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD was also in line with a general henotheistic trend. Mithras, now identified with Sol, therefore became a major target of attack for competing Christianity, which by the end of the 2nd century AD had spread to almost all provinces of the empire (but especially to Asia Minor) on the basis of a very good organizational structure, and by the beginning of the 4th century AD at the latest had become an unmistakable religious minority.

Late Antiquity (4th to 6th century AD)

Diocletian, who is considered the first late antique emperor, called himself Iovius and thus demonstratively placed himself under the protection of Jupiter. Under his reign, traditional cults were once again strongly promoted, as was the Sol Invictus Mithras. This led to action against the two religions that seemed incompatible with polytheism: Manichaeism and Christianity. In contrast to most other religions and to syncretism, Christianity”s growing claim to exclusivity led to a refusal to accept the emperor”s cult and thus Roman authority, from which the periodic persecutions of Christians had resulted early on.

The failure of the last great and bloody persecution of Christians under Diocletian starting in 303 AD (in which Christian churches were destroyed, Christians were removed from the imperial service, and several executions took place) made it clear that Christianity could not be destroyed by force or seriously pushed back. The corresponding lessons were drawn by the emperors Galerius and especially Constantine the Great: Galerius” Edict of Tolerance in 311 A.D. and Constantine”s and Licinius” Milan Agreement in 313 A.D. allowed the free practice of all religions, including Christianity. Constantine even promoted the church and bishops and had his children educated in the Christian faith (Constantine”s Turn). Since Christianity had always preached monarchy as the God-ordained form of rule on earth, it now probably also recognized the potential for religiously re-legitimizing the always precarious emperorship. The short reign of Emperor Julian (361-363 AD), on the other hand, meant only a short-term favoring of the old faith under Neoplatonic auspices.

The Christian faith knew only temporary tolerance toward the traditional cults of the gods. At the latest, Emperor Gratian resigned the office of pontifex maximus (probably in 382), and in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius I (de facto) declared Trinitarian Christianity the state religion and banned the practice of all pagan cults in 391392 AD. At first, however, there were hardly any efforts on the part of the state to implement this ban across the board; official measures against the Old Believers remained the exception. However, until the early Middle Ages, pagan temples were destroyed by monks and “holy men” who had joined forces, abandoned temples were converted into Christian buildings (usually after a long period of disuse) and sometimes influential personalities were persecuted as secret pagans. Private homes were raided with the aim of destroying non-Christian religious items, especially books (the background is disputed).

The period around 400 is often regarded as a climax of the “religious battles” between Christianity and pagan beliefs. However, the background is often not entirely clear. In recent research, it is disputed whether Christians and pagans were as hostile to each other at the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries as is often assumed. Most recently, Alan Cameron has argued in a comprehensive study that these antagonisms were not always as sharp in the late 4th century as is often assumed; for example, it is inaccurate to say that the cultivation of classical education was supposedly of no greater importance to Christians, while convinced Pagans pursued it as an expression of their religious convictions. Pagan literature continued to be read by Christians and was preserved, at least in part, thanks to the copying activities of early medieval monks. Christianity occupied the field of pagan cults by adopting certain customs or feast days from them in a syncretic tradition (such as the December 25 of Sol invictus).

The decisive thrust in the Christianization of those in office and education probably already occurred in the period between the 360s and 380s. The nonetheless persistent vitality of paganism, even if practiced only by an increasingly small minority after 400, was reflected in the dispute over the Victoria altar erected by Augustus in the Senate, which became a symbol of the old faith; altar and statue were removed several times from 357 to 394 AD amid protests, but were also retrieved (see Dispute over the Victoria Altar). In Rome around 400, there was apparently a small group of Old Believer senators who feared a radical break with the past and wanted to preserve the ancient heritage as a return to Rome”s pagan heritage. From the beginning of the 5th century, however, even these senators increasingly converted to Christianity – whether out of conviction, opportunism or even sanctions. Nevertheless, it was to take several more generations before Christianity was firmly anchored in all strata of the population and in all regions. Remnants of paganism persisted in the East at the universities of Athens and Alexandria, and in Italy and Gaul, especially in rural regions, beyond the reach of the authorities. The transfer of the term paganus (already in antiquity erroneously explained as “country people”) to the pagans sprang from this circumstance. Sporadically, smaller pagan temples were still erected in the 5th century. It was not until 494 AD that Pope Gelasius I succeeded in having the lupercalia abolished as the last publicly tolerated remnant of the ancient Roman cult. Gregory of Tours reports that around 570 AD sacrifices were still being made to Diana in the environs of Trier. As late as 599 AD, Pope Gregory the Great gave orders to force the numerous pagans of Sardinia to convert to Christianity:

In Eastern Rome, the last ancient Roman rites were banned as pagan at the end of the 7th century, after the last officially tolerated pagan sanctuary at Philae had already been closed in 537. Around the same time, Emperor Justinian ordered that every child be baptized; apostasy from Christianity was now a capital offense. In Syria, however, where there had even been revolts by adherents of Greek-Syrian religions in the late 6th century, the Arab conquerors still encountered “pagans” locally after 636, for example in Harran and Baalbek.


  1. Römische Religion
  2. Religion in ancient Rome
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