Religion in the Roman Empire

 To the Romans, religious faith is less a spiritual experience than a contractual relationship between mankind and supernatural forces, in much the same way as the constitutional contract between the people of Rome and their temporal rulers. The result is both a state cult, where representatives of the people perform public ceremonies, and a private concern, in which the head of the family supervises domestic rituals and prayers. The Vestal Virgins provide the vital link between the rituals of the family and the state.

 Many of the State gods and goddesses worshipped by the Romans are derived from the Greeks, and arrived by way of the Etruscans and the ancient tribes of Latium. To these were added many other foreign gods and goddesses as the Roman Empire conquered different lands and peoples. Rome permits the worship of all types of deity provided that the Emperor is recognised as head of the priesthood, the pontifex maximus, and that worship does not breach local civic laws.

 Although all religions recognise the Emperor, the sheer number of cults means that the Empire cannot acknowledge all deities except at a local level. Since the reforms of 1202 AUC, Imperial Holy Days are only assigned to the twelve senior deities of the Roman Pantheon:

  • Jupiter: Master of the gods, ruler of all Heaven and god of Justice. Symbol = thunderbolt
  • Juno: Wife of Jupiter, goddess of women and fertility. Symbols = pomegranate and a peacock.
  • Mars: God of war, rage and violence. Son of Juno. Father of Romulus & Remus. Protector of Rome.
  • Venus: Goddess of love and beauty
  • Minerva: Goddess of wisdom, learning technology. Daughter of Jupiter. Symbol = owl.
  • Neptune: God of the seas and earthquakes, brother to Jupiter. Symbol = trident
  • Ceres: Goddess of the harvest. Symbol = bundle of wheat
  • Vulcan: God of blacksmiths and volcanoes. Symbol = hammer
  • Diana: Goddess of Hunting and the Moon, Twin sister to Apollo
  • Apollo: God of Music, Healing and the Sun. Twin to Diana.
  • Mercury: Messenger of the Gods. God of Travellers. Symbol = winged helmet & sandals.
  • Vesta: Goddess of Hearth and Home. Symbol = eternal flame.

 The reforms also dis-established the elaborate and expensive rituals and sacrifices of the High Temples from the State Treasury. The Emperor and Imperium now only officially sponsor "Core Temple" ceremonies from the public purse during designated Holy Days. However all major religions benefit from various public and private benefit funds, and maintain lavish celebrations during their respective feast days, at least partly to maintain the prestige of their event.

 The religion of the state is headed by the Emperor in his role as Pontifex Maximus, in this he is assisted by sixteen Pontifices, or priests, the chief administrators and organizers of the religious affairs of state and the authorities on procedure and matters of the calendar and festivals, and on the designation of particular days on which certain public business cannot be conducted. The Pontifices are elected for life from amongst the most senior members of the Senate.

 The Pontifices are assisted by four colleges, of which the most senior is the college of Flamines, priests specialising in and liaising with particular Temples. The most senior of their number is the Flamen dialis, the high priest of Jupiter in Rome. The Flamines are responsible for the daily sacrifice to each god or goddess.

 The regional colleges of Vesta rank second in seniority and are also classed as Temples. Traditionally six vestal virgins are chosen from citizen families at an early age to serve at the Temple of Vesta. They serve ten years as novices, the next ten performing the duties, and a further ten teaching the novices. Their Temples are usually built within the Forum of the Regione's capital city. Their duties include guarding the sacred fire in the temple, arbitrating in cases of domestic spiritual dispute, and baking the salt cake used at various civic festivals throughout the year. Punishment for any lapse in ritual or conduct is brutal and rigorous; especially for loss of chastity or letting the sacred fire burn out. The prestige however of being a vestal virgin is considerable. She is preceded in the street by a lictor, and any criminal condemned to death who happens to see her passing is automatically reprieved. Each vestal virgin controls a 'dowry' worth many millions of sesterces.

 Next most senior are the fifty members of the College of Augurs, who exercise great learning, and presumably also diplomacy, in the interpretation of omens in public and private life, and act as consultants in cases of doubt. Each carries a crooked staff, without any knot in it, with which he or she marks out the square space of ground from which official auspices are observed.

 The twelve office-holders of the College of Epulones (banqueting managers), belong to the smallest and most junior of the four colleges. It was founded as a result of the amount of organization required to put on the official feasts which have become integral parts of the major festivals and games.

 Within the Empire each civilian household has its own personal spirits which protect the family. The Lares are the spirits of the family's ancestors, and little figures of these spirits are kept in the household shrine, the Lararium. Each household worships these spirits on special days, and sacrifices to them either on a personal basis, or in a ceremony led by the head of the household.

 Despite the obvious order and rationality of the Roman pantheon, the Imperium is particularly prone to losing worshippers to the brilliance of some of the major foreign cults. Religions which are very ritualistic and contain central mysteries known only to initiates seem to hold considerable attraction. Among the most powerful are:

 All these cults guard mysteries whose secrets are known only to initiates. Considering the restrictions on any worship which conflicts with that of the state, it is suspected that these cults fundamentally do not believe in the spiritual leadership of the Emperor. Traditional beliefs are being further eroded in the face of a Greek school of philosophy, the Stoics, who promote the odd notion of a single deity.

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