History Travels with Nancy Padgett: Seeing History
Roman Religion and Roman Gods 
Statue of Goddess Minerva
Minerva, Roman goddess. Alabaster, basalt, luna marble bust. 1st c BC. National Museum of Rome, Museo Massimo. Rome. Courtesy: VRoma  


* There were many gods in many places, with more created all the time.

* Humans had a public relationship with the gods, not a private, spiritual one.

* The purpose of Roman religion was to gain benevolence from these powerful spirits, to ensure the safety of the state and the family.

* The later Emperors thought they themselves were gods, and built elaborate temples to show it.

Glossary of Roman Religion

Web Resources and Books

Roman Religion: The Ancient Gods

In Rome, I took a bus from the Colosseum to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, one of the National Museums of Rome, located near the central train station and the Baths of Diocletian. So simple to get there, not so simple to get elsewhere afterwards-the City's transportation hub centered on the train station is large and  chaotic. The magnetic lure of ancient Rome prevailed.

Inside the building, past the  guard station, right in front of me--a giant statue. Minerva, goddess. Glowing in color, not chilled in snow.

Who was this creature? Minerva, goddess. To the Greeks, Athena.

My next hunt was on.

Were there many gods? What good were they? What did they look like?

Could you talk to a god? Could a god help you out? Harm your enemy?

What if you made a god angry?

Why so many priests? What went on at a sacrifice? Where did Romans worship?

Could a human become a Roman god?

The number of Roman gods

The Romans worshipped an astonishing number of gods and goddesses.

Gods here, goddesses there--there was no end of the way they kept popping up in temples, groves of trees, babbling brooks and springs, crossroads, caves, theaters, and urban baths.

A good place to see them is the Vatican Museum in Rome. It's famous for far more than the Sistine Chapel. Off I went to spend a day at the Vatican Museums. Here's what I saw, when I wasn't crushed by the good-natured crowds.  Everyone loves a god and goddess.

Some gods shared territory. Mars, Jupiter, Bellona and Victoria, even Juno, and later Mithras were all worshipped in connection with war. 

Many had more than one assignment. Juno  had an especially large portfolio--goddess of war, of marriage, of new beginnings, of youthfulness and liveliness, as protector of the community.

To the Roman way of thinking, a multi-purpose god was only natural. Very different strands of life were part of a whole in their society.

There were "great" gods like Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva,  and narrow-bore gods like Imporcitor, the god of "ploughing with wide furrows."

Most did not have much personality or character.
Vatican Crowds in gallery of the Ancients
Sightseers throng to the galleries of the Ancients. The Vatican Museums, Rome.

The Gigantic Hercules bronze statue in the Vatican

The Gigantic Hercules. Bronze. Roman. 
1st c AD. Vatican Museums.

A surprise to me: more gods and their cults needed to be created all the time. 

To the Romans, this made perfect sense: in the ancient world, gods and goddesses had active sex lives. Of course they produced god-children.

The process for becoming a recognized god was straightforward.  An existing god told the humans it was time to do something, usually through a sign like a major military victory.  Since a Roman could not worship a god unless the god was recognized by the state, the Senate got busy and reviewed the proposed new god.

Eventually, the Romans lost track of their multiplying gods and goddesses. 

In the 1st century BC, the Roman writer Varro tackled the mess. Varro wrote the Wikipedia of its day on the subject, his vast Divine Antiquities.
  The gods Juno and Hercules dwarf Vatican visitors
Visitors dwarfed by the gods Juno and Hercules. Vatican Museums, Rome.

Purpose of the gods?

Did the gods have nothing better to do than clutter up the lives of the humans? 

To the Romans, their gods were powerful and somewhat unpredictable forces outside of human society that could impact Rome's very existence.

The gods didn't provide an Adam-and-Eve creation story, nor promise redemption like the Christ story, nor provide an code of ethics that could make you a better person.

To the state, the gods could deal a victory in war; to the community, a good harvest; to the family, a successful childbirth. From these powerful gods, the fearful Romans sought "benevolence."

Why did a Roman need benevolence?  Though the gods may not have always been capricious, the everyday world of a Roman appeared so.  With an expected lifespan of only 25 years, children died all around you. Those who survived were malnourished. Illness and injury had few effective treatments. Threats of invasion, burrowed deep in the Roman collective memory, still seemed imminent. 

The more protection from a god, the better off you might be.

  Rules for the Cult of Hercules, 2nd c AD
Rules for Worship of Hercules. Marble. Roman. 2nd c AD. Getty Villa. (Partial). This marble tablet shows the statutes of a religious association that worshipped Hercules.

The text includes rules of conduct--you couldn't get rowdy and engage in fighting during the meeting, and you must wear a wreath in honor of Hercules. 

The Romans were keenly interested in wealth and status. The tablet explained the association's endowment and how it would be spent.

What did a Roman god look like?

Gods looked mostly like humans, preferably Roman humans with maybe some Greek or Etruscan influence.

Minerva, the goddess pictured at the top of this page, looks a lot like a human woman. Though supersized-- and with a strikingly big foot-- she is dressed in the clothing fashion of the day.

A few ancient gods changed form, like the Greek Zeus (the Roman Jupiter) who changed from a human-like god form into a bull to lure away a young human woman known as "Europa."

The god Mithras, though he was born from a stone, emerged as a fully-formed human youth.
  Mithras staute "Mithras born from a stone"  Rome
Mithras born from a rock.
Marble, 180-192 AD. From the area of S. Stefano Rotondo, Rome.
Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons

Talking to a Roman god

Talking to the gods was a difficult business. 

Everything in the ritual had to performed without the slightest variation or error. The right mumbo-jumbo said just so by the right person at the right time in the right place. The Romans must have had an obsessive-compulsive gene in their blood.

Could a god help you out?

The gods may or may not help you out in a specific situation.

Adornments might assist. From the time he was 9 days old until he was 16 years of age, Roman boys wore a bulla on a chain around their necks.  Nestled inside the bulla were amulets to channel the energy of a divinity and protect against evil forces.
  Roman Boy's Gold  Bulla with amulet, Palazzo Massimo, Rome 
 Roman, 1st C AD. Gold. Palazzo Massimo, Rome. Courtesy: VRoma.


Divine Friends with Benefits

Emperors chose a personal god and blatantly (for some, desperately)  advertised the "special relationship." Domitian had Minerva, Augustus claimed Apollo, Diocletian roped in Jupiter. Nero thought he WAS a god. The protection plan evidently had limits: Domitian was assassinated and the memory of him officially X'ed out.

A Roman might change gods if he felt he was under the wrong one.  Emperor Constantine initially chose the Sun god, Sol. At a crucial point in his military campaign in Italy, he switched to the Christian God. Constantine won. Christianity won. The other gods lost--Christianity in the later Roman Empire tossed out the old Roman religions and gods.
Roman god Apollo fresco Palatine Museum, Rome
Apollo, special divine friend of Emperor Augustus.
  Fresco fragment from the Palatine. Roman. Palatine Museum, Rome.

Could a god harm your enemy for you?

You could not demand a Roman god to allow you to harm someone else. Harming someone else was "impietas"

The worst form of "impietas" was to kill a member of one's family. Emperor Nero murdered his mother, Agrippina. Born with a sign of luck-- a double canine tooth in her upper right jaw--Agrippina was appointed a priestess of the cult of her late, deified husband, the Emperor Claudius. Neither her good-luck tooth nor her status as priestess protected her from her murderous son.

Afterward Agrippina was murdered, Nero's  friends noticed he was tormented "by the gods." We might say by guilt.

  Empress Agrippina the Younger, marble bust, Getty Villa
Agrippina the Younger, mother of Emperor Nero.
Roman. Marble. Getty Villa, Malibu.

In Roman society you had a duty to respect another person, at least a person of your own rank or better.

How you could treat those beneath you in status, or an enemy of the state, was a different matter. 


What if you made the gods angry?

The gods were serious about "impietas."

A grave "impietas" was to knowingly violate a divine rite. For this, the gods might avenge themselves upon Roman society and state as a whole, not just upon the offending individual. 

Recall the legend of Publius Claudius, the Roman consul and general who went into battle against the Carthaginians even though the signs from the gods clearly said "halt": the sacred chickens had refused to eat properly! The grains of cake did not fall from their mouths just so! Claudius, fed up, ordered the chickies thrown into the sea, declaring: "If they will not eat, let them drink."

The Romans weren't merely defeated, they were routed.  And Publius Claudius? He was tried in Rome for "impietas." Fined and sent into exile (i.e., tossed out of the community and without his wealth,) he committed suicide.
  Sacred Chickens in their Cage, 19th c lithograph
Sacred Chickens in their Cage. Photo of a marble table, Roman. Source: University of Chicago Libaries, Speculum Magazine.

In Latin, the cage is called a "Pullaria cavea." A  "pullarius"  was the bird-handler. His duties were to open the cage and feed the sacred chickens in a particular manner.


Why were there so many priests?

And priestesses and Vestal Virgins!

The gods ruled the fate of the state and therefore the Roman state had to regulate itself according to religion. The Romans needed to know the "will of the gods" before embarking on any human enterprise, large or small.

Passing laws, holding elections, and discussing public policy took place within spaces defined by priests. The Senate could meet in one of several places, but not just any old place: one that had been defined by the priests as not offensive to the gods. To start any Senate meeting-- or start a war-- a Senator-priest had to invoke the proper religious ritual.

A religion this pervasive would of course require lots of priests!

A priest was expected to come from the political-military-social elite that governed Rome. For an elite Roman male, the priesthood was not his sole occupation; it was part of his normal life.

Priesthoods were organized into colleges, each with their own sphere of influence. There was no "chief priest." 

Places in the priesthoods followed the gradations of the elite's social hierarchy. In the later Empire, the most important priesthoods were attached to the Imperial cult, worshipping the ruling Emperor and his family as divine.

But priests had to be careful what they forecast: even an Etruscan haruspex did not lightly prophesy the demise of a Roman Emperor.

  Coins showing Julius Caesar as Pontifex Maximus
Coin struck by Caesar c 45 BC, showing himself as Pontifex Maximus.

Quick Glance at Priests and Prophets: For more detail see the glossary on Roman religion below.

The major priestly groups:

Augurs: "took the auspices"  or discerned the will of the gods, when an important event, such as a military battle, loomed. 

Duoviri, decemviri, and quindecimiviri: advised the Senate on reports of prodigies.

Flamines:  Individual priests for the early gods, Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus.
ontifices: controlled the calendar and kept the record of public events.

Ordinary priests:  Their role was to show up and be seen as representatives of the political and military elite. 

Haruspex: An Etruscan highly specialized in the art of prophecy.  A Haruspex knew a mountain of technical mumbo-jumbo.

What went on at a sacrifice?

In Rome, I went to see visuals about Roman religious sacrifice at the Capitoline Museum and at the Curia in the Roman Forum. This lovely Roman marble fragment pictured right is at the Capitoline. What I remember is the bull. How cooperative he seems! The sheer calmness of the beast looms over the ferocity of the humans. As a child growing up, I recall our cow Josie was not at all gentle. Perhaps Josie knew where she was going to end up, and this bull doesn't.

A sacrifice in Roman religion offered up an animal, not a human. Bulls, cows, sheep, and pigs seem to calmly take their place in the ritual.

The animals must be one of two colors, black or white.  Cattle, and only oxen at that, are offered to Jupiter. Mars gets a bull, and Vulcan a calf.

Female animals should be offered to female deities, and male animals to male gods.

The ceremony of the sacrifice reflects the Roman social order. The magistrate-augur is in charge of the ceremony, since he is responsible for mediating the contact with the god. Here's what happened:

At the Temple of Jupiter, the sacrifice is made on a stone altar in front of the temple, not inside it. The audience watches from the plaza below. The magistrate pours an offering of wine from a small dish onto a fire burning on the altar.  Two young boys carry a box with the incense that the magistrate then tosses into the fire.

Pliny tells us that next: "The magistrate says a specified, ritual prayer. To prevent a single word from being omitted or spoken in the wrong place, another priest reads it out first from a script, another is posted as guard to keep watch, and a third ensures silence is maintained. A piper plays so that nothing else is heard except the prayer."

The augur escapes the unpleasant work of the sacrifice himself, naturally, being an aristocrat. Specialized slaves owned by the state, known as the 'victim handlers' holds down the head of the by-now suspicious animal while the other stuns it with a mallet. As the animal falls, a third slits its throat.

Once the animal is dead, it is cut open and inspected to ensure it is healthy. If the ceremony calls for a prophecy, a haruspex inspects the liver and compared it with a map of the sky. Sheep are often used by the Etruscans. 

If the animal's liver passed muster, it is burnt on the fire as a meal to the god. The rest of the animal is cooked and eaten by the magistrates and his associates, sometimes with distributions to others attending the ceremony.

This last act, a meal shared between the god and the people, renews the relationship between the deity and Rome.
Roman Sacrifice of bull by Emperor Marcus Aurelius
Religious sacrifice of a bull. Bas-Relief. 2c AD. Capitoline Museum, Rome. Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons.

This  bull will be sacrificed by the Emperor himself, Marcus Aurelius. The piper plays to silence the audience.

The fierce-looking  guy leading the bull is a priest, and the boy in the middle is offering the ritual  incense box to the Emperor.

The Temple of Jupiter Greatest and Best is in the background.

Sacrificial sheep, frieze in Curia, Roman Forum
Sheep used in animal sacrifice. Marble frieze known as the Plutei of Trajan. Roman. Curia, Roman Forum, Rome.


Where did the Romans worship?

Religion was overwhelmingly a public affair, not a private moment with one's Almighty. A Roman could not turn around without running into, or smelling, a sacred space.

Plowing the fields, walking to the market, at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, at one of the baths in the city, in your home, carrying out public and administrative business, festivals and triumphs: no escape from a god, sprite, or genius.

Who built all these temples? The Roman social elite, not the state, was expected to build them--no wonder there were so many. 

The elite tossed up temples to celebrate military victory, or in honor of a family member, or just because they could financially. A triumphant general produced grand temples with his own funds, or rather from the booty gained from his military campaign.

A Roman city's main temple was often the first visible building in a city, gleaming on top of an acropolis. One was always "looking up" to the gods. 

In Rome, the Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, by far larger than the Parthenon, sat on top of the Capitoline Hill. It could be seen for miles. What little of it exists today is located inside the Capitoline Museum itself.

Other temples of normal-enormous size clustered in the center of a city. Temples towered over the humans, and not by accident.

Temples were designed to inspire awe for the state as well as respect for the gods. All over Rome, I saw remnants of those huge temples--not only those in the Forum, otherwise surrounded by rubble, but those still in use like Hadrian's temple, pictured right.

Temples were built, rebuilt, redesigned, enlarged, and rebuilt, again and again as Rome prospered. Once Etruscan, Roman temple architecture became increasingly Greek. The materials became exotic, the architectural detail elaborate, as Emperors thrust emblems of their magnificence and authority in the public's face.

Once back at home, you would worship your own household gods, the household genius, a household Vesta, and the spirits of your dead ancestors. 
  Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest, Capitoline Hill, Rome, reconstructed image
Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest (reconstruction). Era of Vespasian, 1st c AD.

Rome was extremeley crowded, temple after temple, building on top of building. 

The Temple of Jupiter lasted 900 years and then was destroyed by invasions, Christian recycling, and time.

Hadrian's Temple, Rome, with crowds
Temple of Hadrian .
Rome; currently the Rome Stock Exchange.

The columns tower over 48 feet in the air, with another 16 feet below the current pavement level.

Columns of Temple of Vespasian, Roman Forum, Rome

Temple of Vespasian (ruins). Roman Forum. Rome.

The height of Temple's columns measure about 8 times that of a present-day Western, adult male. (Our mere mortal is standing on a high viewing platform

Humans into gods

The Emperor Vespasian, as he was expiring, declared, "Oh, I  think I am becoming a god."

But most Romans thought "no god arises from man." Julius Caesar, who thought he was descended from Venus, upset this stricture.  He had politically powerful friends who declared him "divine."

First Julius Caesar. Next, his successor Augustus, whose wife Livia rewarded a senator with an outrageous fortune for stating he saw Augustus ascend to heaven. After that, divinity for any Emperor was almost a done-deal.

The slippery slope eventually included non-rulers:  a wife or other female relative of an Emperor was often declared divine, "suggested" by the Emperor and declared so by the Senate. 

Later Emperors did not make much effort to wait until death before assuming the trappings of their upcoming divineness.  The probably-disturbed, and most certainly brutal and lazy, Emperor Commodus converted the great Colossus statue of Nero, over 100 feet tall, into a statue of himself as Hercules.
  Head of Vespasian, displayed at the Curia, Roman Forum
Emperor Vespasian. Colossal head. Marble. Roman. Displayed at the Curia, the Roman Forum, Rome.

Visitors at the Curia, Roman Forum, Rome
Visitors at Exhibit of Emperor-Gods, including Vespasian and Titus. Curia, Roman Forum, Rome.
Glossary of Roman Religion    
Augurs:  Augurs sought revelations and "advice" from the gods about the immediate future. Through "taking of the auspices," the augurs established the will of the gods about actions the Romans wanted to take. For example, should a Roman general engage in battle with the enemy on a particular day.

What an augur did: augurs observed natural phenomena. The flight and activity of birds, thunder and lightning, and feeding patterns of the sacred chickens held special status. The augur had to follow written instruction from his manual. The manuals contained the proper techniques for the ritual and how to interpret the results. Signs given by the gods to the augur were good only for one day.

Duoviri, decemviri, and quindecimiviri: a group of distinguished Senator-priests who advised the Senate on reports of prodigies. Prodigies were events which the Romans considered "unnatural," such as "rains of blood"  or "monstrous births." 

Epulones: specialized priests in charge of the rituals of the Roman games and of the feast of Jupiter, Rome's most important god. Along with the pontifices, the augurs, and the duoviri, the epulones made up the four major 'colleges' of priests.

Fetiales: Priests who prayed to the gods for success in war.

Flamines: a special group of pontifices. Originally flamines were individual priests for the Roman gods Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus. As a distinguishing mark, the flamines wore a cap with a piece of olive wood projecting from its top. 

Haruspex: A highly specialized prophet, commonly Etruscan. Prophets tended to communicate with the gods about more distant events in the future. The haruspex did his magic by inspecting the liver of the sacrificed animal, normally a sheep.  After the slave who had killed the sheep handed its liver to the haruspex, the prophet held it in his left hand, with his left foot on a stone and his right foot on the ground , and "read" the liver in a clockwise direction. Haruspices could also be personal advisors--Julius Caesar had one.  

Luperci: these priests ran the Festival of the Lupercalia, when near-naked young men ran around the City, striking the young women they met with a goat thong. A fertility rite?  A purification ritual?

Ordinary priests: Their job was to lead the sacrificial process, initiate the sacrifice, and watch. Evidently, they weren't expected to know what to do, even the right form of prayer to offer. Their real role was to represent their aristocratic class, to show the  Roman people that the aristocratic oligarchy was at the top of the social, political, and religious orders.

Pontifex, pontifices: Their original function was to look after Rome's first bridge across the Tiber, the City's most critical crossing point. From there, the pontifices assumed oversight over other major "crossing points," for example those between life and death, or communications between the humans and the gods.

One of the pontifices' most important authority was control of the calendar, which determined many aspects of Roman life. They could be powerful decision-makers, especially in moments of crisis. Less dramatically, they kept the annual record of public events and gave legal advice on family matters, such as wills, inheritances, family property, adoptions, and burials. 

Prodigy:  An event which the Romans considered "unnatural," such as "rains of blood"  or "monstrous births."  Would-be prodigies had to be reported to the Senate for evaluation and consultation with the priests.

Vestal Virgins: The only female priesthood in Rome, its six members were chosen in childhood. They lived in a special house next to the temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum and could ride in a wagon. Their various rituals connected the fertility of the earth, the safety of the flocks of animals, and human fertility. They were the guardians of ancient, ancient talismans, including it was said, sacred objects brought by Aeneas from Troy.

With special privileges went special responsibilities: if a Virgin let the sacred fire go out, or was unchaste, she could be buried alive.

Web Resources and Books    
General interest







Specialized or advanced



Beard, Mary, et. al, Religions of Rome (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998) 2 vols.

Boatwright,Mary, Hadrian and the City of Rome (Princeton UP, 1987)

Fox, Robin Lane, Pagans and Christians (Knopf, 1986)

Potter, David S., "Roman Religion: Ideas and Actions," in Potter, D.S. and Mattingly, D.J.,  Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (U of Michigan Press,

Price, Simon, The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine (Penguin, 2011)

Stamper, John, The Architecture of Roman Temples: the Republic to the Middle Empire (Cambridge U. Press, 2004)

Biographies of the various rulers of Rome, such as Anthony Barrett, ed., Lives of the Caesars (Blackwell, 2008)
You may contact me, Nancy Padgett, at NJPadgett@gmail.com