Ancient Roman Religion

Background, Importance, and Effect on History


  • When Rome conquered a region, it took on their beliefs into the Roman religion.
  • Roman religion was an extremely important part of society, culture, and even government.
  • Rome had some tolerance for other religions.
  • Clash of beliefs and other factors caused conflicts with Judaism that led up to the siege of Masada.

Evolution of the Religion

  • Roman religion began as animism- ancestor worship and the general belief in spirits.
  • Developed triad of Mars, Quirineus, and Jupiter
  • Later replaced by Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva due to Etruscan influence.
  • The central principle was practicality.
  • Roman religion was constantly changing.

Beliefs and Rituals

  • Believed in many minor and major gods, and a contract between mortals and their gods.
  • Rituals were the most important aspect of Roman religion
  • Sacrifices were a major ritual, and accompanied every prayer. There were specific requirements for a sacrifice, and a specific ritual.
  • Merchants sold birds and small offerings outside temples, which held statues of deities and religious equipment
  • During Saturnalia, the most important religious festival, many rituals and traditions were followed.
  • There was a sacrifice, a meal served by masters to their slaves, and then drinking and games.

Importance of Religion

  • Religion was very important to Roman government. The emperor also served as pontifex maximus.
  • Augures told the will of the gods based on the flight of birds.
  • Haruspices did the same, but by examining the insides of sacrificed animals.
  • Soothsayers such as these were consulted before most major decisions.
  • The Vestal Virgins served an important role for Roman families.

Imperial Cult

  • The political power of Roman government can also be seen in the Imperial Cult, the only cult established by the Roman government.
  • Began with the deification of Julius Caesar.
  • Founded by Augustus as one of many reforms.
  • Promoted god-worship of the emperor, and spread throughout the empire quickly.
  • Functioned as a political tool to maintain the obedience of the entire empire.

Foreign Cults

  • Many foreign cults came to Rome through their conquests.
  • The nature of Roman religion made cults very appealing to Romans.
  • The cult of Cybele came from Greece during the Punic Wars, and after Rome's victory, the cult gained many followers.
  • Its practices offended the sensibilities of the Roman Senate, but after the practices were changed, it continued to be a major religious group.
  • The cult of Isis came from Egypt and, like many cults of Ancient Rome, was a "mystery cult."

Conflict with Judaism

  • At one point, Judaism was acceptable within Rome, after Jewish forces helped the emperor.
  • In 63 BC, Romans conquered Judea for strategic reasons. The Romans exempted Jews from worshipping their gods.
  • Relations became tense after a Roman official stole from the temple in Jerusalem, leading to riots, which were suppressed by Roman soldiers
  • A group of Jewish nationalists began to massacre Roman soldiers in response,
  • Rome regained control, but two years later, they destroyed the Great Temple, causing fighting leading up to the fall of Masada.
  • Injustices against the Jews continued in Rome and elsewhere, in 117 and 131.

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