At the founding of Rome, the gods were numina, divine manifestations, faceless, formless, but no less powerful. The idea of gods as anthropomorphized beings came later, with the influence from Etruscans and Greeks, which had human form. Some of the Roman Gods are at least as old as the founding of Rome.

The concept of numen continued to exist and it was related to any manifestation of the divine. For the Romans, everything in Nature is thought to be inhabited by numina, which explains the big number of deities in the Roman pantheon, as will be shown. Numina manifest the divine will by means of natural phenomena, which the pious Roman constantly seeks to interpret. That's why great attention is paid to omens and portents in every aspect of Roman daily life.

A groups of twelve Gods called Dii Consentes is especially honored by the Romans:

  • Iuppiter
  • Iuno
  • Minerva
  • Vesta
  • Ceres
  • Diana
  • Venus
  • Mars
  • Mercurius
  • Neptunus
  • Volcanus
  • Apollo

These are the ones listed by the Poet Ennius about the 3rd Century, B.C.E.. Their gilt statues stood in the Forum, later apparently in the Porticus Deorum Consentium. As there were six male and six female, they may well have been the twelve worshipped at the lectisternium of 217 BC.

A lectisternium is a banquet of the gods, where the statues of the gods were put upon cushions, and where these statues were offered meals. The number 12 was taken from the Etruscans, which also worshipped a main pantheon of 12 Gods. Nevertheless, the Dii Consentes were not identified with Etruscan deities but rather with the Greek Olympian Gods (though the original character of the Roman Gods was different from the Greek, having no myths traditionally associated). The twelve Dii Consentes are lead by the first three, which for the Capitoline Triad. These are the three cornerstones of Roman religion, whose rites were conducted in the Capitoleum Vetus on the Capitoline Hill.

But what better characterizes the traditional Roman Religion is the household or family cult of the Dii Familiaris. In this cult, the Lar Familiaris (guardian spirit - Genius - of the family), the Lares Loci (guardian spirits of the place where the house is built), the Genius of the paterfamilias (House-Father), the Dii Penates (patron gods of the storeroom), the Dii Manes (spirits of the deceased) and a multitude of other domestic deities are daily worshipped by the members of the family. The household cult is so important that it even serves as the model for several practices of the state cult (e.g. there were the Lar Praestites, Penates Publici, etc.. Even during the Empire, the Imperial cult came to be based on the household cult, now interpreted as the cult of the Genius of the Emperor, paterfamilias of the family of all the Romans).

Other important Gods are

  • Ianus
  • Saturnus
  • Quirinus
  • Volturnus
  • Pales
  • Furrina
  • Flora
  • Carmenta
  • Pomona
  • Portunus
  • Fontanus

There is also a group of mysterious deities formed by native tutelary deities, river Gods or deified heroes from Latium which are collectively called Dii Indigites (e.g. deified Aeneas, Faunus, Sol Indiges, Iuppiter Indiges, Numicus). A multitude of other deities is also traditionally worshipped, which includes tutelary deities (e.g. Roma, Tiberinus), native Latin deities (e.g. Bellus, Bellona, Liber, Libera), abstract deities such as Fortuna (Fate), Concordia (Concord), Pax (Peace), Iustitia (Justice), etc.. Pre-Roman native italian deities mainly adopted from the Sabines and Etruscans are also worshipped: Nerio (Sabine deity and the consort of Mars), Dius Fidius (Sabine as well), etc. In fact, Quirinus and Vertumnus were also adopted respectively from the Sabines and Etruscans. The Dii Inferi, Gods of the Underworld (Inferus) are Dis/Orcus and Proserpina, equated to the Greek Gods Hades/Plouton (Pluto in Latin) and Persephone. These Gods symbolize the creative power of the Earth which provide human beings the means for subsistence (Dis = wealth = Plouton in greek). The Inferus is also traditionally regarded as the home for the spirits of the dead, though the concept of afterlife was quite varied.

The pious spirit of the Romans consists of a constant wish to bring the favour of the divine upon him, the family and the state. As such, the Roman is naturally willing to pay the deserved homage and sacrifice to foreign deities, specially if he is in their land. In order to achieve victory in war, the Romans often asked the favour of the Gods of their enemies, paying them sacrifices even greater than those offered by their own people. This spirit joined by the affluence of foreigners which resulter either from trade or conquest, brough new cults to Rome. These were as expected democratically adopted by permitting the priests of these Gods to establish temples in Rome. Among the foreign deities, the Dii Novensiles, are Apollo, Ceres (these were adopted as early as to allow them to become part of the Dii Consentes), Bacchus/Dionysus, Sol Invictus Elagabalus, Isis, Serapis, Cybele, Attis, Mithras and many others.

Dii ConsentesEdit

Iuppiter is the God of the sky, moon, winds, rain and thunder, who became king of the Gods after overthrowing his father Saturnus. The ancient name of Iuppiter was Diespiter, whose root is Dios (= Zeus, God) + Pater (= Father). As Iuppiter Optimus Maximus, he is the tutelary God of Rome. As a warrior, he is Iuppiter Stator, protector of the City and State who exhorts soldiers to be steadfast in battle. But Iuppiter has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Iuno is Iuppiter's sister, wife and queen of the Gods, is the protectress of the Roman State. Her festival, the Matronalia, is celebrated in March on the Kalends. She is also honoured as Iuno Lucetia, celestial light; Iuno Lucina, childbirth, inwhich the child is brought into light; Iuno Sospita, who protects labor and delivery of children; Iuno Moneta, whose sacred geese warned Rome of an impending invasion. Iuno Moneta's temple was near the mint, thus her name was the root for "money". But Iuno has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Minerva, Goddess of wisdom and learning, meditation, inventiveness, accomplishments, the arts, spinning and weaving, and commerce. Minerva was identified with Pallas Athene, bestower of victory, when Pompey the Great built her temple with the proceeds from his eastern campaigns. Minerva and Mars are honored Quinquatras, five days at the Spring equinox. But Minerva has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Vesta is the Goddess of hearth and home, of domestic and religious fire. Her festival is the Vestalia, held on June 7, when Her temple is open to all mothers who bring plates of food. Vesta's temple was the hearth of Rome, where the sacred fire burned. The fire was tended by six Vestal Virgins, priestesses who were dedicated to the Goddess' service for thirty years, and who were headed by the Virgo Maxima, the eldest Vestal. Vestals were always preceded by lictors, the only women in Rome allowed the privilege. If a condemned man met a Vestal, he was reprieved. When a Roman made his will, he entrusted it to the Vestal Virgins. But Vesta has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Ceres is the Goddess of agriculture. During a drought in 496 BCE, the Sibylline Books ordered the institution of the worship of Demeter, Dionysus and Persephone, called by the Latin names Ceres, Liber and Libera. Ceres was the Goddess of the plebeians: the Ædiles Plebis cared for her temple and had their official residences in it, and were responsible for the games at the Cerealia, her original festival on April 12-19. There was a women's 9-day fast and festival when women offered the first corn harvest to Ceres, originally celebrated every five years, but later - by the time of Augustus - held every October 4.

Diana, Goddess of the Moon and of wild places, the Divine Huntress, protectress of women and virgin Goddess. In earlier times, She was the mother Goddess of Nature. Her temple at Lake Nemi was in a sacred grove and was guarded by her priest, the Rex Nemorensis, the King of the Wood. He was always an escaped slave who was entitled to food, sanctuary and honour - until he was slain by the next candidate. But Diana has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Venus was originally a Goddess of Spring, flowers and vines. By order of the Sibylline Books a temple on Mt. Eryx was dedicated to Venus as the Goddess of love and beauty. She was also Venus Genetrix, mother of the Roman people through Her son Aeneas, Who was also an ancestor of the Julii. Both Julius Caesar and Hadrian dedicated temples to Venus Genetrix. Hadrian's still stands near the Flavian amphitheatre. She has darker aspects too, such as Venus Libitina, an aspect of Venus associated with the extinction of life force. But Venus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Mars, God of war, was originally an agricultural God whose character changed with that of His people. For this reason, he is the most Roman of the Gods, representing the abundance of the fields, and the battles that must be won to keep and enlarge the provinces that kept Rome fed and thriving. His priests were dancing warriors, the Salii, who sang their war-songs in the streets during his festivals. His sacred spears and 12 shields were kept in his temple on the Palatine Hill. But Mars has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Mercurius is the God of commerce. The guild of merchants honored Mercurius at his temple near the Circus Maximus on his festival on May 15. They also sprinkled themselves and their merchandise with sacred water in a ceremony at the Capena Gate. When Mercurius became identified with Hermes, he took on the duties of messenger of the Gods, Psychopompus who guides the souls of the dead through the Underworld, and God of sleep and dreams. He also became God of thieves and trickery, owing to a trick he had played on Apollo by stealing and hiding the Sun God's cattle. His serpent-twined staff, the caduceus, was originally a magician's wand for wealth (which may be why it is the symbol of the medical profession) but became identified later as a herald's staff. But Mercurius has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Neptunus, God of all the fresh water (from rivers, springs, etc.) and of equestrian accomplishments. Equated to the Greek Poseidon, He is also the God of the sea. He had temples in the Circus Flaminius and later on the Campus Martius. His festival, the Neptunalia is celebrated on July 23. But Neptunus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Volcanus, the God of the fire of the sky, the lightning and the fires caused by it, he is the raging fire (opposed to the domestic fire, Vesta). He was equated to the Greek Haephestus, God of the fire, forge and volcanos. As a Nature God, he was married to Maia, Goddess of Spring. Equated to Haephestus, he made Iuppiter's thunderbolts and married to Venus. At his festival, the Volcanalia on August 23, fishes were throuwn into the hearth fires. The eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 AD took place in the day of His festival. As God of metal workers, He also has a festival on May 23. As God of conflagration, His temples were built outside the pomerium, on the Campus Martius. But Volcanus has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Apollo, Greek God of the Sun, prophecy, archery, music, poetry, inspiration and healing, perfection of male beauty, twin brother of Diana. Apollo came to prominence in the 5th century BCE, when the Sibylline Books of Apollo's prophecy (which had been offered to King Tarquinius Superbus by the Sibyl of Cumae) dictated the introduction of His cult in Rome following a plague. Besides Cumae, His oracles were also in other places such as Ionia, Delos, Delphi, Erithrea. It was Apollo who gave the gift of prophecy to His lover Cassandra, who was doomed to speak the truth, but never to be believed. Apollo is father of the God Aesculapius. But Apollo has many aspects, attributes, names and epithets...

Dii FamiliarisEdit

The Lar Familiaris is the guardian spirit of a family and symbolizes the household. He was honored on all family occasions: a new brideoffered a coin and a sacrifice on entering her new house. Rams are sacrificed to the Lar Familiaris after funerals as a purification rite. During the 1st century AD, the Romans came to honor two Lares instead of one, becoming strongly connected with the Penates. In the lararium, the Lares are usually represented in dancing poses, carrying greek rhytones of wine.

The 'Lares Loci are the guardian spirits of a place. In the lararium, the Lares Loci of the place where the house is built are also honoured, being represented by one or more serpents.

Each man has a Genius, each woman a Iuno. This is the creative force that engenders the individual and imbues him/her with growth, learning and morality. This spirit stays with the person until death. The Genius of the paterfamilias deserves special honor, and is represented in the lararium by a man dressed in white with the head covered by the toga.

The Penates are connected with each family. If the family moves, the Penates go with it. They are the spirits of the larder, of food and drink, and they share the hearth as an altar with the Goddess Vesta.

The Manes are the spirits of the dead ancestors. When the deceased receives the due honours and rites, he is allowed to ascend from the Underworld to protect his family. This is in contrast with the Lemures or Larvae, evil ghosts which are the souls of the dead who the Dii Inferi refused to receive in the Underworld.

Each corner of the house is under the influence of a protector God. Forculus protects the door, Limentinus the threshold, Cardea the hinges. Vesta protects the hearth. Each tool has also its protector spirit: Deverra protects the broom, Pilumnus the rammer, Intercidona the axe.

The generation of a human being is also ruled by protector Gods. Iuno and Mena assure the menstrual flux of the future mother. Jugatinus presides to the union of man and woman. Cinxia or Virginensis uncover the woman's girdle. Subigus delivers her to the man. Prema commands the penetration. Inuus (Tutunus or Mutunus) and Pertunda put an end to virginity. Ianus, God of passage, opens the way for the generating seed emanated from Saturnus, but it is Liber who allows the ejaculation. Once concepted, the new human being needs Fluonia or Fluvionia, Who retains the nourishing blood. But the nourishing itself is presided by Alemona. To avoid the dangers of upside-down pregnancy, Postverta and Prosa are invoked. Diana Nemorensis is also invoked to allow a good pregnancy. Three dities protect the mother from the violence of Silvanus: Intercidona, Deverra and Pilumnus. In the the atrium, a bet is setup for Pilumnus and Picumnus or Iuno, and a table is setup for Hercules. Nona and Decima allow the birth between the ninth and tenth month. But it is Egeria who makes the baby come out (egerere). Parca or Partula preside to the birth, but it is Vitumnus Who gives life, Sentinus the senses. After the birth, Lucina, bringer of light, must be invoked. Lucina is also the Goddess to whom sterile (or with pregnancy desease) women direct their prayer. After the birth, the pregnant women must be purified, and it is Iuno Februa (Februalis or Februlis) Who frees them from the placental membrane. With the aid of Levana, the sage-woman raises and presents the child to the mother. The father then raises the child with the aid of Statina (Statilina, Statinus or Statilinus).

Legends of RomeEdit

We use the term "legends" rather than "myths" of Rome because the word myth has a modern connotation of falsehood. In the modern parlance, a myth is a story that is perhaps significant or relevant historically or culturally, but is ultimately founded not in truth but in imagination. We take the view that the legends of the earliest days of Rome's founding may not be completely accurate historically, but neither are they complete inventions of the storyteller. They speak to us on a level that ordinary histories cannot, and their impact is made even greater by the plausibility they contain. With some notable exceptions, the legends of Rome are not tales of the Gods (the complex tales of Greek legend were only grafted on to the Gods of the Romans later, as the impact of Greek culture on Roman religion was felt), but tales of mortals. Men and women who exemplify the ideals of the Roman Citizen (or who represent their antithesis) are at the heart of these legends. Thus they are closer to the men and women who heard and hear them, and embrace them as guideposts for their own lives.

  • Aeneas and the survivors of Troy
  • Hercules and Cacus
  • Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome
  • The Rape of the Sabine Women
  • Tarpeia the Traitoress
  • The Rape of Lucretia
  • The Horatii and the Curiatii
  • Horatius Cocles at the Bridge
  • How Scaevola Lost His Hand
  • Cloelia and the Hostages
  • The Story of the Belly and the Limbs
  • Appius and Verginia
  • Coriolanus and the Siege of Rome
  • Claudia and the Magna Mater

The Hearth and the HomeEdit

"The family as we know it today bears little of no relation to that ancient institution of which the Lares were the Keepers of the Gate....In those early days the title to the land was possession and use. Because it was to him the source of his life, because its cultivation gave him occupation, because upon the land he build his house and in the land he made his grave, therefore the land to ht archaic man was sacred; for not only was it the home of the living, it was also the place of the dead. And it was the dead ancestors in their graves who really possessed the land and, as the Lares, were the Keepers of the Gates.

"The belief of the ancient man in the ghosts of his fathers, with their unknown power to help and harm, was better than a title deed to secure each man in the possession of his land. Every man feared the Lares of every other man. The earth in those days was peopled with a host of spiritual beings — unseen, unheard, smiting with the pestilence, and killing with the plague. If any untoward accident befell a man, or sickness came to him after he had trespassed on his neighbor's land, then he, as well as his neighbor, ascribed his misfortune to the wrath of the Lares of that land. Thus each man had a wholesome fear of the ghosts of his neighbor. He was ready to fight his neighbor, whom he could see, but not his neighbor's ghosts, whom he could not see. In the good old days every house was haunted and every field bewitched, and it was the haunt and the bewitchment that was the safety of the house and the land. Domestic religion was the keeper of domestic wealth and life. It was the fear of the Lares that gave sacredness to property and made theft and trespass not only a crime but a sacrilege.

"This sacredness of property was religion in its origin. It existed for centuries before it gave rise to the civil laws that are now its security... Long before the reign of the law we had the reign of Lar. Each House-Father, absolute lord and master of his own house and land, was under the protection of his Lares; the fear of them and the dread of them was upon all the country-round about. If his lands were seized by a stronger man than he, his Lares were expelled from the land, the graves of his ancestors violated, and he and his household were either killed or reduced to slavery.

"This relation of the family to the land, and of the House-Father to the family, classified ancient society as master and slave, patron and client, patrician and plebeian... With the institution of the family, there came into existence a class of out-family men and women: runaway slaves, prodigal sons, remnants of broken families, -men and women without land, without Manes, without Lares, having no place at any family altar... Private property in land, the basic principle of the family, was the fruitful cause of poverty, with the wretchedness and degradation that always follow in its camp. That same poverty is today destroying the family and changing the face of civilization.

"Private property in land has, in the course of time, passed out of the keeping of the family Lares into the care of the civil law; what man had once to do for himself society now does for him. The Keepers of the Gates are no longer the Lares but the lawyers....

"The Lares of the archaic world, if they still haunt the earth and hover in the air, must look down in sad, bewildered wonderment upon the modern world, which to them must seem a mad world, wherein all sane principles have been driven out by crazy notions.

Here are millions upon millions of landless men with wives and children combining to secure the title of a few landlords to their land; these landlords doing nothing with or for the land but to take from it rents and profits. These two things, idle landlords and starving people, condemn the world as it is and call for a new race of Lares to visit the vengeance of the gods upon these profaners of the land."

The Penates

"The hearth is the heart of the family life. To keep the fire alive on the hearth is the bounden duty of the family gods. We of the modern world have lost altogether those conception that made "hearth' and "altar" sacred words. Domestic religion sanctified domestic life. The Penates, who were the Spirits of Ancestors, were the Keepers of the Fire and of the Store....

"It was the domestication of fire that changed man from a savage, living upon roots and raw flesh, into a civilized being, feasting on roast beef and baked potatoes. It was the capture and taming of fire that made possible the home and the family. Because of this, the Penates, the Keepers of the Fire, are the best beloved of the family gods. With them the family was intimate as it gathered around the hearth when the day's work was over; they were present when the House-Father and House-Mother gave bread and meat to the children and the slaves, and after the dinner was over the Penates inspired the members of the household to speak words of love and wisdom one to another. The husband could have a secret from his wife, the wife from the husband, but to the Penates all secrets were open. The light of their fire penetrated to the marrow to the bones. All profanation of family life was an offense to the Penates, to be punished by the heat of fever and the cold of the chill.

"While the family slept, the Penates watched; all through the night the dull glow of their life was seen in the slow-burning brand lying in the ashes, that kept the fire alive on the hearth. If that fire died out, the Penates were disgraced, and the family shamed; for the life of the fire once gone was not easily restored. In these days of matches and electricity the smouldering brand has lost its usefulness and, therefore, its sacredness....Our modern impovements have improved these lovely gods out of existence.

"The Penates were not only Keepers of the Fire, they were also the Guardians of the Store. It was their duty to inspire the cook with skill to make delicate dishes for the family able, to watch the meat before the fire, to scare the rats from the cupboard. In the archaic world the gods were more useful than ornamental. The men and women of that world would laugh our gods to corn and think of them with pity, — gods shut up in churches, having nothing to do but to listen to the droning of prayers and the confessions of sins; gods who pass their dreary existence away from the warmth of the hearth, the smell of the cooking, the chatter of the maids and the stir of the family life!

A god upon a great white throne, with cherubim and seraphim bowing before him, may have power and dignity, but for comfort and good-fellowship one must go to the god who sits by the fire, inhales the odor of spice, and the flavor of the bread and the cake and the meat that are cooking in the kitchen. Such a god can understand the tribulations of the cook and the annoyances of the mistress; he knows by experience that fire burns and ginger is hot in the mouth. All other religion is cold and formal beside this initmate religion of the hearth."

Quoted from: Crapsey, Algernon Sidney. The Ways of the Gods. New York: The International Press, 1920. (Out of Print)

Thanks to Iustina Luciania Orbianna for posting this for us, and to Lucius Equitius Cincinnatus for submitting in to the Magister Aranearius.

Roman Beliefs about the AfterlifeEdit

by Flavia Claudia

Founder, Vestal Order of Nova Roma

This essay was posted to the Nova Roma mailing list in response to a question about what Romans believed happened after death.

When you die ("you" being a good Roman of the Religio persuasion), you are escorted to the River Styx by spirits. There, you and the other recently life-challenged are met by Charon, the ferryman. A coin, an obolus, will have been placed in your former body's mouth to pay Charon (although an aurus gets you a better seat in the boat, some believed). This payment is not representative of money so much as of the relationship between god and man, acknowledging your debt to the gods and their protection and guidance to you.

On the other side of Styx, you will pass Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog belonging to Father Dis, god of the Underworld. Cerberus will be friendly — he only becomes UNfriendly when shades try to get OUT of the Underworld unauthorized.

You will go before the three judges, Minos, Rhadamanthos and Aeacus, who will ask you to account for your life. After you've made your accounting, you will be given the water of the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and one of five Rivers in the Underworld, which makes you forget your past life. You will be sent to the Elysian Fields (a version of paradise) if you've been a warrior or hero; The Plain of Asphodel, if you've been a good citizen, where you will continue to live a good life as a shade; or — if you've really offended the gods — to Tartarus, where you'll be punished by the Furies until your debt to society is paid. (There's no "eternal damnation" in the Roman underworld, although you can be there a pretty long time, depending on what you've done.) Your punishment depends on your crime.

Every once in a while, Dis or Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, will reprieve a candidate for the entire process and send him or her back to live again, especially if the deceased was unjustly murdered. He is given the Water of Forgetfulness and sent back across the Styx, presumably with a treat for Cerberus! (This is where the old phrase, " a sop for Cerberus" comes from — a bribe.)

Dis, while he is God of the Underworld, is NOT the God of Death. He does not decide who lives and dies. Instead, this is determined by the Three Fates. However, Dis does dispatch the god of death, Mors or Thanatos, to do his duty. He also has some connection with Morpheus, god of dreams.

Interestingly, Dis Pater is the only god with no name. He is known by the name of his kingdom: Hades, Pluto, or Dis, all of which refer to the secret riches of the earth.

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