The Romans



The survival of a religious faith depends on a continual renewal and affirmation of its beliefs, and sometimes on adapting its ritual to changes in social conditions and attitudes. To the Romans, the observance of religious rites was a public duty rather than a private impulse. Their beliefs were founded on a variety of unconnected and often inconsistent mythological traditions. Without any basic creed to counter, foreign religions made inroads into a society whose class-structure was being blurred and whose constitution was being changed by the increased presence of freed slaves and of incomers from abroad.

Mithras slays the bull

Mithras slays the bull from whose blood sprang corn and other life. (VRoma: Vatican Museums, Rome: Lisanne Marshall)

The brilliance of some of the major foreign cults had considerable attraction for those brought up on homespun deities of the hearth and fields. The worship of Mithras, the emissary of light who symbolized the fight to disseminate life-giving forces in the face of the powers of darkness and disorder, reached Rome from Persia in the first century AD and had a particular appeal to the army.


Cutaway reconstruction of the temple of Mithras, Carrawburgh, Northumberland, Britain, third or fourth century AD. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

The worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis (see panel to right) came to Rome in the early years of the first century BC. It was just one of the cults known as “mysteries”, which were of Greek origin.

Isis with sistrum

Marble statue of Isis holding the sistrum, the sacred rattle used in rituals (second century AD). (VRoma)

The mysteries were cults whose rituals were known only to initiates, who appear closely to have guarded the secrets of them - as well they might, considering the restrictions on any worship which conflicted with that of the state. What do remain, however, apart from literary allusions, are fascinating glimpses, preserved by nature in the lava from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, of the cults of Isis and Bacchus, in the form of wall paintings uncovered at and near Pompeii.

Villa of the Mysteries. Click for more details

The “Villa of the Mysteries” at Pompeii. Click on illustration for enlarged version and descriptive caption. (René Seindal)

Traditional beliefs were further eroded in the face of the Greek school of philosophy, the Stoics, who were projecting the notion of a single deity. They were also affected by the Jewish diaspora.

The Roman Empire in 14 AD

Map of the Roman empire at the death of Augustus in AD 14. The shaded areas represent the main areas of Jewish settlement at the time. (From Antony Kamm, The Israelites: an Introduction, Routledge 1999)

A Jewish force assisted Julius Caesar in Egypt during his campaign there in 48 BC, and he in return granted the Jews privileges which included the freedom of worship in Rome itself. A form of semi-Judaism became fashionable, especially among women; one did not have to be a full convert to attend synagogue services. Hadrian, who became emperor in AD 117, tried to eradicate Judaism by forbidding all Jewish practices. His successor Antoninus, in about AD 138, rescinded Hadrian’s legislation, with the significant exception of circumcision, which was restricted to those of the Jewish faith.

Antoninus Pius

Portrait bust of Antoninus (known as Antoninus Pius), c. AD 150. (VRoma: Glyoptothek, Munich: AICT)

Augustus, as a part of his national morale-boosting campaign, had reaffirmed the traditional forms of worship. He restored eighty-two temples in and around Rome, it is claimed all in the space of one year, and in 12 BC had himself appointed pontifex maximus, a post which thereafter was restricted to emperors. Thus the head of state was once again the head also of religious affairs.

Augustus as Apollo

Silver denarius of Augustus, depicting Apollo, with lyre, as the victor of the naval battle of Actium. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Augustus promoted the god Apollo, with whom his own family was said to have special affinities, to the status of a major deity, and dedicated a magnificent new temple to him on a site on the Palatine Hill which was his own property.

Augustus did not take the connection between religion and rule so far as to allow himself officially to be regarded as a god in his own lifetime, but he prepared the way to being deified after his death by confirming the divinity of Julius Caesar and dedicating a temple to him.

First-century AD cameo of Augustus wearing the rayed crown of the sun god, signifying his deification. (VRoma: Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne: Barbara McManus)

While Augustus was happy to accept the worship of non-Romans, provided that his name was coupled with that of Rome (or Roma, the goddess who personified Rome), his deification enabled the proliferation throughout the empire of Rome’s most potent export: the imperial cult, or emperor worship. In this way, the loyalty of inhabitants of the provinces of Rome could be focused on an individual rather than on a concept of government. Even one of the most pragmatic of Augustus’s successors, Vespasian, dedicated a new temple to the divine Claudius; he also encouraged the establishment of emperor worship in the provinces of Baetica (south-east Spain), Gallia Narbonensis, and Africa, to strengthen ties between their inhabitants and his family.

Temple of Divus Claudius

Model of the temple of Divine Claudius in Rome. (VRoma: EUR (Rome), Museum of Civilization: Barbara McManus)

Emperor worship bound together the largely Hellenized eastern empire and the predominantly Celtic and Germanic provinces of the west. In the west, however, traditional Roman deities infiltrated local religions, which were often reinterpreted along Roman lines. Roman interference, however, only occurred in cases of obnoxious practices, such as human sacrifice, or for political reasons. Except in army camps and Roman colonies, the Roman religion and attendant culture had little impact on the Hellenized east, where the responsibility for temples and their priesthoods was largely left to the local authorities.

In about AD 30, in the reign of Tiberius, a young Jewish thinker and teacher, son of a carpenter in Nazareth, was executed in Jerusalem under Roman law. His name was Jesus, and he was held to be the Messiah. While his death was hardly noticed by Roman historians, with hindsight it is not so remarkable that the first adherents to a new and personalized religion, which had its roots and basic teachings in the most intellectually acceptable faith of the times, should have succeeded in spreading its message through the ancient world.

Coin of Judaea

Roman insensitivity! This bronze coin of Judaea under the administration of Pontius Pilate depicts the crooked staff of the augur, a Roman religious symbol which was bound to cause offence to Jews. (Hunterian Museum)

During the second century AD Christians were persecuted for their beliefs largely because these did not allow them to give the statutory reverence to images of the gods and of the emperor, and because their act of worship transgressed the edict of Trajan forbidding meetings of secret societies. To the government, it was civil disobedience: to the Christians themselves it was a suppression of their freedom of worship.

Christian symbols

Fourth-century sarcophagus with Christian symbols. The sign within the wreath is made up of the upright stroke Ι (first letter of Jesus, written in Greek) and the x-like symbol, standing for the Greek Chi, the first letter of Χριστος, Greek for Christ. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Overview of this page [Ref: 4.8]


Inroads were made into Roman religious beliefs, which could not adapt to the introduction of foreign religions, cults, and philosophy. Notable among these were the worship of Mithras and Isis, the observance of the mysteries, Stoicism, and Judaism and Christianity. Augustus promoted the traditional religion and paved the way for emperor worship, but in spite of the acts of Trajan and the actions of Hadrian, Judaism and Christianity were there to stay.


This is the last page in the section on Religion. You can review the illustrations by going to Gallery 4.




The worship of Isis

This is significantly reflected in the fictional prose narrative Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass) by Lucius Apuleius (fl. c. AD 160), who became a priest of the cult of Isis. The protagonist, also called Lucius, is accidentally turned into an ass. He appeals to Isis, having recognized the omnipotence of the “supreme goddess”. She duly appears to him: “I come in answer to your prayers, Lucius: I, mother nature, ruler of all the elements, original child of time, most powerful of divine spirits, queen of the dead, supreme in the heavens, the single face of all gods and goddesses. . . . I am one god, worshipped throughout the world in many forms, with different rites, and under a variety of names. . . . The Egyptians, who are skilled in ancient lore, celebrate my being with forms of worship which are unique to me and address me by my real name, Queen Isis” (XI. 5). This is not just a description of a powerful deity, or even of a chief divine: it is an expression of monotheism.

More on Apuleius

More on The Golden Ass


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Quiz on the foreign cults

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Believe it or not:

Hadrian, at the end of the Second Jewish War in AD 135, had Jerusalem utterly destroyed, and built a new city on the site called Aelia Capitolina, which Jews were forbidden to enter. Judaea ceased to exist, and the Roman province was renamed Syria Palaestina, or Palestine.