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Performative Religion in Ancient Rome

How did the Romans worship their gods? In this article, Dr Andrew Souter explains more about how religion was practised in ancient Rome.
Jupiter is called the Best (Optimus) and Greatest (Maximus) for this reason, not because he makes us just, moderate, or wise, but because he makes us safe, unharmed, rich and well supplied.
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods 3.87
Written in the first century BC, this quote from Cicero serves to emphasise the fundamental relation between the mortals and the gods, in this case, the king of the Roman pantheon, Jupiter: ultimately, divine favour granted prosperity, social stability, and military success. By contrast, natural disasters, crop failure, disease, military defeat were seen as indicators of divine wrath.
It is for this reason that we encounter a city full of temples and sacred spaces which, combined with numerous accounts in the ancient sources describing ritual activity and religious festivals, help us understand how the Romans worshipped their gods. It also points us towards another truth about Roman religion: rather than following a set of divine truths or sacred scriptures or commandments aimed at spiritual or moral insight, much Roman religion had a ‘performative’ feel – it included a range of traditional ritual practices in a bid to honour, beseech, or placate the gods to win their favour, or understand their divine will.
The Romans were deeply superstitious and looked for signs or portents from heaven; one of the biggest fears was the accidental extinguishing of the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta, considered a terrible omen predicting the destruction of the city. In terms of religious practice, we know of a specific class of priests who specialised in the Etruscan art of haruspicy (the reading of the organs of sacrificed animals) as a means to understand the will of the gods.
Other interpretative practices were conducted on the Capitoline Hill, where, with clear views over the city, the elite priests known as augures interpreted the flights of birds and other natural phenomena: their influence was such that they had considerable political power. On this same hill, within the monumental temple to the Capitoline Triad, the Sibylline Books were kept under strict guard (later transferred by Augustus to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine): these contained predictions of future events and religious observances necessary to avert disaster and misfortune, and were consulted by priests during times of crisis.
The construction of a temple (primarily a home for a cult statue of the god in question) was a particularly lasting act of performative religion. Temple buildings could also be political monuments: the Greek historian Appian describes that Julius Caesar, before the famous battle at Pharsalus in 48BC against his political opponent Pompey, performed a sacrifice beseeching the aid of Mars and Venus (the divine ancestress of his own Julian family). Caesar vowed that if he won the battle, he would build a temple to Venus Victrix (the Bringer of Victory). Caesar won and fulfilled his vow, adding the temple to his new forum, but as Pompey had already built a temple of Venus Victrix in his theatre (as we’ll see), Caesar decided to dedicate his temple instead to Venus Genetrix, Venus the mother goddess – emphasising his claim to divine descent to the politicians and citizens of Rome. Suetonius tells us of another temple with a political message:
Augustus had vowed [to build] the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger) at the battle of Philiippi [42BC] which he had undertaken to avenge the murder of his father [Julius Caesar].
Suetonius, Life of Augustus 29
A key aspect of religious ritual was the blood sacrifice of an animal, often a bull, in front of such temples – these buildings were not designed to hold a congregation of worshippers (unlike a church): ritual activity took place outside. This would involve a procession leading the animal to the altar, purification rituals and prayers, the pouring of libations and the offering of incense, and then the sacrificial killing of the animal to honour the god. The carcass was subsequently carved up to allow the inspection of the entrails by a specialist priest (a haruspex) in a bid to seek signs of divine will, with the butchered animal offered to the deity and consumed during a ritual feast. Surviving imperial relief carvings, showing the emperor conducting such sacrifices amid crowds of attendants, remind us that that state religion was the responsibility of the emperor (always chief priest) and the elite class of priests who practised these rituals for the collective benefit of the city.
One of the most colourful and lively aspects of religion were the numerous festivals that occurred throughout the year. We know from surviving Roman calendars (fasti) that 109 days were dedicated to specific gods, with at least half as designated public holidays (feriae publicae); these were usually accompanied by major spectacles witnessed by the inhabitants of the city and included sacrifices, elaborate processions and the public display of cult statues of the deities. Complementing these were the sporting contests such as the Roman games (Ludi Romani) held for fifteen days each year in September, in the Circus Maximus, in honour of Jupiter. The crowd capacity of this famous venue (variously estimated between 150-250,000 spectators) makes clear the potential scale of these public events and therefore their impact on society.
Many of the festivals were held to honour specific gods: the Matronalia for example was celebrated on the 1st of March in honour of Juno, the wife of Jupiter; the 19th of March was dedicated to Minerva, the daughter of Jupiter; and other gods such as Mars (the son of Jupiter and Juno) had festivals in March and June. Another well-known example is the Vestalia, celebrated on the 9th of June, when the Vestal Virgins made cakes to be offered to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, prior to a period of ritual cleaning and purifying of the temple. One festival that provides a particularly useful insight into Roman society was the Saturnalia, occurring at the time of the winter solstice: the social order was temporarily reversed, with slaves and their masters swapping roles for the day.
In Saturn’s temple, meanwhile, the feet of his cult statue were freed from wool fetters that otherwise bound them throughout the year – an obscure detail whose meaning was lost in the mists of time.
Figure 1: A digital recreation of the Temple of Saturn. © Dr Matthew Nicholls, University of Reading

The emperors added new festivals to the calendar. The Augustalia was introduced in 19 BC and held annually on 12th of October, with festive celebrations and games to honour the emperor. Given that religious festivals prior to Caesar and Augustus were held in honour of the gods, the introduction of an annual festival in honour of the emperor implied that Augustus was to be viewed as a divine figure; if we consider also the practice of deification and building of temples to favoured emperors after their death, we can understand how performative religion was used to honour not only the Graeco-Roman gods, but also the city’s human ruling elite.

© University of Reading
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