By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the major cults and religions found in the Roman Empire
- Discuss how Romans accepted and adapted religions from other areas of the Empire
- Explain the rise of Christianity in Rome
Religious belief and practice were enmeshed in Roman daily life. The presence of the divine suffused the physical world, and Romans sacrificed to their many gods as a way to gain their favor. Roman religion was multifaceted and based initially on the Greek pantheon, adapted for Rome’s culture and language. While Romans took pride in the traditional elements of their religious system, they were also able to incorporate new features in it to accommodate cultural or political change. Some new gods were added, and it was common for certain sectors of Roman society such as soldiers to have favorite gods or patron deities. The flexibility of Roman religion set the stage for new religious groups to emerge, including Christians in the first century CE.
The Emperor and the Virgins
Roman religio (from which the English word “religion” derives) signified an obligation to the gods. According to this principle, Romans were expected to pay attention to divine and religious matters, including the most important aspect of religious practice, sacrifice. By offering animals to the gods, Romans hoped to receive good fortune or gain insight into a question or problem. While their religion certainly had private elements, its public rituals often intertwined faith with politics. That connection was also, and especially, visible in the worship of the emperor.
The imperial cult was a group of rites and practices that praised a deceased emperor’s divine status. Emperors were often deified (made gods) after they died, by order of their successors and with approval by the Senate. This formal process of deification was known as apotheosis and was extended to emperors who were remembered favorably (Figure 7.13). The process of deification had become so routine among later emperors that when the emperor Vespasian was dying, he is reported to have said, “Alas! I think I am becoming a god!”
In this period, priesthoods were created specifically for the worship of a defied emperor. A number of priesthoods already existed that were attached to specific gods and that organized the religious affairs of the city, such as the festival calendar. Priesthoods for the imperial cult were added to this group of religious offices that men could join to further their public careers.
The worship of living emperors was much more muddled because Romans were wary of changing the custom of deifying only deceased individuals. Julius Caesar seems to have intended to be worshiped as a god in his lifetime, and later emperors may have been aware of this plan because many routinely pushed for deification during their own reigns. In the city of Rome, emperors were often closely associated with the gods, but only stereotypically “corrupt” emperors such as Caligula declared themselves gods during their lifetimes. Still, many compromises were made so living emperors were not directly worshipped. These included associating the emperor with the goddess Roma, the divine representation of the city, or making sacrifices for the emperor’s well-being rather than directly to him. In the provinces, however, divine honors were sometimes given to living emperors; locals might equate a living emperor or a member of the imperial family with a deity in order to gain the emperor’s favor, particularly in the Greek east.
A few women could serve in a priestly office as vestal virgins. The six members of this female priesthood were chosen at an early age to serve in the Temple of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, for ten to thirty years. Their chief duty was to protect the sacred eternal fire that symbolized eternal Rome. Letting the flame go out was a punishable offense because the fire’s absence meant Vesta had abandoned the city. Vestals swore a vow of chastity, and the punishment for breaking it was severe, illustrating the symbolic importance of their virginity, which was linked to the preservation of Rome. A vestal who lost her virginity could be punished by being buried alive or having hot metal poured down her throat. As a result, political crises could result from the murder of a vestal, while miracles were attributed to their magical virginity.
The story of the vestal virgin Claudia Quinta represents one such instance. To win favor during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy in 204 BCE, the Romans brought the goddess Magna Mater (“Great Mother”) by ship from her shrine in Asia Minor, in the form of a black stone. During its reception at Ostia, the ship was grounded on a shoal, but Claudia Quinta was able to miraculously pull it to safety. She had been suspected of breaking her vow of chastity, but her actions proved her virginity. According to the Roman historian Herodian of Antioch, “she took off her sash and threw it onto the prow of the ship with a prayer that, if she were still an innocent virgin the ship would respond to her. The ship readily followed, attached to the sash. The Romans were astounded, both by the manifestation of the goddess and by the sanctity of the virgin” (Figure 7.14).
Religions of the Empire
In addition to performing public service and ritual, Romans participated in the private practice of religion. In the home they maintained a lararium, a shrine in which the spirits of ancestors were honored. Tiny statues, or lares, within the shrine represented these ancestors, and Romans made daily offerings to them. In addition, the penates, figurines of household gods, were put on the dining table during meals and worshipped as protectors of the home. Finally, the genius signified the household itself, represented as a snake in religious imagery.
More esoteric religious practices included the use of curse tablets and spells. With these, individuals hoped to mobilize supernatural powers to influence the living by writing an invocation. Many curse tablets, aimed at ensuring the writer’s way in love, justice, and competitions, have survived. The tablets were placed in graves, in water sources such as rivers and springs, and in the homes of targeted individuals. An example found in Egypt with a pierced female figurine ordered a spirit to “not allow [Ptolemais] to accept the advances of any man other than me alone [Sarapmmon]. Drag her by the hair, the guts, until she does not reject me.”
Mystery cults allowed individuals to become initiated in the worship of a specific deity. These groups were devoted to a single god or goddess who was often worshipped to the neglect of traditional Roman gods. Their adherents carried out secret initiation rites and practices, and there were often hierarchical levels of initiation. The cult devoted to the god Mithras originated in ancient Persia (now Iran) and found its way to Rome by the second century CE. Its beliefs centered on the idea that life originated from a sacred bull sacrificed by the god Mithras, often associated with the Sun (Figure 7.15). The practices of the cult are obscure and difficult to reconstruct, but it seems that initiations took place in a cave. The cult was especially popular among Roman soldiers.
Originating in Egypt, the cult devoted to the goddess Isis spread to the western Roman Empire in the first century BCE. The veneration of Isis included hymns of praise and initiation rituals, and priests of the cult usually shaved their heads. The exclusive worship of Isis was reflected in her perceived omnipotence and identification with other gods. She appears in the second-century Roman novel The Golden Ass, rescuing the protagonist Lucius. Her speech begins, “Behold, Lucius, here I am, moved by your prayer, I, mother of all Nature and mistress of the elements, first-born of the ages and greatest of powers divine, queen of the dead, and queen of the immortals, all gods and goddesses in a single form.” The popularity of mystery cults may have been a precursor to monotheism in Rome, as seen in the rise of Christianity.
The Temple of Isis in Pompeii
The Temple of Isis was one of many temples in Pompeii and was located just behind the city’s theater. Originally erected during the reign of Augustus, it was rebuilt following an earthquake in Pompeii in 62 CE (Mount Vesuvius erupted seventeen years later). Its proximity to other public buildings illustrates the temple’s incorporation into the city, but its structure and relatively small size emphasize the esoteric rituals of Isis worship.
Though employing a Roman architectural style, the temple also fused Egyptian and Greek elements in its design (Figure 7.16). It stands in a small courtyard, with an altar and a small building known as a purgatorium in front of it. Here, a basin containing water said to be from the Nile River was used in rituals of purification.
At the top of the steps, the entrance to the temple consisted of a portico, or a porch supported by columns, and was flanked by Egyptian statues. Inside, the inner area contained statues of Isis and her spouse Osiris, as well as wall paintings depicting the myths of Isis. There was a large gathering area in the rear of temple for initiates (ekklesiasterion), as well as living quarters for the priests of Isis, more altars and recesses, and a subterranean room used for initiating members (Figure 7.17).
- What elements of the Temple of Isis and its location in the city suggest the public role it and structures like it played in Roman society?
- Can you connect anything in these images to identified characteristics of Roman religion? Which ones?
Religious experiences in Rome were varied and diverse. In the first century CE, Christians joined this landscape, but their relationship with traditional Roman religion was often strained. Christians themselves did not form a cohesive group at first, but their general unwillingness to adhere to some aspects of traditional rituals often set them apart from mainstream religion.
Christians generally disapproved of animal sacrifice and worship of the emperor. Instead, their customs focused on prayer and meetings in house churches (proper churches and basilicas appeared in Rome only in the late third and fourth centuries). The emphasis on gathering for worship was important to the formation of a communal identity. Christians also participated in communal feasting, addressed each other as “brother” and “sister,” and adopted the practice of baptism. This initiation practice varied across the empire, but it focused on cleansing of the spirit and was performed by those in the church’s hierarchy, namely bishops or deacons.
Less concerned with the possible threat Christian beliefs might pose to traditional religion, Roman officials often viewed the new faith’s practices as a challenge to their worldly authority instead. For example, they characterized Christians as “atheists” because of their refusal to perform animal sacrifice, and a period of persecution singled this group out for punishment. The earliest record of such violence was made during the reign of Nero, when the emperor chose to punish Christians for a fire in the city of Rome in 64 CE. Over the next two centuries, local authorities grappled with what to do with Christian groups. For example, the letters of Pliny the Younger, a provincial governor in Asia Minor in the early second century, ask the emperor Trajan for advice about local Christians. Pliny writes that he has arrested and questioned those he suspects of being Christian; Trajan responds by telling him not to seek out the Christians actively but to punish those who have been caught and who do not renounce their faith.
Later, the persecution of Christians was formalized. The Edict of Caracalla in 212 extended citizenship across the empire but seems to have made everyone responsible for making sacrifices on behalf of the Roman state. The emperor Decius called for universal sacrifice in 250. As a result, it became a crime for Christians across the empire not to sacrifice to the emperor, with torture and death as likely punishments. Finally, persecution under the emperor Diocletian in 303–311 focused on destroying churches in favor of restoring traditional Roman cults.
The reign of the emperor Constantine ended this period of persecution. Following a civil war, Constantine attributed his victory in 312 to the Christian God, claiming to have had a vision of a cross (a symbol of Christianity) in the sky. The Edict of Milan he issued in 313 outlined a policy of religious toleration in which Christianity was no longer illegal and most traditional Roman religious practices could continue. Constantine also christened Constantinople as a new capital of the empire, decorating the city with images of himself and religious iconography.
The Martyrdom of Perpetua
The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity is a third-century diary begun by Perpetua, a Christian noblewoman, and completed after her death. Perpetua and her fellow Christians are sentenced to die during the games in Carthage, in celebration of the emperor Septimius Severus’s son Geta in 203. After surviving the arena, Perpetua wills her own death at the hands of the executioner as an act of martyrdom.
Perpetua was first thrown, and fell upon her loins. And when she had sat upright, her robe being rent at the side, she drew it over to cover her thigh, mindful rather of modesty than of pain. Next, looking for a pin, she likewise pinned up her disheveled hair; for it was not meet that a martyr should suffer with hair disheveled, lest she should seem to grieve in her glory. So she stood up; and when she saw Felicity smitten down, she went up and gave her hand and raised her up. And both of them stood up together and the (hardness of the people being now subdued) were called back to the Gate of Life. There Perpetua being received by one named Rusticus, then a catechumen [a recent convert to Christianity], who stood close at her side, and as now awakening from sleep (so much was she in the Spirit and in ecstasy) began first to look about her; and then (which amazed all there), When, forsooth, she asked, are we to be thrown to the cow? And when she heard that this had been done already, she would not believe till she perceived some marks of mauling on her body and on her dress. Thereupon she called her brother to her, and that catechumen, and spoke to them, saying: Stand fast in the faith, and love you all one another; and be not offended because of our passion. . . .
And when the people besought that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined thereto as witnesses to the slaughter, they rose of themselves and moved, whither the people willed them, first kissing one another, that they might accomplish their martyrdom with the rites of peace. . . . Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.
—Perpetua, The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity
- How would you characterize the martyrdom of Perpetua? Why?
- What aspects of early Christian identity can you identify in the actions and words of the Christian martyrs?