The Religion of Ancient Rome
by Cyril Bailey
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- Transcriber's Note: NP ligature in the table on page 89 is shown in this document as [NP]. Bold words are surrounded with ='s. -

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I wish to express my warm thanks to Mr. W. Warde Fowler for his kindness in reading my proofs, and for many valuable hints and suggestions.


BALLIOL COLLEGE, Jan 25th, 1907.















The conditions of our knowledge of the native religion of early Rome may perhaps be best illustrated by a parallel from Roman archaeology. The visitor to the Roman Forum at the present day, if he wishes to reconstruct in imagination the Forum of the early Republic, must not merely 'think away' many strata of later buildings, but, we are told, must picture to himself a totally different orientation of the whole: the upper layer of remains, which he sees before him, is for his purpose in most cases not merely useless, but positively misleading. In the same way, if we wish to form a picture of the genuine Roman religion, we cannot find it immediately in classical literature; we must banish from our minds all that is due to the contact with the East and Egypt, and even with the other races of Italy, and we must imagine, so to speak, a totally different mental orientation before the great influx of Greek literature and Greek thought, which gave an entirely new turn to Roman ideas in general, and in particular revolutionised religion by the introduction of anthropomorphic notions and sensuous representations. But in this difficult search we are not left without indications to guide us. In the writings of the savants of the late Republic and of the Empire, and in the Augustan poets, biassed though they are in their interpretations by Greek tendencies, there is embodied a great wealth of ancient custom and ritual, which becomes significant when we have once got the clue to its meaning. More direct evidence is afforded by a large body of inscriptions and monuments, and above all by the surviving Calendars of the Roman festival year, which give us the true outline of the ceremonial observances of the early religion.

It is not within the scope of this sketch to enter, except by way of occasional illustration, into the process of interpretation by which the patient work of scholars has disentangled the form and spirit of the native religion from the mass of foreign accretions. I intend rather to assume the process, and deal, as far as it is possible in so controversial a subject, with results upon which authorities are generally agreed. Neither will any attempt be made to follow the development which the early religion underwent in later periods, when foreign elements were added and foreign ideas altered and remoulded the old tradition. We must confine ourselves to a single epoch, in which the native Roman spirit worked out unaided the ideas inherited from half-civilised ancestors, and formed that body of belief and ritual, which was always, at least officially, the kernel of Roman religion, and constituted what the Romans themselves—staunch believers in their own traditional history—loved to describe as the 'Religion of Numa.' We must discover, as far as we can, how far its inherited notions ran parallel with those of other primitive religions, but more especially we must try to note what is characteristically Roman alike in custom and ritual and in the motives and spirit which prompted them.



In every early religion there will of course be found, apart from external influence, traces of its own internal development, of stages by which it must have advanced from a mass of vague and primitive belief and custom to the organised worship of a civilised community. The religion of Rome is no exception to this rule; we can detect in its later practice evidences of primitive notions and habits which it had in common with other semi-barbarous peoples, and we shall see that the leading idea in its theology is but a characteristically Roman development of a marked feature in most early religions.

1. Magic.—Anthropology has taught us that in many primitive societies religion—a sense of man's dependence on a power higher than himself—is preceded by a stage of magic—a belief in man's own power to influence by occult means the action of the world around him. That the ancestors of the Roman community passed through this stage seems clear, and in surviving religious practice we may discover evidence of such magic in various forms. There is, for instance, what anthropology describes as 'sympathetic magic'—the attempt to influence the powers of nature by an imitation of the process which it is desired that they should perform. Of this we have a characteristic example in the ceremony of the aquaelicium, designed to produce rain after a long drought. In classical times the ceremony consisted in a procession headed by the pontifices, which bore the sacred rain-stone from its resting-place by the Porta Capena to the Capitol, where offerings were made to the sky-deity, Iuppiter, but[1] from the analogy of other primitive cults and the sacred title of the stone (lapis manalis), it is practically certain that the original ritual was the purely imitative process of pouring water over the stone. A similar rain-charm may possibly be seen in the curious ritual of the argeorum sacra, when puppets of straw were thrown into the Tiber—a symbolic wetting of the crops to which many parallels may be found among other primitive peoples. A sympathetic charm of a rather different character seems to survive in the ceremony of the augurium canarium, at which a red dog was sacrificed for the prosperity of the crop—a symbolic killing of the red mildew (robigo); and again the slaughter of pregnant cows at the Fordicidia in the middle of April, before the sprouting of the corn, has a clearly sympathetic connection with the fertility of the earth. Another prominent survival—equally characteristic of primitive peoples—is the sacredness which attaches to the person of the priest-king, so that his every act or word may have a magic significance or effect. This is reflected generally in the Roman priesthood, but especially in the ceremonial surrounding the flamen Dialis, the priest of Iuppiter. He must appear always in festival garb, fire may never be taken from his hearth but for sacred purposes, no other person may ever sleep in his bed, the cuttings of his hair and nails must be preserved and buried beneath an arbor felix—no doubt a magic charm for fertility—he must not eat or even mention a goat or a bean, or other objects of an unlucky character.

2. Worship of Natural Objects.—A very common feature in the early development of religious consciousness is the worship of natural objects—in the first place of the objects themselves and no more, but later of a spirit indwelling in them. The distinction is no doubt in individual cases a difficult one to make, and we find that among the Romans the earlier worship of the object tends to give way to the cult of the inhabiting spirit, but examples may be found which seem to belong to the earlier stage. We have, for instance, the sacred stone (silex) which was preserved in the temple of Iuppiter on the Capitol, and was brought out to play a prominent part in the ceremony of treaty-making. The fetial, who on that occasion represented the Roman people, at the solemn moment of the oath-taking, struck the sacrificial pig with the silex, saying as he did so, 'Do thou, Diespiter, strike the Roman people as I strike this pig here to-day, and strike them the more, as thou art greater and stronger.' Here no doubt the underlying notion is not merely symbolical, but in origin the stone is itself the god, an idea which later religion expressed in the cult-title specially used in this connection, Iuppiter Lapis. So again, in all probability, the termini or boundary-stones between properties are in origin the objects—though later only the site—of a yearly ritual at the festival of the Terminalia on February the 23rd, and they are, as it were, summed up in 'the god Terminus,' the great sacred boundary-stone, which had its own shrine within the Capitoline temple, because, according to the legend, 'the god' refused to budge even to make room for Iuppiter. The same notion is most likely at the root of the two great domestic cults of Vesta, 'the hearth,' and Ianus, 'the door,' though a more spiritual idea was soon associated with them; we may notice too in this connection the worship of springs, summed up in the subsequent deity Fons, and of rivers, such as Volturnus, the cult-name of the Tiber.

3. Worship of Trees.—But most conspicuous among the cults of natural objects, as in so many primitive religions, is the worship of trees. Here, though doubtless at first the tree was itself the object of veneration, surviving instances seem rather to belong to the later period when it was regarded as the abode of the spirit. We may recognise a case of this sort in the ficus Ruminalis, once the recipient of worship, though later legend, which preferred to find an historical or mythical explanation of cults, looked upon it as sacred because it was the scene of the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the wolf. Another fig-tree with a similar history is the caprificus of the Campus Martius, subsequently the site of the worship of Iuno Caprotina. A more significant case is the sacred oak of Iuppiter Feretrius on the Capitol, on which the spolia opima were hung after the triumph—probably in early times a dedication of the booty to the spirit inhabiting the tree. Outside Rome, showing the same ideas at work among neighbouring peoples, was the 'golden bough' in the grove of Diana at Aricia. Nor was it only special trees which were thus regarded as the home of a deity; the tree in general is sacred, and any one may chance to be inhabited by a spirit. The feeling of the country population on this point comes out clearly in the prayer which Cato recommends his farmer to use before making a clearing in a wood: 'Be thou god or goddess, to whom this grove is sacred, be it granted to us to make propitiatory sacrifice to thee with a pig for the clearing of this sacred spot'; here we have a clear instance of the tree regarded as the dwelling of the sacred power, and it is interesting to compare the many similar examples which[2] Dr. Frazer has collected from different parts of the world.

4. Worship of Animals.—Of the worship of animals we have comparatively little evidence in Roman religion, though we may perhaps detect it in a portion of the mysterious ritual of the Lupercalia, where the Luperci dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and smeared their faces with the blood, thus symbolically trying to bring themselves into communion with the sacred animal. We may recognise it too in the association of particular animals with divinities, such as the sacred wolf and woodpecker of Mars, but on the whole we may doubt whether the worship of animals ever played so prominent a part in Roman religion as the cult of other natural objects.

5. Animism.—Such are some of the survivals of very early stages of religious custom which still kept their place in the developed religion of Rome, but by far the most important element in it, which might indeed be described as its 'immediate antecedent,' is the state of religious feeling to which anthropologists have given the name of 'Animism.' As far as we can follow the development of early religions, this attitude of mind seems to be the direct outcome of the failure of magic. Primitive man begins to see that neither he nor his magicians really possess that occult control over the forces of nature which was the supposed basis of magic: the charm fails, the spell does not produce the rain and when he looks for the cause, he can only argue that these things must be in the hands of some power higher than his own. The world then and its various familiar objects become for him peopled with spirits, like in character to men, but more powerful, and his success in life and its various operations depends on the degree in which he is able to propitiate these spirits and secure their co-operation. If he desires rain, he must win the favour of the spirit who controls it, if he would fell a tree and suffer no harm, he must by suitable offerings entice the indwelling spirit to leave it. His 'theology' in this stage is the knowledge of the various spirits and their dwellings, his ritual the due performance of sacrifice for purposes of propitiation and expiation. It was in this state of religious feeling that the ancestors of Rome must have lived before they founded their agricultural settlement on the Palatine: we must try now to see how far it had retained this character and what developments it had undergone when it had crystallised into the 'Religion of Numa.'


[1] Frazer, Golden Bough, vol. i. pp. 81 ff.

[2] Golden Bough, vol. i. pp. 181-185.



1. Theology.—The characteristic appellation of a divine spirit in the oldest stratum of the Roman religion is not deus, a god, but rather numen, a power: he becomes deus when he obtains a name, and so is on the way to acquiring a definite personality, but in origin he is simply the 'spirit' of the 'animistic' period, and retains something of the spirit's characteristics. Thus among the divinities of the household we shall see later that the Genius and even the Lar Familiaris, though they attained great dignity of conception, and were the centre of the family life, and to some extent of the family morality, never quite rose to the position of full-grown gods; while among the spirits of the field the wildness and impishness of character associated with Faunus and his companion Inuus—almost the cobolds or hobgoblins of the flocks—reflects clearly the old 'animistic' belief in the natural evilness of the spirits and their hostility to men. The notion of the numen is always vague and indefinite: even its sex may be uncertain. 'Be thou god or goddess' is the form of address in the farmer's prayer already quoted from Cato: 'be it male or female' is the constant formula in liturgies and even dedicatory inscriptions of a much later period.

These spirits are, as we have seen, indwellers in the objects of nature and controllers of the phenomena of nature: but to the Roman they were more. Not merely did they inhabit places and things, but they presided over each phase of natural development, each state or action in the life of man. Varro, for instance, gives us a list of the deities concerned in the early life of the child, which, though it bears the marks of priestly elaboration, may yet be taken as typical of the feeling of the normal Roman family. There is Vaticanus, who opens the child's mouth to cry, Cunina, who guards his cradle, Edulia and Potina, who teach him to eat and drink, Statilinus, who helps him to stand up, Adeona and Abeona, who watch over his first footstep, and many others each with his special province of protection or assistance. The farmer similarly is in the hands of a whole host of divinities who assist him at each stage of ploughing, hoeing, sowing, reaping, and so forth. If the numen then lacks personal individuality, he has a very distinct specialisation of function, and if man's appeal to the divinity is to be successful, he must be very careful to make it in the right quarter: it was a stock joke in Roman comedy to make a character 'ask for water from Liber, or wine from the nymphs.' Hence we find in the prayer formulae in Cato and elsewhere the most careful precautions to prevent the accidental omission of the deity concerned: usually the worshipper will go through the whole list of the gods who may be thought to have power in the special circumstances; sometimes he will conclude his prayer with the formula 'whosoever thou art,' or 'and any other name by which thou mayest desire to be called.' The numen is thus vague in his conception but specialised in his function, and so later on, when certain deities have acquired definite names and become prominent above the rest, the worshipper in appealing to them will add a cult-title, to indicate the special character in which he wishes the deity to hear: the woman in childbirth will appeal to Iuno Lucina, the general praying for victory to Iuppiter Victor, the man who is taking an oath to Iuppiter as the deus Fidius. As a still later development the cult-title will, as it were, break off and set up for itself, usually in the form of an abstract personification: Iuppiter, in the two special capacities just noted, gives birth to Victoria and Fides.

The conception of the numen being so formless and indefinite, it is not surprising that in the genuine Roman religion there should have been no anthropomorphic representations of the divinity at all. 'For 170 years,' Varro tells us, taking his date from the traditional foundation of the city in 754 B.C., 'the Romans worshipped their gods without images,' and he adds the characteristic comment, 'those who introduced representations among the nations, took away fear and brought in falsehood.' Symbols of a few deities were no doubt recognised: we have noticed already the silex of Iuppiter and the boundary-stone of Terminus, which were probably at an earlier period themselves objects of worship, and to these we may add the sacred spears of Mars, and the sigilla of the State-Penates. But for the most part the numina were without even such symbolic representation, nor till about the end of the regal period was any form of temple built for them to dwell in. The sacred fire of Vesta near the Forum was, it is true, from the earliest times enclosed in a building; this, however, was no temple, but merely an erection with the essentially practical purpose of preventing the extinction of the fire by rain. The first temple in the full sense of the word was according to tradition built by Servius Tullius to Diana on the Aventine: the tradition is significant, for Diana was not one of the di indigetes, the old deities of the 'Religion of Numa,' but was introduced from the neighbouring town of Aricia, and the attribution to Servius Tullius nearly always denotes an Etruscan[3] or at any rate a non-Roman origin. There were, however, altars in special places to particular deities, built sometimes of stone, sometimes in a more homely manner of earth or sods. We hear for instance of the altar of Mars in the Campus Martius, of Quirinus on the Quirinal, of Saturnus at the foot of the Capitol, and notably of the curious underground altar of Consus on what was later the site of the Circus Maximus. But more characteristic than the erection of altars is the connection of deities with special localities. Naturally enough in the worship of the household Vesta had her seat at the hearth, Ianus at the door, and the 'gods of the storehouse' (Penates) at the cupboard by the hearth, but the same idea appears too in the state-cult. Hilltops, groves, and especially clearings in groves (luci) are the most usual sacred localities. Thus Quirinus has his own sacred hill, Iuppiter is worshipped on the Capitol, Vesta and Iuno Lucina have their sacred groves within the boundaries of the city, and Dea Dia, Robigus, and Furrina similar groves at the limits of Roman territory. The record of almost every Roman cult reveals the importance of locality in connection with the di indigetes, and the localities are usually such as would be naturally chosen by a pastoral and agricultural people.

Such were roughly the main outlines of the genuine Roman 'theology.' It has no gods of human form with human relations to one another, interested in the life of men and capable of the deepest passions of hatred and affection towards them, such as we meet, for instance, in the mythology of Greece, but only these impersonal individualities, if we may so call them, capable of no relation to one another, but able to bring good or ill to men, localised usually in their habitations, but requiring no artificial dwelling or elaborate adornment of their abode; becoming gradually more and more specialised in function, yet gaining thereby no more real protective care for their worshippers—a cold and heartless hierarchy, ready to exact their due, but incapable of inspiring devotion or enthusiasm. Let us ask next how the Romans conceived of their own relations towards them.

2. The Relation of Gods and Men.—The character of the Roman was essentially practical and his natural mental attitude that of the lawyer. And so in his relation towards the divine beings whom he worshipped there was little of sentiment or affection: all must be regulated by clearly understood principles and carried out with formal exactness. Hence the ius sacrum, the body of rights and duties in the matter of religion, is regarded as a department of the ius publicum, the fundamental constitution of the state, and it is significant, as Marquardt has observed, that it was Numa, a king and lawgiver, and not a prophet or a poet, who was looked upon as the founder of the Roman religion. Starting from the simple general feeling of a dependence on a higher power (religio), which is common to all religions, the Roman gives it his own characteristic colour when he conceives of that dependence as analogous to a civil contract between man and god. Both sides are under obligation to fulfil their part: if a god answers a man's prayer, he must be repaid by a thank-offering: if the man has fulfilled 'his bounden duty and service,' the god must make his return: if he does not, either the cause lies in an unconscious failure on the human side to carry out the exact letter of the law, or else, if the god has really broken his contract, he has, as it were, put himself out of court and the man may seek aid elsewhere. In this notion we have the secret of Rome's readiness under stress of circumstances, when all appeals to the old gods have failed, to adopt foreign deities and cults in the hope of a greater measure of success.

The contract-notion may perhaps appear more clearly if we consider one or two of the normal religious acts of the Roman individual or state. Take first of all the performance of the regular sacrifices or acts of worship ordained by the state-calendar or the celebration of the household sacra. The pietas of man consists in their due fulfilment, but he may through negligence omit them or make a mistake in the ritual to be employed. In that case the gods, as it were, have the upper hand in the contract and are not obliged to fulfil their share, but the man can set himself right again by the offering of a piaculum, which may take the form either of an additional sacrifice or a repetition of the original rite. So, for instance, when Cato is giving his farmer directions for the lustration of his fields, he supplies him at the end with two significant formulae: 'if,' he says, 'you have failed in any respect with regard to all your offerings, use this formula: "Father Mars, if thou hast not found satisfaction in my former offering of pig, sheep, and ox (the most solemn combination in rustic sacrifices), then let this offering of pig and sheep and ox appease thee": but if you have made a mistake in one or two only of your offerings, then say, "Father Mars, because thou hast not found satisfaction in that pig (or whatever it may be), let this pig appease thee."' On the other hand, for intentional neglect, there was no remedy: the man was impius and it rested with the gods to punish him as they liked (deorum iniuriae dis curae).

But apart from the regularly constituted ceremonies of religion, there might be special occasions on which new relations would be entered into between god and man. Sometimes the initiative would come from man: desiring to obtain from the gods some blessings on which he had set his heart, he would enter into a votum, a special contract by which he undertook to perform certain acts or make certain sacrifices, in case of the fulfilment of his desire. The whole proceeding is strictly legal: from the moment when he makes his vow the man is voti reus, in the same position, that is, as the defendant in a case whose decision is still pending; as soon as the gods have accomplished their side of the contract he is voti damnatus, condemned, as it were, to damages, having lost his suit; nor does he recover his independence until he has paid what he undertook: votum reddidi lubens merito ('I have paid my vow gladly as it was due') is the characteristic wording of votive inscriptions. If the gods did not accomplish the wish, the man was of course free, and sometimes the contract would be carried so far that a time-limit for their action would be fixed by the maker of the vow: legal exactness can hardly go further.

Or again, the initiative might come from the gods. Some marked misfortune, an earthquake, lightning, a great famine, a portentous birth, or some such occurrence would be recognised as a prodigium, or sign of the god's displeasure. Somehow or other the contract must have been broken on the human side and it was the duty of the state to see to the restoration of the pax deum, the equilibrium of the normal relation of god and man. The right proceeding in such a case was a lustratio, a solemn cleansing of the people—or the portion of the people involved in the god's displeasure—with the double object of removing the original reason of misfortune and averting future causes of the divine anger. The commercial notion is not perhaps quite so distinct here, but the underlying legal relationship is sufficiently marked.

If then the question be asked whether the relation between the Roman and his gods was friendly or unfriendly, the correct answer would probably be that it was neither. It was rather what Aristotle in speaking of human relations describes as 'a friendship for profit': it is entered into because both sides hope for some advantage—it is maintained as long as both sides fulfil their obligations.

3. Ceremonial.—It has been said sometimes that the old Roman religion was one of cult and ritual without dogma or belief. As we have seen this is not in origin strictly true, and it would be fairer to say that belief was latent rather than non-existent: this we may see, for instance, from Cicero's dialogues on the subject of religion, where in discussion the fundamental sense of the dependence of man on the help of the gods comes clearly into view: in the domestic worship of the family too cult was always to some extent 'tinged with emotion,' and sanctified by a belief which made it a more living and in the end a more permanent reality than the religion of the state. But it is no doubt true that as the community advanced, belief tended to sink into the background: development took place in cult and not in theology, so that by the end of the Republic, to take an example, though the festival of the Furrinalia was duly observed every year on the 25th of July, the nature or function of the goddess Furrina was, as we learn from Cicero, a pure matter of conjecture, and Varro tells us that her name was known only to a few persons. Nor was it mere lapse of time which tended to obscure theology and exalt ceremonial: their relative position was the immediate and natural outcome of the underlying idea of the relation of god and man. Devotion, piety—in our sense of the term—and a feeling of the divine presence could not be enjoined or even encouraged by the strictly legal conception on which religion was based: the 'contract-notion' required not a 'right spirit' but right performance. And so it comes about that in all the records we have left of the old religion the salient feature which catches and retains our attention is exactness of ritual. All must be performed not merely 'decently and in order,' but with the most scrupulous care alike for every detail of the ceremonial itself, and for the surrounding circumstances. The omission or misplacement of a single word in the formulae, the slightest sign of resistance on the part of the victim, any disorder among the bystanders, even the accidental squeak of a mouse, are sufficient to vitiate the whole ritual and necessitate its repetition from the very beginning. One of the main functions of the Roman priesthood was to preserve intact the tradition of formulae and ritual, and, when the magistrate offered sacrifice for the state, the pontifex stood at his side and dictated (praeire) the formulae which he must use. Almost the oldest specimen of Latin which we now possess is the song of the Salii, the priests of Mars, handed on from generation to generation and repeated with scrupulous care, even though the priests themselves, as Quintilian assures us, had not the least notion what it meant. Nor was it merely the words of ceremonial which were of vital importance: other details must be attended to with equal exactness. Place, as we have seen, was an essential feature even in the conception of deity, and it must have required all the personal influence of Augustus and his entourage to reconcile the people of Rome, with the ancient home of the goddess still before their eyes, to the second shrine of Vesta within the limits of his palace on the Palatine. The choice of the appropriate offering again was a matter of the greatest moment and was dictated by a large number of considerations. The sex of the victim must correspond to the sex of the deity to whom it is offered, white beasts must be given to the gods of the upper world, black victims to the deities below. Mars at his October festival must have his horse, Iuno Caprotina her goat, and Robigus his dog, while in the more rustic festivals such as the Parilia, the offering would be the simpler gift of millet-cakes and bowls of milk: in the case of the Bona Dea we have the curious provision that if wine were used in the ceremonial, it must, as she was in origin a pastoral deity, always be spoken of as 'milk.' The persons who might be present in the various festivals were also rigidly determined: men were excluded from the Matronalia on March 1, from the Vestalia on the 9th of June, and from the night festival of the Bona Dea: the notorious escapade of Clodius in 62 B.C. shows the scandal raised by a breach of this rule even at the period when religious enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb. Slaves were specifically admitted to a share in certain festivals such as the Saturnalia and the Compitalia (the festival of the Lares), whereas at the Matralia (the festival of the matrons) a female slave was brought in with the express purpose of being significantly driven away.

The general notion of the exactness of ritual will perhaps become clearer when we come to examine some of the festivals in detail, but it is of extreme importance for the understanding of the Roman religious attitude, to think of it from the first as an essential part in the expression of the relation of man to god.

4. Directness of Relation—Functions of Priests.—In contrast to all this precision of ritual, which tends almost to alienate humanity from deity, we may turn to another hardly less prominent feature of the Roman religion—the immediateness of relation between the god and his worshippers. Not only may the individual at any time approach the altar of the god with his prayer or thank-offering, but in every community of persons its religious representative is its natural head. In the family the head of the household (pater familias) is also the priest and he is responsible for conducting the religious worship of the whole house, free and slave alike: to his wife and daughters he leaves the ceremonial connected with the hearth (Vesta) and the deities of the store-cupboard (Penates), and to his bailiff the sacrifice to the powers who protect his fields (Lares), but the other acts of worship at home and in the fields he conducts himself, and his sons act as his acolytes. Once a year he meets with his neighbours at the boundaries of their properties and celebrates the common worship over the boundary-stones. So in[4] the larger outgrowth of the family, the gens, which consisted of all persons with the same surname (nomen, not cognomen), the gentile sacra are in the hands of the more wealthy members who are regarded as its heads; we have the curious instance of Clodius even after his adoption into another family, providing for the worship of the gens Clodia in his own house, and we may remember Virgil's picture of the founders of the gentes of the Potitii and the Pinarii performing the sacrifice to Hercules at the ara maxima, which was the traditional privilege of their houses. When societies (sodalitates) are formed for religious purposes they elect their own magistri to be their religious representatives, as we see in the case of the Salii and the Luperci. Finally, in the great community of the state the king is priest, and with that exactness of parallelism of which the Roman was so fond, he—like the pater familias—leaves the worship of Vesta in the hands of his 'daughters,' the Vestal virgins. And so, when the Republic is instituted, a special official, the rex sacrorum, inherits the king's ritual duties, while the superintendence of the Vestals passes to his representative in the matter of religious law, the pontifex maximus, whose official residence is always the regia, Numa's palace. The state is but the enlarged household and the head of the state is its religious representative.

If then the approach to the gods is so direct, where, it may be asked, in the organisation of Roman religion is there room for the priest? Two points about the Roman priesthood are of paramount importance. In the first place, they are not a caste apart: though there were restrictions as to the holding of secular magistracies in combination with the priesthood—always observed strictly in the case of the rex sacrorum and with few exceptions in the case of the greater flamines—yet the pontifices might always take their part in public life, and no kind of barrier existed between them and the rest of the community: Iulius Caesar himself was pontifex maximus. In the second place they are not regarded as representatives of the gods or as mediators between god and man, but simply as administrative officials appointed for the performance of the acts of state-worship, just as the magistrates were for its civil and military government. In origin they were chosen to assist the king in the multifarious duties of the state-cult—the flamines were to act as special priests of particular deities, the most prominent among them being the three great priests of Iuppiter (flamen Dialis), Mars, and Quirinus; the pontifices were sometimes delegates of the king on special occasions, but more particularly formed his religious consilium, a consulting body, to give him advice as to ritual and act as the repositories of tradition. In later times the flamines still retain their original character, the pontifices and especially the pontifex maximus are responsible for the whole organisation of the state-religion and are the guardians and interpreters of religious lore. In the state-cult then the priests play a very important part, but their relation to the worship of the individual was very small indeed. They had a general superintendence over private worship and their leave would be required for the introduction of any new domestic cult; in cases too where the private person was in doubt as to ritual or the legitimacy of any religious practice, he could appeal to the pontifices for decision. Otherwise the priest could never intervene in the worship of the family, except in the case of the most solemn form of marriage (confarreatio), which, as it conferred on the children the right to hold certain of the priesthoods, was regarded itself as a ceremony of the state-religion.

In his private worship then the individual had immediate access to the deity, and it was no doubt this absence of priestly mediation and the consequent sense of personal responsibility, no less than its emotional significance, which caused the greater reality and permanence of the domestic worship as compared with the organised and official cults of the state.


[3] Etruscan builders were according to tradition employed on the earliest Roman temples.

[4] This is all open to doubt, but see De Marchi, Il Culto Privato, vol. ii.



After this sketch of the main features which we must expect to find in Roman religion, we may attempt to look a little more in detail at its various departments, but before doing so it is necessary to form some notion of the situation and character of the Roman community: religion is not a little determined by men's natural surroundings and occupations. The subject is naturally one of considerable controversy, but certain facts of great significance for our purpose may fairly be taken as established. The earliest settlement which can be called 'Rome' was the community of the Palatine hill, which rises out of the valleys more abruptly than any of the other hills and was the natural place to be selected for fortification: the outline of the walls and sacred enclosure running outside them (pomoerium) may still be traced, marking the limits of 'square Rome' (Roma quadrata), as the historians called it. The Palatine community no doubt pursued their agricultural labours over the neighbouring valleys and hills, and gradually began to extend their settlement till it included the Esquiline and Caelian and other lesser heights which made up the Septimontium—the next stage of Rome's development. Meanwhile a kindred settlement had been established on the opposite hills of the Quirinal and Viminal, and ultimately the two communities united, enclosing within their boundaries the Capitol and their meeting-place in the valley which separated them—the Forum. In this way was formed the Rome of the Four Regions, which represents the utmost extent of its development during the period which gave rise to the genuine Roman religion. All these stages have left their mark on the customs of religion. Roma quadrata comes to the fore in the Lupercalia: not merely is the site of the ceremony a grotto on the Palatine (Lupercal), but when the Luperci run their purificatory course around the boundaries, it is the circuit of the Palatine hill which marks its limits. Annually on the 11th of December the festival of the Septimontium was celebrated, not by the whole people, but by the montani, presumably the inhabitants of those parts of Rome which were included in the second settlement. Finally, the addition of the Quirinal settlement is marked by the inclusion among the great state-gods of Quirinus, who must have been previously the local deity of the Quirinal community.

But more important for us than the history of the early settlement is its character. We have spoken of early Rome as an agricultural community: it would be more exact and more helpful to describe it as a community of agricultural households. The institutions of Rome, legal as well as religious, all point to the household (familia) as the original unit of organisation: the individual, as such, counted for nothing, the community was but the aggregate of families. Domestic worship then was not merely independent of the religion of the community: it was prior to it, and is both its historical and logical origin. Yet the life of the early Roman agriculturalist could not be confined to the household: in the tilling of the fields and the care of his cattle he meets his neighbour, and common interests suggest common prayer and thanksgiving. Thus there sprung up the great series of agricultural festivals which form the basis of the state-calendar, but were in origin—as some of them still continued to be—the independent acts of worship of groups of agricultural households. Gradually, as the community grew on the lines we have just seen, there grew with it a sense of an organised state, as something more than the casual aggregation of households or clans (gentes). As the feeling of union became stronger, so did the necessity for common worship of the gods, and the state-cult came into being primarily as the repetition on behalf of the community as a whole of the worship which its members performed separately in their households or as joint-worshippers in the fields. But the conception of a state must carry with it at least two ideas over and beyond the common needs of its members: there must be internal organisation to secure domestic tranquillity, and—since there will be collision with other states—external organisation for purposes of offence and defence. Religion follows the new ideas, and in two of the older deities of the fields develops the notions of justice and war. Organisation ensues, and the general conceptions of state-deities and state-ritual are made more definite and precise.

It will be at once natural and convenient that we should consider these three departments of religion in the order that has just been suggested—the worship of the household, the worship of the fields, the worship of the state. But it must not be forgotten that both the departments themselves and the evidence for them frequently overlap. The domestic worship is not wholly distinguishable from that of the fields, the state-cult is, as we have seen, very largely a replica of the other two. The evidence for the domestic and agricultural cults is in itself very scanty, and we shall frequently have to draw inferences from their counterparts in the state. Above all, it is not to be supposed that any hard and fast line between the three existed in the Roman's mind; but for the purposes of analysis the distinction is valuable and represents a historical reality.



1. The Deities.—The worship of the household seems to have originated, as has been suggested, in the sense of the sacredness of certain objects closely bound up with the family life—the door, the protection against the external world, by which the household went out to work in the morning and returned at evening, the hearth, the giver of warmth and nourishment, and the store-cupboard, where was preserved the food for future use. At first, in all probability, the worship was actually of the objects themselves, but by the time that Rome can be said to have existed at all, 'animism' had undoubtedly transformed it into a veneration of the indwelling spirits, Ianus, Vesta, and the Penates.

Of the domestic worship of Ianus no information has come down to us, but we may well suppose that as the defence of the door and its main use lay with the men of the household, so they, under the control of the pater familias, were responsible for the cult of its spirit. Vesta was, of course, worshipped at the hearth by the women, who most often used it in the preparation of the domestic meals. In the original round hut, such as the primitive Roman dwelt in—witness the models which he buried with his dead and which recent excavations in the Forum have brought to light—the 'blazing hearth' (such seems to be the meaning of Vesta) would be the most conspicuously sacred thing; it is therefore not surprising to find that her simple cult was the most persistent of all throughout the history of Rome, and did not vary from its original notion. Even Ovid can tell the inquirer 'think not Vesta to be ought else than living flame,' and again, 'Vesta and fire require no effigy'—notions in which he has come curiously near to the conceptions of the earliest religion. The Penates in the same way were at first 'the spirits'—whoever they might be—who preserved and increased the store in the cupboard. Then as the conception of individual deities became clearer, they were identified with some one or other of the gods of the country or the state, among whom the individual householder would select those who should be the particular Penates of his family: Ceres, Iuno, Iuppiter, Pales would be some of those chosen in the earlier period. Nor are we to suppose that selection was merely arbitrary: the tradition of family and clan, even possibly of locality, would determine the choice, much as the patron-saints of a church are now determined in a Roman Catholic country.

Two other deities are very prominent in the worship of the early household, and each is a characteristic product of Roman religious feeling, the Lar Familiaris and the Genius. The Lares[5] seem to have been in origin the spirits of the family fields: they were worshipped, as Cicero tells us, 'on the farm in sight of the house,' and they had their annual festival in the Compitalia, celebrated at the compita—places where two or more properties marched. But one of these spirits, the Lar Familiaris, had special charge of the house and household, and as such was worshipped with the other domestic gods at the hearth. As his protection extended over all the household, including the slaves, his cult is placed specially in the charge of the bailiff's wife (vilica). He is regularly worshipped at the great divisions of the month on Calends, Nones, and Ides, but he has also an intimate and beautiful connection with the domestic history of the family. An offering is made to the Lar on the occasion of a birth, a wedding, a departure, or a return, and even—a characteristically Roman addition—on the occasion of the first utterance of a word by a son of the house: finally, a particularly solemn sacrifice is made to him after a death in the family.

The Genius is perhaps the most difficult conception in the Roman religion for the modern mind to grasp. It has been spoken of as the 'patron-saint' or 'guardian-angel,' both of them conceptions akin to that of the Genius, but both far too definite and anthropomorphic: we shall understand it best by keeping the 'numen' notion clearly in mind and looking to the root-meaning of the word (genius connected with the root of gignere, to beget). It was after all only a natural development of the notions of 'animism' to imagine that man too, like other objects, had his indwelling spirit—not his 'soul' either in our sense of moral and intellectual powers, or in the ancient sense of the vital principle—but rather as the derivation suggests, in origin simply the spirit which gave him the power of generation. Hence in the house, the sphere of the Genius is no longer the hearth but the marriage-bed (lectus genialis). This notion growing somewhat wider, the Genius comes to denote all the full powers, almost the personality, of developed manhood, and especially those powers which make for pleasure and happiness: this is the origin of such common phrases as genium curare, genio indulgere, meaning practically to 'look after oneself,' 'to indulge oneself.' Every man, then, has this 'spirit of his manhood' in his Genius, and correspondingly every woman her Iuno, or spirit of womanhood, which are worshipped on the birthdays of their owners. No doubt later the Genius was accredited with powers over the fortune and misfortune of his possessor, but he never really developed anything like the independence of a god, and remained always rather a numen. The individual revered his own Genius, but the household cult was concerned, as one would expect, with the Genius of the master of the house, the pre-eminent Genius of the family. Its special locality was, for the reason just noticed, the marriage-bed and its symbol, the house-snake, kept as a revered inmate and cherished in the feeling that evil happening to it meant misfortune to the master. The festival of the Genius was naturally the master's birthday, and on that day slaves and freedmen kept holiday with the family and brought offerings to the Genius domus. It is a significant fact, and may serve to bring out the underlying notion, that in later paintings, when anthropomorphism and sensuous representation held sway over all Roman religion, though the other gods of the household were depicted after the manner of Greek deities, the Genius is either represented by his symbolic snake or appears with the human features and characteristics of the head of the house, his owner.

The spirit-gods then of the door and the hearth, the specially chosen deities of the store-cupboard, the particular field-power presiding over the household, and the spirit of the master's personality were the gods of the early home, and round their worship centred the domestic religion. We must attempt to see what was its relation to family life.

2. Religion and the Family Life.—We have already noticed the main occasions of regular sacrifice to the deities of the household, the offerings to the Lar on Calends, Nones, and Ides, to the Genius on the master's birthday, and so on, and we are enabled to form a fair picture of the rites from paintings which, although of later date, undoubtedly represent the continuous tradition of domestic custom. In a wall-painting at Herculaneum, for instance, we have a picture of the pater familias, represented with veiled head (according to regular Roman custom) and the cornucopia of the Genius, making sacrifice at a round altar or hearth. Opposite him stands the flute-player (tibicen) playing to drown any unpropitious sound, while on either side are two smaller figures, presumably the sons, acting as attendants (camilli), and both clad (succincti) in the short sacrificial tunic (limus); one carries in his left hand the sacred dish (patera), and in his right garlands or, more probably, ribbons for the decoration of the victim: the other is acting as victimarius and bringing the pig for sacrifice, but the animal is hurrying with almost excessive eagerness towards the altar, no doubt to show that there is none of the reluctance which would have been sufficient to vitiate the sacrifice.

But from our point of view such formal acts of worship are of less importance than the part played by religion in the daily life of the household. There is evidence both for earlier and later periods that the really 'pious' would begin their day with prayer and sacrifice to the household gods, and like Virgil's Aeneas, typically pius in all the meanings of the word, would 'rouse the slumbering flame upon the altar and gladly approach again the Lar and little Penates whom he worshipped yesterday.' But this was perhaps exceptional devotion, and the daily worship in the normal household centred rather round the family meal. In the old and simple house the table would be placed at the side of the hearth, and, as the household sat round it, master and man together, a part of the meal, set aside on a special sacred dish (patella), would be thrown into the flames as the gods' portion. Sometimes incense might be added, and later a libation of wine: when images had become common, the little statuettes of Lares and Penates would be fetched from the shrine (lararium) and placed upon the table in token of their presence at the meal. Even in the luxurious, many-roomed house of the imperial epoch, when the dining-table was far from the kitchen-hearth, a pause was made in the meal and an offering sent out to the household-gods, nor would the banquet proceed until the slave had returned and announced that the gods were favourable (deos propitios): so persistent was this tradition of domestic piety. Prayer might be made at this point on special occasions to special deities, as, for instance, before the beginning of the sowing of the crops, appeal was made to Iuppiter, and a special portion of the meal (daps) was set aside for him. The sanctification of the one occasion when the whole household met in the day cannot fail to have had its effect on the domestic life, and, even if it was no direct incentive to morality, it yet bound the family together in a sense of dependence on a higher power for the supply of their daily needs.

We observed incidentally how the small events of domestic life were given their religious significance, particularly in connection with the worship of Lar and Genius, but to complete the sketch of domestic religion, we must examine a little more closely its relation to the process of life, and especially to the two important occasions of birth and marriage. In no department of life is the specialisation of function among the numina more conspicuous than in connection with birth and childhood. Apart from the general protection of Iuno Lucina, the prominent divinity of childbirth, we can count in the records that have come down to us some twenty subordinate spirits, who from the moment of conception to the moment of birth watched, each in its own particular sphere, over the mother and the unborn child. As soon as the birth had taken place began a series of ceremonies, which are of particular interest, as they seem to belong to a very early stage of religious thought, and have a markedly rustic character. Immediately a sacred meal was offered to the two field-deities, Picumnus and Pilumnus, and then the Roman turned his attention to the practical danger of fever for the mother and child. At night three men gathered round the threshold, one armed with an axe, another with a stake, and a third with a broom: the two first struck the threshold with their implements, the third swept out the floor. Over this ceremony were said to preside three numina, Intercidona (connected with the axe), Pilumnus (connected with the stake, pilum), and Deverra (connected with the act of sweeping). Its object was, as Varro explains it, to avert the entrance of the half-wild Silvanus by giving three unmistakeable signs of human civilisation; we shall probably not be wrong in seeing in it rather an actual hacking, beating, and sweeping away of evil spirits. On the ninth day after birth, in the case of a boy, on the eighth in the case of a girl, occurred the festival of the naming (solemnitas nominalium). The ceremony was one of purification (dies lustricus is its alternative title), and a piacular offering was made to preserve the child from evil influences in the future. Friends brought presents, especially neck-bands in the form of a half-moon (lunulae), and the golden balls (bullae) which were worn as a charm round the neck until the attainment of manhood.

Of the numerous petty divinities which watched over the child's early years we have already given some account. In their protection he remained until he arrived at puberty, about the age of seventeen, when with due religious ceremony he entered on his manhood. At home, on the morning of the festival, he solemnly laid aside the bulla and the purple-striped garb of childhood (toga praetexta) before the shrine of the household gods, and made them a thank-offering for their protection in the past. Afterwards, accompanied by his father and friends and clad now in the toga virilis, he went solemnly to the Capitol, and, after placing a contribution in the coffers of Iuventas—or probably in earlier times of Iuppiter Iuventus—made an offering to the supreme deity Iuppiter Capitolinus. The sacred character of the early years of a young Roman's life could hardly be more closely marked.

Though confarreatio was the only essentially religious form of marriage, and was sanctified by the presence of the pontifex maximus and the flamen Dialis, yet marriage even in the less religious ceremony of coemptio was always a sacrum. It must not take place on the days of state-festivals (feriae), nor on certain other dies religiosi, such as those of the Vestalia or the feast of the dead (Parentalia). Both the marriage itself and the preliminary betrothal (sponsalia) had to receive the divine sanction by means of auspices, and in the ceremonies of both rites the religious element, though bound up with superstition and folk-customs, emerges clearly enough. The central ceremony of the confarreatio was an act partly of sacrifice, partly, one might almost say, of communion. The bride and bridegroom sat on two chairs united to one another and covered with a lambskin, they offered to Iuppiter bloodless offerings of a rustic character (fruges et molam salsam), they employed in the sacrifice the fundamental household necessaries, water, fire, and salt, and themselves ate of the sacred spelt-cake (libus farreus), from which the ceremony derived its name. The crucial point in the more civil ceremony of coemptio was the purely human and legal act of the joining of hands (dextrarum iunctio), but it was immediately followed by the sacrifice of a victim, which gave the ceremony a markedly religious significance. The customs connected with the bringing of the bride to the bridegroom's house—so beautifully depicted in Catullus' Epithalamium—her forcible abduction from her parents, the ribaldry of the bridegroom's companions, the throwing of nuts as a symbol of fecundity, the carrying of the bride over the threshold, a relic probably of primitive marriage by capture, the untying of the bridal knot on the bridal couch—are perhaps more akin to superstition than religion, but we may notice two points in the proceedings. Firstly, the three coins (asses) which the bride brought with her, one to give to her husband as a token of dowry, one to be offered at the hearth to her new Lar Familiaris, one to be offered subsequently at the nearest compitum (a clear sign of connection between the household Lar and those of the fields); and secondly, an echo of the feature so marked all through domestic life, the crowd of little numina, who took their part in assisting the ceremony. There was Domiduca, who brought the bride to the bridegroom's house, Iterduca, who looked after her on the transit, Unxia, who anointed her, Cinxia, who bound and unbound her girdle, and many others.

This sketch of the household worship of the Romans will, I hope, have justified my contention that there was in it an element more truly 'religious' than anything we should gather from the ceremonies of the state. The ideas are simpler, the numina seem less cold and more protective, the worshippers more sensible of divine aid. When we have looked at the companion picture of the farmer in the fields, we shall go on to see how the worship of the agricultural household is the prototype and basis of the state-cult, but first we must consider briefly the very difficult question of the relation of the living to the dead.

3. Relation of the Living and the Dead.—The worship of the spirits of dead ancestors is so common a feature in most primitive religions that it may seem strange even to doubt whether it existed among the Romans, but, although the question is one of extreme difficulty, and the evidence very insufficient, I am inclined to believe that, though the living were always conscious of their continued relation to the dead, and sensitive of the influence of the powers of the underworld, yet there was not, strictly speaking, any cult of the dead. Let us attempt briefly to collect the salient features in ritual, and see to what conclusion they point as to the underlying belief.

One of the most remarkable facts in domestic worship is that, whereas the moment of birth and the other great occasions of life are surrounded with religious ceremony and belief, the moment of death passes without any trace of religious accompaniment: it is as though the dying man went out into another world where the ceremonials of this life can no more avail him, nor its gods protect him. As to his state after death, opinion varied at different times under different influences, but the simple early notion, connected especially with the practice of burial as opposed to cremation,[6] was that his spirit just sank into the earth, where it rested and returned from time to time to the upper world through certain openings in the ground (mundi), whose solemn uncovering was one of the regular observances of the festal calendar: later, no doubt, a more spiritual notion prevailed, though it never reached definiteness or universality. One idea, however, seems always to be prominent, that the happiness of the dead could be much affected by the due performance of the funeral rites; hence it was the most solemn duty of the heir to perform the iusta for the dead, and if he failed in any respect to carry them out, he could only atone for his omission by the annual sacrifice of a sow (porca praecidanea) to Ceres and Tellus—to the divinities of the earth, be it noticed, and not to the dead themselves. The actual funeral was not a religious ceremony; a procession was formed (originally at night) of the family and friends, in which the body of the dead was carried—accompanied by the busts (imagines) of his ancestors—to a tomb outside the town, and was there laid in the grave. The family on their return proceeded at once to rites of purification from the contamination which had overtaken them owing to the presence of a dead body. Two ceremonies were performed, one for the purification of the house by the sacrifice of a sow (porca praesentanea) to Ceres accompanied by a solemn sweeping out of refuse (exverrae), the other the lustration of their own persons by fire and water. This done, they sat down with their friends to a funeral feast (silicernium), which, Cicero tells us, was regarded as an honour rather to the surviving members of the family than to the dead, so that mourning was not worn. Two other ceremonies within the following week, the feriae denicales and the novendiale sacrum, brought the religious mourning to a close. Not that the dead were forgotten after the funeral: year by year, on the anniversaries of death and burial, and on certain fixed occasions known by such suggestive titles as 'the day of roses' and 'the day of violets,' the family would revisit the tomb and make simple offerings of salt cake (mola salsa), of bread soaked in wine, or garlands of flowers: there is some trace, on such occasions, of prayer, but it would seem to be rather the repetition of general religious formulae than a petition to the dead for definite blessings.

Such are the principal features of the family ritual in relation to their dead; but if we are to form any just notion of belief, we must supplement them by reference to the ceremonies of the state, which here, as elsewhere, are very clearly the household-cult 'writ large.' In the Calendars we find two obvious celebrations in connection with the dead, taking place at different seasons of the year, and consisting of ceremonies markedly different in character. In the gloomy month of February—associated with solemn lustrations—occurs the festival known popularly (though not in the Calendars) as the Parentalia or dies Parentales, that is, the days of sacrifice in connection with the dead members of the family (parentes, parentare). It begins with the note on February 13, Virgo Vestalis parentat, and continues till the climax, Feralia, on February 21. During these days the magistrates laid aside the insignia of their offices, the temples were shut, marriages were forbidden, and every family carried out at the tombs of its relatives ceremonies resembling those of the sacra privata. The whole season closed on February 22 with the festival of the Caristia or cara cognatio, a family reunion of the survivors in a kind of 'love-feast,' which centred in the worship of the Lar Familiaris. Here we seem to have simply, as in the family rites, a peaceful and solemn acknowledgment by the community as a whole of the still subsisting relation of the living and the dead. On the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May occurs the Lemuria, a ceremony of a strikingly different order. Once again temples are shut and marriages forbidden, but the ritual is of a very different nature. The Lemures or Larvae—for there seems to be little distinction between the two names—are regarded no longer as members of the family to be welcomed back to their place, but as hostile spirits to be exorcised.[7] The head of the house rises from bed at midnight, washes, and walks barefoot through the house, making signs for the aversion of evil spirits. In his mouth he carries black beans—always a chthonic symbol—which he spits out nine times without looking round, saying, as he does so, 'With these I redeem me and mine': he washes again, and clanks brass vessels together; nine times he repeats the formula, 'depart, Manes of our fathers' (no doubt using the dignified title Manes euphemistically), and then finally turns round. Here we have in a quite unmistakeable manner the feeling of the hostility of the spirits of the dead: they must be given their appropriate food and got out of the place as quickly as possible. Some scholars have attempted to explain the difference between these two festivals on the assumption that the Parentalia represents the commemoration of the duly buried dead, the Lemuria the apotropaic right for the aversion of the unburied, and therefore hostile spirits; but Ovid has given a far more significant hint, when he tells us that the Lemuria was the more ancient festival of the two.

So far we have had no indication of anything approaching divinity in connection with the dead or the underworld as distinct from the earth-goddesses, but the evidence for it, though vague and shadowy, is not wanting. Certain mysterious female deities, Tarpeia, Acca Larentia, Carna, and Laverna, of whom late aetiological myth had its own explanation, have, in all probability, been rightly interpreted by Mommsen as divinities of the lower world: the commemorative 'sacrifice at the tomb,' which we hear of in connection with the first two, was in reality, we may suppose, an offering to a chthonic deity at a mundus. A rather more tangible personality is Vediovis, who three times a year has his celebration (Agonia not feriae) in the Calendar: he, as his name denotes, must be the 'opposite of Iove,' that is, probably, his chthonic counterpart, a notion sufficiently borne out by his subsequent identification with the Greek Pluto. Finally, of course, there is that vague body, the Di Manes, 'the good gods,' the principal deities of the world of the dead; to them invocations are addressed, and they have their place in the formulae of the parentalia and the opening of the mundi.[8] In connection with them, acting as a link with the female deities, we have the strange goddess Genita Mana, the 'spirit of birth and death.'

Controversy is acute as to the interpretation of these facts, especially in regard to the question whether or no the spirits of the dead were actually worshipped. I would hazard the following reconstruction of history as consistent with what we otherwise know of Roman religion, and with the evidence before us. From the earliest times the Roman looked upon his dead relations as in some sense living, lying beneath the earth, but capable alike of returning to the world above and of influencing in some vague way the fortunes of the living, especially in relation to the crops which sprung from the ground in which they lay. At first, when his religion was one of fear, he regarded the dead as normally hostile, and their presence as something to be averted; this is the stage which gave birth to the Lemuria. As civilisation increased, and the sense of the unity of household and community developed, fear, proving ungrounded, gave place to a kindlier feeling of the continued existence of the dead as members of household and state, and even in some sense as an additional bond between the living: this is the period which produced the sacra privata and the Parentalia. When the numen-feeling began to pass into that of deus, in the first place a connection was felt between the spirits of the dead and the deities of the earth associated with the growth of the crops, in the second the notion that the underworld must have its gods as well as the world above, produced the shadowy female deities and Vediovis. Lastly, the same kind of feeling which added Parentalia to Lemuria developed the vague general notion of the Di Manes, not the deified spirits of the dead, but peaceful and on the whole kindly divinities holding sway in the world of dead spirits, yet accessible to the prayers of the living. The dead, then, were not themselves worshipped, but they needed commemoration and kindly gifts, and they had in their lower world deities to whom prayer might be made and worship given.


[5] It is right to state that there is a totally different theory, according to which the Lares were the spirits of the dead ancestors and the Lar Familiaris an embodiment, as it were, of all the family dead.

[6] It is significant that even when the dead were cremated, one bone was carefully preserved in order to be symbolically buried.

[7] We may note that, though it is a state festival, our information is solely of rites in individual households.

[8] Their mention in sepulchral inscriptions dates from the time of the Empire, when a new conception of their nature had sprung up.



The life of the early Roman in the fields, his activities, his hopes and fears, are reflected in the long list of agricultural festivals which constitute the greater part of the celebrations in the Calendar, and follow closely the seasons and occupations of the agricultural year. We are, of course, in the Calendar dealing, to speak strictly, with the worship of the state, and not with the semi-private festivals of groups of farmers, but in many instances, such as the Robigalia, the state seems only to have taken over the cult of the farmers, preserving carefully the site on which the celebration took place; in others, such as the Terminalia and the Parilia, it seems to have established, as it were, a state-counterpart of a rite performed independently at many rustic centres: in both cases we are justified in inferring the practice of the early Roman agriculturalist. We shall see that in most cases these festivals are associated—though often loosely enough—with the worship of a particular divinity. Sometimes, however,—as in the case of the Lupercalia—it is very difficult to discover who this divinity was; in other festivals, such as the Robigalia, it looks as if the eponymous deity was a comparatively late development. We may, therefore, suppose, on the analogy of what we have already seen to be the general lines of development in Roman religion, that the festivals in origin centred round a purpose rather than a personality, and were addressed 'to all spirits whom it might concern'; and that later, when the deus notion was on the increase, they either attached themselves to some god whose personality was already distinct, as the Vinalia were attached to Iuppiter, or 'developed' a deity of their own. Among these deities, strictly functional as a rule and existing only in connection with their special festival, we shall notice the frequent recurrence of a divinity pair, not, of course, mythologically related as husband and wife, but representing, perhaps, the male and female aspects of the same process of development.

The festivals divide themselves naturally into three groups: those of Spring, expressive of the hopes and fears for the growing crops and herds; those of Summer, the festivals of fulfilment, including the celebration of harvest; and those of Winter, the festivals of sowing, of social rejoicing, and in the later months of purificatory anticipation of the coming year.

1. Festivals of Spring.—The old Roman year—as may be seen clearly enough from the names of the months still known by numbers, September, October, etc.—began in March: according to tradition Romulus reckoned a year of ten months altogether, and Numa added January and February. The Spring months properly speaking may be reckoned as March, April, and May. In March there were in the developed Calendar no festivals of an immediately recognisable agricultural character, but the whole month was practically consecrated to its eponymous deity, Mars. Now, to the Roman of the Republic, Mars was undoubtedly the deity associated with war, and his special festivals in this month are of a warlike character: on the 9th the priests (Salii) began the ancient custom of carrying his sacred shields (ancilia) round the town from one ordained resting-place to another: on the 19th, Quinquatrus, the shields were solemnly purified, and on the 23rd the same ceremony was performed with the war-trumpets: the Equirria (horse-races) of March 14 may have had an agricultural origin—we shall meet with races later on as a feature of rustic festivals—but they were certainly celebrated in a military manner. Yet there is good reason for believing that Mars was in origin associated not with war, but with the growth of vegetation: he was, as we shall see, the chief deity addressed in the solemn lustration of the fields (Ambarvalia), and if our general notion of the development of religion with the growing needs of the agricultural community crystallising into a state be correct, it may well be that a deity originally concerned with the interests of the farmer took on himself the protection of the soldier, when the fully developed state came into collision with its neighbours. If so, we may well have in these recurring festivals of Mars the sense, as Mr. Warde Fowler has put it, of 'some great numen at work, quickening vegetation, and calling into life the powers of reproduction in man and the animals.' Possibly another agricultural note is struck in the Liberalia of the 17th: though the cult of Liber was almost entirely overlaid by his subsequent identification with Dionysus, it seems right to recognise in him and his female counterpart, Libera, a general spirit of creativeness.

The character of April is much more clearly marked: the month is filled with a series of festivals—all of a clearly agricultural nature—prayers for the crops now in the earth, and the purification of the men and animals on the farm. The series opens with the Fordicidia on the 15th, when pregnant cows were sacrificed: their unborn calves were torn from them and burnt, the ashes being kept by the Vestal Virgin in Vesta's storehouse (penus Vestae) for use at the Parilia. The general symbolism of fertility is very clear; the goddess associated with the festival is Tellus, the earth herself, and the local origin of these festivals is shown in the fact that not only was the sacrifice made for the whole people on the Capitol, but separately in each one of the curiae. The Fordicidia is closely followed by the Cerealia on the 19th—the festival of another earth-goddess (Ceres, creare)—more especially connected with the growth of corn. A very curious feature of the ritual was the fastening of fire-brands to the tails of foxes, which were then let loose in what was afterwards the Circus Maximus: a symbol possibly, as Wissowa thinks, of sunlight, possibly of the vegetation-spirit. But the most important of the April ceremonies is undoubtedly the Parilia of the 21st, the festival of the very ancient rustic numen, Pales. Ovid's[9] description of the celebration is so interesting and so full of the characteristic colour of the Roman rustic festivals that I may perhaps be pardoned for reproducing it at greater length. 'Shepherd,' he says, addressing the rustic worshipper, 'at the first streak of dawn purify thy well-fed flocks: let water first besprinkle them, and a branch sweep clean the ground. Let the folds be adorned with leaves and branches fastened to them, while a trailing wreath covers the gay-decked gates. Let blue flames rise from the living sulphur and the sheep bleat loud as she feels the touch of the smoking sulphur. Burn the male olive-branch and the pine twig and juniper, and let the blazing laurel crackle amid the hearth. A basket full of millet must go with the millet cakes: this is the food wherein the country goddess finds pleasure most of all. Give her too her own share of the feast and her pail of milk, and when her share has been set aside, then with milk warm from the cow make prayer to Pales, guardian of the woods.' The poet then recites a long prayer, in which the farmer first begs forgiveness for any unwitting sins he may have committed against the rustic deities, such as trespassing on their groves or sheltering his flocks beneath their altar, and then prays for the aversion of disease and the prosperity of crops, flocks, and herds. 'Thus must the goddess be won, this prayer say four times turning to the sunrise, and wash thy hands in the running stream. Then set the rustic bowl upon the table in place of the wine-bowl, and drink the snowy milk and dark must, and soon through the heaps of crackling straw leap in swift course with eager limbs.' All the worshippers then set to leaping through the blazing fires, even the flocks and herds were driven through, and general hilarity reigned. Many points of detail might be noticed, such as that in the urban counterpart of the festival, which Ovid carefully distinguishes from the country celebrations, the fire was sprinkled with the ashes from the calves of the Fordicidia and the blood of Mars' October horse—another link between Mars and agriculture. But it is most interesting to note the double character of the ceremony—as a purification of man and beast on the one hand, and on the other a prayer for the prosperity of the season to come. Three special festivals remain in April. At the Vinalia (priora) of the 23rd, the wine-skins of the previous year were opened and the wine tasted, and, we may suppose, supplication was made for the vintage to come, the festival being dedicated to the sky-god, Iuppiter. At the Robigalia of the 25th the offering of a dog was made for the aversion of mildew (robigo), to Robigus (who looks like a developed eponymous deity) at the fifth milestone on the Via Claudia—the ancient boundary of Roman territory. The Floralia of the 28th does not occur in the old Calendars, probably because it was a moveable feast (feriae conceptivae), but it is an unmistakeable petition to the numen Flora for the blossoming of the season's flowers.

May was a month of more critical importance for the welfare of the crops, and therefore its festivals were mostly of a more sombre character. The 9th, 11th, and 13th were the days set apart for the Lemuria, the aversion of the hostile spirits of the dead, of which we have already spoken, and a similarly gloomy character probably attached to the Agonia of Vediovis on the 21st. But of far the greatest interest is the moveable feast of the Ambarvalia, the great lustration of the fields, which took place towards the end of the month: the date of its occurrence was no doubt fixed according to the state of the crops in any given year. As the individual farmer purified his own fields for the aversion of evil, so a solemn lustration of the boundaries of the state was performed by special priests, known as the Arval brethren (fratres Arvales). With ceremonial dancing (tripudium) they moved along the boundary-marks and made the farmer's most complete offering of the pig, sheep, and ox (suovetaurilia): the fruits of the last year and the new harvest (aridae et virides) played a large part in the ceremonial, and a solemn litany was recited for the aversion of every kind of pest from the crops. In Virgil's account the prayer is made to Ceres, and we know that in imperial times, when the Ambarvalia became very closely connected with the worship of the imperial house, the centre of the cult was the earth-goddess, Dea Dia; but in the earliest account of the rustic ceremony which we possess in Cato, Mars is addressed in the unmistakeable character of an agricultural deity. 'Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou mayest be gracious and favourable to me, to my home, and my household, for which cause I have ordained that the offering of pig, sheep, and ox be carried round my fields, my land, and my farm: that thou mayest avert, ward off, and keep afar all disease, visible and invisible, all barrenness, waste, misfortune, and ill weather: that thou mayest suffer our crops, our corn, our vines and bushes to grow and come to prosperity: that thou mayest preserve the shepherds and the flocks in safety, and grant health and strength to me, to my home, and my household.' We have perhaps here another rustic ceremony addressed in origin to all numina, whom it might concern, and, as it were, specialising itself from time to time in an appeal to one definite deity or another, but it is also clear evidence of an early agricultural association of Mars. The Ambarvalia is one of the most picturesque of the field ceremonies, and a peculiarly beautiful and imaginative description of it may be found in the first chapter of Pater's Marius the Epicurean.

In June and July the farmer was waiting for the completion of the harvest, and the great state-festivals of the period are not agricultural.

2. Festivals of the Harvest.—In August the farmer's hopes are at last realised, and the harvest is brought in. The season is marked by two closely connected festivals on the 21st and 25th in honour of the old divinity-pair, Consus (condere), the god of the storehouse and Ops, the deity of the wealth of harvest. At the Consualia, an offering is made by the flamen Quirinalis, assisted by the Vestal virgins, at an underground altar in the Circus Maximus, specially uncovered for the occasion: here we have probably not so much the notion of a chthonic deity, as a relic of the simple practices of an early agricultural age, when the crops were stored underground. The beasts who had taken part in the harvest were released from their labours during the day, and were decorated with flowers: the festival included a race of mules, the regular Italian beasts of burden. Four days after this general festivity occurred the second harvest-ceremony of the Opiconsivia, held in the shrine (sacrarium) of the Regia, and attended only by the pontifex maximus and the Vestal virgins. This is clearly the state-harvest of the regal period, the symbolic storing of the state-crops in the sacred storehouse of the palace by the king and his daughters. Both festivals are significant, and we shall meet with Consus and Ops again in close connection in December. The Portunalia of the 17th may have been another harvest-home, if we can believe the old authorities, who tell us that Portunus was a 'god of doors' (portae).

The Vinalia Rustica of August 19 we cannot sufficiently interpret through lack of information: it cannot, of course, have been the festival of the vintage, for it is too early: it may have been a propitiatory ceremony for the ripening grapes, in which case it was probably connected with the auspicatio vindemiae, in which the flamen Dialis (note again the association of Iuppiter and the vine) solemnly plucked the first grapes; or it may be a festival of wine, not vines, in which case its main feature would most likely be the opening of the last year's vintage.

September contains no great festival, and the harvest-season closes on October 11 with the Meditrinalia—the nearest approach to a thanksgiving for the vintage. On that day the first must of the new vintage and the wine of the old were solemnly tasted, apparently as a spell against disease, the worshipper using the strange formula, 'I drink the new and the old wine, with new wine and old I heal (medeor) disease.' This ceremony gave its name to the festival and was the cause of the subsequent evolution of an eponymous deity, Meditrina, but there is little doubt that in origin here, as in the other wine-festivals, the deity concerned was at first Iuppiter. Among the other rustic ceremonies of the month we may notice the festival of springs (Fontinalia) on October 13: wells were decorated with garlands and flowers flung into the waters.

3. Festivals of the Winter.—The winter-festivals cannot be summed up under one general notion so easily as those of spring or summer, but they fall fairly naturally into two groups—the festivals immediately connected with agricultural life and those associated with the dead and the underworld or with solemn purification. The main action of the farmer's life during the winter is, of course, the sowing of the next year's crop, which was commemorated in the ancient festival of the Saturnalia on December 17. Though the Saturnalia is perhaps the most familiar to us of all the Roman festivals, partly from the allusions in the classics, especially in Horace, partly because it is no doubt the source of many of our own Christmas festivities, it is yet almost impossible now to recover anything of its original Roman character. Greek influence set to work on it very early, identifying Saturnus with Cronos and establishing him in a Greek temple with all the accompaniments of Greek ritual. All the familiar features of the festival—the freedom and license of the slaves, the giving of presents, even the wax-candles, which are the prototype of those on our own Christmas-tree—are almost certainly due to Greek origin. We are left with nothing but the name Saturnus (connected with the root of semen, serere) and the date to assure us that we have here in reality a genuine Roman festival of the sowing of the crops. Of a similar nature—marking, as Ovid tells us, the completion of the sowing—was the feriae sementivae or Paganalia, associated with the earth-goddesses, Ceres and Tellus. Meal-cakes and a pregnant sow were the offerings, the beasts who had helped in the ploughing were garlanded, and prayer was made for the seed resting in the ground. A curious feature of the winter worship is the repetition of festivals to the harvest deities, Consus and Ops, separated by the same interval of three days, on December 15 and 19: it may be that we have here an indication of the final completion of the harvest, or, as Mr. Warde Fowler has suggested, a ceremonial opening of the storehouses, to see that the harvest is not rotting. Among the other country festivals of the period we may notice that of Carmenta, on the 11th and 15th of January: she seems to have been in origin a water-numen, but was early associated with childbirth: hence the rigid exclusion of men from her ceremonies and possibly the taboo on leathern thongs, on the ground that nothing involving death must be used in the worship of a deity of birth. The repetition of her festival may possibly point to separate celebrations of the communities of Palatine and Quirinal. At this time, too, occurred the rustic ceremonies at the boundaries (Terminalia) and the offering to the Lares at the 'marches' (Compitalia), of which we have spoken in treating of the worship of the house.

The other group of winter-festivals is of a much more gloomy and less definitely rustic type, though they clearly date from the period of the agricultural community. Of the Feralia of February 21, the culmination of the festival of the kindred dead (Parentalia), we have already spoken. The Larentalia is a very mysterious occasion, and was supposed by the Romans themselves to be an offering 'at the tomb' of a legendary Acca Larentia, mistress of Hercules. But we have seen reason to think that Larentia was in reality a deity of the dead, and the 'tomb' a mundus: if so, we have another link between the winter season and the worship of the underworld. There remains the weird festival of the Lupercalia on February 15, to which we have had occasion to refer several times, and which has become more familiar to most of us than other Roman festivals owing to its political use by Mark Antony in 44 B.C. As we have argued already, it seems to belong to the very oldest stratum of the Palatine settlement, and we may therefore appropriately close this account of the early festivals with a somewhat fuller description of it. The worshippers assembled at the Lupercal, a cave on the Palatine hill: there goats and a dog were sacrificed, and two youths belonging to the two colleges of Fabian and Quintian (or Quintilian) Luperci had their foreheads smeared with the knife used for the sacrifice and wiped with wool dipped in milk—at which point it was ordained that they should laugh. Then they girt on the skins of the slain goats and, after feasting, ran their course round the boundaries of the Palatine hill, followed each by his own company of youths, and striking women on their way with strips, known as februae or Iunonis amicula, cut from the goats' hides. Here we have a summary of many of the important points which we have noticed in the rustic festivals: from the pre-Roman stratum comes the idea of communion with the sacrificed animal in the smearing of the blood and the wearing of the skin, and also the magic charm involved in the striking of the women to procure fertility: it is typical of the true feeling of Roman religion that we cannot with any certainty tell what deity was associated with the rite, though probably it was Faunus: the rustic character of the ceremony is indicated by the bowl of milk in which the wool was dipped and the sacrifice of goats: the idea of lustration is clearly marked in the course round the boundaries: the original Palatine settlement stands out in the limits of that course and the site of the Lupercal, and the later synoecismus is seen in the, presumably subsequent, addition of the second college of Luperci. A careful study of the Lupercalia as an epitome of the character and development of the Roman agricultural festivals, though it would not show the brighter aspect of some of the spring and summer celebrations, would yet give a true notion of the history and spirit of the whole.

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