History of Religion in Ancient Rome
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Our digital history of religion in ancient Rome includes both the ancestral religion that Romans used to define themselves and the religions and cults of conquered peoples. While the Romans thought of themselves as highly religious, they believed that their success as a world power depended on their collective piety (pietas) that fostered good relations with the gods. Indeeds, the Romans are known for their multiplicity of gods, and that earned the skepticism and scorn of Christians.
The Greeks introduced certain religious practices, such as the cult of Apollo, that became foundational. In fact, Greek myth offered a great deal of common ground for Roman art (especially Etruscan) and Roman literature to flourish in. Rome’s founding myth began with Romulus and Remus, and Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, intermediated with the gods to formulate the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors”, in the Roman identity.
Roman religion was based on the practical expedient of “I give that you might give”. This meant that religion depended on the correct practice of prayer, ritual, and sacrifice needed to please the many deities of the Roman state. But neither faith nor dogma had much to do with it, although Roman philosophers speculated on the nature of the divine and how gods interacted with humans. Cicero, who was a philosopher and an augur, believed that religion must most of all serve the purposes of social order. As the Roman Empire assimilated its conquered peoples, migrants brought mystery cults to Rome that tapped into ancient origins in Egypt and the Near East. Notwithstanding the persecution of Christians (or perhaps because of it), Christianity flourished best of all these imported cults, and with the patronage of Constantine, it became Rome’s official state religion in the year 380.
For ordinary Romans, religion was a huge part of daily life. As such, shrines to domestic deities abounded in springs and groves and sacred places everywhere. And the Roman calendar was filled with festivities, ceremonies, and rituals, and everyone (including slaves) participated. Women figured prominently in many such rituals, and they formed the Roman state’s most famous priesthood, the Vestal Virgins, who tended the city’s sacred hearth for centuries.
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Religion Index | Christianity: Origins • Apostles: John: Writings | Paul: Background • Missions • Beliefs | Peter | Disciples | Organization | Bishops | Church Fathers: Augustine | Creeds | Culture: Literature: Apologists • Literary Tradition • Origen • Tertullian | Doctrine: Orthodoxy | Early Christianity: Moral Code • Ritual • Sacraments | Gospels | Jesus of Nazareth: Life and Teachings • Achievements • Final Break • Death and Transfiguration • Scholarship • Perception | Scholarship: Modern • Higher Criticism | Monasticism | Spread: Empire • Persecution | Triumph: Constantine | Judaism: Beliefs • Communities • Scribes • Sects • Temple of Jerusalem | Mystery Religions | Personal Religion | State Religion: Calendar • Cults • Deities • Major Deities • Festivals • Ritual • The State