The Romans



The religion of the Roman state reflected the ways of private worship, while retaining traditions from the period of the kings. Under the nominal direction of the pontifex maximus, administrative and ritualistic matters were the responsibility of four colleges, whose members were usually appointed or elected from the ranks of politicians and held office for life.

Priests in procession

Procession of priests, from the Ara Pacis, Rome 13 - 9 BC. (VRoma: Ann Raia)

The members of the pontifical college, the senior body, were the rex sacrorum, pontifices, flamines, and the vestal virgins. Rex sacrorum (king of religious rites) was an office created under the early republic to maintain the tradition of royal authority over religious matters. Though in later times he still took precedence at religious ceremonies, it had by then become largely an honorary position.

The sixteen pontifices (priests) were the chief administrators and organizers of the religious affairs of the state, and authorities on procedure and matters of the calendar and festivals.


Flamines, with distinctive ceremonial headgear. From the Ara Pacis, Rome 13 - 9 BC. (VRoma: Paula Chabot)

The flamines were priests of particular gods: three for the major gods, Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus, and twelve for the lesser ones. These specialists had the technical knowledge of the worship of the particular deity to whom, and to whose temple, they were attached, and performed the daily sacrifice to each.

Julius Caesar as flamen dialis

Denarius of Julius Caesar, with the pointed cap of the flamen dialis (priest of Jupiter), and the words, “Father of the country”. Though it was intended that he should be flamen dialis, while in his teens, there is some doubt as to whether he actually took up the appointment. (Suzanne Cross)

The flamen dialis was the most important of the flamines. His life was hedged around with taboos and hazards: he was not allowed to ride a horse, touch or even mention a nanny-goat, uncooked meat, ivy, or beans, or go without his official cap, even indoors.

Vestal virgin

Statue of a vestal virgin, with a flame. Punishment for any lapse in ritual or conduct was rigorous: whipping for letting the sacred fire go out, whipping and being walled up underground, with a few provisions, for a breach of the vow of chastity. (VRoma: Uffizi Museum, Florence: Barbara McManus)

The six vestal virgins were chosen from ancient patrician families at an early age to serve at the temple of Vesta. They normally served ten years as novices, the next ten performing the duties, and a further ten teaching the novices. They had their own convent near the forum, and their duties included guarding the sacred fire in the temple, performing the rituals of worship, and baking the salt cake which was used at various festivals throughout the year. The prestige of being a vestal virgin was considerable.

Chief vestal virgin

Bust of chief vestal virgin. (VRoma: Terme Museum Rome: Barbara McManus)

The fifteen members of the college of augurs exercised great learning, and presumably also diplomacy, in the interpretation of omens in public and private life, and acted as consultants in cases of doubt. The members of the college of quindecemviri sacris faciundis (fifteen for special religious duties) were the keepers of the Sibylline Books, which they consulted and interpreted when requested to do so, and ensured that any actions prescribed were properly carried out. They also had responsibility for supervising the worship of any foreign deity which was introduced into the religion of the state from time to time, usually on the recommendation of the Sibylline Books.

Priest of Cybele

Priest of Cybele, with ritual symbols and vestments. (Illustration by John Pittaway from Picture Reference Ancient Romans, Brockhampton Press 1970)

Such a deity was Cybele, the Phrygian goddess of nature, whose presence in Rome in the form of a sacred slab of black meteoric rock was recommended in 204 BC after it had rained stones more often than usual. The cult itself, symbolized by noisy processions of attendant eunuch priests and flagellants, was exotic and extreme, in direct contrast to the stately, methodical practices of state religion, and Roman citizens were discouraged from participating in its rites until the time of Claudius. The annual public games, however, in honour of Cybele, the “Great Mother”, were held in considerable style from 4 to 10 April, and were preceded by a ceremonial washing and polishing of her stone by members of the college.

Matron dressed as Cybele

Statue of Roman matron depicted as Cybele, mid-first century AD. (VRoma: Getty Museum, Santa Monica: Barbara McManus)

The three, later seven, office-holders of the college of epulones (banqueting managers), belonged to the smallest and most junior of the four colleges. It was founded in 196 BC, presumably as a result of the amount of organization required to put on the official feasts which had become integral parts of the major festivals and games.

The earliest state religious festivals were celebrated with games, such as the very first one recorded at Rome, the festival to Consus at which the Sabine women were kidnapped. The Consualia, traditionally celebrated in Rome on 21 August, was also the local Derby Day, the main event of the chariot-racing calendar.

Four-horse chariot

Relief of charioteer in four-horse chariot preparing to round the turning post, at the foot of which is the body of a fallen driver. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Religious festivals could be grave as well as joyful. February saw both kinds. During the nine days of the Parentilia, during which the family dead were worshipped, state officials did no business, temples were closed, and marriages forbidden.

In complete contrast was the ancient Lupercalia, at which the deity honoured was probably Faunus, god of fertility, but the proceedings reflected the origins of Rome itself.

She-wolf and twins

Relief sculpture, found nearby, of she-wolf and twins in the grotto named Lupercal on the Palatine Hill. (VRoma: Museum of Roman Civilization, EUR (Rome): Ann Raia)

The rites started in the cave where Romulus and Remus were supposed to have been suckled by the wolf. Several goats and a dog were sacrificed, and the blood smeared over two youths of noble family. The pair then ran a prescribed cross-country course, wearing goatskins and carrying strips of hide, with which they whipped people as they passed. The blows were supposed to promote fertility.

During the festivities for Mars from 1 to 19 March, two teams each of twelve celebrants known as salii (jumpers) put on the helmets, uniform, and armour of Bronze Age warriors and leapt through the streets, chanting and beating their shields. Each night they rested, and feasted, at a prearranged hostelry or private house.

Circular temple of Vesta

Reconstruction of the Temple of Vesta. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Rome, Brockhampton Press 1969)

The festival of Vesta in June was a more sedate and dignified affair. For a week, the storehouse of treasures in the temple was open to the public (but to married women only), who came barefoot with offerings of food. On 15 June the vestal virgins swept the place out, and public business, which had been suspended during the festival, was resumed. As an extra touch, on 9 June mill-donkeys were hung with garlands of violets, decorated with loaves of bread, and given the day off.

There was not a month in the Roman calendar which did not have its religious festivals. August, the sixth month of the old calendar, hosted, in addition to the Consualia, festivals to Hercules (god not just of victory but also of enterprise in business), Portunus (god of harbours), Vulcan (god of fire), and Volturnus (god of the river Tiber). It was the month, too, in which the ancient festival of Diana was remembered on the Aventine.

Temple of Portunus

Temple of Portunus. (VRoma: Jeremy Walker)

That January should find itself the first month in the revised calendar was entirely appropriate. Janus, who gave his name to it, was a god unique to the Romans and has no equivalent in any other mythology. He was the god of beginnings as well as of the door. He not only began the year, and received the first state sacrifice of the year at the Agoria on 9 January, but the first hour of the day was sacred to him, and his name took precedence over all others in prayers.

The gates of his temple in the north-east corner of the forum were, it is said on the orders of Numa, kept wide open in times of war. According to the historian Livy (59 BC - AD 17), this meant that they were closed only twice in the succeeding seven centuries.

Temple of Janus closed

Bronze coin of Nero, AD 54 - 68, showing the Temple of Janus with its doors closed, signifying peace. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus)

Overview of this page [Ref:4.7]


The state religion of Rome was intimately linked with politics - under the pontifex maximus, relgious matters were administered by four colleges, all made up of senior political figures. Along with the pontifices, flamines, augures and epulones, the vestal virgins also attracted much prestige.


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