Each divinity had a specific human function or attribute and the attitude of the gods towards humans, called “numen“, was not always benevolent. With time the numen came to correspond to the actual word for “divinity” or “god” but in any case it was this divine will towards humans that the Romans feared and went to great lengths to assuage through sacrifice and ceremony.
Roman religion underlies Roman law and government. In the earliest days of Rome the king was both king and chief priest. As such he ruled according to divine inspiration and according to the will of the gods with which, of course, only he had a direct comms line.
Development of religion during the Roman kingdom and the Twelve Tablets of law
As the Roman kingdom established itself it did so in parallel with religious practices. The king was naturally aligned with taking an important religious function also. Romulus for example was famed as an excellent reader of signs in the sky. However, as the kingdom developed and grew, and shifted to a republican system it was increasingly necessary to break out the religious functions from those others of government and common law.
Government of state and law became less of a religious experience with the fall of the last king and the beginning of the Republic. Ten men known as the Decemviri got together and published of the “Twelve Tablets” of law.
Throughout the period of the kings, before the Decemviri, the growth in the population of Rome had made it necessary for priestly orders to be created in order to assist the king. In fact we may regard the priests as being the first lawyers of ancient Rome. This isn’t so far fetched and we need only look into Africa or the Middle East to find some current examples of this double function.
Given the secrecy of the rites we can imagine that before the twelve tablets no one could be quite sure of their rights. This left ample room for injustice as the clergy were made up of the noble Patricians rather than the commoner Plebs.
Historical tradition has it that a large proportion of the religious foundations of Rome were those instilled under King Numa Pompilius (715-673BC) the second king of Rome after Romulus. He created priestly and religious orders to Jupiter and Mars as well as other gods. He created a religious figurehead called the pontifex maximus and to this day that title is still used by the Pope.
Numa had a temple built dedicated to the double-faced Janus, god of doors, purity and impurity, good and bad, sacred and profane. The month of January was named after Janus. His temple had its doors open only in times of war and it is to Numa’s credit that during his reign of 43 years the temple doors were always closed.
Numa Pompilius also improved cultivation, dividing amongst his people the land Romulus had won. In order to enforce his citizen’s respect for the boundaries he had laid out on the fields he also erected an altar to the god Terminus, god of boundaries.
Tradition has it that Numa Pompilius also instituted the cult of Vesta although Virgil suggests this relates to building an appropriate temple dedicated to the cult. It is said that within the temple, the Vestal Virgins guarded a number of important relics amongst which was the famous “Palladium”. This was an ancient image of the goddess Minerva which according to myth had been brought from Troy by Romulus’ ancestor Aeneas, several hundred years before the founding of Rome.
Similar tradition tells us that Romulus and Remus’ own mother, Rhea Silvia, had been forced to virginity and celibacy as a priestess of Vesta. The myth also tells us that the twins were born of her relationship with Mars, god of war.
Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and life whose symbol was the fire of the hearth. The writer Ovid tells us that Vesta was synonymous with “Fire” although in other passages he relates her to “Earth”. Virgil reconciles the two attributes by observing that Fire, the natural heat through which all things are produced is enclosed in the Earth.
Certainly Vesta was a goddess closely related as with many early agricultural and pastoral societies with “life” and it is not unusual to see symbols of life and fertility (earth) being directly associated with those of destruction (fire). It must be said though that agriculture, corn, tilling of the land and fertility were more properly the domain of the goddess Ceres as early as the sixth century BC.
The importance of Vesta was such that every Roman home would keep a hearth continually alight into which bread crumbs would be thrown during meals. The great importance given to “life” associated with Vesta is also found in the extremely common phallic imagery which was often displayed over doors or even on the triumphal chariot of winning generals. I don’t recall the source but I am sure I read of some mythical account where a phallus was seen to appear in a fire…I shall have to research it to get a better understanding between the phallus imagery and the Vestal cult.
The earliest religious influences in ancient Rome were clearly Italic and of these the most important was that coming from the neighbouring Etruscans. In fact it can be said that the importance given to religious ceremony and the interaction with the gods was most probably inherited directly from the Etruscans, especially given that a number of the Roman kings were of Etruscan descent.
Votive gifts in ancient Rome
An example of this is the use of votive gifts which abound in museums and date back throughout the Etruscan and Roman periods. These would be given to the appropriate god as a sort of symbol meant to act in sympathy with the request. For example a request for a child might be accompanied by a (ceramic) phallus. A cure for a hurting foot would require a foot model, a cow-a cow, survival of a soldier – a bronze statuette of a soldier. And so on. To this day the river Tiber continues to deliver innumerable numbers of such votive artefacts which had been thrown into it.
Votive gifts were not only in times of need but also as thanks. For example it was custom for a Gladiator who had been granted freedom to hang up his arms as a votive gift in the temple of Hercules – patron god of Gladiators.
From the Etruscans the Romans also took on the tradition of human sacrifices to honour the dead and at funerals and this tradition later became the Gladiatorial fights we all know. The dead fighters in the Colosseum would be knocked on the head with a “symbolic” hammer by someone masked as Apollo or Charon the Etruscan god of hell in order to make sure the victim was truly dead.
As an interesting example of this I promise myself to go back to make a drawing of a sarcophagus I saw at Orvieto (north of Rome). If my memory serves me well there were sculptural reliefs of soldiers, dressed rather like Roman legionaries, holding some captives in a queue with hands tied behind their backs and who’s throats they were cutting in front of a tomb. The whole scene was presided at the sides by Etruscan winged gods/angels of death. Frightening stuff.
As a closing remark we should note how the Romans themselves often remarked that Romans of the Kingdom and Republic were far more austere than those of the Empire. This was no doubt an effect of their growing wealth which together with a thousand years can do much to change people’s attitude. This change in character and needs of the Romans was exactly matched by their approach to religion.